Nature and Artifice in Structure

[This is a continuation of the last post ‘Experiencing Function’. I do welcome comments and responses on what I’ve written, especially since many of those who usually read what I write actually study music or are practitioners.]

In the last post, I suggested that the experience of function in music is the experience of live possibilities as governed by a set of rules, the rules of harmony. I promised to discuss two further related questions, namely: (1) How do these rules make the possibilities salient to us? and (2) What is the status of these rules: are they merely formal constructs or are they somehow natural or innate? I then try to extend some of these findings to two other areas: logic and narrativity.

Convention in Structure

Strictly speaking, the rules of the harmony are but a set of rules, a formal structure: they dictate to us the function of the various notes and chords. How does a formal structure enliven certain possibilities for us? There is a fairly straightforward way in which this is possible — this is by actually learning the structure deliberately or by some kind of social pressure. Consider the rules of chess. Each of the pieces can only move in certain ways, the knight moves in an L-shape, the bishop moves diagonally and so on. If I observe a game of chess before I learn the rules the game would make no sense to me. Without understanding the legitimate moves, I would not understand why the pawn may not simply go off and knock the king off his rocker. It is only as I learn the rules of the game, deliberately or gradually by observing others, that I observe the game as a series of live possibilities. Only certain moves are legitimate, are ‘live’. A game would be played beautifully by a player only if he manages to artfully navigate his pieces according to the formal rules.

Using chess as an example would seem to suggest that in some sense the rules of harmony are conventional. I think this is true to some extent. Consider another larger scale formal structure in music that is somewhat based on the rules of harmony, the fabled sonata form. The sonata form governs not micro chord progressions but the various parts of certain pieces of music — it is somewhat based on the rules of harmony, however, specifically on the primacy of the tonic. (Very roughly, a sonata form always begins and ends in the initial key, throughout the music passes through other keys and passes through an stormy section known as the development where both harmony and melody are developed and extended in various ways, with the harmony tensely anticipating the return of the initial key. Think of it as some kind of musical home-coming story) The sonata form must be learnt in order to be appreciated — without it, the sonata would barely make any cohesive sense, or would be enjoyed as simply discrete sections of music. In fact, the very genius of many composers lies not in their adherence but in their transcendence of the sonata form — presupposing it but subverting it in various ways to electrifying psychological effect. This effect, however, is only felt by the discerning listener, one who has been led by convention to expect certain possibilities and is pleasantly surprised to find them subverted. This conventionality is more evident in the larger formal structure than in the rules of harmony itself, though I believe it is also present there to some degree.

[I digress here and have to add: here is wherein I believe the very definition of art music and pop music lie. Art music always has a form, but the genius of composers lie in their both presupposing and transcending the form at the same time. To simply re-use the form would be lazy, creating some pastiche as most of popular music does. To cast off form completely would result in mere noise: like one who plays chess and then decides that the pawn can move like a queen or that the game can continue when the king is dead. Some contemporary music falls into this category, some others do something more interesting: they contrive a new formal structure and play around in it, I discuss this possibility in a bit.]

The Experience of Natural Structures

Nonetheless, this cannot be the entire picture. There is a sense in which the formal structure is not merely learned but in some sense discovered. The rules of harmony are not laid down completely arbitrarily as say the rules of chess or checkers are. Instead, they purport to describe something we naturally or instinctively experience. Presumably, even before the rules of harmony were formalised, people already had a natural sense of harmony, they felt that certain notes in certain contexts tended to go well together resulting in the formalisation of various modes and scales. Furthermore, the specific kind of experience generated in the experience of function is a lot more rich than that of one who anticipates a myriad of possibilities of chess moves, they are imbued, to borrow a visual metaphor, with a number of colours. It is not merely that the dominant chord anticipates the tonic, but that this movement or anticipation generates a specific phenomenological experience, one that feels like a kind of closure — ditto for the various other kinds of progressions. Therefore, while it is true to say that there is some element of conventionality in music, at bottom there is a certain sense in which the rules of harmony are formalised subsequent to their being experienced as such.

Talk of the naturalness of the rules of harmony, especially as formulated by the old white men of the western classical tradition is sometimes met with accusations of western hegemony. There may be some truth to this suggestion — I concede that that there is some conventionality in play here. Yet I think it would be fantastic to suggest that the entire system is an artifice. Even in other musical traditions (of which I have only a passing acquaintance), the interplay between the tonic and dominant notes in a mode is still a prominent feature. An fruitful consideration here would be to examine formal musical structures that are really invented artifices. One finds such a trend in much of modern music: Schoenberg is such a case. He turns his back on the normal harmonic structure of the classical tradition, but interestingly he does not cast structure off completely; instead, he contrives a new one — what is called the 12-tone technique or serialism. I don’t pretend to understand or appreciate the system fully, but in each iteration of the system there are certain rules that govern the music. Have a listen to one such example below:

What strikes the untrained listener is probably how confusing it all sounds. One does not know what to expect and the notes that come out seem random. They are not in fact random but are the product of following a different set of rules from the ones which we are used to. This suggests that the expectations are in some sense unnatural — they are not the ones we are naturally led to expect.

Now, it might be suggested that the reason why it sounds in this manner despite there being a structure could be due to the fact that unlike the classical rules of harmony, Schoenberg’s system has not yet achieved the privilege of having hegemonic status. If one is sufficiently familiar with its rules and after it has been more widely adopted, perhaps we would come to experience its possibilities as live in the same manner we do the usual rules of harmony. Perhaps, according to the possibly apocryphal quote of Schoenberg, “milkmen would whistle his tunes”.

Let me suggest three responses to this. Firstly, I think there is some truth to the fact that more acquaintance with Schoenberg’s system would allow one to better experience his music. I have been in concerts with more careful listeners who are able to discern the structure and intentions of such esoteric composers. Perhaps the learned and discerning listener experiencing this is like one who experiences live possibilities in a game of chess after having mastered the rules — the moves are now live to him because they have been learned. Secondly, despite this, I do think that there is a manifest difference in the experience of the live possibilities as a result of learning purely formal rules and the corresponding experience when the possibilities are given naturally. The natural possibilities, in the first place, do not have to be learnt — and they carry with them distinct phenomenological qualities, the closure, anticipation etc. that I have been gesturing at. The experience or pleasure that one derives from experiencing the learned possibilities might feel more ‘intellectual’, for lack of a better word. This might suggest why Schoenberg’s prediction about the milkmen have yet to come true.

Thirdly, while I do think that there is a natural innate set of possibilities, I do not think that they necessarily have been completely represented in our current systems of harmony, not least those expressed in the western tradition. There might be new harmonic possibilities that are naturally coherent to us but that we have yet to formulate and composers may be able to grasp these somewhat intuitively. Indeed in Schoenberg’s music, one sometimes catches a whisk of such moments when the music seems to convey something — perhaps it is him as a composer intuitively mapping out some natural harmonic possibility while studiously avoiding some of the hackneyed ones. This is purely speculative of course, but the diversity of harmonic systems in various cultures ought give us some humility into thinking that the set of harmonic rules formulated in the West represent the only natural set.

Dependence and Transcendence

Let me step outside this seemingly neutral analysis of the issue here and make a normative suggestion that I have hinted at already. I believe that the task of the artist is to work within the natural set of possibilities and to transcend them at the same time. This calls for some humility — to step completely outside the natural set of possibilities would result in utter cacophony, mere sound. Nonetheless, while we should not too quickly cast off the ancient harmonic forms, it calls for boldness in that we must not assume that all the harmonic possibilities have been discovered or that artists should simply parrot the music of old. And I mention this again, but art must both presuppose and transcend its form, it must be intelligible and fresh, it must be ancient and new. Thus, there must be room for some sort of artifice in art — and yet the artifice must be in some ways rooted in nature. The sonata form for example, is somewhat based on the harmonic system; it is possible that the larger forms created by other composers may be rooted in natural possibilities as well, grasped somewhat intuitively. A lot more can be said here, and indeed many more qualifications need to be made, but I hope the general direction is sufficiently clear.

There is therefore an interesting interplay between nature and artifice in creating art. And in some ways the very task reflects our ontological status before God: as a created being, we are dependent on him and the natural possibilities he offers us — they are rich and wonderful, to step outside them is a kind of hubris. And yet as image bearers of God, we mimic in a dependent way his creative acts: as he creates new things, so do we out of the materials that he has offered us — such is our task, we must not shirk it or be lazy. We must sing to God ancient truths in a new song. (Psalm 33, 96 et. al.)

Some Extensions: Logic and Narrativity

In this last section I very briefly sketch two areas in which similar phenomenon seem to occur and in which a similar analysis might be extended. My familiarity with these topics is even more sketchy and so I dare not say much.

Firstly, the experience of logical inferences appear to be similar to music. There is a canon of logical rules in the West, the fountainhead of which is Aristotle’s syllogisms, that appear to some today as nothing but a bunch of formal rules and mere convention. And then there is a proliferation of new formal systems of para-consistent logics from the contemporary era, and some from non-western traditions. Certainly the task of logic is not the same as that of art, (on my naive view, its main task should be but aiming at the truth), but I wonder if one can, by reflecting on one’s experience of the various rules of inference, distinguish the natural rules from the merely conventional ones. When I encounter the usual logical rules and move from one proposition to another by logical inference, there is a certain phenomenological experience that I have, when I try to do the same with the non-standard logics, a more jarring experience occurs. I dare not say more.

A second area in which a fruitful connection might be made is with the area of narrativity. Let me consider this first in relation to the field of historical writing, with which I am somewhat more familiar. Historiographers such as Hayden White have noted that in writing history, historians are compelled to adopt one of various generic plot structures such as romance, comedy, tragedy, epic etc. And he notes that this structure seems to float above the facts of history, in the sense that historians can agree about the facts of the case but that they still disagree about how specifically to ‘emplot’ the case. For example, the French revolution has been variously narrated as a story of progress, of tragic decline and of comedy. The decision to make of which facts are relevant and which areas of history to focus on are all governed by the narrative structure, but the structure itself seems to be independent of the facts. Most importantly, the narrative structure provides coherence to the events, attempts to evade it by simply dictating all that has happened result in one feeling as though the historical events have not been explained.

Once again, the status of these narrative structures come into question — are they purely artificial? Were they the result of simply taking the familiar plot forms of the old myths and tales and re-using them for other purposes? Yet from where did the writers and tellers of those tales pluck out these forms in the first place? Surely, the narrative forms must firstly have been experienced before they were formalised. The way we experience history and past events, or perhaps the way we understanding them in the first place is through these structures which are somehow inherent in the way we experience the world. Furthermore the inescapability of these narrative structures parallels the fact that to step outside the natural rules of harmony in music is to lead to incomprehensibility. These are somehow natural structures that we come to experience before they are formalised. There have been narratives before there were narrativists.

Simply because a certain structure is not merely formal but natural in some sense does not yet fully answer the question about how a narrative structure is related to truth. Still, some kind of objectivity may be purchased because if we concede that the natural forms are to be privileged, it provides a heavy constraint on historical writing. Given that there are indeed a set of natural structures, we cannot simply formulate any kind of structure we want with which to explain historical events. These structures have constraints of their own, although there is some leeway on how one might emplot an event: not everything can be a tragedy or comedy, at least not in the same way. However, to answer the question about the relation of historical narrative to truth or historical reality is a far more difficult task.

Here is my intuition of a Christian response to the problem: given that God stands as the ontological ground of the world and that God is personal, it is possible that he understands historical events in a narrative fashion as well. A narrative is true or objective insofar as it corresponds to the narrative that God experiences or fashions in the world. The variety of possible emplotments is no barrier to this formulation: there is no reason why God should not experience or fashion events such that they could be understood under various narrative frameworks. The history of salvation (or if you like, Heilsgeschichte) in fact is understood under various narrative forms in Scripture, it has been described variously as a romance (the pursuit of God’s people), epic (the victory of the serpent-crusher, the coming of the kingdom of God) and perhaps even comedy (John Frame mentions this in connection to Psalm 2:4, I’m half convinced).

I’m sure more connections can be made with narrativity as it is found in literary texts, though I am less familiar with this. The proliferation of new narrative forms in literature mirrors the proliferation of new harmonic forms in music: both the result of a studious avoidance of the ancient forms. Some of these new forms may in fact reflect natural experiences that the ancient systems may have yet formalised: the streams-of-consciousness style of writing may fall into this category. Yet others who are far more experimental or who try to cast off narrative structure completely again fall into incomprehensibility. Once again there is a similar interplay between nature and artifice.

Experiencing Function

[This was initially conceived as a fun post for me to write down my amateurish quasi-psychological/phenomenological musings. Somehow my thoughts became more serious as I continued write to the extent that it seems best to extend my thinking into two posts. Note that some of what is written may require some musical background. Also, I often post my entire writing on Facebook for people who find clicking on links a tiresome task (like myself) — I am not doing that this time because there are pictures and embedded audio which won’t appear on Facebook.]

What I wish to do in this post and the next is to put down some of my thoughts on the experience of music — it’s really an effort to put down some reflections that I have had for quite a while. Much of what I mention may appear painfully obvious to anyone who has had some musical training. Yet I think a closer introspection into our experience of music will prove fruitful in elucidating an interesting aspect of such experience. Specifically, I want to examine how we experience function in music and suggest that the phenomena of function is not in fact a sound. In other words we do not strictly speaking ‘hear’ function. Following this, I want to make some speculative suggestions on how the experience of function might be explained and, I hope, fruitfully extend it to other analogous areas of experience.

Isolating the Experience

To understand what I mean by function, let me try to describe and isolate the specific phenomenology that I am thinking of. By doing so, I hope to show that the experience of function is not a auditory experience, in other words, experiencing function in music is not hearing something. What does it mean to hear something? According to prevailing scientific opinion, the experience of sound is the result of sound waves entering the ear. Depending on the wave, its frequency, amplitude, and form (I think this is the word), what we hear varies — frequency determines the pitch of the sound (whether it is high or low), amplitude its volume (whether it is loud or soft) and form its timbre (e.g. a middle C played on a piano sounds different from a middle C played on a violin). There is a parallel here with visual experience — what we see is dependent on the light waves that enter our eye. Depending on the frequency of the wave, we see variations in colours, depending on its amplitude, we see variations in intensity — a combination of the two gives us the notion of various hues of colours.

Notice, however, that in the experience of music we also experience what musicians call harmony, which is the result of a progression of a cluster of notes (a chord). There are certain rules guiding this progression, some of which are tastefully transgressed at times but often still presupposed. These are the rules of musical harmony. In this framework, each piece of music revolves around a primary note, known as the tonic (or pitch-centre) and will be governed by a certain mode (thus we say that a piece is in A major, C minor and so on) — every note and chord will have a specific function once the tonic and mode are determined (i.e. its key). Note that the function of each note is not a product of its corresponding sound wave (a C still sounds like a C in whatever context) but is determined by its context, namely the key.

So far, this sounds like simply restating in a complex manner what everyone has learnt in Grade 5 theory. Yet I think this experience is actually fairly mysterious. One notices the strangeness when one reflects on the context-dependence on this phenomenon. In other words, the fact that the harmony or function that we experience of the same notes change when its harmonic context changes. Now, that certain experiences are context-dependent is nothing particularly novel. Our visual experience is also commonly susceptible to context dependence — take the famous checker shadow illusion as seen below. The two squares, A and B, are in fact of the same shade of grey, but the context has altered our perception of the shade such that one appears lighter than the other. (google ‘wiki checker shadow’ to see proof that they are indeed the same shade) However, consider what exactly the context alters in our experience of the two squares: it is the very hue or shade of the colour itself i.e. the visual experience, the very sight of the squares. However, the alteration of our experience of the same note or chord in a different context is emphatically not an alteration of the auditory experience — we still experience the exact same pitch, timbre, volume (assuming the latter two are kept constant) — something else, something that isn’t a sound, changes.


Let me say a bit more to isolate this experience for you. This part will require some acquaintance with music. Think about the C Major chord (the notes C, E, G played simultaneously). In the key of C major, this chord is the tonic chord, whereas in the key of F major, it is the dominant chord. The chord sounds the same in both situations, and yet is experienced differently: the appearance of the C major chord in the C major key is experienced (especially at the end of a perfect cadence) with some kind of closure to it or perhaps stability (one struggles to describe such things in words), in the F major key however, the chord is experienced as causing some tension or as generating anticipation. However, especially if you have perfect pitch, you will be able to tell that they are the same old notes.

Consider a different example: the experience of melodic intervals. (This relates more to the context dependence in the experience of specific notes rather than chords). In the key of B major, the notes B and D# are described as in the interval of a major third, whereas in the key of C minor, the same notes, B and Eb (enharmonic of D#, i.e. the same note on the keyboard or whatever) are described as in the interval of a diminished 4th. Few actually know that the change in the description of the intervals are really to mark a change in function. The interval in the context of B major will sound pleasant, whereas the very same interval in the context of C minor will sound gaping and jarring. If you don’t believe me, try it out yourself: play a B major scale (five sharps in case you forgot) and then play B followed by D# and then play a C minor scale (three flats) followed by the same notes. (cf. Beethoven’s last sonata, first movement, where I got the example from). [Alternatively, play the example below. The relevant notes are the last two notes of each phrase, the rest help to set the context, B major first and then C minor] Notice that the two notes sound the same, you should be able to recognise this if you follow the example, but at the same time they are experienced very differently.


Function as the Experience of Live Possibilities

Hopefully I have helped you to locate what exactly I mean by the experience of function and have convinced you that it is not heard (it does not correspond to auditory experience, since the notes or chords are heard as having the same pitch etc.) but somehow experienced. What then is this experience? Here is my suggestion as to what that experience is: the experience of function is in some sense the experience of a set of live possibilities.

What do I mean by live possibilities here? Let me take a step back and talk about live possibilities in general. [The thought here is drawn from McCulloch’s Using Sartre pp. 35-36 though with some modification.] What does it mean to say that some x is possible? There are many senses of possibility at play. Of the broadest scope is perhaps logical possibility, where some x is logically possible as long as it is not a contradiction. And so consider the scenario where I will soon be suddenly transported to the moon and find that there is a nice summer resort there — the scenario is fantastic, but there is nothing logically inconsistent with this scenario, it is logically possible. There is also epistemic possibility, where some scenario x is epistemically possible if it is consistent with what I currently know — the above scenario would be epistemically impossible in this case. But neither of these are relevant here, what we want is live possibility. But what is it for some possibility x to be a live possibility? It is hard to describe, but that possibility x must be a salient possibility for me. This is not the same as epistemic possibility — there could be a range of possibilities that are consistent with what I know but only a number of them could be salient to me. For example, say I wake up one day and find that my parents are not in their room. It may well be consistent with what I know, after considering all the evidence I have, that they may have been kidnaped, but this is not a possibility salient to me. What is salient is the possibility that they left early and are already out etc. This is a live possibility for me.

What determines what the live possibilities are? Perhaps desire or expectation or something else, whatever makes those possibilities salient. What about our musical case? Here I suggest that the salient possibilities are in fact determined by its musical context, namely its pitch-centre and mode, i.e. its key. Each key has a formal structure (the rules of harmony) that mark out the permissible moves that are available after each note or chord, the harmony can only resolve in certain ways and only certain notes are made available. Of course, this formal structure is often subverted, but even in its subversion the very structure is still presupposed. My proposal is thus that what one experiences when one experiences function is in some sense the spectre of live possibilities as governed by the rules of harmony.

Our exploration might still feel somewhat incomplete at the stage. Given that the experience of function is the experience of live possibilities as governed by a set of rules, the rules of harmony, further questions arise. How do these rules make the possibilities salient to us? What exactly are these rules: are they merely formal constructs or are they somehow natural or innate? I think these two questions are related, in a subsequent post, I provide some speculation regarding these questions and try to extend it to other areas of thought.

Crazy? Them? Me, You? Who’s Crazy?

What is normality?

Who is abnormal? Who is weird? Who is crazy?

I recently had a conversation with a friend, who expressed her disappointment that someone she knew said that she wanted to work with “the crazy ones” when she really meant that she wanted to work with psychiatric patients. I confessed to her, “You know…I’m sorry, but you’ll be disappointed to know that I use the same terms (kind of, maybe “weird” instead)…….By the way, what’s crazy? Who’s crazy?” A disclaimer: People who know me know very well that when I use such labels, it’s a challenge to the term “craziness/ weirdness”. “Oh, they’re crazy. Okay, how do you know you aren’t crazy or that I’m not crazy?”

I am a firm believer that craziness and it’s opposite, normality, are societal constructs. They are somewhat useful (e.g in deciding where limited resources should go to), but they need to be challenged too. Think about it. Why do we call psychiatric patients who are institutionalized crazy? Why are they crazy? That’s because they aren’t blending into what society expects them to do. And why am I normal? That’s because I’m surviving (even if it means having my nose just above the water bobbing up and down) and performing the tasks of what society expects me to do. Do we differ phenomenologically very much? I doubt so.

Recently, I’ve started volunteering at a mental health institute, and reflecting on the sessions in addition to my past volunteering experiences in a children’s home for the mentally challenged, I commented to my brother, “It’s so remarkable, how stripped of all our fronts and appearances, how similar all of us are.” These individuals are genuinely happy when we bring sugared drinks and snacks for them, and so are they, when they receive the company and interaction of fellow humans. Doesn’t that sound like you and me? Though perhaps these common human desires take more sophisticated forms for us.

Recently also, I’ve been been doing an online biblical counseling course, where the prof discussed an individual with paranoid schizophrenia. He reminds students not to reduce individuals to their diagnosis, and to hold on to the truth that we share a common humanity. In his grandiosity, the individual experiences a manifestation of the pride we all to some degree experience– the desire for ourselves to be in the centre of the world instead of God. In his fear of persecution, the individual experiences a manifestation of the fear of man we all go some degree experience– the fear of what others think about or will do to us instead of resting in God’s perfect satisfaction in us in Christ.

In church/ Christian circles, it is commonly said that the line dividing good and evil resides within of us. Similarly, if I may extend this phrase, the line dividing normality and abnormality resides within of us. We all share the same story line. We are made in the image of God, but sin and the brokenness of this world has marred this image. We share the same wiring of desires, dissatisfaction, and sinfulness in this world, but also reflecting some beautiful image despite all these. I remembered witnessing a lady in the institute sharing her only chocolate cake with a friend, of whom then went ahead to offer to share her cake with me, and I thought to myself, “wow, such generosity”. I might just have eaten the cake up myself in both their shoes. Who knows.

Long story short. Next time you call someone crazy/ weird/ abnormal/ mad, look carefully– you might find some within yourself 😉 If you encounter any of the “crazy”, be a little more accepting and less afraid. We are more similar than we’re comfortable to believe– good or bad.

Two Veils: Reflections on a trip to Myanmar

The last few days I have spent with my church on a trip to Myanmar, visiting one of our partner churches there and conducting a summer english camp. It was an immensely encouraging and humbling trip, seeing that we serve a living God who indeed is working in this world and to see his glory in his church. I’ve decided to write down for myself two affecting thoughts that have struck me on the trip.

A Veil on Glory 

The first thought came through a scene that served for me as a parable. On Sunday, we attended the church service of our partner church here. Of course, the service was conducted in Burmese, a language which I barely understood. And yet I sat there listening to them singing their songs with a passion, making out at times the words for ‘God’ and ‘Jesus Christ’. I wondered then, what glories they must be singing about Jesus, what they could possibly be saying about him? What majestic greatness or tender mercy are they recalling to mind as they sing with such passion? It was as though the glory of God was literally right before me, and yet it was veiled.

The scene served as a parable to me. Surely, the whole of creation reveals the Glory of God! Does not the Psalmist say,

“The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.” (Psalm 65:12-13)

The creation rings with the glory of God! It is all around us, as if we were in a kind of perpetual worship service, and yet we cannot see or hear the lyrics. But ah! What glories might they be singing? And surely it is not just the singing of natural creation, but the apostle says that when we gather in worship every Sunday, we

“come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.” (Hebrews 12:22-24)

If only we could hear and see these things — we are distracted by the songs we may not like, or the people who might be annoying or our pride that gets in our way, but oh this does not hinder the glory which is veiled from us.

After the service we followed the pastor and some of his congregation to visit a house and attend the death anniversary of a man who was the father of one of our congregants. There I saw what I believed must be one of the most beautiful sights I have laid my eyes on. I saw this girl with down syndrome struggling to sing a hymn in the same language which I did not understand. Perhaps it was the jarring nature of the scene that drew me to it, the sound that she made was to me a coarse grunting and mumbling as she attempted to pronounce the words of the song. I later found out that this girl and her family were relatively recent converts to the church, who cared for and loved them after they found themselves in dire straits. I wonder what God might have heard as she sang. Surely to him it was a voice sweeter than than the chorus of angels and more enchanting and sublime than their music. I imagined that he would break into a smile, beaming as his daughter sang to him. Oh God, open my eyes to see these things all around me!

We had been going through Philippians as part of our morning devotions throughout the trip, but as I read the first chapter again on the plane back, a thought struck me. As Paul reflects on his then incarceration in a Roman prison, writing the letter to the Philippians, he ponders whether he would prefer to die or to live. He notes:

“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.” (Philippians 1:21-26)

Something initially appears strange here. Paul has clearly said that if he dies he will be with Christ, and claims that this is a really great thing. And yet he seems fairly okay with the possibility that he remains to be with the church at Philippi. But surely, there could be nothing better than being with Christ! Indeed this is true, but I am inclined to think with some speculation that to be with the church on earth is pretty comparable with being with Christ in heaven. For Christ is the redeemer who dwells in the presence of his people. Indeed, Paul did not say that ‘for me to live is gain and to die is Christ’ (thought that would be true in a different sense) but that ‘for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain’ — to live is Christ, to live and to see the church again is Christ, to see the people he has saved and to be among the community of the saints is to be among the people with whom God has promised to dwell with and never forsake — that is Christ. Do we see the church of God in this way?

In my very interactions with those from Singapore and my friends from Myanmar, I felt indeed the glory of Christ with us. These were people from vastly different backgrounds from me, from our team there were those from various countries, life stages, social and educational backgrounds and a frustrating and beloved roommate and team leader; and of course we worked with men and women there with whom we shared even less in common. And yet as I spoke to them, I found a brokenness and softness that I understood and a deep joy that comes from knowing Jesus. I heard of a constant struggle to remain faithful and a burden for the coming of the kingdom and the preaching of the gospel. They felt like my very family. As we all gathered for dinner with our partners and their youth leaders one evening, I remember just feeling such joy as we interacted, truly they were my brothers and sisters and father and mother and children. I don’t remember another trip that I had laughed as much as I did. Who but God can bring such a disparate group together in such a loving way?

A Veil on Suffering 

Yet it is surely not only glory that is veiled from our eyes, but sin and suffering as well. The trip opened my eyes to see that beneath the surface there is so much pain in this world. It was not so much the relative poverty that they were in or the rudimentary housing that they had, it was the broken families, the fathers who left their children, the parents who compel their children to go far off to work instead of studying — it was these that struck me. Knowing more about the stories of these children reminded me that beneath their cheeky smiles might be tears that have dried in the sweltering heat. One of my team leaders wept as she spoke to one of the children there who was compelled to go to the city to work at a tender age, but had come for the first day of the camp because he remembered the fun he had the previous year before he needed to return to work. In my conversation with her I was moved by the heart she had for the hurting, and was reminded by her that surely God’s heart is even more tender than that.

This too is veiled from us. It is no longer the case that we do not know of hurting people in the world, the press and the internet have long removed that excuse. But it is that the suffering no longer affects us, we are no longer horrified or shocked we no longer weep for these things. The tears of Jesus here comfort and rebuke us. The story of Lazarus in the gospel of John was preached on Sunday and I was struck again by how Jesus weeps (John 11:35) as he sees the pain of his friends and the destruction wrought by the fall.

Elsewhere I have written about how Christianity is uniquely a religion for sufferers. And yet in Buddhist Burma, Christianity can hardly claim to be the only such religion. Buddhism too was founded to respond to the suffering of the world. And yet how vastly different are their responses towards suffering! For the Buddhist, suffering is the result of believing or desiring that transient things be eternal. The fleetingness and the passing away of things is but natural, and it is only our attachment to them that makes us suffer. Our tears are wrong because death is not wrong. But Christianity teaches us the opposite. As Christ wept before death and the effects of sin, so our tears are right. Our tears are right because death is wrong, because the world is not as it ought be, because sin and pain and all sorts of abuse are a curse that have come upon the world. People are not transient things weeping because they wrongly believe that they are eternal, we are eternal beings that weep because we have now been made fleeting.

As sin and suffering are a violence, so must our response to them be violent. Did not Christ say that the kingdom of God has been coming by violence and the violent take it by force (Matthew 11:12)? We must violently lay down our lives at the feet of Jesus, to love others and share with them the good news that Jesus loves us so much that he tasted our suffering and died for our sins. He did this so that one day he would wipe away the tears from our eyes. And then we must come before Jesus and sing with the saints:

“Facing a task unfinished
That drives us to our knees
A need that, undiminished
Rebukes our slothful ease
We, who rejoice to know Thee
Renew before Thy throne
The solemn pledge we owe Thee
To go and make Thee known”

Shame: Self-Directed Disgust

Disgust, and self-directed disgust

This week for Emotions and Psychopathology class, we will be covering the basic emotion, disgust. I found reading about disgust very refreshing, because it shed light onto an under-emphasised aspect of psychopathology, and in particular, mood disorders. When we talk about mood disorders (e.g. anxiety disorder, depression), we often focus on their obvious derivative emotions such as sadness and fear, but tend to neglect the role of disgust. What is disgust? According to Power & Dalgleish (2016), disgust is the emotion that arises when one appraises a person, object, or idea as repulsive to the self, and to valued roles and goals. The complex emotion that arises out of disgust and which also predicts psychopathology is shame. Do not confuse guilt and shame. Aptly captured by Brene Brown in her Ted Talk (2010), the difference between guilt and shame is the difference between “I’m sorry, I made a mistake”, and “I’m sorry, I am a mistake.” Indeed, shame can be defined as disgust directed towards the self.

What is the problem with disgust directed toward the self?

When we eat something gross, we experience disgust. Naturally, what we seek to do next is to expel the food and distance ourselves from the source. Disgust is an uncomfortable emotion, and it drives us to remove the eliciting stimuli in order to reduce the level of disgust. Think about what happens, however, if this disgust is directed to the self or aspects of the self. What can you do to remove that experience of disgust? Attempting to bring down disgust levels when disgust is directed toward the self becomes a whole lot more complicated than disgust directed toward an external source, just because we cannot simply expel our selfs out of ourselves. You are stuck in your own skin. There are different ways that people still seek to cope with it, however, and they can be classified as prevention, escape, and aggression (Schoenleber & Howard Berenbaum, 2012). Here, I give some pathological forms in which these occur. People prevent self-disgust via mechanisms such as perfectionism and dependence (seeking assurance from others), almost as if to compensate for repulsive parts of their selfs. People escape from self directed disgust by withdrawing from social situations that might cause them. Finally, given that shame is frequently contained within the individual and cannot be easily escaped, people also cope with their self-directed disgust through aggressive tendencies, such as self-harm or harming others.

What hope is there for the self-disgusted?

I see lots of harmful manifestations of these coping mechanisms happening around me, and it grieves me, because there is a certain bleakness that surrounds self-disgust. It looks like people running away from themselves, yet never being able to succeed (because obviously, one cannot run away from oneself). To a large degree, it is a futile endeavour. What hope is there for the self-disgusted? I was discussing my learnings with someone recently, and what she said really struck me. “Yea, it all began with Adam and Eve.” Oh wow, I never thought of that. Isn’t it so fascinating that the first emotion that was depicted after Adam and Eve sinned and ate of the fruit of the of knowledge of good and evil, was that of shame? What happened next in the story of Adam and Eve was what I found truly comforting. Like any of us, Adam and Eve sought to hide their shame by sewing fig leaves for themselves. Like any of our coping mechanisms, it was inadequate. But guess what? God sought to clothe them in garments of skins. It hit me then that the antidote for self-disgust could never be found inside of us, nor could we manufacture the antidote for it. All our coping mechanisms are like that of fig-leaves. In fact, given that shame is a type of self-conscious emotion (Lewis, as cited in Power & Dalgleish, 2016), it seems only logical that more self-consciousness is not going to solve the problem. Instead, God sees and knows our nakedness. He knows our shame, he knows the self that has failed to live up to standards. The fact of the matter is, we have failed to live up to the absolute standards that God demands and there is no denying of that. But in love, God has sought to clothe us in righteousness, in perfection, through the blood of Jesus Christ, through whom He sees and accepts us. There is no running away from our selfs, but there is rest to be found in the perfect righteousness, in Christ, with whom God offers to clothe us in.



(1) Power, M., & Dalgleish, T. (2015). Cognition and emotion: From order to disorder. Psychology press.

(2) Schoenleber, M., & Berenbaum, H. (2012). Shame regulation in personality pathology. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 121(2), 433.

Miracles Every Day, Every Minute, Every Second

This is going to be a comparatively short post, but thought I’d pen this down for the benefit of myself and for those who struggle to give thanks. Recently, Brandon shared with me his reflection that what often precedes sin is a heart that fails to give thanks. I think that’s often true. For example, when I grumble or enter a state of resentment, I fail to see the many blessings from God. Beyond that, I fail even more to see the goodness of our creator God.

This week, God opened my eyes to see the many things that I have, to give thanks for. Things so mundane that I don’t even think about, or typically care about. Just last week as I returned home from the states, I fell so ill with a stomach virus. Anything ingested, whether solid or liquid, literally became expelled within less than an hour. It was impossible to consume anything. I was so thirsty but I couldn’t drink, and I was so tired but I couldn’t sleep. The only way to ensure that I stayed reasonably hydrated was through a drip in the hospital. The day that I got entirely well (2 days ago) I was ecstatic at the fact that I could drink, eat, and sleep. So ecstatic I was literally rejoicing at the fact that I COULD do those things, and not even the content of what I was drinking or eating. Then I thought to myself, “Wait a moment, isn’t it even more amazing that I ALWAYS have been able to do these things without fail daily?” And the thought continued on, “Wow, how radically would it change my heart to learn to give thanks like that daily.”

We really should be giving thanks like that daily. The problem with our hearts (or my heart) is that we often presume a position of privilege. Things SHOULD go right; it’s only natural for things to go right. But should we? Just the past semester,  I took Introduction to Neuroscience which by the way, I can’t say I really enjoyed, but it never failed to make me in awe at how things actually don’t fail. In class, we learnt that we have approximately 100, 000, 000, 000 neurons, and to pass messages to the brain, many action potentials are fired along a neuron. The numbers are huge; huge numbers also mean that the probability for error increases proportionately. But if you think about your life on a daily basis, most of the time, things DON’T go wrong…if not, you wouldn’t be doing anything at all (being alive, for that matter).

I guess, my long-story-short-point, is just that we need to question our assumptions that things ought to go right. Maybe, if we learnt to open our eyes to all the things that could go wrong, we would learn to marvel at all the miracles that go on every day, every minute, and every second, and be thankful for a God who so graciously sustains and provides.

The Commensurability of Incommensurable Sensations

[This is a fun post because I want to write down something I found philosophically interesting]

In this essay, I want to show that time is the reason why certain sensations which are incommensurable appear commensurable in some way to us.

I started thinking about this when my girlfriend mentioned to me that the tea which she got tasted sharper than usual. Wait a minute, sharp is a term referring to a physical quality corresponding to our sense of touch. Whereas the quality she was picking up was a quality of taste. The two sensations are clearly incommensurable – yet, something didn’t feel right. It is possible that the word ‘sharp’ might just be used incidentally to describe these two qualities which had nothing to do with each other, but intuitively the two ‘sharp’ sensations had something in common, they appeared commensurable in some sense. One possible linguistic program that could be undertaken to strengthen this is to do a survey to see if the word ‘sharp’ in various other languages are used to describe both the taste of sharpness as well as the touch sensation of sharpness — this seems to be the case for mandarin, we describe certain foods as 尖. (at least I think we do, my mandarin is quite bad and this could just be a singaporean thing where we use a literal translation of another language in our vocabulary to stand for the thing in the original language)

How do we make sense of this apparent commensurability? There is another sensory realm where such physical or ‘touch’ descriptions also frequently apply. This is when we describe auditory sensations, or sounds. I just pick one example which I think will illuminate how a relationship with time connects two sensations that are incommensurable. Sometimes music can be described as broad, the Italian term Allargando is often used for this direction. Broadness, however, is clearly a physical conception and has nothing to do with sound at all. The reason the two are connected is because we usually have a spatial conception of time. We conceive of the music as stretched out across temporal space (note the spatial metaphor already) and we imagine rhythm as a series of patterns in that stretched out space. The rhythm is broad when the interval between each imagined pattern becomes larger. This allows us to connect and use the term ‘broad’ for both the auditory and spatial sensation. This usage is not incidental, but there is a real connection between the two.

Applying this to the case of ‘sharp’ we see that something similar is going on as well. The touch sensation ‘sharp’ is usually a burst of (painful) sensation i.e. a substantial quantity of sensation over a short time. Similarly the tastes that we describe as sharp are also the result of a burst of taste, again a substantial quantity of sensation over a short time. It is the connection to time that connects these two qualities in our head and allows as to call them by the same name ‘sharp’. My guess is that when we consider other qualities that appear incommensurable but have some kind of connection that is revealed by our linguistic usage, some sort of temporal connection is also present. As Kant noted, time is one of the forms of our sensibility and structures all of our experience including phenomenologically diverse and incommensurable ones, and yet by being the one form that binds them all, it also links them all and allows us to compare them. As indeed we do through our linguistic usage of certain words for multiple sense modalities.


Thoughts on ‘The Color Purple’; God and Sexual Violence

Being in New York over the fall break and the weekend, I decided to go watch a couple of musicals. And so, just a couple of days ago I had the privilege of watching ‘The Color Purple’. I wanted to watch a more ‘serious’ musical as the other musical that I watched, Cirque du Soliel’s ‘Paramour’, was decidedly frivolous, though I too had a good time with that. I had expected the musical to be artsy, thought provoking and proper, something along the lines of Les Mis and indeed it was no less than that — that cast was superb and the singing was both virtuosic and moving, though instead of the usual classical virtuosity, we were treated to the rhythmic and more improvisatory tunes of the characteristically black style. Yet the story both disturbed and deeply affected me, and the following are my thoughts following the show.

God and Sexual Violence?

The musical is set in the American South during the post-civil war era and begins with a seemingly pastoral scene. Two black teen girls singing a nursery rhyme and playing a game. It is not long, however, before we find out that one of them, the lead Celie, is pregnant with her step-father’s child. This is already her second one by him and he gives them away as soon as they are born. Following this, she is sold of by her step father to marry a man who desires her sister instead — being persuaded when her step-father offers to give him their old cow along with her. Her new husbands finds her downright ugly and despises and practically enslaves her. Along the way, she meets and forms a romantic friendship with her husband’s mistress, the singer Shug Avery, who loves and sees her inner beauty and who teaches her to stand up to the abusive men in her life. The story thus traces Celie’s transformation from an abused and domesticated woman to independence and self-confidence.

God echoes throughout the entire musical as an imperceptible interlocutor. Celie’s water breaks in the midst of a Sunday service and superimposed onto her delivery is the rest of the congregation singing, in the style of black gospel music, a song titled ‘God works in mysterious ways’. Celie prays often in the beginning of the film, asking for deliverance from her conditions, and turns to hate and blame toward God after believing her sister dead. The sexual violence and brokenness in the film disturbed me, and I found myself uncomfortable with the accusations Celie raised against God — is our God really compatible with the suffering of this world? The sorrow of death I have seen, but can I even fathom the pain of being raped by one’s stepfather or to be abused and enslaved by one’s own spouse?

Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar

But whenever I start to have doubts about God when I see something in this world, it is probably because I have discreetly stuffed in my own ideas and fantasies, my own unbiblical presuppositions into thinking about God. As I consider again the biblical story, I find not dissonance with what I saw on the musical but a sense of familiarity. One need look further than the book of Genesis to realise that the patriarchs, the very fathers of Israel, had a bunch of totally [sexually] screwed up families. Consider the mess of Jacob’s family, he had two wives, one of whom he considered downright ugly and married after being duped by his father-in-law. This woman, Leah, would afterward give birth to Judah, from whose descendants the very Christ would come. And yet disturbingly again, his line is perpetuated after his daughter-in-law is widowed, sexually abused by Judah’s other sons (who are struck down soon by God in judgment) and then she tricks Judah into thinking she is a prostitute so that she might bear his children. What a mess! And from thus was the line in which Jesus Christ was to be born! In case anyone thinks this is some mistake, Matthew deliberately includes the names of five women in his selective genealogy of Jesus, of them, three are women of disrepute: one is Tamar, mentioned above, another is a prostitute and the last is an adulterer. God is not far from the brokenness of the world, he is in the midst of it.

Where then does this dissonance come from? I ask this not from Celie’s perspective from my own and on behalf of many comfortable men and women like me who are quick to point the finger at God. Have we been insidiously forming our own ideas of God instead of seeing him as he reveals himself in his Word? Often I see fellow christians quoting Lamentations 3:22-23; “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” The verse usually serves as the caption of a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Yet Lamentations mainly recounts the brutal suffering of Israel, and just two chapters later at the close of the book, Jeremiah would write:

Women are raped in Zion,
young women in the towns of Judah.
Princes are hung up by their hands;
no respect is shown to the elders.
Young men are compelled to grind at the mill,
and boys stagger under loads of wood.
The old men have left the city gate,
the young men their music.
The joy of our hearts has ceased;
our dancing has been turned to mourning.
(Lamentations 5:11-15 ESV)

Jeremiah wrote that very verse in the midst of violence and pain. Is my idea of God big enough to contain this? Have I closed one eye to the immense suffering recorded in the bible? The pain and shame that marks it and indeed is at the heart of the entire religion itself — the cross? If suffering is at the heart of the religion, why am I so surprised when I encounter it? I say this feeling the rebuke myself.

The Color Purple

Now the musical is hardly Christian, there are elements of lesbianism, and secular self-help seems to be at the heart of the story. I make no comment on those here, yet the gospel and grace rings also throughout the musical. Shug speaks to Celie after she learns of her sister’s death and berates her for blaming God for all her misfortune. She lists a number of ordinary graces in the world and reminds Celie of them: a blade of corn, a honeybee, a waterfall. And she mentions a remark from which the title of the musical is derived:

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”

The world is awash with the evidence of the grace of God even in the midst of its pain and futility. Why don’t we have eyes to see it?

It never ceases to amaze me that it is the norm in many places for Christians to form the less privileged class of society. I have seen it firsthand in Myanmar, where it is not the main Burma tribe but the smaller minority tribes who are majority Christian. Something similar is true when one thinks of the Dalits in India. Many of the blacks who were freed after the civil war were deeply religious — I was moved when I read recently in an autobiography of Booker T. Washington, a black leader, that many of the older generation resolved to learn to read, that they might be able to read the bible before they die. This puts to shame my at times sloppy attitude toward bible reading. Why do such simple arguments from the grace of nature move them, arguments which we sophisticates would scoff as simplistic and uninformed? Perhaps in their pain they see something which we fail to. I recall in my previous study of the book of Exodus how the commentator would mention that the freed blacks found an especial resonance with this book, having understood the pain of long slavery themselves. Open our eyes, O Lord.

I wonder, as I write this, if anyone has been hurt by sexual violence and reading this. I pretend not to understand the pain or the shame or pretend that I have any easy, one-trick answers to these things. If such answers were available the book of Job would not be 42 chapters long and so darn difficult to understand. I have nothing. I have written this for my own benefit and for those like me who have been clouded by the comfort of their lives and so fail to grasp and understand the sublime sovereignty of the God who was broken for our sins. And yet, I know one who does understand, who has dwelled among a broken humanity and dwells among them still. So I wonder if we might consider together, as Shug asked Celie in the titular song,

“The colour purple, where do it come from?”

“I am Reaching, but I Fall”

Earlier last week, I attended a performance of Les Misérables at the Esplanade — it was really enjoyable. I love the story and the music is great. But since this was probably the third or so time I watched the musical, I had the chance to take a step back to undergo deeper reflection on the structure and themes of the musical. I am no musical or literary expert (haven’t read the book, apologies to the purists), but I noticed a single running thread across the musical during this re-watching that I wish to reflect on in this post. It is difficult to provide a succinct summary of this theme, but provisionally let’s call it the tension between idealism and realism (both used in the ordinary, non-philosophical sense).

I noticed this thread as I watched the last scene where we see both Eponine and Fantine as they lead Valjean to heaven. It puzzled me to see Eponine there along with Fantine, since, well Valjean barely knew her. But as I reflected on the entire musical, I discerned some kind of structural parallel between Fantine and Eponine at the beginning and the ending of the first act. Both of their main songs as well as their stories reflect a similar theme — one of the stark contrast between the intensity and tenderness of their idealistic hopes and dreams, almost to the point of delusion, as well as the indifferent and uncaring realism expressed in their circumstances.

Fantine expresses her longing and hope for the bygone days as well as the darkness of her present situation in her song ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ before she sells herself into prostitution, loses her innocence to a random man and is violently beaten:

“I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving …

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now, from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed”

Eponine expresses a similar sentiment in her song, “On my own”, as she describes her impossible longings for Marius’ affections and her own pathetic comfort in pretending that he is with her. Soon after, she will die in Marius’ arms trying to protect him, her feelings ultimately unrequited;

“On my own, Pretending he’s beside me
All alone, I walk with him ’til morning
Without him, I feel his arms around me
And when I lose my way I close my eyes
And he has found me …

I love him, But every day I’m learning
All my life, I’ve only been pretending
Without me, His world will go on turning
A world that’s full of happiness
That I have never known”

This theme surfaces elsewhere in the musical — consider the revolutionaries, their high idealism as they hope to throw off the monarchy and establish a fair republic, and yet the unmitigated brutality of their eventual deaths. Valjean’s life expresses this as well, his hope at a better life and yet the crushing circumstances he ultimately finds himself in; even Javert’s life, to a lesser extent, demonstrates the dissonance between a man’s idea of the world and yet the world’s painfully subverting reality. A pivotal line that they both sing poignantly highlights this theme; Valjean sings it in the beginning of the musical as he wrestles with his wretchedness and the grace shown to him and Javert at the end as he too wrestles with the mercy shown to him by Valjean:

“I am reaching, but I fall.”

Realism and Idealism

There is something about this tension that resonated deep within me; it had an uncanny ring of truth. Art succeeds when it transcends reality in order to truly represent and communicate it, and these two themes are as true in our day as ever.

Let’s take the unrelenting realism represented in the film first. Surely our world is not much different from that depicted in the musical. Reports of terrorist killings fill the papers nowadays on a daily basis and I’m sure that closer to ourselves, we know of the random, perplexing, and sometimes absurd tragedies that befall those around us. A desperately broken family, a friend lost in his youth and an old man having to amputate his leg because of a car accident. The world resists formulation into neat, nice categories; it is inscrutable and indifferent to our hopes and dreams, to our conceptions of justice (think Javert) and indeed to the very demands of justice.  J.I. Packer, in his classic ‘Knowing God’, speaks of the ‘wisdom’ of the Book of Ecclesiastes in this manner:

“Look (says the preacher) at the sort of world we live in … You see life’s background set by aimlessly recurring cycles in nature. You see its shape fixed by times and circumstances over which we have no control. You see death coming to everyone sooner or later, but coming haphazard; its coming bears no relation to whether it is deserved. Humans die like beasts, good ones like bad, wise ones like fools… Seeing all this, you realise that God’s ordering of events in inscrutable; much as you want to make it out, you cannot do so.”

What of the similarly unrelenting idealism the musical expresses? That too speaks deeply to the human soul. I have written elsewhere of the strange glory in the strivings of man and indeed there is nothing more human than to hope. Despite the bleakness of the lyrics and their context, there is something utterly beautiful about the two songs ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ and ‘On my Own’ — a kind of tender and heartbreaking sublimity is expressed in them.

One response to this tension might be to moderate our expectations. Perhaps we should simply think that the world is a little less decent and cosy as we might have thought and at the same time be a bit less optimistic in our dreams. Such a response would be mistaken — we would be falsely portraying the bleak nature of the world and at the same time be betraying our dreams. No, the world is not a little less cosy than we think, it is full of sorrow and brokenness, and we shall not budge one inch from our hopes. Our pessimism must be as black as night and our optimism as bright as the sun. Chesterton expresses this artfully:

“It will be said that a rational person accepts the world as mixed of good and evil with a decent satisfaction and a decent endurance. But this is exactly the attitude which I maintain to be defective … what we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralise each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.”

A Christian Pessimism and Optimism

How are we to live with this, this heartbreaking dichotomy between our deepest longings and the harsh realities that the world presents us? This Christian worldview holds the key as to the reason for both our hopes and our broken world. It tells us that this world feels broken because it is. It truly is not as it is meant to be. The naturalistic atheist can tell you that the world is unfriendly to our transcendent longings, and yet he cannot say that the world is not as it should be, for to him the world simply is. But that is false, the world is in a state in which it ought not be; it has fallen since the dawn of man, since our ancestors cast scorn on God’s love and decided to trust in themselves. This world has been cursed and it now frustrates us. Yet more, it is not merely the world but ourselves in our inward being we have fallen; we have all turned aside from God and his love and all our desperate attempts at finding meaning elsewhere is painful and disappointing. To stare in the face of this is to no doubt call for a bleak pessimism about the world and the human condition.

Yet this, in a paradoxical manner, calls us also to hope. As Chesterton (again) discovered, that the Christian worldview …

“entirely reversed the reason for optimism. And the instant the reversal was made it felt like the abrupt ease when a bone is put back in the socket. I had often called myself an optimist, to avoid the too evident blasphemy of pessimism. But all the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do NOT fit in to the world. I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal, like any other which sought its meat from God. But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been right in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse and better than all things. The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural. The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the WRONG place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home.”

Do not avert your gaze from the horrors of this world, but neither grow desensitised to the extent where you no longer grieve at them. Instead let its darkness draw you to despair of both the world and of yourself, and then look to that familiar silhouette of a man on the cross. We bear our crosses to follow him in this world, and with him both forsaking the world and yet loving and giving ourselves for it. Jesus is our hope for forgiveness and glory, and it is through him that we shall one day have the privilege to see

“a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)

The Normativity of the World; Thoughts on Heidegger

[Long and technical post alert!] One of the philosophers I enjoyed studying the past semester was Martin Heidegger — not the easiest philosopher, I probably understand maybe 20% of him, and certainly not the nicest guy in Christian or even secular terms either (he was a registered Nazi) but I found many valuable insights into the human condition in his seminal work, Being and Time. The chief insight I have gleaned from him and which I discuss in this blog post is this: one cannot give a purely descriptive account of the world, instead all our observations of the world are always shot through with normativity. Now, to understand the jargon I just said, some discussion needs to be made about the difference between description and normativity. I shall do that and then talk a bit about how Heidegger bridges the gap between description and normativity and then draw some implications from this. Hopefully in some future post (because I realise that this is already too darn long) I might engage more critically with some of these implications.

Is and Ought

The difference between a normative statement and a descriptive statement is that a descriptive statement tells you how the world is or describes a certain state of affairs in the world whereas a normative statement tells you how the world ought to be. For example, ‘The bible and a book of Platonic Dialogues is on my table’ is a descriptive statement whereas ‘I ought to read my bible more instead of Plato’ is a normative statement. One describes how the world actually is while the other tells me something that should be done.

Many times in ordinary speech, we derive normative claims straightforwardly from descriptive claims. For example we see that genocide results in thousands of deaths (a descriptive claim) and say that genocide should be stopped (a normative claim). However, philosophers have noted that we cannot make such a derivation straightforwardly. Why is this so? Such a move would fall foul of what is called Hume’s Is/Ought gap. The idea is that you cannot derive a normative claim (what you ought to do), from a purely descriptive claim (about what is going on in the world). This is because claims about what one ought to do are different in kind from claims about what states of affairs hold in the world.

To see this, consider the normative claim ‘We ought not commit genocide’. We cannot derive this simply from purely descriptive claims such as ‘genocide kills thousands of people’ or ‘genocide discriminates against a certain race’ — a normative claim needs to be established, such as ‘If x results in thousands of deaths, one ought not to do x’. Thus, to claim that ‘We ought not commit genocide’, we need to do more than make purely descriptive assertions of the states of affairs that would result from genocide, we need to establish some kind of claim that connects the normative with the descriptive. Such a claim, as ‘If x results in thousands of deaths, one ought not to do x’, is said to be able to bridge the Is/Ought gap and thus allow one to legitimately derive normative claims.

The problem is with deriving such a bridge principle. We all know where to get descriptive statements — we just get them from observation of the world around us. But a normative claim cannot be found anywhere in the world. A scientific account of the world providing say a description of genocide can tell you that it results in multitudes of deaths, that it disadvantages a certain race and that it ravages a nation in socio-economic terms— but why should these be reasons for us to prevent genocide? The scientific account is silent.

Philosophers have, of course, various ways of circumventing this problem, but this discussion is simply to flesh out the difference between descriptive and normative statements. Heidegger’s conception of human beings provides some resources into overcoming this and through him we shall see that in fact, a purely descriptive account of the world is impossible.


In Being and Time, Heidegger attempts to give an existential analytic of the being of Dasein. Dasein is simply the type of being which we are ourselves, which Heidegger claims is ‘the being for whom its being is a question’. The thought is that for human beings to exist simply is for them to take a stand on the type of being they wish to be at every moment of their life — in other words, humans are the type of being that leads its life. For reasons that I will not go into, Heidegger calls this type of being Dasein (lit. being there) and his book attempts to analyse and give an account of Dasein.

Heidegger claims that philosophers since at least Descartes have an impoverished view of human beings because they have been attempting to explore the world as if we were spectators looking in from a detached viewpoint. This assumes that our human existence is one that is fundamentally isolated from the world. The world is as “a play staged before us; and the world of a play is one from which its audience is essentially excluded.” (Mulhall, 2005) However, Heidegger asserts that such a picture is mistaken. According to him, human existence cannot be comprehended apart from its being ‘in’ the world. Try to think about human beings without them existing in a world — it seems incoherent to call what you are still thinking of a human being at all. This reveals a tight conceptual connection between Dasein and the world, which Heidegger formulates as Being-in-the-world.

Now, if Dasein is essentially engaged in the world, it can never be a mere spectator and thus cannot give a detached, purely descriptive account of the world. Heidegger explains this by saying that objects in the world are primarily conceived as ready-to-hand as opposed to present-at-hand. A present-at-hand account of objects is one that simply observes and describes properties e.g. we give a present-at-hand account of a hammer by talking about its shape, material constitution etc. A ready-to-hand account, however, considers our engagement with objects as equipment; our actually using the hammer for a certain task. Heidegger notes:

“[H]ammering does not simply have knowledge about the hammer’s character as equipment, but it has appropriated this equipment in a way that could not possibly be more suitable. . . . [T]he less we just stare at the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is – as equipment … The kind of Being which equipment possesses – in which it manifests itself in its own right – we call readiness-to-hand.” (BT 15:98)

A present-at-hand account of objects cannot exhaust the meaning of an object — I can describe the hammer and know how it functions, but I primarily encounter the hammer in the act of hammering. I do not fully understand the hammer if I just look at its properties until I start hammering. As noted above, Heidegger considers our engagement with objects as more primordial than our descriptive account of them. A more crucial point is this: we stop hammering and enter into a mode of exploring the properties of equipment only when it fails to serve its ready-to-hand function:

“If knowing is to be possible as a way of determining the nature of the present-at-hand by observing it, then there must first be a deficiency in our having-to-do [i.e. engagement] with the world concernfully …” (BT 13:88)

For example, we stop to examine the properties of the hammer in closer detail when it becomes unusable as a tool and we want to fix it. A descriptive enterprise is thus undertaken when a piece of equipment becomes unhandy for a larger task. This implies that the descriptive enterprise can never be purely descriptive, for its very undertaking is to the end of using the object as equipment for a larger project. All our present-at-hand accounts of knowing are always embedded within a larger picture of ready-to-hand engagement.

In other words, even though a scientist does experiments in the lab and makes the seemingly purely descriptive statement ‘The gravitational constant is 6.67408 × 10-11 m3 kg-1 s-2’. This statement, as he makes it, has implications on his life and the lives of others because the scientist, as Being-in-the-world, can only make such a statement from the context of his own practical dealings with the world. Thus, the scientist’s analysis of a substance in the laboratory always happens in the context of other more practical human concerns. If Dasein is Being-in-the-World, any descriptive enterprise it undertakes can therefore never be one that is wholly detached from its engagement with the world.

Normativity in the World

And so any description that is given is always and inevitably shot through with normativity. Mulhall makes this point when he observes that “the utility of a tool presupposes something for which it is usable, an end product – a pen is an implement for writing letters, … This directedness is the ‘towards-which’ of equipment.” To encounter objects as ready-to-hand is to engage with equipment for a certain goal or purpose. The descriptive facts about the equipment which are derived from a present-at-hand analysis therefore contain normative implications, because they are derived in the context where the object is a piece of equipment ultimately for a certain goal that Dasein wishes to achieve. As Heidegger notes:

“[When dealing in a ready-to-hand manner with] ‘a hammer’, there is an involvement in hammering; with hammering there is an involvement in making something fast; with making something fast, there is an involvement in protection against bad weather; and this protection ‘is’ for the sake of providing shelter for Dasein — that is to say, for the sake of a possibility of Dasein’s Being” (BT, 18:116)

A conception of Dasein as Being-in-the-World is one where Dasein encounters the world primarily as equipment and thus where descriptions of objects in the world carry normative implications. Conceiving the relationship between Dasein and the world this way bridges the Is/Ought gap. We can derive normative implications from descriptive statements because those statements are never purely descriptive, they are made from within the context of active engagement.

I don’t think Christians can accept everything Heidegger says uncritically. For one, Heidegger’s view does not provide a set of objective norms (he ends up with a kind of ‘ethics of authenticity’) because he makes it seem as if the normativity of the world is derived primarily from the kind of being we are as opposed to there being some sort of independent standard. Nonetheless, I think that his conclusions are mainly right in elucidating our relationship with the world around us. Let me draw two implications that are important and right from a Christian point of view that I might reflect on in some future post:

  1. Descriptive statements have normative implications. This is probably the main thing I have been talking about. Not just statements about the world, but any descriptive statement we make, about ourselves, about God will inevitably have normative implications on us because of the type of being we are. We must not talk about theology or even philosophy while imagining that these things have no impact on how we should live, for they will inevitably will have such an impact! Failure to think about these things will only mean that we are naive or uncritical about the normative implications that holding certain positions have on us already.
  2. There is no neutral or presuppositionless position from which we observe and study in the world, instead even if we try to enter into a detached state in order to make empirical or philosophical observations, we still bring along with us our practical concerns. Indeed we can only enter into such a detached state by being extremely interested in something in the first place. All our descriptive inquiries are made in the context of practical concerns with their own presuppositions.

Finally, I hope that despite the technical discussion you can see something wondrous from Heidegger’s conception of the self and the world. Our living in the world is dynamic and living instead of static and lifeless. We engage and interact with the world not from a detached perspective but as readily occupied in it. To use an analogy my professor constantly employed, we deal with the world not as one stares at a violin and examines its shape and material, but as one plays the violin along with the orchestra of a thousand instruments. The world is more an object of wondrous engagement than of detached observation.