Saturday, March 29, 2008

Chesterton and the Discovery of Sin

For my money G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy is essential reading if we wish to understand the modern condition. Chesterton writes in a wonderfully light, humorous style that sometimes leads people to think he was not a serious writer; but he was deadly serious. Like Kierkegaard, Chesterton was not interested in merely scoring intellectual points but in a genuine communication of ideas. Both Kierkegaard and Chesterton used humor and indirection to lower the intellectual defenses of their readers; no serious idea is communicated in such a light manner, the reader supposes, and he finds himself listening to the idea before his prejudices have a chance to kick in.

At the heart of Chesterton's diagnosis of the modern world is the loss of the sense of sin:

In this remarkable situation it is plainly not now possible (with any hope of universal appeal) to start, as our fathers did, with the fact of sin. This very fact which was to them (and is to me) as plain as a pikestaff, is the very fact that has been specially diluted or denied. But though moderns deny the existence of sin, I do not think that they have yet denied the existence of a lunatic asylum. We all agree still that there is a collapse of the intellect as unmistakable as a falling house. Men deny hell, but not, as yet, Hanwell. (Ch.2)

Chesterton traces the loss of the sense of sin to the shattering of the structure of virtue that occurred with the birth of modernity and the collapse of Christendom. The virtues still exist, Chesterton tells us, but they have lost any order and "run wild." Modesty is one of the virtues that has become disordered:

But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert - himself. (Ch. 3)

One can imagine what Chesterton would make of the contemporary "self-esteem" movement. Any limits to the Almighty Ego seem to us to be intolerable affronts to our ego. But limitation is at the very essence of life and action:

Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else. (Ch. 3)

This is essentially the same point Kierkegaard made in distinguishing between the aesthetic and the ethical stages of existence. The aesthetic man cannot bring himself to eliminate "possibility" in favor of "actuality." He cannot come to terms with the fact that to choose something, with any degree of decisiveness, is to reject all the alternatives. As to choose marriage to one woman is to reject all other women. Such decisive actions are almost impossible for contemporary man. We must "keep our options open." But both Chesterton and Kierkegaard understood that "keeping your options open" is false freedom. It is freedom without meaning or significance. Of what value is a gift if it may always be taken back? What value is the gift of self in marriage if the gift may, at any time, be taken back by the giver? Such a gift is really no gift at all. The modern man of freedom maintains his freedom at the cost of making the content of his freedom nothing worth doing. Freedom is really found in a few free acts of decisive and everlasting significance, not an endless series of trivial acts of no decisive significance.

We see here the connection between sin and freedom. It is through the sense and significance of sin that true freedom comes into being. The man without a sense of sin (that is, of the limitation inherent in temporal existence) is free in the sense that anything he does is no more nor less significant than anything else, so he may as well do anything and everything. But this is the freedom of the sub-atomic particle in Brownian motion. When sin comes into being, when what we do or do not do carries decisive and even eternal significance, then a free act bears a decisive distinction from other acts; it is an act that determines our destiny.

Essentially, the sense of sin raises the stakes in life, and this makes life thrilling. Chesterton felt that gratitude was a natural response to the human condition:

And the strongest emotion was that life was as precious as it was puzzling. It was an ecstasy because it was an adventure; it was an adventure because it was an opportunity. The goodness of the fairy tale was not affected by the fact that there might be more dragons than princesses; it was good to be in a fairy tale. The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth? (Ch. 4)

One of the clues that something is very wrong in the imaginative world of Harry Potter is that young Potter does not share this Chestertonian sense of gratitude. And why should he? Harry Potter is the greatest of Wizards, the most wonderful of them all, by right of nature. Potter is not a humble , ordinary child like Charlie Bucket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, an average kid undergoing an extraordinary adventure. No, Potter's adventures are an expression of his own extraordinary nature; in fact, they are usually about his own extraordinary nature. Potter has no reason to be grateful; everyone else should be grateful that they have the privilege of encountering "the Harry Potter." The lack of a sense of gratitude is a consequence of the fact that there is no sense of sin in Harry Potter or his world; and that because there are really no limits in his world of the type found in traditional fairy tales:

Any one can see it who will simply read "Grimm's Fairy Tales" or the fine collections of Mr. Andrew Lang. For the pleasure of pedantry I will call it the Doctrine of Conditional Joy. Touchstone talked of much virtue in an "if"; according to elfin ethics all virtue is in an "if." The note of the fairy utterance is always, "You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word 'cow'"; or "You may live happily with the King's daughter, if you do not show her an onion." The vision always hangs on a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden... the true citizen of fairyland is obeying something that he does not understand at all. In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone. (Ch. 4)

The shattering of the virtues, especially our displacement of the virtue of humility, has led to the loss of the sense of sin and the inflation of the Almighty Ego; finally the Ego displaces God himself. The old fairy tale was a story of the ordinary man discovering the extraordinary nature of the greater world; the modern fairy tale (Harry Potter) is the Ego discovering the depths of its own extraordinariness. Nothing in Harry Potter's world is so extraordinary as Potter himself. Perhaps we haven't really lost our sense of sin but merely displaced it. Sin was once the transgression of divinely ordained limits, limits we might not understand but that carried penalties nonetheless. Now it is not us, but the world that sins when it has the temerity to set limits on our ego. I am with Chesterton in thinking that this modern worship of the self is the most horrible of religions:

Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners. (Ch. 5)

That phrase "... an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as moon, terrible as an army with banners" is one of my favorites in all of Chesterton's works. One of the things that comes through in Chesterton is the dreariness of the modern world and its freedom to do the trivial. The loss of the sense of sin drains the color from the world; with the reawakening of the sense of sin the world comes alive again as a place of adventure, danger, and hope; a world that is a story told by God but that is also partly told by us in our freedom, a story that may turn out well or badly in the deepest sense of those terms.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

M.R. James and the Discovery of Sin

Here I remarked on a problem for the modern Christian, which is more the discovery of sin than the discovery of forgiveness.

One of my favorite fictional genres is the classic English ghost story, especially those of M.R. James. James did not write with any explicit spiritual or pedagogical purpose; he wrote just to give his readers a thrill. But it is in the nature of the great artist to achieve purposes beyond his conscious expectations. Perhaps we can measure the greatness of an artist by how far his work transcends his intentions.

Why are ghost stories a peculiarly modern genre? I am not the first to remark that they may be a consequence of the disenchantment of the world that followed the scientific revolution. Classical man lived in a world of gods, fairies and demons. These were all banished by modern science, with some excellent results (like the end of belief in witches), but also some unintended consequences. A world full of gods and fairies is a world full of personality; it is a human world. The cold, mechanical world of modern science is dead and inhuman. It is a world in which man finds himself a stranger, a world in which his alienation is profound, since he is the only personality in it. This alienation finds its expression in ghost stories. Man is not quite convinced that science has completely disposed of the world of spirits. But what place do spirits have in the mechanical world of modern science? They have no more place than does man, so they become alienated as well. And an alienated spirit is a powerful, dangerous, and downright scary thing.

But the modern, mechanical world also seems to have no place for sin. Yet we cannot shake the feeling that the loss of the sense of sin is not necessarily something good. This theme gets regular play in the stories of M.R. James. A regular character in the James stories is the scientific antiquarian, a collector of old books and visitor of ancient religious sites. This gentleman is the archetype of the Edwardian, scientific man of leisure. He has the appropriate scientific disdain for ancient legends and curses and is not intimidated by warnings from elderly women or village priests. Of course, he gets his comeuppance when the book he obtains or the treasure he seeks contains a little more than he bargained for. James is an absolute master at building suspense and horror in these situations; what I especially appreciate is the way he works in the notion of trespass, which is close to the notion of sin. His characters investigate "interesting" sites or decode "interesting" codes purely out of curiosity, blithely ignoring the subtle but persistent warning signs that some things are best left undisturbed. The puzzles can be so interesting that the reader feels himself pulled in, and be torn between the thrill of solving the puzzle and the dread of what might happen if he does.

Ghost stories are parables for the modern world. James began writing at the turn of the twentieth century, when Edwardian confidence was at its height. His stories show a presentiment that all was not well with the world despite appearances; that our scientific genius, while creating for us undreamt of marvels, also had the capacity to unleash undreamt of horrors. Sin did not disappear with the disappearance of witches, as the world was about to find out in the fields of Flanders and the Somme.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Discovery of Sin

One of the most famous passages in the Bible is, of course, the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke Chapter 15. The namesake son is usually the focus of our reflections on this parable, but we can learn something as well by reflecting on the character of the eldest son. When the eldest son hears that his younger brother is returning and that their father is throwing a party for him, he becomes angry: "Behold, these many years I have been serving thee, and have never transgressed one of thy commands; and yet thou hast never given me a kid that I might make merry with my friends..." (Luke 15:29)

What is the eldest son's problem? He has a lack of gratitude. And why is he ungrateful? We are ungrateful for what we believe we deserve by right. The eldest son thinks that his years of service have given him a right to his father's generosity. His father owes it to him to throw a party for him, or at least give him the means to a throw a party for himself (it is interesting that the eldest son complains that he was not given a kid to make merry friends with his friends, not with his father). The prodigal son, at an earlier time, felt in a similar manner as evidenced by his demand that his father give him his share of the inheritance. But something changed in the prodigal while he was away and after he had run through all his money. The prodigal son discovered sin.

What was his sin? Notice that nothing in the parable says that the prodigal son was wrong that he had an inheritance coming to him. His sin was not in thinking that he had an inheritance coming, but his failure to recognize that the inheritance, as well as everything else he possessed and indeed his own life, was nothing but pure gift from his father. The only reason that his father "owed" him an inheritance is that his father freely chose to submit to such an obligation. All is gift and mercy, nothing is demand and obligation. The prodigal son, by losing everything in poverty, realizes that he really had nothing at all originally that was not pure gift. The magnificence of the gift and his unworthiness of it becomes starkly clear in the contrast with his state of poverty after he has dissipated the gift.

So sin is not really about immoral behavior, although immoral behavior is a fruit of sin (the prodigal son spends money on loose women as a result of his ungrateful demand for his inheritance.) Sin is fundamentally about a misapprehension and dislocation in our relationship with God; in other words, pride. It has been speculated that the sin of Lucifer, the greatest of angels, was that he believed his high place in the cosmic order was due to his own merits rather than the mercy of God; this sin fermented and eventually grew into rebellion and hatred of God. The eldest son has "never transgressed one of thy commands" yet he also does not appreciate the fundamental gratuity of his relationship with his father. He has yet to discover sin; he is in a state of sin but doesn't know it. And without sin, there is no mercy and forgiveness.

The eldest son is very relevant to we Catholics who have grown up since Vatican II. Similar to the eldest son, it's not the discovery of forgiveness but the discovery of sin that is usually a problem for us. We are more than happy to take the gifts God offers us in the Sacraments, as the eldest son would be more than happy to take any kid goats his father gave him with which to celebrate. But we seem to have lost the prior spiritual movement, the discovery of sin, without which the discovery of forgiveness is meaningless.

There is an easy test to determine whether we are more like the eldest son or the prodigal son. What is the ratio of our partaking in the Sacrament of Confession with our partaking in the Sacrament of the Eucharist? Do we rarely or never go to Confession but always take communion at Mass? Confession reflects the spiritual movement of the prodigal son in his discovery of sin; the Eucharist is the spiritual movement of the celebration of the father in welcoming the return of his lost son. Taking the Eucharist without Confession is akin to the eldest son demanding a party without first discovering his own sin and coming to his father in repentance.

Sin is not a matter of emotion and feeling. It is an objective state of being. We can be "doing just fine" in a state of sin or, rather, feel we are doing just fine without appreciating the deep rot within us. The pernicious lie we have come to believe is that if we feel good about ourselves, then we really are good. But all that may mean is that we have yet to discover sin.

I generally do not like to talk about myself on this blog, but I wish to relate a personal story that, I think, will illuminate the points I am making. As a young man just graduated from high school, I went away to college several hours away from home. One of the perks of living away from home was that I could give up going to Mass. The lesson I learned from growing up in the Church and twelve years of CCD was that being a Catholic was about being a nice guy. And, hey, I was a pretty nice guy, so what did I need all the religious stuff for? In Confirmation classes, we did a lot of meditation and listened to stories about drunks and criminals being converted by the Gospel. Well, meditation was boring, and I was neither a drunk nor a criminal, so it seemed to me that the Gospel was addressed to someone else. It had nothing to do with real life.

During my sophomore year, several things occurred that I now view as moments of grace. One of these happened when I was walking back to our fraternity house from campus (the house was a mile off campus), and I saw an elderly woman carrying two bags of groceries up a hill. I was walking behind the woman and I justed watched her struggle up the hill. My perspective was that of a disinterested, scientific spectator (perhaps a product of my engineering major.) I felt no pity or urgency to assist the woman. You might call this a "sin of omission." When I got back to the fraternity house, I reflected on what happened and it worried me. I didn't feel guilty for doing nothing; what worried me was my lack of guilty feeling. What sort of man feels no compassion for an old woman struggling up a hill? I had been given a brief glance at my true spiritual state of being, and it scared me. Something was dying inside me but I didn't know what or what to do about it. It was obvious to me, however, that such clarity was not permanent. I knew I would eventually get to the point where I would not recognize my state for what it was, and then I would be beyond hope. I was discovering sin, although I didn't know it by that name at the time.

My spiritual life is chiefly characterized by the discovery of sin rather than the discovery of forgiveness. Since returning to the Church sixteen years ago, I have always struggled with the Sacrament of Confession, as I suspect most Catholics my age and younger do, at least as evidenced by the sparse turnout for Confession. It is a real struggle for us to perceive our true spiritual state as sinners; like the "Five Man Electrical Band" says, "we're doing just fine." Actually, we are not doing fine, as evidenced by the divorce statistics, the lack of vocations, and the general cafeteria approach to Church teaching.

We may ask: How does the eldest son discover sin? Must he leave home and squander his inheritance like the prodigal son? Remember that sin is not so much a particular action as a general distortion of our relationship with God. Pride is the root of sin, and pride is the conviction that what we have, we have by right or deserve on our own merits. Catholic piety was once filled with small but significant reminders of our sinfulness that have since been jettisoned in the quest to get rid of "Catholic guilt." We've gotten rid of Catholic guilt, all right, and turned ourselves from the prodigal son into the eldest son in the process.

Re-incorporating these apparently minor acts of piety is a good way to rediscover sin. Bowing in front of the Altar, genuflecting in front of the Tabernacle, holding yourself and your hands in a reverent posture during Mass, not chatting before or during Mass, following the observances of fast and abstinence... all these things communicate the message to yourself that the Faith is not so much "about you" but about what God is doing for you. The most valuable thing I have done in recent years is refraining from the Eucharist when I have not gone to Confession in the prior month or I know I have committed a serious sin. This has forced me to Confession more regularly and also given me a renewed appreciation for what God is doing in the Eucharist.

One of the tragedies of contemporary Catholic life is the fear with which the Church authorities speak of sin. Priests rarely mention it in homilies and seem to be afraid of "stressing out" youth by even mentioning sin or demanding anything of them. Altar servers, when we have them, are slovenly, sloppy, often don't know what they are doing, and stroll around the sanctuary like it is their rec room. When they are bored with Mass, they chat with each other or fiddle with the crosses around their necks. Then everyone wonders why we have so few altar servers. When Mass is viewed as entertainment, as just another thing to burnish up our Almighty Ego, it isn't long before it becomes boring and is abandoned. What these youngsters are being robbed of is the opportunity to participate in something much grander and more glorious than they are, something that demands the submission of their ego and the renunciation of their pride, something that comes into being only with the discovery of sin; but their is no sin when nothing is demanded of you.

Confirmation


My eldest son Aaron being confirmed at Easter Vigil Mass last night...

Friday, March 21, 2008

Hobbes and the Argument from Disagreement

In De Cive (The Citizen), Hobbes makes the Argument from Disagreement (AofD) to dismiss traditional moral philosophy (this is from the introductory letter):

"If the moral philosophers had as happily discharged their duty, I know not what could have been added by human industry to the completion of that happiness, which is consistent with human life. For were the nature of human actions as distinctly known as the nature of quantity in geometrical figures, the strength of avarice and ambition, which is sustained by the erroneous opinions of the vulgar as touching the nature of right and wrong, would presently faint and languish; and mankind should enjoy such an immortal peace..."

Hobbes, in typical modern fashion, thinks that the failure of traditional moral philosophy is due to its unscientific character, or its inability to think precisely in the model of the modern natural sciences. The unscientific character of traditional moral argument leads to a diversity of opinion and lack of progress:

"But now on the contrary, that neither the sword nor the pen should be allowed any cessation; that the knowledge of the law of nature should lose its growth, not advancing a whit beyond its ancient stature; that there should still be such siding with the several factions of philosophers, that the very same action should be decried by some, and as much elevated by others; that the very same man should at several times embrace his several opinions, and esteem his own actions far otherwise in himself than he does in others: these, I say, are so many signs, so many manifest arguments, that what hath hitherto been written by moral philosophers, hath not made any progress in the knowledge of the truth; but yet hath took with the world, not so much by giving any light to the understanding as entertainment to the affections, whilst by the successful rhetorications of their speech they have confirmed them in their rashly received opinions."

What indicates the failure of moral philosophy? It's failure to make progress or produce results. Results are the intellectual coin of the realm in the modern world. Knowledge of the law of nature has not grown "a whit" since ancient times. Hobbes adds a new wrinkle to the Argument from Disagreement by citing not only the disagreements among philosophers, but the disagreements of philosophers with themselves.

Hobbes's point reveals a basic misunderstanding of traditional moral philosophy. His point is not new and was addressed by Aristotle long, long ago in the Nichomachean Ethics, Book I, Ch. 3:

"In studying this subject we must be content if we attain as high a degree of certainty as the matter of it admits. The same accuracy or finish is not to be looked for in all discussions any more than in all the productions of the studio and the workshop. The question of the morally fine and the just - for this is what political science attempts to answer - admits of so much divergence and variation of opinion that it is widely believed that morality is a convention and not part of the nature of things. We find a similar fluctuation of opinion about the character of the good. The reason for this is that quite often good things have hurtful consequences. There are instances of men who have been ruined by their money or killed by their courage. Such being the nature of our subject and such our way of arguing in our discussions of it, we must be satisfied with a rough outline of the truth, and for the same reason we must be content with broad conclusions. Indeed we must preserve this attitude when it comes to a more detailed statement of the views that are held. It is a mark of the educated man and a proof of his culture that in every subject he looks for only so much precision as its nature permits..."

Aristotle later in the Ethics elaborates on why moral philosophy will not produce "results" or make "progress" as math or the natural sciences do. Moral philosophy addresses ends, that is what is good and evil. But who has knowledge of the good? Does the wicked or dissolute man have a true knowledge of the good? No, it is the wise and virtuous man who has a true understanding of the good. Unlike math, which can be understood equally well by the evil man as well as the good man, only the good man can truly understand moral philosophy. The education of character, then, is a prerequisite to a true understanding of moral philosophy. The best things in life like love, friendship, justice, honor and magnanimity, are only truly known through experience, and therefore only the man who has lived well for some time can truly know them. The Nichomachean Ethics is not a work addressed to evil or skeptical men, as though they can be forced to acknowledge what is good and just. It is a book addressed to men of good character as a way for them to understand themselves in their virtue, and to point the direction to others who already have some education in virtue. It is natural that there should have been and always will be disagreement about good and evil, for to the bad man evil appears good and is experienced as pleasant. Aristotle even shows why moral philosophers disagree with their own philosophy from time to time. As they mature in virtue and wisdom, they come to a greater knowledge of the good, and from that deeper knowledge they have a foundation from which to criticize their own prior philosophy. But, as with the Argument from Disagreement in general, the fact of disagreement over moral philosophy proves very little.

Interestingly, Hobbes himself argues against the AofD shortly after the passage I quoted above. In his Preface, he lays the groundwork for his famous doctrine of the "state of nature", and that in the state of nature all men distrust and dread each other. He anticipates objections:

"You will object, perhaps, that there are some who deny this. Truly so it happens, that very many do deny it. But shall I therefore seem to fight against myself, because I affirm that the same men confess and deny the same thing? In truth I do not; but they do, whose actions disavow what their discourses approve of. We see all countries, though they are at peace with their neighbors, yet guarding their frontiers with armed men, their towns with walls and forts, and keeping constant watches. To what purpose is all this, if there be no fear of the neighboring power?...Can men give a clearer testimony of the distrust they have each of other, and all of all? How, since they do thus, and even in countries as well as men, they publicly profess their mutual fear and diffidence. But in disputing they deny it; that is as much as to say, that out of a desire they have to contradict others, they gainsay themselves."

Hobbes invokes the principle that disagreement is meaningful only if there is good reason for it. And he cites the prudential defensive measures that individual men as well as cities take as evidence that the objectors themselves don't really believe in their objection (bringing into play the distinction between the public and private books of philosophy.)

And, of course, a similar principle holds with respect to Hobbes's use of the AofD to undermine traditional moral philosophy. That disagreement is meaningful to the extent that there are good reasons for it. But, as we see from Aristotle, disagreement is to be expected as a matter of course in moral philosophy.

The Argument from Disagreement in Action

My favorite writer at National Review, John Derbyshire, has deployed the Argument from Disagreement over at the Corner. The Derb styles himself a "mysterian", but it is hard to tell the practical difference between him and an atheist.

In this case, Derb cites the varieties of religious belief as a reason to be skeptical of religion, and he compares the truths of religion with those "corny, laughable old non-transcendent" truths, among which he cites E=MC squared and Euler's Equation. And, of course, it is certain that it is more difficult to become certain of religious truths than it is of the truths of math and the physical sciences (which isn't to say that such certainty is unobtainable.)

But we may compare the corny, laughable old non-transcendent truths with religious truths in another way. The object of religious truth is the end of man, or the point and meaning of his existence. Knowing the end of man or, if he doesn't have one, that in fact he does not have one, is necessary to understanding the nature of man. And understanding the nature of man is essential to living a reasonable life, a "reflected life." Unfortunately, Euler's equation and anything like it doesn't help you at all in discovering the nature of man (other than the fact that man is the kind of creature who can know Euler's equation.) The non-transcendent truths the Derb cites are very useful as means but no use at all as ends. They are very useful at helping you achieve your goals but no help at all in knowing what those goals should be. Of what use is it to have a supremely fast car if you have no idea in what direction to drive it? This is an image of the modern world: A world of high-powered sports cars driving in circles, the quest for ever more speed and technical virtuosity an end in itself because we know of nothing else to do. Derb doesn't like the Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs because they serve no purpose outside themselves: The point of the Space Station is to be a destination for the Shuttle, and the point of the Shuttle is to have a means of getting back and forth from the Station. But these two programs encapsulate nicely the philosophical state of the modern world. We are unsurpassed masters at technical achievement but have forgotten how to know anything in non-technical terms, the only terms in which the end can be known.

Science and mathematical truth is more certainly known than much of philosophical truth (but not necessarily religious truth, and not philosophically known, self-evident principles), but it is less valuable than philosophical or religious truth, or truth about ends. This was a truism of ancient philosophers: "The slenderest knowledge of the highest things is worth more than the most certain knowledge of lesser things" (St. Thomas Aquinas). The two qualities of truth are its nobility and its certainty, and "it is the mark of an educated man and a proof of his culture that in every subject he looks for only so much precision as its nature permits" (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics). We in the modern world have lost all sight of the nobility of truth; for us, the only noble truths are certain truths. Thus the truths of mathematics look "pretty good" compared to religious truth because the only scale on which we know to judge truth is by its certainty. But they don't look so good when you are not just trying to get to Miami, but trying to understand why the heck you should even be going there in the first place.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Muggles and Natural Slavery

In the Corner over at National Review Online, John Derbyshire writes a throwaway line that happens to capture much that I hate about the Harry Potter series of books:

That profound imaginative connection with the great void is one of the things that separates science fiction writers and fans from the unimaginative plodding mass of humanity — the Muggles.

Now Derbyshire would probably say I am reading too much into this one sentence, but our fundamental ideas are often most truly revealed in minor asides rather than grand disquisitions. The division of humanity into an elite minority of Wizards who "get it" and a mass majority of clods who "don't get it" is central to the Harry Potter universe; it is also the biggest reason I find the series repulsive and dangerous.

One of the benefits of reading Aristotle is that you learn what a truly "natural" view of the world is; and by natural, I mean a view of the world that comes to us purely from experience of the world unleavened by revelation (and in particular, the revelation of Christ.) Aristotle was a profound and insightful philosopher but one who had not heard the Christian Gospel - for the good reason that he was born before the birth of Christ. Aristotle gives us a picture of what the world most reasonably looks like without Christ.

One of the things that seemed obvious to Aristotle, as I have written about here and here, was that the world is divided into natural slaves and natural masters. There is the "unimaginative plodding mass" of humanity fit only to be slaves, and the minority of human beings born with uncommon talent who deserve, by right, to be masters. Aristotle is quite innocent and unembarrassed when he writes about natural slavery. In that sense, Aristotle is far more "natural" than the back-to-nature philosophers of today, who prefer to view nature through a sentimental mist rather than how it truly is. Why do we think there is something wrong with natural slavery? Not because secular philosophers, independently of exposure to the Christian Gospel, reflected on nature and read nature in a radically different manner than Aristotle. No philosopher outside the Western tradition or, in that tradition, prior to the revelation of Jesus Christ, drew the conclusion that slavery was itself against the natural law. No, slavery came to be seen to be wrong only in light of the "transvaluation of values" that happened in Jesus Christ, Who revealed that the poor, unimaginative and untalented man, the man "poor in spirit", is precisely the one most loved by God and most likely to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus Christ subverted the order of values we naturally read from nature; He did not deny that the mass of humanity is unimaginative and plodding, but he raised mass man out of his obscurity as someone particularly beloved of God. It is the humble, unimaginative yet faithful old lady who patiently cleans the altar every Sunday who is really onto the secret of the Universe, rather than the brilliant science fiction writer or swashbuckling doer of great deeds.

As we move into our post-Christian future and the Gospel of Jesus Christ no longer informs our imaginations in a fundamental way, the old natural way of looking at the universe reasserts itself and reforms our imaginations. We go back to seeing the division between slaves and masters as natural and good, although we don't use the words "slaves" and "masters." Instead we use words like "Muggles" and "Wizards." Of course we object that Muggles are not slaves because they are not subject to Wizards or abused by them (at least by the good Wizards), as in the chattel slavery of the Old South. This is a reflection of our superficial understanding of slavery and the natural form of slavery as understood by Aristotle. The key distinction between the natural master and the natural slave is that the natural master lives in a world that takes very little notice of the natural slave. Aristotle doesn't have much to say about slaves other than what their place is in the well-run state. Life isn't about the insignificant lives of the multitude of slaves but the significant lives of masters; just as the Harry Potter world is about the significant lives of Wizards and only incidentally about the insignificant lives of the many more numerous Muggles. Muggles, like natural slaves, should be occasionally seen but never heard. Of course good Wizards do not abuse Muggles, as Aristotle would find it the height of vulgarity for a gentleman to abuse slaves. The good Wizard, like Aristotle's gentleman, has better things to do than waste his time on Muggles.

And Muggles certainly do serve Wizards in the manner of natural slaves. They run the humdrum, boring, mundane world that serves as a foundation on which the select, exciting world of Hogwarts is superimposed. They run the trains and sweep out the subway stations that Wizards use to travel to their secret world. Just as slaves raised the children of citizens in ancient Greece, so Muggles raise Wizards until they are of age, when they are summarily called by the Hogwarts authorities, who brook no dissent from Muggles anymore than an ancient Athenian would from a slave. Hermione Granger's parents are the ideal type of natural slaves. They raise their daughter on their own resources, then in complacent docility turn her over to a boarding school of which they are required to remain ignorant. They aren't even allowed to know how she gets to the boarding school. Like good natural slaves, they are just grateful that their daughter has been allowed to enter the elite world of the masters even if it means an unbridgeable gulf between them. The Dursleys, on the other hand, are the archetype of bad natural slaves. They fit the stereotype of the natural slave defined by Aristotle; they are ignorant, vulgar, and dominated by their lower appetites. Most unbecoming for natural slaves, they do not know their place with respect to masters. After raising Harry Potter from an infant, Vernon Dursley has the gall to think that he has a right to a say in Potter's future. Hagrid, the "gentle" gardener from Hogwarts, explodes in anger at his impertinence and puts him in his place with a firm dose of magic. Afterwards Hagrid expresses the regret of the natural master, ruing not the fact that he violently attacked a Muggle (and a small boy at that), but that he allowed himself to be so upset by, of all things, a Muggle.

The Potter books are propaganda for a post-Christian imagination. If you wish to raise Christian children, then raise them with Christian imaginations, the best explanation of which can be found in Chesterton's Orthodoxy (see, in particular the chapter The Ethics of Elfland.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Argument from Disagreement, Part II

I argued in Part I of this discussion that the Argument from Disagreement (AfD) draws its strength from the ignorance of the listener. The history of philosophy, on superficial inspection, seems to present itself as a never-ending series of disagreements that are never really resolved. Ignorant of the substance of those disagreements, the listener assumes them to be fundamental to philosophy and to characterize its essence. But disagreements are only meaningful if they are knowledgeable, and to know if they are knowledgeable, we must understand philosophy rather than dismiss it with a priori arguments. Continuing that theme, I will argue here that disagreement can’t possibly be the essence of philosophy.

Disagreement is only possible in terms of a more fundamental, underlying agreement between the parties involved. If philosophers are in utter disagreement with each other, they can have nothing to say to each other, for they will have no place from which to begin the conversation. But there is no point in endlessly repeating points of agreement. The conversation is only advanced when we address points of disagreement and see whether they can be overcome. Therefore it is natural that philosophical dialog would seem, to the superficial observer, to be characterized primarily by disagreement. For even if philosophers largely agree with each other, they will not spend their time reciting their agreements but rather hashing out their disagreements. The long history of philosophical conversation, including its disagreements, is testimony to what can be known through philosophy, not the fruitlessness of philosophy. If philosophy were the vain endeavor its critics suppose it to be, then men would have long since stopped indulging in it.

Let us take a specific case to flesh this point out. An ancient and fundamental philosophical question concerns the one and the many, or unity and multiplicity. The question arises because philosophers long ago recognized that unity is not just another thing we know about or experience in the world; it is in some sense behind everything we experience in the world. I wake up in the morning and see the sun and know that a new day has begun. The sun comes to me as a combination of unity and multiplicity. Its rays come to me over time and I can see that the sun is spread out in space. In that sense, I can see that the sun is multiple because it is divisible in time and space. On the other hand, it is one and the same sun that I experience across time and that is spread out across space. In that sense, I can see that the sun is a unity. What is the relationship between unity and multiplicity in the sun, and what is it about the sun that allows it to be both unified and multiple? Furthermore, I see that these same notions of unity and multiplicity characterize other things in my experience, from dogs and cats to trees, boats and rocks, to the number “five” and my own self-identity, to law and the meaning of justice (Is there one justice that men know or are there many different justices that go by the same name?) In fact, unity and multiplicity characterize everything in my experience to such a degree that we may wonder if it is possible to have any experience at all without having an implicit experience of unity and multiplicity. Unity and multiplicity are not ordinary attributes like color, size, shape, evenness, or number. These latter attributes can be applied to some things and not others. An apple has a color but it is neither odd nor even; the number five is odd but does not have a color. But apples, color, evenness, and five all participate in unity and multiplicity. Unity and multiplicity are what may be called “transcendentals” because they transcend all other attributes in the sense of being more fundamental than any of them. Philosophers, whose deepest desire is to get to the most fundamental truth about things, naturally home in on the transcendentals as a point of conversation.

All that I have written in the last paragraph is a statement of near universal agreement among the philosophers of history. The problem of the “one and the many” was first clearly stated by Plato, and he framed the conversation as it continued in Aristotle, Plotinus, Thomas Aquinas, Leibniz and Kant, among many others. Understanding the difference between transcendentals and ordinary attributes was a prerequisite to joining the conversation and constituted the basis of agreement on which the conversation was conducted. (This is why Plato is indispensable basic reading in philosophy.) But, of course, philosophers did not spend the bulk of their time congratulating themselves on their mutual agreement. They spent their time discussing their different answers to the question of the ultimate nature of the one and the many.

The difference between Thomas Aquinas and Kant, for example, may be understood in terms of the different answers they give to the question of the one and the many. For St. Thomas, unity and multiplicity are fundamental to any experience because they qualify being as such. We have tapped into the fundamental nature of things with our notions of unity and multiplicity. Something is only to the extent that it is one. The tree with its roots in the ground and leaves spread to the sky is a unified whole. Chop it down and cut it into firewood and it loses its unity and therefore its being; it passes out of existence into the multiple beings that are merely wood. Each piece of wood, of course, has its own unity as long as it maintains itself in being but, like the tree, they are themselves subject to corruption in the form of loss of unity. For Kant, the transcendentals do not qualify being as such but only our experience of being. Kant thought that philosophers like St. Thomas were “na├»ve” in directly attributing trancendentals to being. The most we can suppose, Kant says, is that the transcendentals are forms we impose on experience. What being is really like, out there beyond our experience, is something we can never say. Unity and multiplicity are, we might say, “filters” that our pre-conscious thought places on being as conditions of experience.

I side with Aristotle and St. Thomas against Kant, but will not argue the point here. The point for now is not whether their disagreement can be resolved, but the fact that their disagreement is only possible in light of a more fundamental agreement concerning the significance of transcendentals. What unifies the philosophical tradition of the West is its agreement on what the important questions are, and this in turn reflects a basic philosophical agreement that is more often implied than directly stated. The very fact that we can read the twenty-five hundred year philosophical history of the West as a coherent narrative testifies that there is a unity manifest in it. If that history were one of unconstrained contradiction, no coherent history of it would be possible, anymore than we could form a coherent narrative by piecing together random bits of history from Africa, Asia and South America.

Part III to come...



Monday, March 17, 2008

The Argument from Disagreement, Part I

A standard complaint against philosophy is that it never really produces reliable knowledge. An indication of this is the historical disagreement of philosophers. The doctrine of any given philosopher is contradicted by some other philosopher; and that philosopher is in turn contradicted by yet another philosopher, and on and on. Plato says the pre-Socratics were wrong, Aristotle says Plato was wrong, Lucretius says that Aristotle was wrong, Descartes says that Plato, Aristotle and Lucretius were all wrong, Kant says that Descartes was wrong, and on and on. We can suppose that this process will continue indefinitely. At least we have no reason to think that it won’t. We can compare this history with that of the empirical sciences, which do issue in secure knowledge (at least compared with philosophy.) Even when science is contradicted (as Einstein contradicted Newton), the contradiction is only partial and by way of development. Einstein showed that Newton’s Laws are only approximately true, not that they are utterly false, which is the charge that philosophers regularly hurl at each other. Therefore we may conclude that philosophy consists of more or less idle speculation that can never result in secure knowledge. Or, when it does (as it has in the theorems of logic), its results have long since been absorbed by modern scientific thought. The philosophers of the past, then, are of merely historical interest. They have nothing of value to contribute to the ongoing understanding of ourselves and reality. Their history of ongoing disagreement proves that philosophy will never issue in secure knowledge.

The first thing to consider with respect to this “argument from disagreement” (for which I will use the shorthand AfD from here on) is that the data on which it is based is manifestly true. Historically, philosophers have directly and fundamentally contradicted each other. We should not make the mistake, however, of thinking that this is an observation peculiar to modernity. Philosophy was already old by the time of Socrates and the AfD was already a common indictment of philosophy. In fact, one of the charges against Socrates at his trial was that he engaged in clever verbal dialectics that never really established anything but just confused people, making the “weaker argument seem the stronger.” The AfD is a charge that accompanies philosophy like a shadow whenever it is practiced; it is co-existent with philosophy. This should lead us to suspect that the AfD may not be the unbiased conclusion from history that it supposes itself to be.

There is, in fact, something strange about the logic of the AfD. The significance of disagreement is itself something about which philosophers disagree; it follows from the AfD that we can therefore draw no secure conclusion from the fact of disagreement. The AfD undermines itself. The disagreement among philosophers means that we can’t draw conclusions from that disagreement anymore than we can draw any other philosophical conclusion.

Another curious feature of the AfD is its potentially self-fulfilling character. Suppose every philosopher in the world agreed with the doctrines of Aristotle. I could undermine the agreement by simply starting my own philosophical school for the express purpose of contradicting Aristotle. Even if my reasons for contradicting Aristotle were not good, I could point to the “fact of disagreement” as itself reason to doubt Aristotle.

This brings us to disagreement as an empirical fact. There is a distinction between simple disagreement and knowledgeable disagreement. Anyone can disagree with anyone simply by contradicting him. But such a “fact of disagreement” is meaningless unless there is a good reason that supports the disagreement. Disagreement with Aristotle is meaningful if the author of disagreement has mastered the philosophy of Aristotle such that his disagreement reflects a deep understanding of Aristotelian philosophy, and not merely his own degenerate understanding of Aristotle.

The thing about great philosophers like Aristotle and Kant is that they were great philosophers because of their unusual degree of intelligence, learning and insight. We should expect, then, that the mastery of a great philosopher is no easy task, one that might take a lifetime of study, if it is possible at all. Are Kant’s criticisms of classical philosophy knowledgeable criticisms? Did Kant understand Aristotle well-enough that he understood the meaning of Aristotelian philosophy better than did Aristotle? Or was Kant only refuting his limited understanding of Aristotle and not Aristotle in his full depth? The only way to decide this question is to understand both Kant and Aristotle sufficiently such that our conclusion is itself knowledgeable. In other words, the history of philosophical disagreement means nothing unless we have mastered the reasons for those disagreements, which means mastering the philosophers themselves.

Why is the AfD so attractive and why is it an eternal indictment of philosophy? The lure of the argument is that it offers the opportunity to dismiss philosophers without actually taking the trouble to understand them. Who wants to slog through Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Avicenna and Aquinas just to prove them wrong? What a relief to have an argument to hand that dismisses two thousand years of philosophy with a wave of the hand. The argument turns on the ancient sophistical trick of flattery. It offers up the history of philosophical disagreement to the judgment of the listener, with the implicit assumption that the listener is competent to judge the significance of that disagreement. It flatters the listener in his ignorance, rather than exposing that ignorance for what it is in the manner of the true philosopher, archetypically in Socrates (and we know what Socrates received for his trouble.) The irony (or maybe tragedy) of the AfD is that it works to cut off the listener from a genuine encounter with Socrates, the one philosopher who could reveal to the listener the sophistical fallacy behind the AfD.

More to come in Part II...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Spitzer, Democratic Government, and the Good Man

I have been reading Aristotle's Politics and came across a passage relevant to the Eliot Spitzer scandal currently making the news. While discussing democracies in Ch. 4 of Book VI, Aristotle makes the following point:

Freedom to do exactly as one likes cannot do anything to keep in check that element of badness which exists in each and all of us. Hence it is most important to ensure that in constitutions this most valuable of principles shall be observed - government by good men free from error without detriment to the people at large.

A fundamental principle of democracies is liberty - the freedom to do as you like. In other constitutions discussed by Aristotle (oligarchy and monarchy, for example), behavior is more strongly constrained by law (including the behavior of the rulers, in good oligarchies and monarchies.) So it is not as critical that men be virtuous in those constitutions, because the law acts as a check on their vices. A state can get by with a mediocre King if the King is constrained by law regarding the sort of mischief he can make, or the sort of trouble he can get himself into.

But in a democracy, since the law does not act as a restraint on vice (or not as much as it does in other constitutions), those elected to power do not experience law as a check on their vices. What then prevents the government from descending into self-serving corruption? Only the good character of the government officials themselves. The restraint must come from within them rather than from without.

Thus the apparent paradox that in a democratic republic like ours, where individual vice is not generally a subject of the law, it is even more important to insistent on the virtuous character of public officials, and why it is entirely appropriate for us to toss the likes of Eliot Spitzer or Bill Clinton out of office.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Life's Private Book

The post on the First Things blog I commented on here gives me a chance to write about the title of my blog, Life's Private Book.

In the First Things blog, Stephen Barr draws a typically modern distinction between things he approaches through science and things he approaches through instinct. The approach through science is clearly one of reason; knowledge is an end (goal) that is taken to be at least possible to obtain. A scientific statement exists in the category of the true and false and discussion and criticism of it is possible; it may be revised in the light of publicly available evidence so that it may more accurately reflect the truth. An instinct, on the other hand, does not exist in the category of the true and false. It simply is. It doesn't make sense to ask a bird if its way of flying is true or false; it flies by instinct. Nor does it make sense to ask a dog how he discovers things through his sense of smell; he just smells by instinct. Modern thought has carried the notion of instinct into certain cognitive acts of the human mind. Stephen Barr, for example, refers to instinct in his understanding of beauty and the raising of children. Since these acts are, for Barr, instinctual, there is no true and false with respect to them. It is perhaps for this reason that Barr finds so many crackpots in the liberal arts.

The things he judges through instinct are, Barr says, the "human realities". We might also say that they are by far the most important realities. Certainly for a father, the best way to raise children is a question of paramount concern (and one that motivated many of the Socratic dialogs.) The "human realities" also include things like the nature of beauty, good and evil, the nature of the best life, the end of human existence, the difference between virtue and vice, and the true meaning of love, justice and friendship. In other words, the primary topics of classical philosophy. In the modern world, these are all finally taken to be matters of instinct; in other words, private matters about which no genuinely rational dialog is possible. The most we can do is exchange opinions about them, but we can't go beyond that. Whether one opinion about love is better than another is not a subject of rational determination. Only science provides us with a way to determine the truth and falsity of opinion, and science has nothing to say about the true meaning of love, justice and friendship. Or, when science does have something to say about love or friendship, the "love" or "friendship" it takes as its object undergoes a transformation that makes it unrecognizable as the human reality of love or friendship.

So our modern worldview is divided into two parts, a public part and a private part. I refer to them respectively as "Life's Public Book" and "Life's Private Book", the first based on science and the latter on instinct. The Public Book consists of everything we say publicly about the world and think we can rationally defend. The Private Book consists of that understanding of the world by which we actually live, which may contain elements of the Public Book but also likely contains many things we don't care to rationally defend or even think we can rationally defend (since it is the human realities by which we live, and they are a matter of instinct.) In the modern world, it is difficult to know anything about a man's Private Book from his Public Book; the philosophy he espouses in public may have nothing to do with how he actually lives. There is limited concern that the Public and Private books be consistent with each other. Thus an esteemed philosopher may proclaim in the lecture hall that traditional morality is a sham and only a way for the powerful to keep the weak in their chains, at the same time as he sends his own children to private schools where traditional morality is strictly enforced. Neither will he see anything embarrassing about the situation; his educational decisions for his children are "personal choices" in his "private life" and are not subject to the judgment of others.

I coined the terms "Public Book" and "Private Book" many years ago as a young man in college after taking several philosophy courses. I expected the courses to discuss the human realities like friendship, truth and justice, but they rarely did so and, when they did, it was in a peculiarly indirect manner, as though they were talking about them without talking about them. The professors and the students talked about truth and friendship, but only in an abstract way, as though it bore no reference to the truth and friendship they lived by when they left the lecture hall. I found the experience disturbing and frustrating and, after a lot of thought, came up with the Public Book and Private Book distinction to capture the phenomenon. The question that pressed on me was: Is it possible to think rationally about the Private Book or are we condemned to live by "instinct" or private opinion?

It wasn't until classical philosophy was genuinely opened to me that I learned that the answer is: Yes. The wonderful thing about reading Plato and Aristotle is that there is no distinction between their Public and Private books. The philosophy they discuss is not a matter of abstract theory but of how they actually live, as made manifest by Socrates in his death. Even without knowing any of the details of their lives, you can get a good feeling for the personalities of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle through their philosophy. Their Private Book is an open book. And the longer I study the classical philosophers and their modern critics, the more I become convinced that the classical philosophers were never really refuted, but merely contradicted.

I attempt to remain true to the example of the classical philosophers by discussing on this blog the philosophy by which I actually live (even if I fail to live up to it.) I call the blog "Life's Private Book" to remind myself that the basic test of philosophy is existential: If I am not willing to live by a principle I espouse, then it is not philosophical to espouse it, but rather a corruption of the quest to live philosophically.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Philosophy and Experts

Over at the First Things blog, Steven M. Barr has written a post about science, crackpots and experts. The upshot is that every academic discipline attracts crackpots. This presents a problem for the layman, for how is he to distinguish the genuine expert from the merely apparently expert? Barr puts the question this way:

When is one to trust the experts and when is one to trust one’s own instincts? It may be the central problem of our times.

Barr's answer to the question is that he trusts scientific experts, but rejects experts in the humanities. The sciences generally weed out crackpots because the crackpots can't acquire the necessary technical skills before their lack of judgment becomes apparent. Also, the empirical foundation of the sciences weeds out crackpots, for the test of whether anyone has created a perpetual motion machine or performed cold fusion is whether he can offer a repeatable experiment that supports his claim, an experiment that may be performed by other, skeptical scientists. The humanities, however, are not based on such falsifiable experiments and so it is difficult to distinguish experts from crackpots with respect to them. Barr prefers to "rely more on my own judgment as far as human realities go"; that is, on his "instincts."

What we have here is the tacit modern assumption that the only genuine knowledge available to us is knowledge in the form of the empirical sciences. Beyond that, there isn't really a basis from which to determine the true from the false, the truly expert from the merely crackpot. So on all those "human realities" like the nature of the beautiful or the best way to raise children, we must fall back on our "instincts." This is another form of the modern denial of the possibility of philosophy as it is classically understood. For the Socratic origin of philosophy consists precisely in the question asked by Barr: How does one distinguish the true expert from the false?

Before I discuss the manner in which Socrates answered this question, I would like to point out a few difficulties with Barr's solution. These difficulties will help us to see the depth of the Socratic solution. The difficulties are:

1. Scientists are genuinely expert in their own field and are able to distinguish the true from the false with respect to it. But in what, precisely, is a particular scientific field delimited? The limits of science is not itself a scientific question but rather a philosophical one. So when a scientist like Carl Sagan, for example, declaims not only on planetery astronomy, but also on nuclear warfare, history, environmental and theological issues, how do we know when he is acting as a true expert rather than merely an apparent one? It is possible for a man to be a genuine expert on one topic and a crackpot on another. Since this is a human question, we must (in Barr's opinion) rely on our instincts, so our ability to distinguish the scientific expert from the crackpot ends up being a matter of instinct as well.

2. Barr presumes that his instincts provide a superior way of judging human issues than reliance on experts. But what makes him think this is so? If there is little or no way to distinguish the true expert from the crackpot in the humanities, how does he know that his own human instincts are not crackpot? Obviously they will not seem to him crackpot, but then the academic crackpot's instincts don't seem crackpot to him either.

Let us now examine how Socrates addressed the question of experts. In the Apology, Socrates is told that the oracle at Delphi pronounced that there is none wiser than Socrates. Socrates is surprised at this, for he knows that he possesses no wisdom great or small. He resolves to prove the oracle wrong by finding someone wiser than himself. Among the candidates he interviews in his quest are the craftsmen, the resident experts of his day. And Socrates finds that they are genuinely wise in their chosen profession; but he finds something else as well. Because they are wise in their particular specialty, the craftsmen are led to believe that they are wiser in many other areas as well. Their genuine knowledge is "obscured" by the things they think they know but they do not. Socrates concludes that he is in a better state than the craftsmen: He does not have their particular knowledge, but neither does he falsely think that he knows things when he does not.

How is Socrates able to determine that the experts don't know things that they claim they do? He finds out through the famous Socratic cross-examination. Socrates generally proves two things in his cross-examinations. The first is that the expert's views are not consistent with each other. The second is that the expert's views contradict one or more elements of common experience that both Socrates and the expert accept. The key to the Socratic method is that Socrates questions a person. Abstract knowledge is a fiction. Like flute-playing without a flute-player, there is no knowing without a knower. This holds for scientific knowledge as well as any other kind of knowledge. So when a scientist proclaims knowledge, we are perfectly justified in demanding an account of how he knows what he claims to know. "Scientific consensus" is a cop-out; it only means that he knows because other scientists claim to know. By holding a scientific expert's feet to the fire in this respect, it is generally not difficult to find out what he really knows and what he doesn't. This is the answer to the first difficulty I pointed out in Barr's position.

The second key aspect of the Socratic method is its basis in common experience. "Instincts" are purely individual and subjective. My instincts may differ from yours, which is why crackpots are usually lonely and their views eccentric. There is no community of crackpots, or at least not any that lasts very long before they drink the Kool-Aid. "Common experience" consists of individual reality as it is universalized through rational dialog. The likelihood that Socrates and his partner in dialog will be crackpots in just the same way is small, and becomes smaller as the dialog is continued over time and with a variety of partners. Participants in the dialog constitute a check on the crackpottery of everyone else. This is why Descartes missed the point when he said that every opinion, no matter how outlandish, has been held by some philosopher at some time. Descartes thought this reason to dismiss the tradition of philosophy as hopeless and to embark on his individual quest for certainty. But of course crackpot ideas have been held by philosophers; the point is that the philosophical tradition eventually recognizes crackpot ideas as such, dismisses them, and learns from their mistakes. Aristotle is still the model of the true philosopher. He does not start philosophizing from his own crackpot ideas (his "instincts"), but from a review of the philosophical tradition, i.e. the ideas that have survived the rational scrutiny of many intelligent minds before him. Aristotle advances the tradition by criticizing it in its own terms and, at times, adding his own novel contributions. Which of Aristotle's contributions are genuinely sound and which are crackpot is something the philosophical tradition will ultimately determine. But Aristotle's grounding in the philosophical tradition makes it a good bet that his personal contributions will be sound rather than crackpot.

And that is how the second difficulty of Barr's position is resolved. We should not rely on our untutored instincts, because we are likely to be as idiosyncratic as anyone else. We should recognize the transcendent authority of classical philosophy and ground our thinking in the philosophical tradition, where we will learn how to tell the true expert from the false in any field whatever, be it the sciences or the humanities.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Natural Law and the Pro-Life Movement

There is a very well-written open letter to Barack Obama from a Princeton senior on the National Review website. The author, Sherif Girgis, has the audacity of hope that Barack Obama will recognize the right to life of all Americans, including the unborn.

Girgis quotes the Declaration of Independence to the effect that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life." This is a standard appeal in the pro-life movement. Although I agree with the natural law argument against abortion, I don't find the Declaration as straightforward about the right to life as others do. The reason is that we have two competing natural right traditions, and the Declaration is not clear to which tradition it appeals.

One tradition is the "classical natural right" tradition that originates in Plato and is developed by Aristotle, the Stoics, St. Thomas Aquinas, and some modern thinkers like Hooker and Thomas Paine (an excellent, straightforward introduction to classical natural law can be found in Plato's Modern Enemies and the Theory of Natural Law by John Wild.) This tradition finds its basis in nature and what common experience reveals about nature. Briefly, nature reveals itself to be an intelligible organization of dynamic beings. These beings have definite natures that are essentially dynamic and embody specific existential tendencies that they strive to fulfill. A puppy, for example, has a doglike nature and will naturally strive to fulfill its doggy nature. Similarly, man has a definite human nature and he has a natural inclination to fulfill himself as man. The specific difference of man, however, is his rationality; he not only has an end that fulfills him, but he can also rationally perceive that end. This gives man a freedom not granted to other animals. The dog is not aware of his own dogginess and fulfills his nature as a dog as a matter of course. Man, however, is aware of his own nature and it is his nature to fulfill himself through the rationality that is specific to him. He fulfills himself by coming to know his end and the means necessary to acheive it. The natural law refers to the principles that man comes to know as necessary to fulfill his nature. It is called natural both because it refers to the essential tendencies of man's nature and also because man can know it by his natural reason (i.e. without the necessity of revelation.)

One of the things that natural reason reveals is that man is by nature a social animal. It is his nature to live in communion with other men and respect them. This is the basis of justice in natural law and is the foundation of the pro-life natural law argument.

The Declaration of Independence, however, is ambiguous about the source of the rights it asserts. It writes that man is "endowed by his Creator" with certain unalienable rights. Now it is obvious that man is endowed with eyes, ears, hands, and a mind, whether we wish to say the endowment comes from "nature" or from "nature's Creator." So much is manifest from common experience. The classical natural law tradition of Plato and Aristotle concludes the natural law from this manifest human nature. The natural law follows on the human nature that we can all see and analyze for ourselves. The natural law, for the classical tradition, is not an endowment to man but a conclusion from man's nature. This is a very important difference, because man can lose certain endowments (such as his eyes or his ears or even his mind) and still be a man. And if he is still a man, the natural law follows from his nature. The natural law is in that sense unalienable - obviously a very important point for the pro-life cause. But if natural rights are an endowment, then man can lose that endowment and still be man; natural rights do not pertain to man as such. Natural rights become "alienable" even though the Declaration insists they are not. In fact, the Declaration seems to "protest too much." Plato and Aristotle had no need to insist that natural law is unalienable because it obviously is: It follows on man's manifest nature. By calling rights an "endowment", the Declaration puts them on the same footing as man's eyes, ears, hands and mind. Yet man does not obviously have rights the way he obviously has eyes, ears, hands and a mind.

This brings us to the alternative natural law tradition, the tradition that starts with Thomas Hobbes, goes through John Locke, and has become the dominant natural law tradition of today. This tradition views classical philosophy and its "natures" with suspicion and attempts to find an alternative foundation for natural right. Hobbes thought he found that foundation in his doctrine of the "state of nature." The "state of nature" isn't really about some primordial human past; it is about the basic human condition here and now. Man is clearly not equal in his endowments of virtue, talent or fortune; some men are born courageous and temperate and some are not; some are born into noble families and others are not. But even the lowliest servant in the castle is capable of poisoning the King. (Michael Corleone: "If there is one thing we have learned in this life, one thing we can be sure of, it is that you can kill anyone.") The equality of men, therefore, can be found in their vulnerability to violent death. The only way men can live, and that includes the King, is if they refrain from killing each other. This is what Hobbes means by saying that the state of nature is the "war of all against all." The "right to life" in this tradition is the right to defend yourself in the state of nature.

Why should anyone respect this right? Because they are as vulnerable as you are. Only if we respect each other's right to life can we live. And the King must respect the servant's right to life because the King is as mortal as the servant.

We can see that what is really behind the "right to life" in the modern tradition is the threat of violence. I have a right to life because I can assert that right and threaten your life if you choose to ignore me. Rights have no basis in nature; their basis is in the assertion of the right itself. The Declaration asserts that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights..." Suppose that you do not find that endowment self-evident, as apparently George III did not? That is beside the point. The Declaration does not ask for rational assent to its assertions of right, let alone rational assent based on a commonly known human nature. It asserts the rights and threatens violence if they are not acknowledged (specifically, the colonists will "throw off" the government if its rights are not respected.) What matters is that we find the rights self-evident, even if you do not, and we back up our assertions with guns rather than dialectical arguments. The self-evidence the Declaration asserts is subjective and particular, not objective and universal.

Our rights are unalienable, then, because our capacity for violence is unalienable. The King can't take away our right to life because he can't eliminate the vulnerability of his own mortal nature (or, by extension, the mortal nature of his imperial army.) But what about those who can't threaten the King with violence, say, the unborn and the elderly? The King is not worried about a revolution of infants or codgers. The unfortunate implication is that since they cannot assert a right to life, these folks have no right to life. This is why euthanasia and abortion are permanent temptations for our Republic.

This is some of the ambiguity involved in appealing to the Declaration of Independence in the pro-life cause. It is also, I think, why the argument from the Declaration does not get as much traction as pro-lifers suppose it will. Girgis, for example, asks some very pointed questions of Obama: Is the heart stilled in an abortion a human heart? Are the limbs torn apart human limbs? Girgis is arguing here powerfully but squarely from the classic natural law tradition; he is arguing from the nature of that which is killed in abortion. But the Declaration he earlier cites does not seem to base right in this tradition. It is possible for one to agree with Girgis's argument about the nature of abortion yet disagree that the Declaration demands that the rights of the unborn be respected. The rights in the Declaration are based on the assertion of right, not derived from a commonly known human nature. Since the unborn and the elderly cannot effectively assert their right to life, they have no right to life, even if they are human beings.

What needs to happen for the pro-life cause to succeed is for people to understand that classic natural law transcends such human documents as the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration does not demand that we respect the rights of the unborn, but the natural law we can know through common experience does. Classic natural law is not in conflict with the Declaration because the rights asserted in the Declaration truly are rights; but they are not a complete account of rights nor a complete account of the foundation of rights. It is true that I have a right to life because I can kill you. But I also have a further right to life, based on my human nature, that calls for respect even if I can't kill you. The Declaration is fulfilled in the classic natural law tradition, but it is not really based in that tradition.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The End of Faith Again

Continuing my reading of Sam Harris’s The End of Faith (which I have posted on here and here.)

In the last post I discussed the empiricist epistemology proposed by Harris. This plays itself out in a subtle way in his arguments in Ch. 2. Harris proposes that the relationship between truth and evidence is this:

“Because” suggests a causal connection between a propositions’ being true and a person’s believing that it is. This explains the value we generally place on evidence: because evidence is simply an account of the causal linkage between state of the world and our beliefs about them…

The moment we admit that our beliefs are attempts to represent states of the world, we see that they must stand in the right relation to the world to be valid… As long as a person maintains that his beliefs represent an actual state of the world (visible or invisible; spiritual or mundane), he must believe that his beliefs are a consequence of the way the world is. This, by definition, leaves him vulnerable to new evidence. Indeed, if there were no conceivable change in the world that could get a person to question his religious beliefs, this would prove that his beliefs were not predicated upon his taking any state of the world into account. He could not claim, therefore, to be representing the world at all.

Harris’s understanding of the relationship between evidence and belief is inspired by David Hume. It also rules out any possibility of making an empirical argument for the existence of God. This is because God is not in the world like all other beings; God transcends the world as its Creator and ground. God underwrites all possible states of the world; the very existence of “states of the world” implies God as their source. So there can’t be a state of the world that refutes the existence of God. Nonetheless, contra Harris, God can still be empirically deduced from the world.

To see this, consider a more trivial question to which we might apply the Humean epistemology: Does the game of Monopoly have a creator? Applying Harris’s criteria, we require that any belief about Monopoly must represent an actual state of the game. Our belief about Monopoly must be a consequence of the way Monopoly is. If there were no conceivable change in Monopoly that could get a person to question that it has a creator, this would prove that his belief is not predicated on taking any state of Monopoly into account and is therefore unreasonable.

What sort of changes in Monopoly would lead us to believe that it didn’t have a creator? We may imagine all sorts of rules changes like having the pieces move backwards instead of forwards, having the owner of the property pay rent to the tenant rather than vice-versa, playing with three dice instead of two, etc., etc. If we think about it, we see that rule changes of this sort imply a creator as much as the normal rules do; in fact, it isn’t so much the particular content of the rules but the fact that there are rules at all that leads us to believe that Monopoly has a creator. Similarly, suppose we modified the board. We might change the number of squares, or change the squares to circles, have the squares run through the center of the board, double the number of properties, etc. Again, we see that it isn’t so much any particular configuration of the board that indicates a creator, but the fact that we have a board at all.

The only state of affairs of Monopoly that would lead us to conclude that it didn’t have a creator is if the rules were utter chaos and the board made no sense at all. In other words, we would think it didn’t have a creator only if “Monopoly” didn’t name an actual game but merely a region of chaos. It is the fact that Monopoly makes sense as a game that grounds our belief that it has a creator, not the particular way in which it makes sense. And the fact that Monopoly makes sense is an empirical fact. It is something we learn through the actual experience of Monopoly.

Similarly, it isn’t any particular state of the world or the particular way in which the world makes sense that indicates that it has a Creator, but the fact that the world makes sense at all. Why does the world make sense? It is not self-evident that it must. In fact, there are some philosophical traditions that think the world doesn't make sense, that our sense that it does is really an illusion; the Eastern thought of which Harris is enamored tends in this direction. The standard rational atheist response, however, is to say that the world “just does” make sense and leave it at that. Why the world makes sense is not a question "worth worrying about." But this avoids the question rather than answers it. As I said in the last post, it is to decline to philosophize rather than provide a philosophical answer. Just as Monopoly points to an intelligence as its ground, so does the world point to an intelligence as its ground – the God of Aristotle that is self-thinking, subsistent thought. In Christian terms, the word points to the Word.

One of the strains of modern atheism realizes this and in order to deny God, it denies the ultimate rationality of the world. This is the atheism of folks like Sartre and the deconstructionists. Sam Harris wants to retain rationality but deny God, a very difficult tightrope to walk. He’s got to deny the transcendent reach of reason (in simple terms, reasoning about the world as a whole) while retaining the mundane use of reason (reasoning about the relationship of parts of the world to each other). The difficulty is that the mundane use of reason naturally leads into its transcendent use. Harris wants us to search out and investigate “regularities” in the world that we experience (see the last post), but not to ask about the foundation of those regularities. We are supposed to take those foundations for granted. The regularities “just are.” But it is natural to the human mind not to settle for something that “just is.” It is in our nature to ask why. Any philosophy, like Harris’s atheism, that demands that we stop asking the question rather than answering it will never be philosophically satisfying because it constitutes a denial of our very nature.

Even in his footnote, Harris can barely avoid using the transcendent form of reason in discussing its mundane use. Some regularities betray causal connections between phenomena, others do not and are dismissed as “mere correlation.” What is the difference between regularities that manifest lawful connections and regularities that are mere juxtapositions in space and time? Harris demurs from answering this question, perhaps because its implications might lead him to where he doesn’t want to go. The distinction he seeks between regularities obviously cannot itself be a regularity. It must be something that transcends regularities so that regularities can be classified in its terms. Already we see that our reason must do more than merely notice regularities in experience and draw conclusions about them. It must know transcendent principles in which it can make sense of regularities, including distinguishing authentic lawful connections from mere correlations. These transcendent principles must characterize experience as a whole; in other words, they don’t represent any particular state of the world but ground the very experience of the world itself. We invoke transcendent principles when we use words like substance, unity, change, material, and ideal, among many others (many being yet another one).

The use of transcendent principles in our thinking is so necessary that there is no point in trying to deny them, as Hume attempted to do. A better tactic for the atheist is not to deny the transcendent use of reason but to claim that it is prescriptive rather than descriptive. In other words, our transcendent reason does not draw its basic principles from experience but rather reads them into experience. This is the approach of Immanuel Kant. Aristotle taught that man learns the meaning of substance, unity, change, etc. from his encounter with being in experience; Kant says rather that man imposes his forms of substance, unity, etc. on experience. Such principles transcend experience for both Aristotle and Kant; the difference is that for Aristotle they transcend experience objectively and for Kant they transcend experience subjectively. Obviously, a metaphysical argument for the existence of God is not possible on the Kantian view, since any conclusion we drew would only refer to our own mind and its forms rather than objective reality.

I side with Aristotle rather than Kant on the origin and reach of transcendent reason, but I will not engage that argument here. The point is that, on any reading, simple-minded empiricism of the Humean type is unsustainable. Harris has sent his forces to defend Omaha Beach when Normandy has already been overrun; the battle has long since moved to the Siegfried Line.