Thursday, 24 September 2015

I am Jack's Desperate Search for Meaning

Another essay upload, this one from a course I sat five years ago, "Hollywood's America - American history through the lens of popular film". It was certainly an interesting paper, and every inch as valid a historical lens as any other aspect of culture through which we access our past. The idea was to look at the media that resonated with audiences ('popular' film, not necessarily 'good' film), and what that said about the prevailing attitudes of the time; how does popular entertainment colour the events we know of?

For my final essay of the paper, I decided to look at perennial favourite 'Fight Club', not only a popular film but a defining expression of the thematic focus of the novel's author, Chuck Palahniuk. Specifically, the sense of directionless in American culture that came from the unmooring of the masculine identity with the loss of overarching social narrative in the '90s.

The essay is not particularly well-written, it's a clear example that the old adage 'measure twice, cut once' should be modified for academic writing as 'Write twice, submit once'. Most of the statements or references made are only really meaningful or fleshed out sufficiently if one reads the source material footnoted for it, a massive oversight on my part. It's all in the bibliography, so any lost soul stumbling upon this essay with an abundance of time on their hands and at least a half-way decent internet connection should have little trouble ferreting it all out. So I may as well go ahead and present the actual article now:

Hollywood’s America - Research Essay - “I am Jack’s desperate search for meaning”

With vibrant cynicism, Fight Club presents the 1990s as a period defined by paranoia and alienation; the entire film exhibits an undercurrent of uncertainty and ambiguity not only in the subject matter but also the portrayal, described in a review by Bob Graham of the San Francisco Chronicle as a film that “delivers a sucker punch to the audience and then pulls the rug out from under it.”[1] The narrative centers on an emotionally alienated corporate drone, disillusioned with the corrupt and superficial commercial existence painted as the American Dream, who responds to his sense of powerlessness and disconnection by using violence and counter-cultural rebellion in a bid to construct his own identity and find something genuine in his life. The narrator’s sense of powerlessness and alienation is portrayed as a symptom of consumer culture and the corporate world, and the social emasculation of the working men that comprise the Fight Club branches taps into a working-class resentment of globalization. The central themes of the film, namely dissatisfaction with the commercialized American Dream and corporate culture, and an uneasy sense of directionless and surreal or nearly illusory ambiguity, are echoed in other popular films of the time; Office Space and American Beauty offer critiques of corporate culture and the increasingly plastic American Dream, The Matrix and The Big Lebowski exhibit complex worlds where the line between reality and fantasy blur, and Three Kings explores directionless ambiguity in regards to military geopolitics in a world where America is the sole remaining Superpower.[2]

We’re the middle children of history, man, no purpose or place. We have no Great War, no Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war, our great depression is our lives.” The fundamental defining element of the 90s that sets the context for the film Fight Club is the lack of a framing narrative for the era; the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Communism collapsed in the years immediately following, and the conflict of global scope that had dominated international politics and economics disappeared abruptly, in the wake of the collapse of Communism where America was left without an opponent or a mission, the socio-political landscape was rendered uncharted territory.[3] Without the Cold War binary to define it, the central presence of the State waned somewhat and gave way to corporatization and globalization, accelerated by the Clinton Administration’s pursuit of a Free Trade agenda and its post-healthcare reform capitulation to the Republican mantra of ‘small government’.[4] Without a defining global conflict and the central importance of the state such conflict entails, with multinational corporations influencing or driving domestic and international affairs, and particularly the increasingly mobile international population facilitated by ‘global network capitalism’, the myth of collective ‘national identity’ that had always been important for male self-identification since its inception in the French Revolution, began to falter and fade.[5] Prior to the end of the Cold War, socialism and nationalism provided citizens with collective identities; the ‘90s was a decade situated between defining wars and in the absence of those conflicts that necessitated state endorsement of robust national identities, cultural pluralism filled the void.[6] For the urban middle-class white male, this replacing of a strong binary identity contrasted with the ‘other’ (be it American/Foreign, Capitalist/Communist, or the more recent Terrorist/Free Citizen espoused by G. W. Bush’s ‘You’re with us or you’re with the Terrorists’ political rhetoric) with a state of cultural pluralism left him vulnerable and anxious; the strong presence of the nation-state in the country’s conscience as a source of identity was suddenly gone, much like the absentee father figure that serves as one of the central motifs of Fight Club, and lacking the strong ethnic background or common victim-experience of more marginalized groups, the formerly mainstream male identity was left with a vacuous, secular consumer-culture to identify with.[7]

Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs that we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need… We’ve all been raised on television to believe one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars, but we won’t, and we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” The death of Communism ushered in an era of capitalist expansion throughout the world, where people, production and wealth crossed borders with blinding speed, and money steered the project of globalization.[8] The decade of Globalization was one where lifestyle advertising formed identities to an unprecedented degree, where consumerism was so pervasive that it comprised our identities, environment, and public discourse entirely; the omnipotence and omnipresence of Corporate America is signposted by Fight Club’s Narrator’s weary, deadpan assertion that “when deep space exploration ramps up, it’ll be the corporations that name everything: The IBM stellar-sphere, the Microsoft galaxy, the planet Starbucks.”[9] Globalization and the strengthening hold of corporate entities on national and global culture in the ‘90s had enormous socio-economic repercussions, not only increasing economic disparity both within America and globally, but changing the nature of the American working class as production work was moved to foreign countries and America entered a service economy that was both less secure and more emasculating for the working class American male.[10] Tyler Durden’s “entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables, slaves in white collars” form the angry mass of disempowered and emasculated men who purge their frustration with their empty vocational identities by embracing violence and counter-cultural rebellion. Just as Tyler’s Fight Club graduates to the subversive Project Mayhem, attacking the corporate commercial culture the West had become with a combination of anarchic vandalism and culture-jamming (such as blowing out windows in the shape of a smiley face in the side of an office building or replacing air safety instruction booklets with ones depicting terrified passengers chaotically scrambling to save themselves and ignore or hinder those around them), so too did Globalization’s critics and opponents, as notably explored in Naomi Klein’s ‘No Logo’.[11] The most emblematic episode displaying the pervasiveness of consumerism and the protagonists’ rejection of it shows Tyler and the Narrator enthusiastically beating a new Volkswagen Beetle, the former symbol of hippie counter-culture revamped and sold back to the ageing consumerist Baby-Boomer generation, appropriating an anti-consumer culture for commercial gain. The corporate culture is exposed as corrupt in the film through the vehicle of the Narrator’s job as a recall coordinator, someone who assesses whether it will be more expensive to initiate a recall order on unsafe car models or to pay out compensation to the victims, and toward the end of the ‘90s the rampant corruption and self-interest of corporations and their executive officers became more widely known, taking advantage of deregulation to exploit financial systems without producing much tangible good for society.[12] The advertising-dominating public discourse presented the American Dream in commercial and consumerist terms, and the uneven nature of the booming economy and increased economic stratification of society created resentment towards the Horatio Alger style ‘American Dream’ of self-made men.

With insomnia, nothing’s real. Everything’s far away. Everything’s a copy of a copy of a copy.” At the most fundamental level, Fight Club is a story of uncertainty, unease, and paranoid fear. The fact that the focal protagonist is a deliberately unnamed narrator, the story largely taking place in an unidentified and generic city, the structure  of the film as a flashback outside of strict chronological sequence occurring as a sort of conversational ‘stream of consciousness’, and Fincher’s direction frequently drawing attention to the fact that this is a film through internal referencing such as the conspicuous ‘cigarette burn’ mark that indicates a film-reel changeover at the point where the narrator specifically states the plot twist has been revealed, all draw attention to the post-modern nature of this production, the unashamed unreality it exists in. The fact that the Narrator is essentially his own enemy, who builds his own invisible guerilla army that he is as powerless against as the corporate system he fled, mirrors the fear of the insidious other undermining contemporary society, the enemy within.[13] The system of false needs created by advertising, the loss of hegemonic national authority in forming America’s cultural identity, the growing distrust of corporate entities and the project of globalization, and most particularly the post-modern nature of modern socio-political discourse as identified by Jean Baudrillard’s essay collection The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, left American life with a worrying sense of uncertainty.[14] Hard to pinpoint with specific events, the ‘spirit’ or ‘mood’ of an era is more easily signaled by popular media, and in this case it would be ‘blank fiction’, defined by “decadence, violence, and emotional dissociation steeped in mass-cultural references”, responding to the instability of identification, meaning and cultural positionality, subject to the control of “dispersed, impersonal networks of power” that reigned in the absence of the strong, proactive Fatherland.[15]

You are not your bank account. You are not the clothes you wear. You are not the contents of your wallet. You are not your bowel cancer. You are not your grande latte. You are not the car you drive. You are not your fucking khakis.” In the absence of a defining Fatherland/father figure, in the lack of an ethnic or marginal identity, in the profound absence of solid meaning in the shallow secular consumer society of Globalized capitalism, and disadvantaged and disempowered by the increasingly unequal society it was creating, the frustrated white male was faced with a crisis of identity. The Narrator, alienated and disillusioned in his personal and professional life, undergoes a process of self-destruction in order to find meaning and identity, and this process touches upon many developments of the 1990s. The overwhelming sense of emasculation in the film, from the support group Remaining Men Together, through Tyler’s reference to Lorena Bobbit dismembering her husband’s penis and throwing the severed half out the window of her car, to the attempt to castrate the Narrator after he acts against Project Mayhem, marks a theme of masculine despair and loss of identity. The Narrator attends support groups in order to experience some form of genuine emotion, despite being a faker himself; connecting with the misery of others and talking to people who really listen rather than simply wait for their turn to speak is a form of cathartic release for him, an attempt to assume an absolutely raw and authentic identity by empathy and proximity that is rendered impossible with the arrival of another whose ‘lie’ reflects his own.[16] At Tyler’s urging, the Narrator seeks to ‘hit bottom’ and destroy himself so that he can create a new identity once he is rid of the vestigial traces of the identity that had been dictated to him by his distant father and commercial culture; in a sense this crises of identity spurned by the loss of Nationalist identity loosely associated with a distant father-figure is a close parallel to the crisis of nihilism Nietzschean philosophy explores, a lack of meaning that necessitates a process of self-destruction to make way for a stronger sense of self, specifically the Ubermensch/Superman.[17] The lack of identity, and the mistrust and paranoia regarding the contemporary society, and the ‘passion for abolition’ that describes the disenfranchised modern male caught in a seemingly hollow and meaningless existence, evolves into a violent motivation to rebel, acting out violently, as did Timothy McVeigh, or retreating into a new marginal identity of a ‘survivalist’ or ‘militia’ man, or in Fight Club’s case, ‘Space Monkey’.[18] The film, released in the wake of the Columbine Shooting, was vilified by numerous critics for this glamorization of violence and paramilitary actions, but the paramilitary order that Tyler Durden creates is the enemy that the Narrator ends up rebelling against, and director David Fincher defended his work by critiquing violence and the way it is often portrayed as a way to solve problems, whereas in Fight Club the Narrator specifically states that after fighting, “nothing is solved”, it is not an answer or way to resolve problems.[19] Edward Norton, the actor who plays the unnamed narrator in the film, argues in reference to Fight Club that “art has always reflected society, art doesn’t invent violence.”[20]

Fight Club highlights the emotions of discontent and distrust of corporate capitalism and the unequal world that laissez-faire globalization was creating, that run counter to the positive impression the economic boom of the ‘90s offered. The sense of paranoia and disempowerment of mainstream heteronormative white culture experienced during the ‘90s is paralleled here in acts of violent political subversion and an attempt to destroy the financial credit system to return America to a primitive machismo honour-society. In a broader historical sense, the retreat of the Federal Government from active participation in the lives of Americans in the ‘90s, through dismantling of the welfare safety-nets and financial regulations put in place to protect against the corruption and destructive economic practices of the ‘20s and ‘30s, gave rise to a new generation of disadvantaged ‘Forgotten Men’ disguised by apparent affluence and prosperity. Tyler Durden’s Fight Club and Project Mayhem movements are an outlet and identity for these Forgotten Men to reclaim their masculinity, and in the case of the Narrator, to escape his ‘bourgeois’ identity through a flirtation with danger made possible and desirable by his comfortable affluence, in much the same way as the ‘cultural revolution’ of the ‘60s has been seen by some as the natural result of capitalism’s success.[21] Inheriting the past, the new ‘Forgotten Men’ and those rebelling against the new ‘establishment’ global corporate capitalism represented resorted to the protest, culture-jamming and terrorist tactics of ‘60s rebels such as the Weather Underground and the Situationists, mirrored in Fight Club by Project Mayhem’s assault on corporate America. Although the vast conspiracy the film narrates is a comic exaggeration, Fight Club touches a broad range of social anxieties of both left and right wing America, from left-wing anti-corporate/anti-globalization protests and anarchist movements, to right-wing reaction to the loss of hegemonic national character that a nation at war provides.

‘Fight Club’, dir. David Fincher (Regency Enterprises, 1999)
‘Office Space’, dir. Mike Judge (20th Century Fox, 1999)
‘American Beauty’, dir. Sam Mendes (DreamWorks SKG, 1999)
‘The Matrix’, dirs. Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski (Village Roadshow Pictures/Silver Pictures, 1999)
‘The Big Lebowski’, dir. Joel Coen (Working Title Films/Bitter Creek Productions Inc., 1998)
‘Three Kings’, dir. David O. Russell (Village Roadshow, 1999)
Baudrillard, J., The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Bloomington, 1995
Dussere, E., ‘Out of the Past, into the Supermarket: Consuming Film Noir’, Film Quarterly, 60, 1, 2006, pp.16-27
Foner, E., Give Me Liberty!, 2nd edn., New York, 2009
Graham, B., ‘Prize ‘Fight’ – Brad Pitt and Edward Norton go the distance in a brutal and funny world’, The San Francisco Chronicle (15 October, 1999)
Kimball, R., The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America, San Francisco, 2000.
Klein, N., No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, New York, 2000
Moses, M., Fighting Words: An interview with Fight Club director David Fincher, 1999, available at:
Nietzsche, F., Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Graham Parkes, New York, 2005
Quiney, R., ‘”Mr Xerox,” the Domestic Terrorist, and the Victim-Citizen: Masculine and National Anxiety in Fight Club and Anti-Terror Law’, Law and Literature 19, 2, 2007, pp.327-56.

[1] ‘Fight Club’, dir. David Fincher (Regency Enterprises, 1999)
Bob Graham, ‘Prize ‘Fight’ – Brad Pitt and Edward Norton go the distance in a brutal and funny world’, The San Francisco Chronicle (15 October, 1999)
[2] ‘Office Space’, dir. Mike Judge (20th Century Fox, 1999)
‘American Beauty’, dir. Sam Mendes (DreamWorks SKG, 1999)
‘The Matrix’, dirs. Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski (Village Roadshow Pictures/Silver Pictures, 1999)
‘The Big Lebowski’, dir. Joel Coen (Working Title Films/Bitter Creek Productions Inc., 1998)
‘Three Kings’, dir. David O. Russell (Village Roadshow, 1999)
[3] Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 2nd edn., New York, 2009, pp.998-1001.
[4] Ibid, pp.1004-6
[5] Ruth Quiney, ‘”Mr Xerox,” the Domestic Terrorist, and the Victim-Citizen: Masculine and National Anxiety in Fight Club and Anti-Terror Law’, Law and Literature 19, 2, 2007, pp.333-5.
[6] Foner, p.1015
Quiney, pp.334-6
[7] Foner, pp.1015, 1027
Quiney, p.335
[8] Foner, pp.996-8
[9] Erik Dussere, ‘Out of the Past, into the Supermarket: Consuming Film Noir’, Film Quarterly, 60, 1, 2006, p.24
[10] Foner, pp.998, 1014-5
Dussere, p.24
[11] Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, New York, 2000.
[12] Foner, pp.1012-3
[13] Quiney, p.334
[14] Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Bloomington, 1995.
[15] Quiney, pp.342-3
[16] Quiney, pp.337-8
[17] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Graham Parkes, New York, 2005, pp.9-17.
[18] Quiney, 331-2
Foner, p.1030
[19] Michael Moses, Fighting Words: An interview with Fight Club director David Fincher, 1999, available at:
[20] Ibid., p.1
[21] Roger Kimball, The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America, San Francisco, 2000, pp.248-9

Saturday, 7 February 2015

How did this ever make sense to me?

Well then, haven't updated in a while...
Rather than make an effort, I'm just throwing up an old essay, record it for posterity. It's about the Kalam Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God. Not entirely sure who'd really be all that interested in following it, but who knows, maybe someone stumbling across it would get a kick out of it. Enjoy!

The Kalam Cosmological Argument, as commonly used and especially as advocated by William Lane Craig, seeks to establish a proof of the existence of God as a First Cause of the Universe. Arranged in standard form, the basic argument is as follows:
  1. That which begins to exist must have a cause. 
  2. The Universe began to exist. 
  3. Therefore, the Universe has a cause.
From here, the argument as normally advocated turns to the necessary nature of this First Cause of the universe, stating that characteristics that follow necessarily from the arguments given in support of the initial premises, dictate that the First Cause must be a personal agent. The logical form of this initial argument is sound; if everything that begins to exist must have a cause, and the universe began to exist, the universe then must have a cause. However, a number of philosophers have expressed doubt about this argument, taking issue with either the premises, or with the extension of the argument to actively promote a personal agent as the established ‘cause’ of the universe.

On the face of it, Premise 1, that anything which begins to exist must have a cause, seems simple enough. Indeed, in the many articles in which William Lane Craig can be found promoting the Kalam Cosmological Argument for the existence of God as First Cause of the universe, or defending his position from counter-arguments, Craig puts great faith in the metaphysically intuitive force of the premise because it seems so unlikely to conceive of an uncaused event. Many examples such as spontaneously present and actualized tigers are employed to illustrate the seeming absurdity of something which may begin to exist without any cause whatsoever. However, that something seems counter-intuitive is far from being the strongest argument in support of a stated point, especially in regards to something as unique, remote or generally perplexing as the beginning of the universe, the initial temporal moment (in other words, the creation of time), and in regards to the quantum mechanics that plague this argument and cause so many sleepless nights for those Philosophy majors who believed their lives as Arts students would be mercifully free of complex scientific theories. By way of illustrative example, as seems an inevitable component of discussion surrounding the Kalam Cosmological Argument in regards to ‘intuition’, at various stages in history the general consensus view of the world was that it was overall flat (mountains, valleys, hills and crevices notwithstanding, these being features of an otherwise flat earth) and it would seem counter-intuitive to these people that the ground beneath their feet was instead spherical, more so that there would be a university on the under-side of the world where people could study philosophy and argue natural theology without falling ‘down’ into the abyssal night sky, and likewise it could be conceived that those living in the most tropical climates of the Pacific Islands, without the technological marvels of fridge-freezer units and communication with the less-than-tropical regions of the world, would consider the idea that water could take on a solid form (rather than liquid) to be utterly unbelievable, even if perfectly intelligible. We cannot discard out of hand the possibility of something beginning to exist uncaused, simply on the basis that it is counter-intuitive or troubling to our conscience. Nor can we easily dismiss it as a matter of empirical fact as Craig would have it, as we are applying it to the supposed beginning of the universe itself, which is a state of affairs quite markedly different from all the history of direct human experience, and therefore not as subject to our anecdotal experience of causation in physical law as Craig would have us believe.

Before we can accept the truth of the first premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, which we may reasonably grant is at least plausible given our normal experience of the world at large, we have to define what exactly the claim is. What does it mean for something to begin to exist? There are a number of ways of interpreting this claim, each running into difficulty in regards to the argument. One take on the definition of ‘beginning to exist’ is that something begins to exist if there is a time prior to this beginning at which that thing did not exist, which would certainly seem to complicate matters if there is no time before the universe existed. There is at least some merit in thinking that the universe, having existed at and from the first moment in time (by many accounts, at least), may be a special case in regards to ‘beginning’ that this definition of beginning to exist seems to support. Needless to say, this is not the view of ‘beginning to exist’ that advocates of the Kalam Cosmological Argument follow, and it is certainly not a silver bullet with which to shoot down the Kalam. The definition argued by the Kalam Cosmological Argument advocates is that something begins to exist if and only if it comes into being at a given time, and there is no time before this given time at which this thing existed (discounting here discontinuous events, which would otherwise constitute an entirely unnecessary level of pedantry), and by this definition the universe existing at the first moment of time does constitute a beginning. The problem here is that it is not clear that the definition of ‘beginning to exist’ advocates of the Kalam Cosmological Argument argue for should be any more definitive than the counter-claim raised by respondents to the Kalam. On the one hand, the Kalam advocates could argue that the universe ‘began’ when time ‘began’, but this runs into serious problems as we normally picture causation within a temporal context, and the counter-argument could very well hold that so long as time has existed, the universe also has existed, having at no point in time not existed or come into being. Especially if one were to consider ‘beginning’ to be a change from a state of not-being to a state of being, which must be reckoned within a temporal context as time is required for alteration of contradictory states, as traditionally espoused by philosophical schools of thought that have argued for the absolute reality of time even if conceding or arguing for the non-reality of space. This would suggest that causation may be a rule that applies within the universe, but not necessarily to the universe itself. Again, it must be noted, that appeal to metaphysical intuition will not help here, as both options (beginning if no time prior contained the object/event that is beginning, or beginning if there is a time prior that does not contain the object/event that is beginning) are equally conceivable and make as much ‘common’ sense, so to rearrange the wording of the definition to suit your emphasis should apply as much to those in favour of the Kalam as to those who oppose it. Given the differing definitions, there is no logical necessity that the universe itself must have a cause of its beginning by virtue of the definition of beginning, irrespective of which definition is more likely to be applicable to the beginning of the universe. As to what constitutes a ‘cause’ in regards to premise 1, I will touch upon this shortly.

Another criticism of the first premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument comes from the observation that certain events on the sub-atomic level show that it is at least logically possible for things to begin to exist uncaused, relying on our far from exhaustive and still growing knowledge of Quantum Mechanics to offer potential counter-examples to the idea that all things that begin must necessarily have a cause. It could be argued that the unpredictable behavior of sub-atomic particles and Quantum events throws doubt on causal necessity, as the ‘effects’ cannot be predicted by antecedent cause, and there are scientific theories (of which I am not fully educated in regards to, but trust that the unnamed physicists William Lane Craig and Wes Morriston allude to have a respectable understanding of) that claim certain particles and energy states do literally pop into existence without apparent cause. Craig’s response to these arguments is to claim that although the sub-atomic particles and Quantum events may lack an apparent cause, they arise because necessary material conditions allow them to do so, and that because of this fact, the examples of Quantum and sub-atomic physics cannot prove that things can come to exist, uncaused, of nothing. However, it may be more appropriate to state that Quantum and sub-atomic physics cannot yet prove definitively that something can come from nothing and spontaneously pop into existence, and at the very least the spontaneity of Quantum and sub-atomic events, and the complex behavior of these events running counter to the physical laws that apply to the larger-scale view of the physical world, does cast some doubt on the anecdotal certainty Craig and others regard the Kalam’s first premise with.

A minor consequence of proclaiming there is no proof that something can come to be, uncaused, from nothing, is that it reminds us also that this claim seems every bit as unlikely even if we remove the ‘uncaused’ clause, and stating that something cannot come from nothing even if we can conceive of a ‘cause’ for it, that it is unlikely that the universe could have an efficient cause and yet lack a material cause is still a problem that the Kalam Cosmological Argument does not explain. By phrasing the first premise somewhat ambiguously in regards to what constitutes a ‘cause’ allows the Kalam Cosmological Argument to conveniently ignore the material cause that is every bit as ‘metaphysically intuitive’ in our common consideration of the premise that everything which begins has a cause as the efficient cause that is normally implied by Kalam advocates, and which is absolutely catastrophic to the argument that the universe has a beginning and necessarily has a cause of that beginning if there was no material spatiotemporal existence prior to the beginning of the universe. William Lane Craig does at least acknowledge this difficulty in comprehending a universe with an efficient cause yet lacking a material cause (a universe that pops into existence out of nothing simply because God wills it to be so), but counters that the alternative of a universe that merely begins to exist without any cause whatsoever, having an absence of both efficient and material cause, is doubly troubling and therefore far less likely. Needless to say, this is an unconvincing argument in the affirmative for creation ex nihilo. That there are fewer problems to resolve does not mean these problems can simply be ignored.

In support of the second premise, that the universe has a beginning, proponents of the Kalam Cosmological Argument offer supporting arguments dealing with the philosophical consideration of infinity, specifically whether or not an actual infinite is possible, and arguments based on Big Bang Cosmology and laws of thermodynamics. Both the ‘philosophical’ arguments about infinity and the scientific cosmological and thermodynamic arguments rest on claiming that the universe cannot exist in a temporal regress of events, and therefore must have a beginning.

The two philosophical, deductive arguments Craig gives for the second premise deal with whether the universe has a temporal beginning point, or whether time or the universe exists in an infinite regress. If a temporal infinity is possible, it isn’t necessary that the universe have a beginning point, nor the first cause the Kalam Cosmological Argument seeks to establish. The supporting argument states that an actual infinite cannot be instantiated in the real world, and that an infinite temporal regress (time stretching endlessly into the past, without a beginning) is an actual infinite, and therefore an infinite temporal regress cannot exist (there must be a beginning of time). Although it is true that, for example, Hilbert’s Hotel with its infinitely many occupied rooms that can accommodate an infinite number of new arrivals by shifting the infinite housed guests to a the room number corresponding to double the number of their previous room (guest from room 1 is moved to room 2, guest from room 2 to room 4, room 13 to room 26, room n to room 2n) to free up an actual infinite number of rooms for the infinite number of new arrivals, would be physically impossible in our world despite being quite useful mathematically, as Graham Oppy notes in one of his responses to Craig, this counter may not apply to the question of whether or not the universe is spatially or temporally actually infinite. Even if it is possible that an actual infinite can exist, Craig extends his argument to claim that a temporal series of events is not an actual infinite, as a temporal series of events is formed by successive addition, and successive addition cannot be an actual infinite. Essentially this is stating that in order to arrive at the present moment, time had to traverse an infinite series of events, which would take literally forever to achieve as the temporal series reaches back forever, effectively that we are trying to count to infinity. This need not be the case, as we are conceiving the possibility of an infinite temporal regress as well as a potential infinite future, there is no fixed infinitely distant point that we are counting from.

The physical sub-arguments for the beginning of the universe, as detailed in William Lane Craig’s essay ‘The Cosmological Argument’, appeal to Big Bang Cosmology and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Craig’s appeal to Big Bang Cosmology states that the theory itself, as initially proposed, represents an original beginning point for the universe, about 15 to 20 billion years in the past, beyond which there was nothing. Although counter arguments have been raised about the fact that despite the acceptance and utility of the Big Bang model, the scientific community does not have a comprehensive and conclusive, agreed-upon understanding of the Big Bang, and there are several versions of the Big Bang cosmology that posit something existing before the Big Bang, Craig claims that these theories by and large still have a fixed beginning point. It should be noted here that Big Bang Cosmology serves almost exclusively to describe the initial ‘singularity’ state of the universe and its subsequent expansion, rather than say anything about whether there was a ‘beginning’ to this state or what may have existed prior to the cosmic singularity. Again, the weakness of the argument is not that it is logically inconsistent, but rather that the supporting claims are uncertain, as Oppy notes the field of cosmological physics is one of the most speculative of the sciences. The Thermodynamic supporting argument claims that, as the universe is a ‘closed system’, the universe will eventually suffer an entropic ‘heat death’, and that if the universe has no beginning, if it has existed for eternity already, then it should have already suffered its entropic heat death. This argument, although puzzling, does still fall into the same trap as the previous sub-argument in that applying these theories to the long view of the universe is still problematic in regards to cosmological physics, and differing views are still being voiced without an obviously clear winner.

The two premises of the Kalam Cosmological Argument are only seemingly simple, and when examined more closely they, and their supporting sub arguments, turn out to be controversial claims, which raises doubts about a logically reasonable argument. The counter arguments and the problematic issues raised are a problem that must be addressed for the Kalam Cosmological Argument to be accepted, but they do not do away with the Kalam entirely, the doubt in regards to the premises goes both ways, so we should not simply discard the Kalam Cosmological Argument, even if it has yet to prove itself definitively true.

There is, of course, the further consideration of what precisely the cause is that the Kalam Cosmological Argument, if true, is endeavoring to prove. As Craig describes it, the cause of the universe is a personal creator that exists uncaused prior to the beginning of the universe, that is timeless, spaceless, and immaterial. This cause would have to be timeless and changeless, spaceless and immaterial, as it must transcend space and time in order to be their cause, and as Craig argues that scientific explanations cannot explain the cause of the universe as there was nothing before it that our scientific laws could apply to, he is left with only a personal agent to explain the cause of the universe’s beginning. There is a further distinction to make, that if the universe had a material cause to its existence that existed timelessly for eternity, then it would’ve created the universe from an eternity ago, so the universe would have always existed, as only a personal agent can choose to create or not at a given point. Morriston has a reasonable counter to this in stating that if God is timeless and eternal, His willing to create the universe is also timeless and eternal (occurring prior to the creation of the universe, and therefore space and time), and His willing to create the universe is causally sufficient, then the universe has existed from eternity just as if a material cause had been the ‘sufficient first cause’ as noted above. This then raises the contradiction that things which are eternal have no beginning, and therefore the universe both does and does not have a beginning. The way to resolve this mess, is to argue that the universe that has a temporal beginning point has existed eternally, which is certainly a counter-intuitive response but not necessarily false, dealing as we are with a peculiar application of time and timelessness. It does, however, shoot down the necessity of a personal cause of the universe, as there is no meaningful difference between a personal and non-personal cause that timelessly creates a universe with a temporal beginning.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument is an enduring example of natural theology, due largely to its direct logical strength. It struggles to maintain its integrity when the two premises are closely examined, relying strongly on the fact that the first premise ‘feels’ right and the second draws on popular empirical evidence, but losing this sense of certainty in light of the controversial or speculative nature of the premises and sub-arguments. Any breakthrough in this argument will likely come from the physicists and Quantum mechanics by virtue of a better understanding of cosmology itself. Nevertheless, even taking the argument to be true does not prove that there is a personal creator serving as the Sufficient First Cause of the Universe.



Craig, W.L., ‘The Cosmological Argument’, in Paul Copan and Paul K. Moser, (eds.), The Rationality of Theism, Routledge, 2003, pp.112-131.
Craig, W.L., ‘Must the Beginning of the Universe have a Personal Cause?: A Rejoinder’, Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2002, pp.94-105.
Morriston, W., ‘Must the Beginning of the Universe have a Personal Cause?: A critical examination of the Kalam Cosmological Argument’, Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 17, No. 2, 2000, pp.149-169.
Morriston, W., ‘Causes and Beginnings in the Kalam Argument: Reply to Craig’, Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 19, No. 2, 2002, pp.233-244.
Oppy, G., ‘Cosmological Arguments - 3.8 Craig and the Kalam Arguments’, Arguing About Gods, Cambridge, New York, 2006, pp.137-154.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

A Salute to the Good Word

Oh, what's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet... and luckily for us there's no shortage of bullshit around to serve as fertilizer...

Argument: The Government has no right to change the definition of Marriage!
Well, actually, funny you should mention that...
"The state - which did not invent marriage - has no authority to reinvent it." -Bob McCoskrie
It is entirely within the purview of government to determine what legal rights and statuses should exist, and to which people these rights and status should extend. Depending on what you consider 'the state' (whether it is the formal legal entity, such as that established by democratic principle, or rather the collective communal will of a populace conscious of the concept of 'a state', such as the Greek polis from which the term 'politics' is derived, or whether it is merely the communal organisation of a society, whatever its governing structure, for instance tribal council), the idea of the legal status of marriage certainly did not occur before there was a state to confer said legal status. And as the bill seeks only to address the legal status, and not to speak on or alter existing marriage customs (of which there are many), then it is absolutely the right of the government to be more inclusive, and include homosexual unions under the aegis of the legal state of marriage.

There's another error of reasoning here. The government isn't arbitrarily changing a definition; it is legally recognising and sanctioning a definition that is in use. LGBTQetc. advocates have been agitating for a seat at the table for yonks now, as they say, and our politicians are responding to that. There are plenty of homosexuals who see themselves as married as it is, and want the government to recognise the validy of their relationships. And in some cases, they want the government to recognise their church's desire to solemnify their marriage, which currently they cannot, legally. A Topp Twin 'married' her partner, the papers and magazines reported it as such, their friends and family consider it such, and I do not doubt that Lynda and her lovely partner would like it if the government recognised it as such also. A lot of people already include same-sex partnerships in their concept of 'marriage', including a number of Western nations. 

You see, language is a living thing. Definitions don't simply change, they grow. They grow with new parameters for the definition, to cover new contexts, and the addition of new definitions does not replace or remove existing definitions. Open a dictionary, you'll find that words have plenty of definitions, each representing a slight nuance of meaning or applying to a slightly different context. As Bob fails to notice when he references both Polygamy AND Polyamory, the former word means multiple marriages, and the latter means the same relationship sans marriage. Polygamy is already included in the broad definition of marriage, as is monogamy, meaning marriage restricted to two people. The definitions are already there, independent of legal recognition.

Words are under no threat from this bill. Only two things can remove definitions from common use: lack of use, and authoritative suppression. And there's only one group in this debate trying to remove or restrict definitions, and it sure as heck ain't the ones arguing for an inclusive society (i.e. the ones who support extending legal recognition to minorities). The law and common usage CAN accommodate all. It's worth noting that there are a number of people making specious arguments about 'equality' and semantic differences, trying to paint LGBTQ advocacy as incoherent or hypocritical, by means of restricting meanings so as to render them meaningless, in much the same way as Orwell's 1984 shows the deleterious effect of a shrinking, restrictively definitive language.

Everyone's favourite definition: LITERAL

The government can only control LEGAL DEFINITIONS, which are entirely its right to determine. The government is incapable of controlling language, as language is a living beast that grows through usage, it means what we collectively say it means, its' use is determined in how it is used, and Bob McCoskrie can no more hold back the common usage to which words are put than the government can, no matter how much of a Cnut he is.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

A Salute to Orwellian Conspiracies

The Argument: The legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry will eliminate terms like 'husband', 'wife', 'father' and 'mother'. This is bad. Therefore, we should not legally recognise same-sex marriage.

"I met my wife here. AND- waitaminute, waitaminute, just to set the record straight, SHE'S A WOMAN! The thing is, you actually knew that, right? When I said I met my wife here, you knew she was a woman, I wanna tell you, that's because you know what marriage is"
-Colin Craig, AUSA Marriage Amendment Bill Debate, 2012

One of the most peculiar arguments against same-sex marriage out there. The idea that a legal status will somehow determine conversational English, or that conversational English should somehow determine a legal status. Bob McCoskrie has argued ad nauseum about how the legislation will eliminate terms like those listed in the first paragraph, that a Politically Correct Gestapo will stop us using words like 'Mum' and 'Dad'.

First off, a quick show of hands: How many of you have ever read a piece of government legislation prior to the Marriage Amendment Bill?

This is such a frivolous argument. Legal definitions DO NOT DICTATE CONVERSATIONAL ENGLISH. We refer to Mum/mother or Dad/father long, long, long before we even learn to read, let alone develop any desire to read legal documentation. Conversational English doesn't run with that level of exactness! When have you ever encountered someone who takes their cues from technical jargon? We use language in a fluid way, it's all ambiguous, and depends on the context built up in a rapport to be meaningful. Legal documents don't work that way, they require exact and precise definitions, specificity, in order to avoid loopholes and legal challenge. The two are worlds apart. We never read our kids the story of the Three Porcine-New Zealanders, each between 4'2" and 4'6" tall, and the incident involving the Alleged Lupine Assailant. And for good reason! Legal documents determine legal classifications, not common English. 

ProtectMarriangeNZ: Marriage is between a face, and a palm
Further to the above: Regardless of what the opponents of this bill tell us, people are already changing the 'definition' of marriage without regard for the legal status. When ProtectMarriageNZ decided to claim that Lynda Topp supported them by virtue of her (then upcoming) Civil Union, she decided to speak up and slam the cads for appropriating her name, and claimed she was getting married. Friends of mine in Civil Unions refer to each other as 'husband' and 'wife', as do some in de facto relationships. 

And the terms are intelligible! The point where Colin Craig's argument in the quote up top falls down so tragically, is that although he thinks he's invoking an inherently gendered union, he's instead just relying on the gendered individual term 'wife'. When someone mentions their 'wife', because it's a gendered term, we know they are referring to a woman that they are in a long-term commitment in, even if they themselves are a woman and regardless of whether or not that long-term commitment is legally recognised as marriage or merely as a civil union. Unless they're being ironic, in which case any of those could be inverted, because that's what irony is for.

When it comes to other gendered terms, the argument becomes even more tenuous. Father is a gendered term for either a male parent (someone raising you), or a biological progenitor (sperm donor, biological father of an adoptee, etc.). Likewise with the gender inverted for a woman. This does not in any way mean that a father or a mother (or a grandmother or grandfather) are married, or married to correlating mother/father. Depending on the relationship and the feelings of those involved, someone considered to be a father or mother may not be biologically so or even LEGALLY so (part of the reason Louisa Wall drafted the bill was to deal with the legal ambiguity of civil union partners in the parenting of children from prior relationships etc.). 

People use language as they will. The bill seeks only to address the relationship between the state and couples in the LGBTQI minority. Mums will still be mums, dads will still be dads, even if Girls are Boys who like Boys to be Girls, who do Boys like they're Girls, who do Girls like they're Boys. Always should be someone you really love!

Delivering a legal opinion on the "They'll ban words!" argument