Thursday, June 16, 2016

Day of Gratitude

Today, on the 25th anniversary of my birth, I had planned to sketch out a brief history of my life, describing pivotal moments that have occurred in my life and lessons I have learned. After consulting with my wise maternal grandmother, I have decided to forego that route in favor of a post of things I am grateful for as I now embark on my 26th year of life. Perhaps at some future date I will write the post I formally intended to write. I still plan to write on the Thomistic arguments on the existence of God from an LDS perspective, as well as a series on whether or not Mormons are Christians. But more on that later.

While narrating the first episode of the show Curiosity, theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking (who is an intellectual hero of mine) stated

"We are each free to believe what we want and it is my view that the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization. There is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that, I am extremely grateful"

Stephen Hawking
Today, as it did when I first heard him say it (or write it and have it voice automated), this quote has struck me as being very true. Not in the sense that I believe that God did not create the universe; as a theist who is committed to science and naturalism I do believe God created the universe through natural methods. But the part where he states that he is grateful to be able to understand the universe and pursue his own destiny rings true to me today as ever. So, I am going to list a number of things that I am grateful for as a sort of gift to myself on this day.

First, I am grateful for life itself. I do not take existence for granted; I could just as easily not exist. This is not to say that I find life easy or that there are not things I wish were going differently (I wish I was married, had children, and was working on a PhD in philosophy and a Juris Doctorate.) But the fact that I am able to be alive on this planet, in the scientific era, in the United States, is something for which I am extremely grateful.

Secondly, I am grateful for the people in my life; family, friends, and mentors. While at one time in my life I thought that I would never be close with my family, today I am happy to say that is not the case.  While I value the word friend and differ it from mere acquaintance, I am grateful for the friends I have had over the years and the ones I enjoy today, especially those who have become like a second family to me(family does not always mean biological relations.) These include (but are not limited to) Celestino Garcia, Matthew and Lionel Thomas, the McKell, Snow, and Reeves families, Seth Burdette, Stephen Smoot, Mark Olsen, and Bonnie Shiffler-Olsen. Lastly, I have to come to believe that smart people need guides throughout their lives in order to reach their full potential, and I am grateful for the mentors I have had, including (but not limited to) Blake Ostler, Shannon Mussett, Katie Renick, Michael Minch, Brad Kramer, and W. Paul Reeve. All of these people have challenged me intellectually, and because of them I am a better thinker than I was previously. For that, I am forever grateful.

Thirdly, I am grateful for the disciplines of philosophy, science, history, mathematics, and theology,  Like Ludwig Wittgenstein, I have to say that studying and doing philosophy is the only thing that gives me real satisfaction. But philosophy is also intertwined with these other disciplines I have mentioned, and connecting this with the first point I made, I am lucky to live in a time where I can learn from the great philosophical minds of the past (Hume, Russell, Nietzsche, etc), as well as the scientists, historians, mathematicians, and theologians, and do so at my own convenience. While we overlook it today, this was not always true in past generations, especially to someone of color. For this, again, I am grateful beyond words.

Lastly, I reference Hawking again. He noted that there is no such thing as fate; meaning there is no thing that you are particularly supposed to do. We have free will, even though we live in a determined universe. I am grateful that I can make my own destiny rather than search for the one someone has made for me. I am eternally grateful for that.

Life is hard, and no one gets out of here alive. But whether we are black or white, atheist or theist, conservative or liberal, male or female, there is much we can and should be grateful for. If Stephen Hawking, a man who can only move one cheek muscle, can be grateful at this time in his life, so can we.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Lessons from Philosophical Issues in Feminism

Before beginning this post, I wanted to give my readers a quick notice about some things that are upcoming on this blog. On June 16th I will be giving a short biography of my life because that is my 25th birthday. The following Saturday I will be writing about whether a moral conservative can cast a vote for Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee. After that, I will be analyzing all 5 arguments that St. Thomas Aquinas gives for the existence of God, and showing whether or not they are compatible with the LDS concept of God. Following that, I will do a series called "Are Mormons Christian?" which will be a compare and contrast with LDS views of God, Jesus, Man, and the Sacraments against the more traditional views of these things (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant). Suffice it to say it will be very busy here on the blog in the coming weeks. But more on that later.

As many of my readers know due to my post on bell hooks and Beyonce (which can be read here), during the past spring semester at Utah Valley University I took a course titled Philosophical Issues in Feminism, which was taught by Shannon Mussett. While I signed up for the class initially because I am friends with the aforementioned Mussett, I had a few misgivings and concerns. First, I am a male and figured that by definition I would be the subject of hatred in the class. Second, I am a conservative so I agree with traditional values, which some of my feminist friends refer to as "patriarchal". Third, while I had feminist friends and had heard the name several times I had no idea what feminism ultimately was (I admit I still am not entirely sure.) However, I decided to step outside of my comfort zone and give the class a try.

On day one, Professor Mussett asked us what we, meaning the class, thought feminism was (I cynically wanted to raise my hand and say "I thought I was paying you to tell me what it is, but I kept my peace.) The traditional answers came out "Equality for women", "Angry women", "Women with nothing else to do", "Rebellion",etc. Then Professor Mussett dropped some knowledge: Feminism has no one definition. To quote her "One of the strengths and weaknesses of feminism is that is has no formal definition and is always available to critique and criticism." This shocked me, but over the course of the semester I began to see that she was quite right.

Simone de Beauvoir, French existentialist philosopher and feminist. Mussett's idol 
The class, like most philosophy classes, was reading intensive with selections from books such as The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (pictured above), Women as Weapons of War by Kelly Oliver, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, and several others. We discussed them in depth in class, which was never boring and always enlightening. In addition to the readings, we had presentations from a transgender woman, a cross-dresser, and several guest lecturers; all of whom brought new perspectives I had never thought of before. Margaret Toscano, an excommunicated Mormon feminist, was my favorite of the them all due to her being the most intellectual and researched of the group, but all of them were fantastic. The class ended with Erin Donahoe-Rankin (philosophy academic advisor), showing us the film Ex Machina (if there is a creepier film in existence.... I shudder at the thought.)

Now that I have given a brief overview, allow me to list three things I learned in the class. I am limiting it to three things, but I learned much more during my time in the class.

1) Feminism is not limited to women. While I thought that feminism was a women only club, I see now that this is not the case. How so? Because men can intellectually understand different strands of thought in the feminist movement and can embrace them. Therefore, a man can be a feminist just as much as a woman can.

2) Feminism has many different strands of thought. At first glance, I expected that all the authors we read would just agree with each other, but this is not the case. While thinkers like Beauvoir thought that the object of feminism was for women to overcome their "Other" status, thinkers like bell hooks seem to think the point of feminism is for women to be united. Then there are thinkers like Toscano who think that feminism needs to be recognized in the religious world as well as in the secular world. Oliver would go one to talk about how women have been used more like weapons than like people over the past centuries. Again, there is no one feminist definition, and there is more than one issue in the discourse among feminist thinkers.

3) Feminism is a humanism. I wrote my term paper on this, but it was linked to Beauvoir's thought on what feminism is. While feminism has many different definitions and problems and agendas, a common core it shares is the objective value of humans, while women over the centuries have not been treated as fully human in a number of ways. It could be said that feminism is humanism with a feminine face. Of course, that definition, like all feminism definitions, is open to critique.

Philosophical Issues in Feminsm changed my life because I had never heard women really discuss feminism in a sophisticated way, and after reading about it for months on end I could see where the anger and frustration came from. I hope to be part of the solution rather than the problem in the future. 

I believe that Professor Mussett teaches this course every two years in the spring, so in 2018 it will be offered again if I am correct. I encourage all to take it if they are able. If nothing else, take the class to listen to Professor Mussett; she is intense, engaging, and never boring.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Why I admire Muhammad Ali

The year 2016 is quickly becoming "The year everyone died." From David Bowie to Prince, and yesterday we were all notified that Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxer of all time, passed away also. It is only June, so other celebrities and beloved figures may soon be on their way out as well, a thought that truly does make me feel cold and empty on the inside.

Muhammad Ali during his early boxing years

Ali's death at age 74 comes as a surprise, but on some levels this death was more expected than the others. Ali had for many years struggled with Parkinson's disease, and had been in and out of hospitals for respiratory problems. Still, he is a beloved figure and he will never be forgotten.

This post will not be about the ways that Muhammad Ali was the greatest boxer of all time; Ali retired from boxing in 1981, ten years before I was born. So, I did not have the opportunity to see him fight during his prime (although I have seen some of his fights on YouTube). Nor will it be about a history of his life; he wrote an autobiography titled The Greatest: My Own Story (which I highly recommend), and there is a biopic about him named Ali, where he is portrayed by Will Smith (this is perhaps Smith's best performance). The book and the film give a good account of the various aspects of this man's life (there was never a dull moment), but I want to share two instances in his life that inspired me and in part made me the person I am today.

The first has to do with Ali's joining the Nation of Islam. Before he was known as Ali, he was Cassius Clay, and was raised a Baptist. But, owing to the influence of Malcolm X and others, he joined the Nation and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. This was a very risky business, as the Nation was portrayed as a racist organisation (and rightfully so), which cost him popularity among his white fans and also caused rifts with his family, especially his first wife and his father (who he was originally named after). But, Ali was a man of conviction. He believed the Nation's teachings (though he left in 1975 and became a Sunni Muslim), and was willing to join even if everyone turned against him. This was an inspiration to me in my own religious journey, converting from Protestant Christianity to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My family was vehemently opposed to the decision, but I knew it was the right thing to do and followed my convictions. Reading about Ali's journey in my youth gave me courage to make the tough choice.

The second point has to deal with Ali and his relationship to the Nation again. The Nation had a strict code of nonviolence (which in the case of Malcolm X they suspended), so they were initially hesitant to allow Ali to become a member. However, they eventually allowed him too. When Ali was stripped of his boxing title in the 1960's, it seemed that his life of violence was over so there would be no more problems. This was not Ali's plan however, as later on he was allowed to fight in Georgia. This led Elijah Muhammad (the leader of the Nation) to suspend Ali as a member. Later on, Elijah allowed Ali back in the Nation and sent his son Herbert (who had been Ali's manager) to deliver the message. Upon hearing the news, Ali said
"Ali: "So, I can be a Muslim again? Herbert: "Yes." Ali: "I never stopped, just like I never stopped being the champ. Herbert: (Silence, with puzzled look on his face) Ali: "I love you, I love your father, and I love the Nation, but it don't own me"
That is an amazing statement, which is mentioned by Ali in his book and shown in the biopic. This also influenced me after becoming a Mormon. There is in LDS culture a delusion (a fixed, false belief) that leaders are always right, and you are better off doing what they say even if you believe it is wrong rather than following your own conscience. I have never embraced that belief in my entire tenure as a Mormon, and I never will. I love the Church, I believe its doctrines, I sustain my leaders, and respect their opinions, but this does not mean from time to time they do not err (as I also do). As John Taylor said once "I will not be a slave." I thank Ali for stirring that belief in me as a young boy when reading his biography. It has never left me.

Everyone is now talking and showing clips about how great a fighter Ali was, but his strength of character is even greater than his fists (and they were a force to be reckoned with. Ali, you will be missed, but to me he was not the greatest because of what he did in the ring; it is what he did outside of it. I will miss you brother. I hope that you have found happiness on the other side. You are truly "The Greatest."