Sunday, February 27, 2011

February 27, 1926

My grandparents, Rayford and Phoebe Huggins, were married on this day in 1926. He was 19; she was 17. Rayford was two hours late for the wedding, having forgotten the appointment while shooting pool with friends. Phoebe sat crying in her wedding dress, while customers of the lunch counter her parents ran out of their home on Mallory Avenue in South Memphis jeered at her and told her to change, because her groom would never show. Eventually, there was a knock on the door and Rayford stood there sheepishly, with his hands in his pockets and the question, "Well, do you still feel like getting married?"

They were together 61 years, until his death two days after Christmas, 1987. They raised three boys and had 6 grandchildren, but many more became their "children" through the concern they showed to the unfortunate. Papaw was a carpenter, while Phoebe was a Pentecostal preacher. Neither of them had more than an 8th grade education, but each had plenty of practical wisdom. Those who were down on their luck found a temporary home at Phoebe and Papaw's house, and many received gifts of food, clothing, and other help from them.

Temperamentally, they were quite different. Phoebe was a firecracker, and if you happened to differ with her on any point of scripture, she would preach a summary of the whole Bible to you right then and there, from Genesis through Revelations. Papaw sat quietly in his armchair and smoked his pipe. Phoebe didn't care much for his pipe (which he eventually gave up) but once, trying to be helpful, she washed all his pipes in dishwater and proudly presented his "cleaned" pipes to him when he came home from work.

Other surprises were even less convenient. Tired of urging him to remodel their kitchen, she simply tore out the back wall of the house one day while he was at work, and when he came home that night and entered the kitchen, he found himself looking into his own back yard. The kitchen was redone in short order.

They kept working into old age and were still accepting house painting jobs into their 70s. A ladder collapsed out from under Papaw and he took even this in stride, maintaining his balance and landing on his feet, unhurt. Phoebe and I climbed the steps of a fire ranger's observation tower once, when she was 65 and I was 21. I was the one who was out of breath; when I reached the top, she was standing there happily chatting with the ranger.

She frequented a senior citizens' center in her 70s, though not as a customer, but as a volunteer. It never occured to her that she was supposed to be elderly. I asked her once if they were coming to Memphis for Thanksgiving (they had moved to Heber Springs) and she said "Honey, I'd like to, but if I don't stay here, there's be no one to pay attention to the poor old senior citizens, so I need to stay and help."

After Papaw's death, Phoebe lingered until January 14, 1996, and would have lived longer but for a tumor that she purposely left untreated because she felt it showed a lack of faith in God to seek medical help. She let herself be taken to a hospital exactly once in her life (her three sons were delivered at home by midwives); about 3 months before her death, at 87, she was a patient for a couple of days at Methodist Hospital North. She couldn't get it through her head that she was supposed to lie quietly and let herself be cared for; she was constantly up and about, trying to help the nurses take care of others. Shortly, the staff realized that she couldn't be made to fit any model of convalescence they knew of and released her.

She saved everything and died still having among her possessions a paper container of peanuts and candy from my parents' wedding in 1951, the dress she had worn to their wedding, her diaries from the 1950s, and a parents' day program from Cummings School in 1940.

In 1958, she had bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder and left behind many recordings of family evenings including singalongs. My brother Tim found a machine of that type on eBay 10 years ago and made 2 CDs of family performances, for which I supplied names and dates. Today, I can hear Phoebe and Papaw, along with their three sons--my dad and his two brothers--and my great-grandmother, Amy Huggins, singing "If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again," recorded one night in 1966, as well as my own voice at age 5, sounding like Alfalfa on "The Little Rascals," singing "Put Your Hand Into the Hand of God," and my brother David learning to talk. I can hear Phoebe preaching and playing "Under the Double Eagle" on her accordion. I can hear Phoebe and Papaw singing "When He Reached Down His Hand for Me." I can remember them driving my brothers and me to the little one-room church they pastored in St. Francis County, Arkansas, in a converted 1940s ambulance, with nothing so unnecessary as a seat belt. I can taste the salt pork that Phoebe would fry for breakfast and the pork neckbones that she prepared for supper.

Above all, I can hear her saying about some scoundrel, "He meant well." After their deaths, this became a standing joke in our family, and to this day, if we reflect on someone whose behavior seems particularly discreditable, someone will chime in with "Well, he meant well."

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Theodicy and the Epicurean Paradox

The "Epicurean Paradox" is expressed in these words:
"Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?"

I posted the following last summer to an online message board in which another poster asked if anyone had a response to this argument:
I doubt that there could be one that is compelling.

Certainly, we should stipulate that if there were a God, by which we mean a Being of Infinite Wisdom (or at least much smarter than us) and given that we can't know the reasons for everything, it would be logically possible for God to commit acts or allow them that looked monstrous to us but that turned out, unknown to us, to be justified.

If I were walking down the street with small children and saw someone who, unknown to to the children, had a partly concealed weapon, and if I could know the person was about to assault us with deadly force, and if I attacked the other person instead and killed him, the children might well think they had witnessed an unprovoked and monstrous attack on an innocent bystander, but they would be mistaken.

Having said all that—which I suppose must be the best one can say for such an argument—it remains true that the gap between the supposedly benevolent and omnipotent God and the world we see, is simply too great for us to rest an attribution of justice and power to Him on anything but blind faith.

Someone has mentioned C.S. Lewis, whom I respect as an able reasoner on some questions, and Alvin Plantinga, a Christian philosopher whom, as I understand, many professional philosophers take very seriously indeed, including some who are atheists and agnostics. I feel that I owe it to myself to read Plantinga at some point, though I haven't done so yet.

Plantinga and Lewis argue along the lines of saying that the world we have may be the best that any power could have created, if we were to have anything but a fantasy world that changed at any moment. Lewis develops this at some length in his The Problem of Pain. The same firmness that makes wood suitable for building a house, he says, also means I can use it as a club to bludgeon my neighbor. If God took it upon himself to suddenly make the wood harmless if used for assault, He may as well go the whole way and make my mind so that it could not frame such an intention to begin with, but then, we would not be human.

All that is very well, as far as it goes, but it strikes me as odd, for people so concerned to stress human free will as a constraint on God (not to mention that invoking human free will still doesn't answer the issue of why there are earthquakes, floods, and plagues), that it never seems to occur to them to wonder why God would not have offered everyone the courtesy of the ultimate in "free will"—asking them if they cared to be incarnated into such a world in the first place.

It is not impossible to imagine a Deity creating conscious but disembodied "souls" and making a speech to them something like the following:

"I will give you a very basic choice. You may remain as you are and know me through mental pleasures, contemplating my splendor and majesty through the ages, unchanged from what you are at this moment.

"Or you may elect to be placed in a world where you may experience hunger, pain, disease, or worse. There are too many variables even for me to make it the undifferentiatedly happy place I might wish. You may, it is true, be born with good genes, loving parents, in a good climate, in a comfortable household; you may find a loving mate, pursue a worthy career, beget loving children who are a credit to you, and die, after a long lifetime of illustrious achievement, mourned by all who know you.

"You may, on the other hand, be born into a place called Darfur, see your father cut down by outlaw militia, see your mother savagely used by the same people, watch your little brother die of starvation, and be sold into slavery.

"You may opt for one or the other, but if you choose the physical life, once you're in, you're in. There is no panic button to push that lets you out, and whatever hideous tortures, mental or physical, you may happen to suffer, you will do so knowing that you unfortunately happened to draw the short straw in a world that simply couldn't be made pleasant for everyone.

"Now choose."

Now if a Deity offered such a choice, however stern and extreme we might think it was, everyone would at least know what they were dealing with.

But the scenario I've just described doesn't really seem to appear in many forms of religious belief. Instead, we seem to be meant to assume that we had no choice but to be born into this world, but on the other hand, God can't interfere with our free will! Say again?

Lewis, to his credit, says in one of his books, that if God's justice is so unlike any notion we have of right and wrong that we can scarcely comprehend it, that the whole idea may as well be meaningless, and I think he has hit on the exact problem. Let's return for a moment to the pre-birth scenario and suppose that instead of offering the unborn Darfurian child a choice, God simply says:

"You will be born into starvation, conflict, disease, and misery, live a short life of pain, without dignity or freedom, and finally see your life snuffed out in a miserable and humiliating death. And you have no choice but to be born and go through this.

"Still, on the other side of this miserable interlude is an eternity of dwelling in my presence, in everlasting bliss, and even though your puny mind cannot understand why, the bliss would not have been possible without the intervening horror. I in my infinite wisdom know this, even though you never can or will."

Very well. Could any of us, if we had the power, say this in good conscience to any being? Even one?

The question answers itself. Logically, yes, everything I just said above could be supposed to be true, but the sheer impossibility of knowing it is true, reduces us as much to blind faith as we would be similarly reduced if some maniac locked us in his basement for years and abused us but assured us that it was all for the best. If the kind of faith required here is really necessary to believe in a good and powerful God, it robs us of our humanity as much as the putative loss of free will that occasions Lewis's and Plantinga's caveats about automatons.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Yes, Virginia, there is a Twitter© revolution

I appreciate The Economist sponsoring a debate on whether or not the internet is a net force for democracy. While that may seem too obvious seriously to question, one should not underestimate the malicious uses to which technolgy can be put if a repressive regime has sufficiently talented hackers in its employ. I posted the following to the debate discussion board:
Dear Sir,

It would be interesting to simulate a war game between an internet-equipped Lenin and Trotsky, on the one hand, and a similarly armed Pyotr Rachkovsky, on the other, to see who would win. Pessimists should doubtless be given their full due in this matter: in even not very sophisticated hands, the internet offers countless opportunities for malicious operators to discredit and disrupt forces of reform through planted posts, doctored e-mails and photos, and dishonest chat participants, not to mention more standard tactics such as denial of service attacks, stolen credit card and bank account numbers, and the like.

In the end, as I see it, this comes down to the old saying that the only way to get rid of alligators is to drain the swamp. The manifestation of the internet in modern life is such that the swamp can't be drained. Mubarak turned off the internet once; no one imagines that its proponents are idly sitting around hoping no one thinks to do so again. Safeguards are no doubt already being built. Technology experts polled by a journalist for the website Tech Republic for their views on Joe Lieberman's fantastic proposal to let an American President shut down the net responded that first, it probably couldn't be done and second, the net is so intricately connected with every aspect of modern life that if a western government tried it, the law of unintended consequences would exact its comical revenge.

The net, like Wordsworth's world, is too much with us and, absent a civilization-ending meteor strike, it will never be otherwise. It is true, certainly, that there are virulent pockets on the net even now who deny the holocaust and global warming, doubt our President's citizenship, insist on the deleterious effects of vaccines, and call for the relaxation of the age of consent for reprehensible reasons. Those diseased enclaves also will not go away, or will do so only to be replaced by other things equally as bad.

Having said that, the redoubtable Rachkovsky, were he back in operation, could recruit half the population to harass the other half, and he could still not, finally, overcome the fact that the net provides an unstoppable channel for any view of any description to become accepted worldwide, an opportunity limited only by the rhetorical skills of its advocates. Repression, grievous as it is, is like the Gulf oil spill; eventually, it is dissolved in the sheer volume of the medium in which it is suspended, and the oyster beds are found to have survived. This is no utopian hope but a simple reflection of the countless paths that cross online, and the myriad of opinions that travel them. Each has a hearer and an advocate; none can finally be silenced.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.