Another Week Ends

1. Fascinating article in The New Republic by Jamie Holmes entitled “Why Can’t More Poor […]

David Zahl / 6.10.11

1. Fascinating article in The New Republic by Jamie Holmes entitled “Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?,” looking at the world through the lens of ego depletion, that is, the theory that we have a finite amount of willpower/self-control, and the more we use it, the less we have.

“Willpower can be understood as the capacity to resolve conflicts among choices as rationally as possible, and to make the best decision in light of one’s personal goals. And, in both cases, willpower seems to be a depletable resource… The core of the breakthrough is that resolving conflicts among choices is expensive at a cognitive level and can be unpleasant. It causes mental fatigue. Nowhere is this revelation more important than in our efforts to understand poverty. Taking this model of willpower into the real world, psychologists and economists have been exploring one particular source of stress on the mind: finances. The level at which the poor have to exert financial self-control, they have suggested, is far lower than the level at which the well-off have to do so.

And so, in addition to all the structural barriers that prevent even determined poor people from escaping poverty, there may be another, deeper, and considerably more disturbing barrier: Poverty may reduce free will, making it even harder for the poor to escape their circumstances. All of this suggests that we need to rethink our approaches to poverty reduction. Many of our current anti-poverty efforts focus on access to health, educational, agricultural, and financial services. Now, it seems, we need to start treating willpower as a scarce and important resource as well.

2. On Slate, Jacob Weisberg offers a different perspective on “filter bubbles,” one that seems to take a slightly more realistic view of human nature than the last item we posted on it:

[Eli] Pariser is… dead wrong, it seems to me, in assuming that personalization narrows our perspectives rather than broadening them. Through most of history, bubbles have been imposed involuntarily. Not so long ago, most Americans got their news primarily through three like-minded networks and local newspapers that reflected a narrow consensus. With something approaching the infinite choices on the Web, no one has to be limited in this way. Why assume that when people have more options, they will choose to live in an echo chamber?

3. It continues to be a great couple weeks at the cinema. You’re probably sick of reading about Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. So a couple of quick soundbites and that’s it. The first from Andrew O’Hehir at Salon and the second from Scott Tobias at The A/V Club:

It was undeniably brave of Malick to go this deep into karmic-cosmic-evolutionary-Christian woo-woo, but I honestly wonder who’s going to swallow it. “Tree of Life” feels too credulous for bicoastal secular-humanist art-house audiences, but way too tripped-out and non-narrative for the stereotypical “Christian” viewer.

The Tree Of Life has a vision that makes most movies look like crude stick drawings. On balance, the question of why someone has to die is made to seem absurdly narrow, because a single life seems so insignificant in the vastness of time and space. Yet The Tree Of Life isn’t despairing about it in the least; it’s a genuine attempt to grasp the transcendent, and the rare religious film that deserves to be called spiritual.

4. Next, we have the release of J.J. Abrams Super 8, starring Coach Taylor. The reviews are in and they’re mostly good. A.O. Scott calls it, “an enticing package without much inside.” Keith Phipps says, “of all the filmmakers who have tried to recapture the Spirit Of ’82, nobody has succeeded as well as Abrams does here.” I was also interested to read on Slate about the crucial importance of Super 8 film in the modern movie-making. Finally, there’s not one but two amazing-looking British films that should be hitting our shores soon, Submarine and The Trip.

5. Those of you spoiling for a good theological throw-down, head over to the Gospel Coalition and check out the thread on Tullian Tchividjian’s “Work Hard! But in Which Direction?”

6. Over at The NY Times, in an article entitled “In Search of the True Self,” experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe traces the apparently inextricable link between ideology and self-concept. Don’t let all the sexuality talk throw you – this is not a political piece (indeed, it’s remarkably open-ended) – that’s simply his jumping off point for deeper questions about what exactly constitutes our ‘true selves’:

How is one to know which aspect of a person counts as that person’s true self? If we look to the philosophical tradition, we find a relatively straightforward answer to this question. This answer, endorsed by numerous different philosophers in different ways, says that what is most distinctive and essential to a human being is the capacity for rational reflection. A person might find herself having various urges, whims or fleeting emotions, but these are not who she most fundamentally is.  If you want to know who she truly is, you would have to look to the moments when she stops to reflect and think about her deepest values. Take the person fighting an addiction to heroin.  She might have a continual craving for another fix, but if she just gives in to this craving, it would be absurd to say that she is thereby “being true to herself” or “expressing the person she really is.” On the contrary, she is betraying herself and giving up what she values most… But when I mention this view to people outside the world of philosophy, they often seem stunned that anyone could ever believe it.  They are immediately drawn to the very opposite view.  The true self, they suggest, lies precisely in our suppressed urges and unacknowledged emotions, while our ability to reflect is just a hindrance that gets in the way of this true self’s expression.  To find a moment when a person’s true self comes out, they think, one needs to look at the times when people are so drunk or overcome by passion that they are unable to suppress what is deep within them.

In my view, neither of these two perspectives fully captures the concept of a true self. The trouble is that both of them assume that the true self can be identified in some straightforward way with one particular part of a person’s psychology. But it seems that the matter is more complex. People’s ordinary understanding of the true self appears to involve a kind of value judgment, a judgment about what sorts of lives are really worth living.

7. Speaking of troubled self-concepts, the new HBO documentary “Bobby Fischer Against The World” is must-watch viewing. I had heard about his rabid anti-Semitism (peculiar in the son of two Jewish parents), but was unaware of his links to the Worldwide Church of God, or… Iceland. A curious and tragic mix of mental illness, Mozart-like genius, Cold War politics, loneliness, Harold Camping, and chess.

8. In music, check out the excellent post on Rivulets about Atheist Transcendance the new Death Cab for Cutie record.

Elvis Costello – The Other Side Of Summer (Official Music Video). Watch more top selected videos about: Elvis Costello