(on morality and the Problem of Evil)
Last week I talked about the Euthyphro dilemma. This week, I want to talk about a similar charge that has been laid against theism’s view of morality. Known as the Problem of Evil, the charge is that the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, loving God is contradictory with our world, since this world has so many cases of suffering and pain. The way this problem is framed is, basically, as follows: There is evil in this world. Therefore, God cannot have all of the qualities of omnibenevolence, omniscience, and omnipotence. This is because someone who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving would know about the evil we have on our earth (omniscience), be able to prevent or rectify those problems (omnipotence) and have the desire to do so (omnibenevolence). Thus, since evil exists, the existence of a being with those three qualities is impossible. Epicurus has a famous quote in which he summarizes the logic of the Problem of Evil. Specifically, he talks about God’s ability to get rid of evil and suffering.
“If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak – and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful – which is equally foreign to god’s nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful, and so not a god. If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?” (this can be found in Lactantius’ De Ira Decorum)
On the face of it, this logic seems to work. It doesn’t disprove the existence of a deity, but it does seem to call into question the probability of Christianity’s deity. For the record, I think that arguments from morality are theism’s strongest. However, I do sympathize greatly with the atheist here. I too hate that little children starve in Africa and God appears to do nothing. I too hate that innocents are killed in drive-by shootings, that unspeakable horrors occur on an everyday basis and it doesn’t appear that God is doing much to stop them. So I get it. I do. And I get that this argument is supposed to refute the internal logic of Christianity’s brand of theism. It is supposed to show that the morality of Christianity specifically is flawed and hugely improbable. I think this is a strawman argument, but I’ll get to that later.
C.S. Lewis claimed that this problem was his main reason for being an atheist (before his conversion, obviously). Read his work Mere Christianity to get a better history of that process if it interests you. Eventually, Lewis realized that this argument has no bearing on the existence of God. In fact, if anything it provides ammo for the theist! His reason for coming to this conclusion is that he saw that his moral problem with the way the world was being run rested on his underlying morality. However, if this morality was subjective (that is, if morality was simply his own personal feelings about the stuff going on) then it appeared that he had lost his argument against God – because why should a supernatural, omnipotent being bend to the will of a finite human? However, if he tried to get around this problem by saying that his charge against the suffering in the world was an appeal to an objective morality, then this seemed to imply a deity. See, moral laws are not like physical laws that describe what is. Moral laws describe what ought to be. Therefore, moral laws require a certain amount of intelligence—a consciousness. We don’t put lions on trial for eating weak or young sheep. This is because we recognize that the lion does not have the cognitive ability to think about his actions and weigh what it is he ought to do. The lion in this example does not have the intelligence required for moral laws to apply to him. So if Lewis’ argument rested on a universal objective morality—a morality that governed the universe and not merely his own personal preferences—well, then this seemed to require an intelligence behind the universe. In other words, a mind is required for a moral law. If that law governs the universe and is “behind” the universe in that sense, then it seems that a mind must be behind that law. Lewis took this dilemma so seriously that it eventually led to his acceptance of Christianity. And I think it shows why the strongest argument for the existence of God is the moral argument. However, let me now jump back and talk about why I think the Problem of Evil is essentially a strawman argument.
The Problem of Evil is essentially a strawman argument for two reasons, that I can see. First, it assumes (falsely) that the highest priority of the Christian God is to alleviate suffering. It is not. Upon reading through the Bible, one will see pretty clearly that the God of Christianity is most concerned with His own glory. This is difficult to countenance. I realize that. But at its heart this means that God’s “omnibenevolence” is misunderstood. The God of the Bible, while distressed at sin and evil and suffering, can be seen in numerous instances to allow such atrocities to build up over time until they reach such a point that the judgment of the society in question is deemed to be full (just read the entire old testament and you’ll see more than you can count). At this point, the God of the Bible usually steps in and wipes out entire civilizations “so that they will know I am the Lord.” Notice that. The reason behind it is His own glory (and, subsequently, sins are seen as refutations of God’s glory that need to be punished). People often talk about God as an omnibenevolent being in the sense that God just wants everyone to be happy doing what they’re doing, but I don’t see that in the Bible. God is incredibly merciful to His people, but He also judges people for sin—and these judgments are often really really devastating and drastic and involve a lot of suffering. So, since the Problem of Evil is supposed to refute the internal logic of Christianity, I accuse it of making up a false internal logic and refuting that. The argument would be devastating if Christianity’s internal logic worked the way that the argument assumes. But it doesn’t.
The second reason that I think this thing is a strawman is that it does not take into account the Curse. The story of Christianity is that God has cursed the Earth and everything on it so that we all die. Everything dies. Of course, the story doesn’t end there, but the Curse is an essential part of the story that sets up the need for Jesus’ atonement. But let’s look at what the Curse entails. Part of it is that we are born into sin, born with a sin nature. This means that we are born with the will to live against the laws of God (which, it is made clear, are good for us to follow). In other words, the way we live can do nothing other than lead to suffering. There is no alternative. Living with no sin would, in the internal logic of Christianity, lead to an absence of suffering. In fact, this is the hope and picture we see in Revelation (a book in which God restores things to their original purposes). Now, all suffering can then be seen to be judgment on original sin. We have diseases because we live in a world that breeds diseases because our forebears sinned and God judged the world and history. Of course, this can lead to other arguments regarding the justice of punishing all of humanity for our forebears’ sins. But my point here is to show that Christianity actually has within it solutions to the charge of the Problem of Evil. And so, taking this point with the previous paragraph, the problem can be seen to be a strawman argument refuting something that isn’t actually Christian theism.
Regardless, I have to hearken back to C.S. Lewis. I don’t think the atheist is in any position to gripe about the existence of evil. In the system of atheism, there can be only three options in regards to morality (at least, these are the options as I see them):
- 1. Morality does not exist.
- 2. Morality is relative/subjective.
- 3. Morality is objective.
Let’s take the first option. Followers of this view would hold that when I say something like “Killing is wrong,” I am uttering nonsense. My sentence has no meaning whatsoever, as if I had uttered “Cheese milk hopping toad” or something else that just combined various words together. I’m not going to spend much time refuting this because it seems entirely ludicrous to me and against our collective human experience. However, I will say that someone who holds this view must hold it as a conclusion to their worldview and not as a reason. This view loses the argument against God (at least in the sense of morality), because the atheist cannot find fault with anything in the world. There are no faults to find. There is no “ought to be.” There is only what is. See, I told you it seems ludicrous.
The second option is that morality is subjective—that it is relative to our culture/society/feelings/etc. This is, in my opinion, the most valid option the atheist has at her disposal. Or, at least, it is the one most in line with the assumption of atheism. However, there are significant problems with this view apart from Lewis’ problem that we discussed earlier. The biggest one, in my opinion, is that this view leaves no room for argument between differing opinions. Under this view, there are no arguments about morality. After all, when I say “Killing is wrong,” this view holds that what I am actually saying is “I dislike killing.” But when Person X comes up to me and counters by saying “No, killing is not wrong,” this view would have to hold that what he means is “I like killing.” What you should notice is that these two sentences are not at odds with one another. But there is a very distinct sense that both me and Person X have: we believe that we are in a disagreement. According to this view, though, we are not. Which seems nonsensical. Also, this view must necessarily hold that there is no way to judge between moralities. Let’s say that the morality of the USA comes up against the morality of North Korea. In one, freedoms and choice and liberty are all considered good. In the other, obedience and authority is considered good. In a relativistic sense, there is no way to say that one is better than the other. If I try to use anything to show that one is better than the other (let’s say I point out that more people are happy in the USA, or that society flourishes more when individuals are given liberties), then I must point to something outside of both moralities. But by using anything to judge between the two moralities I have to assert that whatever I use (say, happiness or societal progress) is objectively better. So any attempt by a relativist to judge between competing moralities is simply objective morality in a clever disguise. In my example, I would be forced to say that happiness or societal progress are themselves the moral law—that is, I would have to say that the underlying, objective moral law of the universe is to increase those things.
That leaves us with the third option: objective morality. I hold, with C.S. Lewis, that objective morality strongly implies the existence of a deity. For me, being left with this option is a strong reason to believe in theism (though not one specific brand, of course). However, atheists who want to hold that morality exists and is objective (which is, I think, the only option that fits the evidence—as seen in the preceding two paragraphs) must hold that morality is ingrained in the universe. But notice that this does nothing to help the Problem of Evil. The atheist must explain what she means by moral law being ingrained in the universe, since the whole point of the Problem of Evil is that things don’t seem to behave in a moral fashion. If the atheist merely means that the moral law is there but requires consciousness to learn and adhere to, then she must explain how she thinks such a moral law could have arisen without consciousness behind it. Surely something that requires consciousness to understand and only effects conscious beings must have originated with something that was conscious…
In any case, I think the three options that the atheist has are not logical or adequate. There is a tremendous leap of faith that must be taken if one assumes the third option. But the other two options do not make any sense and leave no room for disagreement or judgment between societies. I can’t even say that we’re fortunate to live in a society that favors liberty and kindness, because such a statement has no meaning in that kind of reality. Now, it is obvious that my refutation of the Problem of Evil does not necessarily lead one to a specific theistic system. But I hope that it has shown that the Problem of Evil itself does not refute or even call into question the internal logic of theism, and especially not the internal logic of Christianity. That’s all I have for now, and that might be all I have in this series. Is there anything in particular you guys and gals would like me to write a post on that pertains to the a/theism debate?
(on the Euthyphro Dilemma)
1. What is the Euthyphro Dilemma?
Everyone has a concept of morality, right? We all feel sick when we hear news about innocent people being gunned down and we all have a sense of justice being served when a thief is caught and punished. Our very societies operate on the idea that certain things are okay and other things are not okay. Some things are right and some things are wrong. Most of us—if we aren’t suffering from frontal lobe disorders—seem to have these very deep intuitions about goodness and badness, about rightness and wrongness. This is true despite the fact that our conceptions about what makes something right/wrong can be very different. Now, theism (or at least Western theism) has traditionally defined morality as being objective and absolute—that is, something that is wrong is wrong in all places, at all times, for all people. This view (which I will defend in this post) has come under attack from atheism (though it should be noted that some atheists defend an objective morality without God). So when I’m talking about “theistic morality” in this post, you should read that as an objective morality. What I want to talk about specifically in this post is one argument that has been used to call an objective, theistic morality into question.
In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates and the titular character discuss what has come to be known as the Euthyphro Dilemma. This has come down through the years to our own day and age, albeit in a modified form. It has been used to argue, basically, that the existence of both God and morality results in two equally nonsensical moral landscapes. In its modified form, the dilemma is this: “Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?” To show just why this dilemma is considered such a good refutation of theistic morality, I’ll lay out both horns of the dilemma. Keep in mind that the point is to show that God’s existence leads to nonsense and contradictions.
The first horn is that “God commands something because it is good.” Simply put, this view asserts that morality is something that God recognizes and then proceeds to command us to adhere to. For example, the Christian God delights in things like fidelity/benevolence/piety and abhors things like murder/adultery/theft because those things are right or wrong in and of themselves. As I understand it, this horn is chosen by some in order to avoid charges that God’s morality is arbitrary (which I’ll get to in a moment). In this view, morality is something that is inherent. It is essential to the universe. God’s own goodness, therefore, can be seen in that God adheres to those moral standards perfectly. Thus, for the person who picks this option, God can be praised for being moral without seeming arbitrary. However, there are some problems with this setup—especially for the Western (read: Judeo-Christian) theist. In Western conceptions of a deity, God is supposed to be sovereign and omnipotent. God is supposed to have a freedom of the will. However, if one’s conception of morality is in line with this horn of the dilemma, there exists a moral law behind God to which God must adhere. That is, God is subject to something other than Himself—a fact that most Christians would reject. Also, from an atheistic standpoint, this view shows that God is not necessary for morality. Thus, moral arguments for God’s existence cannot be used. So there seem to be some real problems here.
In order to escape the problems of the first horn of the dilemma, many philosophers and theologians have chosen the second option—namely, “something is good because God commands it.” Known as Divine Command Theory, this option maintains that God alone decides what is morally Right. The reasons for choosing this option are obvious, since it allows for God’s sovereignty/freedom of will/omnipotence/etc. So it seems to avoid the problems that the first horn of the dilemma falls into. However, this opens up some equally significant problems, some would say. To wit, morality in this schema becomes essentially arbitrary. God could tell us to go kill infants and that would, by definition, be the morally correct thing to do. In fact, not killing infants would constitute doing something wrong. This seems to go against our very deep intuitions about morality. In fact it seems to deny that our intuitions (the very things that theistic morality is said to explain) actually mean anything. And this seems wrong indeed.
A quick recap: the Euthyphro Dilemma seems to show that theists have to accept one of two options. Namely, either [A] there is a moral law behind God (which seems to make God irrelevant in moral questions and to go against the traditional conceptions of God being sovereign, etc.) or [B] morality is based solely on God’s command (and thus is arbitrary). Both these options seem lacking.
2. My Response: A Modified Divine Command Theory
Really quickly, I want to show why I think this is a false dilemma. In doing this, I stand on the side of Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas (note: I only point that out to show that I didn’t just come up with this myself). Basically, I want to say that morality is based upon the nature of God and not simply the commands of God. This is a significant modification, even if it doesn’t appear to be so on the face of it. According to Christian theism, God has always and will always exist. This means that anything tied to the nature of God is necessarily eternal and absolute. In this conception, God’s commands flow out of His nature. That which is good is what is in line with the nature of God, just as that which is evil is what goes against the nature of God. Therefore, God’s commands are essentially to reveal to us what His moral nature is—it is not the result of God trying to make up a morality for us to follow. In this way, Modified Divine Command Theory avoids both a morality based upon arbitrary commands and a God who is subject to something outside of Himself. You can think of this as admitting, essentially, that “might makes right” – but that, since God is by definition the Mightiest, His morality wins. (That doesn’t quite sum it up, because I believe that God’s having created us means that our [uncorrupted] intuitions point toward His morality).
Now, I’m going to anticipate the objection that this is all semantics. After all, many critics would say this view only moves the problem onto the nature of God rather than the commands of God. That is true, in a sense. I don’t think the arbitrariness is quite the same in this case, though. Since God has always necessarily existed, it cannot be said that morality “could have been different” and is thus arbitrary. This is because it is meaningless to say that God “could have been different,” since God is presupposed to have always been—and since that which is moral is defined as “that which reflects the nature of God,” morality equally cannot be spoken of with such language. However, the critic has hit upon something serious. In this conception, praise of God seems to become meaningless. After all, saying “God, thank you for being moral” is like saying “God, thank you for being God.” The speaker of such a phrase is extolling God for doing something that God is unable not to do.
I think there is a way out of this critique, though. Praise in this conception is valid based upon God’s choice between two equally valid moral alternatives. In other words, my saying “God, thank you for being merciful” has meaning in that God could just as easily have been just toward me and punished me for my not living up to the moral standard. So I think praise can still retain its meaning. Also, I think this is the view that the authors of the Bible’s various books seem to hold. This is why they can praise God even for His just destruction of societies, and why Proverbs says that the “fear of the Lord” is the beginning of wisdom.
3. Why Atheism Doesn’t Escape This Problem
Enough about my own views. I just included them in an effort to put my cards on the table, since I’m basically finding fault with the alternative. Anyway, my main point for this post is that I don’t think a move away from theism escapes this dilemma. In fact, I think that move just intensifies our problems rather than alleviating them. Other than simply denying the existence of morality, which I don’t think is a wise move, the most common way for atheists to deal with morality is to say that “what is moral” equates to “what is good for society,” so I’m going to run with that and show why I don’t think it provides any answers.
If I say that killing is wrong because society is hindered by it, I run into similar problems as the Divine Command Theorist in the Euthyphro Dilemma. Does this mean that killing per se isn’t wrong? It would seem to be so, since I can easily point to cases in which killing must be done for the good of society in general (i.e. resource scarcity/overpopulation). However, that seems also to go against the intuitions that we used to throw out the existence of God. Part of the reasoning we had when trying to discount Divine Command Theory is that it made things like murder or genocide “possibly” okay. Our problem with DCT seemed to be that God could say that killing is okay, and then it would become so. My point here is that now, in our societal-benefit conception of morality, we have the same exact problem. It could be the case that occasions arise in which killing is not only acceptable but morally required. We haven’t solved anything by making this move.
In fact, constructing morality in this way seems to assume that society ought to exist. That is, this view assumes that society is good. That humanity itself is good (though, if we look at what we’ve done to the world and to each other, that view seems counter-intuitive). The atheist still has not explained what makes something good. She has merely pointed to goodness and said “these things are good.” One ought to do something because it benefits society (because, it is implied, society is good). This is the same circularity with which many atheists charge theism. It suffers from the same problem.
I’m not saying that these problems are in any sense particularly damning of atheism. My point is merely that I don’t see how these conceptions solve the problems that the atheist had with theistic morality anyway. And in fact, as I will show in the next post, I think that morality itself points to the existence of a deity.
4. Final Thoughts.
Okay, this one was a little tough to write. I debated on whether or not to write this post or the next one (Part 4) first. Ultimately, I decided on this one, though maybe that was a mistake. In the end, I think that this post hearkens back to the first post in this series and its discussion on “necessary brute facts.” Both systems of thought have these presuppositions that must simply be accepted prima facie. However, I think that atheism actually increases the number of things one must “simply accept.” In this case, atheism cannot explain morality in any sense. It must simply say “society is good/life is good/humanity is good/etc.” This, as we have seen, is circular. After all, the Universe has existed without us for quite some time. Why is it the case that we ought to preserve life? Appeals to selfish gain work here, but then the very moral intuitions that we used to reject Divine Command Theory seem to go away as well—since I can’t really be commended for doing something just to preserve myself, can I?
One of the big reasons for writing this post first was to get my own Modified Divine Command Theory out there so that you, the reader, know where I’m coming from. The next post, which is going to deal with why I think the so-called Problem of Evil is not actually a problem for theists, will lay out exactly why I think this is the only way to have a morality that is worthwhile.
(on determinism and free will, and thus also on moral responsibility)
Before I even begin this post, let me take the time to define some terms. This part of my Why I’m Not an Atheist series is about determinism and free will, so it behooves us to make sure we all know what I mean by those terms. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines “causal determinism” as “…roughly speaking, the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature.” I like this definition. Later in this post, I am going to use what has been called the Basic Argument of determinism to attempt to show why I adhere to this idea. However, given that this post is at least in part about theology – I mean only that we’re discussing the God question and thus our terms are going to need to relate directly to this God question – I’m going to use the word “determinism” to mean “theological fatalism” when discussing the idea from a theist’s perspective (don’t worry, I think you’ll be able to follow…). The SEP defines theological fatalism as “the thesis that infallible foreknowledge of a human act makes the act necessary and hence unfree.” Basically, determinism itself is the analog of theological fatalism in a world in which God does not exist, and theological fatalism is the analog of pure determinism in a world in which God does exist. To put it more simply, we’re discussing the idea that the future is determined by something (nature and the state of the universe on one hand, God on the other), and so I choose to use the same term to emphasize what I see as the sameness of the issue. If you don’t follow that, it’s fine – that is basically what I’m going to try to argue in this post anyway. Okay, on to the next definition: free will. When I discuss free will in this post, I am not referring to the notion that human actions are completely undetermined by anything other than that person’s will. Thus, I’m not talking about a completely autonomous will. Most of us would reject that wording anyway, because most of us realize that our situations in fact do determine our choices to at least some extent. For instance, I cannot choose to be three feet taller, or to spread my arms and fly to Thailand. There are laws to this universe. Some people (Buddhists, maybe? or New Agers?) believe in the idea of “mind over matter,” but this is not the idea I’m talking about when I am referring to free will. For the duration of this post, think of free will as simply the ability of rational agents (humans) to choose between various alternative options that do not go against the physical laws of the universe. Free will is the idea that you can make a choice and thus influence the flow of time. Determinism is the idea that the things which happen necessarily happen – that they happen out of necessity, because they have been determined.
(I won’t get into much detail, but suffice it to say that as a Calvinist I believe that determinism/ theological fatalism is true. Some of my fellow Christians will balk at that – maybe even some Calvinists will balk at the usage of the word “fatalism,” since it has the connotation of meaninglessness. However, I personally believe that we have real wills that we exercise but which are ultimately under the sovereign will of God. There is no other possible way, in my opinion, for God to be said to be sovereign – because if everyone has free choices to make and thus can freely influence the flow of history, then history is at the mercy of people and not God. Okay. Just wanted to make that clear. Let’s get on with the actual post, since this isn’t supposed to be about me defending my own particular brand of theism).
Now that we have those terms defined, I can begin my main argument (if it can be called that). Some atheists I have met have posed to me a charge against theism which they find very strong indeed. The charge is that, if God exists, then we do not have a free, effectual will. Our choices are merely the illusions of choices, since a deity that exists outside of time and knows all the events of the future and that can interact within human history would be in control. The criticism can be seen in pop culture all over the place. For instance, think back to the movie The Matrix (yes, yes, I know this is an easy target, since virtually no other movie in popular culture has been so blatantly about philosophy). When asked if he believes in “fate” – the idea that the future is destined to happen – Neo replies “No… because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.” This is a particular criticism of Christianity, since one of the attributes of the Christian God is sovereignty – the idea that this God is in complete and utter control at all times and in all places. This conception of God negates, in these atheists’ minds, the common sense notion that we have the ability to choose freely between alternative decisions. Note that this criticism, and indeed the whole determinism vs. free will debate, is very closely tied up with discussions of moral responsibility. I will get to issues of morality in the next two posts, but the main gist of this criticism of theism is that it seems to preclude real moral responsibility. After all, how can we be said to be morally responsible for an action if that action happened necessarily – if, in effect, we did not have any real control in the matter at all and the action was foreordained and predestined? I don’t shy away from the fact that this is a serious charge. However, what I want to prove here is that a move away from theism does not solve this issue. It merely moves the sovereignty from this deity to something else.
Brace yourselves, because this is where it’s going to get really dense and possibly hard to follow. I’m going to try to keep it as simple as possible (partly because going into depth on every term and theory would take a lifetime, and partly because the whole point of this thing is to be readable). To my knowledge, atheists tend to be materialists – that is, they reject the notion of the supernatural and hold that everything “supervenes on” the physical world. This is consistent with the usual reasons they pose for rejecting theism and supernaturalism in the first place, so you can’t fault them for that. However, let’s run with that scenario. The material, physical world is the only thing that can be said to exist in reality. Even mental processes such as love, pain, reason itself, happiness, depression, etc. can be said to supervene on or be based upon the physical realities. Consciousness is the result of the physical world behaving in a certain way. Okay? Now, here’s where the Basic Argument I talked about earlier comes into play. If this is the way that reality is, the atheist has not escaped determinism. Let me show you. I first heard of this argument in Galen Strawson’s “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility,” which can be found in the 2007 edition of Ethical Theory (edited by Russ Shafer-Landau… the forthcoming quote is on page 347). It is he who termed it the Basic Argument and it can be stated thusly:
“(1) You do what you do because of the way you are. So,
(2) To be truly morally responsible for what you do you must be truly responsible for the way you are – at least in certain crucial mental respects. But,
(3) You cannot be truly responsible for the way you are, so you cannot be truly responsible for what you do.”
This is tough to parse on some levels – especially as it relates to the a/theism debate. So let me try to simplify it by connecting it directly with what we have been talking about. To the atheistic materialist, the world is entirely made up of physical things. In fact, even seemingly non-physical things supervene on the physical processes. So, our mental faculties are merely the result of the workings of physical processes in our brains. But, these physical processes behave according to strict physical laws that have been working on your physical makeup since literally before you were born. This is evidenced by the fact that alcoholism, for example, has a genetic basis. Therefore, since you cannot be said to have been responsible for your original physical makeup (after all, you didn’t exist yet and certainly did not pick out the physical properties you would have upon birth), and since you cannot be said to be responsible for the physical laws that have been acting on those original physical properties over time (since those laws existed before you did and are not mutable, or at least certainly not mutable by you), and since your physical makeup dictates your mental processes (this is materialism, the mental supervening on the physical), you cannot be said to have free will, nor to be morally responsible for the choices you make.
Let that sink in a bit. It is very difficult to object to this Basic Argument (in fact, I think it to be impossible if it is approached from an atheistic, materialistic perspective). If the atheist denies premise (1), she is denying the very materialism that she has claimed to espouse. If she denies premise (2), she must then try to figure out what it means to be morally responsible for something that she can’t be said to be responsible for in a nonmoral sense. That is, negating premise (2) is to say that, paradoxically, one is responsible for something one did without being responsible for one’s physical makeup, even though materialism would have to hold to the idea that what we do is predicated upon our physical makeup, according to premise (1). This seems illogical. It is basically like saying that I, Mike, should be held accountable for things I did even though those actions were the result of material processes over which I have no control. Where does this sudden responsibility come into play? Note: I am not saying the theist has it any better. I am simply showing that the atheist has not escaped the problem by a simple move to atheism. What would be required is a radical restructuring of the very common-sense notions of free will and agency that caused the atheist to object to theism in the first place. (Just to make sure I cover this, the only answer given to this problem in the Bible is a rather unsatisfying one. In Romans, Paul argues basically this same idea, but applied to God. He says that none can resist the will of God, that if God has made some to be vessels of wrath for the day of destruction and some to be vessels of mercy no one can resist those purposes. He anticipates the objection “Why does (God) still find fault? For who can resist his will?” and answers the objection by saying “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” Check it out in Romans 9:19-20. My point is that I sympathize with the atheist at this point, because I do not have an answer for this problem. More on that later).
Really quickly, let me summarize the point of this long post. The reason I find it worthwhile to discuss is that some atheists I have talked to share the opinion of Neo in The Matrix: they do not like the idea of not being in control of their lives. Seeing within theism a determinism that goes against their notions of free will, they attempt to solve the problem by a move to atheism (I’m not saying this is the only reason, nor that all atheists even have a problem in this area, but simply that some do). However, what I have hopefully shown here is that making that philosophical move does not solve the issue. What it does is merely push the control down from a deity to Nature itself. If you go back and re-read the Basic Argument, you will realize that in a materialistic universe punishing someone for their actions is much the same as punishing someone for their hair color, or for their skin color. It is the same because in a materialistic universe all things necessarily supervene on the physical, and we do not have control over the physical. Any attempt to assert that we do have control over the physical properties of our bodies will lead to the inevitable fallacy of the causa sui (the notion that we are the cause of ourselves, which is obviously untrue as evidenced by the fact that we did not pick out our parents’ genes, etc.).
Finally, I want to point out a few things. There are many philosophers nowadays who are compatibilists. That is, they hold that free will and determinism are compatible. In fact, there are some who hold, seemingly paradoxically, that moral responsibility is only possible in a deterministic universe. One example of an atheist compatibilist is Daniel Dennett , and the link I just provided is a video of him discussing his views on this dispute. However, I would argue that any move that an atheist makes to solve this problem can equally be made by the theist. For instance, I hold that we are morally responsible for our choices. In fact, adhering to the doctrine of the Bible, I would hold that the problem is that our will is always and only in the opposite direction of God’s will – and that therefore the only way to repent (or, in other words, to turn toward God and from one’s immorality) is to be made to do so by God who is sovereign. Or, other theists (in the sense of including all forms of theism) reject the notion of moral responsibility or else reject the notion of determinism altogether, just like other atheists reject these notions in order to get out of the predicament. My point is that moving to a position of atheism does not help the problem. And if the problem is cited as a reason for the move away from theism, and the move to atheism does not solve the problem, then the reason for moving to atheism was invalid in the first place.
So that’s it. It’s a long one, I know. But I hope it was not too difficult to follow and that it can generate some discussion. My next two posts are going to deal with the issue that this one leads into: namely, morality itself and the supposed problems from which theistic morality is said to suffer. I am excited about these next two posts because, personally, I find morality to be the biggest indicator of a deity’s existence. Don’t worry, though. I’m not going to suddenly switch my purpose here and start trying to convert everyone to Christianity. I merely plan on refuting the problems that atheists have with theistic morality.
(a series on why I don’t think atheism solves the very philosophical problems with which it faults theism)
So, I’m trying out a new idea for this blog: a multi-post philosophical series. Over the next few weeks (maybe more, if discussion gets good) I plan on developing reasons as to why I do not believe in the non-existence of a deity. That’s clunky language, I know. But it pinpoints the purpose of this series. I want it to be known that I am not trying to prove theism (much less am I trying to prove Christian theism, though I will admit that my references to deities in this series are going to presuppose a Western view of a personal god rather than an Eastern “force” kind of theism). Rather, my purpose here is to show that atheism commits some of the same “errors” that it charges theism with. In other words, I’m trying to show that atheism doesn’t solve the philosophical problems that many atheists cite as reasons for disbelieving theism. This is a Schaefferian- type of thing to do in that it reflects what Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer called “taking the roof off” – a term that denotes showing someone the implications of his or her worldview. Inherent in my critique of atheism is going to be my blatant Christianity. I will try to rein this in when possible, as my goal is honestly not to offend. However, it is the presupposition with which I start, so it is a very difficult thing to hold in check. Anyway, with those disclaimers out of the way, let’s start.
It is difficult to figure out where to begin these sorts of arguments. After all, any of us who are currently alive and who desire to get in on the a/theism debate have to do so realizing that we’re jumping into the middle of a discussion that’s gone on since humankind has existed. That’s a lot of ground to cover. One good starting point might be epistemology (the study of how we know things), but I’m having a hard time starting there. The reason for my difficulty is that most philosophers accept the Socratic view of knowledge as Justified True Belief – that is, we can be said to “know” something when that something is a belief that is an accurate reflection of reality (true) and which can be demonstrated through a system of “proofs.” I put the proofs in quotes because virtually nothing can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt (see the discussion of the Munchhausen trilemma a few paragraphs down). It isn’t called Proven True Belief, but merely Justified True Belief. I cannot “prove” that we are not just brains in vats that are being manipulated a la The Matrix to pseudo-experience this world. Similarly, I cannot prove that we did not just spring up into existence mere seconds ago with our memories already implanted. I can’t prove or disprove these thought experiments because they require us to jump outside the methods of justification that we have available. As assertions of things outside our reality, they can’t be proven or disproven using things within our reality. So I’m not going to start with epistemology, and I’m going to just assume prima facie that our experiences are real and we’re as old as we think we are, etc.
Instead, and for the remainder of this part of the series, let’s talk about ontology. Ontology is the study of what is. When I talk about a person’s ontology, I am referring to his or her conception of what exists. For instance, a materialist would assert that only the material world exists and could therefore be said to have a materialistic ontology. Note that while I’m not going to explicitly discuss epistemology at this point, ontology is directly connected with epistemology. It is basically impossible to discuss one without the other, so there are going to be parts of this discussion that inevitably deal with how we know things – or at the very least how we justify our ontologies. W.V.O. Quine, one of America’s most influential and brilliant philosophers, was an advocate of having as sparse an ontology as possible – by which he meant that he wanted to allow for the least amount of necessary things existing in reality – and this is an idea that is very palatable to atheists, if I can make a generalization. One of the criticisms that many atheists have toward theism is that theism asserts the existence of a being that is not necessary to explain reality. Another way to put this is that theism is seen to have an overpopulated ontology.
In order to break down this criticism and show, hopefully, that atheism does not alleviate an “overpopulated” ontology, I am going to switch my talking from an overall ontology to what I will call “necessary brute facts.” These necessary brute facts are things which we merely have to assume are true in order to explain the world. The Munchhausen trilemma asserts that, basically, any proof of knowledge must ultimately rely on three equally unappealing (especially in today’s skeptic culture) options: a circular argument (in which the proof is used to prove the asserted knowledge, and the knowledge is used to prove the proof), a regressive argument (in which the proof then requires a further proof to prove it, which then requires a further proof to prove that proof, to infinity and beyond), or an axiomatic argument (in which the proof[s] are built upon some accepted fundamental precepts). Since the first two options are incredibly unappealing, I will assume the third. That is, I assume that everyone – even the skeptical atheist – rests his or her arguments on these fundamental precepts (i.e. my “necessary brute facts”). So, now that the terminology and, begrudgingly, a bit of epistemology have been set in place, let me get on with it.
The atheist’s argument that theism has an unnecessarily overpopulated ontology can be reformulated to assert that theism has too many necessary brute facts. I disagree with this, as it seems to me that the only real necessary brute fact in (Christian) theism is the deity itself. In a western, personal-god form of theism, the only necessary brute fact that must be taken for granted is the existence of the deity. Everything else can be seen as contingent upon this deity’s decision to create in the manner in which it decided to create. There is less that needs to be philosophically explained in this system, to my eyes at least. (This is one of those areas in which I readily know I’m not convincing anyone, but let’s move on).
For the atheist, there is more “mere faith” that has to be assumed – more necessary brute facts that cannot be accounted for and cannot, by virtue of being brute facts, be explained through appeals to other facts. On the large scale, the atheist must assume that the Universe is the ultimate brute fact. The difference here is obviously that we can observe the universe, etc. But what this leads to is a cascade of necessary brute facts. Since most philosophers accept the idea of the naturalistic fallacy – the idea that what simply exists does not reflect what ought to exist – the atheist is then left to defend an ontology that includes things we can’t readily experience. At least, the atheist (which in our day and age usually equates to materialism, since many atheists’ problem with theism is that it asserts a non-scientific nonmaterial world) must paradoxically accept as necessary brute facts things like an ethical code embedded into the universe. Note that trying to prove that this ethical code rests on other things like the progress of society or the inherent worth of life does not solve this problem. Instead, it simply pushes the problem back from the ethical code to either society or life, respectively. So it seems to me that the atheist, paradoxically, must accept more necessary brute facts than the theist! The problem has not been solved by a simple move to atheism. Instead, the atheist has just moved from having one thing that he or she cannot prove and must simply accept to having a multitude of things that he or she must accept.
So there it is. Obviously, this post is not in the least bit exhaustive. Subsequent posts will deal with more specific grievances that atheists typically use to refute theism, but I thought a more general/abstract discussion was necessary to kick off the series. Many people who are more well-read and more knowledgeable than I have attempted to tackle this Ontology problem – both on the theistic and atheistic side. My point is simply to show that this issue, which many atheists hold to be a fault of theism (i.e. the “you have to have blind faith” sort of criticism) is not escaped by a simple move to atheism because both theism and atheism have at their cores “necessary brute facts” that must be accepted prima facie, without any proofs, and which are subsequently used to interpret all the other facts available to us. This post is supposed to encourage discussion on the matter, from both sides, and so I welcome comments. In fact I really desire that people talk about it! I’d love to hear refutations of this as well as agreements. However, my one rule is that if you feel inclined to comment on this, you must be respectful of other people. Attack ideas and not people. Any attempt to do the latter will get your comment removed – though disagreeing with me will not.
-END PART ONE-
It is a quarter after one in the afternoon right now, and the house is finally quiet.
Well, the dryer’s running, I can hear the heat pumping through the vents, and the whirring of electronic devices is pretty much incessant. But what I mean is that Netflix is off and Asher is in bed. Sleeping. Wait, scratch that; I just heard him mumble a little to himself. I guess what I mean is that he’s down for a nap and I can finally relax.
I don’t know how women did this back in the eras in which it was socially unacceptable for them to have careers. It is exhausting. And the biggest thing that makes it, in my opinion, even more exhausting than an office job is that no real progress is ever made. You can clean the house all day and do every possible load of laundry, but you’ll soon have it all to do again. It is a mentally stressful job, being a housespouse.
So here’s the news: I was going to write a review of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, but some things have changed in my life this week and so I thought I’d rather write about that. Basically, through a series of overly optimistic decisions that we made, it has come about that we aren’t really financially stable enough to have a babysitter. So from now on I’m just a stay-at-home dad – there aren’t any more days for me to leave Asher at home and go write for eight hours. It just didn’t work. On one hand that’s a bummer (because it means I can’t go out and just focus on writing for long periods of time), but on the other hand it’s pretty cool (because it means I get to spend a lot of quality time with my son before his little brother arrives). From here on out, the plan is that I’ll try to slip in some writing time while Asher takes his naps, maybe go to Starbucks for a few hours on the weekends. I’m still really hoping to have the first draft and a few edits and re-writes done by the time we move (if, that is, I get into grad school this fall). This goal is becoming increasingly difficult – and not just because I can’t go out and write anymore. I’m also going to need to get a job this summer so that we can afford to move if I do get into grad school. Which will significantly cut into my writing time. One of the problems I’ve had in the past with writing on a consistent basis while working a full-time job is that by the time I’ve finished working, I’m usually too tired to really immerse myself in the story and write well. So what comes out is drivel. Granted, most authors tell me that drivel is necessary on a first draft, but that’s a difficult pill for me to swallow. I tend not to write because I am a perfectionist and I know that my first draft is going to suck – especially if I write it while trying to work a full time job and thereby being in a perpetual state of tiredness. But this is something I have to just get over. This book is getting published this year.
So there it is. I’m currently a stay-at-home dad. Trying to write on the side. Whenever I get the chance. Which is rare. So I should probably go now, while Asher is asleep, so I can write some more in the novel. If I’m being totally honest, it’s coming along quite nicely, what with today being only February 21st and all.
So, internet, Mike is back in the writing game. Yes, I know you all missed me dearly and now here I am, ready to start once again doing regular blog updates. Rejoice, world.
Here’s the skinny: my wonderful wife Megan recently graduated with her Master’s degree. Since her degree is in Speech Language Pathology, this basically meant that she was on the job market for all of like five minutes before the openings and interviews started rolling in. Long story short, she now has a job in the school system of a local town. What this means for my family is that I was able to quit my job cashiering at the hospital and focus on writing. So here’s my schedule: three days a week, we have a babysitter come over to watch Asher and I go out to various locations (usually either Starbucks or my parents’ house – or both) and write. The other two days I stay home and play househusband. I say “play” because I lack the mystical quality of housekeeping that so many housewives I know inherently have. I mostly try to keep up with Asher and do laundry, and even that proves too much at times. But oh well. The point is that I am now able to write and get stuff done. So let me tell you about that.
I have made the unretractable vow that my first novel will be published this year on the Kindle store. This first one is going to be a science fiction novel. Current as of this blogpost, I have written about 22,000 words. This is roughly a third of my estimate for how long the finished novel will be (though I could be off on that estimate…). So things are getting done. Furthermore, I have mapped out an extensive plot outline and timeline as well as having short dossiers on my main characters. Guys and gals, I am super-excited about this story. It’s making tons of sense to me and is interesting. Hopefully it will be interesting to others as well. But if not, that’s cool. I’ll learn from the experience and approach the next project with new knowledge. By the way, that dwarf story I was tweeting about a lot last year is on the boards to be the next project after this one is published. It’s still looking like the dwarf story will be a trilogy of shorter novellas, but there is a chance I could combine them into one larger novel. It all depends on the scope of the story and whether or not I think the proposed trilogic segments will have the necessary climaxes/resolutions. Also, it depends on how the market goes for these shorter novellas. I know that recently there has been a spike in novella sales, but I’m not totally convinced that people are going to keep preferring them to novel-length stories. My plan is that after those two projects, and if people are buying my stuff and/or Megan is making enough money for it, I have a few more sci-fi/young adult projects that I’d like to finish. My plan is also to release at least one or two poetry collections or short story collections within like the next five years. Maybe. Perhaps, after all of that, I will feel comfortable enough to start really trying to work on another project of mine – that environmental terrorism novel that I’ve mentioned before on this blog. That thing is like my baby (disregarding, of course, my actual physical children), and so I’ve been really reticent to start digging in and writing it until I feel my skills as an author are better. But, I also recently had the revelation that writers, y’know, write. You have to start walking if you ever hope to reach your destination. Or whatever trite aphorism applies here.
Something else that has changed recently: I just applied to graduate school. If I am accepted, I will be starting this fall with the goal of obtaining my Master’s Degree in English with a concentration in Rhetoric and Composition. I think that this will do two things: firstly, it will allow me to better my understanding of the English language and thus hopefully will improve my writing; and secondly, it will give me the option of teaching at, say, a community college – and therefore will give me a way to actually make some money should it arise that my writing career doesn’t earn me millions. In any case, it will certainly be a good thing to do in this economy and in this job climate.
Okay, so those are the major changes in my life at this moment. Did I mention that here in about eleven weeks Megan, Asher, and I will be welcoming a fourth member of our family into the world? Because that’s happening (good lord, eleven weeks!). So life is really good right now and yet also really busy. Funds are tight, since Megan only gets paid once a month and so we’re kind of in no-man’s-land since I already quit my job. But it’s okay. For the first time in a while, I am actually happy with the direction my life is taking, profession-wise. I feel like I am working on a project that is worthwhile, that I am pursuing a goal that is both attainable and meaningful, and quite frankly that I’m doing something that is fun. Which is a new experience for me. I mean, I haven’t hated every job I’ve had, but I sure haven’t been doing anything that fulfilled me.
For you guys and gals out there (all ten of you who might read this blog occasionally), this also means that I am going to try to update this here blog at least once a week. I feel like it’s an important thing to do – that it offers an outlet for any future fans of mine to connect directly with the author of books they read. So I have to start providing that now, I think. Expect a review of Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash sometime in the following week.
Ooh, I almost forgot. At the same time that all of this is going on, a close friend of mine and I are co-writing a screenplay. It’s an adaptation of a short story that a more distant friend of ours wrote some years ago. Actually, it’s really more like my friend is writing and I’m just sort of helping out with the story, providing another brain for him to bounce ideas off of. I can’t reveal any more information at this time, but it’s pretty cool. I think the movie is going to be rad.
And… that’s it. Other than all that, though, life is simple. I guess. Thanks for reading, and get ready for my first published novel to be released!
First things first: full disclosure here: I love David Foster Wallace. He is, hands-down, my favorite author. This may change over time (it most likely will) but know that because of this fact I tend to judge his books with a mixture of higher and lower standards. For example, I don’t necessarily expect everything of his to “read well.” That is, I don’t expect everything of his to be entertaining and accessible. I tend to give him the philosophical and artistic benefit of the doubt more than I do for any other author. Put this another way: I tend to assume that everything in the DFW book I am reading at the moment is ruthlessly structured and purposeful, even if the end result is something overladen with information and ultimately non-entertaining. I assume it’s supposed to be that way, that its non-entertainment is there as a philosophical point. However, as I have developed as a writer, personally, I have become more in tune with the sort of artsy “meanings” and “purposes” behind what Mr. Wallace did with his writing. So now I have an odd admixture of giving the benefit of the doubt and yet also judging him by previous works of his that I have read, seeing if he has accomplished his goals as an author. (This is difficult, since often his skill is such that just telling where he’s trying to go is an endeavor in itself. I am undecided as to whether this is a fault of his or if the fault is simply that he orbited in an intellectual stratum much higher than the one I inhabit).
With all that said, and stealing a little bit from a (negative) review I read on Goodreads, I will now try to evaluate the skill and technique and overall quality of the writing of an author who is admittedly on far higher a plane than I.
One of the few negative reviews of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men relied heavily on a comparison of Wallace to James Joyce, that iconic Irish author whose innovations and general tossing out of the literary rulebook are world-renowned. The comparison is understandable, as both authors were (to quote the review) “encyclopaedic.” However, while Joyce’s encyclopedism often seems to stem from an inherent aggression toward the reader – a type of “I’m going to use all these words and do all these crazy things with my language and writing style and I don’t care if anyone understands it. In fact, I don’t really want anyone to understand it” attitude – Wallace seems (at least, to me) to want to connect with the reader. Much, if not all, of his body of work deals with (among many other things) the desire and yet inability to establish some sort of meaningful human connection. In my opinion, giving Wallace the benefit of the doubt here, much of the struggling that goes along with understanding his writing is calculated. He wants you to feel that struggle. He wants you to find it hard to access the “meanings” or “direction” of his work. But this is not, as it often seems to be with Joyce, out of hostility toward the reader. Rather, it is a sort of plea – a desperate cry for connection from a man who apparently found it desperately hard to connect and who wants to say to you “Look! All of us are struggling to connect; all of us find it hard to have genuine, honest, good, loving, understanding relationships.” The tension between author and reader in the works of DFW is a weighted and measured tension.
On to the actual book: Brief Interviews is a collection of stories of varying lengths. The title comes from four stories that contain, well, brief imagined interviews with men on the subject of their serial (mis)treatments of women. But there are other stories in here as well, loosely connected by thematic and stylistic elements. There is a duo of stories called “The Devil is a Busy Man;” a trio of stories called “Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders;” and numerous one-off stories. I’d call it a “short story collection” but the term seems partially inadequate, given the connected nature of many of the stories. Thematically, they all deal with relationships – specifically relationships between the sexes and how those relationships can be navigated. Also, a huge theme is the inward-focused laserbeam of criticism that is typical of a Wallace work. He makes you feel, as a reader, that he is revealing a huge part of his soul in every character he writes, and that it is an astounding fact of the universe that in doing so he exposes also a part of your own soul. The man shied away from nothing in his writing. He gives you the ugly details about how we treat sex, how we treat the opposite sex (no matter which sex we ourselves are categorized into), how we treat each other as humans, and how we survive in a world full of both unbounded love and unsearchable darkness. In this, I believe, Brief Interviews succeeds mightily.
I will now tell you the negatives. Not everything in this book can be said to fully “work.” What Wallace does in “Octet” is, in my opinion, take meta-fiction to levels previously unexplored – and he does so with literary gusto and (to use a word he seems found of) cajones. However, his prose in “The Depressed Person” goes from being a well-done mimicry of clinical detachment and a tonal mirror of the inner workings of a depressed mind to being unintentionally dull and boring. He drags it on too long, undercuts his prose with (and this is a rare critique for me to make of him) too many footnotes, and runs off on tangents too much to really “work.” Instead, the reader does not empathize with the depressed person and actually becomes almost a mimicry of the depressed person’s friends in the story – wanting, after a while of enduring the literary gymnastics employed by Wallace, to just go ahead and give it up and move on to the next story. There is also, in the book, a story that is a reimagined telling of an epic poem in modern hi-speed internet terms. It was fun to read as a writer trying to gain a few tricks to put in my literary arsenal, but as a story it is SUPER difficult to get through. And the story “Church Not Made With Hands” was on an artistic plane too high for me to grasp, and ultimately, I think, too highfalutin for most of us to grasp.
But when he’s on it, he’s on it. Take this example from “Forever Overhead,” a story about a young man’s thirteenth birthday, in which Wallace describes a diving board:
But at the end of the white board, the edge, where you’ll come down with your weight to make it send you off, there are two areas of darkness. Two flat shadows in the broad light. Two vague black ovals. The end of the board has two dirty spots.
They are from all the people who’ve gone before you. Your feet as you stand here are tender and dented, hurt by the rough wet surface, and you see that the two dark spots are from people’s skin. They are skin abraded from feet by the violence of the disappearance of people with real weight. More people than you could count without losing track. The weight and abrasion of their disappearance leaves little bits of soft tender feet behind, bits and shards and curls of skin that dirty and darken and tan as they lie tiny and smeared in the sun at the end of the board. They pile up and smear and get mixed together. They darken in two circles.
Shivers, man. Chills. This guy could freaking write. And so even though I rate Brief Interviews somewhere on the DFW spectrum as decidedly better than The Broom of the System yet decidedly worse than Infinite Jest, I have to point out that the fact that it was even penned by DFW makes it far better than 99% of things you will ever read, ever, in your life. I would recommend it to anyone, with the caveat that the author was quite probably a literal genius and can sometimes do and say things that are so far above your head that even looking at them can give you a nosebleed. Still, read it. It is worth bleeding for.
OVERALL SCORE: 8.5/10
First thing: some caveats:
1. I have never written a review for a band before, so I imagine this is going to be clunky. Don’t be surprised if you find some flowery language in here, since most reviews are like that I’m using some professional people as models.
2. I don’t know much about music. I mean, I played percussion in middle school, high school, and college, but that consisted mainly on beating things with other things. So you won’t find lots of music theory and explanation in here. It’s just me hocking a friend’s album.
3. That’s right – I have known Justin Lacy since we were Boy Scouts together, so I just want everyone to know that going into this thing. I think I have enough distance to be unbiased, though. Here we go.
According to their website, Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine started when Mr. Lacy and a group of friends played together at one of those “anything goes” open mics, performing some songs that Lacy had written. They did strange things: substituting a tap dancer for snare, using muted trumpets in tandem with synths and electric guitar, and even employing upright bass and whistling into their songs. The group enjoyed playing together, and so continued. However, this band is not your conventional band. Its main members (numbering around 8ish), are joined by various “moving parts,” making the total number of instrumentalists and vocalists connected with the band a cool 18. It is very much a machine, and as a person interested in words and their usages I find it remarkable that the band’s name manages to capture both its unusual nature and musical vibe. You feel, listening to them, that you are moving through a form of audial water: lively and cool and sort of casual, but at the same time rife with musical rip currents, little twists and inversions of the expected sounds that keep the songs tirelessly interesting. But that’s enough about the band itself. I’ve already started to get into the music. For more information on the Swimming Machine’s formation and history, click on this picture I have conveniently placed below.
THE SOUND OF THE MUSIC
Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine sound as strange and amazing as their backstory would suggest. Lacy’s vocals are rough and husky, and remind me of Johnny Cash in a lot of ways. Hold on, I know that’s high praise, but I think he sort of pulls back on the beat as he sings, creating a Cash-like slowness that blends nicely with the upbeat music behind him. His lyrics help create a connection with the mainstream folk and bluegrass music that is taking people by storm right now (especially in songs like Bottom Feeder that showcase a man dealing with raw emotion). And let me just spend a few seconds here talking about the ladies in this group. Led by core member Sophie Amelkin and including vocalists Christa Faison, Whitney Lanier, and Heather Bobeck, the female members of the group are, in my opinion, a huge part in giving the songs their edginess. The backup vocals provided by these ladies remind me of (and I hope they take this as a compliment, because it is) my favorite soundtrack of all time: the soundtrack to the Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater video game. They give the group a fifties-esque backup singer Motown vibe at certain times, further adding to the musical dynamism and eclecticism of the Swimming Machine. Take a listen to In Chiaroscuro or Bottom Feeder and you’ll know immediately what I’m talking about. You’ll fall in love with these voices.
Okay, now for the instruments. Like I said in the band bio section, the group has a lot of strange instrumentation going on. But for me, this odd assortment of sounds and melodies rarely detracts from the overall feel of the song. I don’t think I was ever distracted by the choice of instruments. Rather, new sounds would emerge and felt strangely right, like I should have known somehow that they were coming round the bend. The muted trumpet, the mandolin, the synths and whistling. It all melds together into an apt feeling that you’ve stumbled upon, well, a swimming machine moving deliberately and wetly through the ocean. I felt at points a definite steampunkiness. All metal and rubber and perpetual motion. You get me? No? Then perhaps you should check the band out.
CHECKING THE BAND OUT
Any of this sound interesting to you? Good. Perhaps you’d like to saunter over to the band’s website and purchase their debut album, Overgrown. It’s available in three ways: a name-your-own-price digital copy, a $9 CD, and a $15 Limited Edition 12-inch Vinyl. Oh, and did I mention that these guys are mostly UNC-Wilmington graduates from the school’s music program? And that the album art is by a Wilmington artist named Kate Winchell (which, by the way, the album art is absolutely perfect)? So go out and support a local, NC-based band making great music and art and giving back to the community. Do it.
If I was only given one thing to say about ‘The Casual Vacancy,’ it’d be this: “Harry Potter it ain’t. But it kinda is. But it ain’t.” If that seems mixed up, convoluted, and indiscernible, then I have succeeded in describing my feelings about the book. Two days after finishing it and vowing to write a review, I’m still sitting here sort of at a loss on how to start this thing and explain exactly how it made me feel. But I think the best way is probably to go back to Rowling’s opus and describe the reasons why I think her writing style succeeded so very, very well in a work like Harry Potter. In this way, maybe I can figure out just what about her newest book I liked – and just why I think it ultimately fails to live up to the hype.
I could write theses on Harry Potter, and I am sure that that very thing has been done. But for your sake, readers, I’ll try to keep this brief. Rowling succeeded with her debut series for (more or less) three reasons: she is ridiculous at world-building, she is one of the best character writers I have ever read, and the genre of fantasy lends itself to these two attributes. Anyone who has read Harry Potter will tell you that, while you are reading the books, you feel like you’re in the world. Rowling’s world-building feels complete. She spends loads of time providing details whose sole purpose is to capture your imagination and create the sense that you could travel to England and visit Platform 9 ¾ , or roam around the English countryside until you found Hogwarts (I know, I know, it’s hidden by spells… but you get my point). The problem, as I have said in a previous piece about Neal Stephenson, is that when these expert world-builders apply their skill to the real world, the result is a book that tells me too much about stuff that I’m already too familiar with. In ‘The Casual Vacancy’ this problem, coupled with Rowling’s definitive writing style, leads to prose that feels too “flowery” (to quote my wife). It is as if Rowling tried to take the same approach to this novel that she took to the Harry Potter series, not realizing that what works for a children’s fantasy series will not necessarily work for an adult book about the suckiness of everyday people.
One thing that does work, though, is Rowling’s ability to write believable and relatable characters. Let me tell you something: I did not like the thematic elements of this novel. I didn’t like the arc of the story (SPOILER: absolutely nothing good happens in this story. It’s literally shit happens, shit happens, shit happens, the end. Which I found somehow lazy and lacking). And I didn’t like the writing style, for the most part. But I kept reading because of the characters. That’s how Rowling hooks you. Do you remember rooting for Harry, Ron, and Hermione? Do you remember being distraught when Dumbledore died? If so, then you know the power that Rowling has in getting you to buy into and root for certain characters. That quality of her writing is not lost in ‘The Casual Vacancy.’ You will find yourself reading on to find out what happens to characters you both genuinely care about and genuinely despise long after the story itself has lost you.
Even with the character development being as good as it is, it isn’t enough to outweigh the fact that the whole thing just feels like Rowling picked the wrong genre. When I originally started the novel, I hadn’t done a lot of research on exactly what kind of book it was. The cover seemed very noir-esque to me, and so I went into this thing thinking that it would end up being some kind of mystery. I liked that idea, because a mystery story would be a way for Rowling to showcase some of the things that made Harry Potter great (think Prisoner of Azkaban, and you’ll see that she can write a killer mystery) while still allowing Rowling to write a book with adult themes and a real-world setting. But it isn’t a mystery. It’s a straightforward novel about the politics of small-town life. If that sounds boring to you, you are not alone. Almost from the very first page, I was uninterested and unconcerned with the plot itself. Of course, the characters made me read on and sit on the edge of my seat regarding the next plot development, yada yada yada. But I didn’t care about the story all that much. Which is not good.
So I’m left with that weird one-liner from the opening paragraph: Harry Potter it ain’t. But it kinda is. But it ain’t. Because it seems like Rowling approached this book the same way she approached her first series, and the story of ‘The Casual Vacancy’ doesn’t lend itself to that approach. I understand that she wants to break free of children’s books and write stuff for adults (her original fans are almost all adults now, anyway). But please, Rowling, pick a genre that is suited to your strong suits as a writer. This one, as far as I’m concerned, missed the mark.
OVERALL SCORE: 6/10
Q1. Do you prefer stories where the “bad guy” is clearly defined, or do you like ambiguity concerning who is really good and who is bad? And if you clearly outline who is the antagonist, do you ever tell the readers how the said “evil” character became that way, or trust that they will accept that the character is inherently bad?
Q2. Do you find it easier to write stories that you can use actual historical events as a backdrop, or do you prefer to create an entire fictional universe to use as you want?
Q3. Which perspective is it easiest to write from? Do you find it easier to write a story where you don’t have to provide a character’s mental justifications for their actions, or do you want your readers to know the “why”?
A1. Okay, I’m going to go ahead and admit something about my writing that needs lots of improvement: the absence of a real villain. Most of my stories don’t really have a set villain. They tend to be introspective and villain-less for two reasons.
First, I use my writing to deal with facets of myself, and so there is lots of ambiguity there since real life doesn’t delineate the heroes and the villains so clearly. I mean, in an election year like this one we get to see just how ambiguous things are: each side is trying to slant everything so that its own candidate is the hero and the opposition are the villains. However, both sides contain good philosophies and both sides misuse and abuse power. So life doesn’t delineate things like stories do. And since I try to use my stories to talk about real life, the war tends to go on inside the characters rather than being fought between them. That said, there has to be some sort of good vs. evil going on in order to maintain interest in the reader and in order to set the stakes high. So I’m working on making that clearer in my writing (especially in my forthcoming novella, lovingly referred to as The Dwarf Story in lieu of a title, which is a fantasy story and thus needs to better adhere to that genre’s expectations).
Secondly, my thinking is largely defined by my philosophical and religious views, and therefore so too is my writing. Specifically (as I have stated on this blog a few times), I am a Calvinistic-type Christian. Which means, among lots of other things, that I believe man is unable to truly choose goodness over evil apart from the grace of God. This doctrine is referred to as Total Depravity, and basically it means that I do not think anyone is ultimately good apart from God. Therefore, characters in my work are constantly doing bad things, or even good things for bad reasons. For example, I wrote a short story (and am still editing it and getting it ready to eventually send out to publications) called Desperately Sick in which the protagonist is a sex addict who ends up (*spoiler alert*) impregnating an underage girl who lives in the same rehabilitation compound as he. The story does not have a happy ending, and it features a pastor who tries to help the man out of his sex addiction by preaching false theology. Anyway, the man is supposed to be viewed as a villain, but not one who is monstrous. The reader is supposed to realize that he is just a man like any other, who happens to have fallen into sinful sex addiction and adulterous habits, and is unable to escape his own sin through his own power. This is part of the belief system to which I subscribe, and it is a doctrine that I philosophically struggle with, and so much of my more “serious” stories deal with it.
So there you have it. I prefer ambiguity, but ambiguity not in the sense of “what is right and wrong,” but more in the sense of “everyone is constantly doing both good and bad things.”
A2. I’ll be honest. I like to create entire fictional universes. This is for a multitude of reasons, but most importantly these two: 1. It’s fun and cool. 2. Research sucks. Being brutally honest with myself, it’s probably mainly the latter. I struggle with anxiety and depression, and so for me it is difficult to tell myself that doing the hard work of research-based novel-writing is going to pay off for me. I would not be opposed to setting stories in historical backdrops in the future, when life is a little less hectic than it is now (starting a family, trying to start an online magazine, working a regular job, trying to write, etc.). But yeah, basically I’m lazy and don’t want to spend all that time researching. However, I have spent a good amount of time creating the world of the Dwarf Story and of another untitled novel I have on the shelf, so the time saved is probably mostly in my head.
A3. First off, I do want my readers to know the “why.” For me, writing is all about communication. So ideally everything I write encapsulates some point or idea that I want to get across to the reader. I haven’t spent a lot of time reading philosophical essays on literary analysis, but I think the idea that it’s all up to the reader is ridiculous. The point is always communication, and communication only works when the author has some message that he or she gets across to the reader. If the message is missing, or if the reader fails to receive it, communication hasn’t taken place. Now, the best art allows for multiple interpretations and inspires discussion, so I’m not saying the reader should not have his or her own views on a particular story. But I do try to get some kind of statement across to the reader, and therefore knowing the “why” is often important (unless, of course, the message I’m trying to communicate is something like “reasons don’t matter,” or “the universe is meaningless,” etc. – although even in those cases the lack of an explicit or implicit “why” is itself getting the point across to the reader).
To answer the first part of your question, I think it’s really difficult to truly deal with justifications using any perspective. Even using first-person is tricky (it might be the trickiest to pull off, actually) because it can easily slip into hokey declarations of why the character did what she did. It becomes easier, at least for me, to tell things instead of showing them when using first-person. I tend to gravitate toward what a teacher of mine (and renowned author) David Madden calls “Third-Person Central Intelligence.” It’s third-person, but the author is not omniscient. Rather, it’s like a camera right behind the shoulder of the protagonist, showing everything from his or her perspective, but outside of his or her mind. I like that style because it allows me a safety net against telling instead of showing. I am forced, since I’m not inside the characters’ heads, to use description of the surroundings and actions, etc. to help the reader understand what’s going on and why. This is kind of a convoluted answer, but basically there is no easy perspective. I do prefer, though, to write from a 3rd person Central Intelligence.
There are the answers to some more reader questions. Thanks to Hannah Lundy for asking tough questions and making me think hard about some important stuffs. I plan on restarting the weekly blog post thing, so look for a new post every week. I can’t designate a specific day because my current job is not on a consistent schedule, but I can say I’ll try to have one up every week. Thanks for reading!