Minute Particulars

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

Monday, September 30, 2002


John of Disputations points out a lack of nuance in the statement "Telling the truth cannot be wrong," found in Cardinal Keeler's letter regarding the infamous "List." I think John’s example of something we think but don't say,
"That may well be the ugliest tie anyone has ever worn without irony."
is my favorite.

I once had a Shakespeare teacher explain that the character Malvolio in Twelfth Night was such an outcast and the subject of mockery because he was incapable of not speaking the truth. I’d have to reread the play to cite examples, but my teacher's point was that social acceptance requires that we refrain from speaking the whole truth and nothing but the truth each minute of each day. This isn’t a profound insight. It’s quite common. We all know that we tell “white lies” so that we don’t offend many in our lives, whether they be loved ones or strangers.

Anyway, there was and is something about this that has always bothered me. I guess I think you ought to be able to say "Telling the truth cannot be wrong" and not have to wince when you do it or fear that suddenly everyone will be encouraged to say exactly what's on their minds. I agree with John that prudence and charity seem to take a hit if we hold strictly to a "Telling the truth cannot be wrong" ethic. But I also think speaking the truth and being virtuous can never be contradictory acts.

As I indicated below in my THE SCARLET LIST post, I think it’s possible that prudence and charity may have been casualties with the publication of a list of accused, but not necessarily convicted, men. But I wonder if the lack of prudence and charity, or any other virtue, is a sign that “truth” is being defined a bit too narrowly? If truth is defined as “the conformity of intellect and thing” then is it possible that my telling the truth, my speaking in conformity with the way things are could ever not be virtuous?

Let’s take a silly example first. It may be true that my breath makes your eyes water. But it’s also true that an onion makes your eyes water. We can comment on these two events in a similar and limited manner if we say, "An irritant in your breath/this onion is making my eyes water." But that, of course, is typically not what you mean when you think, but refrain from saying, "Your breath could knock a buzzard off a garbage truck." Wouldn't you really be thinking about more than the simple fact that there is some malodorous vapor escaping from my mouth? Wouldn't you be asking yourself why I'm not more considerate of others, why I don't know better, and why I am doing something irritating that I could stop with a Binaca blast? But while you might initially feel that way, don't you refrain from saying something because you really don't think I'm inconsiderate, and ignorant, and avoiding Binaca? In other words, the truth of the matter in most cases is that while my breath makes your eyes water, you probably don't think I'm inconsiderate, ignorant, and deliberately avoiding mouthwash; and so you don't say "Your breath could knock a buzzard off a garbage truck" because it implies these corollaries, things that would not be true.

In the more serious matter of listing the name of someone who has been accused of something but not convicted in a court of law, the act of listing that person's name is likely NOT "telling the truth." Why? Because it is clear that such an act does more than simply list the name of someone accused of doing something inappropriate; it also implies (and I don't know how you could deny this) that the person is not a good person and has done something very wrong. There's no such thing as "simply" listing those accused of some inappropriate act. Even if such a list explicitly states that a person was accused but not convicted, it's still making implicit statements that are damaging and, more importantly, might not be true. Only someone interpreting things on the most literal level and oblivious to how such an act will likely be interpreted by most people could deny this. Listing those who are accused but not convicted of some crime is not "telling the truth" because there are many other implications that will latch onto the accused and distort their reputations. "Telling the truth" in this case would mean examining the impact of such a list, listing only those criminals who were found guilty in court, and carefully placing the list in a realistic context. Not taking these precautions, I submit, is not "telling the truth" and therefore not exercising prudence and charity.

So, I think one can indeed say "Telling the truth cannot be wrong" if one really means telling the entire truth and not just some part of it. But sometimes telling the truth means remaining silent. This sounds strange until you realize that it's possible that the whole truth about something might contain the stipulation that one shouldn't say or imply certain things. In the buzzard bashing breath example, the truth of the matter is that saying something about someone's bad breath would suggest other things to them that you don't wish to suggest. And so telling the truth requires silence. In the grave matter of publishing names with accusations that haven't been substantiated, the truth of the matter is that publishing such a list would inevitably suggest things (guilt, evil, prevarication, perversion, etc.) that you shouldn't suggest without due process. And so telling the truth, the whole truth, would require NOT publishing the list.


Friday, September 27, 2002


This article (I don't necessarily like linking to it but I think, in principle, you shouldn't comment on something if you're not willing to let folks see the very thing you're responding to) has caused quite a storm through the virtual community of "St. Blog's." And rightly so. It's controversial as hell and raises many issues about the sexual abuse scandal in the Church all over again.

I guess I'm concerned about two things. One is that this list may have put some of the men listed in a bit of a bind that Newman once described as "poisoning the wells." I've posted this before in a different context, but I think it pertains to this mess and so I'll plop it down again for convenience. Newman described it as follows:
. . . to poison by anticipation the public mind against me . . . and to infuse into the imaginations of my readers, suspicion and mistrust of everything that I may say in reply to him. This I call poisoning the wells. . . . .I can only say, that, if his taunt is to take effect, I am but wasting my time in saying a word in answer to his calumnies; and this is precisely what he knows and intends to be its fruit. I can hardly get myself to protest against a method of controversy so base and cruel, lest in doing so, I should be violating my self-respect and self-possession; but most base and most cruel it is. We all know how our imagination runs away with us, how suddenly and at what a pace;—the saying, "Caesar's wife should not be suspected," is an instance of what I mean. The habitual prejudice, the humour of the moment, is the turning-point which leads us to read a defence in a good sense or a bad. We interpret it by our antecedent impressions. The very same sentiments, according as our jealousy is or is not awake, or our aversion stimulated, are tokens of truth or of dissimulation and pretence. There is a story of a sane person being by mistake shut up in the wards of a Lunatic Asylum, and that, when he pleaded his cause to some strangers visiting the establishment, the only remark he elicited in answer was, "How naturally he talks! you would think he was in his senses." Controversies should be decided by the reason; is it legitimate warfare to appeal to the misgivings of the public mind and to its dislikings? Any how, if my accuser is able thus to practise upon my readers, the more I succeed, the less will be my success. If I am natural, he will tell them, "Ars est celare artem;" if I am convincing, he will suggest that I am an able logician; if I show warmth, I am acting the indignant innocent; if I am calm, I am thereby detected as a smooth hypocrite; if I clear up difficulties, I am too plausible and perfect to be true. The more triumphant are my statements, the more certain will be my defeat.
To list anyone simply because they've been accused is, in effect, poisoning the wells. I know, I know, some on the list have admitted to inappropriate activity. But some are dead, some just might be innocent, and such a list ought to be directly correlated to criminal convictions and nothing less.

Regarding someone who admits to inappropriate activity and agrees to be laicized because of this activity, again, unless there is a criminal conviction, supplying a list of those accused and those who admit to inappropriate activity seems strange. What's the point? If the person is a danger to others because of the inappropriate activity then he or she should be criminally prosecuted. If the person is not a danger to others because of the inappropriate activity then he or she should be permitted a private life without the burden of such a specious list.

Notice all of the above, with the exception of the link to the list, is theoretical speculation. Notice I've not stated that Cardinal Keeler should not have published the list or that anyone on the list is innocent. I simply don't know any of the, er, minute particulars to make such a judgment. I stick to my assertions above, but hesitate to apply them in this specific instance since I don't know enough about it. Cardinal Keeler justifies the list by writing:

. . . I have come to the conclusion that public disclosure is the right thing to do. Ultimately, there is nothing to be gained by secrecy except the avoidance of scandal. And rather than shrinking from facing this scandal – which, too often, has allowed it to continue – we must address it with humble contrition, righteous anger and public outrage. Telling the truth cannot be wrong.
In theory, this is a noble sentiment and may very well justify the inclusion of each individual on the list. Still, it seems that anyone justifying this list will have to have hurdled some pretty imposing obstacles: due process, legal statutes, protection from libel, and the like. If it seems I'm being a stickler about the legalities here, remember the famous scene from Bolt's A Man for All Seasons
Wife: Arrest him!
More: For what?
Wife: He's dangerous!
Roper: For all we know he's a spy!
Daughter: Father, that man's bad!
More: There's no law against that!
Roper: There is, God's law!
More: Then let God arrest him!
Wife: While you talk he's gone!
More: And go he should, if he were the Devil himself, until he broke the law!
Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down (and you're just the man to do it!), do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!
A bit dramatic, but you see the point.

My second concern is that it seems the elephant in the room in all of this is the fact that every human act, and therefore every moral act, is ensconced in particular circumstances that increase or diminish the agent's culpability (see my little moral musing here). Nothing, however, eliminates the free will of the one acting, so this isn't some escape clause. Still, we humans are immersed in a messy, grimy world where one thing can lead to another and another and it's not difficult to get yourself into a bind, trivial or serious. It's why there's such a thing as history. It's why there's such a thing as repentance. It's why there's such a thing as forgiveness.

We're not pure intellectual substances, angels, who know all they'll ever know in the moment of their creation and have one, simple act at that moment, either toward the Creator or away. We are human beings, on the border of corporeal and incorporeal beings. We dwell in the shadow of intelligence; we first know the world from and only from our senses. We move from one truth to another in the lumbering fashion of discursive reason. We move toward or away from God at every moment of our existence. Our actions, good and bad, cause a swirl around us that we can never fully grasp and therefore never fully judge. If we can't even fully comprehend the consequences of our own actions, we shouldn't expect greater certitude when we look at the consequences of the actions of others.

This doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't attempt such judgments. Of course we can and should. That's the purpose of any judicial system and the basis of a just society. It's why "This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's." But it does mean that we should tread carefully when judging others. Such care should correspond to how proximate or remote a person's life and actions are to our own.

As I've said, I don't know if the cardinal's posting of the list was good or bad. In theory, I think a list of accused men, and even a list of men who have admitted inappropriate activity, doesn't seem particularly helpful to the common good. A list of convicted felons? Sure. A list of convicted sexual predators? Of course. But a list of men accused? It's hard to see the merit. A list of men who have confessed to inappropriate activity? Well, was it criminal activity? If so, then prosecute them and post their names when and only when convicted. Otherwise, what's the point?


Thursday, September 26, 2002


Howard Bashman of How Appealing is always my first click for commentary on recent court rulings. This time he compares the recent ruling that the death penalty is unconstitutional with the previous ruling back in July. Here's an excerpt with a link to his thoughts on the previous, and it seems broader, ruling:
As I explained here on July 1st in my detailed analysis of Judge Rakoff's ruling, he struck down the federal death penalty law because he concluded that allowing the federal death penalty to be applied will foreseeably result in the executions of numerous innocent people. Chief Judge Sessions' reasoning for declaring the federal death penalty unconstitutional was much narrower and, dare I say, nuanced.
Here's the opinion from July(PDF file) which contains the following summary:
In brief, the Court found that the best available evidence indicates that, on the one hand, innocent people are sentenced to death with materially greater frequency than was previously supposed and that, on the other hand, convincing proof of their innocence often does not emerge until long after their convictions. It is therefore fully foreseeable that in enforcing the death penalty a meaningful number of innocent people will be executed who otherwise would eventually be able to prove their innocence. It follows that implementation of the Federal Death Penalty Act not only deprives innocent people of a significant opportunity to prove their innocence, and thereby violates procedural due process, but also creates an undue risk of executing innocent people, and thereby violates substantive due process.
Indeed, this seems to be a tougher ruling to get around than the recent one. As Howard points out:
It would thus be quite easy for Congress to fix the flaw identified in today's opinion, or even for a court to extend the normal rules governing admissibility of evidence, confrontation, and cross-examination to the penalty phase (although Chief Judge Sessions concluded that it would be improper for a court to judicially remedy the statute in that manner). The flaws identified in Judge Rakoff's ruling, by contrast, are not so easily fixed. If no death penalty may lawfully be enforced so long as it is even theoretically possible for an innocent person to receive it, then no death penalty ever will be possible.
Oh yeah, don't miss the SNL links Howard has as well.




Clones-R-Us (link via HMS) is the one-stop shop for all of your cloning needs.




Kairos plans to do the following over the next few days:
In the interest of fun and--hopefully--getting out of controversial issues like kneeling versus bowing, and thermometers versus barriers and such, I'm going to spend a few days considering these arguments.
What arguments? Arguments for the existence of God from a book by Peter Kreeft (I didn't see the title). Anyway, it looks to be interesting.

No Watermelons Allowed is the blog where the Kairos Guy got into a scuffle that resulted in his pinning Kreeft's 20 arguments to the Comments section. Here's where all the action occurred and where you'll find all 20 arguments listed.


Wednesday, September 25, 2002


Scandals lead execs to 'Atlas Shrugged' 1957 Ayn Rand novel sanctions self-interest (link via Diana Hsieh).
In these post-Enron days of corporate scandal, some of the millions of copies of Atlas Shrugged that have been sold over 45 years are being dusted off by executives under siege by prosecutors, regulators, Congress, employees, investors, a Republican president, even terrorists.

Executive headhunter Jeffrey Christian says many of his clients are re-reading the 1,075-page novel to remind themselves that self-interest is not only the right thing to do from an economic standpoint but is moral, as well.
Read Atlas Shrugged again? I'd rather stick needles in my eyes. As I said below, Rand’s philosophy is not insignificant, and it's obviously influential. The ideas sketched out in the novel can be useful if you want to see how they might look. But they inevitably tear rather than stretch when realistically applied. Most folks I know with an inclination toward philosophy tend to work through Rand and her ilk by their early twenties. That CEOs might take this stuff to heart is a bit disconcerting.




I swerved into a “discussion” of theism and atheisim (why the quotes around “discussion” I’ll explain shortly) via Instapundit. First I found this from the popular (check out his hit meter) blog VodkaPundit. Here’s an excerpt that I swear is not out of context, but go to the link if you don’t believe me (UPDATE: Stephen Green of VodkaPundit suggests that I've torn this passage from its proper context, so be sure to read the full post):
As a very small child, I pictured God as a sort of King of the Monsters. There was Dracula, who would drink your blood; the Werewolf, who would bite or kill you on the full moon; the Mummy who would haunt you in the unlikely chance that you disturbed his tomb on the sets of several so-so Boris Karloff movies for Paramount Pictures; and there was God, the good guy monster who, if you said your prayers, would protect you from the icky monsters.

So I outgrew god at the same time I outgrew my fear of the boogeyman under the bed.
But the post also had a link to this blog which espouses Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy (see my ATLAS SHRUGGED SHREDDED post below). There, I found this post on a blog called NoodleFood (again, I'm pretty sure this is not out of context but go ahead and click on the post):
In short, beliefs have effects upon a person's life. Belief in God is no exception. It can result in undervaluing the living, as theists often expect to see loved ones after death. It can result in an indifference towards evil, as God will judge everyone in the end according to His Plan. It can result in the fatalism that Voltaire attacked in Candide due to a "best of all possible worlds" Leibnizianism. It can encourage superficial and magical thinking where contradictions, inconsistencies, paradoxes, puzzles, and other mysteries are too-quickly attributed to God rather than investigated rationally. It can result in the use of faith or feeling as a claim to knowledge in other areas of life. It can result in attempting to find life's meaning through God rather than in one's own choices and values. Such are just a few of the risks of belief in God on faith alone.
Hmm . . . the life so short, the response so long to write . . . perhaps just two things.

First, and this is why I put "discussion" in quotes above, I'm continually amazed at how unsophisticated much of the discussion about God is on these and other blogs. I don't mean that in a condescending way (though I know that's how it will be received). What I mean is that these folks seem to think that they've hit the bottom of the content provided by any philosophical approach to God . One sign of a lack of sophistication (in the non-pejorative sense if that's possible) is thinking that you've mastered a topic and addressed everything there is to ask and answer. And I'm just talking about philosophy and what can be known through reason. I don't mean theology here -- the nuances and deep insights provided by theology derive from what has been revealed by God and thus such a premise isn't permitted here. I simply mean that these discussions lack any recognition that there might be something missing in the debate. I suppose this isn't surprising.

One philosophical approach to God that seems completely misunderstood or even ignored is the traditional approach grounded in Aristotelian metaphysics (and so the Rand enthusiasts ought to know better) that was later refined by Aquinas. I've addressed some of this very briefly here and so I won't slog through it again.

Secondly, there seems a complete failure to recognize that many believers hold that the existence of God can be determined by reason. The equation of belief in God with belief in imaginary beings assumes pure superstition on any believer's part. But the Catholic Church, for example, asserts that the existence of God can be demonstrated by human reason. What faith provides, as I've mentioned inadequately here, is knowledge of what God has revealed to humans (and thus, indirectly, that God exists; but this is not the only means by which we can know of His existence).

Why does any of this even matter? Well, I guess it bothers me that a very popular blog (and look at some of the cheerleading Comments about such sentiments) like VodkaPundit can imply that my belief in God is akin to belief in the Boogeyman. Ironically, the implication that my belief is childish is the implication, nay, the explication I would give for equating God with such things. It's as if such a person's inquiries about God stopped at childhood and thus that person's notions of God are necessarily quite unsophisticated. It bothers me that folks don't know, even if they still end up not finding them convincing, that there are some very cogent and penetrating inquiries into the existence of God that aren't simply superstition of based solely in belief.

In the Catholic tradition, grace perfects nature, it doesn't erase or substantially alter it. Any sane belief in God will touch every aspect of human nature, not shun it or degrade it.

UPDATE: Justin Katz takes a closer look at this post over on NoodleFood.


Thursday, September 19, 2002


Here’s the online version of the Lessig article I mentioned before. Interesting look at Lessig’s upcoming Supreme Court case on copyright.
In Eldred v. Ashcroft, his first argument before the Supreme Court — and only his second appearance before any court, in any venue — Lessig will attempt to convince the justices to overturn the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. To Lessig it is both an opportunity to make up for losing the prize that was snatched from him some four years ago, and a giant step in his crusade to stop a trend he fears may be inevitable: big-media dinosaurs controlling the Internet.
Still, as I said before, this was my favorite sentence:
After his clerkship, Lessig took the bar exam, then decamped to Costa Rica, where he spent a month reading 35 old novels on a beach blanket.
Ahh . . . the warm air, the stack of novels, the beach blanket . . . flies tickling my ankles, sand creeping into my shorts, the sun burning my skin, a cloud burst . . . okay, maybe it’s not ideal. How about “a month reading 35 old novels” in a house on the beach. That’s better.




Bill Quick of Daily Pundit, a blog that’s starting to look like a NASCAR race car with ads plastered on it, makes the following claim (link via Charles Murtaugh) in the comments section of what seems an unrelated post.
The Information Age has, is, and will continue to change everything we thought we knew about being human. And until traditional literature catches up and addresses that, is it well on the way to becoming a curiosity, as irrelevant to the way people now live their lives as the scratchings of some hunter-gatherer from five millennia ago.
Hmm . . . “change everything we thought we knew about being human”! I think that’s probably the one thing the Information Age will NOT do. As Chesterton wrote:
The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared.
The “distressed ladies” example is a bit dated, but the sentiment remains the same.

Quick’s above comment arose from this post by Charles Murtaugh in which he points out:
a Crucial Flaw of all Science Fiction, and this is it: there are no children, and no parents. Of course, I'm exaggerating -- Dune, for instance, has relatively convincing intergenerational relationships, but it may be the exception that proves the rule. This isn't a problem confined to sci-fi, either, nor does it disqualify a writer from greatness: Dickens, for instance, strikes me as terrified of parent-child relations, else why make nearly all his main characters into orphans? Anyway, since many of the things that make me uneasy about "remaking humanity" have to do with the effects on family relations, it seems not coincidental that technophile lit has so little interest in that (hardly negligible) sphere of life.
I haven’t read enough Science Fiction to know if this flaw exists. If so, I agree that it is a flaw. Great literature sheds light on our common human condition. Not so great literature sheds light on esoteric aspects that, in the end, aren’t of much interest to most.

But back to the comment about the Information Age changing “everything we thought we knew about being human.” I guess the best response would be to look at something even more profound than the Information Age with an eye toward discerning changes in “everything we thought we knew about being human.” We might look at how the development of written language, certainly a precursor to the Information Age, impacted “everything we thought we knew about being human.” Well, probably very little. The manner in which we communicate and the massive changes in civilization that written language made possible are indisputable. But these changes are, to use terms from Aristotelian philosophy, “accidental” not “substantial.” In other words, written language provided human beings with a tool in which to record transactions and capture thoughts. But written language isn’t obviously the cause of language and, more obviously, the cause of thought. Human nature is.

My concern with the ease with which some think human nature can change is that it tends to cheapen human nature into some ephemeral wisp of pattern and quantity. Human beings, creatures of intelligence and free will poised on the boundary of corporeal and incorporeal beings, have a substantial nature that is unique and unchanging in its very substance. This is not Creationist nonsense or Luddite lunacy. Evolution theory and technological advances don’t contradict the idea that human nature is unique or unchanging. It’s human nature that in fact generates such theories and advances. The enormous advances in every facet of civilization are due to the stability of human nature, not its constant morphing. Human beings are rational and therefore political and social and literary and technical. I wonder if some think it’s the other way around? I wonder if some think human beings are technical and literary and social and political and therefore rational?


Wednesday, September 18, 2002


Actually, I used to work over at ENORMOUS PARTICULARS, but I decided that life was too short to come home sore and cranky every night. Here at Minute Particulars the work is light and the particulars are manageable.





This (link via Varenius) just goes to show you that even theists can have some fun.




This 1957 review (scroll down to “Books in Review” (link via Charles Murtaugh)) of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is about as delicate as a ball peen hammer whacking an anvil.
Atlas Shrugged can be called a novel only by devaluing the term. It is a massive tract for the times. Its story merely serves Miss Rand to get the customers inside the tent. And as a soapbox for delivering her Message. The Message is the thing. It is a sum, a forthright philosophic materialism. Upperclassmen might incline to sniff and say that the author has, with vast effort, contrived a simple materialist system, one, intellectually, at about the state of the oxcart, though without mastering the principle of the wheel. Like any consistent materialism, this one begins by rejecting God, religion, original sin, etc. etc. . . . Thus, Randian Man, like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world.
It then continues with a critique of materialism that, while a bit worn from overuse, still packs a punch today:
At that point, in any materialism, the main possibilities open up to Man. 1) His tragic fate becomes, without God, more tragic and much lonelier. In general, the tragedy deepens according to the degree of pessimism or stoicism with which he conducts his "hopeless encounter between human questioning and the silent universe." Or, 2) Man's fate ceases to be tragic at all. Tragedy is bypassed by the pursuit of happiness. Tragedy is henceforth pointless. Henceforth man's fate, without God, is up to him. And to him alone. His happiness, is strict materialist terms, lies with his own workaday hands and ingenious brain. His happiness becomes, in Miss Rand's words, "the moral purpose of his life." Here occurs a little rub whose effects are just as observable in a free enterprise system, which is in practice materialist (whatever else it claims or supposes itself to be), as they would be under an atheist Socialism, if one were ever to deliver that material abundance that all promise. The rub is that the pursuit of happiness, as an end in itself, tends automatically, and widely, to be replaced by the pursuit of pleasure with a consequent general softening of the fibers of will, intelligence on "man as a heroic being" "with productive achievement as his noblest activity." For, if man's "heroism" (some will prefer to say: "human dignity") no longer derives from God, or is not a function of that godless integrity which was a root of Nietzsche's anguish, then Man becomes merely the most consuming of animals, with glut as the condition of his happiness. And this, of course, suits the author's economics and the politics that must arise from them.
Rand’s philosophy is not insignificant. She’s useful if you want to see how certain ideas play out. The ideas, however, are generally not very sophisticated and tend to tear rather than stretch when realistically applied. Most folks I know with an inclination toward philosophy tend to get Rand and strict materialism out of their system by their early twenties.


Tuesday, September 17, 2002


This Jonah Goldberg column on blogging (link via InstaPundit via Orrin Judd) isn’t the first and probably won’t be the last time he makes the point that most blogs are solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short on substance. As I’ve pointed out before, Goldberg's notion that blogs are (and I think this is a great image even if I disagree) typically
horse-and-sparrow journalism. The horse blazes the trail and eats the hay. The sparrows feed on what the horse leaves behind in steamy piles on the road.
is just plain wrong. Now he’s dropped the horse and sparrow act and turned to cattle for his example of what ails blogs and bloggers:
Imagine if I told you 50 years ago that, by 2000, the world would consume billions upon billions of hamburgers. In fact, I’d inform you, millions of people wouldn’t even take the time to get out of their cars before buying one at a “drive-thru” window and scarfing it down. Would you immediately run home to perfect your own recipe for hamburger? Would billions of burger-seekers find you among the millions of hamburger artisans? Probably not. Especially when customers found out that millions of these innovative burgers tasted like socks and caused gastrointestinal roller derby.
But this is a weak example. It assumes that there isn’t a way to, so to speak, search efficiently for a certain kind of burger and have it instantly delivered to you. Many of the initiatives to organize blogs, index them, or track the most popular posts each day have made finding just the right “burger” a much more realistic task. But where I really disagree with him is when he, once again, assumes that most blogs are uninteresting pap written by folks who aren’t clever, insightful, or wise.

Now, you might say that if Minute Particulars were a burger, it would taste “like socks” and cause “gastrointestinal roller derby” (how does Jonah know what socks taste like anyway?), but I think the majority of blogs are interesting and worth a visit. I don’t mean they’re all going to stun you into reverence and awe with their piercing, pristine posts. But if that’s how you judge things, I'd be interested in knowing what newspaper column or op-ed piece consistently has that kind of effect on you? Assuming bloggers are able to adhere to the minimum conventions of written expression, their blogs will contain words that someone thought were worth sharing. Again, not necessarily blinding wisdom and brilliance, but a unique voice, an assembly of words and thoughts that never existed before. I think that’s kind of interesting.

Try this (this would no doubt be Jonah’s notion of Purgatory): Go to Blogger and click on a few of the blogs in the FRESH BLOGS, The 10 most recently published blogs: section. Sure there are some really bad ones. But I found many to be worth a look.


Monday, September 16, 2002


Interesting chart (link via The Rittenhouse Review). We ought to have diagrams for all the big issues. It would make blogs so much more colorful.

There are some good reasons for what some call “argument mapping.” According to one site:
Many organizations face complex issues involving lots of arguments on both sides, objections, rebuttals, etc.. Often they produce analyses of the situation, presented in familiar forms such as written reports or PowerPoint presentations.

The basic problem is that the human mind simply cannot encompass at one time all aspects of a complex debate. The truth is that we can only ever focus on one or at most a handful of things at once. Generally what happens is that we focus on those few aspects of the debate which are particularly salient to us—usually because they support our prior opinion—and neglect the rest.

Argument mapping expands our capacity to grasp complex debates by presenting the argumentation in two-dimensional spatial layout. It translates abstract conceptual structure into a simple spatial structure. A very large part of our brain is devoted to getting around in physical space—seeing where things are, and keeping track of our position in relation to things. An argument map taps into this vast reserve of processing power, bringing it to bear in understanding the conceptual layout of some complex issue.
Interesting . . .

Here’s a great site on critical thinking with loads of links. It's got a nice section here on argument mapping.




There’s an old saying that goes:
If you don’t think A is A, but then say that A isn’t B, you’re either talking gibberish or posing a straw man argument.
Okay, maybe it isn’t an old saying, but it should be. Here’s an example: If you don’t think the pope represents “the greatest international morality in the world,” but then point out an action by the pope that doesn’t seem fitting for “the greatest international morality in the world,” you’re either speaking nonsense or resorting to rhetorical trickery.

Alan Dershowitz makes statements in an article (link via Amy Welborn) that criticize the pope for meeting with Arafat. If you read the entire article, Dershowitz makes some valid points. But it’s interesting that when he broaches the issue of the pope’s meetings with Arafat, he implies that he thinks the pope represents “the greatest international morality in the world,” while, of course, I’m pretty sure he thinks nothing of the sort. In other words, his criticism only makes sense if he thinks the pope really represents “the greatest international morality in the world,” i.e., the Catholic Church. But I’m pretty sure (I could be wrong!) Dershowitz wouldn’t want to be anywhere near such a statement. So, if he really doesn’t think this, why does it matter if the pope meets with Arafat or not?

I’ve oversimplified here a bit, and I’m not suggesting a logical fallacy. Rather, I’m suggesting that such debate, debate involving arguments against the Church by those who really don’t believe the Church has any integrity to begin with, is disingenuous debate. And yet this is a standard technique of criticism leveled at the Church daily.

When you want to say that the Church has failed in international issues, you ought to say something like “Here is the Light of Nations failing to do what it should do.” It doesn’t make much sense to say, “Here is an organization that claims, though it’s sorely mistaken, to be the Light of Nations letting us down once again.” It would be a silly thing to say. You can’t disappoint someone who doesn’t believe the very things required to disappoint him or her. If you think the Church represents superstitious silliness, then you shouldn’t be disappointed when it does something you think is silly.

Obviously you can believe the Church provides moral guidance, and also believe that on some occasion it has failed to guide. But such debate has a very different tone and spirit. It’s debate animated by genuine disappointment rather than mock disappointment. It’s concern that the Church has betrayed Christ, not concern that the Church might cause some political fallout if its positions aren’t ridiculed. There’s a difference.


Sunday, September 15, 2002


. . .if you’ve never read Flannery O’Connor’s short story A Good Man is Hard to Find. I wasn’t aware it was online and only recently found the link.
. . . it's some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it's others has to know why it is.
~~ The Misfit




Lane Core provided some nice links to sermons by Cardinal Newman. Here’s a sample from Sermon 7. The Cross of Christ the Measure of the World :
A GREAT number of men live and die without reflecting at all upon the state of things in which they find themselves. They take things as they come, and follow their inclinations as far as they have the opportunity. They are guided mainly by pleasure and pain, not by reason, principle, or conscience; and they do not attempt to interpret this world, to determine what it means, or to reduce what they see and feel to system. But when persons, either from thoughtfulness of mind, or from intellectual activity, begin to contemplate the visible state of things into which they are born, then forthwith they find it a maze and a perplexity. It is a riddle which they cannot solve. It seems full of contradictions and without a drift. Why it is, and what it is to issue in, and how it is what it is, and how we come to be introduced into it, and what is our destiny, are all mysteries.


Saturday, September 14, 2002


The always interesting How Appealing reports that “the California Court of Appeal, Second District, Division Five, resolves the age-old question of whether veganism is a religious creed.” Here’s an excerpt from the court’s ruling:
The trial court concluded veganism was not a religious creed within the meaning of the FEHA [Fair Employment and Housing Act]. In his original complaint, plaintiff alleged as follows. He is a strict vegan. Further, he alleged: “As a strict Vegan, [plaintiff] fervently believes that all living beings must be valued equally and that it is immoral and unethical for humans to kill and exploit animals, even for food, clothing and the testing of product safety for humans, and that such use is a violation of natural law and the personal religious tenets on which [plaintiff] bases his foundational creeds. He lives each aspect of his life in accordance with this system of spiritual beliefs. As a Vegan, and his beliefs [sic], [plaintiff] cannot eat meat, dairy, eggs, honey or any other food which contains ingredients derived from animals. Additionally, [plaintiff] cannot wear leather, silk or any other material which comes from animals, and cannot use any products such as household cleansers, soap or toothpaste which have been tested for human safety on animals or derive any of their ingredients from animals. This belief system[] guides the way that he lives his life. [Plaintiff’s] beliefs are spiritual in nature and set a course for his entire way of life; he would disregard elementary self-interest in preference to transgressing these tenets. [Plaintiff] holds these beliefs with the strength of traditional religious views, and has lived in accordance with his beliefs for over nine (9) years.
The court ruled that veganism is not a religion. I guess I wonder how the plaintiff could even breathe since many microbes would likely suffer an untimely death against his lung walls, or how he could in good conscience walk anywhere since he’d surely crush a little critter or two, or . . . well, you get the idea.

Howard also mentions that the
California court’s opinion notes that a Third Circuit concurring opinion written by former Circuit Judge Arlin M. Adams in 1979 remains “the most influential judicial opinion in the past several decades in terms of defining religion.”
I thought this was quite interesting and certainly critical to any decisions that touch on religious issues. Here’s a summary of some of what Judge Adams said in the opinion:
Judge Adams identified three indicia of religion. Judge Adams identified the first prong of the religion test as follows: “The first and most important of these indicia is the nature of the ideas in question. This means that a court must, at least to a degree, examine the content of the supposed religion, not to determine its truth or falsity, or whether it is schismatic or orthodox, but to determine whether the subject matter it comprehends is consistent with the assertion that it is, or is not, a religion.” The second test was identified by Judge Adams as follows: “Thus, the ‘ultimate’ nature of the ideas presented is the most important and convincing evidence that they should be treated as religious. Certain isolated answers to ‘ultimate’ questions, however, are not necessarily ‘religious’ answers, because they lack the element of comprehensiveness, the second of the three indicia. A religion is not generally confined to one question or one moral teaching; it has a broader scope. It lays claim to an ultimate and comprehensive ‘truth.’” The final criteria was described by Judge Adams as follows: “A third element to consider in ascertaining whether a set of ideas should be classified as a religion is any formal, external, or surface signs that may be analogized to accepted religions. Such signs might include formal services, ceremonial functions, the existence of clergy, structure and organization, efforts at propagation, observation of holidays and other similar manifestations associated with the traditional religions. Of course, a religion may exist without any of these signs, so they are not determinative, at least by their absence, in resolving a question of definition. But they can be helpful in supporting a conclusion of religious status given the important role such ceremonies play in religious life.”




You probably thought this is what God says, but
here’s His website. The only thing missing is this one:
God is dead.
Nietzche is dead.

(link via Blogdex)


Friday, September 13, 2002


Justin Katz posted this musing (link via Naked Writing) recently
To an extent, this type of "why'd God let it happen" discussion is silly (I'm sure many people would name different things wrong with America from God's perfect point of view).But I just had a thought:
What if God allowed this to happen in order to raise the ire of the U.S., which would then teach that maniac culture in the desert a lesson and bring it its just recompense for the way it's been acting? For all the talk, in Catholic circles, about Just War, I haven't heard this suggested.
Think of it: Who's apt to have changed more when the dust settles? The U.S. will likely (hopefully) confirm itself in its own purpose and values, but virtue always benefits the virtuous, even as the benefits to the recipient are more visible and tangible.
Which of the two effects is THE desired one, we mortals will never know.
Frankly, this makes me cringe a bit and wince with embarrassment for anyone who might seriously entertain this kind of thinking. It’s one of the silliest notions I’ve come across in some time and I’m hoping it’s simply due to youth and the understandable desire for clarity. Even if, as Justin says in a comment to it, it’s “just an abstract theological game,” it’s a strange thing to muse about. It’s akin to the likely apocryphal (see update) story of a Catholic bishop (Carl Sagan in his book Cosmos claimed this was something St. Dominic said!) advising an army entering a battle to “Kill them all, God will know his own.”

Simon Tugwell’s book The Beatitudes: Soundings in Christian Traditions has the following wise words,
As we grow older, we inevitably acquire an ever-increasing past. The danger is that we shall see ourselves and present ourselves too much in terms of that past.

His concern is with the tendency we all have toward a kind of complacency or even boldness regarding “how we’re doing” in the presence of God. As he explains,
. . . we develop a sense of how one thing leads to another, and that makes it possible for us to become calculating, “If I do this, then I shall be in a good position for getting or achieving that.” What we have to realize, and it is a difficult point for us to grasp, is that there is no such thing as a “good position” in our dealings with God.
This is a profound insight and ought to immediately stifle speculation on why God might have done or not done something. And it’s the underpinning for genuine reconciliation and prayer that the Church affords us through sacrament and recommends in its teachings.

UPDATE: Dave Trowbridge sent this link with regard to the historical event from which this phrase comes:
1208: The Pope Innocent III preached a crusade against heretics, who had spread over what is now the south of France. These heretics were known as Cathars. The year after, the papal legate Arnaud Amaury led the crusaders from the city of Lyon to the walls of Béziers. «My lord, how shall we distinguish Catholics from heretics ?» asked a soldier. «Kill them all, God will know His own !» would have replied Arnaud Amaury. Beziers was put to the sack, all its inhabitants slain. Thus began the albigensian crusade which lasted until the stronghold of Queribus surrendered in 1255.




Steven Pinker has a new book out: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.
The main question is: "Why are empirical questions about how the mind works so weighted down with political and moral and emotional baggage? Why do people believe that there are dangerous implications to the idea that the mind is a product of the brain, that the brain is organized in part by the genome, and that the genome was shaped by natural selection?" This idea has been met with demonstrations, denunciations, picketings, and comparisons to Nazism, both from the right and from the left. And these reactions affect both the day-to-day conduct of science and the public appreciation of the science. By exploring the political and moral colorings of discoveries about what makes us tick, we can have a more honest science and a less fearful intellectual milieu.
Pinker’s stuff is always lively and entertaining. He’s got a story and anecdote for everything. I’ve read his The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works. But he’s more of a storyteller and “what-if wonderer” than philosopher or strict scientist. If you want a nice antidote for his particular brand of materialism (and this works for Dawkins, et al.), take a look at this review of Pinker’s How the Mind Works (HTMW) by two of his peers. Here’s the conclusion, the first half of which is a wonderful caveat for the Faustian aspirations of many scientists and pseudo-scientists of our day:
To be sure, without our tools, metaphors, and simplifications, we are overrun. Without them we are left with awe, a canyon that invites us to ask only the grandest questions and offers only echoes in return. Our response is to embrace the power of tools to manage the unknown. We should be careful to acknowledge the constraints that arrive with each metaphor and model, and avoid the temptation of believing that our theories are somehow indicative of all that can be. The tools are not the world, though we use the tools to explore. Darwinian selection has been a marvelous way to organize and interrogate the complicated and interconnected "tangled bank" of nature. We can celebrate this achievement, while rejecting the inversion that places Darwinism at the center and builds from it a cartoon world of psychological motivation and limp moral theory.

HTMW's difficulties remind us of an old proverb: "button a shirt properly at the bottom, or it won't come out right at the top." Pinker misses too many of the lower buttons. This is exasperating in a book of this length. HTMW contains nothing-literally not one thing-resembling either evolutionary modeling, explicit fitness calculations, or the basics of population or behavioral genetics. It is a grab bag of assertions that could have been made without any appeal to neuroscience, computation, Darwinian psychology, or genetics. To paraphrase Freeland Judson, there is a precept here. More is not always more. Indeed it is sometimes disastrously less. Despite its 600 pages, HTMW's systematic omission of alternatives and detail creates a burden that readers should not have to shoulder.
Ouch! I think one of these guys is at MIT with Pinker; it must be a little awkward passing each other in the hallways.


Thursday, September 12, 2002


What was the most striking thing Pope John Paul II said yesterday? Perhaps
Terrorism is and always will be a manifestation of inhuman cruelty that, precisely because of this, will never be able to resolve conflicts among human beings.
No, I think most would agree with that and not find it very challenging. How about
Outrage, armed violence and war are choices that only sow and generate hatred and death. Only reason and love are valid means to overcome and resolve differences between persons and peoples.
Nope, though the “reason and love” bit might irk a few. Perhaps
We repeat that no situation of injustice, no sense of frustration, no philosophy or religion can justify such an aberration.
Well, that kind of goes without saying unless you’re Susan Sontag. Maybe
Every human person has the right to have his/her life and dignity respected, which are inviolable goods . . . God says this, international law sanctions it, the human conscience proclaims it, civil coexistence demands it.
Again, rock-ribbed truths that might stir things up with some, but still pretty generic (yes, of course, important) material. How ‘bout
When fundamental rights are violated, it is easy to fall prey to temptations of hatred and violence. It is necessary to build together a global culture of solidarity, which will again give youth hope in the future.
Well, again, standard stuff you’d expect from JPII. Here’s something, to pray,
for the eternal rest of the victims, and that God will grant mercy and pardon to the authors of this terrible terrorist attack.
Well, yes, we should pray for the victims. What’s that? “Grant mercy and pardon to the authors of this terrible terrorist attack”!? There it is. It’s all pretty routine until you hit that little speed bump.

Here’s the thing about trying to fly over speed bumps; my Dad always said “The less you feel it the more the car is getting damaged.” That’s because the suspension system takes one hell of a beating if you just gun over the things without slowing down. When you slow down and creep over speed bumps, your car doesn’t take a pounding. But that, of course, requires that you slow down, feel the car lurch up and over, spill your coffee, and get abused by the horn-blowing guy behind you. But at least you’re protecting your vehicle.

One of the first descriptions of Christ was that he would be “a sign that will be contradicted”. I’ve found this to be a good litmus test of my willingness to follow Christ. When I ask myself if anything I believe seems to contradict my expectations, if I seem to be asked to do more than I think I can, if much of what is revealed leaves me with slack-jawed incredulity, if I answer "Yes" then I figure I’m on the right track. I don’t mean that we ought to be racked with contradiction, but that we ought to be open to it. As French Dominican M. D. Molinié writes:
We must accept the fact that one by one our poor little ideas are gently being splintered in the tender darkness of God.
And as he says elsewhere
Without revelation, mankind is immersed in a darkness beyond the reach of delivering wisdom. When the Word of God throws light into that darkness, the darkness is not dispelled as might be hoped. Rather, it is intensified, for the obscurity deepens as the light progresses. And so it goes, until man meets his God face to face.
This isn’t a suggestion that we are condemned to be agnostics; it’s not a plea that we should revel in ignorance. Rather, it simply points to the stark truth that
Faith is a personal adherence of the whole man to God who reveals himself. It involves an assent of the intellect and will to the self-revelation God has made through his deeds and words. "To believe" has thus a twofold reference: to the person, and to the truth: to the truth, by trust in the person who bears witness to it.
If you believe that Christ is the Word made Flesh, then you must adhere to all of what he’s revealed. As Mark Shea nicely puts it :
"For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." - Matthew 6:14-15 There is neither an exception nor an escape clause here.
Authentic belief in Christ is not a wager or bet or any other such thing; it requires knowledge of the person of Christ because it requires a judgment of his credibility and the credibility of witnesses; and this because we must give assent to the content of his testimony and testimony about him by judging who it is who is testifying. If Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, then everything he reveals about the Father, about himself, and about us must be the truth. If you think something like the statement above on forgiveness is suspect or should be applied conditionally, then you are either:
1) implicitly or explicitly admitting Christ was in error
or 2) implicitly or explicitly denying that Christ in fact revealed it
It sounds simplistic but it’s deeply profound, when the Truth is a person then accepting that Truth is really an all or nothing situation.

And so, 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.
Obviously the application of the truth revealed is the tough part. Agreeing with the pope that we should all pray “that God will grant mercy and pardon to the authors of this terrible terrorist attack” and genuinely praying for this are quite different. We can gloss over what might seem an outlandish request, we can just hit the accelerator and not even feel the bump as we fly over it, but we do so at our own peril. And, at the risk of stretching the metaphor too far, I think we do some damage to the vehicle we’re riding in: we loosen the chassis, weaken the suspension, and ruin the alignment. If our faith is to carry us to the end, we need to slow up and respond to all that it demand of us.

UPDATE: Sursum Corda and Kairos have posts on this as well.


Wednesday, September 11, 2002


9/11. What this date now represents has changed our lives, our nation, our world and our community of faith. 9/11 has become a symbol of unspeakable evil and deep loss, of tremendous sacrifice and great faith and of challenges we continue to face as a people.

We know the wounds are deep and will not be quickly or easily healed. The murder of so many innocent people from so many countries requires us to act as a nation and to offer continuing consolation and support as a people. The loss of life in Afghanistan, whether U.S. military personnel or Afghan men, women and children, also weighs heavily on us. Our faith tells us that every life is precious whether a person worked at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon or was on the flight that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania or lived in Afghanistan.

We also mourn the loss of our sense of invulnerability. Yet, our faith challenges us to live in solidarity with those around the world who face pervasive violence and insecurity. As our nation considers important questions of war and peace, our faith calls us to find the right ways to seek justice, to become peacemakers, and to protect the life and dignity of all in a world broken by terror and disrespect for human life.

One year later, we are still inspired by selfless acts of courage. We must sustain our generosity in reaching out to those touched by this tragedy. We must continue to teach the attitudes of respect and fairness that call us to reject hate, revenge, and violence, particularly against those of us who are Arab-Americans and Muslims. Most of all, we can defeat the fear that terrorists promote by placing our trust in the Risen Lord and working to replace hate with understanding and violence with respect for all human life.

We need to deepen the faith and hope that lifted us up and sustained us over the past year to continue to shape who we are and how we act in the days ahead. Firm resolve in defending innocent life and the common good against terrorism is still required of our nation. In this necessary task, we must ensure restraint in the use of military force, insisting that traditional moral norms governing war and protecting the innocent must be observed. This "war on terrorism" should be fought with the support of the international community and primarily by non-military means, denying terrorists resources, recruits, and opportunities for their evil acts. As our nation seeks to defend our people and values, we should hold fast to our basic principles of justice, freedom, fairness, and openness in our treatment of all persons, especially vulnerable immigrants and refugees.

We also need to ensure that poor people at home and around the world do not bear disproportionate burdens in the sacrifices ahead. As we confront evil acts, which no cause can justify, this "war on terrorism" must not deflect us from sustained commitment to overcome poverty, conflict and injustice, particularly in the Middle East and the developing world, which can provide fertile ground in which hopelessness and terrorism thrive. Our faith calls us to seek not only a safer world, but a more just and peaceful world for all God's children.

On this September 11th, we join Catholics throughout the country who are completing a nine-day novena of prayer, fasting, education, service and witness. We ask a Merciful God to receive those who have died, to heal a wounded people and to nourish our faith and our hope in the promise of the Christ Risen. We ask the God of Justice to give us the grace, wisdom and courage to help us comfort those who mourn, to show mercy, to hunger and thirst for what is right and to become peacemakers (Matthew 5). We echo the words that Pope John Paul II has said, "Evil…does not have the final word in human affairs." Our task as believers a year after September 11 is to help make this promise come true.




Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.


Tuesday, September 10, 2002


10 choices that were critical to the Net's success. A nice summary of the various choices that have made the Internet what it is today:
In our modern, corporate culture,the rise of the Internet is a happy accident. In its roots and growth, says Scott Bradner, the Net never had a business model.

How did technologists, government officials and a host of other early players turn something with no obvious business model into a system that has become so intrinsic to the new century? A series of decisions proved critical -- choices that helped turn data transport into a commodity business and put the power in users' hands, not in the centralized telecommunications companies' controlling grasp.




InstaPundit points out a disagreement between two blogs that are both dripping in hyperbolic phrases about supporters and detractors of an invasion of Iraq – so much so that it’s hard to take either very seriously. Dr. Weevil’s suggestion that those opposed to invading Iraq ought to be willing to go there and serve as human shields is silly and counterproductive. Counterspin Central’s suggestion that those who want the U.S. to invade Iraq ought to ask themselves if they’re "willing to see their son or daughter die as a combat casualty in Iraq?" is a little more to the point, but again, it’s more a rhetorical flourish (and a good one since I have a son) than an intelligent debate point. I was also disappointed to see that Dr. Weevil refuses to give this blog a link, even though he mentions it and responds to points made in it. Isn’t this a Cardinal Sin of blogging?

I know of a site that lists the Catholic Church as a hate group. And because of this I’ve decided that any argument I’d want to respond to is not worth linking to them. Still, if I did specifically mention an argument posted on the site I would link to them. To not do so seems, to use Newman’s phrase, to be poisoning the wells in intellectual dialogue. In fact, much of the vitriol spewed between warbloggers and warbloggerwatchers reminds me of Newman’s description of his dispute with Mr. Kingsley (whose words Newman quotes below):
. . . to poison by anticipation the public mind against me, John Henry Newman, and to infuse into the imaginations of my readers, suspicion and mistrust of everything that I may say in reply to him. This I call poisoning the wells.
"I am henceforth in doubt and fear," he says, "as much as any honest man can be, concerning every word Dr. Newman may write. How can I tell that I shall not be the dupe of some cunning equivocation?" ...
Well, I can only say, that, if his taunt is to take effect, I am but wasting my time in saying a word in answer to his calumnies; and this is precisely what he knows and intends to be its fruit. I can hardly get myself to protest against a method of controversy so base and cruel, lest in doing so, I should be violating my self-respect and self-possession; but most base and most cruel it is. We all know how our imagination runs away with us, how suddenly and at what a pace;—the saying, "Caesar's wife should not be suspected," is an instance of what I mean. The habitual prejudice, the humour of the moment, is the turning-point which leads us to read a defence in a good sense or a bad. We interpret it by our antecedent impressions. The very same sentiments, according as our jealousy is or is not awake, or our aversion stimulated, are tokens of truth or of dissimulation and pretence. There is a story of a sane person being by mistake shut up in the wards of a Lunatic Asylum, and that, when he pleaded his cause to some strangers visiting the establishment, the only remark he elicited in answer was, "How naturally he talks! you would think he was in his senses." Controversies should be decided by the reason; is it legitimate warfare to appeal to the misgivings of the public mind and to its dislikings? Any how, if my accuser is able thus to practise upon my readers, the more I succeed, the less will be my success. If I am natural, he will tell them, "Ars est celare artem;" if I am convincing, he will suggest that I am an able logician; if I show warmth, I am acting the indignant innocent; if I am calm, I am thereby detected as a smooth hypocrite; if I clear up difficulties, I am too plausible and perfect to be true. The more triumphant are my statements, the more certain will be my defeat.
I think both sides could claim that the other was saying, "How naturally he talks! you would think he was in his senses."




I agree with many that the fact that several hundred of our fellow human beings were forced to jump from the WTC towers is one of the most disturbing aspects of the 9-11 tragedy. While dead is dead, there’s something about having to make such a horrific decision in the last moments of one’s life that I think we’d all agree colors the deaths of those who jumped.

I have to say that I object to showing pictures of those who jumped. Why? Well, with some of them I think a loved one could probably recognize the person falling – and it seems cruel to subject them to such a sight. But there’s also something a bit pornographic about pictures of human beings jumping to their deaths. It’s a picture of someone in the most desperate and vulnerable position they could possibly be in. It’s just plain inappropriate to display these.




What the heck, this is one way to get kids talking about logical fallacies.

UPDATE: Hmm . . . the link doesn't work now. Here's the Google cache of the site if you really need to see it.




Here’s a site (link via Naked Writing) that explains the truth about the following false, that’s right false, notions:
1) There is no gravity in space
2) The Moon looks bigger on the horizon because the air acts like a lens, magnifying it
3) Seasons are caused by the Earth's distance from the Sun
4) Meteors are heated by friction as they pass through the atmosphere
5) Meteors are still very hot when they hit the ground
These ought to win you a beer or two at the pub. ‘Course, who goes around betting on questions like, “Are meteors still very hot when they hit the ground?”


Monday, September 09, 2002


You may remember this gem from the Sept. 24, 2001 issue of the New Yorker:
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.
Now look at this op-ed almost a year later by the same Susan Sontag; it seems to have a very different tone:
I do not question that we have a vicious, abhorrent enemy that opposes most of what I cherish — including democracy, pluralism, secularism, the equality of the sexes, beardless men, dancing (all kinds), skimpy clothing and, well, fun. And not for a moment do I question the obligation of the American government to protect the lives of its citizens. What I do question is the pseudo-declaration of pseudo-war. These necessary actions should not be called a "war." There are no endless wars; but there are declarations of the extension of power by a state that believes it cannot be challenged.
I suppose there isn’t an explicit contradiction here, but the implications of each statement are strikingly different. “Intellectuals” certainly ought to be able to change their minds about issues. But I’m afraid the shrill, ludicrous tone of her New Yorker piece just a few weeks after 9-11 is still ringing in my ears.

UPDATE: Jonah Goldberg, Andrew Sullivan, and InstaPundit have all commented on the recent Sontag piece.




There’s a story told of Douglas Jerrold who, recovering from severe illness, tried to read Robert Browning’s poem Sordello. As one Browning critic tells it, Jerrold exclaimed, “My God! I’m an idiot. My health is restored, but my mind’s gone. I can’t understand two consecutive lines of an English poem” (Tennyson also noted that out of the 5800 or so lines of the poem he understood two).

I mention this because I had this kind of reaction to this post by Brink Lindsey (link via Eve Tushnet). Since Eve has a good eye for these things and thought the post was “excellent” and “had a lot of insight,” I’m going to assume that I’m an idiot. I tried to work through it and, from what I could follow, I thought it just rehashed old philosophical issues like “the One and the Many,” for example:
In the mystic view, all distinctions, all categories, are ultimately illusory; transcendence transcends all distinctions and consists of an all-embracing oneness; mystic contemplation promises the joy of enlightenment, the joy of experiencing, directly, that all-embracing oneness -- what Freud called the "oceanic feeling." Complexity theory, on a far humbler scale, explores the integrating order of complex systems -- order that brings constituent parts (whether stars in a galaxy, air molecules in a hurricane, antibodies in an immune system, or producers and consumers in a market) into a unity that is not apparent when examining those parts in isolation. Complexity theory, therefore, raises our focus from "lower" levels of reality (parts in isolation) to "higher" levels (the emergent logic of the whole).
while failing to make necessary distinctions between modern science and natural philosophy (distinctions I’ve pointed out here and here).

Here’s, I think, the thrust of Lindsey’s post, though you should read the whole thing before drawing your own conclusions:
The holistic aspirations shared by gnosticism and complexity theory are, I believe, the key factor in making the overlap between the two greater than that between complexity theory and orthodox monotheism. Both complexity theory and mystic contemplation aim, ultimately, at a real Theory of Everything -- an all-encompassing order that transcends all distinctions and partial realities. For complexity theory, this end goal -- the ur-program that is generates all the subprograms now running in the Universe -- is the unreachable (?) asymptote of its exploratory strivings. Gnosticism, meanwhile, promises full attainment of this goal through direct insight.
I guess this just seems like old thoughts dressed up with new words claiming to be new thoughts about old words. Aren’t notions like “holistic aspirations,” a “Theory of Everything,” and “encompassing order that transcends all distinctions and partial realities” the same concerns first articulated with Parmenides and grappled with very early in the history of thought: how the universe can be “one,” since all things exist, and “many,” since each thing seems to have its own distinct existence? Here’s a snippet from Plato’s dialogue Parmenides:
Every part is in the whole, and none is outside the whole.
And all the parts are contained by the whole?
And the one is all its parts, and neither more nor less than all?
And the one is the whole?
Of course.
But if all the parts are in the whole, and the one is all of them and the whole, and they are all contained by the whole, the one will be contained by the one; and thus the one will be in itself.
That is true.
But then, again, the whole is not in the parts-neither in all the parts, nor in some one of them. For if it is in all, it must be in one; for if there were any one in which it was not, it could not be in all the parts; for the part in which it is wanting is one of all, and if the whole is not in this, how can it be in them all?
It cannot.
Nor can the whole be in some of the parts; for if the whole were in some of the parts, the greater would be in the less, which is impossible.
Yes, impossible.
But if the whole is neither in one, nor in more than one, nor in all of the parts, it must be in something else, or cease to be anywhere at all?
If it were nowhere, it would be nothing; but being a whole, and not being in itself, it must be in another.
Very true.
The one then, regarded as a whole, is in another, but regarded as being all its parts, is in itself; and therefore the one must be itself in itself and also in another.
The one then, being of this nature, is of necessity both at rest and in motion?
The one is at rest since it is in itself, for being in one, and not passing out of this, it is in the same, which is itself. . .
I won’t spoil the ending for you.

My point is that these issues have been seriously raised and quite successfully answered long ago. Not answered in a way that diminishes the mystery of existence, but answered in the sense that principles like act and potency, being and essence, substance and accident have been proposed which address the seeming paradoxes we encounter with a less sophisticated metaphysics. The reason, for example, why Aristotle is so important in the history of thought is not because he was clever and had some archaic notions of biology (he was, after all, primarily a biologist if you just weigh the quantity of his texts on the subject), but that he introduced principles of thinking that lead us to the truth about our world.

I’m not suggesting we need to slavishly adhere to old ways of thinking and understanding the world. We’re all free to dabble in Gnosticism, complexity theory, and the like to our heart’s content. I’m just suggesting that much of this has already been done; and it’s been done in a manner that is wiser and more coherent than anything most of us could muster on our own.

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. And it’s the reason I make the appeal here.


Sunday, September 08, 2002


The latest Wired (not online yet) has a nice, though a bit lionizing, article on Lawrence Lessig. He has a blog now and is devoting much of his time gearing up for the important Eldred Supreme Court case. I haven’t read enough about the case to have an informed opinion. I think there are differences between the copyright issues of a book versus a software program, but how best to protect everyone’s rights is not so clear.

As I said, the article was interesting but I think I liked this part the best:
After his clerkship, Lessig took the bar exam, then decamped to Costa Rica, where he spent a month reading 35 old novels on a beach blanket.
Ah, just a weekend would be nice.


Friday, September 06, 2002


Here’s (link via HMS) an article that attempts to explain why women tend to cradle babies on the left side. It seems to me they’ve trotted out every theory but the right… er… correct and most obvious one. Take a look:
Information absorbed by the left-hand side of her face, such as a baby cradled on the left, goes straight to her brain's right hemisphere which is specialised in interpreting the infant's state.
Huh!? I think this is a classic example of using a sledgehammer of theory when all you needed was a light tap of common sense.

My wife, who’s right handed, prefers a left-sided cradle. I don’t think I have a preference and tend to be a “bi-cradler,” but I think it’s because I have a silly habit of trying to distribute the load when I’m doing something physical (someone watching me rake leaves and flip from right to left every few minutes would probably think I had a rather strange tick).


Thursday, September 05, 2002


I’ve noticed Amy Welborn, Eve Tushnet, and others keep their readers apprised of what they’re reading; so I thought I’d do the same. Here’s what’s on my nightstand:

I have to admit, while punctuality is important and perhaps even the basis of culture, Heidegger’s Being on Time isn’t quite what I expected. Maybe something got lost in the translation?

(image via EGR)





Lots of quotes on what we can know and say about God from Augustine and Aquinas have been fired back and forth in the Comments section of this post over at In Between Naps. The post was about God . . . um the Trinity . . . or was it language and God . . . er, actually the post was about the new cathedral in L.A. You’ll have to check out the comments to see how the topic careened over to the limits of knowing and speaking about God. Anyway, Old Oligarch pretty much threw a wet blanket on the party by making clean and cogent distinctions that stunned everyone into silence. He basically did the very sensible thing of hauling Question 12 of the First Part of the Summa into the Comments section and making some much needed clarifications. Still, I think one aspect has been left a bit too implicit in all of this speculation about how we can speak of God.

Language gets stretched to its limits whenever we speak of God. Augustine's words ought to shatter any confidence we might have as we attempt to discuss God:
When it is asked three what, then the great poverty from which our language suffers becomes apparent. But the formula three persons has been coined, not in order to give a complete explanation by means of it, but in order that we might not be obliged to remain silent. *
When we speak about God we are always in danger of two things: univocal expression and equivocal expression. With a univocal expression one risks forgetting God's transcendence and reducing God to something created. Because all of our knowledge originates in the senses, if we are not careful about how we speak about God, we can implicitly or explicitly deny His transcendence by our manner of discourse.

The other danger is that of equivocal expression. Here we can end up implying that there is absolutely nothing we can say about God that would in any way approach the truth. Whereas speaking univocally equates what we can say about God with God Himself, implying an intrinsic understanding and comprehension of God by creatures, speaking equivocally drives a chasm between God and what we can say about Him, implying complete ignorance about God. So, what to do?
"I just want to say one word to you Ben ...just one word."
"Yes, sir."
"Are you listening?"
"Yes, sir. I am."
“Plastics” “Analogy.”
Analogy” is the manner in which we can speak of God in a way that points to truths about Him without subordinating Him to creaturely status. A useful way to see this is to note the differences between metaphorical and analogical expressions.

To say that "The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, . . . my shield, . . . my stronghold and my refuge" 2 Samuel 2-3 and be speaking in metaphorical language is to suggest God is somehow "like" these created things. But to use the same images and speak in analogical language is to suggest that these created things are somehow "like" something real in God. The movement in metaphorical language is from knowledge of created things to God; the movement in analogical language is from knowledge (albeit “analogical knowledge”) of God to created things. And this immediately poses a difficulty for those who claim analogical language to be possible: If all of our knowledge is from existing things (omnes cognitiones sunt de rebus existentibus), then how could there be any sort of movement from knowledge of God to knowledge of creation? St. Thomas himself would seem to dismiss any such movement:
The natural intuition of the human mind, burdened by the weight of a corruptible body, cannot fix its gaze in the light of First Truth, in which all things are easily knowable; whence it must be that, according to the progress of its natural manner of cognition, the reason advances from the things that are posterior to those that are prior, and from creatures to God. De Trinitate
Before we try to tackle this apparent dilemma, we should look at another example from scripture. Lynne Boughton, in an article (not online w/o subscription) in The Thomist, suggests the well known encounter of Moses with God in Exodus:
And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.(Ex. 3:2)
This is an interesting example because the burning bush which is not consumed is not a normal occurrence. In fact, it is a miraculous suspension of what we normally experience with a burning bush. Boughton suggests:
the burning bush is a symbol that is "like" an attribute that fully exists only in God: The divine being, as pure act, is the source of other beings without change in his own nature. But God is certainly not "like" a burning bush. He is not a created object of temporary duration.
The distinction is subtle, yet critical to understanding analogical knowledge.

If we spoke only in metaphor, attributing the attributes of created things to God, we would never break out of the limitations of created things in our grasp of God. All created things are finite, corruptible, and contingent. Metaphorically, a created thing could never signify the uncreated, infinite, incorruptible and necessary. If we seek to speak properly and literally, albeit in an analogous manner, of real attributes of God, we will have to possess some kind of knowledge of Him prior to our speaking. And here’s the rub. Until God broke into our finite, corruptible, and contingent world, until Revelation, analogical predication about God – at least in the manner that the term is used in the Tradition – was not possible.

Colman O'Neill has one of the nicest descriptions of analogy as it’s being used here:
The classical theory of analogical predication . . . . has to do with the linguistic expression of a knowledge about God that is held, whether rightly or wrongly, to be already acquired and to be true, even though necessarily imperfect. . . . All that the theory of analogy is meant to do is account for the oddities of linguistic expression which result from this conviction.
When we speak about God analogically we’ve already made a judgment which precedes the analogical statement in order to establish the foundation for the statement. As O’Neill continues, through analogy, "we prolong the movement of our judgment beyond created acts of existing to the existence of God himself," and thus break out of the bond of metaphorical language.

How does this help? When we say, for example, that God “as pure act, is the source of other beings without change in his own nature” we are describing God with words that are not derived directly from our experience: none of us has experienced “pure act,” or “an unchanging source of other beings.” Rather, we are prolonging “the movement of our judgment beyond created acts of existing to the existence of God himself” by our encountering God’s Revelation and speaking of it.

A final though much disputed example: One of the more controversial issues in the nexus between philosophy and theology is whether the notion that the existence and essence (or nature) of God are the same thing is something we could have only known through Revelation. Let’s not debate it here, but look at what Aquinas does with it (SCG 1.22):
Therefore the very existence of God is His essence. This sublime truth was taught by the Lord to Moses (Exod. iii, 13, 14) If they say to me, What is his name? what shall I say to them? Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: He who is hath sent me to you: showing this to be His proper name, He who is. But every name is given to show the nature or essence of some thing. Hence it remains that the very existence or being of God is His essence or nature.
For Aquinas, it would seem that it’s only when the truth of God's nature is revealed that we can then begin to speak of it in a manner that points to the truth without subordinating God to the status of a created things. It seems that it is God’s Revelation that lets us break out of the world of metaphor and genuinely, though dimly, point to truths about God.