Minute Particulars

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

Sunday, August 31, 2003


Mark of CowPi Journal plopped this comment into the box of this post over on Disputations:
I was outnumbered by atheists in a discussion back in June on religion. One participant brought up a reversal of Pascal's Wager.

He said that there should be two rolls of the probability dice. One roll for whether God existed or not. That gives the atheist a 50% chance of being correct. For the remaining 50% for God does exists, a second roll of the dice was needed to decide which religion was the correct Truth. He picked 12 major religion groups in the world. Thus Christianity would have 4.17% probability of being the correct path.

How does one argue against this cold and calculating logic?
There was an article in the NYTimes (it's archived now) last year that discussed a similar notion:
Oxford University Prof Richard Swinburne, using probability formula known as Bayes's theorem, has calculated probability of Jesus Christ's Resurrection occurred as 97 percent; Swinburne's efforts to bring inductive logic to bear on questions of faith have earned him considerable reputation in small but vibrant world of Christian academic philosophy; Christian philosophers, deploying range of sophisticated logical arguments developed over last 25 years, have revived faith as subject of rigorous academic debate, steadily chipping away at assumption that belief in God is logically indefensible.
I thought this article was balderdash then and I still think it is.

As I said when I originally posted on this, reducing the event of the Resurrection to probability is akin to reducing it to a wager or bet. But anyone who does this either:
a) doesn’t understand the nature of a historical event
b) equivocates when using the word “Resurrection”
c) conflates reason and faith
d) or, commits all of the above
One “believes” in the Resurrection because the event is not simply historical, like Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, but because it is a historical event upon which Creation hinges. Such an event is impervious to reason because:
1) we can’t be there ourselves to witness it
2) we can’t gather evidence about it empirically (e.g. an attempt to find the bones of the historical figure Jesus Christ or some such silliness to disprove it)
On the contrary, we “believe” because this is the only mechanism by which we can have knowledge of the event. And by “believe” I simply mean “a participation in the knowledge of a knower,” to use Josef Pieper’s phrase. With the Resurrection, the first “knowers” are those who knew Christ and testified to his words, actions, and eventual resurrection from the dead. If we could “know” as these followers of Christ “knew,” we wouldn’t need to “believe” because we would have the more certain knowledge of seeing and hearing the Word Made Flesh in the flesh (albeit without the Grace of the Holy Spirit as promised at Pentecost). Hence, Aquinas's famous remark that “Other things being equal, seeing is more certain than hearing.”

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

Thus, Aquinas writes:
Now, whoever believes, assents to someone's words; so that, in every form of belief, the person to whose words assent is given seems to hold the chief place and to be the end as it were; while the things by holding which one assents to that person hold a secondary place. Consequently he that holds the Christian faith aright assents, by his will, to Christ, in those things which truly belong to His doctrine.


Saturday, August 30, 2003


Our priest recently mentioned in his homily a report about how bomb dogs searching a church gave signs that there was a person present in the tabernacle, implying, I think, that even dogs recognize Christ's presence when we might not (btw - if you know of this report, could you send me the link?). This snapped me to attention even in the chaos of the crying room, but I wasn't able to come to my senses quickly enough to recall how he had arrived at this example. As far as I know, no sober understanding of the Real Presence or transubstantiation could ever support the idea that irrational creatures might recognize the presence of Christ in the consecrated species of bread and wine. But this did remind me of the "mus" search.

When Aquinas's Writings were first digitized and searchable on CD, one of the fun ways to demonstrate the incredible ability to find an obscure word or idea was to search for an obscure word or idea. I always thought "mus," Latin for "mouse," was a fun word to use. Now that many English versions are online and searchable, you can see for yourself that "mouse" shows up in the Summa Theologica in two questions, here and here. While you might think I'm mentioning this because I've had a bit too much inspiration on this long weekend, I made the connection because Aquinas obliquely touches the issue of whether irrational creatures recognize the Real Presence when he writes:
Nonetheless it must not be said that the irrational animal eats the body of Christ sacramentally; since it is incapable of using it as a sacrament. Hence it eats Christ's body "accidentally," and not sacramentally, just as if anyone not knowing a host to be consecrated were to consume it.


Friday, August 29, 2003


A recent email and some blog comments have reminded me of a passage from Simon Tugwell’s book The Beatitudes: Soundings in Christian Traditions, a passage I've mentioned here before. He writes:
As we grow older, we inevitably acquire an ever-increasing past. The danger is that we shall see ourselves and present ourselves too much in terms of that past.
His concern is with the tendency we all have toward a kind of complacency regarding “how we’re doing” in the presence of God. As he explains,
. . . we develop a sense of how one thing leads to another, and that makes it possible for us to become calculating, “If I do this, then I shall be in a good position for getting or achieving that.” What we have to realize, and it is a difficult point for us to grasp, is that there is no such thing as a “good position” in our dealings with God.




There's an interesting discussion between Tom and Steven on Holy Writ and what it means to say that it does or does not contain error. I was especially intrigued by this passage that Tom quoted and highlighted from Providentissimus Deus:
For the saving and for the perfection of ourselves and of others there is at hand the very best of help in the Holy Scriptures, as the Book of Psalms, among others, so constantly insists; but those only will find it who bring to this divine reading not only docility and attention, but also piety and an innocent life. For the Sacred Scripture is not like other books.
Why it's not like other books is, at least for me, a very profound question. Aquinas makes a fairly telegraphic remark -- actually, he makes a lot of telegraphic remarks assuming, I suppose, that we can handle his intellectual shorthand, the unpacking of which has filled many a volume -- anyway, a fairly telegraphic remark about this in his well-known yet inexhaustible Question on Sacred Doctrine, Summa Theologica Ia 1 10:
The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves. So, whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science has the property, that the things signified by the words have themselves also a signification. Therefore that first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it.
This is a tough concept to drag into one's musings about the nature of Scripture. Because God is the "author" of all that is, words inspired by Him that signify things created by Him have a richness that human words lack. And of course, the purest form of the word of God is the Word Incarnate, where every utterance and action of Jesus is the Word of God -- hence the importance the Catholic Faith places on the Sacraments, which manifest the words and actions of Jesus, and the Gospels, which have the words and actions of Jesus at their core.

Aquinas explains what is meant by the "literal sense" of Scripture in ST Ia 1 10 ad 3, where he writes:
. . . by words things are signified properly and figuratively. Nor is the figure itself, but that which is figured, the literal sense. When Scripture speaks of God's arm, the literal sense is not that God has such a member, but only what is signified by this member, namely operative power. Hence it is plain that nothing false can ever underlie the literal sense of Holy Writ.
He broaches this issue again in his lesser-known Super Gal., cap. 4 l. 7, which is only online in Latin. Here's the translation by F. R. Larcher, O.P., of a few key passages:
[S]ignification is twofold: one is through words; the other through the things signified by the words. And this is peculiar to the sacred writings and no others, since their author is God in Whose power it lies not only to employ words to signify (which man can also do), but things as well. Consequently, in the other sciences handed down by men, in which only words can be employed to signify, the words alone signify. But it is peculiar to Scripture that words and the very things signified by them signify something. Consequently this science can have many senses. For that signification by which the words signify something pertains to the literal or historical snese. But the signification whereby the things signified by the words further signify other things pertains to the mystical sense.
A little further on, there's a nice example of the "senses of Scripture" that the above Question from the Summa doesn't have:
[W]hen I say, "Let there be light," referring literally to corporeal light, it is the literal sense. But if it be taken to mean "Let Christ be born in the Church," it pertains to the allegorical sense. But if one says, "Let there be light," i.e. "Let us be conducted to glory through Christ," it pertains to the anagogical sense. Finally, if it is said "Let there be light," i.e., "Let us be illumined in mind and inflamed in heart through Christ," it pertains to the moral sense.


Wednesday, August 27, 2003


I have a good friend who's a high school teacher. He often listens to the music his students listen to because he wants "to know what the kids are listening to." It's in this spirit that I checked out from the local library Steven Pinker's latest book, The Blank Slate. I've mentioned before the Parvus Error In Principio Method* I use when beginning a new non-fiction book.

The method rests on the Aristotelian maxim that "a small error at the outset can lead to great errors in the final conclusions," which, of course, has applications in all kinds of places. The method can save you a lot of time and energy by encouraging you to stop reading once you know a train wreck is inevitable. It's a kind of brusque and grumpy tool that, to be fair, isn't always the best approach; but it's certainly the most efficient I've used. It insists that an author be taken about as seriously one can, perhaps too seriously, by encouraging a quick toss of the book when you see that early statements will lead to disaster down the road.

The first pages of the over-500-page tome have the following:
For millennia, the major theories of human nature have come from religion. The Judeo-Christian tradition, for example, offers explanations for much of the subject matter now studied by biology and psychology. Humans are made in the image of God and are unrelated to animals. Women are derivative of men and destined to be ruled by them. . . . Although the decision faculty is not bound by the laws of cause and effect, it has an innate tendency to choose sin. Our cognitive and perceptual faculties work accurately because God implanted ideals in them that correspond to reality and because he coordinates their functioning with the outside world. Mental health comes from recognizing God's purpose, choosing good and repenting sin, and loving God and one's fellow humans for God's sake.

The Judeo-Christian theory is based on events narrated in the Bible. We know that the human mind has nothing in common with the minds of animals because the Bible says that humans were created separately. We know that the design of women is based on the design of men because in the second telling of the creation of women Eve was fashioned from the rib of Adam. Human decisions cannot be the inevitable effects of some cause, we can surmise, because God held Adam and Eve responsible for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, implying that they could have chosen otherwise. Women are dominated by men as punishment for Eve's disobedience, and men and women inherit the sinfulness of the first couple.
Pinker's understanding of Judeo-Christian tradition is a parody; it reflects an understanding that one might find in a third-grader's presentation for CCD. And yet these are the words of an articulate and highly-educated MIT professor who has written bestsellers on human language, the human mind, and now human nature. It boggles the mind.

As I've mentioned before, Pinker is interesting because he is, as was Carl Sagan, not afraid to speculate, and speculate wildly, when most might refrain and think more careful nuance is required before pontificating. He's "interesting" like a crazy uncle (or at least my crazy uncle) or the office blowhard who spouts his opinion on anything and is intellectually cowed by absolutely nothing. After an encounter with such a person I always think I must be a little dull and uninteresting because I don't have a witty blurb about every possible topic that could possibly arise. We call such folks "dabblers" or "dilettantes." Fun to be around, the life of the party, and often on top of the bestseller lists.

You might have guessed this about Pinker from his previous book, How the Mind Works. Perhaps Everything About Everything would be a more presumptuous title, but not by much. If you want a nice antidote for his particular brand of materialism (and this works for Dawkins, et al.), take a look at this review of Pinker’s How the Mind Works (HTMW) by two of his peers. Here’s the conclusion, the first half of which is a wonderful caveat for the Faustian aspirations of many scientists and pseudo-scientists of our day:
To be sure, without our tools, metaphors, and simplifications, we are overrun. Without them we are left with awe, a canyon that invites us to ask only the grandest questions and offers only echoes in return. Our response is to embrace the power of tools to manage the unknown. We should be careful to acknowledge the constraints that arrive with each metaphor and model, and avoid the temptation of believing that our theories are somehow indicative of all that can be. The tools are not the world, though we use the tools to explore. Darwinian selection has been a marvelous way to organize and interrogate the complicated and interconnected "tangled bank" of nature. We can celebrate this achievement, while rejecting the inversion that places Darwinism at the center and builds from it a cartoon world of psychological motivation and limp moral theory.

HTMW's difficulties remind us of an old proverb: "button a shirt properly at the bottom, or it won't come out right at the top." Pinker misses too many of the lower buttons. This is exasperating in a book of this length. HTMW contains nothing-literally not one thing-resembling either evolutionary modeling, explicit fitness calculations, or the basics of population or behavioral genetics. It is a grab bag of assertions that could have been made without any appeal to neuroscience, computation, Darwinian psychology, or genetics. To paraphrase Freeland Judson, there is a precept here. More is not always more. Indeed it is sometimes disastrously less. Despite its 600 pages, HTMW's systematic omission of alternatives and detail creates a burden that readers should not have to shoulder.
Pinker strikes me as the kind of person who (like Conchis in The Magus if you know it) might say, "Why should I wade through a two-hundred page novel just to get a couple of notions that could be stated on one page?" There is a refusal to acknowledge that some aspects of the human condition lie just beyond formulation in crisp and concise algorithms.

And so, it's good to see "what the kids" are writing, and what "bestsellers" are proposing about human nature and the human condition. I'll try to slog through some more before returning it to the library, but I'm thinking I won't make it very far.




I recently ran across a post on a blog that linked to report on Alzheimer's disease which states:
Brain images show that people who are more intelligent and better educated use their brains differently, which in turn may help explain why keeping the mind active protects against Alzheimer's disease, researchers reported this week.
I've heard this kind of correlation before. But what really troubled me was that the blogger, who has apparently had a family member succumb to the disease, thought this was "welcome news" and even included a quip about patients clinging to dolls and pleading with the men in white coats. Several things bothered me about this.

Describing the report as "welcome news" is a staggering example of where cynicism, an obstinate materialist stance, and hubris can take you. Is the news "welcome" because the blogger who posted this thinks he's too intelligent, well-educated, and mentally active to ever suffer from Alzheimer's disease? Does this imply that he thinks the victims are somehow to blame because they didn't keep their minds "active"? Is he suggesting that victims of the disease aren't intelligent or educated?

I don't have reason to dispute the correlations described in the report (though I would simply point out the well-known caveat that correlation doesn't equal causation and that a term like "intelligence" is almost always used equivocally). But I do find the lack of reverence for victims of this disease, the suggested shift in culpability, and the puerile posturing that one is too intelligent, educated, and mentally active to succumb to the disease a bit disappointing, even if these conclusions are inevitable when one begins with a simple and nuance-free worldview.




I have a nifty new motto for the blog:
Altiora te ne quaesieris (Ecclesiasticus 3:22)
[Seek not the things that are too high for thee]
So I think the first post with this new motto ought to demonstrate my desire to go for the low hanging fruit.

I'm wondering about a popular version of The Alphabet Song. My wife and I each sing a different version to our 20-month old son. She sings
A - B - C - D - E - F - G
H - I - J - K - L - M - N - O - P
Q - R - S
T - U - V
W - X - Y and Z
Now I know my ABCs
Next time won't you sing with me?
This version has always seemed a little awkward to me. If you can sing the song, then you must already "know" your ABCs so saying "Now I know my ABCs," using "now" adverbially which I think is the first meaning that will occur to native speakers, doesn't make much sense to me. If you parse the line a bit you'll see that "now" is used as a conjunction, to my ear a less obvious usage, meaning "since" or "in view of the fact that" and so saying "Now I know my ABCs" is equivalent to something like "Since I know my ABCs" or some such thing.

The version I learned ends with
Now I've sung my ABC’s,
Tell me what you think of me.
I've also heard the song end with
Won't you come and play with me.
And also,
Next time won't you sing with me.
I'm not sure my wife is going to budge on her version, so I may have to sing the "Now I know" version for consistency.


Saturday, August 09, 2003


Integrity is up and running again.


Friday, August 08, 2003


TS O'Rama has a nice excerpt from St. John Cassian's The Conferences. Here's a snippet of the excerpt:
Who then is so self-sufficient and blind as to dare to trust in his own judgment and discretion when the chosen vessel [St. Paul] confesses that he had need of conference with his fellow apostles?


Thursday, August 07, 2003


I forget why I stopped reading World Wide Rant a while back. Tonight I was going through the long list of blogs I've visited before and decided to check WWR out again. It soon occurred to me that perhaps this kind of thinking was what made me stop visiting:
Please explain to me why anyone would remain Catholic after stories like this:
CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales has uncovered a church document kept secret for 40 years.

The confidential Vatican document, obtained by CBS News, lays out a church policy that calls for absolute secrecy when it comes to sexual abuse by priests - anyone who speaks out could be thrown out of the church.
As most reasonable folks would guess, there's a little more to the story than what CBS News reported -- imagine that!

As Catholic World News explains:
A CBS network news report, claiming that the Holy See orchestrated a cover-up of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, is based on a gross misinterpretation of a 1962 Vatican document. . . .

The document [here's the PDF if you're interested] on which CBS based its distorted story is a densely worded 24-page document, couched in the technical idiom of canon law, and accompanied by a 36-page Appendix that provides the formulas to be used in an ecclesiastical trial. No careful reader could fail to recognize that this was a specialized document, providing a set of procedures for a particular ecclesiastical offense. Why, then, did CBS News draw a broad general conclusion from a tightly focused legal document? Why did the network fail to distinguish between the ecclesiastical crime of solicitation and the public offense of pedophilia? The questions are worth pondering.
Now, both CBS News and Catholic World News have their own agendas. I'm actually not suggesting that one has wildly distorted the meaning of a Church document while the other has pointed out this distortion and clarified everything -- though that's where I'd put my money if I had to.

My point is that I continue to be amazed at how so many people, including "former Catholics" (whatever that means), assume that some story by CBS News or even Catholic World News could ever cause someone to say,
Well, goddammit, that's it! I'm not going to be a Catholic anymore.
Being Catholic is an act of faith; it's not some club you join. It's a response to truth, to the Word made flesh, a response that runs as deep as one can go:
Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. ( Jn. 6:68)
I don't expect those who think such notions are gibberish to understand such a response (well, I guess I do on some level). But I do expect those who ask, "Please explain to me why anyone would remain Catholic after stories like this," to have a real story in mind, a story that shakes the foundations and sunders all that is sane and sacred. Hearing stories of evil priests, obscure secret documents, conspiracy, ineptitude, and the like sadden me, but they don't make me question my faith. Why would they?




A while ago, Dappled Things had a brief post and links to fotos del apocalipsis on
a relatively unexplored thread of Catholic religious "imagination" that believes in the existence of a wide variety of spirits -- not just God, angels, demons, and the human soul -- but also innocent and simple spirits; primordial intelligences that aren't angels; mischievous but harmless spirits; perhaps any number of other sorts of creatures that might exist.
Hernan, of fotos del apocalipsis , links to a great section on this in Aquinas's Summa Theologica in one of his posts.

I once had a professor claim that Aquinas's Treatise on Angels anticipated Descartes' principal ideas on the human mind more than three centuries before the French philosopher's famous cogito ergo sum. While this might seem just a silly anecdote to some, it really can be useful to view Descartes through the lens of Aquinas. Descartes conceived of human beings as souls in a machine, a kind of pure intellect (or "angel") using a body, a notion which Aquinas very carefully refutes in many places while providing a penetrating analysis of the nature of intellectual beings.

Aquinas's Quaestio Disputata de Potentia ( q. 6 a. 6 s. c. 4) has a section that I've always thought was an interesting way to distinguish "spiritual substances" (substantia spiritualis); he suggests that three kinds of spiritual substance are found in the universe:
one kind of spiritual substance which is dependent on a body regarding its beginning and its end, such as the vegetative and sensitive soul; another kind which is dependent on a body regarding its beginning but not its end, such as the human soul; and finally, another kind which does not need a body regarding its beginning or end, such as an angel or demon.
What's most interesting is that this "catalogue of beings" is not clearly found in Aristotle, an important point in seeing how Aquinas deepens many of Aristotle's insights. In Aristotle we really only find the first kind of being, those beings whose form depends on a body to exist, and in a different way, the third kind, those beings whose form does not need a body. The second kind of being, the human soul, as Aquinas has described it here, is not really described this way by Aristotle, who likely would have considered it the first kind of being with the addition of an immaterial activity.


Wednesday, August 06, 2003


I once heard a Dominican quip in frustration when he couldn't find a copy of a book by a fellow Dominican that O.P. after an author's name means "Out of Print." The initials, of course, are used by Dominicans, the Order of Preachers, from the Latin Ordo Praedicatorum. The comment usually occurs when one tries to find a "must-have" book written by a Dominican, and there are many must-haves, only to find that it's not in print or in any used book stores.

One such book is The Struggle of Jacob (a 1977 Paulist Press translation of Le Combat de Jacob) by M. D. Molinié, O.P., a book I've mentioned a number of times before and which is, alas, out of print and hard to find. I recently quoted Molinié in my post, THIS FAR AND NOT FURTHER. Camassia mentioned my post and one of the Molinié quotes in a recent post. In the comment section of her post, a discussion developed about the relationship between what is often referred to as the Old and New Covenants. Since he's out of print and has much to say on this, I thought I'd excerpt a bit from the beginning of Molinié's book, The Struggle of Jacob. There are a few awkward phrases in it, perhaps due to the translation, but I think his points are valuable:
We do not know how to love God because we don't know that God loves us. We don't know that he loves us because we don't love him. And that, in sum, is the vicious circle from which revelation tries to snatch us. . . .

There is no conflict -- but rather perfect continuity -- between the Old Covenant and the New. The Old Covenant is an overwhelming declaration of love for which trinitarian revelation furnishes the supreme completion. "God who at sundry time and diverse manners spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets last of all in these days has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the world" (Heb. 1:1-2)"

The education given the sons of Abraham had the sole purpose of plunging them into adoration, and adoration is indispensable to anyone wishing to encounter Jesus Christ. It is necessary to be a Jew -- that is, an adorer, a worshiper -- before one can become a Christian -- a friend and son. It was hard to initiate the best of the Jews into this secret, and it is even more difficult for us to learn it today. God was forced to prune and pummel the hearts of his adorers, polishing them to a high luster, down through a long and animated history in order that they could attain the high, subtle level of spirituality he required to prepare the way for his Son and for the unveiling of trinitarian life.

The extraordinary education given the Jewish people is much more important to us than their ethnic peculiarities. We need this same education, and we have to obtain it by following the same route if we wish to penetrate into the mystery of Christ. The history of the Jewish people remains the one and only model for initiation into the love of God.


Monday, August 04, 2003


I haven't read or linked to a post from Andrew Sullivan in months. He's a classic case for what I call my "Yeah-But" test for people who seem to be able to comment wittily, effortlessly, and endlessly on all matters. The Yeah-But test works like this: whenever I read or hear someone who seems really insightful in areas I don't know much about (it happens often), I look for or elicit comments on something I do know something about.
Yeah, you say:
We can either decide that (i) nonliteral contraposition is sometimes though not typically deductively valid in the logic of ordinary language; or (ii) nonliteral contraposition is never deductively valid. If nonliteral contraposition is sometimes even if not typically deductively valid in ordinary language, then, contrary to the assumption of modern symbolic logic, contraposition, insofar as it is supposed to apply to everyday discourse, cannot be correctly defined as a purely syntactical transformation.
But do you know . . . uh . . . how to potty train a child?
If they really don't know about potty training and still spew on incoherently in the same manner and with the same confident tone they do with other subjects then I assume that they're blowhards; I then look elsewhere for comments on things I don't know much about.

I've used this approach with the polymath posting on USS Clueless when he wanders into questions about Catholicism and morality and concluded I'd be better off reading comments about stuff I don't know elsewhere. Matthew Yglesias usually fails my Yeah-But test when he comments about the Catholic Church and related matters. InstaPundit used to squeak by, but now he fails every time. He recently had this brief post:
THE POPE: WRONG AGAIN! First the war, now gay marriage.
Huh? Let's see, how many ways is that a silly thing to write?

But of the links I've mentioned above, I believe only Andrew Sullivan is a professed Catholic and so, in theory, ought to know better. And yet, look at this recent blurb of his on the Sacrament of Marriage:
A reader points out something I didn't know. Infertility is not a bar to Catholic marriage, but impotence is. Here's the relevant part of Canon law:
Antecedent and perpetual impotence to have sexual intercourse, whether on the part of the man or on that of the woman, whether absolute or relative, by its very nature invalidates marriage. If the impediment of impotence is doubtful, whether the doubt be one of law or one of fact, the marriage is not to be prevented nor, while the doubt persists, is it to be declared null.
So Viagra is a huge advance for Catholic marriage! But what I love about this whole discussion is how marriage can be reduced in Catholic terms to the possibility of an erect penis. Does this mean that if a man becomes impotent in later life, his marriage is somehow less valid? Amazing and absurd, if true.
What's "amazing and absurd" is that a Catholic would think in such terms and think he's discovered some flaw or absurdity in or come up with some clever parody about the Sacrament of Marriage.

Yeah . . . , but . . .


Sunday, August 03, 2003


One Good Turn (via Stumbling Tongue) has an interesting post on teaching philosophy:
Until this upcoming semester, I have almost always used primary texts in my philosophy classes, even my introductory ones. I simply do not like textbooks very much. . . .

. . . Basically, for seven years now I have been sharing some of my most favorite books with about 120 students a year in these introductory courses, and maybe 5 a year show any real interest. . . . So I end up getting a stack of papers that read almost identically; the better writers write better papers, but even the good students tend to have the same thoughts as the weaker students, and seniors don't show a great deal of difference from freshmen. Furthermore, the papers at the end of the semester look pretty much like the ones at the beginning, so there is no sense of progress.
This reminded me of a Freshman Seminar class I was required to take in college. It was an introduction to "Greek Thought" and used all primary texts (in translation) starting with Homer and ending with Plato and Aristotle. Somehow I had managed to make it through high school knowing little if anything about Plato and Socrates other than, from the Steve Martin routine, knowing that they're usually pronounced "PLAY-tow" and "SOCK-cra-tees rather than "PLAW-tow" and "SO-krayts" (I wish he'd done a routine on Camus so that I wouldn't have asked one teacher about this "KAY-muss" fellow).

When we read Plato's Gorgias, a work that the professor explained was one of the five most influential books in his life, I was struck with amazement. I was first amazed that someone could actually name "the most influential books in his life." At 18 years old, I suppose I could have named one or two, but even then I'd surely have balked at "most influential" and would not want to give "books" such a prominent place in my life. But I was most amazed with encountering the clear, nuanced, and persuasive thought in Plato's dialogue. The notions of good and bad, right and wrong, power, prestige, and authority had all swirled around as misty, inchoate ideas in my head that rarely, and then only very fleetingly, crystallized into the crisp, clean thought evident in even a few lines uttered by Socrates.

Josef Pieper, in a work on Aquinas, mentions that a good teacher remembers what it was like when he or she didn't know the thing being taught. Related to this is remembering what it was like before encountering wisdom, before developing a love of wisdom, and before we acquired the sensible habit of being docile to those who have articulated things more profoundly than we could ever hope to. I think it's easy to forget that on our own, and certainly early in our lives, while we probably have more confidence in the accuracy of how we see things, we typically come up with inklings and hunches that look pretty superficial and silly upon a sober encounter with the wisdom of our own and other traditions that have stood the test of time.

I don't remember the first of the many small glimpses of clarity I had in the class, but this excerpt from Gorgias was one of the most memorable:
Socrates What is that which, as you say, is the greatest good of man, and of which you are the creator? Answer us.

Gorgias That good, Socrates, which is truly the greatest, being that which gives to men freedom in their own persons, and to individuals the power of ruling over others in their several states.

Socrates And what would you consider this to be?

Gorgias What is there greater than the word which persuades the judges in the courts, or the senators in the council, or the citizens in the assembly, or at any other political meeting?-if you have the power of uttering this word, you will have the physician your slave, and the trainer your slave, and the money-maker of whom you talk will be found to gather treasures, not for himself, but for you who are able to speak and to persuade the multitude.

Socrates Now I think, Gorgias, that you have very accurately explained what you conceive to be the art of rhetoric; and you mean to say, if I am not mistaken, that rhetoric is the artificer of persuasion, having this and no other business, and that this is her crown and end. Do you know any other effect of rhetoric over and above that of producing persuasion?
Gorgias is presenting what I think is a thoroughly modern understanding of power and the good. Now think about reading and discussing the above lines from the dialogue when you were just 18 years old. If you stopped right there and didn't see how Socrates then responds -- a technique our professor used by breaking the reading up -- how would you respond to Gorgias? How would you respond to Socrates? I know I'd get a little concerned that I'd been drawn out a little too far into the light and probably respond as Gorgias does upon hearing what Socrates says next:
Socrates Then hear me, Gorgias, for I am quite sure that if there ever was a man who entered on the discussion of a matter from a pure love of knowing the truth, I am such a one, and I should say the same of you.

Gorgias What is coming, Socrates?


Saturday, August 02, 2003


Holy Whapping has the following quote from Aquinas (Gilby translation):
It is against reason to be burdensome to others, showing no amusement and acting as a wet blanket. Those others without a sense of fun, who never say anything ridiculous, and are cantankerous with those who do, these are vicious, and called grumpy and rude.
I was wondering what Gilby translated into "acting as a wet blanket" and the Latin seems to be "delectationes aliorum impedit," which the Benziger version (ST 2a2ae 168, 4) translates as "hindering their enjoyment." I kind of like the "wet blanket" version better, though I think the idiom is a bit dated now, isn't it? Here's the full paragraph from Benziger just for kicks:
I answer that, In human affairs whatever is against reason is a sin. Now it is against reason for a man to be burdensome to others, by offering no pleasure to others, and by hindering their enjoyment. Wherefore Seneca [*Martin of Braga, Formula Vitae Honestae: cap. De Continentia] says (De Quat. Virt., cap. De Continentia): "Let your conduct be guided by wisdom so that no one will think you rude, or despise you as a cad." Now a man who is without mirth, not only is lacking in playful speech, but is also burdensome to others, since he is deaf to the moderate mirth of others. Consequently they are vicious, and are said to be boorish or rude, as the Philosopher states (Ethic. iv, 8).


Friday, August 01, 2003


Summertime, and the blogging is easy. Why? Summer reruns of course. This article is a review of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith:
Central to Barr's [the author] argument is the apparent "fine tuning" of the laws of physics. Various physical parameters, such as the strength of the electromagnetic force or the mass of the proton, seem to be set at just the right levels to allow life to exist. If they were different, we wouldn't be here. Does this mean that the universe was created for us? There are numerous problems with reaching such a conclusion. For one thing, the parameters seem to be just right for life as we know it; it could be that other types of universes would be suitable for other types of life. Moreover, it is hard to get an intelligent sense of what the universe would be like with different parameters. What if one changes not only electromagnetism but also gravity and other forces? Short answer: Who knows?
The question about the apparent "fine tuning" of the Universe is really a variation of the question of whether the Universe could be different, a question I commented on some time ago.

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?

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, [and something for another post] 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;