Sunday, December 29, 2013

A tale of a devout old lady and an atheist neighbor – Differences of paradigms

Today at church, the sermon was given by a Lutheran German pastor whom I occasionally see visiting my church. In his sermon, he was telling a comedic story of a devout old woman who always praised God despite her circumstances. The old woman had a neighbor who was an atheist who was rather fond of mocking the old woman of her spirituality. The old woman went into financial difficulties one day. As she was praying in her house for God to come to her aid, the atheist thought of a plan to mock the old lady for her belief. He bought groceries, and left them outside the door of the old woman’s house. Then, he knocked a few times on the door, and quickly went to hide behind a bush and observe what happen. The old lady opened the door, and upon seeing the groceries, gave praise verbally to God for what she thought was an act of divine providence. The atheist neighbor sprang up to his feet, and remarked, “Aha! You silly woman, it was me who placed the food there and not God.” The old lady was undeterred and sang even more praise, saying “Praise God for providing, and even making an atheist pay for it!”

I am not too sure what I should be taking away from the story. Is it trying to say that the old lady was virtuous for being so pious in the way she sees all things as an act of God, despite the difficult circumstance and supposed “persecution” of her faith by the atheist neighbor? Is it trying to say that God can work through mediums that we might not perceive to be coming from him? Or perhaps, the story might be trying to say that there are different ways of perceiving the same thing, and where one sees that there is no God, another can interpret that there is God quite conversely.

I suppose different people can have different paradigms in viewing a similar situation. And it is possible that different paradigms might be equally good in interpreting or explaining an observation. I think that when people disagree with each other sometimes, they might perhaps be evaluating a set of observation according to their paradigm and fail to see that other paradigms may just be as effective or coherent. For example, where the atheist sees only natural processes, the believer sees God working through these processes. Where the atheist sees unfortunate circumstances as the absence of God, the believer sees these circumstances as possibly God’s will.

Is there a way to determine whose paradigm is right? One possible principle is Occam’s Razor, which states that amongst competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected. A common critique that I hear from the atheist side is that the attempt by believers’ to explain things with God is artificial or assumes too much. One parody that is used is that of the flying spaghetti monster, which satires a believer’s use of God as an explanation as being no different from another person use of a fictitious flying spaghetti monster to explain the thing as well.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The bold and the meek – personality types in a legal drama

I was watching an episode of Boston Legal yesterday evening. It was the second episode of season 3 which introduces some new characters to the cast. One of these characters was a guy named Jeffrey Coho. He played the archetype of the alpha-male mentality lawyer who comes right in on day one ready to show everyone else who is top of the league. I was thinking when I first saw that character that it would simply be a duplicate of Brad Chase, a junior partner at the firm who had appeared in the earlier two seasons of the episode. Jeffrey was confronted by Brad who attempted to put Jeffrey in his place by telling him that there was only one guy at the firm who could play the macho guy who gets all the women, and that was Brad himself.

I never quite find such characters likable. They tend though to appear as an stereotypical archetype in a lot of lawyer shows. The more recent production named Suits features a law firm consisting of such figures with such excessive alpha-male syndromes. I don’t identify myself with such characters, neither do I find them likable. I prefer characters which display a certain humane quality in their characters such as compassion and a desire to help the weak gain justice. For me, Alan Shore, played by James Spader is my favourite character amongst all lawyer characters in law dramas. I don’t find the other protagonist of law shows likable, whether this be Denny Crane, or Harvey Spector.

I wonder how far those at the law school where I am studying at display the alpha-male mentality. I guess there are a diversity of personalities and characters that I have encountered during my time at law school. I do see some fellow law student who seem to be trying to imitate the bad, brash behavior of the show protagonist in these law films. They come off as arrogant, and condescending. But there are also nice people, who display the more gentle, Christian qualities.

I sometimes wonder whether my more genial personality is suited to the legal profession especially when I watch these lawyer shows where the characters come off as being aggressive. I suppose there might be different roles in the legal profession suited for different people with different personalities. For example, being a litigator might be suited for someone who is able to handle the stress of competition, whilst a meeker, more meticulous person might be better at drafting corporate deals. But I want to be careful not to stereotype, and I dislike the idea that one has to come off as what seems to me to be a jerk in order to be successful at what he does.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A rumination about the nature of my religious faith

I have been thinking about my religious faith these days, and trying to best define what it’s exact nature is. I wonder whether the nature of my faith can be easily summarized in a categorical statement. I like to think of myself as a Christian, despite having doubts as to whether God exists, and whether Christianity is true or not. The biggest motivation for me is that I am not sure how an atheist find a basis to appraise moral values. Whether morality can find objective meaning without religion or God is a point of debate amongst academics, and I don’t profess to be able to definitively determine who is right on the matter. But let me elaborate from my laymen point of view. I do realize that there are really depraved and inhumane acts that take place in the world. One has only got to search the internet to know about such things. It utterly shocks me the extent of depravity that humans can descend to. It is unbounded only by the extent of human imagination. Now, some moral philosophers would seek to develop a comprehensive moral philosophy system to be able to determine morality without appeal to a standard provided by religion, such as utilitarianism. But there are things that I feel are not effectively dealt with using such paradigms of understanding morality. Some things just do not conform to the utilitarian mould in order to be considered “unwholesome”.

Perhaps then, the primary reason for my attraction towards the Christian religion is its ability to stipulate values that I believe are good and wholesome. I am not sure though how I first began to develop these sentiments of which values are good and wholesome, but I suspect that being brought up culturally in a Christian conservative environment might have instilled this state of mind in me. But I do realize from my past experiences that values varies from individual to individual and can change over time.

Now, I do know of Christians who would think that such a conception of the faith as being flawed. Some statements that I know that are passed around evangelical Christian circles are that Christianity is more than simply just morality, it is, primarily, about God. To think about Christianity according its morality reduces it to a functional tool, as much as some people embrace Christianity for its social functional value in that they wish to connect to a social community. There is a branch of practice known as Christian science which simply affirms Christian morality without subscribing to theological beliefs about the existence of God. I don’t think any church endorsing such beliefs exist in Singapore, but I think Christians here in Singapore should be aware of how diverse the practice of Christianity can be in other parts of the world, some that do not adhere to the conventional fundamentals firmly regarded in churches over here.

I have been thinking though to what extent should Christian morality or beliefs be adhered to. Is the morality prescribed in the bible comprehensive, or incontrovertible? As much as I like Christianity for its provision of a standard of morality to which I can find objectivity with. For example, I am not exactly too impressed with the Christian conception of hell, or of some forms of blasphemy being unforgivable.

There are a few things though which I find difficult about Christianity. They are, the apparent absence of God, and the presence of evil and suffering. Moreover, it seems like my prayers for specific things rarely gets answered. I just can’t connect the dots as to why God would want to make his existence so concealed to those who believe in him. Honestly, I don’t have much confidence in God to grant me the things that I ask him for, or to protect me against unfortunate circumstances with guarantee. Bad things happen to all people, good or bad, prayers or no prayers.

So what exactly can I call myself if I am not sure in the existence of God or the truth of Christianity, but am predilectably predisposed towards a belief, and towards subscription of Christain morality and values, whilst at the same time somewhat unsure about how rigid an adherence to the stipulated morality and values must be, but not so unfundamentalist as to discard stipulations that do not appeal to me. In addition, I am someone who places more confidence in the operation of naturalistic process in reality than in supernatural intervention, and therefore don’t place too much faith in the fulfillment of specific requests in personal prayers or ministry, but at the same time, not someone who denies that God is somehow working concealedly behind these naturalistic instruments. Also, I don’t believe that Christianity results in the perfection of human beings, or the correction of the flaws of an individual. And I don’t think that those who practice or minister Christianity are infallible. And I am open to being skeptical about conventional conservative Christianity, while am at the moment predisposed towards seeing the values espoused as positive in nature.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A write-up about writing

Today, I want to examine the topic of writing. I don’t exactly know how to go about writing this post about writing, but I will try to talk about all the stuff that I have on my mind on such a topic in an enjoyable and coherent way.

When one reads a good article of some kind about some topic, the content that is delivered unfolds smoothly and coherently, as if the author had simply narrated the entire content from the tip of his head. The method and effort to craft out that article might be obscured from this rather face-value depiction. When I try to write out a post, as I am doing right now with this article about writing, I am quite readily met with the daunting situation of a blank page with the faintest idea of some things that I would like to write about this topic of writing. Let me describe a little of my initial thought process in going about to write this article as I do with some of my articles on this blog.

I experience the dilemma in knowing how I am going to write what I want to write. Should I simply start the page typing away and see where that leads? For this article at least, I chose to first hash out all the ideas that came to my head on a blank page of Microsoft words in what can be roughly described as brainstorming. Ideas on contents and associated materials that could be included in this article would come into my mind, and I would jot this down on the paper. I try, as far as possible, to organize these ideas in such a way that they would fall in place sequentially, but I sometimes find it difficult to know where to place an idea on the list after putting so many of them down on the page, and quite frankly, I don’t like the trouble of being too rigorous in organizing these ideas too meticulously. I notice that I had simply written down the phrase “how to write” on my first line, but I didn’t find it easy to write from there. So I decided to type out the introduction passage that you see write now at the top of this article. I thought that it might be good for the learning process if I “print-screen” my drafts and paste the image on my blog, but I figured that would be a little more tedious and I would have to take the trouble to find out how to paste the pictures correctly on the blog. So I am editing the draft as I go along.

I notice that as I write, some other ideas about what I can write comes into my mind, and I write these down at the end of my article so that I would not forget to include them. For instance, I am reminded of a book I read by Christopher Hitchens titled Mortality quite some time ago, and I am prodded about a point I observed in his writing in that book that I would like to mention in this article. Well, I guess since I already start mentioning Christopher Hitchens, I might as well shift over that point to this passage and explain what I would like to mention about his writing in that book. Now, I have read it somewhere before that Christopher Hitchens is quite a masterful writer, and during his living years, he was a contributor to Vanity Fair. I haven’t really read much of his written work, but I do get the impression that he must have quite an eloquence in expression when I watch youtube videos of him debating for the atheist side on topics of religion. In that book, Christopher Hitchens was writing about his experience and thoughts as he battled cancer. He finally succumbed to the disease after about a year or so and passed away in 2011. The book was published posthumously, and an unfinished chapter which contained his “fragmentary jottings” were included. What strikes me upon reading this “fragmentary jottings” section was how disjointed these writings seemed to be as compared to his prose in the earlier chapters. There were the dashes of eloquence, but they do not complete. It seemed to me as if he left them there with the intent of writing more about them, or including them into his essay later. But I inferred that he did have some sort of method to writing his pieces, and these fragmentary jottings were like the scaffolding that he erected before filling them up to form his article.

Whew, I have written to this part so far and it has taken me at least an hour or so? I am afraid I sometimes find myself losing the energy to continue writing, and have the tendency to postpone my writing to another day. But I don’t like to do that because I may lose interest or ideas altogether and not finish the piece. I also wonder whether I take too long to write. I did delete and rewrite some of my sentences a couple of times. I feel that I might be a little inefficient in my speed of writing which does affect my performance to write in severely time-constraint law school exams. This especially so since a law school paper is hand-written, thus making it difficult to edit my sentences or adding in new points after writing down the content. Some professors can be really not understanding about this aspect of technical problem faced and penalize for untidy submission if there are too many arrows drawn all over the script to add in points that were added out as afterthoughts, something which I find myself having a tendency to make. I would think that education faculties at NUS ought to find a way in which computers can be used to type out pieces in exam settings, but I haven’t quite figured out a way to prevent the practical problem of students cheating by using the internet to confer with one another. I am also still not sure what would be the best way to go about doing a law school exam question. Should I spend sometime organizing first before writing, or jot down my answers on my script and write at the get-go on the blank paper? Furthermore, the thing about law school questions is that they are application based, in that I have to refer to the law and apply it to the facts given. The format may be summed up in the acronym CRUPAC which stands for : Conclusion, Rule and Rule proof, application to facts, and conclusion on how the ruling would turn on the facts of the hypothetical question once again. It might thus require a different method from brainstorming out contents and filling them up. Correct citations must also be given, and I sometimes have difficulty remembering the case name where I got the law from.

Speaking of which, I wonder whether I have the problem of rambling in my writing and going off-point. I feel that I have a little of what can be described as a one-track mind which sometimes hitches onto an associated idea and start talking at lengths about them before going back on point. I have read on Wikipedia that circumstantiality is a communication disorder associated with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and I do think that I suffer from some features of OCD. Sometimes, I lose my train of thoughts. It can be difficult for me to put on hold a certain thought in my head while entertaining another. So when I get distracted by a certain thought, I might totally forget about the thought that I originally had. It may takes me a while to recall the thought I originally had. But I would jot down the passing thought as I am also afraid of losing the passing thought if I ignore it and focus on the initial thought that I had on hand.

Perhaps the reason why I have been finding writing hard is because I had not been writing in a competitive sense after being in the army for two years for national service, and had lost somewhat the skill of writing. The way to go about writing might not be as intuitive to me as it used to be.

I also feel that my vocabulary is a little too sterile for my liking. I have encountered materials from the internet and elsewhere where the writer presents his piece in quite beautiful and eloquent terms. And I feel my writing just doesn’t quite match up to that standard in terms of expression and vocabulary prowess. However, when it comes to the study of law, the language used is rather sterile and clinical as well, so it shouldn’t be too much of a hindrance if a person does not have too wide a vocabulary range.

The easiest kinds of piece to write for me are those that don’t require too much research. Eg: A thoughtpiece on something that comes to my mind like this. I am trying writing thoughtpieces based on some material that I read or see, which I find a little more difficult as I usually don’t find myself having an opinion upon reading something. It is even more difficult when a piece requires that I research, process the data, and deliver them in a coherent format. I never knew that it was quite so difficult until I entered law school and had to write law memos. Researching the copious amount of text from case law, and linking the bits to map out the milieu of the law, before applying them to the facts seems a little above my intellectual capacity, and I find myself stuck often.

Perhaps I might be better in numbers or in the sciences, although I am skeptical about my abilities in such areas as well. I was the usual B student with the occasional A in those subjects when I was in junior college, but I was inconsistent enough such that I could flunk them as well. If the SAT is any good measure on where my aptitude lies, then numbers is certainly the indication. Out of a maximum possible score of 800 for each section, with 700 being an excellent score for application to the Ivy league universities in America, I scored above 700 for math, whereas my writing section is somewhat a little below 700. It’s way above average nonetheless, but simply not good enough for the ivy leagues. And I have taken a psychometric test before administered by the ministry of education for prospective scholarship holders, and scored average amongst the batch taking it where it comes to pattern and numbers, but disappointingly below average where it comes to verbal reasoning. I wonder whether this is any good indication for me that I should have pursued a degree in an area that taps more on my strength rather than in law where I might suffer some natural deficit in aptitude.

Nevertheless, I do enjoy the studying in the field of language somewhat more than I did when I studied for the math and science based subjects in junior college. I prefer studying concepts in natural language rather than in symbols and technical terms. I envy those who come off eloquent because they appear smarter. But as I have come to realize, those eloquent people may not necessarily be good in the study of law. Conversely, there are people who do very well in law in the cohort who I feel are not exactly that eloquent. And furthermore, those who do well at law might not be good in numbers or the sciences as some law school friends have shared with me about their struggles with those subjects in junior college.

I still have the bad habit of being too eager to publish my blog writings upon writing them instead of patiently reading it through at least once and revising it to make it better. I guess there is that eagerness to want to get those words out there into the blogosphere where they are expressed, but I realize that it probably would be better to review them and improve the piece before publishing it.

I redeveloped the interest to blog sometime about last year after reading another person’s blog, and discovering that there is indeed quite a joy for oneself to be able to express oneself in writing, and for someone else to read your writing and realize that a human being quite like themselves can be identified in you. I haven’t been writing on my blog as frequently as I had wanted to because I have been struggling with my preoccupation with tension headaches, and found it difficult to focus on writing when my mind keeps thinking about my tension headache. I have been on about a month now on the antidepressant Prozac for treatment of OCD and it has helped reduce my preoccupation, as well as reduced the intensity of my tension headache. So I have found myself now at least functionable enough to write this piece.

Feel free to comments on your personal experience and methods on writing. Is there anything in my description that you can identify with in your own method or style of writing?

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