Saturday, November 28, 2015

Matthew 11:28-30

Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly of heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

What is it to be "heavy laden"? For me, it has been the effort to make my life meaningful by filling it up. You get one shot at life, I thought, and I didn't want to waste it. So I've got to be something and do things, and I've got to start right now, because life is passing by even as I speak. This was how I thought as a young man.

But be what and do what? That's not so easy a question to answer. For there is the problem of opportunity cost. To do something or to be something is implicitly to choose not to do or be all the other things you could have done or been. To become an engineer is not to become an English teacher, an historian, or a philosopher. Suppose you choose the wrong thing? You will have invested long time and effort to become something you should never have been. And there is no "do-over." You can't get those years back that you invested in becoming something you were not.

I always envied the nerds who knew who and what they were: engineers. No anxious struggle about life's direction for them. I, on the other hand, could be interested in just about anything but not overwhelming passionate about anything. So I would flit from thing to thing, hoping to land on one that I would somehow know was "me", like finding the girl you "just knew" was the one for you.

In his Either:Or, Kierkegaard discusses something he calls the "rotation method": This is a way someone bored with life keeps himself from going crazy. What he does is pursue an interest for a while until it becomes fatigued and he is bored with it. He then moves onto another interest, going from one to another until he eventually, after enough time, comes back to the first which has become interesting again through neglect. This was essentially what I did. My best friend used to ask me what "kick" I was currently on.

There is an alternative. And that is, instead of trying to fill up your life with either things you are becoming or things you are doing, to recognize the futility of that approach, and instead empty your life. But isn't that just giving up on life itself? Yes, it is and would be, and is why the great philosophers like Aristotle did not recommend it. But the fact of Christ changes everything.

For by emptying yourself and taking on the burden offered by Christ, you open yourself to the possibility that Christ Himself will fill you, and satisfy you in a way not possible for anything on Earth. As Kierkegaard would say, it is the difference between filling yourself with the eternal versus the merely temporary.

That sounds all well and good, but how do I know such satisfaction is an actual reality rather than, say, merely a pious hope? For if it is merely a pious hope, then the apparent death that would happen if I empty myself is an actual death. The rotation method may be unsatisfying and ultimately lead to despair, but at least it is something, and I get at least the satisfaction that I am trying.

This is where the matter of faith comes in. Faith in this context does not mean a blind belief in something you know to be false or have no reason to believe is true. It means to act take a chance and act on trust. Is the Gospel true? Did Jesus Christ really rise from the dead and show that a life of self-emptying is really a life of true fulfillment rather than a living death? I cannot prove that in any absolute sense. But then I don't think that is necessary. At least it wasn't for me.

It was enough for me to establish that the Gospel was at least plausible. Furthermore, I was and am firmly convinced that something highly unusual happened in Palestine in the first century. For the events that launched the Christian religion form a hinge point in history, one that turned the world from an eternal cycle of civilizational births and deaths, with one epoch not so different from any prior one, to a world launched in history, one condemned to development and change, and charging through time to some denouement to happen when no one knows. (See Chesterton's The Everlasting Man for the classic development of this theme.)

The conviction that something transcendent happened at the origin of the Christian religion, and my own recognition of the futility of trying to make life significant by filling it up, was enough to allow me to make the act of faith in renouncing the life I had been following and instead attempt to empty it and follow Christ. Yes, there was a bit of Pascal's Wager going on here.

What does it mean to embrace a self-emptying life in the name of Christ? It means to sacrifice all things you might have become or done for the sake of following Christ, and that means living for others rather than yourself. For me, it meant that instead of pursuing various hobbies obsessively I would spend that time coaching youth soccer or playing games with my children. It meant accepting a professional career that I might not have been passionate about, but was competent enough at to be successful enough to support a family. And it is to accept that as the years go on, working at a job that is just a job, and getting older and slower, missing the experiences I might have had, that in fact I was not slowly dying but rather accumulating treasure in Heaven, which is Christ Himself.

There are consolations. The vanity of earthly pursuits becomes more obvious as one grows older. And  we find that there are earthly rewards as well: Matthew 6:33. But these rewards also constitute a temptation, for they renew the possibility of life as self-fulfillment: I have filled my life with family rather than experiences or personal development. If we are following Christ, we devote ourselves to our family for His sake, not our own. If we give in to the temptation to the latter, then we are open to grasping after our family (e.g. helicopter parenting, or forcing our children to take their freedom when they are older rather than giving it to them as free equals.)

And it's not like flipping a switch. More like a slow process where one gradually weans oneself from the temptation to grasp at life rather than renounce it for Christ. And I am constantly tempted to grasp, especially in retrospect. The last few years I have taken up long distance running as a way to avoid getting old faster than necessary. Running a weekly 5k fun run here in town, I find myself envying the younger men (in their 30's and 40's) who did not wait until they were 50 to take the sport seriously. I wonder what I could have done had I taken running more seriously back then. But at that time I was changing diapers, or coaching youth soccer teams, or going to little league games, or playing board games with my daughter. I imagine an alternative history in which I have filled my life with such things and am happy, a history that I know is a lie, and thank God that he gave me the grace to see the futility of that life before I had misspent it.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Brute Facts

A typical argument for atheism goes like this (in simplified form): Both the atheist and the theist start with a "brute fact", i.e. something that "just is." The theist argues from the existence of the universe ("What caused the universe?") to God (something that "just is.") The atheist responds that if we must accept something that "just is", why not say it is the universe rather than hypothesizing something beyond it like God? That merely, ala Ockham, multiplies hypothetical entities unnecessarily. The universe "just is" and there is no need for God.

It isn't true that the cosmological arguments for God put forward by the great classical philosophers like Aquinas considered God as something that "just is." Indeed, the whole point of the arguments are to establish the existence of something that is much more than something that "just is."

But that is beside the point of the present post, which is to explore the notion of brute facts or things that "just are." My conclusion is that brute facts are intellectually dangerous things, and destroy far more than their deployers suppose. They want to aim the cannon of brute facts at God, but the consequent explosion blows up not just God but our understanding of the universe itself.

Consider what it is to be a "brute" fact. Something that is "brute" is something unintelligible; that is why animals are called "brutes", because they do not possess reason. A "brute" fact is a fact that is unintelligible beyond the bare fact that it is. Clearly, if a fact is brute, there is no point in asking anything more about it, since there is nothing more about it that we can know.

Here is the rub. How do we know a brute fact for what it is when we encounter it? What distinguishes brute facts from intelligible facts? Intelligible facts are facts for which we can find an explanation, you say. But there is nothing to say that brute facts can't appear to have an explanation when they really don't.  That, in fact, is the whole point of the atheist's brute fact argument against the theist: His argument is not that God doesn't really explain the universe should He exist, but that the universe in fact does not stand in need of an explanation in the first place because it is brute.

Newton's theory of gravitation appears to explain why the moon orbits the earth and planets orbit the sun. Perhaps, however, those celestial movements are really only brute facts; then Newton's theory only appears to explain the solar system. You scoff because it is clear that Newton's theory does in fact explain the solar system; it is ridiculous to suppose that it is just by chance that all the planets and their moons happen to orbit in accordance with Newton's theory.

And I would agree, but only because I do not accept the notion of brute facts. For smuggled in your reply is the assumption that you have some idea of the nature of brute facts: Brute facts wouldn't appear to happen in such a way that they conform with some intelligible law. In doing so, however, you have implicitly denied the notion of brute facts, for brute facts are facts about which you can say nothing at all further than the fact that they are (or might be). We can't say what they are like or what they are unlike or how they might appear or how it is impossible for them to appear. Any supposition along any of these lines is to contradict the brute nature of the supposed brute fact: It is to concede that the fact is in some measure intelligible; if we can say how brute facts cannot appear to us, then we have conceded that brute facts are in some measure knowable beyond the fact that they are, and therefore are not brute.

One of the virtues of David Hume was that he took the notion of brute facts seriously. And he saw that if we allow the notion of brute facts through the door, then we have destroyed the intelligibility of causality altogether and not just for the universe or God. For we never see causality itself, says Hume, only one event following another. And if we don't presuppose that the universe is intelligible, that is, if we take it that brute facts might be lurking around every corner, then the fact that one type of event tends to follow another might just be one of those brute facts waiting to temp us into false conclusions about causality. We might mistake our becoming accustomed to breaking glass following the flight of a brick for insight into a casual relationship between flying bricks and broken glass, when in fact their relationship might just be a brute fact.

Kant, of course, noticed that Hume's position not only undermined the traditional arguments for God but also any possibility of an actual understanding of the universe, including that of modern science. Kant furthered the Humean project by offering an explanation as to why we tend to (falsely) infer causality into the universe. Kant reflects on the fact of experience, and claims that the only way we can have connected experience is for our cognitive faculties to organize it out of the blooming, buzzing confusion around us. In other words, our minds are constructed so as to read into nature notions like causality and substance so that we can deal with it. A very clever advance on Hume, which saved science from Hume's skepticism, but at the price of recasting the subject of science from being nature itself to merely how nature appears to us given our cognitive apparatus.

The point here is to be wary when an atheist deploys the brute fact artillery. For those who start firing with brute facts typically do not understand that their shells will land on them as much as anyone else. In particular, they don't realize that the brute facts they deploy to destroy God will destroy the science they love so much as well.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Dalrymple on Original Sin

Theodore Dalrymple is always worth reading. Besides the grace of his prose style, he is remarkably Chestertonian in his ability to throw off phrases that capture succinctly profound insights. For instance, in his recent work Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality he writes this:
... for Man is not so much a problem-solving animal as a problem-creating one.
(Another reason for loving Dalrymple and his style is his refusal to bow to politically correct grammar. Thank God he didn't write "... for human beings are not so much problem-solving animals...")

What a wonderful encapsulation of the Doctrine of Original Sin! Dalrymple does not call it that and is not talking specifically about sin, but that doesn't matter. For what is Original Sin but the creation of problems where none needed to be created - in the Garden of Eden for instance? And how many of our problems - political, economic, cultural and personal - are not problems that descended upon us but instead are self-created?

It is an essentially conservative insight. If we are problem-creating animals, then we must constantly be on guard that in attempting to solve problems we merely create more.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Chesterton and Kierkegaard on the Difference of Christ

What difference does Christ make?

This question has many answers in many different contexts. Two of my favorite writers, G.K. Chesterton and Soren Kierkegaard, focus on the difference Christ makes in terms of human possibility.

Man is different from other animals insofar as he lives self-reflected in a world. Beavers and dogs don't worry about how they relate to the world; they just exist as they are unselfconsciously in the world. They are the world. But man knows himself as who he is in relation to the world. Kierkegaard describes this difference in The Sickness Unto Death in terms of the self as "a relation which relates itself to itself." The fact that man by nature relates himself to the world means his existence, unlike that of non-rational animals, is a dialectic of possibility and necessity. I understand who I am (or think I understand), and I also understand the world and my place in it, and in terms of that relationship life presents a present reality of necessity and a horizon of possibility. I exist as a relationship to the world, but I can know that relationship and (perhaps) change it - I can relate myself to the relationship which constitutes my self in the world.

But I can do that only in terms of the possibilities available to me, and those are constituted by my philosophy. What sort of possibilities are available to the natural but pre-Christian man, that is, the pagan man? Chesterton in Orthodoxy describes the pagan world as a world of pink. The great pagan virtue is moderation; a little of everything but not too much of anything. Red and white mixed together, not too much of each. This is a natural and sensible policy, and in the pagan world it produced great men like Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius. The ideal gentleman is a little bit of a warrior and a bit of a scholar as well. He drinks wine but not too much; he loves others but not too much of that either. For love is a form of madness and madness is unbalanced. Above all he maintains self-control, for he knows that the world contains good things as well as evil things, and that it ends in death. He keeps these facts before him and holds himself well so that he is neither carried away by good fortune, nor destroyed by misfortune, for life inevitably involves both. There is no better wisdom in a world without Christ, especially in a world that cannot imagine Christ. The life of balanced moderation is the best life that the best pagan mind could imagine; it defines the horizon of pagan possibility.

What has changed with Christ? The Gospel of John tells us that His first miracle occurred at Cana, and involved the replenishment of wine at a wedding feast that had run dry. We can assume that the host of the feast had on hand an appropriate amount of wine for the celebrations. It would seem, then, that any additional wine would violate the principle of moderation; we've gone from having a sensible good time to getting drunk in excess. But this is why it is a miracle, for a miracle is more than merely the suspension of ordinary physical expectations; it is a sign and revelation of a new order of existence, an order that breaks through the old pagan compromises and proposes a way of life that answers to the transcendent meaning of Christ. The exhaustion of the wine at Cana symbolizes the exhaustion of pagan virtue and the existential hopes it offered. The party is over; it is expected to be over and the celebrants are prepared to go home; no one can imagine the party continuing, or at least continuing with any propriety. But Christ can imagine it, and through His grace he turns water into wine, that the party may continue, theoretically indefinitely. From that moment forward the horizon of pagan hope has been forever shattered, for the possibility that it is not the final limit, that there is a way of life that is not bound by pagan compromises, has been permanently introduced into the human imagination.

Chesterton describes the difference as a world of pink becoming a world of bold reds and whites; reds for the warriors and whites for the monks. There were warriors in the ancient world, of course, and pacifists as well. But the pure warrior, like the pure pacifist, could not express an ideal human type because he violated the principle of moderation or balance. More significantly, the warrior and the pacifist had nothing to do with each other. Each might despise the other and, if they didn't, by the nature of things they at least expressed different philosophies of life. But in Christendom the martial Knight was as much an expression of the authentic Christian life as was the peaceful Monk. Far from expressing opposite philosophies of life, they both expressed different ways of performing the same mission: Redeeming the world in the name of Christ. Chesterton states the difference this way: In the ancient world the balance of existential possibilities was expressed in the single individual of the moderate, virtuous gentleman. In Christendom, the balance of possibilities occurred in the Church as a whole rather than individuals:
This was the big fact about Christian ethics; the discovery of the new balance. Paganism had been like a pillar of marble, upright because proportioned with symmetry. Christianity was like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at a a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescencies exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years. In a Gothic cathedral the columns were all different, but they were all necessary. Every support seemed an accidental and fantastic support; every buttress was a flying buttress. So in Christendom apparent accidents balanced. Becket wore a hair shirt under his gold an crimson, and there is much to be said for the combination; for Becket got the benefit of the hair shirt while the people in the street got the benefit of the crimson and gold. It is at least better than the manner of the modern millionnaire, who has the black and the drab outwardly for others, and the gold next his heart. But the balance was not walkways in one man's body ad in Becket's; the balance was often distributed over the whole body of Christendom. Because a man prayed and fasted on the Northern snows, flowers could be flung at his festival in the Southern cities; and because fanatics drank water on the sands of Syria, men could still drink cider in the orchards of England. This is what makes Christendom at once so much more perplexing and so much more interesting than the Pagan empire; just as Amiens Cathedral is not better but more interesting than the Parthenon.  - Orthodoxy, Ch. 6
For both Chesterton and SK, the advent of Christ permanently changed the nature of existence and of the world - and that whether you believe in Christ or not. The key point they share in this regard is that Christ revealed possibilities that were unimagined prior to the Incarnation. After the Incarnation, those possibilities cannot be eradicated from the human spirit, even if Christ Himself is later denied. The price of denying Christ cannot be a simple return to the pre-Christian world, for the possibilities he revealed will remain in the human imagination- it is only their fulfillment that will become impossible, since that fulfillment is only possible with the grace of God. The result is that post-Christian life can never be a simple return to paganism; it will instead be one of melancholy and despair.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Linda Problem and the Conjunction Fallacy

Over at his Neurologica blog, Dr. Steven Novella has an interesting post concerning probability and the "conjunction fallacy". The conjunction fallacy arises from not realizing that the conjunction of two propositions can never be more likely than each proposition taken separately, i.e. "A and B is true" can't be more likely to be true than "A is true." I was hoping to comment on his blog about it, but Wordpress won't let me register, giving me "internal server error" messages every time I try. So I'll just post my commentary here.

The specific case taken in Novella's blog post involves a study that posed the following problem:

Participants are given information about a hypothetical woman named Linda:
  • (ELinda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations.
After reading the description of that target E, they requested the participants to estimate the probability of a number of statements that were true referring to E. Three statements are included as follows:
  • (TLinda is a bank teller.
  • (FLinda is active in the feminist movement.
  • (T ∧ FLinda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.
The interesting result from the study is that many participants rate the last statement as more probable than the first. The scientists immediately conclude (and Novella goes along with them) that the participants must be guilty of the conjunction fallacy: T ^ F can't be more probable than T. If Linda is a bank teller and is a feminist, then it is certainly true that she is a bank teller.

It's unfortunate that the scientists did not follow up with interviews investigating the thought processes of the participants (at least I couldn't find where they had). They just immediately conclude that the participants are guilty of the conjunction fallacy and blame it on a reliance on "intuition". But I suspect that if the participants were asked straightforwardly about the conjunction fallacy - "Is both A and B being true more probable than A by itself being true?" - most everyone would come up with the right answer. So there is likely more going on here than a simple failure to understand the conjunction fallacy.

What's going on, I think, is that the Linda Problem is actually a poorly formed question in probability. Likelihoods have meaning only in the context of an implied probabilistic experiment. We understand what "there is a 50% chance it will rain tomorrow" means because we supply for ourselves the implied probabilistic context: "Given days with meteorological conditions like today, half the time the next day is rainy and half the time it is not." The question about tomorrow's weather is really a continuation of the experiment and we estimate the probability based on prior outcomes.

But it's the case that once a probabilistic experiment has occurred, the probability of the outcome for that experiment goes to 1 and all other outcomes go to 0. Once the dice are rolled and come up 7, the likelihood that the outcome of that experiment was 7 is 1 and that it was anything else is 0.

Now consider the statement T, "Linda is a bank teller." There is no probabilistic context here. Linda is what she is and is nothing else, like a dice roll that has already happened. So the probability that Linda is a bank teller is either 1 or 0 depending on whether she actually is a bank teller. Same with her being a feminist, and same with the conjunction of her being both a bank teller and a feminist. They are all either 1 or 0.

Of course, if Linda is not a bank teller, then the probability of T is 0 and T ^ F is 0. But if she is a bank teller but not a feminist then the probability of T is 1, F is 0, and T ^ F is 0. So in that sense it is strictly true that the third statement can never be more probable than the first.

But this is a degenerate use of "likelihood." Likelihood adds nothing to the analysis which is strictly logical. And in fact the participants are not "failed" for a failure to estimate probabilities correctly, but for the alleged failure to perceive the logical necessity of the conditional "If T^F then T".  So there is a bit of a bait and switch going on.

People generally approach test questions in good faith. They assume the questions are well-formed, and when they aren't, they provide their own context in an attempt to interpret the question as well-formed. In this case, being explicitly told that the question is probabilistic - and intuiting that any probabilistic question requires a probabilistic context within which the concept of likelihood makes sense - they supply the probabilistic context that is not provided by the question. Really they should say that the problem is degenerate and the likelihood of each statement is either 1 or 0, but we can't say which.

To come up with any other numbers requires a probabilistic background against which to generate a non-degenerate likelihood. This is where the much maligned "intuition" comes in. Forced to generate their own background, the participants likely tell themselves something like "If I was trying to find Linda, would I be more likely to find her starting with the general population of bank tellers, or focusing on the population that is both bank tellers and feminists?" And they reasonably conclude the latter is the better choice.  Formally what they are doing is saying "Given a random draw on the populations of bank tellers, or the population that is both bank tellers and feminists, I'm more likely to come up with Linda making a draw on the latter." And they are right about that.

An intelligent participant would be understandably irritated if told later that he got the question wrong because he doesn't understand that if Linda is a bank teller and a feminist, then she is a bank teller. What the experimenters did was bait (or force) the participants into treating the question as a probabilistic one (requiring a probabilistic context), then graded them as though they had asked them a logical question about conjunction.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Cult of Suffering and Assisted Suicide

Andrew Stuttaford at the Secular Right has a post on what he calls the Cult of Suffering and assisted suicide.

I was struck by Stuttaford's objection to a certain Sister Constance Veit:
That last paragraph is, I have to say, disgusting. Sister Veit's argument that those wrestling with the later stages of a cruel disease are on a "mission" on behalf of the rest of us, a mission that they never asked to be on, is an expression of fanaticism, terrifying in its absence of empathy for her fellow man.
The "a mission that they never asked to be on" reminds of Chesterton's discussion of this point in the chapter "The Flag of the World" in Orthodoxy:
 A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag, long before he has ever enlisted. To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration.
In other words, we are born on a mission, and have accepted that mission, long before we ever have the chance to "ask" whether we want to be on it. GKC calls this the "primary loyalty" to life and, like all primary principles, it can be difficult to defend because it is generally what one argues from rather than what one argues to. Historically this primary loyalty was taken for granted as obvious and commonsensical, like patriotism and loyalty to one's country - in this case, "cosmic patriotism."

Life begins in suffering - birth is a traumatic experience - and involves suffering of some sort until death. Until very recently, regular and persistent pain was a fact of life. Imagine having a toothache before novocaine or a kidney stone before modern surgery. My grandfather's generation would pull their own teeth with a pair of pliers. And I remember reading about an instrument people once inserted in themselves all the way up to their kidneys in order to crush kidney stones so they could later be passed in excruciating pain.

And yet, historically,  persistent suffering of a physical variety was not what generally drove people to suicide. Those reasons were typically emotional - Romeo and Juliet or stockbrokers jumping off buildings after the 1929 crash - or matters of honor: Roman (or, recently, Japanese) generals doing themselves in after a defeat, or pederasts caught in the act (King George V: "Good grief! I thought chaps like that shot themselves.") If persistent suffering were something that could only be answered with death, everyone would have killed himself 200 years ago. So much for the human race.

The problem with suffering is that it is a fact of life that doesn't go away whatever your philosophy. (Well, that is not quite true: Death makes it go away.) Mr. Stuttaford speaks of "empathy for your fellow man" but I wonder what his "empathy" actually means in practice. The Little Sisters of the Poor minister to the dying who are beyond hope of recovery. Whatever Stuttaford thinks of their empathy, they at least make sure the dying do not die alone or friendless. And they offer them the hope that their suffering is not meaningless. Does Stuttaford spend any time with the dying, or does his "empathy" extend only so far as the abstract position that they should be offered a lethal syringe? I find such "empathy" far more horrifying than anything Sister Veit says - and in fact is not empathy at all but merely an embrace of the Cult of Death. To that I prefer the Cult of Suffering.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Quotable Chesterton

"A great classic means a man whom one can praise without having read." - G.K. Chesterton

It's virtually a cliche to point out that Chesterton is among the most quotable of authors. But it's easy to misunderstand the Chesterton quote taken out of context. For instance, take the quote above, from his essay "Tom Jones and Morality" in All Things Considered. Our first reaction to it may be to think that GKC is being ironic and taking a swipe at people who talk up a classic without having read it. But in context it is clear that GKC means no such thing and intends just what he says.

Chesterton's point is ultimately conservative in the best sense of the word. A great classic becomes so based on the developed opinion of mankind over many decades or centuries.  We can praise a classic without having read it based on trust in that common, longstanding opinion. I can, Chesterton says, talk of "great poets" like Pindar without ever having read Pindar because "a man has got as much right to employ in his speech the established and traditional facts of human history as he has to employ any other piece of common human information." And the status of great classics is one of those "established and traditional facts.

While GKC defends the right of men to praise a classic without having read it, he disputes a right to condemn a classic without having read it. The reason should be obvious. Praising a classic is submitting to the historically developed consensus concerning a work; condemning one is contradicting that tradition and, so, going it on your own. If you are going to contradict the received opinion, you've got to have some reasons for doing so, and it is hard to see how you could have good ones without having read the work in question.

GKC never wrote pithy quotes for the sake of being quoted. His wit is always a spur to more considered reflection - a reason for us to be careful of a GKC quote absent context.