Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Exotic and Knowledgeable

When I started this blog just over six years ago, I had a policy of not discussing religion in any explicit sense. My primary motive for doing so was to avoid religious debates that might arise. I wanted any religious discussion that took place to be respectful, sincere, and most importantly, open to everyone, whether religious or not. I feared that divulging too much about my own particular beliefs would deter people from participation and/or invite those who strongly opposed my views to attack my beliefs rather than sharing their own, thereby derailing the conversations I had hoped to have. Believe me, I had reasons for supposing this could happen, as I’d seen it happen elsewhere.

At this point in time, pretty much the only people who read my blog are my family, so there is little mystery as to my faith. I’ve also said things here and there that, if you knew what I was talking about, would make it obvious to what faith I belong. You could also take a slightly informed guess as to what my religion is by the fact that I hail from Salt Lake City, Utah, though that hardly guarantees anything and my oft-advertised love for Mountain Dew may have cast doubt on your guess, depending on what preconceived notions you have about Mormons. From what I’ve gathered, those notions can be pretty off-base.

Yesterday, as I was waiting for my graduate seminar to begin, there were about six or seven of us in the room. Somehow the topic turned to Facebook, and one girl proceeded to tell a story about her friend who set up a bogus Facebook account so he could “make exotic friends. He friended a Mormon.” The girl in my class then went on to tell a story about how this Mormon girl was very religious (“Did she drink caffeine?” someone interjected) but ended up pregnant out of wedlock. I was amused, and I was going to say that I was unaware I was “exotic,” but it all passed very quickly and people were talking about other things. At that point it felt silly and relatively pointless to break in and tell them I was Mormon, so I didn’t, but part of me felt like I was being dishonest somehow. Is that weird? I don’t know. People just don’t expect other people to be Mormon, I guess, and so every once in a while you get someone talking about Mormons in front of you (or to you) with the assumption that we’re all in agreement that Mormons are a little strange or whatever.

A few years ago, I took a philosophy of religion seminar at Georgia State. There were several religious studies graduate students in the class, including one that always struck me as wanting to have something very interesting to say. She was probably in her 40’s and probably not exactly buddies with anyone in the class. Anyway, one day before class got started, she started telling our instructor a story about how she once attended a Mormon church service. She said that after the church service concluded, she talked to the priest (which is not the right word for what she meant, but that’s OK) and showed him some documented evidence that the Book of Mormon had been changed from its originally published version. (This is true, and it even says so in an introductory part of the Book of Mormon, which makes the rest of this woman’s story all the more suspicious. Obviously, the changes are not anything Mormons find worrisome, as they are primarily aimed at clarification and correction.) According to the woman telling this story, the Mormon “priest” grew very agitated and asked where she got the documentation she was showing him. He then confiscated her materials and refused to give them back to her. Those are the details I remember, but I think her story may have been even slightly more wild. Anyway, it’s possible her story is true, but I find it incredibly unlikely. The “priest” would have to have been surprisingly ignorant, and he also would have behaved quite unlike any “priest” I’ve ever dealt with. I just don’t buy it. And I didn’t buy it then, but I wasn’t even part of the conversation, so I didn’t say anything. Again, I wondered if I should have. But what do you say and what would be the point?

Go back an additional few years. I frequented a religious message board that, I thought, was aimed at generating respectful interfaith dialogues. There were only a handful of regulars who participated on the site, and I became one of them. But for a short while, I didn’t mention what my particular beliefs were. I did a lot of asking about other people’s beliefs. Well, eventually, I made it known that I was a Mormon. The backlash was surprising. A couple of the born again Christians were particularly sinister toward me after that, and one of them made a big to-do about how I had been so sneaky and crafty, trying to lure them in before telling them I was Mormon. I was astonished. The attacks seemed ravenous and immediate, and I hadn’t done anything other than apply the “Mormon” label to myself. Yikes!

Today, I am quite intrigued by this article (which was also covered here by the New York Times). A recent study of Americans found that, on average, atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons are the most knowledgeable about world religions in general. The study consisted of a survey wherein participants were asked 32 general knowledge questions about various faiths. On average, atheists and agnostics (who were lumped under the same group) answered 20.9 questions correctly. Jews answered an average of 20.5 questions correctly, and the average Mormon provided 20.3 correct answers. The next highest group after these three is “white evangelical Protestants,” who answered an average of 17.6 questions correctly. When it came to questions about the Bible and Christianity, Mormons answered more questions correctly than any other group.

I find these results interesting for a few reasons. It wouldn’t surprise me if most atheists (of a certain ilk) would assume that Mormons are even more deluded or in the dark than most other religious adherents. These survey results at least suggest that such attitudes are ill-founded. Also, I find it interesting that Mormons fare better than any other group on questions about the Bible and Christianity, when there are still many Christians out there who would insist that Mormons aren’t Christians. Of course, getting the questions right about Christianity doesn’t make you a Christian, but some might find it amusing that the average Mormon is more knowledgeable about Christianity than the average Christian who would deny that Mormons have any claim to that title. (It should be noted, of course, that white evangelical Protestants aren’t far behind Mormons in answering the Christian-themed questions correctly.)

And the moral of the story is? If nothing else, I’m exotic and knowledgeable.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

If I Had $1,000,000

Once in a while, I like to take the old “What would you do if you had a million dollars?” question quite seriously. To be more precise, I like to think of what I’d do if I had enough money that I didn’t have to work to live at whatever standard I see fit. It’s not an easy question to answer, if you take it rather seriously. Truth be told, I wouldn’t want to be too rich. That would bring problems of its own. But there are times—right now, for example—when not having to work sounds pretty good.

So what would I do, beyond the obvious “get out of debt, buy a house, get some new clothes and a decent car” hoopla? I used to think I would continue to work on my Ph.D., though perhaps happily taking it at a slightly slower rate. Now I’m not so sure. It depends on the moment, but no longer do I think I’d have to be working on the Ph.D. in order to keep from getting bored. I used to think that’s what I’d need to do. Remember, I’m trying to be completely realistic here, and the fact is, I wouldn’t want to spend every day lounging around or traveling Europe or anything. That’s what you imagine, but few of us would really enjoy that being our lives. I know I wouldn’t. I would want to be working at things, but a Ph.D. isn’t all there is. So how would I like to fill my days? Aside from being more involved in the childrearing—and believe me, I recognize that as being to some extent a disadvantage of having plenty of money—I would work on writing and playing music, I would hope to read a lot of interesting stuff without worrying so much about critiquing it, and I would hopefully do lots of service and humanitarian deeds of various kinds. I would live near a temple and go frequently. I would hopefully write a lot, though without the worry of having someone read it and critique it. I would write about my life, my thoughts, and yes, philosophy, but without the pressure. Sounds lovely.

I would travel, but not that much. At least not for a while. It’s difficult with kids, and money isn’t going to change that very drastically. I would splurge on hiring babysitters so Melanie and I could date quite regularly. I would have to be super careful about not eating out too much, because it would be a temptation if you had plenty of money. Instead, I’d have to see if Melanie and I could take cooking classes together somewhere. We could have a great time honing our culinary abilities together. That would be a neat way to bond, and we could buy great ingredients with all the money we’d have. We’d laugh and smile a lot as we cooked side-by-side in our lovely, spacious kitchen. Somewhere in Washington state, perhaps.

I’d watch plenty of movies. I’d buy plenty of CDs. I’d listen to music at a more leisurely pace, not just as background entertainment while I’m reading articles or writing essays. I’d actually just sit and listen to it, focused on it, on a nice stereo system. I’d have people over—my little sister, for example—who would like to just listen with me and talk about it afterwards. Hopefully people would bring and share music with me, too.

I don’t think I’d want a pool. Maybe there’d be a temptation, if someone else could be paid to take care of it. But maybe it would be more fun actually going somewhere to swim occasionally. Maybe that would make it more special. My schedule would be flexible enough that we could probably go whenever we felt like it, so it wouldn’t be too big of a deal not having one in the backyard. No, as far as home-based luxuries are concerned, I’d like a nice home theater, an awesome game room (with a billiard table, air hockey, and some old school arcade games), and a recording studio for my music. I’d have plenty of musical instruments, too. I’d very much look forward to my children getting older and being able to play with me. It’d be awesome to have us playing as a band together, and we might just play cool enough music that my kids wouldn’t feel like it was nerdy or embarrassing to jam with their dad.

A few times lately, I’ve found myself feeling quite speculative about what my future holds. Getting a Ph.D. in philosophy, the obvious goal is to land a professorship gig at a decent research university, where you’ll teach a couple of classes a semester, have graduate student TAs do all the grading for your undergrad class, and spend a good amount of time researching—reading, writing, and publishing. Is that the life I imagine for myself? Sometimes I don’t know. But I think the reason I don’t know is because it’s just hard to imagine that really being my life. I’ve always had a hard time imagining myself really doing things, but usually it’s not as bad or as serious or as daunting in real life as you imagine it to be (whatever it is). I always found it hard to imagine myself in a Ph.D. program, and I didn’t always feel like I was cut out for such a thing. But now that I’m doing it, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, really. So maybe that’s how it will be with becoming an actual professor and writing and publishing articles of my own. It’s hard to believe, but it might just be the way life is at some point. That being said, I sometimes picture myself doing something less prestigious, at least by many standards. Sometimes I picture myself teaching at a state university somewhere not very large—probably in the Midwest, for as generic as I imagine it—having a good rapport with my students, but not being anyone high and mighty on the philosophical radar. I imagine life being relatively quaint and family-centered. I imagine not being a workaholic. I imagine having weekends that feel like weekends. And you know, I find myself quite charmed by that.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

My Blu Heaven

This weekend has been wonderful. Honestly, it’s the best weekend I’ve had in a long time. It took this weekend for me to realize that it’s been a very long time since I’ve had a weekend that felt like a weekend. I’d forgotten what they can be like. Typically, I spend the majority of every day, Monday through Saturday, working. Even when I work from home, I break for meals and otherwise am reading and/or writing. Typically, I do an hour or two of work after dinner too. Sundays are different, but they’re not exactly relaxing. I am often teaching a class at church, but even when I’m not, getting ready for and going to church seems to take the majority of the day. It’s been forever since a weekend felt like an honest to goodness break from my “job.”

Well, I sure hadn’t planned to take a break this weekend, but that’s exactly what I did. Since Friday evening, I haven’t done a lick of homework. On Saturday morning, my family and I attended a tailgate potluck party thing at our church. We saw some friends and enjoyed the culinary talents of many. My original plan was to go home immediately afterward and hit the grindstone, but that’s not what happened. Prior to the potluck, we went to Wal-Mart and ended up buying a Blu-Ray player. It wasn’t exactly an impromptu purchase. Melanie wanted to buy me a Blu-Ray player for Father’s Day, but she thought it best to let me figure out which one would be the best for us. I researched them a bit, but we never invested the time or money into actually buying one. On Saturday, Melanie encouraged me to look them over, since it’s a very rare occasion that I’m at Wal-Mart with her. We looked and, based on the little bit of research I did a few months ago, I was pleased with what you could get for what seemed like a decent price. We took the plunge and brought one home. We don’t even have a Blu-Ray disc, but already, I’m extremely pleased.

Here’s why. The Blu-Ray player we purchased (a Vizio something or other) has a built-in wireless connection. Because I have a wireless router hooked to my home office computer, this enables me to view Netflix instant streaming movies through our Blu-Ray player at the touch of a button … or at least, at the touch of relatively few buttons. It’s kind of silly, but this has been quite a thrilling thing for us. I say it’s silly because instantly viewing movies online has been an option for us since we joined Netflix three years ago. What’s more, it was not altogether uncommon for us to watch such movies on our television by hooking our laptop computer to the TV. In short, the Blu-Ray player doesn’t make it possible for us to do anything with Netflix instant viewing that we haven’t already been able to do. It just makes it immensely simpler to do it. And that alone makes Netflix instant viewing feel like a completely new toy to us. The movies have always been available for instant viewing, but not having to hook up a laptop, load Windows, pull up the Netflix website, etc., makes it feel like this extensive collection of online movies are ours. Like we can really just watch them anytime we want. I don’t know how to put it into words. It just feels very different, and it’s very fun. After we got home on Saturday afternoon, I hooked up the Blu-Ray player and within a couple of minutes we were watching a movie as a family, in glorious HD no less. Very cool.

Now, don’t you worry. We’ll get a Blu-Ray movie eventually, so the Blu-Ray player is not just for streaming Netflix. That was never the plan. We very rarely buy movies, but there are a few I wouldn’t mind getting on Blu-Ray. Also, I’ve been told (though I haven’t yet verified) that even DVDs look better through Blu-Ray players because of the interface that the latter utilize. That’ll be cool. For the moment, I have no plan for us to change our Netflix subscription so that those movies we receive in the mail are on Blu-Ray rather than DVD. I don’t necessarily think that’s worth the extra money. But the Blu-Ray experience will be cool for any movies we want to buy in the future.

On Saturday night, the family and I went out to dinner. Today, church went about as well as it can—it should be noted that I often hate Sundays, so to have a good Sunday is awesome—and we once again watched a movie as a family via the Blu-Ray player. These things probably sound very simple, but for me, they are rare. It’s rare for me to just spend time kicking back with my entire family, and I loved it. It was very refreshing. Just thinking of tomorrow makes me sad, to think of being back to work and seeing my wife and kids pretty much for mealtimes and little else.

Sigh. Sorry, I feel like this got derailed a bit. I feel like I’m ending on a somber note, but I think it’s because I’m listening to a somber song right now and I just had some discipline problems arise with my oldest son. (He’s supposed to be going to sleep, and I just had to run into his room because I thought I heard something shatter. It was a false alarm—just a toy xylophone spilled all over the floor—but it happened because someone’s not following the rules and trying to sleep like he’s supposed to. His bed also has water droplets all over it because he’s throwing his water cup. I best not type the next few words I’d like to type.)

Honestly, it was a great weekend. All but the last few minutes.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Going Mental

As one would expect, school is in session and my online presence has largely evaporated. I know it’s still early on, but it’s a bit frightening that three weeks of the semester have already passed. That’s a decent-sized chunk of time, especially with all I need to be doing. I think I’ve been working diligently this semester, but it’s always a bit disheartening to compare how much time has passed with how much work has actually been accomplished. Somehow it’s never quite the ratio you had hoped for in the beginning. But what can you do? Oh yeah … work more, I guess.

So, for the two or three people who might pretend to care, I thought I’d say just a tiny bit more about what I’m doing this semester. As I’ve previously stated, I’m gearing up to do what’s called a “special area exam,” a customized four-hour essay exam that tests you on a rather specific topic within philosophy that you’re interested in. The goal is to home in on a fairly narrow topic, not something broad like “ethics” or “free will.” As for me, I am tackling the issue of mental action. What kinds of issues does that cover? Basically, it deals with questions concerning how much, or to what extent, our mental goings-on can be considered actions—that is, things that we do and not just things that happen to us. It’s easy to suppose that of course we do something when we think, but the point is, how much of our thought process is in our control? How much of our thought process should be deemed intentional? Or do our thoughts just kind of happen of their own accord? When we work on a math problem, do we have much choice about the way our thoughts unfold? Or is it fairly automatic, once we push ourselves in that direction? When we daydream, do we decide what we think about? The easy answer is ‘yes,’ but you can’t really choose ahead of time what you’ll think about, so in what sense do you control what actually pops up? Even if we actively cause the thoughts to come up, do we actually control what pops up? It’s tricky to see how, even though we’re inclined to think we do control it (or at least we’re so inclined before we start thinking too much about it, which is what philosophers do).

I’m interested in these types of questions because I feel that anyone interested in free will must ultimately confront them. If our actions stem from our thought processes, which seems obvious, then it matters a great deal whether or not certain of those processes are controlled, intentional, and/or free. It’s nice for me that I’m interested in this subject, because it’s a rather undeveloped and underexplored area in philosophy. There should be a lot of work to be done on it. I think it’s cool.

So, the way the special area exam works is as follows (with some variation, depending on one’s committee): the student compiles a reading list of approximately 15-20 essays (or comparable works, like chapters from a relevant book) on the topic of choice. The student has a committee of professors who oversee the exam, and the head of the committee must approve the reading list. Once the list is approved, the student studies those readings and makes up essay questions about them. (The committee might also construct essay questions on the readings.) Each essay question is designed to take approximately 10 typed pages to answer. Prior to the exam, the questions are narrowed down to four, and on the day of the exam, you’re given three of them and must write on two of them. You’re locked in a room with a computer—without books or notes, of course—and must write two essays on the spot. So, in a four-hour timeframe, you compose two 10-page essays. It’s a bit daunting, but you’ve helped design the exam yourself, so you should feel pretty good about it. Alternatively, you can do a take-home version of the exam, where you have a week but must write even more. The standards are higher for the take-home test, and it requires an oral defense. No thanks.

So that’s what I’m up against this semester, on top of my TA responsibilities and the one class I’m taking for credit. I remain hopeful. I have my reading list approved and I’m slowly working through it. I really hope to take the exam before Creegan gets here, but that’s not an absolute must. It really would work better with my school schedule, though, because shortly after Creegan arrives, I’ll have final papers both to be grading and writing. It would be nice to have the exam out of the way before then. I’d like to spend some time with my new son before he’s a month old!

And, speaking of babies and of mental action, check out this photo and headline from The Onion. There’s not a story to it, just a headline and a photo, but I find it hilarious—probably because of what I’m studying right now more than because it’s actually that funny.