Minute Particulars

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

Friday, November 29, 2002


This (assuming the graphic above appeared) is pretty amazing, even if you've seen a million of these things. So, the square marked A is the same color as the square marked B. Not similar shade, not almost, but identical in color.

You simply won't believe it until you line them up next to each other by doing some cropping in Photoshop. Here are the two squares, cropped, but otherwise unaltered.

That is very cool.

(thanks to Naked Writing for posting this some time ago)


Wednesday, November 27, 2002


Good article (link via Charles Murtaugh) on popular medical myths. Here's some of it:
Life was much harder as little as 100 years ago. Children died. Disease wiped out entire cities. For most of humanity, indoor air was filled with soot and faeces. Families constantly stressed over where the next meal would come from. No herbal medicine or incantation routinely worked to cure disease. Few lived past the age of 50, no matter if they practiced yoga and thought happy thoughts, as Deepak Chopra and Andrew Weil teach us.

Surprisingly, many in this modern world subscribe to the idea that disease is not caused by pathogens but rather an "unbalance" or "negative energy". They take untested herbs, much like medieval Europeans, to restore this balance. Or they practice qigong to move so-called qi (chi) energy through the body to initiate some mystic healing practice.

Only people in the wealthiest of nations are subscribing to ancient practices, often banned in developing countries. We seem to be so content, so caught up with myths, that we have forgotten how the advances of real science through the 20th century - the germ theory of disease, for one - have made life that much more pleasant.


Tuesday, November 26, 2002


Catholic Light had an interesting post and comments here on the nature of consciousness and the human soul that led to the question of how the soul experiences time.

As I said in the comment section, this is a great and tricky question. It's great because it raises lots of really interesting issues; it's tricky because even Aquinas, at least in the Summa Theologiae, leaves things uncharacteristically a bit vague. I think the most interesting issue that precipitates into a really tough problem is that of the separated soul. If the soul is an immaterial substance, and doesn't require the body to exist (though this separated condition is unnatural), then it has to "do" something when separated from the body if it still exists. This is because a thing can't exist without "doing" something, without a fundamental act. The problem is that the soul's first act, what it does in the deepest sense, is to understand; but understanding for the human being, while an act which does not require a body, requires the body to provide the "grist for the mill," the material world of the senses that the intellect then abstracts from, composes and divides, and comes to understand. This process seems to screech to a halt at death.

Aquinas recognized the problem and discussed it here in the ST
It is clear then that it was for the soul's good that it was united to a body, and that it understands by turning to the phantasms. Nevertheless it is possible for it to exist apart from the body, and also to understand in another way.
This "other way of understanding" is the rub. It's not understanding as an angel understands because you'll then get into trouble by conflating separated souls and angels. Also, if understanding is the fundamental act of the soul, then understanding in "another way" suggests "another nature" which also gets problematic. Anyway, I hope to post on this later and suggest how Aquinas gets out of this apparent bind.




Intersting story (link via How Appealing) about license plates, controversial messages, and politics.




This article, about an apparent suicide pact between two teenagers, is terribly, terribly tragic:
Jordan Roeter was a joker, voted class comedian of the eighth grade -- the boy who snapped on a pair of fake handcuffs one day and begged strangers on the streets of Portland to set him free.
John Hinman was a lot like Jordan -- "only in baggier clothes," one friend says -- a master of quirky comments, quick to diffuse tension with a laugh. "Don't worry," he once told a seething middle-school friend. "We're all going to get out this jail cell someday."
On Nov. 6, Jordan and John, friends for less than two months, left Forest Grove High School together. They walked a little less than a mile, through winding neighborhood streets lined with older ranch houses, and past Jordan's place, where his mother waited inside, wondering where her son could be.
The boys, both freshmen, crossed the thoroughfare that bisects the bedroom community of 18,000 and let themselves into John's house, a blue one-level with a Japanese maple and basketball hoop out front. The door shut behind them.
Just after 7 p.m., John's mother pushed the front door open and discovered Jordan, 14, sprawled on the living room floor, dead, a single gunshot wound in his right temple, and her son, 15, barely conscious, also shot in the head. He survived, but he was blinded by the bullet.
No one but John knows for certain what happened in the house that day. Police called it a suicide pact -- news that stunned the boys' families and friends. In the days that followed, those who knew the boys searched for something they had overlooked, a warning of what was planned.
If you want evidence that evil is irrational, absurd, banal, and, finally, a mystery, you have it here. The evidence of evil at work here is the lack of coherence to the various events, maybe over many years, that somehow brought these boys to the empty house that day and convinced them that shooting themselves was a good thing to do. Even in hindsight, those closest to the boys have no idea why they did it. It seems there's no ratio, no rhyme or reason to be found. And yet the end result is definite and real: one boy is dead, the other seriously injured.

Evil is irrational. It doesn't resolve into something clear and crisp. You can't connect the dots when you try to find "reasons" for evil acts. Of course, the means to an evil end can be quite methodic and well-reasoned; but the end itself and how it was determined as an end are unreasonable. Perhaps the connections become plausible in hindsight? Maybe in some cases it seems clear why someone does something like this? Perhaps acute and prolonged pain, truly dire living conditions, an action that one can no longer live with make a suicide seem reasonable? But the boys didn't seem to be in an extreme condition that might prompt suicide. It really does seem maddeningly absurd. Loved ones may be racked with guilt, but guilt about what? The "reason" for such tragic action remains in the shadows, amorphous with just enough hints to maintain the guilt without yielding anything of substance.

And even if hindsight does begin to trace the "why" of it, hindsight with suicide is too late. I wonder if suicide prevention is not so much finding a clear path, seeing where it leads, and intercepting someone before they proceed on up the path they've started as it is watching for the subtle signs that someone is in trouble. Suicide prevention is possible and reputable suicide prevention organizations should be vigorously supported; but not because we hope to comprehend fully the precise reasons and causal connections that lead to so great an evil. Rather, so we can be attentive to the warning signs and risks. Scientific advances can increase our knowledge of risk factors that accompany many if not most suicides. But these will always be statistical correlations rather than explanations of the root cause of why rational beings naturally inclined toward existence and goodness choose such an evil.




Here's a great quote I came upon recently in Josef Pieper's The Four Cardinal Virtues:
It is, alas, only too easy for the superficial reader to float along on the unruffled surface of these statements of Thomas Aquinas, which seem transparent to the very bottom, and take no account of the depths over which their serene clarity lies.


Monday, November 25, 2002


Instapundit (link via In Between Naps) doesn't mince any words about accepting moral advice from "preening churchmen" and the "the religious racket":
And as for what preening churchmen think we ought to drive, well, my sentiments are unprintable. And I think it's pretty lame that people who would never in a million years let some preacher tell them who to sleep with somehow think it's cool when preachers start telling people not to drive SUVs.

Given the notorious inability -- and unwillingness -- of the religious racket to police its own members' behavior lately, I have zero interest in their opinions on the war, the environment, "social justice," evolution, or any of the subjects on which they desire to opine, and about which they typically know nothing.
Glenn is obviously bright and well-informed on many issues; that's what sets him apart from the popular yet often pedestrian blogs that gravitate toward political commentary. In fact, I think his equanimity on many issues is one reason his blog has become so popular. In the past it's been quite refreshing to see someone who seems to claim no religious affiliations be fairly open to religious ideas and blogs that emphasize religious topics. In fact, he's linked to a number of "St. Blog's" folks in the past including little ol' MP.

So, I was surprised to see the above post. Sure there are problems with it on the secular level of argumentation as it seems to evidence a number of logical fallacies including hasty generalization, unrepresentative sample, false analogy, and exclusion. But more disturbing is that this is the kind of reaction you might expect at one of the many stridently anti-religion blogs, but not Instapundit. I wonder how many other smart people think this?

Amy Welborn suggests that "moral capital" has been squandered and this is the inevitable result. Perhaps. But do people really think that dictating sleeping arrangements and motor vehicle choice is what happens "in church"? I mean, I guess it happens . . . .

Let's get specific. The terms "church" and "religion" cover a lot of territory so let's assume a subset, a subset that Glenn seems to have in mind with comments like "the notorious inability -- and unwillingness -- of the religious racket to police its own members' behavior lately," namely, the Catholic Church. Do people really think that serious, sober, mature Catholics are the kind of folks who shun a preacher's advice on whom to sleep with and are eager to hear a preacher slam SUV drivers? Do they think good priests really preach and advise in this manner? If so, then . . . well, then I guess I'm just left slack-jawed and stunned into silence. I mean you must be kidding to think this caricature actually has some merit.

Frankly, I'm not so sure there was really any openness to "moral capital," any docility and broad open-mindedness to Church Teaching in many of the secular libertarian folks to begin with. No, I think the real damage to the Church in the sphere of credibility (not forgetting for a moment the unspeakable damage done to victims of clerical sexual abuse) has been the betrayal and despair experienced by believers. The predictable responses based on religious caricature and silliness are nothing new. They can't be dismissed, but neither can they be taken too seriously. After all, such comments are coming from those who never took the Church seriously in the first place.

It's the foundation-shaking blow to many believers that concerns me. And it's this that needs more attention. A concern that the Church can't even "police its own members' behavior" so all of Church Teaching should be dismissed is really not a big deal. It's the standard, trite response by those who don't understand the Church, its Teaching, or the Tradition any further than what they glean from headlines. Actually, it would be a relief if these comments were all the Church had to concern itself with. The critical concern (again, never forgetting that our foremost responsibility is to those directly victimized) ought to be for those who've drunk deeply, who've come to believe, who've experienced the stability of the tradition amidst so much chaos and now are racked with doubt or even despair.

"I do believe, help my unbelief!" Mark 9:24

UPDATE: Disputations has a very smart take on this here.

UPDATE 2: Sursum Corda responds to Glenn Reynolds here.


Friday, November 22, 2002


A True Word (link via Naked Writing) provides, according to their own description,
an authentic Islamic viewpoint on contemporary issues, and to actively engage the non-Muslim world in a constructive and honest dialogue of ideas. We write for both Muslims and non-Muslims.
I haven't seen many blogs with such an emphasis so I look forward to reading this one occasionally.

That said, I did notice in this recent post a common misunderstanding about reason and belief:
Secular humanists, on the other hand, hold that only theirs is a valid belief system; namely, that belief in God (and all that follows from that) is wrong because His existence cannot be proved. And indeed it cannot be “proved” by some mathematical formula or scientific experiment; that’s why it’s called “faith.” Humans are left to derive His existence from His creation: a child’s smile, a Virginia autumn, a sunset. The believer finds it difficult to reflect on these marvels and consider them cosmic rolls of the dice.

In secular humanism, human reason is the ultimate criterion, the ultimate source of truth: “…dogmas, ideologies and traditions…must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith,” states the Council for Secular Humanism. But this rather reasonable-sounding tenet is misleading, because to secular humanists, anyone who does accept a faith has not sufficiently “weighed and tested” it, since by definition it cannot be “proved” by the secular humanist criterion. This argument against religion fails because it assumes what it is trying to prove.
The problem, and regular MP readers know my spiel on this, is not that secular humanism is too reasonable, but that it's not reasonable enough. See my previous posts METAPHYSICAL MUSINGS and FAITH AND HORSE RACES if you want my tiresome thoughts on this.


Thursday, November 21, 2002


Lileks has a suggestion for those not following his argument:
If this distinction is unclear, I’m here to help:


Print this out, place it on your desk, and drive your forehead into the X as hard as possible. It may shake the small, pea-shaped brain fragment loose from whatever skee-ball cone it got lodged in.




The eyes get teary and the stomach weak. The gag reflex chokes the throat. Is that raw sewage? A rotting squirrel? The brain is too distracted to answer.
That blurb comes from a serious article on the research of Pamela Dalton who "works to create foul odors. The Pentagon has expressed interest in her specialty."
Pamela Dalton has uncorked the foulest smell on earth.
It comes from one of the vials that Dalton keeps under a ventilated hood in her laboratory, where the bottles carry impish labels: Burned Hair. Bathroom Malodor. And worst of all, Stench Soup, an odor so reeking of ripe Porta Potties -- or is it dead possum? -- that it fills the mind with white noise.
"That one takes over every aspect of your consciousness," Dalton says proudly of her creation, made in search of the world's most offensive odor.
If you've been around a pile of soiled baby diapers you'd surely agree that the "odor takes over every aspect of your consciousness." But apparently there's serious interest in things that reek:
Nonlethal weapons are only a small part of the Pentagon's research and development program, but they received a major endorsement last week as a panel of the National Research Council called for a big boost in experimentation and spending. At the top of the panel's to-do list was increased study of foul smells, or "malodorants."




The world's best Rock, Paper, Scissors player said the game is a bit like chess with the "same kind of strategy to it":
For the uninitiated, RPS, as it's known to players, consists of three simple gestures: a clenched fist (rock), two extended fingers (scissors) and a flat hand with your palm down (paper).
Two players each throw down one of the gestures. A rock smashes scissors, scissors cut paper, paper covers rock.
Douglas Walker, who organized the championship with his brother, said players attended the event from as far away as New York and Washington.
"There was a guy in a bathrobe with 1975 Rock, Scissors, Paper champion on it," he said.
While most consider Rock, Scissors, Paper a game of chance, Mr. Walker said there's more to it.
"The patterns start to emerge fairly quickly and the good players know what they're looking for," he said. "You know by facial expression. Some of them are more concerned with looking at the flexing of the hand."
Mr. Bradley, a technology worker now living in Ontario, described the game as a bit like chess.
"It has the same kind of strategy to it," he said.


Tuesday, November 19, 2002


"Choice on Earth" (link via Veritas) is the blurb on the 2002 Planned Parenthood Holiday Card. Superficially, it strikes me as ironic that snowflakes which are supposed to be unique and are, of course, quite delicate, decorate the sentiment.

Still, I'm beginning to wonder if the "choice" that "Pro-Choice" folks espouse has gotten flip-flopped during the years of tumultuous debate. Shouldn't the "choice" that every woman has a right to be the choice not to become pregnant rather than the choice not to remain pregnant? Has the obvious right of every woman not to be impregnated against her will morphed into the very different "right" not to remain pregnant? I ask because the one right seems obvious and beyond debate while the other seems quite debatable.

There's a long post (link via World Wide Rant, via Mark Shea) over on Light of Reason that discusses the problems with legislating abortion and I think it swerves into this confusion about which choice the debate should center on. It ends with:
If there is any "rationalization and obfuscation" going on, it is on the side of those who want to impose by force their own particular convictions on others, even when they themselves admit the possibility of a genuine difference of opinion. You cannot advocate that kind of position and pose as any kind of champion of individual rights. If you're prepared to disregard the mother's rights, then no one's rights are safe, in terms of the principle involved.
It's certainly true that probably few on either side of the abortion debate think abortion is morally neutral or that it's ever an easy decision (though those who deny that the "clump of cells" after conception is a human being probably have an easier decision). But are we really consigned to difference of opinion on this? Does it really follow that "If you're prepared to disregard the mother's rights, then no one's rights are safe, in terms of the principle involved"?

What I often don't find in the discussion of a woman's right to decide about whether to terminate her pregnancy is the fact that in most cases her pregnancy was chosen. It required a deliberate, voluntary act; it was NOT something that occurred without any clear choice on her part. With the obvious exception of situations of force or coercion -- which really are morally different and ought to be treated differently -- don't most women become pregnant from consensual sexual intercourse and don't most of these women understand that pregnancy is possible? Of course.

Obviously there are many reasons a woman can unexpectedly find herself pregnant. Perhaps she and her sexual partner simply didn't think that sexual intercourse would likely result in her becoming pregnant? Perhaps she and her sexual partner got swept up in the passion of the moment and in hindsight would have refrained? Perhaps the contraceptive method she and her sexual partner were using failed? Regardless of the reasons, why is it rare to find the consensual choice to have sexual intercourse included in the moral calculus regarding a woman's right to terminate the pregnancy that results from the freely chosen act?

Look at it from another angle: If pregnancy could occur spontaneously, or by the process in biology known as parthenogenesis, then the right to terminate such a pregnancy might be justifiable. Such a pregnancy would not be the result of anyone's deliberate action. But shouldn't the fact that a woman and a man choose to do something that could result in the woman becoming pregnant be considered a factor in her right to then terminate the resulting pregnancy?

I ask because the above statement:
If you're prepared to disregard the mother's rights, then no one's rights are safe, in terms of the principle involved.
doesn't seem to follow. It's inattentive to the fact that most pregnancies result from consensual sexual intercourse which most people realize can result in pregnancy. This fact alone doesn't necessarily attenuate a pregnant woman's right to terminate her pregnancy nor does it suggest that abortion laws could be applied justly. But I would think it should at least be considered.

The issue might be summed up this way. Our actions have consequences and many rights we have depend upon our actions. Is there anything a woman and her sexual partner can do to limit the woman's right to terminate her pregnancy? If your answer is a firm "No" to this question, then nothing I'll say from here on will matter. But if there could be something that limits the right of a woman to terminate her pregnancy, wouldn't one facet of this limitation on her rights be the simple fact that she could have refrained from sexual intercourse?

Most can see the difficult but clear moral issues involved where a woman wants to terminate a pregnancy she did not choose, a pregnancy resulting from force or coercion. While the issues are still complex and not easy, the moral reasoning would necessarily have to take into account the plain fact that this person did not choose to become pregnant. Regardless of how painful and difficult a decision to terminate or not terminate such a pregnancy would be, it's still a fairly clear situation. But, obviously, this is not really the central issue in abortion and certainly it's a far less common occurrence. The central issue is termination of a pregnancy that was chosen by the woman and her sexual partner. And isn't the real question about "choice" in this case the question, Why does a mother have a right to terminate a pregnancy she chose? In other words, is it possible that a person can make a free and deliberate choice that could result in a condition whereby the choice to change that condition becomes problematic?

Let's take a simple, silly example to make the point. Everyone has the right not to be pushed off of a cliff. If I then voluntarily jump off of a cliff, it's not that I suddenly no longer have the right not to be pushed off of a cliff, it's that the right no longer applies. Isn't this what happens in a freely chosen pregnancy? It's not that a woman no longer has rights, it's that the right not to get pregnant no longer applies. It's, of course, here that the new "right" to terminate the pregnancy arises in the thinking of some. But I wonder if the right to terminate the pregnancy, again I'm speaking of a freely chosen pregnancy, not forced or coerced, I wonder if this less obvious right to terminate the pregnancy is being confused with the clear and obvious right not to get pregnant in the first place? They're both involved with a woman's body and her ability to choose. They're close in the material sense of what's involved; but when you take a closer look, it becomes clear that they're formally very different.

Implicit in my jumping off the cliff is the understanding that I'll fall. So too, implicit in a freely chosen act of sexual intercourse by adults who understand how one becomes pregnant is the understanding that pregnancy can occur. And shouldn't a pregnancy which has a natural process and outcome be treated as a condition that once freely entered into one no longer has the right to alter -- barring danger to the health of the mother and other similar circumstances?

To make my silly cliff jumping example more to the point here, what if pregnancy lasted only a moment and there were really no time to consider altering the condition? I wonder if that would change things? If consensual intercourse could result, a moment later, in a child, I'm pretty sure it would be approached differently by many. This is a silly example. But if one would hesitate from consensual sexual intercourse because pregnancy could result and pregnancy only lasted a moment, then doesn't this suggest that the willingness to terminate a pregnancy is disturbingly tied to an argument of convenience? Isn't it reduced to, "Well, since we'll have time to terminate the pregnancy if one results we won't hesitate when we might have otherwise hesitated."

Of course, the likely pro-choice response to this will come in two flavors:
1) The pregnancy is not necessarily intended when a woman and man engage in consensual sexual intercourse
2) The right to terminate a pregnancy still applies even if the pregnancy was freely and deliberately chosen
But at least these would be points that offer some traction in the current quagmire and not simply because they can be convincingly defeated. Rather, it would be nice to see the debate on "choice" focus more on, well, "choice" and the moral implications of human actions.

Perhaps consensual sexual intercourse with the full understanding that pregnancy could result isn't considered often in the abortion debate because we take the act of consensual sexual intercourse too lightly. It's ironic that the most intimate act a man and woman can consent to, the one act that is perhaps most definite and unambiguous, seems to some to be a casual statement or even something fairly ambiguous in meaning.

Again, I'm not making the case here that a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy might be diminished or negated if the pregnancy were the result of consensual sexual intercourse with the full understanding that pregnancy could occur -- that's another post for another time. I'm simply wondering why this fact doesn't creep into the debate more often? Perhaps it's because the act of consensual sexual intercourse has become indistinct, ambiguous, and drifted for many from its concrete foundation in human nature?


Friday, November 15, 2002


I wonder what the odds were that the bishops' statement, Bishops Express "Serious Concerns and Questions" about Possible War with Iraq, would generate responses like this gem (link via In Between Naps) from The American Prowler?
The American bishops can't solve their own problems, but that won't stop them from solving the world's. They can worry that Bush's "zero-tolerance" policy against Hussein threatens the children of Iraq now that the press has begun to forget about their lack of one for the children of America.

Would that they fought for the integrity of the Catholic faith with the same level of passion George Bush fights for America.
Responses like this have a grade-school, tongue out, thumbs in ears, hands-wiggling tone that are about as substantial as tissue paper in a rainstorm. Still, this is the inevitable wisecrack that will haunt the bishops, haunt Catholics, for some time.

Disputations has a nice reflection on what's really at stake in all this.




This article ought to send a chill down your moral spine. Think eugenics was something from the dark past of Nazi Germany? The "Board of Eugenics" in Oregon was not officially abolished until 1983!
Oregon was one of 33 states to pass sterilization laws in the first quarter of the 20th century. The laws were based on eugenics, the pseudo-scientific movement that sought to solve social problems by preventing the "unfit" from having children. Nazi Germany eventually would use eugenics laws in the United States to legally justify its own programs that would sterilize and eventually kill millions.

But Oregon was remarkable in that its laws were initially used to punish people having homosexual sex; that the state for years favored castration over vasectomies, and that the Legislature did not abolish the Board of Eugenics until October, 1983. Until reforms in 1967, sterilization often was used as a condition of release from state institutions or to punish people who acted out.


Thursday, November 14, 2002


There's a thoughtful and thought-provoking response to the bishops over at In Between Naps. This, however, made me pause:
People really need to understand that the desire to be sexually involved with a child or youth is not normal and goes beyond the way we normally speak and think of sin. It betrays a wealth of problems that should alert anyone to the fact that such a person isn't fit for ministry to others.
I can only speak for myself, but when I "normally speak and think of sin" it's precisely in a manner that would include something as damaging as sexually abusing children, adolescents, or adults. I speak and think of sin quite seriously, as I would any mystery that reaches to the core of our condition. And I'm not alone; from the Catechism:
Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as "an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law."
Sin is an offense against God: "Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight." Sin sets itself against God's love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become "like gods," knowing and determining good and evil. Sin is thus "love of oneself even to contempt of God." In this proud self- exaltation, sin is diametrically opposed to the obedience of Jesus, which achieves our salvation.CCC
I'm not necessarily disagreeing with Amy on this; but I wonder if considering the Church scandal in terms other than "sin," "offense against reason," "offense against God," "perverse attachment to certain goods," etc. is useful? These terms have a long history in the wisdom of the Tradition. Treating this terrible scandal as a sui generis occurrence strikes me as counterproductive.


Wednesday, November 13, 2002


This has been sitting in my blog "scratch pad" a bit too long now and the links are old. I was going to develop it further but ran out of gas. Still, I thought I'd post it even if I don't get the chance to follow up with it.

Eve Tushnet has been having an interesting discussion with Julian Sanchez that centers on the relationship between metaphysics and ethics. Eve writes:
There will be times, in the course of doing philosophy (pursuing truth through reason), when you arrive at an ethical conclusion that appears repugnant to you. The two examples I gave were infanticide and Stalinist purges. If your underlying metaphysical principles and reasoning appear to drive you to accept baby-killing or mass murder, that is a pretty good sign that either the underlying principles or the intermediate reasoning are wrong. So instead of accepting the evil ethical conclusion, you investigate: Did I screw up on the way from metaphysics to ethics? That's the "easy" part. The next question is harder: Are my metaphysical principles a) wrong or b) insufficient? (= true enough, but lacking some important components.) One good way of investigating that question is to look again at the moment of ethical shock (the moment when you realize your philosophy is driving you to accept infanticide, purges, etc.). What happens if you hold to the ethical principle rather than the metaphysics? What happens if you say, "No, purges are just wrong"?
This got me thinking a bit about what metaphysical groundwork is required for sound ethics. Traditionally, though I don't have a citation, I think three points are required:
1) the existence of God (since there must be some eternal consequence for actions to have any ethical significance)
2) the immortality of the human soul (since the one acting must have the possibility of eternal consequences for his or her actions to have any ethical significance)
3) free will existing in every human being (since one can't be held accountable for one's actions if there's no free will and only actions done freely have any ethical significance)
I was going to dig further into each of these in future posts, but that might not happen. I did want to say that one claim about point #1 ought to be more vigorously refuted, namely, that if your metaphysics presents you with the fact that there is no "God," -- if that word is too charged with contradictory meanings for you then how about "eternal consequences to evil actions" -- then anything is permissible and ethics becomes meaningless. It actually makes perfect sense that ethics dissolves into superstition and convenience if your metaphysics can't ground it with a solid foundation of consequence. That's not the point I think ought to be more vigorously refuted. Rather, I think a metaphysics that purports that God does not exist ought to be roundly rebuffed. Now, as I've pointed out again and again in recent posts, the fact that "anything is permissible" is not a good reason to propose God's existence; in fact, it would be a silly argument. That's not what I'm suggesting. I'm suggesting that a sound metaphysics informed by reason alone can arrive at demonstrative proof that God exists. And while it's true that the "God" one arrives at through metaphysical analysis is a bit bland, a bit impersonal, and more of a principle than person (which, of course, is where Revelation comes in), it is nonetheless the foundation required for ethics.

The Church insists that the existence of God can be proven using reason alone:
The Church teaches that the one true God, our Creator and Lord, can be known with certainty from his works, by the natural light of human reason CCC
This is an interesting point made fully explicit at Vatican I (1870). It's interesting because you might not think it a necessary point to make. As the guardian of the Revelation of God to His people, the Church's very existence and the Revelation it so carefully hands on from generation to generation imply belief in God, and therefore the existence of God. So why make the declaration that:
If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and lord, cannot be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema.
"Let him be anathema." You don't see that great phrase much these days. Anyway, there are a lot of reasons for such a declaration. Perhaps foremost is the Church's insistence that Truth is One, that truths discovered from reason can't contradict truths discovered from the light of Divine Revelation. But I also wonder if it serves to bolster believers and prompt them to stand firm and wrestle with atheists, materialists, nihilists, and their ilk on their own turf.

So . . . yes it's true that without God anything is permissible. It's easy to follow the lineaments of such thinking and it's a reasonable conclusion . . . if you indeed grant that God doesn't exist. If, however, reasonable, mature, careful, and nuanced metaphysical analysis inevitably leads to the existence of God, then such a conclusion is not possible and becomes a moot philosophical footnote.


Tuesday, November 12, 2002


Sursum Corda has a thoughtful post that surveys abortion and the law in light of the election results. The issue of whether abortion can be reasonably legislated has, of course, become a flashpoint of debate again. Many pro-choice folks are against making most abortion illegal because they're concerned that such laws would offend a woman's right to choose about the disposition of her pregnancy, be difficult to apply, and be quite disruptive to society. Legitimate concerns, but I wonder if they warrant a pro-choice stance or, perhaps more accurately, a reticence to legislate abortion?

A human law, in the traditional sense that I think still holds today, is
an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.*(my emphasis)
This classic definition is a useful way to organize discussion around abortion law. From this we can ask the following:
1) Would laws against abortion be reasonable?
2) Would they be for the common good?
3) Would they be made by those who have care of the community?
4) Would it be possible to promulgate such laws?
Each of these aspects of law merits careful discussion and I'd like to attempt a post for each as my time permits. My assumption, of course, is that those who might be interested in such discussion are not those who deny that human life at every stage of development is sacred -- that's a very different debate. So, I'm addressing the many folks who abhor abortion yet don't see how abortion laws could ever be applied without doing more damage than good.

More later.


Monday, November 11, 2002


Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, is this year's Booker Prize winner. Here's an excerpt:
My suffering left me sad and gloomy.

Academic study and the steady, mindful practice of religion slowly brought me back to life. I have kept up what some people would consider my strange religious practices. After one year of high school, I attended the University of Toronto and took a double-major Bachelor's degree. My majors were religious studies and zoology. My fourth-year thesis for religious studies concerned certain aspects of the cosmogony theory of Isaac Luria, the great sixteenth-century Kabbalist from Safed. My zoology thesis was a functional analysis of the thyroid gland of the three-toed sloth. I chose the sloth because its demeanour - calm, quiet and introspective - did something to soothe my shattered self.

There are two-toed sloths and there are three-toed sloths, the case being determined by the forepaws of the animals, since all sloths have three claws on their hind paws. I had the great luck one summer of studying the three-toed sloth in situ in the equatorial jungles of Brazil. It is a highly intriguing creature. Its only real habit is indolence. It sleeps or rests on average twenty hours a day. Our team tested the sleep habits of five wild three-toed sloths by placing on their heads, in the early evening after they had fallen asleep, bright red plastic dishes filled with water. We found them still in place late the next morning, the water of the dishes swarming with insects. The sloth is at its busiest at sunset, using the word busy here in the most relaxed sense. It moves along the bough of a tree in its characteristic upside-down position at the speed of roughly 400 metres an hour. On the ground, it crawls to its next tree at the rate of 250 metres an hour, when motivated, which is 440 times slower than a motivated cheetah. Unmotivated, it covers four to five metres in an hour.

The three-toed sloth is not well informed about the outside world. On a scale of 2 to 10, where 2 represents unusual dullness and 10 extreme acuity, Beebe (1926) gave the sloth's senses of taste, touch, sight and hearing a rating of 2, and its sense of smell a rating of 3. If you come upon a sleeping three-toed sloth in the wild, two or three nudges should suffice to awaken it; it will then look sleepily in every direction but yours. Why it should look about is uncertain since the sloth sees everything in a Magoo-like blur. As for hearing, the sloth is not so much deaf as uninterested in sound. Beebe reported that firing guns next to sleeping or feeding sloths elicited little reaction. And the sloth's slightly better sense of smell should not be overestimated. They are said to be able to sniff and avoid decayed branches, but Bullock (1968) reported that sloths fall to the ground clinging to decayed branches "often".

How does it survive, you might ask.

Precisely by being so slow. Sleepiness and slothfulness keep it out of harm's way, away from the notice of jaguars, ocelots, harpy eagles and anacondas. A sloth's hairs shelter an algae that is brown during the dry season and green during the wet season, so the animal blends in with the surrounding moss and foliage and looks like a nest of white ants or of squirrels, or like nothing at all but part of a tree.

The three-toed sloth lives a peaceful, vegetarian life in perfect harmony with its environment. "A good-natured smile is forever on its lips," reported Tirler (1966). I have seen that smile with my own eyes. I am not one given to projecting human traits and emotions onto animals, but many a time during that month in Brazil, looking up at sloths in repose, I felt I was in the presence of upside-down yogis deep in meditation or hermits deep in prayer, wise beings whose intense imaginative lives were beyond the reach of my scientific probing.




Alexander Pope, in his Essay on Man, famously wrote the following:
Of systems possible, if 'tis confest
That Wisdom infinite must form the best,
Where all must full or not coherent be,
And all that rises, rise in due degree;
Then, in the scale of reas'ning life, 'tis plain
There must be somewhere, such a rank as man:
And all the question (wrangle e'er so long)
Is only this, if God has plac'd him wrong?
It's a poetic glimpse at a couple of stubborn philosophical issues. Here I have in mind the issue of the structure of the universe and existence: specifically, could the universe be different, some might even ask "better," and still exist? If you're interested, I was reminded of this issue by two very different blog posts. First, it struck me that this post from Chris of Veritas a few weeks back, obliquely touches on speculation about whether our universe could be other than it is. Then, as I mentioned in a recent post, Charles Murtaugh swerved into this issue with this post that discusses our response to "what Nature gives" us.

Anyway, here goes . . .

You're probably aware of some form of the Anthropic Principle, which is an attempt to come to terms with the fact that:
the laws, constants and basic structure of the universe are not completely arbitrary. Instead they are constrained by the requirement that they must allow for the existence of intelligent observers, ourselves.
Some have found it significant and suggestive of intelligent design that the universe has such precise constraints and seems "designed for us." The Anthropic Principle both explains this (if this weren't true we wouldn't be around to make the observation that the universe seems perfectly suited to us) and refutes it (there are an infinite number of permutations possible that result in an infinite number of universes -- we only seem to inhabit a unique universe designed for us because we've evolved to be aware of ourselves and our universe).

But this latter position strikes me as problematic. I've always marveled at the willingness of those who suggest that many different universes could arise from the many possible permutations of the fundamental constants of nature. The problem, of course, is that we have no idea if such constants could change without a collapse of Creation itself. This is because . . . get ready . . . we don't know what is required to make something exist. This truth is at the heart of even the tiniest sliver of understanding we might grasp about a Creator and Creation. From our perspective as creatures, just about the only thing we can say is that only one with the infinite power to create ex nihilo could have knowledge of exactly how this is done.

So, when we speculate on how things might be, how, for example, there might be some universe different from ours because it's grounded in different laws of nature, different fundamental constants, we should be on guard that we are really saying something intelligible. In fairly telegraphic remarks found in several texts, Aquinas reminds us that:
it cannot be objected that God can make things other, since with regard to the establishment of nature it is not asked what God was able to make, but what the nature of things undergoes as made.
This admonition suggests that Aquinas was concerned that any discussion of possible universes will inevitably stem from a negative judgment, a judgment of what such a universe could not contain. In other words, we can say for certain that any other universe cannot have a square circle; we can say this and other such things because such a universe would have at least one thing in common with ours: existence. And "existence" suggests fundamental principles like a thing can't be (e.g. square) and not be (e.g. circle) at the same time in the same respect.

But there's a further limitation in our consideration of possible universes: we are bound by the nature of things we experience in this universe. We know nothing that isn't derived from what exists in our universe. Now before I get a bit bucket of email from sci-fi enthusiasts who might claim that we can think of lots of things that don't exist in our universe, let me explain.

Any creature we imagine, any world we imagine, any story we conjure up, will necessarily derive from our experience in our universe. Everything we know originates from our senses. We compose and divide, we reason from what is more known to what is less known, but all of the grist in our mind's mill comes from our world. That is the rock-ribbed truth of any realist philosophy. When we conjure up imaginary creatures, whether it be a unicorn, E.T., a sandworm, or a hobbit, we have no idea about whether such creatures could actually exist. This is not simply because we don't know if such creations violate fundamental laws of biology, but also, and more fundamentally, we don't know if such creations violate fundamental aspects of existence which are the foundation for any laws of nature.

While it may seem a tenuous connection at best, I think our inability to have positive knowledge of creatures and worlds not in our universe creates a problem for strict materialists, nominalists, or any "ists" who deny the metaphysical equivalent of Pope's
That Wisdom infinite must form the best,
Where all must full or not coherent be,
And all that rises, rise in due degree;
Why? I'll attempt a feeble explanation in a later post.




Andrew Sullivan has a column on the economics of blogging. It does seem that blogs will continue to be a portal for the more conventional ways of making a living writing (selling books, developing column ideas for "dead-tree outlets," and so forth). If Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Reynolds of InstaPundit who each get over 20,000 unique visitors a day can't make a living solely with their blogs, then I suppose that's a sign that the time is not quite right for blogs to generate much income directly.




I received some great emails regarding my IS REALITY A SIMULATION GAME? post last month, a response to those who seriously entertain questions like whether reality is a simulation game, a dream, or some other such twaddle. I also had an interesting discussion with my father-in-law about it. He made the wise point that this kind of thinking is simply not present in the vast majority of human ideas and sentiments found in mature literature, history, philosophy and the like. Many have entertained the solipsistic notion that perhaps the world is a projection or illusion, but always as a means to an end, a sort of philosophical foil rather than a possible lifestyle.

One correspondence resulted in my digging up a favorite bit from a story by Tobias Wolff called "The Liar," a response to solipsistic thinking:
[Dr. Murphy and the mother of a boy, and the boy are at table; the boy is the narrator]
[Dr. Murphy:]"I don't know what I've done wrong," he said abruptly, and with reference to no particular thing. "Then again maybe I haven't done anything wrong. I don't know what to think anymore. Nobody does."
"I know what to think," Mother said.
[Dr. Murphy:]"So does the solipsist. How can you prove to a solipsist that he's not creating the rest of us?"
This was one of Dr. Murphy's favorite riddles, and almost any pretext was sufficient for him to trot it out. He was a child with a card trick.
"Send him to bed without dinner," Mother said. "Let him create that."


Friday, November 08, 2002


Dying Words, an article by Dr. Jerome Groopman, ostensibly examines how doctors should deliver bad news and discusses issues in palliative care. But I found it to be a sobering, stark, sad, and unsentimental description of dying that, well frankly, you don't run across very often.
[the actual names were changed for the article]
Maxine was no longer conscious. Every few seconds, her chest heaved, and she gasped. She was entering what is called the agonal phase—taken from the Greek agon, which means struggle—a period that precedes death and can last from a few minutes to hours.
I warned Maxine's parents that this was usually harrowing, and that sometimes family members preferred not to witness it.
"I want to be with my baby," Maxine's mother said.
Maxine's hands began to twitch and her breathing moved into a syncopated pattern called Cheyne-Stokes, a short set of staccato breaths bracketing a long pause.
Mrs. Barlow raised her head.
"Maxie, we love you, and God loves you."
Mr. Barlow sat straight, his hands clasped in his lap.
Sometimes as a patient dies there is a convulsive burst of muscular activity, like a grand-mal seizure. I braced myself for it when Maxine's fingers began to twitch, as if she were grasping for an invisible object. These muscle contractions continued for some forty minutes. Then a harsh rattling sound came from her chest. I glanced at the nurse, who was next to the morphine infusion. There was a single explosive jerk of Maxine's body, a sharp arching of her chest, followed by a series of fluttering movements in the muscles of her neck.
The Barlows stood up. Maxine's skin was already changing to an ashen hue. I placed my stethoscope over her heart. "I am sorry," the nurse said. I reached over and took Mr. Barlow's hand, and then turned and embraced Mrs. Barlow as she cried.
I left the Barlows and went to the nurses' station to fill out Maxine's death certificate. I designated the primary cause as respiratory failure due to metastatic breast cancer to the brain and handed the chart with the death certificate to the floor clerk. The time of death was 12:57 P.M.
Groopman explains that "the physician frequently finds himself assuming a role that was once the exclusive province of religious authorities." But he then states something that, while I suppose is appropriate in a strictly medical sense, I found troubling:
Yet the palliative care he [the physician] offers is primarily meant to ease physical suffering; he is not trained to alleviate emotional pain. In medical terms, a "good death" is a death with the least physical suffering possible. As ars moriendi suggests, though, there is a historical notion of a "good death" that is more complicated; it is as much about a cultivated attitude toward leaving life as it is about the physical act. (my emphasis)
Again, the article is written by a medical doctor, yet I wonder if the reduction of "emotional pain" is really what Groopman, and perhaps many doctors, think the role of "religious authorities" is? And notice the separation of attitude and act, mind and body, implied with the statement that a "good death" "is as much about a cultivated attitude toward leaving life as it is about the physical act."

I'm probably pressing too hard on Groopman's words given their context, but it seems to me that one's "attitude toward leaving life" and the "physical act" of dying are inseparable. Isn't this the crux of the Church's concern over physician-assisted suicide or any euthanasia? The "physical act" of dying is necessarily and indelibly imbued with one's "attitude toward leaving life." In light of this, a physician-assisted suicide and a suicide are tragically similar if not the same. And thus, the concerns we have about suicide, the oppressive despair, the permanence of the act, the obvious call for help it embodies, ought to be the same concerns about euthanasia.


Thursday, November 07, 2002


This article with the headline "Motherhood Makes Women Smarter, Study Suggests" may explain why my wife reads Minute Particulars down to the point adjacent to the link to Lileks' The Bleat. When she reaches that point she clicks over to The Bleat and leaves my dull words behind. She's clearly become so smart that I can't keep her attention past that point.

Perhaps I should move Lileks further down the page?





The always interesting Charles Murtaugh had a post last week on human "embodiment":
The Catholic Church has plenty of positions with which I don't agree, but one area in which I find myself generally persuaded is their conception of human "embodiment," i.e. the idea that the human self is emphatically not a soul "occupying" a body, but both the soul and body combined. More to the point, when it comes to discussing concrete issues, the Church rejects the lazy mind-body dualism now pervading our culture, that sees the flesh as an instrument to be used, for pleasure, by the will. This is why the Church puts such theological emphasis on the resurrection of the body, rather than the simple ghost-like transport of the soul to the afterworld.
You might also check out his response to readers who thought he'd oversimplified things or succumbed to a version of the Naturalistic Fallacy which some claim is the illicit move from "is" to "ought."

Murtaugh's point, however, was that what he
. . . was trying to emphasize was not the ought but the should, in the sense that sometimes it's better to play along with what Nature gives you, because trying to untangle the threads that bind us to our bodily selves is impossible and ultimately counterproductive. And from this larger phenomenon, in turn, one might well draw some sort of moral lesson.
The "naturalistic fallacy" and the concern that we ought to respect "what Nature gives" are loaded with some really interesting philosophical considerations. I hope to pursue these more adequately in later posts. Let me just make some preliminary musings here.

That one cannot derive an ought from an is has become a sort of mantra for many who fancy themselves to be philosophical "purists." Such purists deny that the differences we all observe from one kind of thing to another are substantial differences. For such purists the difference between a human being and a geranium can be reduced to the fact that each has a different combination of elemental building blocks. They claim that any substantial difference, a difference that could give rise to distinctions like "animate," "sentient," or "intelligent," is an illusion. Therefore, if someone proposes that an "ought" can derive from an "is" in the case of "intelligent" creatures, such a notion will be summarily denied by those convinced that "intelligent" is a superficial characteristic with no substantial underpinning in nature.

Another consideration is the idea that "what Nature gives you" has some metaphysical heft. Many deny this and pooh-pooh such thinking as archaic. Human beings, after all, no longer have to adhere slavishly to "what Nature gives" and have permanently broken such bonds. But I wonder if Nature can be so easily dismissed? Again, more in a later post.


Wednesday, November 06, 2002


Humorous comments on writers and writing by film critic Anthony Lane (link via How Appealing). First on writers:
As a rule, writers are not a pretty sight; indeed, as a secondary rule, you should never trust a writer who is pretty. If he or she is pretty, then what on earth has he or she got to complain about, and therefore, by extension, what is left for him or her to write about? . . . . My idea of a dependable writer is Flaubert, who looked like a dugong with a head cold, or George Eliot, who bore a surprising resemblance to last year's winner of the Kentucky Derby. . . .
Dugong? That's, according to Webster's,
an aquatic herbivorous mammal of a monotypic genus (Dugong) that has a bilobed tail and in the male upper incisors altered into short tusks, is related to the manatee, and inhabits warm coastal regions -- called also sea cow
Now on writing:
There is a myth at large in the general population, easily quashable yet somehow allowed to persist, that writing comes smoothly, like gas from a pump, or at least unbidden, like tears. This is bull. No decent prose is ever dashed off, especially that which appears to be effortlessly dashing. Just as Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks had to rehearse their leaps and pratfalls, so grace on the page has to be earned with infinite sweat. I was told recently of a manuscript of Couples, which has come into the possession of a college library and which is apparently forested with sweet-smelling revisions; when even as Mozartian a stylist as John Updike needs to retrace and smooth his steps, what hope for the rest of us? (The exception to the rule is Mozart himself, but then, next to Mozart, the rule seems to be that creativity itself, the plashing fount of human invention, is in fact no better than a rusty cement-mixer—all churn, slap, and grind.)


Tuesday, November 05, 2002


Telford Work (link via Eve Tushnet) has a long response to Camassia and Eve Tushnet where, among many other interesting points, he writes:
. . . I do not mean to privilege outward over inward actions. That would set me against the whole passage [Matthew 5:21-30]! It would also set me against the whole Christian contemplative tradition, both eastern and western. Both Paul (e.g., Romans 7) and Augustine (e.g., Confessions and On the Trinity) are variously credited for creating "the introspective conscience of the West." Look at both Protestant and Catholic European spirituality and you will discover how important the inner life is to both, and rightly so. However, Descartes and Kant turned the distinction between interiority and exteriority into radical epistemological problems. Modernity has trained us to not just to distinguish inward from outward actions, but to dichotomoze our inner and our outer selves. The modern dualistic form of interiority draws on but finally overturns the earlier Christian holism of inner and outer self.
Indeed! Dualism is pervasive and insidious. It has flowed into every nook and cranny of modern sensibility and it's as difficult to remove these days as indelible ink on tissue paper. But the human condition as incarnate being makes no sense if the holistic nature of the human being isn't preserved in our musings. Human beings, as philosopher David Braine put it, are
. . . psychophysical wholes--wholes in whose operations the mental cannot be extricated from the physical and the physical cannot be understood apart from the mental.
Braine also notes that mistakes leading to a collapse of any holistic approach to human nature are incipient
[1] in common ways of popularizing physical science, neurology and computer theory,
[2] in the common acceptance of the association of all mental function with the brain,
[3] and in the common over-simplified ways of speaking of cases of illusion, delusion and failure to carry through one's intention.
He continues,
For centuries we have been indoctrinated with dualistic ways of thinking, making the mental inner, a matter of the state of a person's mind independently of any carry through in ways of behaving, and this has softened us up for the ready acceptance of materialist ways of thinking making these inner states internal to the brain.
The link between dualism and materialism is of particular interest to Braine and I'll post something on it later.




Chesterton on democracy:
. . . the principle of democracy, as I mean it, can be stated in two propositions. The first is this: that the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. Man is something more awful than men; something more strange. The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature. Death is more tragic even than death by starvation. Having a nose is more comic even than having a Norman nose.

This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one's own love-letters or blowing one's own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves--the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.




Disputations presents a tough tangle of choices for Maryland's Eighth Congressional District here. Check out that speech from the third candidate!

As far as the rhetorical "What would Aquinas do?," let me quote from Twain:
I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn't know.
But it did prompt me to try to find a relevant passage from Aquinas for today's election. Perhaps this section on democracy :
Two points are to be observed concerning the right ordering of rulers in a state or nation. One is that all should take some share in the government: for this form of constitution ensures peace among the people, commends itself to all, and is most enduring, as stated in [Aristotle's] Polit. ii, 6. The other point is to be observed in respect of the kinds of government, or the different ways in which the constitutions are established. For whereas these differ in kind, as the Philosopher [Aristotle] states (Polit. iii, 5), nevertheless the first place is held by the "kingdom," where the power of government is vested in one; and "aristocracy," which signifies government by the best, where the power of government is vested in a few. Accordingly, the best form of government is in a state or kingdom, where one is given the power to preside over all; while under him are others having governing powers: and yet a government of this kind is shared by all, both because all are eligible to govern, and because the rules are chosen by all. For this is the best form of polity, being partly kingdom, since there is one at the head of all; partly aristocracy, in so far as a number of persons are set in authority; partly democracy, i.e. government by the people, in so far as the rulers can be chosen from the people, and the people have the right to choose their rulers.(my emphasis)
Impressive coming from a document written about 750 years ago.




If you have the time today, you might take a look at this nice essay by John Langan, S.J. on the pros and cons of single-issue voting. Here's the conclusion, though it will be a bit out of context until you read the whole thing:
. . . single-issue voting, lobbying and campaigning can in some cases be morally justifiable and even required. Single-issue voting can in some cases be an appropriate expression of the politics of principle. But it must be undertaken for a goal which is theoretically an attainable and fitting objective for the political process, and it must be conducted in a principled way.


Monday, November 04, 2002


TIME (link via In Between Naps) has a brief article on the biological complexity at play in very early embryonic development:
Given the number of steps in the process, it will perhaps forever seem miraculous that life ever comes into being without a major hitch. "Whenever you look from one embryo to another," observes Columbia University developmental neurobiologist Thomas Jessell, "what strikes you is the fidelity of the process."
As I mention in the QUICKENING post below, this complexity and obvious presence of an organizing principle from the very moment of conception is philosophically quite important in debates about the ethical consequences of intervening or stopping the growth of the early embryo.

I've had some interesting email exchanges with a number of folks on this. Many questioned the following statement I made in the above post:
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.
I'm no expert in these matters and based my statement on the following from Evangelium Vitae, #60
Some people try to justify abortion by claiming that the result of conception, at least up to a certain number of days, cannot yet be considered a personal human life. But in fact, "from the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. This has always been clear, and. . . modern genetic science offers clear confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be: a person, this individual person with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization the adventure of a human life begins, and each of its capacities requires time--a rather lengthy time--to find its place and to be in a position to act". Even if the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be ascertained by empirical data, the results themselves of scientific research on the human embryo provide "a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?".
Perhaps there's a better text for my point, though this text seems pretty apt. The statement: "from the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth," seems necessarily to imply the presence of the human soul at conception. After all, if "life of a new human being with his own growth" doesn't imply the presence of a human soul, then what exactly do we mean by "human soul"? Notice the statement is not "life that will become . . ."; it's "life of a new human being." If the soul is "the first principle of life" then I think you have to conclude that the Church is teaching that the human soul is present at conception. Granted it's not an infallible doctrine, but it is teaching contained in an encyclical.

Another objection to my QUICKENING post, an objection actually from three very knowledgeable readers, was the fact that many Catholic theologians and philosophers have no difficulty with "delayed hominization" theories, theories that claim that the human soul may not be present until some time after conception, perhaps after the point when twinning no longer seems to occur (usually 14 days), or when the first signs of a nervous system are evident, or even as late as when brain waves can be detected, or some other such point. I'll grant that Church documents are careful at times to avoid the often fleeting usefulness of philosophical terms and theories since the documents might become hopelessly dated or biased in a few decades, or a century or two. I responded to one person that I've wondered if "soul" is a word so philosophically tired and worn that making explicit claims about when the human soul is present, whether at conception or some time after, would only confuse things. Still, I'm beginning to think that while Church teaching on this is perhaps not set in philosophical stone, I think we're inching that way and the stone is being prepared for the chisel.

If this interests you, take a look at this article which presents a survey of some of the issues. In light of my post on QUICKENING, this seemed particularly relevant:
. . . the succession of souls of Aquinas’ theory is based on an outmoded view of biology. Once the biological error is corrected, there is no other efficient cause or power to account for the embryo’s development of organs proper to a human. It must only be the embryo’s own soul that accounts for these developments. The time of fertilization, conception, is when the matter is properly disposed towards this development and at this point contains the intrinsic teleology to do so.




Interesting article on Philosophical Apologetics, the Church, and Contemporary Culture (link via Blogs4God), though I'm not so sure I'd put things quite this way:
If philosophy is hard to define, philosophical apologetics is harder still. Nevertheless, as a working definition, let us characterize philosophical apologetics as a philosophical activity which has as its goal (or perhaps as its result) the increasing or maintaining of the epistemic justification of a Christian world view in whole or in part. Let us accept this gloss as adequate. Note two things about the definition. First, philosophical apologetics involves the direct use of philosophy. Thus, historical evidences per se are not part of philosophical apologetics. Second, philosophy, as well as its employment by Christians, go beyond philosophical apologetics. All cases of philosophical apologetics are cases of philosophy but the converse does not hold.
I think Gilson put the case for philosophical apologetics well when he wrote:
The central intuition which governs the whole philosophical and theological undertaking . . . is that it is impossible to do justice to God without doing justice to nature, and that doing justice to nature is, at the same time, the surest way of doing justice to God.


Sunday, November 03, 2002


Here's how it's done in 2002. The NYTimes has an interesting article on non-lethal (usually) weapons.




Pride is sometimes called the beginning of every sin. I wonder if one could exhibit more pride than that portrayed in this article (link via Veritas whose comments you should go read) with the title "Embryos Made Easy"? I realize the title of an article is often an editorial decision rather than the author's. But if you read the short article you'll see there's little doubt that the title is exactly what the author, Michael Kinsley, had in mind (and besides he's Slate's founding editor so he probably had full control of how it got posted):
Abortion is a tough question for most people, but the related issue of embryos and medical ethics can be a lot easier. It can be solved without a lot of stagy agonizing, and without trivializing other people's moral concerns, even ones you may not share. (emphasis added)
The presumption here is staggering. Even the most religiously cynical would balk a bit at this, no? To say that grappling with the ethical issues surrounding embryos is "a lot easier" than struggling with abortion is silly. Either they're both silly concerns or they're both serious; separating them is naïve in the extreme. Here's Kinsley's justification:
An embryo has no feelings, no self-awareness, nothing that would give anyone a concern about its welfare except for its potential to develop into something we recognize as human. Religion can give you that concern as a matter of faith, but government policy should not be based on this belief any more than on the religious belief of some people that plants have souls.
Wow. I'm amazed at such breezy treatment of something so deeply human. Surely even the most strident anti-religious embryologist would hesitate to conclude with scientific certainty that "an embryo has no feelings, no self-awareness, nothing that would give anyone a concern about its welfare. . . ." And notice how the insidious misunderstanding of "soul" rears up. There is indeed a way to conceive of the notion of a principle of life, a "soul," in plants and animals which is reasonable and sound and doesn't imply that there's a dog heaven or that you talk to your plants or that we should gasp when someone pulls a weed out by the roots.

But back to embryos, I suppose strict materialism can lead you to a sense that any aspect of human development is "easy," but then, why would abortion be "a tough question" as Kinsley claims? You can't have it both ways. If abortion is a tough question then so is the morality of manipulating embryos -- or so you'd think. Let's look some more at Kinsley's logic:
What bothers people is that there is no clear moment in human development when an embryo becomes a fetus or a fetus becomes a person. The gradual way fetuses take on aspects of real personhood is what makes the second line so controversial. The first line is not nearly so fraught with implications. There is a whole range of reasonable answers that threaten no one's personhood. Law and morality draw so-called "bright lines" all the time when reality is fuzzier. This one's easy, if a solution is what you want.
Again, I'll ask, how does the notion of "real personhood" arise, or perhaps better, what does "real personhood" mean for anyone who thinks this way? If he denied the notion of "person," or stated that the only difference between human life and all other life forms is that we are humans and thus shouldn't act in a manner that couldn't be done universally (e.g. categorical imperative or Golden Rule) then at least he'd be a bit more consistent. But the moment you hesitate killing human life, whether it's the moment when you think there's self-awareness or the moment after a child is born or the moment when the age of reason is reached, at that moment a whole manner of reasoning precipitates and forms a delicate line backward to conception. I see no way out of this bind.

Now you might think, hmm . . . Mark seems to be saying that as long as one doesn't hesitate killing human life one doesn't have to worry about any ethical aspects of human life. But the moment one hesitates one is caught up in a web of reasoning, a line of logic that cascades back to the beginning of human life. Yes indeed. It's the hesitation that we should probably focus on more in debate. That's where those who hold that human life is sacred from conception can get some traction in the secular world of reason.

And that's why I began this post with a reference to pride. I find the arbitrary reasoning in Kinsley's article prideful (I'm not saying, therefore sinful -- I can't and wouldn't suggest any such thing). It's filled with overconfidence and an inordinate desire to excel and triumph over inconvenient quibbles about specks of life. It's arbitrary to the degree that it's blinded by a desire to make issues about human life easier, less burdensome, less messy.


Friday, November 01, 2002


Kafkaesquí has responded here to my THINGS MATTER BECAUSE THEY END post. He's going to be out of commission for the month of November on a project, so I'll keep this above the belt.

First, since Kafkaesquí implies knowledge of the Catholic catechism when he writes,
One does not believe that things End (purposely using the big E there) when in expectation of everlasting life, something I'm quite certain is in the Catholic catechism. (my emphasis)
I'm surprised to see the conflation of "God" with "things" and the mistaken notion that "unending time" is the same as "eternity" or "beatific vision," though the latter is a little trickier. So, Kafkaesquí's delight in finding a crucial flaw in my argument will be brief; sorry. Here's some of what he said:[one typo corrected]
if "things matter because they end" is truly a Catholic view, and since God matters, then God must come to an end, too. Correct? Yes, I am hopelessly begging the question in sad, opportunistic fashion. Apologies to my logically-inclined friends; I couldn't help myself.
First, strictly speaking I don't think that's an example of "begging the question," since the example isn't assuming the conclusion in the premise; so the logically-inclined friends need no apology. Actually, the error of the example is easy to spot if it's restated somewhat:
A thing that matters is a thing that ends
God is a thing that matters
Therefore God is a thing that ends
Depending on how you want to approach it, the error is either Equivocation, since "matters" is used equivocally to mean both something with meaning and the source of meaning, or the simple fact that "God" and "thing" are contradictory terms; you might as well say "A" and "Not A" since the meaning of God excludes "thing."

The bigger issue is temporality and the accompanying fact that all living corporeal creatures will have an end to their lives. This is very much a fact of the Catholic Faith because it's a fact of our existence. To claim that the Catholic belief in immortality is contrary to "Things matter because they end" is to miss the entire point or, perhaps more charitably, to misunderstand what faith in the Resurrection entails. Whatever it is, it's not merely a temporal continuation of our present life. Death, in the Christian tradition is a curse, a punishment, an unnatural end and sundering of the natural condition of human beings. It entered the world when human beings turned from God and it required no less than the death and resurrection of God Incarnate to offer us a way back.

But never mind all this careful distinction. Let's say for the sake of argument that my previous post was complete incoherence. Let's assume Kafkaesquí is right and I've completely misstated the Catholic position.

I still don't see how "Things matter because they end (or "End" as Kafkaesquí would have it)" makes any sense to an atheist, materialist, or any other "ist" who espouses it while holding that all things come to nothing. My question is quite simple: How does "matter" mean anything in the statement "Things matter because they end" in an atheist or materialist's worldview? Why does the end of a life, a world, a universe make that life, world, or universe matter when all will be reduced to nothing?




Chris of Veritas has a nice post on some of the difficulties that crop up for strict materialists. The argument in its barest essentials goes something like this: one pattern can't be true or false when compared to another pattern without appealing to some other pattern, whose truth or falsity must be gauged against yet another pattern, whose . . . ad infinitum. The impossibility of this infinite regress puts a strict materialist in a bit of a bind.