Saturday, February 11, 2012

Research Assistant Application

I recently applied and was selected for a Research Assistantship on campus. This is proposal I sent in as part of the application. It proposes looking at the effects of different types of education on terrorism; at a deeper level, it searches for just and peaceful solutions to problems in the world today. Here it is:

Effects of Education on Terrorism

Part I – Objective: What are the effects of unbiased education on the potential for acts of terror? This study hopes to overcome barriers encountered by previous studies by using empirical analysis with innovative datasets, as well as a basic assumption that not all types of educational systems are the same. The major hypothesis will posit that unbiased education in a given society reduces the risk of terrorist attacks.

This proposal proceeds as follows: Part II provides a background and literature review. Part III discusses variables and the proposed methodology. Finally, Part IV explains the significance of this proposed study.

Part II – Background: Some previous studies suggest that education is either positively associated with terrorism or not statistically significant at all, but the results have thus far been inconclusive. Some major studies develop theories of increased education leading to increased participation in terrorism based solely on the Israel-Palestine conflict, which is a unique situation in itself (Berrebi 2007; Kreuger et al. 2003). These theories may not be applicable to other scenarios. Other studies try to conduct cross-sectional analyses, but use incomplete methods for measuring education, such as illiteracy rates (Krueger et al. 2003;) or enrollment rates (Testas 2004).

There are a few obstacles to these analyses that this study will try to confront. The major barrier that limits these previous studies is the tremendous lack of data on education levels; in fact, Kreuger et al. (2003:140) state that including illiteracy rates “reduces the sample size because data is not available for all countries.” Another obstacle to previous studies is a dependent variable based on tangible occurrences of major terrorist attacks rather than the potential for terrorism in a society. Using the latter definition as a dependent variable could aid the analysis in a number of ways: it will help account for attacks whose country of origin is unknown, it will include countries where no attacks originated from at all, and it will also provide more of a sense of whether there is a general atmosphere conducive to terrorism within a society.

There is also a major theoretical misstep not addressed by previous studies in their empirical analysis: all education systems are not the same. However, measures of education do not take into account the type or quality of education received; thus, education is assumed to be the same. Depending on the type of schooling, increased education could lead to increased participation in terrorism. A madrassa funded by a wealthy terrorist group will produce radically different scholars than schools that promote tolerance and understanding. Previous studies have suggested that many terrorists are actually more educated than the average person (Berrebi 2007; Kreuger et al. 2003). This may be because the type of schooling these terrorists received is far different than what we traditionally define education as. This study will assume that not all education is the same, and thus will attempt to differentiate between various types of education. Although different education systems may be hard to quantify, it may be possible to produce a dummy variable for different systems of education. This will be discussed further in the “Proposed Methodology” section.

In terms of the determinants of terrorism, the literature is expansive; multiple causes have been examined. The deprivation theory of terrorism claims people with lower socioeconomic welfare are more prone to subversive acts of violence. Income per capita is negatively associated with terrorism, and thus supports the deprivation theory (Freytag et al. 2011; Bravo 2006). One study suggests political freedom is a significant determinant of terrorism in a non-monotonic fashion: countries with high or low political repression are less likely to experience terrorism than countries with intermediate political repression (Abadie 2004). Consequently, illiberal non-democratic regime types are more likely to experience terrorism (Bravo 2006). Lastly, the presence of civil war in previous years also increases the chance of terrorist attacks in a given year (Testas 2004).

The vast benefits of unbiased education, defined as schooling that does not come with a political agenda, work to fight these root causes of terrorism. For example, education allows individuals to have better jobs and higher incomes, which translates into greater societal economic prosperity (Vila 2000; Wolfe 2002), and thus may address the deprivation theory. Education may also address political repression. In their working paper, “Learning Democracy: Education and the Fall of Authoritarian Regimes,” Sanborn & Thyne argue that increased education is a significant predictor of authoritarian regime failure due to an increased desire for participation in government; a more educated population increases the desire for political freedom and helps overthrow authoritarian regimes (Sanborn & Thyne 2011). Finally, Thyne (2006) suggests that increased education significantly reduces the chance of civil war through the creation of strong social cohesion in a society. Education attacks the root causes of terrorism on many layers, and thus this study will argue it is a significant factor in lowering the risk for terrorism.

Part III – Proposed Methodology and Variables: This study will employ a novel dependent variable for use with ordinal logistic regressions. Since 2007, the Institute for Economics and Peace, partnered with the Economist Intelligence Unit, releases an annual report known as the Global Peace Index, which quantifies a country’s relative peacefulness. One of the indicators used in the index is “Potential for Terrorist Acts.” This indicator ranks a country’s risk of terrorist attacks on a scale of 1-5 (very low-very high) and covers a cross-sectional time-series dataset of 153 countries from years 2007-2011. This indicator is particularly advantageous as a dependent variable because it is based on probability. The benefits of such a variable are outlined in the previous section. In comparison, the majority of previous studies potentially limit themselves by examining major occurrences of acts of terror rather than the relative potential of acts of terror across countries.

The variables discussed in the “Background” section–GDP per capita, political repression, civil war, and regime type–will be included in the regressions as controls. Population and geographic factors will also be included in the regression, as a previous study suggests they are significant in sustaining terrorism (Abadie 2004). All these variables will be added for two reasons: first, they will provide a comprehensive set of controls to pit the education indicators against, and second, they will be tested against a new dependent variable to check for robustness.

The dummy variable for various types of education, mentioned in the “Background” section, must be included in the regressions to test different types of education. Deriving this variable, however, will be the most tedious and demanding step in the study. The obstacles include defining the nature of the coding and how to obtain the information needed to create the variable. A preliminary proposition is that the variable can be coded 1 for education that includes major bias and 0 for education that is mostly unbiased. Again, the definition for biased education is schooling that comes with a political agenda. A look into how schools are funded, either by governments, private individuals, or terrorist organizations, could potentially help determine whether education is biased by this study’s definition. These are exploratory thoughts; the details of the complete methodology would have to be worked out.

For the independent variable, the IIASA Education Projections dataset will be used (KC et al. 2010). The dataset is constructed by producing forward-projections of education data for 120 countries from years 2000-2050. It uses the 2000 census and takes into account mortality and fertility rates. It is a superior dataset to use for a number of reasons. Firstly, it tracks education attainment levels for various age groups rather than enrollment rates or government expenditures; essentially, it tracks educational output rather than input. It also standardizes definitions of primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of achievement, which may have different meanings for cross-sectional groups. But most importantly, the IIASA dataset has a value for every country-year it includes, which drastically reduces missingness of data, the major problem in examining education variables. With the use of unprecedented datasets, a thorough set of controls, and a dummy variable differentiating educational systems, this study hopes to make up for the deficiencies present in the previous literature.

Part IV – Significance: Since 9/11, fighting global terrorism has become a political, social, religious, and moral priority. Identifying the origins of terrorism can aid policymakers and researchers in initiating and drafting procedures designed to address terrorism’s root causes. However, the determinants of terrorism that have been examined to date are incredibly difficult to change or manipulate externally. GDP growth is not a simple feat even through foreign aid, especially when some countries are too deeply entrenched in poverty and do not possess stable political institutions to pull themselves out of it. Quickly toppling authoritarian regimes or decreasing political repression may involve drastic methods, such as wars or sanctions that could actually end up decreasing the welfare of the population, thereby leading to more acts of terror. It is difficult for foreign power to prevent civil wars. Civil wars could also be born out of the same environments that are conducive to terrorism, and consequently cause a state to enter a recurrent downward spiral, leading to more terror and more conflict.

The purpose of this study is to add a tool to the policymaker’s arsenal to combat terrorism, a tool that is plausible, simpler, and involves less loss of life: education. Specifically, the goal of this study is to suggest unbiased, tolerant education reduces the change of terrorism. Rather than a reactionary fix, education may provide a preventive solution to stop terror before it even begins. Not only that, but the change would take place internally rather than be forced on a state externally by a foreign power. Such a finding could have major implications in the international sphere. For example, foreign aid could be directed to countries that are investing in education to create an open and free public learning system. An emphasis can be placed on organizations that promote universal education, thereby increasing public funding and awareness of such organizations. If the aim of the War on Terror is to curb and hopefully stop terrorism, then discerning causal factors that prevent terrorism from occurring in the first place should be the main concern for researchers and policymakers in the field of international development and security.


References

Abadie, Alberto. "Poverty, Political Freedom, and the Roots of Terrorism." American

Economic Review 96.2 (2004): 50-56.

Berrebi, Claude. "Evidence about the Link Between Education, Poverty and Terrorism

among Palestinians." Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy 13.1

(2007).

Bravo, Ana, Bela Santos, and Carlos Manuel Mendes Dias. "An Empirical Analysis Of

Terrorism: Deprivation, Islamism And Geopolitical Factors." Defence and Peace

Economics 17.4 (2006): 329-41.

Fair, C. Christine, and Bryan Shepherd. "Who Supports Terrorism? Evidence from

Fourteen Muslim Countries." Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 29.1 (2006): 51-74.

Freytag, Andreas, Jens J. Krüger, Daniel Meierrieks, and Friedrich Schneider. "The

Origins of Terrorism: Cross-country Estimates of Socio-economic Determinants

of Terrorism." European Journal of Political Economy 27 (2011): S5-S16.

Institute for Economics & Peace. Global Peace Index: 2011 Methodology, Results &

Findings. Rep. Sydney: Institute for Economics & Peace, 2011.

KC, Samir, Bilal Barakat, Anne Goujon, Vegard Skirbekk, Warren Sanderson, Wolfgang

Lutz. “Projection of populations by level of educational attainment, age, and sex

for 120 countries for 2005-2050.” Demographic Research 22.15 (2010): 383-472

Krueger, Alan B. and Jitka Maleckova. "Education, Poverty And Terrorism: Is There A

Causal Connection?" Journal of Economic Perspectives 17.4 (2003): 119-144.

Sanford, Howard B., and Clayton L. Thyne. "Learning Democracy: Education and the

Fall of Authoritarian Regimes." Presented at Midwest Political Science

Association (2011).

Testas, Abdelaziz. "Determinants Of Terrorism In The Muslim World: An Empirical

Cross-Sectional Analysis." Terrorism and Political Violence 16.2 (2004): 253-73.

Thyne, Clayton L. "ABC's, 123's, and the Golden Rule: The Pacifying Effect of

Education on Civil War, 1980-1999." International Studies Quarterly 50.4

(2006): 733-54.

Vila, Luis E. "The Non-monetary Benefits of Education." European Journal of Education

35.1 (2000): 21-32.


Wolfe, B. L., and R. H. Haveman. "Social and Nonmarket Benefits from Education in an

Advanced Economy." Conference Series - Federal Reserve Bank of Boston 47

(2002): 97-131



-Azi H.



Monday, January 2, 2012

The Twice-Exceptional Student

Edward C.
First Published in the Newport Daily News 

For some students, school is often too hard. For others, school can be too easy. For a certain percentage of students, it is both.

These students are known as twice-exceptional. They are twice-exceptional because they are both gifted and disabled. The problem is that educators tend to only focus on their weaknesses, and having only their weaknesses accommodated could be worse than having no accommodations at all.

Parents and educators across the nation are regularly viewing twice-exceptional students as lazy or oppositional. After all, they argue, if a student with an IQ in the 98th percentile and a math disability has proper accommodations to help him with math, what reason does he have to not be excelling in his academics?

The emotional pressure on twice-exceptionals is typically disregarded. There is a reason a disabled middle school student with writing and reading scores in the post-college range could be getting a C in English, or a student with a IQ in the 98th percentile could be failing his classes; these students are incredibly frustrated or discouraged, because little to no attention is placed on accommodating or recognizing their giftedness— even when their strengths are more deviant from average than their weaknesses.

Unfortunately, twice-exceptional students are often failing miserably in school. Who wants to devote effort and attention to something that makes them feel frustrated, depressed or flawed? Pressure and expectations they receive from their peers in addition to those of their educators creates social, emotional and academic challenges.
Research done regarding twice-exceptional students tells that one of the primary reasons that they are underachieving is because of this sort of frustration.

A study done in Connecticut observed several twice-exceptional students. The researchers found that, when accommodated for only their incredible strengths, their grades went up significantly across all subjects. This suggests a major improvement of attitude and academic interest.

According to the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, twice-exceptional students often “hit the wall” before they are properly accommodated. After a student reaches this point, it can be difficult to recover.

In order to bring out the best of our brightest, educators must understand how critical it is to accommodate both the strengths and the weaknesses of a twice-exceptional, otherwise the true, brilliant potential of such students is neglected.

Friday, December 23, 2011

To Change a Heart

M. E. Porter 23 December 2011

In the past few days a story broke about a nine-year-old autistic boy, Chris Baker, being repeatedly placed inside of a duffel bag to “control his autistic behavior.” His teacher claimed that he was disrespectful and defiant, and that he refused to do his work. His mother was called into the school to get Chris, and found him stuffed inside of a gym bag. She demanded her son’s immediate release, and was later told that this had happened several times over the past year. This was the first time his mother had ever heard about it. Over the past couple days the story has gone viral over news websites and the petition on change.org, which was started by a very good friend of mine, currently has over 7,000 signatures, and the number is rising by the minute.

This issue, child abuse at the hands of a teacher, hits closer to home for me than almost anything else can. I’ve never spoken publicly about this, but about ten years ago, when I was eight years old, I was abused by my third grade teacher. I’m not autistic, but I am a twice-exceptional (someone with a high I.Q. who also has a learning disability) and before I was tested this combination led some teachers to assume that I had trouble in class because I was lazy or defiant, and that it was their job to change this behavior by any means necessary. This particular teacher used the fact that I was had not been evaluated and had no special education protections to target me. Even when it was another student who was misbehaving, she would create a reason to blame me. I would be the scapegoat and take the excessive punishment, simply because I needed to be taught not to “act up.” It never got to the point where I was placed in a bag like Chris, but it did go far enough that when I was eleven I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the effects of which I still have to deal with every day, all these years later.

I’ve come to terms in my own way with what happened to me. As a Christian, I try to look at it like Joseph, who years after his brothers had sold him into slavery in Egypt told them, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good.” (Gen. 50:20, NLT). I can see how the God I believe in has used what I have gone through to shape me into who I am today. We can’t chose every trial we go through, but we can control how we react to them. It’s in the past, and I couldn’t change it no matter how hard I tried. But who I am today is not who I would be if that hadn’t happened to me. Despite the fact that I have had to overcome the fear and the hurt that comes with a traumatic experience, I don’t let that fear and hurt rule me. Instead, I try to take what I have learned from it to become a better person, and make a better world. I guess that, in a way, coming out with my story is my first attempt to do so.

It’s disturbed me that stories about teachers abusing special needs students have been in the news more often than usual in the past few months. The one thing that still upsets me about what happened to me is that it didn’t end with me. The difference from what we know about learning disabilities now compared to what was known ten years ago is astronomical, yet teachers are still using outdated methods to “control” their special needs students. Instead of helping them, these methods teach students that school is not a safe place, that they can’t trust the people that are there to ensure that they are safe. That fear can stay with people throughout their educational careers. Not only does it make students feel less safe, but it inhibits their ability to learn. Think about it. If you’re always in sheer survival mode, you’re only looking for threats and trying to avoid them, and all you’re taking in is what you need to ensure you make it. Typically that means that we’re less likely to take in what the teacher is supposed to teach us. Those of us with special needs have a hard enough time learning in a classroom setting without feeling like we need to be constantly on high alert.

So why is this still happening? Why haven’t we progressed enough in the educational system with all the new evidence and discoveries so we know how to treat people with respect and dignity? I honestly don’t have a clue. My mother is studying education research, and I know from her that the research says that there is no basis for abusive treatment of any student, special needs or otherwise. I feel that the reason is more based in inherent human fault than anything else. It is a human tendency to mistreat those who are different from us, and this has been happening since the beginning of history. Society has witnessed the discrimination of people who look different, sound different, act different, believe different. I am not shocked that we still target those who think different. Unfortunately, learning disabilities seems to be the one area where discrimination is still somewhat acceptable. People always mistrust what they don’t understand. Research also shows that, especially with my generation, narcissism is more common and that empathy is becoming a rarity. The less we are able to get into each other’s heads to understand where people are coming from and why they act and think the way they do, the worse this problem will get.

The only way to end this is to try to understand other people. I once heard someone say that it is fitting that God gave us two ears but only one mouth. Our world is a place where people scream their opinions left and right, but hardly take a second to consider anyone else’s point of view. We can hear each other, but none of us seem to be able to listen. In a world where the one universal value is “tolerance,” it’s amazing how intolerant we all manage to be. Unfortunately this is not a battle that can be won on the political field. All the petitions in the world cannot change anyone’s heart. In the end this issue is so much broader than education. This affects every aspect of our lives on this earth. We, as people, as the human race, need to choose for ourselves to try to understand one another, and recognize that there is more than our own worldviews. We need to recognize that the social contract that society is based on requires us to treat each other with respect, if not love. And that’s the only way the world will change.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Absurd Society

David M. 8 Dec. 2011


The following text is a dialogue I wrote for my Greeks and Hebrews class to explain the ramifications of a strictly materialist worldview.

The Absurd Society
David. If only people would abandon dreams of “God”, all would be well in the world.  I vote we defenestrate spirituality and religion.  It would do society a lot of good.
Paul.  That is a complex assertion.  What do you mean by spirituality?
David.  Surely it is <the state or quality of being dedicated to God, religion, or spiritual things or values>, as opposed to <material or temporal ones>.[1]
Paul. And religion?
David. Religion is the <belief in, worship of, or obedience to a supernatural power or powers considered to be divine or to have control of human destiny>.
Paul.  So we discard God, spirits, and the supernatural?
David.  Let us discard such fairytales.  Religion and spirituality should be replaced by the strictest materialism—that is, the rejection of spiritual reality.  There exists nothing more than the material world.
Paul. I would caution you from such a statement, David, as I think you do not realize what a materialist society entails.
David.  Please, educate me.
Paul.   First of all, the materialist society must be relativistic.  Because moral absolutes are incalculable, the only absolutes to which the materialist can appeal are the mathematical constants of the universe, and these are silent in moral discussions.  
David.  I disagree.  Any person will admit that pleasure is good and pain is bad, so the best action is that which causes the most pleasure and the least pain.
Paul. And how does one calculate the pleasure or pain of a given action?
David. For every possible course of action, one simply sums numerical equivalents of the pleasure and pain experienced by each member of society.
Paul. But such a calculation is impossible.  You must acknowledge that some people derive great pain from the same things that please others.  Your calculations must also accommodate the preferences of the individual to ensure the utmost accuracy. Moreover, some people might derive great pleasure from behavior that causes pain to others, and surely this must also affect your calculations.  Such a calculation is impossible also because of the nature of pleasure and pain and the nature of morality.  Since pleasure sometimes leads to pain (e.g., too much chocolate leads to obesity or acne) and pain sometimes produces some good (e.g., exercise produces bodily health), it is not just to say that pleasure is intrinsically good.  Sensation is an indifferent accompaniment to action; that is, it is amoral.  One cannot draw a moral conclusion from amoral premises.
David. I see. But the materialist can still deliberate based on what most benefits society.
Paul. And how does he discern those behaviors that benefit society?
David. Is it not obvious?
Paul. No, it is not. Please explain.
David. That which benefits society is that which promotes the happiness of its citizens.
Paul. Can you elaborate on this “happiness”?
David. Happiness includes, but is not limited to, health, wealth, and freedom.
Paul. And why is it good that citizens be happy?
David. What do you mean? Don’t you want to be happy?
Paul.  Yes, I do.  Do you mean to imply that something is good simply because one wants it?
David. No.
Paul. Why is it good to be happy, then?
David. (Silence.)
Paul. If you take the materialist stance, you indeed cannot answer this question.  The materialist cannot define the Good, as he can make no rational statements of value without the presupposition of some absolute.  Evaluation is essentially a comparison between an object and some standard. For the relativist that standard is entirely constructed by the individual.  Jean-Paul Sartre concurs; he concludes that, without God, there is no Good because “there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think [the Good].  Nowhere is it written that the Good exists…because the fact is, we are on a plane where there are only men.”[2]
David.  Surely the relativist can make rational statements of value as long as he recognizes that they are highly localized, and he can follow a social construct just as well as he can follow an absolute.
Paul: Sure, but then his evaluations lose all significance.  They become senseless ejaculations.  In saying something of infinitesimal worth he says practically nothing, so, frankly, he should keep his mouth shut.  Let me revise my argument thus: the materialist can make no sensible statements of value without the presupposition of some absolute.
David. I see.
Paul. The materialist worldview stifles society also because of the paradox inherent to relativism.  If what is right for some is wrong for others and there exists no absolute to reconcile them, people with different moral opinions will be in perpetual conflict.  Societies are built not on conflict but on commonality and cooperation, so this situation would surely doom society as we know it.
David. You are right in saying that perpetual conflict would dissolve society, but a society of diverse moral opinion is not inherently turbulent.  Two parties can disagree and yet tolerate each other.  If each side tries to understand the other and suspends judgment, no hostility will ensue, and society will flourish.
Paul. Your appeal to tolerance proves my previous argument.  As long as neither side makes any judgment of what the other does, no conflict will ensue.  Only in a society of absolute tolerance, where no action is evaluated as morally right or wrong, can people with contradictory ethics coexist.  This ethic of absolute tolerance betrays the relativism that the materialist must espouse because, simply put, it is an absolute principle.  Moreover, it threatens society, for absolute tolerance entails tolerance of all kinds of destructive social practices, e.g., terrorism, rape, and genocide, which spring only from a difference in moral opinion.
David. But an ethic of tolerance need not be absolute.  Surely violence of any kind, as well as other actions that are detrimental to society, should be prohibited by law.  A selective tolerance would be more appropriate.
Paul. Here you make a moral evaluation of violence, and since it cannot be absolute, it is true only in certain cases—for certain people or at a certain time.  Therefore, there remains the problem of conflict between groups with different conceptions of morality.  You must understand that the tolerant relativist can have no sensible laws, for law implies an absolute and suppresses diversity of opinion.  If we may assume that people act in order to achieve some good, whenever people commit crimes, they do so in order to achieve some good, either for themselves or for society; otherwise, they would not commit the crimes.  If good and evil are subjective­­–that is, matters of opinion–all crimes in a relativist society are merely clashes of opinion regarding the nature of the good.  Therefore, the tolerant person must contradict himself if he wishes to establish laws of any kind, for laws suppress diversity.
David.  But tolerance is indeed conducive to society if one tolerates those behaviors that promote society and censures those that destroy it.  This kind of tolerance does not contradict relativism, because those behaviors that benefit society might differ in different societies.
Paul. Again you support my argument.  Conflict remains an issue for the society that tolerates behaviors as they benefit it.  To benefit essentially means to make something better.  When something becomes better, it becomes closer to the “best” it can be.  This “best,” is singular; there is only one.  In a moral context, the word implies a moral absolute, so in relativism it is a nonsense word.  Since we have decided that the relativist cannot make a sensible moral evaluation, it is clear that his assertion that some behavior is good because it benefits society is senseless.  In addition, the materialist does not acknowledge the Good, so the word “better” is ambiguous.  So I reiterate: the materialist can make no sensible moral evaluation without contradicting himself; he claims that ethics is relative but appeals to absolutes for support. We therefore eliminate the option of selective tolerance.  Therefore, the materialist must adopt a self-contradictory, absolute tolerance of all behaviors, which is as dangerous as it is absurd.
David. I see.
Paul. Finally, you must understand that the materialist has no reason to pursue “the good life.”  Peter Kreeft in Back to Virtue gives three reasons why one should practice virtue: to please God, to nurture the soul, and to survive.  The materialist defenestrates the first two.  But according to Kreeft, “the third reason will not work without the other two.  For it fails to answer the crucial question why to survive, for what earthly or heavenly end?”[3]  It is clear from the patterns of history that civilizations dissolve as their virtue dissolves[4]; therefore, virtue is requisite for a healthy civilization.  In the words of Dostoyevsky, “without God, everything is permissible”; therefore, “without religion, virtue dies.”[5]  If “God is dead,” as the atheist Nietzsche says, then people are liberated from morality.[6] 
Therefore, it is evident that the materialist society has no advantage over the spiritual society. The materialist society must contradict itself in order to survive and can do nothing to resolve conflicts between people with opposing views of morality.  The materialist society will ultimately destroy itself because its citizens have no reason to cooperate, to love one another, or even to be happy.
David. Can we talk about something else?
Paul. Sure.
[End of dialogue]




[1] Words in triangular brackets are taken verbatim from dictionary.com.
[2] Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism and Humanism”, reprinted as Existentialism and Human Emotions (New York: Philosophical Library, 1957), 21-22.
[3] Kreeft, Peter.  Back to Virtue.  193.
[4] Ibid. 193. “Israel, Greece, Rome, and the modern West are examples.”
[5] Ibid. 192. “I want to prove three principles, which are related logically in a syllogism: 1. Without virtue, civilization dies. 2. Without religion, virtue dies. 3. Without religion, civilization dies.”
[6] Ibid. 193. “Nietzsche, that most consistent of atheists, agrees with Dostoyevsky, the Christian, that without God everything is permissible.  His philosophy calls for a ‘superman’ who will realize that ‘God is dead’ and thus be freed from moral scruple and guilt.  He sees morality as originating in the weakness of the herd and their resentment at this weakness; they invented morality to pull the teeth of the wolves so that they, the sheep, would not be devoured by them.  Why should someone who believes this philosophy have moral scruples?  Reason gives no answer to this question, and history gives a clear answer.  It wears a swastika.”

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Name Above All Names

David M. 3 Nov. 2011


The following text is an exegesis I wrote for my Greeks and Hebrews class. It discusses the meaning and purpose of God's enigmatic name, as it appears in Exodus 3:14.

Name Above All Names

An Exegesis of Exodus 3:14


Yahweh makes a baffling first impression. When He meets Moses on Mount Horeb, he introduces Himself using a formula instead of a name. “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,” says God; “I am who I am” (Ex 3:14 GNT). Philological analysis of the formula in light of logic, ontology, ancient Hebrew symbolism, and modern Jewish philosophy illuminates its meaning and intent.


The Hebrew phrase itself is ambiguous. “Ehyeh” is the first-person form of the verb “hyh,” which can mean, “to be,” or, “to cause to be.” Sensible translations include, “I am who I am,” “I am that I am,” “I am that which I am,” “I am what I am,” and “I will be who I will be” (Sarna 17). The Vulgate reads, “Ego sum qui sum” (I am who am), and later, “Qui est” (He who is), as God refers to Himself in the third-person (The Vulgate Bible). A grammatical analysis shows that the clauses that comprise the formula are interdependent. A transitive verb, “to be” (am) derives all meaning from its object. The object, “who I am,” refers to the subject and creates an endless loop of meaning. Though the translations vary slightly, they all evoke the same deliberate obfuscation of God’s identity.


Reading the formula through an ontological lens shows that God conceals part of His being from Moses. P. Coffey, author of Ontology, describes being as having two parts: existence and essence. A thing either exists, or it does not exist. A thing’s essence, according to P. Coffey, is “that by which a thing is what it is: id quo res est id quod est” (Coffey 75). In other words, the essence is the trait or collection of traits that defines something and distinguishes it from all other things. The formula “I am who I am” expresses God’s existence but conceals His essence entirely. Thus, the text read in light of ontological principles implies that God cannot be fully known.


It seems, then, that God’s answer sidesteps Moses’ question; however, hidden in the enigmatic formula is a statement of eternal truth. The formula can be compared to the tautology, i = i (often called an identity in mathematical conversation). Such an equation is remarkable in that it is always true, regardless of the numerical value of i. It is clear that the point of the statement is not to describe the value represented by i, but merely to express that i is in impeccable congruency with itself. God’s statement is identical. When God says, “I am who I am,” he asserts eternal, infinite congruency. Other translations inspire no less a sense of absolute certainty. “I will be who I will be” is a promise of timeless faithfulness. (Since the Hebrews had no concept of time as a dimension, it is anachronistic to interpret this translation as a statement about God’s transcendence of time. The covenant culture of Ancient Israel suggests that God intended this phrase as a vague but ageless covenant.) Moreover, since God states his existence in place of His essence, it can be argued that He discloses much of His essence implicitly. Moses asks God’s name (which the Hebrews equated to the essence), and God states his existence. Also, in the Vulgate, God tells Moses to tell the Israelites that “qui est”—“He who is”—has sent him to them. In this way the dialogue suggests that God’s essence is strongly connected to, if not equal to, his existence; therefore it is plausible that God’s existence is His essential characteristic.



The reason for which God conceals his name is as elusive as the meaning of the formula. Here, the writings of Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel serve as an interpretive aid. In his analysis of the origin of religion, Heschel describes verbal expression as a departure from wonder; “In expressing,” he says, “one is delivered of what he is replete with” (Heschel 97). For example, a man sees a beautiful sunset and is enthralled by its beauty; he can overcome this emotion by painting the sunset, whereby he contains the phenomenon on a canvas and subdues that which formerly subdued him. Moreover, Heschel defines piety as the life that flows from a soul overcome with a sense of the ineffable, and the pious person as he who “[desires] to live [that sense] rather than be released of it” (97). That sense is lost the moment it is expressed in words, so God lays the foundation for Jewish piety by omitting the detail that would release a person from his stupefaction.


It is possible that God obfuscates his name to declare his dominance over humans. When a person is confronted by the unknown, his reaction is first one of fear. His power is threatened, so to speak, by the object of his wonder. In order to regain his position of power, the person must understand that which bewilders him.­­­­­ He does this by naming it. A name is a shortcut, a symbol that provides quick access to a complex concept. For example, a reptile with a bony shell is called a turtle because it becomes tedious to refer to the animal by describing it. To know God’s name would allow Moses to access Him, to classify Him, and in doing so to believe he has dominated Him. In his commentary of the Torah, W. Gunther Plaut quotes Martin Buber: “Anybody who knows the true name [of a person] and knows how to pronounce it in the correct way can gain control of him. …through the name he becomes approachable, the speaker has power over him” (Plaut 399). The ancient Hebrews evidently associated knowledge with power, so it can be argued that God retains anonymity to assert his dominance. (Whether God does this to protect his throne or to state a reality is unclear as His intentions are absent from the passage.)



God’s dominance is also apparent in that his response defies human nature. In the book of Genesis, the first responsibility God gives to Adam is the task of classifying the fauna; taxonomy is thus a pillar of human nature. It follows that God’s name-formula—essentially a non-name—signifies an irreconcilable rift between the human and the divine. Moses wants to name God, to understand Him, but he cannot. The image of the burning bush from earlier in the passage harmonizes with this notion. In Hebrew culture, fire evoked mystery and divinity. In light of this, that God calls Himself, “I am who I am,” shows that God operates on a plane different from, if not higher than, that of humans.


Heschel further suggests that God chooses to remain nameless to preserve the genuineness of His relationship with humankind. Heschel talks about the inherent loss of detail in symbolism; he says, “There is hardly a symbol which, when used, would not impair or even undo the grasp of remembrance of the incomparable” (Heschel 97). To illustrate, a photograph of a mountain never stuns a person as much as the real thing. The symbol represents; it does not duplicate. The second commandment against making graven images suggests that the Hebrews believed this as well. Therefore, it can be argued that a symbol for God would weaken the relationship by its gross inaccuracy. Furthermore, Heschel sees all existence as a fluid thought of God. It follows that humans cannot think of God but only in God. The philosopher explains the relational effects of this: “As soon as a person objectifies God, he gains an idea and loses God” (128).


It is yet possible that God conceals his name to initiate Moses’ transition from material polytheism to spiritual monotheism. In Coffey’s analysis of essence, he notes that in pondering “the constitution of any corporeal thing, there is a danger of taking what is really only part of the essence of such a thing for the whole essence” (Coffey 77). Having grown up in a world of golden calves, animal-headed gods, and Pharaohs who were essentially gods on earth, Moses probably would have tended to see gods as “corporeal beings.” God’s nondisclosure of His essence thus prevents any confusion over the part and the whole of God. With no way to connect God to the material, Moses is forced to embark on an exclusively spiritual journey.

One could say that this journey is defined in the first few moments Moses speaks with God. Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt with an obedience that can only flow fresh from an encounter with indescribable wonder. God’s perplexing introduction marks the beginning of a grand narrative—that of the Israelites’ quest for nationhood, for prosperity, and for relationship with the unknowable God who is who He is.




Works Cited:

Coffey, P. Ontology. New York, NY: Peter Smith, 1938. Print.

Good News Bible
. New York, NY: American Bible Society, 1992. Print.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Man Is Not Alone. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951. Print.

Plaut, W. Gunther. The Torah: a Modern Commentary. New York, NY: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981. Print.

Sarna, Nahum M. The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991. Print.

The Vulgate Bible. Ed. Swift Edgar. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. Print.