Minute Particulars

"...minute and particular." -- Enormous Generalities

Wednesday, July 31, 2002


That amazing story I mentioned here generated lots of email. The most interesting was from Maureen Mullarkey who wrote:
I followed the link from your site to the article about the kidney donor. It's a sad, troubling story and, in its way, a squalid one.

The story begs the whole question of the morality of organ donation outside the family unit. The AMA ethical codes requires a doctor to "do no harm." Harm was certainly done to Wilson. I can only wonder about the psychological state of a man--a husband and father--who would willingly do harm to himself to buy time for a dying stranger [chronic renal failure]. I wonder about the selfishness of Rembert, who accepted the kidney and the ethics of the doctor who performed the operation.

The biblical Good Samaritan did not immolate himself.

We have come to think of ourselves as entitled to spare parts. I should think that one task of the culture of life is to teach us how to die. How to face our finitude without seeking postponements that endanger other people. Overly zealous commitment--by the medical establishment and the culture at large--to prolonging life by any means, however endangering to another life, is a form of hubris. It is not compassion.




Well, Rand’s response to my response to his cryonic claims makes it clear that we’re simply going to be doing do-si-dos around each other on this. Let me summarize my position:
- If cryonics implies placing a living human being into suspended animation and then successfully bringing him out of that deep, cold sleep, then I see no technical barrier – though I have other concerns that I’ll post later.
- If cryonics implies reviving a frozen human being who was dead prior to being frozen then I do see not just a technical barrier, but a metaphysical barrier, a chasm that we will never be able to cross.
My reasons are in my previous posts. ‘Nuff said for now.

This mini-debate got me thinking about how certain ideas seem to cycle in and out of fashion over the centuries. The one and the many, the nature of universals, existence and essence, causation, the nature of truth, the move from “is” to “ought,” and yes, the nature of the human being, all these come up in one form or another from one generation to the next. Part of the challenge in applying philosophical principles to the world, in finding unity and truth and beauty in the bright light of reality that floods our minds, is spotting these recurring themes and resisting the first superficial explanation that occurs to us.

Contemplating the world, staring at the stubborn phenomena that refuse to fit our mental models or yield easy explanations, this is a task that takes a lifetime. Appealing to a tradition, to long dead thinkers or living philosophers working in our midst, is not a lazy man’s approach. It’s how we can build upon the great minds who have gone before us, just as they built upon their predecessors. It’s, to use that awful corporate term, how we leverage our minds and hit the ground running.

As Aquinas once wrote, “We should study philosophy not to know what others have thought, but to know the manner in which we may possess the truth of things.” Indeed, this is really the only reason one should study philosophy or any discipline for that matter.


Monday, July 29, 2002


(Maybe those plumbers are at this show!)

About my cryonics post below, Rand and many of the folks in his “Comments” section over at Transterrestrial Musings are having none of it. It’s clear that Rand thinks my post was a load of hooey from his update to this post:
[Update at 9:10 PM PDT]
One more comment. I've never before read the words "philosophical anthropology" in conjunction with each other. I think that he's just making it up, and blowing smoke. This post of "Mark's" is an excellent example of the old aphorism "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing."
Just for fun, I ran “philosophical anthropology” through Google and got 5170 results – and I know maybe only two or three of those are from Minute Particulars. The “a little knowledge” comment reminded me of Pope’s:
A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
So, I’ve taken some time, I’ve taken long draughts from the intoxicating Pierian Spring and feel sober again, and it’s “once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more."

Let’s see, there’s so much to respond to. First, I want to apologize for assuming that Rand et al. were using the word “cryonics” in the manner that, well, that it’s commonly used by those of us not in the know. It’s defined in several dictionaries thusly:
n. (used with a sing. verb)
The process of freezing and storing the body of a diseased, recently deceased person to prevent tissue decomposition so that at some future time the person might be brought back to life upon development of new medical cures.

the practice of freezing a dead diseased human in hopes of restoring life at some future time when a cure for the disease has been developed
Note the words I highlighted in each: “deceased” and “dead.”

But apparently cryonics proponents, or at least Rand and some of the folks in the “Comments” section, don’t think a human being who undergoes a proper freeze is actually dead or deceased, but simply in a state of suspended animation. Fine, but if that’s the case, then I’d recommend using a different word or plopping an asterisk by it because there’s a big difference – and this was one of my points – between “suspended animation” and “death.” “You can't be any poorer than dead” but you’re relatively wealthy if you’re in some kind of suspended animation because there’s always the potential to be “unsuspended.” And actually, one could argue that we already have the technology to do suspended animation of human beings. As Dave Trowbridge points out here, frozen embryos are, at least in Catholic Teaching, human beings; and it seems they are in suspended animation because there have been frozen embryos that have been unfrozen and successfully brought to term. So can’t the same philosophical analogy work with cryonics? Well, yes.

If we use the term “suspended animation” rather than “dead” my points are still valid, but their relevance is, um, suspended a bit. Here’s what I said, again, assuming cryonics as defined in the dictionary blurbs above:
Cryonics assumes that after death the “form” of the body, its organizing principle, remains. But this is not the case. And that’s because the “form” of a human being is a principle of life, the soul, and when a human being is no longer alive, when the soul no longer “informs” the human being, the being is no longer human. What made the being human is also what made the human living. You can’t be a human being and not be alive; you can’t be dead and be a human being.
This is not a bold claim. It’s not original. It’s simply using philosophical principles from the pagan philosophy of Aristotle. My point was not that you must know the precise moment when death occurs for these principles to be valid. My point was not that the “soul” was a religious idea that science abhors. My point was simply that, given the philosophical principles I outlined in the post, principles derived, let me again stress, from reason, “You can’t be a human being and not be alive; you can’t be dead and be a human being.” So, if you’re claiming that Ted Williams or anyone else frozen shortly after apparent death is still alive, then my philosophical objections, based on the assumption that the person was dead when placed into the deep freeze, aren’t wrong, they simply don’t apply since the claim is that the human being is still alive. So, it seems on this particular point Rand and I are talking past each other more than disagreeing.

I don’t doubt that science will eventually produce technology that could put an alive adult human being into suspended animation. But I have no doubt that a dead human being will never be brought back to life by any technology no matter how far advanced (note that, if you followed the reasoning in my previous post “dead human being” is a phrase that uses “human” equivocally since “human being” implies “alive being”). I do disagree that death is “gradual” as Rand has explained and my disagreement is based on principles of nature that, again, I outlined in my previous post. This doesn’t mean I claim to know when death occurs precisely, just that the change from animate being to inanimate being, when it in fact occurs, is instantaneous in the sense that what was a human being is no longer a human being. There is no point were a human being is partly alive and partly dead because that, again if you read my previous post, would imply a contradiction in terms.

Next, it seems that anytime I used the term “soul,” even after carefully putting it into context, just about everyone commenting on my post over at Transterrestrial Musings reflexively assumed “religion” or “mysticism” must be involved. This is simply a misunderstanding of the philosophical use of “soul.” Aristotle was no Christian. Yet he used the term “soul” freely and seriously to mean “the first grade of actuality of a natural body having life potentially in it.” Now, I won’t attempt to unpack that again (click to my original post), but I do wonder about why this non-religious use of the soul runs into such vehement resistance. A pure materialist will reject it. But pure materialists run into lots of philosophical cul-de-sacs which aren’t the point of this post.

Another pervasive mistake in many of the responses I received or read was the equation of the principle of life, the soul, with a material body. And so there were comments about how the soul can’t exist because we know that physical damage to the brain can change behavior. But no one, not Aristotle, nor Aquinas, nor any philosopher with the understanding of human nature I outlined in my original post would disagree with this or find it a problem. To say that understanding is an incorporeal act because it is the act of manipulating what is intelligible about something rather than manipulating the physical thing itself doesn’t mean that understanding is not dependent upon physical organs to receive the “grist for the mill,” the stuff from which understanding flows, namely, the world that we take in through our senses.

Onward to another aspect of the responses that puzzles me. I don’t understand why folks are getting stuck on the religion/science thing. In truth, the claims I made are grounded in the thought of Aristotle, a pagan, and I really do think they can hold up to the scrutiny of reason. Perhaps part of the confusion is the result of conflating two rational disciplines: modern science and philosophy. As I explained in this previous post, modern science proceeds to a model of truth from probable explanations; philosophy proceeds to a notion of truth from self-evident principles. So, even though I insist that I'm not appealing to religion when talking of things like “soul,” and “incorporeal subsistent being” and the like, the distinction between these two methods of rational inquiry is not being observed by those who claim I’m, well, appealing to religion and hocus pocus.

Finally, why does this even matter? Do I have a desire to prevent advocates of cryonics from pursuing their deep freeze? Nope. Do I think cryonics, whether it implies freezing a dead body or an alive human being, whether it claims to be waiting for technology to revive the dead or those merely in suspended animation, do I think it touches on issues of human dignity, human life, and the human person that are a bit troubling? Well, yes indeed. But that’s for another post.


Sunday, July 28, 2002


Must be a passage from the New Testament, right? Nope, just this unbelievable story about a perfectly healthy man giving one of his kidneys to a perfect stranger in a less than perfect operation that left me perfectly amazed. Here’s a snippet of the article:
The tale began when [Rick] Wilson, then a machinist at a metal-working plant, went fishing off a Hermosa Beach pier. One day, a fellow fisherman cut his hand on a hook, and Wilson asked if the man needed a Band-Aid. And after that, well, nothing was the same.

"We started talking, and it was like we had known each other all our lives," Wilson says. The injured man, Frank Rembert, an airport skycap on long-term disability, told Wilson he had chronic renal failure and was on two waiting lists for a kidney transplant. The men went their separate ways, but two days later ran into each other at the pier.

"Rick told me he wanted to donate one of his kidneys to me," Rembert, who still lives in the Los Angeles area, recalls. "I thought it was a nice gesture, but not realistic. Mind you that we'd talked for all of about four hours. But Rick asked for my doctor's phone number. I gave it to him."




In Bellini’s painting,
the usual angel
is not present,
only a man
opening his chest
to the world
of simple sheep
of goose and hare
in the strange light.
Book and skull,
the two wooden sandals,
lie forgotten
behind the open-lattice door.
Even his pin-pricked
hands, it seems, forgotten.
Again the holy striving
has given way
to ordinary joy.
It is mostly blues,
a little reddish-brown,
some green.

- Jane Hirshfield


Saturday, July 27, 2002


Bene Diction, formerly of Martin Roth’s blog, continues to be “well spoken” on a blog of his very own. It’s pretty slick and already has some great posts.


Friday, July 26, 2002


This site (link via Ad Orientem) will generate lots of nifty Shakespearian insults. Keep it handy for that special occasion when only the best will suffice.


Thursday, July 25, 2002


Hmm . . . it might be time to get affairs in order and depart on that tropical vacation.

Seems like there’ve been a lot of these reports lately. It’s probably due to our increased powers of observation rather than an increase in the number of close encounters. Still, it might be time to turn the prayers up a notch. Disputations has a nice suggestion for easing into The Liturgy of the Hours here. And Sursum Corda has a fine post on this prayer “of the whole People of God” here.

Who knows, we may need to slip Asteroid delenda est into one of the Hours soon.

(asteroid article link via Josh Claybourn)


Wednesday, July 24, 2002


Amy Welborn has caused a "comment commotion" with her posing of the “Why bother?” question. Here’s the original post. Peter Nixon, Eve Tushnet, and Kairos are a few of the bloggers who’ve responded with comments and posts. I think I’d try appealing to a sense that all of us have, whether we’re believers or not, and that’s our sense of loss, a sense we experience most clearly when we lose a loved one.

Jesus says that "this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day." In Baptism we have been called to life in Christ; what the Father willed for His Son He now wills for us, His sons and daughters. It seems that the will of God is that we, like Jesus, should not lose anything that we are given and entrusted with.

But isn’t this contrary to our experience? After all, losing things seems to mark our passage through life. We lose loved ones to death. We lose many people who fade from our lives with time and distance. We lose the present moment to the past. We lose opportunities. We lose many hoped for dreams. We lose our childhood, our youth, our health and ability to care for ourselves. And, finally, we lose our lives.

And yet, contradicting all of this is the light of God's revelation. For the Gospel tells us that we are not to lose anything that has been given to us. But how are we to do this as we weather the stormy changes in our lives?

I think it involves being faithful, to God and one another. Believers have a sense of what this might mean, and unbelievers surely have a sense of being faithful to others. It is only when we are attentive to another, that we are assured that nothing will be lost. Faithfulness is a willingness to abide with another regardless of what transpires around us.

But so what? Or, as Amy suggests, “Why bother?” Is this talk of "faithfulness" and "God's will for us" and “that nothing shall be lost” real? Can it touch us to the depths that the death of loved ones can? Are these false sentiments we've heard in the Gospel, sentiments that will be displaced by the concrete concerns of getting on with our lives? Isn’t it true, as Seamus Heaney puts it, that "Still, living displaces false sentiments"?

Our loved ones die and turn to dust. Our memories of them soon transform into our memory of our memory of them. What assurance do we have that our being faithful will result in nothing being lost? On what rock solid truth can we hope that one day we will see loved ones again?

French Dominican Fr. Jean Corbon asks:
What then, does it mean to say that our God saves human beings? Does it mean that he gives them a course in theology? That he gives them a moral law, or even that he gives them the commandment of love? That he lets them know in the smallest detail the kind of worship agreeable to their creator? That he reveals to them that God is a Father, and kind and merciful? But then what? -- Even after all this the basic question that holds the human being in its grip and has found no real answer--still remains. I exist, but I exist for death at every moment and in the final moment. Of what use to me are models of morality and fine promises of life as long as the root of death has not been pulled up. This is the only really important question. Everything else is just a passing episode and a distraction . . . . If the coming of God into a human person did not reach to these depths we would be left with the failure found in all the religions and ideologies: being unable to do away with death, they simply suggest that we not think of it anymore.
The Catholic Faith insists that we look upon death and not turn in despair. And further, as St. Paul tells us, we have been baptized into the death of Christ. In other words, as baptized Christians, we have shed the emptiness of death, and believe that we will indeed be raised from the dead, for death no longer has power over us. God has indeed reached beyond the depths of any human experience. There is nothing we can encounter, that is not contained by God and transformed by his act of love to enter into our lives. And this fact, I think, should animate our attempts to answer the “Why bother?” or “But then what?” questions.

Believers and unbelievers can both say, “I exist, but I exist for death at every moment and in the final moment. Of what use to me are models of morality and fine promises of life as long as the root of death has not been pulled up. This is the only really important question.” And it’s at this rather bleak crisis, and surely it is a crisis if such questions are genuinely asked, that the Revelation of God can finally make inroads into even the tiniest cracks of doubt. Peter Nixon is right when he says,
I can’t sit here with a stack of scriptures from various religious traditions and prove to you by citing texts that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life. It can’t be done. I can sketch out all kinds of arguments that suggest that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the very basic longings of the human race, but I can’t imagine they would be convincing to someone who doesn’t already believe.
Texts and arguments simply don’t touch upon the fact that “I exist, but I exist for death at every moment and in the final moment.”

Death is the final loss at the final moment. And that’s why I suggest above (you thought I lost, er . . . drifted from my theme, eh?) that our common experience of loss of loved ones, and the ever present sense that we too will lose our lives, is the place we might focus on in discussions with unbelievers and believers alike. For the Gospels are, finally, the only place where we’ll find words that pull up “the root of death” under all of us. And it’s our faithfulness to each other and to God that brings to life and makes real God’s will for us, that we “should not lose anything” of what the He has given us.




Here’s a panoramic view from the top of the world. Spectacular. (link via Xavier+)


Tuesday, July 23, 2002


Some of the responses to my post on cryonics below reminded me of one of my favorite bits by Steve Martin (text found here via Google; it seems accurate to what I remember from the album)
Ok, I don't like to gear my material to the audience but I'd like to make an exception because I was told that there is a convention of plumbers in San Francisco this week - I understand about 30 of them came down to the show tonight - so before I came out I worked-up a joke especially for the plumbers. Those of you who aren't plumbers probably won't get this and won't think it's funny, but I think those of you who are plumbers will really enjoy this...

This lawn supervisor was out on a sprinkler maintenance job and he started working on a Findlay sprinkler head with a Langstrom 7" gangly wrench. Just then, this little apprentice leaned over and said, "You can't work on a Findlay sprinkler head with a Langstrom 7" wrench." Well this infuriated the supervisor, so he went and got Volume 14 of the Kinsley manual, and he reads to him and says, "The Langstrom 7" wrench can be used with the Findlay sprocket." Just then, the little apprentice leaned over and said, "It says sprocket not socket!"

(No laughter from the audience)

Were those plumbers supposed to be here this show? Or . . . .
I guess I want to ask, “Were those thirteenth-century philosophers supposed to be here this show?”

Anyway, I’ve got some commitments preventing me from responding immediately to Transterrestrial Musings (who replied here) in a way that isn't just repeating what I've already said. I’ll try to do so soon.


Monday, July 22, 2002


Cryonics has reared its frozen head (or body depending on how much you pay) again with the news that Ted Williams is now a popsicle. Lots of interesting takes on the religious implications for the human soul in all of this. I ran into most of these via InstaPundit if you care to click over and read up: Blogsferics, Transterrestrial Musings, Natalie Solent, A Voyage To Arcturus, Commentary: Presuming God at -320 degrees, TAPPED, and Ronald Bailey.

Most, if not all, of the above links, however, make a fundamental mistake in philosophical anthropology by treating the human being dualistically. Cryonics assumes that after death the body that was a human being is still a human being in some way. Cryonics then assumes that there eventually will be a technique of some kind, a Frankensteinian spark that will bring the corpse back to life. The best response to this silliness, this tendency toward conceiving of the human being as body and soul, whether it be Platonic or Cartesian or any other variation of dualism, is found in the philosophical tradition that started with Aristotle and culminated in Aquinas.

In this tradition, a human being is not a body with a soul in it, a kind of ghost in a machine. A human being is not the soul itself, a sort of spirit merely using a body. And a human being is not simply a body, a mechanical, purely material entity. But knowing what it isn’t doesn’t move us much toward understanding human nature. So what then is the nature of the human being? To understand the approach of Aristotle and Aquinas you first need to understand the principles of “matter” and “form.”

In his treatise On The Soul, though you’ll find the idea in many other places, Aristotle explains that the everyday things we encounter, rocks, plants, animals and the like are all composed by two principles: a material principle or principle of potency, and a formal principle or principle of act. In other words, everything we encounter in our daily lives (with the exception of things like heavenly bodies for which Aristotle had a different theory) is composed of matter, the principle of potency, potential to be some kind of thing, and form, the principle of actuality, actually being a particular kind of thing, e.g. a granite rock, a geranium, or a gazelle. The matter is only the potential of a thing to be “this particular thing”; matter does not exist by itself (this sounds strange if you don’t keep the fact that matter is a principle of potency in mind). The form is the act by which a thing is “this particular kind of thing”; and again, with an exception we’ll see shortly, the form does not exist by itself. It is only in a composite of matter and form that “this particular thing” exists. The composite of matter and form produces a thing which we can point to and say “this” thing.

This potency-act, matter-form approach was the brilliant solution Aristotle proposed to escape the many cul-de-sacs of early philosophical thought. What’s important in the cryogenic discussion is the fact that a living thing is a composite of matter and form where the form is a “soul,” a principle of life. When the composite is sundered at death there is what Aristotle called a “substantial change” that occurs. Just as wood burns to ash, so a living thing when it dies, when the composite of matter and form that made it not only a certain kind of thing but “this particular thing” no longer exists, there is an immediate change and the form ceases to exist (with one exception that we’ll soon see). The death of a living thing is a complete and irreversible change because the destruction of the composite is the destruction of its principle of act, its form or “soul.”

While a dead body may look like an organic whole, an entity with a single principle organizing it, the truth is that a dead body is a complex of organs and compounds that are themselves undergoing substantial change to less organized elements. Cryonics assumes that after death the “form” of the body, its organizing principle, remains. But this is not the case. And that’s because the “form” of a human being is a principle of life, the soul, and when a human being is no longer alive, when the soul no longer “informs” the human being, the being is no longer human. What made the being human is also what made the human living. You can’t be a human being and not be alive; you can’t be dead and be a human being.

I’ve mentioned that there’s an exception to the fact that when a composite being with principles of matter and form ceases to exist, when a living thing dies, the form ceases to be. For a living thing the form is a soul. So when a living thing dies its soul ceases to exist. The exception, which Aristotle likely didn’t grasp fully, but which is thoroughly worked through in Aquinas, is the human form or soul. Aquinas demonstrated that the human being’s fundamental constitution as a rational creature implied a principle of activity which per se did not require a body. In other words, a human being’s fundamental way of being, thinking, understanding, abstracting, occurred without bodily mechanisms. And since activity follows from existence (i.e. you can’t act if you don’t exist), an activity that does not require a body must derive from something that exists without requiring a body. The technical term for this is “subsistence.” The human soul, unlike any other soul or principle of life (e.g. orange tree, oyster, orca), subsists even after the matter-form composite corrupts. Aquinas refers to the separated soul as an incorporeal subsistent thing with an incomplete nature (since its nature is to inform a human being in a matter-form composite)

You would think this would bolster the cryonics industry. After all, if the soul is still around isn’t there hope that it might again inform the human being? Well, no. The nature of the soul after death can only be known in sort of a negative way, by saying “what it is not,” or by extrapolating what we observed when the soul was not separated, since an incorporeal subsistent thing is beyond our senses. But Aquinas suggests that the separated soul exists in a sort of twilight zone. It no longer has sensory input and consequently can only understand (it has to still “do” something if it exists) in an imperfect way. Still, as an incorporeal subsisting thing it cannot be manipulated by us (nor can it be created by us, but that’s for another post). No matter how long you wait for the wonders of technology, there simply is no way for corporeal beings (that’s us) to influence incorporeal entities like separated souls. Science can’t create a human soul and science can’t cause a soul to again inform the human being it once did. It’s not that we don’t know how. It’s that we are barred metaphysically from doing so. The creation of a human soul would require the infinite power of the Creator since it would require creation of something from nothing. The causing of a separated soul to again inform the human being it once did would require the infinite power of the Creator because it would require the ability to move incorporeal substances.

Never mind that the technology is primitive. That’s just a matter of time for cryonic proponents. But cryonics runs into several related fundamental problems of philosophical anthropology –
1) death is a substantial change and thus irreversible
2) the human being is not present in an organ or in a corpse
3) infusing life into a corpse again would require the ability to control an incorporeal subsistent principle (the human soul) which is not possible for corporeal beings in the land of the living
So, sad as it may seem to some, Walt Disney won’t be watching Teddy Ballgame put the wood on the ol’ apple anytime in the future.


Sunday, July 21, 2002


USS Clueless has a nice reflection on the nature of law. For those interested in a more fundamental treatment and one which distinguishes between natural law, human law, eternal law, the Old Law, and the New Law, click to Aquinas's famous “Treatise on Law” (scroll down to “LAW”).

The treatise is divided into the following sections:
GENERAL: The essence (90), various kinds (91), and effects (92) of law.
ETERNAL LAW: The eternal law (93).
NATURAL LAW: The natural law (94).
HUMAN LAW: Human law (95) and its power (96) and mutability (97).
OLD LAW: The old law (98) and its precepts (99): moral (100), ceremonial (101) and judicial (104). The causes (102) and duration (103) of the ceremonial precepts. The reason (105) for the judicial precepts.
NEW LAW: The law of the Gospel (106) or new law and its comparison with the old (107). What (108) the new law contains.

Here’s a taste of what you’ll find:
Law is a rule and measure of acts, whereby man is induced to act or is restrained from acting: for "lex" [law] is derived from "ligare" [to bind], because it binds one to act. Now the rule and measure of human acts is the reason, which is the first principle of human acts, as is evident from what has been stated above (1, 1, ad 3); since it belongs to the reason to direct to the end, which is the first principle in all matters of action, according to the Philosopher (Phys. ii). Now that which is the principle in any genus, is the rule and measure of that genus: for instance, unity in the genus of numbers, and the first movement in the genus of movements. Consequently it follows that law is something pertaining to reason.


Saturday, July 20, 2002


Still remarkable 33 years later (link via Xavier+).

You probably already know this, but Armstrong flubbed his famous first words on the Moon. He actually said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But this doesn’t make much sense with the missing indefinite article. It was supposed to be: "That's one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind." It works a little better rhetorically that way.




Dave Trowbridge always finds some great stuff (you should snoop around his blog a bit). Here’s a recent find from John Muir’s The Mountains of California that I thought was great:
THE mountain winds, like the dew and rain, sunshine and snow, are measured and bestowed with love on the forests to develop their strength and beauty. However restricted the scope of other forest influences, that of the winds is universal. . . .

Toward midday, after a long, tingling scramble through copses of hazel and ceanothus, I gained the summit of the highest ridge in the neighborhood; and then it occurred to me that it would be a fine thing to climb one of the trees to obtain a wider outlook and get my ear close to the Æolian music of its topmost needles. But under the circumstances the choice of a tree was a serious matter. One whose instep was not very strong seemed in danger of being blown down, or of being struck by others in case they should fall; another was branchless to a considerable height above the ground, and at the same time too large to be grasped with arms and legs in climbing; while others were not favorably situated for clear views. After cautiously casting about, I made choice of the tallest of a group of Douglas Spruces that were growing close together like a tuft of grass, no one of which seemed likely to fall unless all the rest fell with it. Though comparatively young, they were about 100 feet high, and their lithe, brushy tops were rocking and swirling in wild ecstasy. Being accustomed to climb trees in making botanical studies, I experienced no difficulty in reaching the top of this one, and never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion. The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobo-link on a reed.
Bobo-link?! Sounded like a primate of some kind to me so I looked it up. Here’s a picture of one. I guess I need to get out a little more.


Friday, July 19, 2002


15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense is a recent article in Scientific American. The article claims that “Opponents of evolution want to make a place for creationism by tearing down real science, but their arguments don't hold up.” Now then, this article,15 ways to refute materialistic bigotry: A point by point response to Scientific American by Jonathan Sarfati, was posted in response. What fun! If I were teaching critical thinking these two articles would provide a few weeks of material. The problem, as usual, is that everyone is talking past each other. And really, it’s much ado about nothing.

Here’s the problem. As Aquinas points out, reason can be used in two ways with regard to some phenomenon. One way is by sufficiently proving some principle; another way is by not sufficiently proving a principle, but showing that a suggested principle is now in agreement with the effects which follow from it. And he points out that this latter reason is not a sufficient proof as in the first case, since perhaps another position could be introduced to explain these effects. Aquinas gives astronomical examples for each type of reasoning which are now obsolete, but the principles behind his examples still pertain.

The first kind of reasoning, which derives from a principle (the Latin word used is radix, literally “the root of the matter”) is the procedure of demonstration. It is an argument from necessity, from necessary principles to necessary conclusions. It can provide fixed and final answers to problems by pointing out the principles involved and demonstrating a conclusion. Aquinas concludes that the celestial movements are of constant speed from principles involving act and potency, perfection and imperfection, and circular and linear motion. We, of course, would not hold to this as a valid demonstration of celestial motion; we discard it not from any intrinsic lack of coherence, however, but from the fact that celestial bodies and movement do not have the properties required for the argument’s premise, i.e. perfection and circular motion.

The second kind of reasoning, from a proposed principle to a tentative conclusion is not demonstration but conjecture or a probable reason. Contemporary science may appear to derive “final answers” by demonstration, but a close look will uncover a reliance upon a premise that is a model rather than reality and a conclusion that is the result of conjecture or probability. Certainly the emphasis of contemporary science on mathematics creates a remarkable air of certitude, and because of this it can resemble the first kind of reasoning outlined by Aquinas. But whenever there is a model rather than a principle underlying a conclusion, as is the case with evolution, the conclusion will not be demonstrative in the manner Aquinas has described.

John Barrow and Frank J. Tipler in their book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle comment on the confusion of these two approaches of reason in science today:
The modern view that we must appreciate is that we have come to realize the difference between the world as it really is (‘reality’) and our scientific theories about it and models of it. In every aspect our physical theories are approximations to reality, they claim merely to be ‘realistic’ and so we hesitate to draw far-reaching conclusions about the ultimate nature of reality from models which must be, at some level, inaccurate descriptions of reality. Scientists have not always recognized this, and some do not even today. We see good examples of the consequences of this weakness when we look back at the religious fervour with which Newton’s equations of motion and gravitation were regarded by those eighteenth-century scientists intent upon demonstrating that God, like Newton, was also a mathematician. Whilst this group were claiming that the constancy and reliability of the laws of Nature witnessed a Creator, another was citing the breakdown of their constancy, or miracles, as the prime evidence of a Deity. (p. 30)
Now, I hope it’s obvious that I’m not maligning science. Contemporary science is a perfectly valid, appropriate, and even necessary method for pursuing knowledge of the world. Its hypothetico-deductive method consists of observing the behavior of things, hypothesizing how they will behave in the future and under various conditions, and testing the validity of such hypotheses. The success of this kind of procedure is difficult to deny: advances in the field of medicine alone would sufficiently defend the method of today’s science as truly for the betterment of human beings. But science is a technique that attempts to predict how things will behave again and again and again. It doesn’t, finally, lift the cover off of the mystery of why things are as they are, or even just why things are. When some think the technique of science can do this, and others think another technique, reading the Bible literally, can, you have the warp and woof of today’s typical evolution/creationism debates.

You don’t have to read very far into each of the above links to spot this key misunderstandings. Notice that both debaters accept the equivocal use of “truth.” The Scientific American article claims that:
When Charles Darwin introduced the theory of evolution through natural selection 143 years ago, the scientists of the day argued over it fiercely, but the massing evidence from paleontology, genetics, zoology, molecular biology and other fields gradually established evolution's truth beyond reasonable doubt. Today that battle has been won everywhere--except in the public imagination.
Notice that “truth” here can only mean a conclusion reached by the second way we discussed above; it’s a conclusion based on conjecture and probability, a conclusion based on premises that are models, not irreducible first principles. But rather than point this out, the opponent to evolution responds with this:
This is a debate tactic known as ‘elephant hurling’. This is where the critic throws summary arguments about complex issues to give the impression of weighty evidence, but with an unstated presumption that a large complex of underlying ideas is true, and failing to consider opposing data, usually because they have uncritically accepted the arguments from their own side. But we should challenge elephant-hurlers to offer specifics and challenge the underlying assumptions.
He may be correct in the rhetorical technique used, but it misses the point. Of course, opponents of evolution aren’t concerned about the equivocation of “truth” found in the above article: they’re usually interested in interpreting the Bible in a manner that treats it as a scientific text. But that is a misunderstanding of science in the contemporary sense and scripture in the traditional sense. And, ironically, they’re simply applying another model of understanding, another technique, namely the literal interpretation of the Bible, to a mystery that resists these misapplications of human intelligence.


Thursday, July 18, 2002


Nice reflections on sin and suffering over at Disputations.

UPDATE: the above permalinks aren't working so you'll need to go to Disputations and scroll down.




Bravo to Mark Shea for pointing out(permalink not working so you may need to scroll) the snobbery of the “Art Elite.” I think we can all agree that Thomas Kinkade (the link takes a long time to load) is no Rembrandt (I hope that’s a sophisticated enough reference!), but so what? This issue is similar to my concern below that “the masses” or “the comman man” are often thought of as incapable of making fine distinctions, of seeing shades of meaning, and, in this case, of discerning good art from bad. If a work of “art” genuinely appeals to someone’s sensibilities, then even if it has meaning and significance that seems to evaporate outside of the living room in which it resides, it is still art. As Mark suggests, art critics might serve us better by creating “good” art themselves and leaving us poor groundlings alone to enjoy our simple pleasures.

Hey, I wonder if anyone’s ever painted a velvet St. Thomas Aquinas? That would look great in my living room.


Wednesday, July 17, 2002


the report by the President’s Council on Bioethics, Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry is emerging over on Sursum Corda. It’s coming out in installments.




Interesting musings on human sacrifice, magical thinking, and the Culture of Death by Mark Butterworth (link via Amy Welborn).


Tuesday, July 16, 2002


Jonah Goldberg’s “Dangerous Ideas” column (link via InstaPundit) was posted after the post below where I pulled out the ol’ “Ideas are dangerous” quote from Chesterton. But it’s too fitting to avoid in the context of Goldberg’s column so here it is again:
Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are least dangerous is the man of ideas. He is acquainted with ideas, and moves among them like a lion-tamer. Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are most dangerous is the man of no ideas. The man of no ideas will find the first idea fly to his head like wine to the head of a teetotaller. *
Goldberg starts by pointing out that we treat some technological ideas (e.g. how to make a nuclear weapon) as dangerous and try to prevent access to them while we consider non-technological ideas innocuous because they’re soft and fuzzy and delivered in lectures by English professors. His point is that these non-technological ideas can cause a lot of damage:
For lots of Americans, the idea that there are no objective standards of truth or morality is incredibly sophisticated and intelligent. The authors who write the clever novels, the film directors who get awards and rave reviews for blurring the lines between good and evil, the professors who claim George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden are morally indistinguishable: These are the "thoughtful people" in our culture. Meanwhile, the people who talk in terms of right and wrong are ridiculed by the sophisticates.

Call it feminism, critical race theory, critical legal studies, queer theory, whatever: It's all shrapnel from the same postmodern bomb, broadly speaking. These doctrines haven't all been terrible for America, but their misapplication and over-application have. Scientists take responsibility for the damage they do. English professors take speaking fees. Conservatism, which does not fetishize the masses, understands that even an intelligent idea can have horrific consequences if let loose upon a society. The uninformed, the lazy, the affected, the ambitious, and the dumb can adopt sharp-edged ideas and use them as blunt cudgels if we are not careful. The authors of postmodernism have not been careful.
While there’s probably some truth to Goldberg’s statements, I do wonder if he’s getting his sense of what “lots of Amercians” think from hot-talk radio or some such thing rather than from the common man in the common street. And I have to disagree with his notion about the common man implied in his comments about not fetishizing (don’t get sweaty Nihil, it’s in a few dictionaries, though my Webster’s didn’t have it) the masses and in his assumption that “sharp-edged ideas” become blunt in the hands of the masses. In fact, I’d say Goldberg comes across as a bit of an elitist in this column. As Chesterton points out in the sequel to the book that has the above quote about dangerous ideas:
the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. Man is something more awful than men; something more strange. The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization.
What Goldberg misses in his concern that non-technological ideas are dangerous, I think, is an appreciation for the subtlety and common sense that “the masses” are capable of.

I don't want to underplay the impact of media and the importance of public opinion surveys; but I do wonder at the ease with which some equate the “common man” with the “uninformed, the lazy, the affected, the ambitious, and the dumb.” This is a concern I’ve had for some time. I hear stories about people leaving babies in cars on a summer day, high school kids saying they’d throw a baby out of a raft instead of a dog if they had to choose, women using abortion as a kind of birth control, and so on and I admit that it does seem like “the masses” have lost it and lack the common sense that God gave geese. But I guess I think most people are fairly smart and capable. Next time you’re on a two-lane highway and whisking by cars coming at you from the other direction, ask yourself how much you trust the person in the oncoming car not to do something stupid. Sure it happens, but it’s rare, it’s the exception, and we know it.

The danger in assuming that “the masses,” “the common man in the street,” or “those people who answered some survey” are uninformed, lazy, affected, ambitious, or dumb, is that we’ll find ourselves attempting to remedy it with divisive and simplistic responses to issues that touch on the dignity of every human being. And this just polarizes issues and stalls intelligent debate. People, all people, are generally capable of making fine distinctions, of seeing shades of meaning, of responding with decency and wisdom and mercy and, well, even common sense. They don’t need to be sheltered from dangerous ideas; they need to be exposed to all ideas within a sound framework that respects those who’ve gone before them and those yet to be.




I’ve been having some struggles with changing my ISP and haven’t had reliable Internet access for a few days. I think I’m back now.

By the way, if you don’t already know about this, if you’re on BlogSpot you need to go in and republish your Archives occasionally or the permalinks that others used to link to a past post won’t work.


Friday, July 12, 2002

UN . . .er, NOT . . . um, IL . . .hmm . . .

Thanks to Mark Shea for this beauty:
Mr. [Jesse] Jackson also called the president's comparison of a recent Supreme Court ruling favoring school vouchers in Cleveland to the 1954 desegregation order in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas "unliterate" and "fuzzy history."
How does that blog phrase go? “You can’t make this stuff up folks.”


Thursday, July 11, 2002


Wow, this (link via Quid Novi) is pretty high drama:
On June 29, 2002, Romulo Antonio Braschi, the founder of a schismatic community, attempted to confer priestly ordination on the following Catholic women: Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, Adelinde Theresia Roitinger, Gisela Forster, Iris Müller, Ida Raming, Pia Brunner and Angela White.

In order to give direction to the consciences of the Catholic faithful and dispel any doubts which may have arisen, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wishes to recall the teaching of the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis of Pope John Paul II, which states that "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful" (n. 4). For this reason, the above-mentioned "priestly ordination" constitutes the simulation of a sacrament and is thus invalid and null, as well as constituting a grave offense to the divine constitution of the Church. Furthermore, because the "ordaining" Bishop belongs to a schismatic community, it is also a serious attack on the unity of the Church. Such an action is an affront to the dignity of women, whose specific role in the Church and society is distinctive and irreplaceable.

The present Declaration, recalling the preceding statements of the Bishop of Linz and the Episcopal Conference of Austria and in accordance with canon 1347 § 1 of the CIC, gives formal warning to the above-mentioned women that they will incur excommunication reserved to the Holy See if, by July 22, 2002, they do not (1) acknowledge the nullity of the "orders" they have received from a schismatic Bishop in contradiction to the definitive doctrine of the Church and (2) state their repentance and ask forgiveness for the scandal caused to the faithful.

Rome, from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 10 July 2002.

Joseph Card. RATZINGER, Prefect
Tarcisio BERTONE, S.D.B.
Archbishop Emeritus of Vercelli, Secretary


Wednesday, July 10, 2002


Mark Shea had this to say recently on AIDS prevention:
By the way, not to inject a note of gloom, but an acquaintance of mine who is a molecular biologist went to an AIDS conference about ten years ago and basically came away saying "We will never find a cure for AIDS." Prevention? Easy as pie. Live, well, basically the way God says to and your chances of contracting AIDS are right up there with your chances of getting hit by lightning. But once you've got AIDS, you've got it and you are not going to get rid of it except by having the host organism die.
Hmm . . . living “basically the way God says to” has always struck me as more of a dangerous thing than safe.

And think about it. A healthcare person increases his or her risk of contracting HIV by working with AIDS patients. Would God want healthcare folks to stop treating AIDS patients so that they don’t risk a needle stick or infection by other means? Probably not. Would God have wanted Mother Teresa to avoid the sick and dying because she might contract some disease from them? Probably not.

Fr. Damien of Molokai contracted leprosy because he lived with the abandoned lepers. Was he living “the way God says to”?

I’m pretty sure this wasn’t what Mark intended. But I think one needs to be careful about these kinds of statements.

AIDS is an infectious disease. Certain behaviors can expose you to infectious diseases; no reasonable person disputes this. But living “basically the way God says to” is a silly way to discuss AIDS prevention or any other infectious disease prevention. Ironically, appealing to living “the way God says to” as a guide to prevention of an infectious disease is precisely the kind of thing Shea detests in his battles with Christian Fundamentalists who take the Bible literally and as a scientific text. Perhaps worse, though, is the misunderstanding that can arise by asserting that if people simply live the way God says to they can avoid contracting an infectious disease: it implies that God only calls us to safe and risk-free living.

UPDATE: Blogger permalinks don't seem to be working so you'll need to scroll down to Mark's "Yesterday, Drudge has some headline declaring they will have a cure for AIDS in five years" post of 7/9 to find the text I quote above.



Here’s an article (link via Amy Welborn) that points out that the “arguments of some academic philosophers are contributing to the plausibility of belief in the supernatural.”
Swinburne, Plantinga, and others have reshaped the philosophy of religion. Christian thinkers are no longer on the defensive. By dedication to truth and dint of clear thought, they have shown that the philosophical materialists offer unsatisfying answers and question-begging challenges. Perhaps someday soon, the barrenness of atheistic materialism will be broadly realized as cultural arbiters like The New York Times filter academic thought to the masses. In the meantime, we are grateful to Swinburne and his fellows for demonstrating the plausibility of Christian truth.
Related to this, the always interesting Redwood Dragon takes on USS Clueless’s view of the world.

Let me make a rather bold, bald statement. Atheistic materialism can’t really, seriously be held by anyone. Notice I’m not saying “shouldn’t be held by anyone.” I’m saying “cannot be held by anyone.” The reason is simple. To claim that there is no God and that all things can be reduced to materialistic or mechanistic principles is akin to saying “a thing is and is not at the same time in the same respect.” You can say it, but it’s meaningless. As Disputations put it a while back, in a different context, it’s like saying I’m going "Tie a rainbow to my thought."

So, exactly why am I equating atheistic materialism (or just atheism or just materialism) with a nonsensical statement like “a thing is and is not at the same time in the same respect.”? Because that’s what atheistic materialism is in essence claiming. One way to organize your thinking on this is with Aquinas’s familiar proofs for the existence of God. If you look at how he approaches each of the five proofs, you’ll see that each one is an assertion that something cannot be and not be at the same time in the same respect. Now, obviously, any speculative argumentation will eventually reduce to this first principle, but it’s interesting to note what he does.

In the first proof (you should go to the link and read it if you haven’t yet) he points out that the existence of an unmoved mover is required unless we wish to claim that something can be in motion and not in motion at the same time and in the same respect. In the second, the existence of a first efficient cause is required, unless we wish to claim that something can exist and be the cause of its existence at the same time in the same respect. In the third, the existence of pure act is required unless we want to be held to asserting that something is actual and possible at the same time in the same respect. In the fourth proof, the existence of pure being is required, unless we wish to claim that a thing can be more and less actual at the same time in the same respect. Finally, in the fifth approach, the existence of a principle of design is required, unless we want to claim that something can be a designer and designed at the same time and in the same respect.

Now, I don’t expect the previous paragraph to convince anyone that God exists. But taken in the metaphysical context that stretches back to Aristotle, that’s pretty much what the proofs are attempting to demonstrate.

But here’s the problem. The God you arrive at from these proofs, from any proof that is grounded upon reason, is not very interesting. It’s about as interesting as watching the water level in a swimming pool rise a bit when a person enters the pool compared to actually meeting the person. The former is evidence of the person’s existence; the latter is relationship with that person. Now that’s not literally what the difference is between philosophical approaches based on reason and theological musings based on faith. But I often wonder what all the excitement is about when someone claims that the existence of God is reasonable, or probable, or some such thing. Philosophy is one of many tools that theology uses. But it’s not the linchpin.

When God revealed Himself to us, when the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, the possibility of genuine relationship with God emerged. Prior to this deliberate revelation, our knowledge of God was impersonal and about as interesting as chewing chalk. That our reason can arrive at aspects of God is not surprising. That we can know the Father through the Son . . . well, that’s the most startling thing one could ever encounter.


Wednesday, July 03, 2002


Yesterday’s Dilbert was great. Dilbert explains to his boss that his project failed because he was forced to use a rope instead of an electronic cable. The Procurement Manager is a monkey who signed an exclusive cable contract with a rope vendor. The boss, after hearing this, says, “I’d rather not take sides until I hear the monkey’s version” (If that doesn’t seem funny, maybe you should click to the strip above). I mention this because many bloggers who have expressed an interest in the theology of Stanley Hauerwas and pacifism in general are being roundly criticized and treated as if they’d just said, “I’d rather not take sides until I hear the monkey’s version.”

It would be a bit of an understatement to say that this article about Stanley Hauerwas has caused a blogstorm. As Telford Work writes:
Stanley Hauerwas is the laughingstock of the week on many of the weblogs I frequent: Glenn Reynolds (twice), The Wall Street Journal's Best of the Web, Kathy Shaidle, Andrew Sullivan ... all because of an interview in the National Catholic Reporter.
There’s a fine line between dismissing something as nonsense and dismissing an idea that takes a putty knife to the fringes of what we’re comfortable with and scrapes under it. I’m a little surprised at some of the vitriol being spewed about Hauerwas. I’d never heard of him until the NCR article – or if I did I'd quickly forgotten it. I’ll admit he comes across about as well as Susan Sontag did in the New Yorker shortly after 9/11. Remember that gem? Here’s part of it.
Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a "cowardly" attack on "civilization" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free world" but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word "cowardly" is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards.
Sontag’s statement is ludicrous. It seems it’s not worth the bits in blogland to respond to it. And yet, it was the focal point of many columns and articles and, I believe, it is the reason for Andrew Sullivan’s “Sontag Award” which he attributes to anyone who says something completely whacky. So, there is such a thing as nonsense and I think she captured it.

But the outright dismissal of Hauerwas, especially when his work has been praised by respectable and intelligent people (Sursum Corda and Telford Work to name a few), seems different. I wonder if it's the result of a certain type of idea hitting a mind that has well-worn grooves from long-held ideas? I’m thinking of something similar to Chesterton’s famous quote:
Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are least dangerous is the man of ideas. He is acquainted with ideas, and moves among them like a lion-tamer. Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are most dangerous is the man of no ideas. The man of no ideas will find the first idea fly to his head like wine to the head of a teetotaller. from Heretics
Only, I don’t think those vehemently denouncing Hauerwas have “no ideas” and are violently denouncing him in a drunken stupor. Rather, I wonder if their ideas, at least about certain issues, might be a bit crimped and cramped, ideas that are “well understood,” supple and comfortable in the cranium. Not because they reject Hauerwas, but because they can’t seem to calmly unpack what might be behind his statements.

Look, I’m not advocating pacifism and I’m not espousing Hauerwas. And these really aren’t the point. I’m simply trying to remind folks that the fact that something seems absurd, loopy, or ludicrous is not automatic grounds for dismissal unless it’s an answer on your Logic 101 quiz. I’m simply trying to remind folks that if you think God has indeed revealed Himself to us, if you believe the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, the character of that revelation is likely not going to be on our terms, terms with which we’re comfortable, terms we can handle easily. In fact, the Word of God will grate against or even contradict our naked human expectations just about every time we are touched by it: "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted" (Luke 2:34). This does NOT mean that our every opinion will be stood on its head when we hear the Liturgy of the Word, read the bible privately, or experience a sacrament. Rather, it means that meditating on what God has revealed to us will, if we let it sink in and take hold, affect us in very unexpected ways.

No, I’m not saying “I’d rather not take sides until I hear the monkey’s version” when grappling with Hauerwas or pacifism or any other volatile issue. But I hope I’m not so bound in the vice grip of expectations that I’m blind to something, perhaps a meditation by someone on the Word, perhaps a position that I find astounding, perhaps a blog post, or article that seems absurd, all things that might contain grains or whole mountains of the Truth that sets us free. Entertain words of nonsense? I’d prefer not to. But entertain these words?:
And to another he said, "Follow me." But he replied, "(Lord,) let me go first and bury my father."
But he answered him, "Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."
And another said, "I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home."
(To him) Jesus said, "No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:59-62)


Tuesday, July 02, 2002


Lots of comments and posting going on from this post and this one by Amy Welborn. They center on this post by Jody at Naked Writing. These issues are probably too big and cumbersome for a few comments and posts; but it’s fun to try to get a blogbyte or two in that might cause a pause in the commotion.

Chesterton wrote volumes in response to positions which water every religion down to superstition and flavor-of-the-month. Here’s what he was concerned about:
There comes an hour in the afternoon when the child is tired of 'pretending'; when he is weary of being a robber or a Red Indian. It is then that he torments the cat. There comes a time in the routine of an ordered civilisation when the man is tired at playing at mythology and pretending that a tree is a maiden or that the moon made love to a man. The effect of this staleness is the same everywhere; it is seen in all drug-taking and dram-drinking and every form of the tendency to increase the dose. Men seek stranger sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded sense. They seek after mad oriental religions for the same reason. They try to stab their nerves to life, if it were with the knives of the priests of Baal. They are walking in their sleep and try to wake themselves up with nightmares. The Everlasting Man
The point, I think, is not that Jody’s post suggests childishness on his part, even though he himself seems to suggest that believers are childish:
Yet the superstition behind religion, the sectarianism, the blind cultural superiority, and the intractable dogma that flavors and colors this wish for certainty, isn't much different than a group of eight year olds arguing the victory of Superman vs. Hulk, Spiderman vs. Batman or Green Lantern vs. Green Lantern --- cute, but terribly frightening when they themselves come to blows.
The point, rather, is that there are indeed consequences to a) dismissing all religion as a playground for fools and b) embracing a religion like that of Jim Jones, et al. The point is that you can’t just walk away from religion but you can’t embrace all of them as well. That’s the rub. That’s why this is a difficult but important issue.


Monday, July 01, 2002


Since it’s Summer-Rerun season and things have been a bit hectic for me, I thought I’d cut and paste from a few earlier posts of mine to respond to this post by Amy Welborn and this post by Jody at Naked Writing.

Mark Twain wrote, “’Twere not best that we all think alike, it’s difference of opinion that makes for horse races.” I was reminded of this quote when I read this article in the NY Times a while back (and again after reading the discussion on Amy and Jody’s blogs above). It’s a report on an attempt to assess “the probability of the Resurrection” and it’s a sad commentary on a common misunderstanding of faith:
In plain English, this means that, by Mr. Swinburne's calculations, the probability of the Resurrection comes out to be a whopping 97 percent.

While his highly technical lectures may not net Christianity many fresh converts, Mr. Swinburne's efforts to bring inductive logic to bear on questions of faith have earned him a considerable reputation in the small but vibrant world of Christian academic philosophy. Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Swinburne and a handful of other nimble scholarly minds - including Alvin Plantinga at the University of Notre Dame and Nicholas Wolterstorff at Yale - religious belief no longer languishes in a state of
philosophical disrepute.
Is it just me or is there a lack of plain ol’ horse sense causing this misconception about the mechanics of faith?

Reducing the event of the Resurrection to probability is akin to reducing it to a wager or bet. But anyone who does this either:
a) simply doesn’t understand the nature of a historical event
b) equivocates when using the word “Resurrection”
c) conflates reason and faith
d) commits all of the above
One “believes” in the Resurrection because the event is not simply historical, like Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, but because it is a historical event upon which Creation hinges. Such an event is impervious to reason because:
1) we can’t be there ourselves to witness it
2) we can’t gather evidence about it empirically (e.g. an attempt to find the bones of the historical figure Jesus Christ)
On the contrary, we “believe” because this is the only mechanism by which we can have knowledge of the event. And by “believe” I simply mean “a participation in the knowledge of a knower,” to use Josef Pieper’s phrase.

With the Resurrection, the first “knowers” are those who knew Christ and testified to his words, actions, and eventual resurrection from the dead. If we could “know” as these followers of Christ “knew,” we wouldn’t need to “believe” because we would have the more certain knowledge of seeing and hearing the Word Made Flesh in the flesh (albeit without the Grace of the Holy Spirit as promised at Pentecost). Hence, the famous remark by Aquinas that “Other things being equal, seeing is more certain than hearing.”

To believe in the Resurrection is an eminently reasonable thing to do, not because it is reason exercising its powers to investigate the event, but because it is reason understanding the dynamics of such an event and concluding that we can only come to know it by believing the testimony of another and “participating in the knowledge of a knower.” In fact, as Pieper again points out, “the credibility of the witness whom we believe cannot also be the subject of belief; this is where real knowledge is required . . . if everything is said to be belief, then belief has been eliminated.”

What this all boils down to is not a wager or bet, but knowledge of the credibility of witnesses and assent to the content of their testimony. Thus, Aquinas writes
Now, whoever believes, assents to someone's words; so that, in every form of belief, the person to whose words assent is given seems to hold the chief place and to be the end as it were; while the things by holding which one assents to that person hold a secondary place. Consequently he that holds the Christian faith aright assents, by his will, to Christ, in those things which truly belong to His doctrine.
This gets tricky and it’s hard to keep it brief; but it’s an important point and it’s a common misunderstanding of the Catholic tradition on faith. I’m using the words “belief” and “faith” in this way: thinking is to reason as believing is to faith. When I say I “believe” something, I don’t mean to suggest an opinion or a hunch based on probability. I know folks use the word that way but that’s not how I’m using it and it’s not how it’s used in the Catholic tradition (and that’s why the notion of “the probability of the Resurrection” in the above article is silly and why Jody’s “My invisible sky god is real and yours is just made up. Nah, nah" comment misses the point). Rather, as I said above, one way to describe “belief” is that it’s a “participation in the knowledge of a knower.” The “knower” is important. “Belief” as I’m using it here requires that there be a “knower.” As Newman puts it, “faith, then, must necessarily be resolvable at last into sight and reason; unless, indeed, we agree with enthusiasts.”

Again, you can think that’s not what “belief” means, but that’s how I’m using it here (and I think that is a nice way to put it with regard to the Tradition). Now obviously if I can know what the “knower” in the definition above knows, then I would not have to “believe,” not have to “participate in the knowledge of that knower.” I’d know it myself through sight and reason. Belief would not be required. Faith would not be in the picture. But if the knower knows something that I don’t have access to, and I would like to share in that knowledge, then I’m going to have to do something to “participate in the knowledge of the knower.” And this can only happen when the knower reveals his or her knowledge to me.

Notice, again, that if I could know what the other person knows myself, through sight and reason, then I wouldn’t require that person’s “revelation” to me of what they know. In fact, the dynamic of faith only makes sense when there are certain truths which are hidden from us in such a way that we could never know them apart from “participating in the knowledge of a knower” for whom such truths are not hidden.

The trivial but useful example I like is that of someone’s name or birthday. If you met a complete stranger who had no identification and there was no one around who knew him, you could never know his name unless he told you. Your own birthday is something you would never have known without someone initially revealing it to you. These are shallow examples, but the dynamic is the same with both profane and sacred truths. There are some truths that remain hidden unless revealed. This is especially evident when we speak of things which are hidden between persons. Our knowledge of the interior life of others is solely contingent upon their decision to reveal themselves to us.

So, how does this touch on religious faith? The key is the “knower” in the phrase “participate in the knowledge of a knower.” Regarding the Catholic Faith, the first “knower” was the Word Incarnate: Jesus had to know who the Father is, else his revelation of Him to the apostles would not be possible. The apostles had to know who Jesus Christ was, in order to believe what He revealed of the Father. And the community of believers nearly two millennia later must know that the succession of witnesses from the apostles on down has an integrity to it. We as believers are participating in the knowledge the Son revealed of the Father to those He “dwelt among” by knowing the testimony of the apostles and the believing communities (hence Councils, etc.) that has persisted through history.

Belief permits us to participate in the knowledge of another person. Belief, therefore, is intimately connected with our ability to recognize another person, to judge his or her integrity, because the credibility of the person is prior to the content of what he or she reveals to us. In this sense too, believing is not a shot in the dark, a wager, or a bet, but, perhaps ironically, a very reasonable thing to do.