A cheap ticket to heaven

There are "Christians" who don't go to church, who don't read the Bible, and who don't follow Jesus' teachings to any substantive degree. They may be sincere when they say that they believe in God and accept Jesus as their savior, but what they really want is probably just a cheap ticket to heaven.


Is God lonely and bored?

God's thoughts and feelings (if God has feelings at all) are supposed to be beyond our comprehension, so what I am going to say is probably nonsense. But I am going to say it anyway. Sometimes even nonsense can be instructive.

I always wonder whether God, if exists, is lonely and bored. Before God created anything, there's nothing but God. Just imagine what it is like to exist all alone with nothing to do (there was nothing yet to which or with which God could do something), nothing to wonder about (God knows everything), nothing to care about (again, there was nothing yet about which God could care), nothing to look forward to (God is not in time), and no one to communicate with (even if God is trinity, whatever that means, there is no need for communication because God is still one; besides, he is omniscient).

After God created something, the universe, the earth, us, etc., God certainly has things to do. But God already knows what he* is going to do before he does it and what will result from it. So, no surprises or excitement. He still does not need communication and has nothing to wonder about. How about caring about something? Does God care about, say, us? Maybe. But then God does not care about us the way we care about one another. He has no sense of uncertainty concerning us; he does not identify himself with us; he is not emotionally dependent on us in any way. Simply put, God does not need us; he needs nothing.

How can God not be lonely and bored? Certainly I am anthropomorphizing God. But who aren't when they are thinking about God?

* There is no appropriate pronoun for "God"; I could have used "she", "it", or even "they". Strictly speaking, however, there is an appropriate pronoun, namely, "you". Of course, "you" can be used only when we talk to God or God speaks to us.


Proofreading and the human mind

If you have ever done any proofreading, you know how easy it is to miss a typo. No matter how carefully you read a passage, somehow you still missed some very obvious typos. But why? This may be the answer:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deso’nt mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wihtuot porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey ltteer by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.


Schopenhauer's wisdom

I know very little about Schopenhauer's philosophy. This is partly because I don't like big books and Schopenhauer's central work, The World as Will and Representation, is very very big. In any case, I am fairly certain that I would not like the book even if I read it, for it is mostly speculative metaphysics. But Schopenhauer wrote quite a large number of essays and some small books on more practical matters, most of which are very readable. The small book The Wisdom of Life, for example, is a book that would be enjoyed by most of those who like to think about how they should live their lives. He divided the subject into "Personality, or What a Man is", "Property, or What a Man Has", and "Position, or a Man's Place in the Estimation of Others". Here is a nice passage from the last part:

The truth is that the value we set upon the opinion of others, and our constant endeavour in respect of it, are each quite out of proportion to any result we may reasonably hope to attain; so that this attention to other people's attitude may be regarded as a kind of universal mania which everyone inherits. In all we do, almost the first thing we think about is: What will people say; and nearly half the troubles and bothers of life may be traced to our anxiety on this score; it is the anxiety which is at the bottom of all that feeling of self-importance, which is so often mortified because it is so very morbidly sensitive.

If you are interested in reading the book, click the link above. The whole book is there.



                                            Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

                                             T. S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton", V



In The Elements of Style, my bible of writing, we can find the following passage about the word "hopefully":

This once-useful adverb meaning "with hope" has been distorted and is now widely used to mean "I hope" or "it is to be hoped." Such use is not merely wrong, it is silly. To say, "Hopefully I'll leave on the noon plane" is to talk nonsense. Do you mean you'll leave on the noon plane in a hopeful frame of mind? Or do you mean you hope you'll leave on the noon plane. Whichever you mean, you haven't said it clearly. Although the word in its new, free-floating capacity may be pleasurable and even useful to many, it offends the ear of many others, who do not like to see words dulled or eroded, particularly when the erosion leads to ambiguity, softness, or nonsense.

I am using the third edition, which was published in 1979. And in the first edition of the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, which was published in 1975, the following question was put to the panel of consultants, which had more than 130 members:

The adverb "hopefully" is often heard in the sense of "we hope" in such sentences as "Hopefully, the war will soon be ended." Would you accept this formulation?

Here was the result:

In speech   Yes: 42%    No: 58%
In writing    Yes: 24%    No: 76%

Twenty years later, in the New Fowler's Modern English Usage, the use of "hopefully" in sentences like "Hopefully, one day we will not argue any more about the use of the word 'hopefully'" is still referred to as "the disputed modern usage". As the book says, "[t]he unofficial war rumbles on."

But I think if we now had a panel of consultants like the one mentioned above, their answers to the question about "hopefully" would probably lean more towards "Yes".


A simple conception of luck

For me, the concept of luck is purely descriptive. Luck does not explain why something happens to someone. If someone wins the lottery we can say that he is lucky. It is not, however, because he is lucky that he wins the lottery; rather, his winning the lottery is what his being lucky consists in. To say that he is lucky in winning the lottery is just another way of saying that it is very unlikely that he wins but he wins anyway.

Unless you understand luck to be some kind of mystical force that causes things to happen to people, you should not talk as if luck has causal power. Without such an understanding, it is nonsense to say of someone that because she is a lucky person, it is more likely that something good is going to happen to her (or that because she is an unlucky person, it is more likely that something bad is going to happen to her).

On my conception, a lucky person is simply a person to whom good things happen noticeably more often than to others. And a person is lucky on a particular occasion when what happens to her is good but very unlikely to happen. (Mutatis mutandis for an unlucky person.)


Interpretive charity

How far should one be interpretively charitable? I don't think there are rules; it is mostly a matter of balancing one's confidence in oneself and one's confidence in the author. If you are reading something that is very hard to understand, then generally you should read it in such a way that it is at least coherent and intelligible. But what if the author really does not make any sense? If you have enough confidence in yourself, you will find out fairly soon; if you have more confidence in the author, you will be wasting more of your time.

Just this morning I was commenting on a paper, and the comments will have to be sent to the author. When I first read the paper, I found it almost impossible to understand. I was so frustrated. Should I simply write "This paper is unintelligible; I have no idea what the author is trying to say"? No, such comments would be unacceptable. Besides, the author is a well-known philosopher. What he wrote must make sense! I forced myself to reread the paper a couple of times. Finally the paper became (more) intelligible, and I managed to write some comments that I think were sensible and reasonable.

I couldn't help asking myself: Would my comments have been very different if he was not a well-known philosopher?


How to write like a cook

Many people who like to cook may not also like to write, but if you love both cooking and writing, there is a good chance that you are a fan of M.F.K. Fisher. I am a fan. When I first read Fisher’s book How to Cook a Wolf, I was totally charmed by her stylish prose and the way she wrote about food and cooking. The book was written during the Second World War when food was rationed. Although it is not a cook book (or not an ordinary cook book), it does contain many recipes. There is, however, no recipe for cooking a wolf, for the wolf is just a metaphor for hard times when food is scarce.

W. H. Auden once said of Fisher, "I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose." (Well, E. B. White was still alive!) And John Updike called her "poet of the appetites". If you have never read Fisher, here's a sample of her prose:

Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken. Until then, you would think its secrets are its own, hidden behind the impassive beautiful curvings of its shell, white or brown or speckled. It emerges full-formed, almost painlessly from the hen. It lies without thought in the straw, and unless there is a thunderstorm or a sharp rise in temperature it stays fresh enough to please the human palate for several days. ("How Not to Boil an Egg")

In the revised edition of the book she added the following notes between 'painlessly' and 'from the hen':

The egg may not be bothered, but nine years and two daughters after writing this I wonder somewhat more about the hen. I wrote, perhaps, too glibly.

Her book The Art of Eating is a great buy; it is actually a collection of five of her most well-known books, including How to Cook a Wolf, for the price of one book.

I have just known that there is a restaurant in Seattle called How to Cook a Wolf, which was named after the Fisher book.


From business to philosophy

One of the books I ordered yesterday was Peter Goldie's On Personality. I am always interested in books on personality, but what makes this book particularly interesting to me is that Goldie is a philosopher, not a psychologist. Although I have already got the book (I ordered a Kindle version), I probably won’t be reading it until many months later. All I can say about the book now is that it looks very interesting. According to the "Product Description" on amazon.com, Goldie questions our practice of relying on personality to describe, judge, understand, explain, and predict others as well as ourselves. And one reviewer says "the style is delightful, the non-philosophical works called on eclectic and quite fascinating ... the humour engaging ... the sub-headings excellent signposts and the chapters beautifully balanced".

It's not just Goldie's book that is interesting; Goldie himself is interesting too. He turned to philosophy in 1990 after a 25-year career in business (see this), and is currently Samuel Hall Chair and Head of Philosophy at the University of Manchester. So when he began to study philosophy, he was probably over forty years old. From business to philosophy, what a change, and that late! His DPhil thesis, by the way, was supervised by Bernard Williams, one of my most favorite philosophers.


Buying books vs reading books

I have too many books; too many both because I do not have enough space to keep them and because I do not have enough time to read them. But then why do I keep buying books? I suppose I can say I am truly interested in the books I bought and think one day I will read them. But if I have to psychologically analyze myself, I may say buying and owning books gives me a false sense of becoming more knowledgeable. It is a false sense because buying and owning books is, obviously, not the same as reading them. I am not sure whether this is a form of self-deception, but what makes it psychologically interesting is that even though I know that it is a false sense, I can't help feeling the same way. Just today I ordered two books, not knowing when I will read them, but felt good just because I bought them; and I know that I will feel even better when the books arrive and I can touch them (well, one of them is a Kindle book and can't really be touched).


A poem for my son

The Big Bang Theory

You have never asked me, where the universe came from
Nor have you asked, the stars in the sky
Whether they are more numerous than people down here
That evening, when we went to see Mars
The huge telescope
Was like a robotic arm reaching for the stars
Mine was warm
When you were holding it
When we were leaving it was pitch-dark
You said, you were not afraid even a bit

That evening, even if there were neither moon nor stars
I would still go with you, just to see Mars
And you knew that, my arm would be warm as always
And I knew that, you would still need me to lead the way

I have heard about, one Big Bang Theory
In your life there is a singularity
When people around you
Are not ready
It explodes
Into your own universe

In your universe, there is always
A big, bright, and warm
Bigger, brighter, and warmer
Than all the others

* This is a loose translation of a Chinese poem I wrote a few weeks ago.



Bernard Williams in his brilliant essay "The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality" argues that immortality is undesirable. I think what he says in that essay is mostly right, but I am not going to repeat his points here. If you are interested, the essay is in Williams's book Problems of the Self. For me, the main problem for a person who desires immortality is that she has no idea of what it is like to be living forever, and the notion of an immortal life for a human person is doubly unintelligible when an immortal life is supposed to be incorporeal. Just ask someone who thinks it is good to live forever what it is so good about it and most likely he will not be able to give you a satisfactory answer. I think many people desire immortality simply because they confuse not wanting to die soon (i.e. in less than a hundred years) and wanting to live forever. I certainly don't want to live forever, but I do want to live for as long as I like.


Singular "they"

I have just noticed that there is a Wikipedia entry on the use of "they" as a singular pronoun. It is an interesting entry and worth reading. I still can't stand people using "they" as a singular pronoun in writing, but it seems that almost everyone is using it that way in speaking. And it is becoming more acceptable in writing too. In the textbook I am using for my Introduction to Philosophy class, I find the following sentence:

Suppose that someone is a good, kind, nice-tempered person and then has a car accident and spends the last year of their life with a changed personality.

"They" refers to the "someone". What can I say?


Atheism and shallowness

A common response to an atheist's criticism of religion (or a particular religion, or some specific religious belief) is that the criticism is shallow. The suggestion is, presumably, that the criticism does not touch on the important aspects of religion and focus on something that is not essential to it. Usually there is no elaboration of what these important aspects are, and when there is, it turns out to be irrelevant to the criticism. So, please, stop calling atheism shallow; what matters is whether atheism is true (I am sure some would consider this very last claim shallow!).

Mark Johnston in his new book Saving God: Religion after Idolatry refers to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, et al. as "undergraduate atheists". That is, he thinks they are shallow (or sophomoric, if you will). I hope Johnston, being a well-known philosopher, has substantiated this claim in his book. But I doubt it.


The noble savage

Rousseau is derogating the social man when he says "the savage lives in himself; the man accustomed to the ways of society is always outside himself and knows how to live only in the opinion of others. And it is, as it were, from their judgment alone that he draws the sentiment of his own existence" (Discourse on the Origin of Inequality). The problem with his view is not just that he romanticizes the savage, but also that his evaluation of our social nature is one-sided. It is not true, as Rousseau thinks, that we are "always asking others what we are and never daring to question ourselves on the matter". Being social, we have to question ourselves as well as ask others; being social, we do not simply conform to the values and reasons of others but share many of those values and reasons. This is the case when we make normative judgments generally, and when we make judgments about meaningfulness particularly. A savage, even a noble one, if completely non-social, cannot have a life that is meaningful (or meaningless).


Russell on envy

Bertrand Russell's The Conquest of Happiness is probably not a very deep book, but here and there in the book Russell does give some good advice. The following is what he says about envy:

Envy, in fact, is a form of vice, partly moral, partly intellectual, which consists in seeing things never in themselves but only in their relations. I am earning, let us say, a salary sufficient for my needs. I should be content, but I hear that some one else whom I believe to be in no way my superior is earning a salary twice as great as mine. Instantly, if I am of an envious disposition, the satisfactions to be derived from what I have grow dim, and I begin to be eaten up with a sense of injustice. For all this the proper cure is mental discipline, the habit of not thinking profitless thoughts. After all, what is more enviable than happiness? And if I can cure myself of envy I can acquire happiness and become enviable.

I would emphasize the word 'habit'. Once you acquire the habit, you don't have to struggle with envious thoughts.


When everyone thinks you are wrong

My friend John W. Cook published three books on Wittgenstein: Wittgenstein’s Metaphysics, Wittgenstein, Empiricism, and Language, and The Undiscovered Wittgenstein. His early essays "Wittgenstein on Privacy" and "Human Beings" are considered by some to be two of the best essays on Wittgenstein, but he repudiated much of his early view on Wittgenstein long time ago. The interpretation he offers in his three books has been, however, widely scoffed by other Wittgenstein scholars. The books got extremely hostile reviews, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that everyone thinks he is wrong. I still don’t agree with John’s interpretation, but I think there is much more to it than most of his critics think. The fact that everyone thinks he is wrong doesn’t mean he is wrong; and the scholarship, the intellectual courage, and persistence John exhibits are all admirable.

John inscribed the following words in one of his books he gave me: "May we sometimes agree." We may. But even if in the end I still don’t accept his interpretation, I have at least been inspired by him to decide to read all of Wittgenstein’s published works chronologically. And I will do it soon.


Do you really believe that?

Sometimes even when someone sincerely says that she believes something, it is not clear that she really believes it. This may be so even when she says she strongly believes it. My favorite example is this: A fundamentalist Christian sincerely says she believes that anyone who does not accept Jesus as his savior will go to Hell and be burnt forever there. Does she really believe this? Well, it depends. Suppose her parents do not believe in Jesus and she had tried several times to convert them but gave up eventually. Now if she really believed that her parents will be burnt in Hell forever, she should not have given up so easily. Just imagine that her parents are going to drink something that she believes to be fatally poisonous; she has tried to convince them not to drink it but failed. If she loves her parents and believes that what they are going to drink is poisonous, she will certainly not give up. If they still don’t listen, she will try something more drastic. And don’t forget that being killed by poison is less painful than being burnt, and much much less painful than being burnt forever.


Envy and jealousy

What is the difference between envy and jealousy? My son once asked me this question. He was only eight or nine, so I had to explain it in a way that he would understand. Here’s my answer:

"If I gave both you and your best friend Josh a Christmas present, but his was much nicer than yours and you were not happy about it, that's jealousy. It didn’t have to be Josh; it could be another friend and you would feel the same because your bad feeling had more to do with me than with Josh. Now suppose you and Josh were always competing with each other. If Josh won the Spelling Bee and you felt bad about it (though you might also be happy for him because he’s your friend), then that’s envy. It had to be Josh, for if someone else at your school had won the Spelling Bee, you would not have felt bad at all."

Correct me if my answer was wrong.


Please sit down and write

In "Conversations with Wittgenstein" (in Recollections of Wittgenstein), M. O’C. Drury writes:

I told Wittgenstein that my friend James, who had been working on his Ph.D. thesis for a year, had decided in the end that he had nothing original to say and would therefore not submit his thesis or obtain his degree.

Wittgenstein: For that action alone they should give him his Ph.D. degree.

Drury: Dawes Hicks was very displeased with James about this decision. He told James that when he started to write his book on Kant he had no idea what he was going to say. This seems to me an extraordinary, queer attitude.

Wittgenstein: No, Dawes Hicks was quite right in one way. It is only the attempt to write down your ideas that enables them to develop.

Notice that Wittgenstein did not say "Dawes Hicks was quite right” but said "Dawes Hicks was quite right in one way". If Hicks really had no idea at all what he was going to say in his book, then there were probably no ideas that he could attempt to write down. However, if he had some ideas but did not know how they would develop, then attempting to write down his ideas might be the best way to enable them to develop. Actually I have this kind of experience quite often. It is as if my mind is too small for the ideas and they need the space between written sentences to become active, to get connected with one another, and to generate new ideas.


The music of words

I wish I could write like E. B. White, whose prose is both plain and exquisite. Plain is easy, exquisite is hard, but plain and exquisite is almost unattainable. I think part of what makes White's prose both plain and exquisite is that it has a rhythm that sounds right, sounds good. Here is the beginning of "Death of a Pig", one of my most favorite:

I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting. Even now, so close to the event, I cannot recall the hours sharply and am not ready to say whether death came on the third night or the fourth night. This uncertainty afflicts me with a sense of personal deterioration; if I were in decent health I would know how many nights I had sat up with a pig.

Now let me rearrange the order of the words and change a few of them:

In mid-September I spent several days and nights with an ailing pig. The pig died at last, and I lived. Since things might easily have gone the other way round and there might have had no one left to do the accounting, I feel driven to account for this sketch of time. Although it is now still so close to the event, I cannot recall the hours sharply, nor am I ready to say whether death came on the third or the fourth night. This uncertainty afflicts me with a sense of personal deterioration because I would know how many nights I had sat up with a pig if I were in decent health.

This is, I think, still acceptable prose; it just doesn't have the musicality that the original has. I can't help wanting to quote another passage by White; this is what he says about poetry:

I think poetry is the greatest of the arts. It combines music and painting and story-telling and prophecy and the dance. It is religious in tone, scientific in attitude. A true poem contains the seed of wonder; but a bad poem, egg-fashion, stinks. I think there is no such thing as a long poem. If it is long it isn't a poem; it is something else. A book like John Brown's Body, for instance, is not a poem --- it is a series of poems tied together with cord. Poetry is intensity, and nothing is intense for long. ("Poetry")

These words are music to my ears.


The Case for God

My colleague Troy Jollimore wrote a wonderful review of Karen Armstrong's new book The Case for God. The view Armstrong defends in this book is attractive to many people, mostly intellectuals who want to keep their faith without having to deal with any of the problems their rationality would otherwise pressure them to face. As Troy so pithily puts it, Armstrong's view is "mysticism and metaphysical hand-waving raised to a truly objectionable level". Actually, it seems that Troy is more tolerant than I am; for me, all mysticism and metaphysical hand-waving are objectionable.

When a couple fought

My movie buddies and I saw Hurlyburly together last night. Although we did not all like the movie, there was a scene that we all thought was great (see below). It was a dramatic but believable depiction of how a couple fought about something that was, on the surface, trivial, while the fight was actually caused by something deeply problematic in their relationship.


Why hummings? Why fly-bottle?

The name of this blog comes from Wittgenstein's famous remark, "What is your aim in philosophy? --- To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle." (PI §309). I am not going to, however, limit what I write to philosophy. Indeed, I probably won't talk much philosophy here. This blog does not have a theme; it is simply a record of some of my thoughts that I would like to share with others. Naturally I will be writing on things that interest me, which include philosophy, psychology, literature, science, religion, politics, music, and movies.

The word "hummings" is meant to imply that I may not express myself clearly, at least not all the time. As for "the fly-bottle", I mean even when I express myself clearly, I am still limited by my ignorance, biases, and the numerous assumptions I make. This is fine, I suppose, insofar as my views are not set in stone.

I will try to post at least once a week. Comments are welcome, though I probably won't be able to respond to most of them.