"...minute and particular." -- Enormous Generalities
Thursday, October 31, 2002
Catholic and Enjoying It! has this nice quote on gratitude:
No metaphysician ever felt the deficiency of language so much as the grateful. -Charles Caleb Colton, author and clergyman (1780-1832)It reminded me of this gem from Chesterton's work on Chaucer:
There is at the back of all our lives an abyss of light, more blinding and unfathomable than any abyss of darkness; and it is the abyss of actuality, of existence, of the fact that things truly are, and that we ourselves are incredibly and sometimes almost incredulously real. It is the fundamental fact of being, as against not being; it is unthinkable, yet we cannot unthink it, though we may sometimes be unthinking about it; unthinking and especially unthanking. For he who has realized this reality knows that it does outweigh, literally to infinity, all lesser regrets or arguments for negation, and that under all our grumblings there is a subconscious substance of gratitude.
Wednesday, October 30, 2002
THINGS MATTER BECAUSE THEY END
It's dirty pool in a debate on the truth of some position, let's call it "X," to respond to someone who claims,
I'm not X, I have no desire to be X, I want nothing to do with X . . .with the following:
You're X and just don't realize it.I honestly wouldn't say that to Jody of Naked Writing; it's not fair and I really don't think it. But I have to admit it occurred to me when his long and eloquent response to how there can be meaning in a world with nothing eternal started with "Things matter because they end." And then, to my delight . . . well not delight but amusement perhaps, I found this in the comments box from Kafkaesqui:
Here, Here! Also, I don't believe I've read a more succinct explanation as to how an Atheist's philosophy can contain a moral code than this:They do indeed. Talk about making it easy for me! "Things matter because they end" is about as Catholic a statement as one can make. You name it, Original Sin (the end of Paradise), Incarnation (the end of dwelling in the Dark), Crucifixion (the end of Christ's earthly life), Resurrection (the end of death), Sacraments (words and actions of Christ bounded in time), anything Catholic is immersed in the truth that "Things matter because they end." Our lives matter because we are creatures who can only move toward or away from God in time, in history, in our physical condition. Our lives are forced to the crisis of our assent or dissent because our lives will end. But perhaps more on this later. Back to Jody's derivation of meaning from the end of things.Things matter because they end.
What I simply don't understand, call me obtuse, is how meaning can arise is a world view where, in the end, nothing, absolutely nothing, survives its physical existence. It seems that eternal persistence is abhorrent to one who holds to a strict materialist worldview and I suppose I understand that if eternity means enduring our current existence forever. But this, of course, is not what is meant; this is not the substance of things hoped for in the Catholic understanding of eternity and beatific vision.
Here's what seems the crux of Jody's response:
While we were here, while we did what we did, and acted as we acted, that is what was important. That can never be removed, even on our passing. That the monuments we created fall down, that the bridges that we build wash away or get replaced, that is just the fact of a thing, the starting point for the opportunity to set ourselves against the tide of change and challenge it so as to impact, as deeply, magnificently and fully as possible, for as long as possible. Nothing can ever change the fact that we did it. Others may forget. Others may never know. We know. We remember, to the end of our days, what we accomplished and what transpired as a product of our efforts.Doesn't this unravel before you even finish reading it? Let's parse this out (Jody's in bold, I'm in italics):
While we were here, while we did what we did, and acted as we acted, that is what was important. That can never be removed, even on our passing.As I've pointed out before, I'm not pulling some sleight of hand to conjure up an argument for the existence of God. I think "There wouldn't be any meaning to life" is simply NOT a proof for the existence of God. My point is just that many who claim to be strict materialists use words like "life is precious" and make moral statements that will not stand up to any rigorous scrutiny by anyone who disagrees.
The dilemma from the well-known passage in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov that without eternal consequence "nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful" is a tough nut to crack for an atheist or materialist. It's not a reason superstitiously to fashion a "sky god" or some fictitious set of rules. For a believer, God and eternal consequence don't arise from a concern that otherwise "nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful"; rather, morality and law arise from the fact that the existence of God implies eternal law which implies natural law which grounds morality and to some degree a legal system (obviously not a perfect reflection of natural law). I really do think this confusion causes many misunderstandings between theists and atheists, and between those who think not all be-ing is material being and those who think all be-ing is material being.
WHAT IF ROME DOESN'T CARE?
Since the comment system over on on Mark Shea's blog exploded and was replaced I thought I'd post this from the old system, though I've eliminated names since it seems the original text is no longer accessible and the context might be unfairly distorted:
One commenter wrote:
I wish I believed Rome cared. I no longer hold that illusion.I responded with the following:
I admit it's hard to see past the apparent corruption and malfeasance. I don't have an answer to the specific concerns about the bishops you mention. I simply don't know enough. But can you really mean "I wish I believed Rome cared. I no longer hold that illusion"? I ask because if I really believed, and I mean really believed, that Rome didn't have the dignity of every human being as its central concern, I'd be in complete darkness about my faith. Darkness and faith aren't contradictory and many saints describe such darkness at times in their faith lives. Still, it strikes me as complete despair. What could be worse?Another commenter then took me to task:
"if I really believed, and I mean really believed, that Rome didn't have the dignity of every human being as its central concern, I'd be in complete darkness about my faith."I responded via email since the comment system was down with the following [edited slightly for this post]:
By "Rome" I meant the Rome the commenter had in mind, the Rome of JPII and his teaching and focus on the dignity of every human being. I agree that one's faith is in Christ, not the man occupying the Chair of St. Peter . . . except in the sense that the pope is the Vicar of Christ and thus has a unique office and authority.
THE WISDOM OF A LIFELONG CATHOLIC?
Interesting, though a bit limited, article(link via Sursum Corda) on, among other things, the role of conscience in moral matters (see below for a recent post on this).
The lifelong Catholic, who reads theology books in her spare time and runs weekly discussion groups at her church designed to help other parishioners with "conscience formation," calls her struggle with Catholicism a "huge dilemma."Okay, I'll be nice and not dwell on the unintended humor by her use of "conscious" rather than perhaps "conscientious." This is such a clouded understanding of the role of conscience and the nature of authority from a "lifelong Catholic" no less, that I get a visceral pang of despair.
Accepting Church teaching has nothing to do with "authority over" one's conscience. Accepting Church teaching has nothing to do with "blindly accepting the teachings of fallible men." Accepting Church teaching has everything to do with the openness and vigilance required to shape one's conscience in such a way that it becomes a reliable guide to the truth.
Tuesday, October 29, 2002
CONSCIENCE AND EVIDENCE BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT
At the risk of incurring the wrath of canon law experts, let's take another approach to the role of conscience in moral matters. Justice, or at least our justice system, insists that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt -- even and especially when everything seems to the contrary. Likewise it might seem that the preeminent role of conscience in moral judgment forces us to presume a Catholic is following a well-formed conscience until it's proven otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt. This seems sensible at first.
But this would be problematic since we should probably leave the judgment of another person's conscience to that person's private discernment and to God. Yet isn't it important to be able take a position in circumstances where one has evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that someone should "know better," in other words, that someone seems to have failed to develop a well-formed conscience and is acting with poor judgment?
Well, of course. Otherwise, folks could claim they "followed their conscience" in moral matters and the Church would be compelled to remain silent and let such people portray themselves as faithful Catholics (there's the rub for Catholic politicians!). Surely there's a place for claiming, and claiming publicly if necessary, that certain people should know better and are persisting in activity because they are appealing to an ill-formed conscience (or perhaps simply not appealing to conscience in the first place, though I'm not so sure that's possible).
While not explicitly judging whether a certain person's conscience is well-formed, I think the Church does assert at times that some are acting in a manner that indicates beyond a reasonable doubt that they are appealing to an ill-formed conscience in their moral judgments. Isn't this essentially what occurs when the Church excommunicates a Catholic? Excommunication is not a specific accusation that a person's conscience is ill-formed, but a public judgment that there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that such a person, as a professed Catholic, is not acting in good conscience -- in other words, they should know better.
My point is that a Catholic who has even a glimmer of Church teaching and is not acting in fear and is not coerced by circumstances probably couldn't object with integrity to Church teaching on abortion by appealing to a well-formed conscience. Again, I'm saying "probably" because I suppose some kind of extenuating circumstance could explain such objections. But these would likely be very rare cases. As I said before, there doesn't seem to be much wiggle room on this topic.
So, the mention in the letter about every Catholic's right, nay, duty to follow his or her well-formed conscience is, frankly, a bit disingenuous. It rips a central truth of the Catholic Faith out of its well-formed context, a context fashioned over many centuries of teaching, tosses in some excerpts from Vatican II documents, and splashes it into the papers. At best it's sloppy thinking and a worst a deliberate twisting of the truth.
The other thing I noticed in some of the rebuttals to this letter was a tendency to pooh-pooh the "well-formed conscience" argument. While I understand the incredulity in this case and the seeming audacity of the priests behind the letter to play the "well-formed-conscience card," the central role of conscience in Catholic moral teaching should not be dismissed too quickly. Every Catholic is indeed expected to follow his or her conscience:
A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. CCCThe importance of this notion in Catholic tradition would be hard to exaggerate. What is often forgotten, however, is that this assumes that one is vigilant in forming one's conscience and attentive to all things required for a well-formed conscience:
Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed. This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man "takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin." In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits. CCCIn light of this, look at this bit on conscience from the letter:
Finally, there is the recognized responsibility of individual Catholics to follow their well-formed consciences in making specific decisions. Certainly Catholics have a responsibility to give careful and prayerful consideration to official Catholic teaching. But when that teaching proves incomplete, or unconvincing, Catholics have both the right and responsibility to follow their well-formed conscience.Here's where I don't follow: Who really thinks that the well-formed conscience of a Catholic could justify opposition to Church teaching on abortion? We're not talking about the well-formed conscience of anyone at anytime. We're talking about, in the context of the letter, the well-formed conscience of an educated Catholic in the United States in 2002.
I guess I don't understand how someone could claim to be "Catholic" and assert that his or her conscience does not have pangs of distress about abortion. It seems that either the claim of being "Catholic" or the claim of "no pangs of distress" must be specious. I'm not saying prima facie that a Catholic can't in good conscience support abortion; but I'd be curious what such a person then meant by claiming to be "Catholic."
I realize I'm obliquely touching on what was the apparent issue in the letter: separation of Church and State when one is in an elected official. That is certainly a tight tangle and I'm not claiming necessarily that every Catholic elected official must attempt to enact abortion laws. But the quote from the letter and its context implied that an elected official could call himself Catholic and object to the Church teaching on abortion. In any light and even through the most jaded lens, I simply don't see how an educated person could find the Church's position unclear or in need of further nuance such that one's conscience (again assuming the claim of being a Catholic) could lead one to object to the teaching. If this occurs, then I'd suggest that such a person's conscience is either not well-formed or the person is simply not Catholic. I don't see much wiggle room here.
Monday, October 28, 2002
This unbelievable letter has received lots of vigorous rebuttals or comments from the blogs you'd expect: In Between Naps, Summa Contra Mundum, Sursum Corda,and De Virtutibus to link just a few. "What can these priests be thinking?!?" was my initial reaction. But I also noticed something else.
Among other points, the letter mentions two sticking points of the abortion debate: quickening and conscience. I was surprised, however, to find some of the responses to the letter reflecting a weariness towards these two points. It's true that these arguments have been trotted out both to support abortion and oppose it. Still, while worn and frayed from overuse and even misuse, arguments about quickening and conscience offer important insights.
And they, along with other arguments from reason, are the only tools believers can use to debate unbelievers. We live in a secular world where many folks will dismiss you the moment they sniff "religion" in your argument. Yet often an appeal to religion isn't necessary. I'm convinced that much of the abortion debate resolves around issues that can be grasped through reason alone. I know it seems futile and debate always seems to gridlock, but confidence in reason can't be abandoned when things get rough or the discussion centers on something as important as human life and the rights of human beings.
I'll address "quickening" now and "conscience" in a later post.
Quickening was, according to many from Aristotle to Aquinas, the moment when the fetus was "animate" and thus had a soul. What many don't seem to realize is that this notion is still completely relevant. Contemporary biology has shifted the "quickening" (obviously this archaic term is no longer used) or point of "animation" back to conception rather than the 40 days, 80 days, or even months after conception which the old biological theories once purported. Perhaps this is not recognized because "animation" (related of course to anima, soul) is such a highly charged term. Still, the principle remains valid.
Aristotle, Aquinas, and others of yore suspected organizing principles at play after conception. But they obviously didn't know about DNA and its presence and central role from conception on. We now know that at conception there is a completely specified organism present, not some amorphous blob, but a specific, highly complex organism that will develop into a human being. The fact that such organizing principles are present much earlier than Aristotle or Aquinas thought is significant to their arguments.
Now, it's usually dangerous to speculate on what someone like Aquinas would have proposed had he known about DNA and the fact that the fertilized egg is already "organized" and exhibiting behavior requiring a principle of organization; still, only a blockhead could hold that Aquinas would have held to his theory of delayed quickening in light of our current understanding. Aristotle and Aquinas thought that something had to organize a living being and that is what they called the soul, the first principle of life. So, saying,
Well, you know, even Aquinas didn't think that abortion prior to 40 days, 80 days, or when a woman first feels the child move is wrong.to justify early-term abortion demonstrates profound ignorance of Aquinas's thought and the principles he espoused. Yet regarding "quickening," interestingly, many either
1) dismiss Aquinas as a quack who should be ignoredBoth positions are inane.
For many, this is a moot point. The Catholic Church, informed by faith, teaches that the human soul is present at conception since it holds that a human being is present at conception; and you can’t be a human being unless you have a human soul. But one can try to understand this teaching, after all, theology is "faith seeking understanding." Wrestling with the reasonableness of any Church position is a worthwhile and useful task. How else is a believer supposed to discuss the matter with an unbeliever if not on a common ground of reason and discourse?
In fact, I'm convinced you can propose a solid philosophical argument, an argument solely based on principles of reason, that the human soul is present, or at least could be present, at conception. And I think one can then trace out some lapidary truths about human life. I won't attempt it here; I just want to point out that old notions like "quickening" are not irrelevant or tiresome and shouldn't be dismissed without a careful look at the principles animating them.
I'll be posting later today once I get through my email. Thanks to all who've responded to recent posts. I'll reply soon.
Wednesday, October 16, 2002
IS REALITY A SIMULATION GAME? AND OTHER GRIPPING QUESTIONS
I still get asked for ID on rare occasions when purchasing alcoholic goods if I have recently shaved, had some sleep, and donned gym clothes and a baseball cap. It's usually at a store with a policy to ask someone who looks 35 or younger, but it still makes me feel young or, rather, feel like I look young (was it Billy Crystal who said it's better to look good than feel good . . . because no one cares how you feel?). I also don't consider myself to be exceptionally well educated or erudite. But it occurs to me that I've often responded here to philosophical positions that I think aren't well developed or very "philosophically mature" by writing something like "I got over that in my early 20's" or some such thing.
I don't respond that way because I'm wise and old. I respond that way because, well, I got over it in my early 20's. I suppose I'm really just trying to say, "Look, I'm not particularly bright and I worked through those notions long ago so why are you still entertaining them?" It's a gentle or not so gentle "You should know better by now." It's argumentum ad hominem or rather argumentum ad puerum and it's not very productive for anyone. Saying I'd rather stick needles in my eyes than read any more Ayn Rand is an example. I admit it's not a very mature response.
Still, what is one supposed to think when folks seriously entertain questions like "Is reality a simulation game?" Here's the description from The Simulation Argument website (link via this article via Light of Reason), a site run by Yale philosophy professor Nick Bostrom:
This website features scholarly investigations into the idea that you might literally be living in a computer simulation. Films like The Matrix and novels like Greg Egan's Permutation City have explored the idea that we might be living in virtual reality. But what evidence is there for or against this hypothesis? And what are the implications? The original paper featured here, "Are You Living in Computer Simulation?", presents a striking argument showing that we should take the simulation-hypothesis seriously indeed, and that if we deny it then we are committed to surprising predictions about the future possibilities for our species.Okay, I don't have time now, but I think I'll respond to some of this later. Frankly, the last time I seriously entertained some of this stuff was back in third or fourth grade so I'll need to bone up a bit on my "What if the world is all a simulation?" thinking.
My point, I suspect, will be that watching The Matix is one thing, but seriously wondering whether the world is a simulation game of some kind is . . . well, I'm tempted to say puerile and maybe even dangerous . . . but more later.
(image found at Fussy)
MAMBO DOGFACE IN THE BANANA PATCH (cf. this post for the first post on this)
Okay, here's another pass at Jody's post on the silliness of religion and the misuse of reason. I want to respond to the following from his post:
Jumping up and down and screaming "It's right because it's reasonable! It's right because it's reasonable" -- and I don't just mean Mark here folks-- doesn't really prove your point. Reason is an effective tool, when critiqued, debated, explored and modified by the experience of reality.[I know, there are some typos, but I just copy and paste, I don't edit] You've certainly heard this kind of argument before. Again, lots to respond to. Let me just take that bit of incredulity about "It's right because it's reasonable." This is kind of the modern corollary to the tired and worn, at least in the Catholic Tradition, argument that one can believe one thing while being reasonably convinced of the very opposite of that thing. I say "tired and worn" not because it's unimportant or uninteresting, but because there has been so much ink poured out on whether a truth derived from reason and the same truth from faith can ever contradict each other. They can't. They don't. But I don't want to rehash the argument here. Rather, I want to briefly look at why truth, whether derived from reason or believing what someone has testified, whether obtained first, second, or 2000th hand, is one, a unity derived from the most fundamental unity possible.
Etienne Gilson described “the unity of the philosophical experience” to be the fact that all philosophical inquiries share a common characteristic, a fundamental posture toward existence.
In each instance of philosophical thinking, both the philosopher and his particular doctrine are ruled from above by an impersonal necessity.This “impersonal necessity” is at the core of our ability to understand. And I use "to understand" here in the sense of a movement of the intellect which starts with first principles known by all, discourses from these to what is not immediately known, and comes to rest again when one indeed understands something new.
Gilson’s point is that, in any intellectual endeavor, the fundamental fact of existence, our own and that of all things, whether or not it is explicitly described as such, is the source and measure of any knowledge we can acquire about anything. When we make a judgment, when we say "A is ___________," that "is" you see there is a reference to existence. All notions we have, whether we are composing or dividing in our minds, all thoughts, all propositions, all judgments are inextricably immersed in an "is-ness." All of our understanding requires an implicit or explicit "is" or "is not." There is no "kindofisbutnotreally" or "kindofisnotbutnotreally" -- to deny this means, and one can't really say this about too many things, to deny this means you don't understand the terms of the argument. To deny this is to deny that "A is A" or that a thing cannot both be A and not be A at the same time in the same respect.
So, when folks say that science presents truths about the world that contradict truths presented by religion they are using "truth" equivocally, using "truth" to mean more than one thing. When folks say that they will continue to believe in something that reason has demonstrated to be impossible, they are being foolish, or rather, they aren't really saying anything intelligible because they are in essence saying "A is A and A is not A at the same time in the same respect." They might as well say "mambo dogface in the banana patch" (the ol' Steve Martin routine).
Things either are or are not. There's no other option. Don't get confused with "modes of being." A sign of this is saying, "Well, can't something be imaginary and only kindofsortof exist"? Even imaginary beings either are (in someone's mind) or are not (nobody has thought of them). Things either are or are not. And thus, whenever we say something "is" some color, or shape, or property, or just "something is," we are making an assertion, an enunciation that is linked to all things that "are," that exist. Truth is one, truth is a unity, because existence is one, existence is a unity.
Now then, take a look at the above excerpt from Jody's post, take a look at the whole post, and see what you think. I count a few "kindofisbutnotreallys," a couple of "mambo dogface in the banana patches," and one serious jumble of assertions.
Monday, October 14, 2002
MORE GRIST FOR DISPUTATIONS' ROSARY SERIES
Maybe the Vatican was concerned that Disputations was going to run out of material before running out of month? Here's (link via Amy Welborn) a great story:
Pope John Paul will mark his 24th anniversary as pontiff Wednesday by changing the rosary -- the most universal and commonly known Catholic method of praying -- for the first time in nine centuries.
BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET: REDEEMED?
I think Peter of Sursum Corda is right that it must have been a slow news day for Brother From Another Planet: Redeemed? to run in NCR.
The article suggests that God's taking on another nature in the Incarnation, resulting in one person with both a divine and human nature, while mysterious, suggests that God could take on more than two natures: human and perhaps some extraterrestrial nature:
When Aquinas discusses the hypostatic union in his Summa Theologiae, he makes the following point: It is inevitable that the second person of the Trinity possesses at least one nature (the divine nature). As long as there is only one nature and one person (let us refer to this as the one-in-one case), there is no mystery involved. The mystery enters when we go beyond the one-in-one to the two-in-one teaching of Ephesus. It is indeed a profound mystery of the Catholic faith how Christ can be one person with two natures.Interesting speculation perhaps for those who have too much time on their hands or those who don't but can't resist. Being of the latter, I'll take the bait and leap in here.
I wonder if taking on additional natures would be required for the salvation of extraterrestrial intelligent life? A blog is not the place to try to unpack this thoroughly; but I'm not so sure Aquinas was ever open to the possibility of intelligent corporeal beings having a nature other than human. Other intelligent beings, yes. In fact, he has several works that grapple with angels, intellectual substances. But angels are incorporeal intelligent beings, not corporeal. I'm not sure Aquinas thought that there could be more than one corporeal intelligent being in Creation. It has to do with the fact that the human being is on the boundary of corporeal and incorporeal beings and the fact that moving up or down the gradation of beings moves you either to unintelligent corporeal beings (animals lower than human) or intelligent corporeal beings (angels). Human nature would seem to exhaust the "boundary" between corporeal and incorporeal beings.
So, while I agree that God's taking on a human nature suggests the possibility of His taking on other natures, I don't think it has or will happen in our universe.
WHY SHOULD I DO MY HOMEWORK?
Here's an interview with Stephen Pinker where he responds to a statement about the apparent pointlessness of the universe:
Reason: The evolutionary psychologist’s account of human behavior is clear and succinct, but as the physicist Steven Weinberg says, "The more comprehensible the universe becomes, the more pointless it seems."Here's what he says:
Pinker: It may be pointless in some cosmic sense, in the same sense in which there’s no point going on living because, as the young Woody Allen character in Annie Hall said, "The universe is expanding, and someday it will break apart and that will be the end of everything, so why should I do my homework?" There’s a point at which the Woody Allen anxiety -- what we might call the "Karamazov worry" -- is confusing two levels of analysis. The first scale consists of billions and billions of years and a universe which came into existence and which will go out of existence. The second is the scale of hours, minutes, days, and years in which we live our lives. Just as you don’t worry about putting your laptop on the table after the physicist says that it’s mostly empty space on an atomic level, you don’t worry about life being a sham just because the neuroscientist says that morality comes from the brain.Hmm . . . I haven't read Pinker's latest book, but I have read some of his earlier stuff. I wonder if he's just speaking loosely when he mentions "stepping outside our brains and looking at how it functions" and stepping "outside ourselves"? It's an interview, not a thesis, so I don't want to press him too hard. But I don't recall how this stepping "outside ourselves" is possible in the materialistic world of the evolutionary psychologist. Pinker, unlike Dawkins, seems a little more honest about the limitations of what we know. I mean, here he's basically said that the universe may very well be pointless and we're sort of duped that there is meaning and morality by the structure of our brains shaped over billions of years of evolution. That's fine and within the limits of scientific method that's about as far as he should go. Still . . .
I try to avoid ad hominem arguments here, so I won't speculate on Mr. Stephen Pinker's veracity. I'm just picturing someone who seems to dwell in a world with no meaning and morality at work while probably enjoying a very different world when he's home for dinner and playing with the kids. It must be difficult.
Thursday, October 10, 2002
LOOKING LIFE STRAIGHT IN THE FACE?
Wow, Dawkins is getting pretty bitter these days. Here's (link via Mark Shea) a recent article on the Catholic Church. Two snippets. First this gem:
Regarding the accusations of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, deplorable and disgusting as those abuses are, they are not so harmful to the children as the grievous mental harm in bringing up the child Catholic in the first place.I'm left nonplussed. Interestingly, Dawkins betrays the dualism you'll inevitably find when a strict materialist attempts to explain human actions. Notice the priority Dawkins gives to "mental harm" rather than the harm of sexual abuse, which he seems to think is merely physical harm.
But here he leaves me slack-jawed with incredulity (if that's possible after the above statement) and wondering how anyone can really think this:
The word atheism sounds negative; let me call it rationalism. It is a rational view of the world where you stand up proudly, in your humanity, you look life straight in the face, you look the universe straight in the face, you do your level best to understand it, to understand why you exist, what the universe is about, you recognise that when you die that's it, and therefore life is very, very precious and you devote your life to making the world a better place, to leading a good life so when you die you can say to yourself I have led a good life. Now, that seems to me to be a worthwhile goal to put in place of the medieval superstition which is religion. Belief in God doesn't have to be a bad thing, but I think it's a very demeaning thing to the human mind to believe in a falsehood, especially as the truth about the universe is so immensely exciting.Okay. Let's concede every point he makes. Can someone please tell me why it would make one iota of difference how one lives given such a world? I'm NOT saying, therefore, one must believe that life has eternal consequences and meaning that derive from God. I'm just wondering how, for example, sentiments like "life is very, very precious" and "making the world a better place" and "worthwhile goal" can have ANY meaning for Dawkins?
As I like to ask here at Minute Particulars, Am I an idiot? What am I missing? If life has no eternal consequences, if there is no thread of significance that can touch us once we're dead, if all of us are destined to nothingness, if any "good" thing we do eventually fades as all of those touched by that "good" thing pass into nothingness, how can anyone say that "life is very, very precious" or mean anything by wanting to make "the world a better place" or really have a "worthwhile goal"?
If upon my death there will be absolutely nothing persisting that is “me,” then nothing I do can really matter. Yes, I’ll have friends and loved ones who live on but none of that is “me” in the sense that it can still matter to “me.” And loved ones and friends are in the same boat of having nothing of them remain after death so why would my legacy matter to them or me?
Now one might say, “Well, it matters that I made the world better or helped others.”
But I'd reply that the world you made better and those whom you helped will all disappear as well into the dark void of nothingness, so how can it really matter? If an “I” doesn’t persist in some way, then nothing matters.
Now, that’s not a reason to suddenly shift gears and believe in an afterlife or some kind of persistence of self beyond death. In fact, that would be a silly response because unless you really believed it you’d know on some level you were kidding yourself. I’m not suggesting that the conclusion “Then nothing matters!” has a place in an argument for the immortality of the human person. I’m just saying that I don’t understand how anything really matters to someone making the kinds of claims Dawkins does. Sure there’s the “Golden Rule” where we should treat others in a manner that we would want to be treated and we could argue that this keeps society in check and makes it possible to live a safe though meaningless life. But still, why would it matter that the world were somewhat civilized rather than what we find in Mad Max? Really, I'm not being glib, I'm honestly asking.
Ever feel like you're in a game of Calvin Ball? (link via Virginia Postrel).
*IMPORTANT -- The following rules are subject to be changed, amended, or deleted by any player(s) involved.
Wednesday, October 09, 2002
Jonathan Franzen has an interesting article in the 9/30/02 issue of The New Yorker magazine on hard-to-read books. He describes his reading of William Gaddis's The Recognitions as follows:
Every morning for a week and a half I went from the breakfast table to a beige ultrasuède sofa module, turned on a lamp, and read non-stop for six or eight hours. I had some professional curiosity about Gaddis, but a few hundred pages of "The Recognitions" would have satisfied it. I sat and read the extra seven hundred pages in something like a fugue state, as if planting my feet on a steep slope, climbing. I was reluctant to leave my ultrasuède perch for any reason. The only way I could justify sitting there and spending borrowed money was to make a regular job, with regular hours, out of climbing the mountain.He also points out that "One pretty good definition of college is that it's a place where people are made to read difficult books." I think there's something to that. I can't imagine slogging through Moby Dick without the pressure of a paper or being called on in class. Ideally this shouldn't be the case. But realistically I think most people simply don't have the long stretches of time and the lack of distractions to read lengthy, difficult books. It's too bad.
I've never read any Gaddis. I found two interesting links on him. This one provides some information on The Recognitions along with information about Gaddis. This one has information on some of the reviews the book received including examples of reviews by reviewers who must have been so flummoxed by the book that they simply used the blurbs on the dust jacket to come up with something to say.
Tuesday, October 08, 2002
DOES INTELLIGENCE = GOOD GRAMMAR?
The always interesting Summa Contra Mundum reports the following (my emphasis):
I have been catching up on grading today, and have, as usual, become quite sad about the lack of intelligence of my students. They write semi-weekly analyses on the reading assignments, and I read them and try to write comments about the arguments they make. Unfortunately, the arguments made are often unintelligible due to the horrible grammar. These kids (who are in college) have almost no command of the English language. Commas are used to string sentences together, but are neglected when required. Participles are dangled and sentences are fragmented.I found this a little puzzling. I wonder if Karl meant to say "lack of education" rather than "lack of intelligence"? I don't understand how anyone's intelligence can ever really be gauged by his or her willingness to adhere to the conventions of written language or any other convention. By "conventions" here, I mean agreement upon things that one couldn't know apart from such agreement, not the ability to reason, to compose and divide, to move from what is more known to what is less known and make it more known.
Let's take an example: I'm confident that Karl is quite intelligent even if we disagree on the convention of when to hyphenate (e.g. "semi-monthly" is not in any dictionary I own). That's because proper spelling is a convention, an arbitrary arrangement of markings that have specific meaning when folks agree about what they mean. Knowing this convention typically happens through education, either formally or informally.
Written language is a convention that you must learn because it can't be derived apart from what has been agreed upon and promulgated by a community of human beings. Contrast this with the knowledge that a whole is greater than its parts or that if A equals B and B equals C then A equals C. This kind of knowledge is not conventional like the rules of written language. You take a course in grammar because you have no choice if you wish to communicate according to agreed upon conventions. You take a course in traditional logic, not because you couldn't derive principles of logic on your own, but because you likely wouldn't derive them on your own; you would probably not have the time or energy to develop your understanding of logic to a point that would even come close to the understanding you'd arrive at by participating in a good logic course for a semester.
Am I suggesting that any talk of "intelligence" is inappropriate? Certainly not. I'm just suggesting that equating "intelligence" with "conventional knowledge" or even "education" confuses things a bit.
But how could we use the term "intelligence" a little more productively? I've always liked this description of "intelligence" from Aquinas:
For there are some people who cannot grasp an intelligible truth, unless it be explained to them in every part and detail; this comes of their weakness of intellect: while there are others of stronger intellect, who can grasp many things from few.Being able to "grasp many things from few" has always struck me as a sensible way to distinguish greater or lesser intelligence. It's not divisive (unless you go around saying "I can grasp that from fewer parts and details than you"), it doesn't depend on conventional knowledge or education, and it stems from a sage and sound epistemology of the human being.
UPDATE: Karl has a nice response and clarification here.
Thursday, October 03, 2002
Jody of Naked Writing has the following nice quote on his blog:
Reason is not one tool of thought among many, it is the entire toolbox. To advocate that reason be discarded in some circumstances is to advocate that thinking be discarded- which leaves one in the position of attempting to do a job after throwing away the required instrument.This is a great quote and, contrary to the title of the book it comes from, this quote in itself does not present a problem for anyone who holds that the existence of God can be proved through reason alone. It's precisely how one ought to proceed.
And so I was surprised to find a post containing a rather breezy treatment of how Aquinas, or anyone, might approach the existence of God using only reason. There's lots to respond to, but in the interest of trying to adhere to the "minute" of Minute Particulars, I'm going to break my responses up into separate posts. So, here goes.
Seeing as how I've harped repeatedly on the notion that supernatural faith is merely superstition with a socially acceptable face, I want to chime in here and say that Mark is right. The core of the debate does indeed come down to reason. It comes down to the fact that while one can come up with a reasonable case for god to exist, one can also come up with a reasonable case for fairies to exist, for the Sun to orbit the Earth or for flapping your arms up and down in order to fly.This conflation of demonstrable knowledge and probable knowledge is pervasive and has many historical influences. I've touched on this here and here in recent months; but I know I have a lot of new readers so let me try this again and tweak it a bit to address the examples of the existence of God, fairies, our understanding of the solar system, and flapping your arms to fly.
Aquinas points out that 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.
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. For example, the proofs for the existence of God, at least as Aquinas presents them, all resolve to the fundamental truth that a thing cannot be and not be at the same time in the same respect. To take the first proof in Aquinas's Summa Theologica:
It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.Now, there's lots you could scratch your head about here, but "It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself" can't be one of them. If you think something CAN "in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved" then you are simply not understanding the terms used. And this reasoning to certain conclusions from certain principles is what is meant by demonstration. Note two things: 1) this is not the procedure followed in contemporary science 2) this is reasoning from experience -- notice the first sentence of the proof: "It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in 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.Now, I hope it’s obvious that I’m not maligning science here. 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.
So, back to the existence of God, fairies, our understanding of the solar system, and flapping your arms to fly. The traditional proofs of God point to the one whose nature is "to be," "to exist." You have to put that in your pipe and smoke it a bit for it to sink in. What does it mean for something's (and even saying "something" doesn't quite work) nature to be not "human" or "granite" but "to exist." We're not talking about some mythical creature (e.g. fairies) or any creature, some model of understanding (e.g. the heliocentric system we inhabit), or some experiment (e.g. can I fly if I flap my arms?). We're talking existence versus non-existence, pure, fully realized act versus potential to act, necessary be-ing versus contingent be-ing. The philosophy, again traditionally, that studies this, that studies be-ing as be-ing (versus be-ing as living (biology) or be-ing as moving (physics)) is the philosophy of be-ing or metaphysics. It is the most rarefied of all human endeavors of reason because it studies the fact that everything has something in common, namely existence, and yet everything is distinct, namely this existing thing is not that existing thing. Our world is not one monolithic lump of be-ing, yet all things both are and are different.
Why does any of this matter? Asking about God and asking about fairies or whether the earth orbits the sun are fundamentally different inquiries. While there are many other confusing things in Jody's post, this failure to distinguish between demonstration and probability and the further lack of any nuance in approach to God or fairies or scientific theory results in poor reasoning about, well, reasoning. But more later.
IT'S NOT SHAKESPEARE, BUT STILL . . .
Moviemakers versus the clean-flicks revolt
When a little Utah mom-and-pop video store snipped the Kate Winslet nude scene out of the "Titanic" movie a few years ago, it didn't know what it was starting. That act caught the interest of many video-renters in Utah, a conservative state with a large Mormon population, whose church discourages viewing of movies with heavy doses of violence, steamy sex scenes, and profanity.I don't think anyone is seriously thinking that editing "Lethal Weapon" is akin to bowdlerizing Shakespeare's plays, but art is art and I suppose there ought to be some guarantee that what a director intended for a movie is preserved.Clean Flicks, a company that provides edited, "cleaned up" versions of movies for rent, has gone to court as a preemptive move against Hollywood's rumblings of a lawsuit. Here's a discussion of the legal issues on each side:
Last week, Clean Flicks of Colorado went to court to sue a number of top Hollywood directors before they could sue the small video rental chain first. The directors include such luminaries as Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg, Steven Soderbergh, Michael Apted, Norman Jewison, and Michael Mann.Should be interesting to see how this plays out.
Tuesday, October 01, 2002
I CHANGE, YOU CHANGE, WE ALL CHANGE
The Kairos Guy, as he promised, has the first post of arguments for the existence of God as formulated by Kreeft and Tacelli and interpreted by Mr. Kairos. This one is "The Argument from Change," and it brings in PowerBall lotteries, charities, the universe, and God. Quite fun.
If you're interested in a similar approach to these kinds of things, check out Aquinas's first argument from motion in his Summa Theologica. The connection may not be clear unless you realize that motion, which Aristotle defined as "The fulfillment of what exists potentially, in so far as it exists potentially," can be understood more broadly than simple locomotion; and underlying any "motion" and "change" are the principles of act and potency. Okay, maybe that doesn't clear it up.