Sunday, 28 July 2013

Going to the Source

I cannot deny that I'm intellectually-inclined and that technical details and abstract principles and structures fascinate me. As far as I know I've always been like this. When a subject catches my attention I want to see how far I can go...of course not, I'm not saying this out of pride or arrogance. I seem to invariably find humility in my search.

When I taught myself music, I learned that I'm not really that talented musically but came to have a deeper appreciation for all music. This realization was more than enough to offset my personal disappointment that I lack talent. This, to me, is humility.

When I became fascinated with physics, I wasn't just into the new-agey quasi-spiritual interpretations of it. I wanted the mathematics behind it. I found tremendous pleasure in contemplating the Lorentz transformation rules rendering of Einstein's theories of relativity. When I tried and tutor someone on the difference equations of electrical circuits and the answers came out correct I bowed down to the genius of the human mind to grasp such things and I felt the presence of God.

Some would think that religious impulse was at odds with someone like me but the analogy that I'd conjure is this: I know that our visual perception can only perceive a very small sliver of the electro-magnetic radiation spectrum (ie, the visible light) but what truly magical stuff aesthetically and technically. This makes possible Van Gogh, de Vinci, and Newton (and also I'd include here Goethe who saw the nature of light as the artists see it). Some animals themselves are greater than us humans in that they can perceive things we cannot. Humility.

I've been accused of being a "Mr know-it-all" but that really is to mistake my boundless enthusiasm for discovery - though sometimes I wonder too if I'm just a tiring person to be around. I think it's a bit of both.

I've said that I'm trying to re-discover my Christian roots. I'm not into the dogmatic stuff neither does the overly/overtly emotional drivel satisfy me by any stretch. I just pity those who seek no further (both atheists and religious fundamentalists). Truly, in this case, little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

I've been fascinated by the Jewish culture and traditions since a good friend of mine pointed out years ago that the Hebrew script consists almost entirely of basic consonantal values. I just had to find out how such a script would account for vowels...the power of the notion of orthographical conventions (overt and covert) never fail to fascinate and overwhelm me.

I was doing my morning devotional when I discovered a very cool website that I wanted to share here: http://www.hebrew4christians.com/index.html

This site teaches not only the Hebrew script (and some Greek) and expounds the sources of Christian faith, but semiologically-speaking it is a veritable treasure trove and provides a more realistic context for the words and sayings of the Christ. There are certain conceptual/spiritual principles that I've been aware of since I went crazy on the Kabbalah and saw some of the source material of the teachings of the Christ, but this site is specifically developed for Christian sensibilities.

Uncovering all this also made me wonder about the Muslim faith which is also a daughter of the monotheism of Judaism and a younger (more sophisticated in my estimation) sister of  Christianity. At the flowering of Islamic culture, the unparalleled intellectual and spiritual heights it achieved go largely under-estimated and under-appreciated to the cost of humanity. It is not hard to infer by current state of affairs the depth and extent of the true evil that so-called sheiks like bin Laden and other charismatics/dictators have levelled against this great faith.

This evil lays inherently hidden in the three great world religions actually, sometimes from within, sometimes from the outside in the form of willful ignorance of the faith's achievements. The writings of the sages are our only hope for humanity. These source materials makes one realize how utterly evil and stupid demagoguery is and what destruction it is capable of (of course with the consent of the willing goyim in its spiritual sense: ie, cattle).

But I refuse to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is just too much beauty and majesty in the divine to be dogmatic and/or offhandedly dismissive about spiritualism. My chosen faith is Christianity and in its apologia I have total faith.

Jay

Sunday, 21 July 2013

The God of the Gaps

Though I find "debunking" activities tedious, low-brow (especially Dawkins) and beneath the dignity of anyone serious, I'm surprised that I actually enjoy well-thought-out responses and apologias. I think I said on this blog that I thought David Berlinski trying to eviscerate Dawkins was just as mean spirited as the militancy of the God debunker (though there definitely are gems (as always) in the Berlinski attempt). I admire Berlinski though I was dismayed to see him associated with rightwing extremism in American (that Coulter woman) at least in part of writing The Devil's Delusion (which I still highly recommend).

I'm re-reading John C Lennox's God and Stephen Hawking: whose design is it anyway? (Lion Books, 2011). The ducks here are lined up a bit more coherently than Berlinski's uncharacteristic histrionics (relative to Lennox, of course). I always say that passion is best served deadpan, of which Berlinski is a clear master, but not all such servings are appropriate nor satisfying.

Lennox quotes Hawking that God was ever really just a "God of the gaps", but he (Lennox) starts by pointing out a contradiction in Hawking's premise that "philosophy is dead" among his other quasi-nihilistic statements. In my view, Hawking cannot recover from this hypocrisy as he clearly philosophizes (or, at the very least, apparently makes metaphysical statements to make his case) in the very next breath. Lennox rightly points out, too, that "philosophy is dead" is itself a philosophical statement.

I'm a fan of Lee Smolin's advocacy for the Standard Model and after reading his book, The Trouble with Physics, I've come to see people like Hawking who believe in string theory as speculative navel-gazers rather than serious scientists. Hawking conducted great works in relativistic physics but I think he should have taken cue from Newton:

I have not been able to discover the cause of those properties of gravity from phenomena, and I frame no hypotheses; for whatever is not deduced from the phenomena is to be called a hypothesis, and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. Letter to Robert Hooke (15 February 1676)

The dismissive attitude of string-theorists toward the Standard Model took a huge blow with the discovery of the Higgs boson and another one recently with another discovery of Bs Meson (read B subscript s). I tried googling this latest find but many links go to very dense and highly specialized papers, so here is a plain language account: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/07/19/bs-meson-subatomic-particle_n_3624858.html

At any rate, the string-theoretic arguments that Hawking forwards and Lennox so ably respond to seem more and more like so much smoke and mirrors the likes of the Sheldon Cooper character in the TV show, Big Bang Theory, would use to try and intimidate the less wary...kind of pathetic actually.

Newton set the standard for scientific discourse - in fact, anticipated many of the epiphenomenal arguments (need vs want; necessary vs sufficient; etc.) that remain unavoidable in the metaphysics of science.

Personally, I believe in the Judeo-Christian God but, since this belief is not even really necessary in navigating through Lennox's apologia, I would highly recommend God and Stephen Hawking if only to educate oneself that we should always demand more of those presenting themselves as the authority.

I know and appreciate that this may seem strange coming from a espoused Christian but I'm not a bible-thumper. I'm somewhat skeptical up to the major/minor Prophets but from then on I cannot deny the difference of the faith from every other belief system when the spiritual interpretation of Providence ties itself to human history. There is something there ineffable...

Jay

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Other sources of words and phrases

This current entry is in keeping with the last one. I started thinking about this while I was writing up the "word of the day" entry but I didn't quite know how to broach it given that what I want to talk about has very little examples in Inuktitut itself.

There are many words and phrases found in the English language (and I suspect in all European languages) that can be traced back to another language especially the Greco-Latin cultures (the "classical" cultures of ancient Greece and the younger Latin language). And no wonder; the cultural and linguistic achievements of these two great world cultures pervade almost everything that is the so-called Western civilization pre- and post- "dark ages".

Though—as I said—I couldn't quite think of similar examples in the Inuit language I happen to suspect this is merely a historical accident that, though it makes all the difference to people who are concerned about stuff like this, have no real semiological/psychological reasons for being the way it is.

I say "semiological/psychological" in a sense that though the etymological sources of (English) words may not exist in many human languages the very concepts/notions themselves are very familiar to any and all human cultures—as familiar as the whole gamut of human emotions that have been found and documented by anthropologists as commonalities to all human beings.

There are words and phrases in "English" (I put English in quotation marks because some of these terms are extant in other European languages) that may be traced back to, especially, ancient Greek: "cynic", "stoic", "platonic", "a Herculean task", "a Sisyphean effort", etc. that stem from the mythological and intellectual traditions of ancient Greece whose meanings have mutated and changed in hue and/or form and function such that ancient Greeks themselves may not even have had any clue were a modern English speaker able to say them to someone of those ages. No doubt these terms would have sounded strangely familiar but undecipherable as creole and pidginized languages are to standard English speakers.

Despite the many wondrous and complex social and scientific implications of such a scenario, suffice it to say that without these similarities linguistics as we know it today would never have taken hold. It was these very similarities that originally struck the old philologists and grammarians (primitive linguists) to sniff out and examine the width and extent of what was eventually found to be the huge Indo-European language family whose cradle comes from the Indus Valley civilization.

The Eskimo-Aleut language family is a little brother of the Indo-European language family because it covers the same type of spatial-temporal extent—proving definitively that all of humanity, not matter how seemingly disparate and apparently complex, differs only by degree and not in kind.

All of true scientific exploration adumbrates both divine and humbling aspects, spurning any semblance of pettiness that defines the very essence of ignorance and ego-centrism. It harkens back to the truism of Terence (Publius Terentius Afer):

"Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto", or "I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me." (quoted from his play, Heauton Timorumenos).

Jay

Friday, 12 July 2013

"word of the day" entry

This is what I wrote recently to the "word of the day" - an email distribution list at work:

folk et·y·mol·o·gy  
Noun
1. A popular but mistaken account of the origin of a word or phrase.
2. The process by which the form of an unfamiliar or foreign word is adapted to a more familiar form through popular usage.
 
An (in)famous example of “folk etymology” in Inuktitut is the word “qallunaaq”. Most people break it down into: qalluk+naaq (lit. eyebrow+belly). But I strongly suspect the word comes from sailor pidgin (a mixture of words/grammars from different languages) for “boss” (or, “kahuna” from Hawaiian for priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, minister, expert in any profession). I suspect this for a couple of compelling reasons:
 
1. The word for an inferior (in rank) in Inuktitut comes from the word “sailor” – sialaaq;
 
2. There are other examples of words, like sailor, having to do with non-indigenous concepts that have been adopted and adapted into Inuktitut: words like “luuktaaq” (for doctor, which sounds uncannily like its spoken in the British accent)
 
Kenn Harper’s regular column in Nunatsiaq News, Taissumani, is a very rich source of historical and linguistic information. He wrote some articles on Inuktitut words and names that have been adopted by Inuktitut – for example, in his June 21, 2013 article he writes of a guy named, Sakirmiaq – Second Mate, the Inuktitut name given to Robert Janes.
 
In my view “folk etymology” rightfully belongs to the general field of etymology (the study of sources of words). It may not be rigorous nor “scientific” but neither really is scientific discourse in general, which is replete with words stemming from misunderstanding (concepts that were later found to be erroneous but stuck), such as “oxygen” – which the old physical theory thought the element was essential for making acid (the old word for “oxygen” is highly convoluted and unwieldy, dephlogisticated air). But the notion of oxygen being part and partial of acid-formation stuck.
 
Inuktitut also has examples of this type of phenomenon: a ready example of a word that stuck is the commonly-used term for “uranium” which is nungusuittuq (lit. “that which never ends”). Going by how the so-called “plain-language” explanations normally render technical concepts useless, I suspect the word stuck after nuclear-power was explained as being a “never-ending” source of energy” though the concept of “radioactivity” is the complete opposite of “never-ending” being as it is used to describe elements that are so unstable as to lose electrons and protons to stabilize themselves into other chemical elements whose energy states are stable (eg, uranium turns into lead after thousands of years of shedding its unstable parts).
 
There is nothing wrong really with word formation stemming from erroneous conceptions as long as the word is used consistently and is commonly known to refer to what it does. The beauty of the human language, which Inuit Language is a great example, is the notion of “chunking” or “lexicalization” (a phrase that has turned into a word). An example of lexicalization in English is the word “upside down” which consists of three words chunked together to mean one thing. But there are many Inukt. example of lexicalized terms – such as ullaakkut for “good morning”; qanuippit for “how are you”; qanuinngittunga for “I am fine” (the last two examples actually come from Inukt for “are you not well?” (ie, in ill-health) so the response is usually in the negative “qanuinngittunga” (lit. “I am not sick”) which has come to mean “I am fine”).
 
The beauty of Inuit Language is that its grammatical structure is what is called “polysynthetic” (from “many-(things)+put-together”). I’ve written on my blog, qituttugaujara.blogspot, about the relative strengths of the Inuktitut grammatical structure for generating scientific and technical terms. The scientific world currently uses Greco-Latin bases that sometimes make little or no grammatical sense. The word “brachiopodia” (for shelled creatures with “valves” (for “shells”) like mussels, clams, etc.) is formed from two Greek words “arm/hand” and “foot”. The word is “bastardized” and makes no sense in either any European or Greek languages. On the other hand, the proposed and accepted scientific name of a newly discovered fossil of a lobe-finned fish in Ellesmere Island (tiktaalik roseae) actually makes sense. Check out its picture with this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiktaalik - tiktaalik “eel-tailed” roseae “reddish rock” (methinks the Devon, England (Devonian era) rock in which the first fossils of primitive fishes found and documented is reddish in colour, but I’m just speculating or committing “folk etymology”).
 
It’s not necessary to know anything about etymology (even folk etymology), but for interpreter/translators knowing something about how words are formed, how meanings change over time, forms part of an invaluable toolkit as the origin of words are not always obvious. Take the Greek word anthropos “(hu)man” and all its declensions:
 
Philanthropy;
Misanthrope;
Anthropology;
Anthropogenic;
Anthropomorphize;
etc.
 
Naturally, most interpreter/translators do not have the time nor the luxury to research anything in-depth but when I worked as an interpreter/translator I did most of my research into stuff like this. Sometimes, I’d get so engrossed in study that I just had to get back into the research after I completed my assignments. I know I’m a real nerd but I happen to take tremendous enjoyment out of finding things out and the more I read the more interesting the whole world becomes. It’s not a question of knowing everything but realizing there is much information/history encoded into words; being able to decode some of that rich information can only help one think more effectively.
 
Jay

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Eudaemonia (part ii)

I was dismayed to read (see quote below) that I'm decidedly old-fashion in my thoughts on ethics and philosophy. I'm not dismayed that I'm old fashion but dismayed by the modern take on the subject of "human excellence" (virtue and such):

These reflections on virtue can provide an occasion for contrasting ancient moral theory and modern. One way to put the contrast is to say that ancient moral theory is agent-centered while modern moral theory is action-centered...

By contrast, ancient moral theory explains morality in terms that focus on the moral agent. These thinkers are interested in what constitutes, e.g., a just person. They are concerned about the state of mind and character, the set of values, the attitudes to oneself and to others, and the conception of one's own place in the common life of a community that belong to just persons simply insofar as they are just. A modern might object that this way of proceeding is backwards. (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-ancient/)

The way I understand (or thought I understood) "agent-centered" moral theory might have something to do with the "pre-consumeristic" society I grew up in (at least the tail-end of it), which I see as a commonality between the disparate—drastically different—societies of ancient Greece and the Inuit where the narrative provides the foundation rather than prospect/status. What I mean by "prospect/status" has little to do with what we are born with but what levels of education, earning power, etc. ostensibly affords one to thrive and flourish (of which the middle-class is the standard, arbitrary and vague as it is).

The "action-centered" moral theory (says the Stanford article) is further divided into other things:

We can roughly divide modern thinkers into two groups. Those who judge the morality of an action on the basis of its known or expected consequences are consequentialist; those who judge the morality of an action on the basis of its conformity to certain kinds of laws, prohibitions, or positive commandments are deontologists. The former include, e.g., those utilitarians who say an action is moral if it provides the greatest good for the greatest number. Deontologists say an action is moral if it conforms to a moral principle, e.g., the obligation to tell the truth. While these thinkers are not uninterested in the moral disposition to produce such actions, or in what disposition is required if they are to show any moral worth in the persons who do them, their focus is on actions, their consequences, and the rules or other principles to which they conform. The result of these ways of approaching morality is that moral assessment falls on actions. This focus explains, for instance, contemporary fascination with such questions of casuistry as, e.g., the conditions under which an action like abortion is morally permitted or immoral. (ibid)

As an admirer of Socrates, I'd say that moderns are decidedly "sophists" as if the moral imperative can be rationally prescribed or recommended—either because the consequences (rewards or punishments) impel one to act morally or because its the law. As someone with Christian ambitions, I know that neither consequentialism nor deontology work very well. One just needs to be honest with oneself to see why this "action-orientated" moral doesn't work:

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin's control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. (Romans 8:3-4)

Whatever our notions of "sin" and religion (I have rather unkind views of religion, personally), the discourse on the "modern" vs "ancient" moral theories is pretty old, as succinctly put by Paul in his letter to the Roman Christians—and why, for that matter, the Lord chose to impart spiritual principles through the telling of parables where meaning is arrived at through reflection rather than recitation of Talmudic prescriptions. If we are to believe the Gospel, Jesus made mince-meat of the Pharisees (the Jewish version of the sophists) time and again: The "render unto Caesar" episode is just one famous example.

Talmud/Torah prodigies abound in the Jewish tradition (of which Jesus clearly was one)—there's even a word for such a person in Hebrew: ilui (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illui).

There is a word in Inuktitut for agent-centered moral theory: inuliurniq (lit. "making of a person"). It means "developing character" and captures and implies much of what I say above about agent-centered theory (even the Christian moral theory, which is really about perspective (ie, interiority or deliberate psychological development and maturation of a just and virtuous person) rather than "the law" (ie, that which seems "objective" on the surface of it but utterly vulnerable to manipulation and abuse).

Having an agent-centered take on moral theory, I tend to and naturally believe in classicism and what is called, liberal arts education, as well as the dialectic as a proven pedagogical device. I wasn't taught this; just kind of stumbled upon what I thought was very cool so I started actively seeking it out. I'm not saying I'm perfect—far from it—for I know honestly I'm just a poor, ignorant sinner, but rather than just giving up I choose to believe that human (and humanistic) potential is what is called, "made in the image of God". I love science and spiritualism almost in equal measure and see no contradiction in trying to synthesize these two pillars of human achievement, believing and inspired by this:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world. (Psalm 19: 1-4)

Jay