Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Rosenberg on Intentionality

Edward Feser has been reviewing Alex Rosenberg's book The Atheist's Guide to Reality in parts over on his blog. I checked the book out from the library and have been reading it as well. Rosenberg's Ch. 8, "The Brain Does Everything Without Thinking About Anything At All", is Rosenberg's defense of eliminative materialism with respect to intentionality. (Intentionality, as a philosopher's term, refers to the way in which something can be "about" something else, like a finger pointing at the moon is about the moon.) Hardcore materialists, of which Rosenberg certainly is one, hold that intentionality is an illusion. Nothing is really "about" anything else, since the only thing things that are truly real are the elements of physics, and an electron or gravitational field isn't about anything at all. It just is.

What interests me here is the analogy Rosenberg uses to get across his view of how the brain might produce the illusion of intentionality without there really being any intentionality at all. I think Rosenberg's analogy is actually a good way to show why intentionality can't be completely an illusion. Here is the analogy:

A single still photograph doesn't convey movement the way a motion picture does. Watching a sequence of slightly different photos one photo per hour, or per minute, or even one every 6 seconds won't do it either. But looking at the right sequence of still pictures succeeding each other every one-twentieth of a second produces the illusion that the images in each still photo are moving. Increasing the rate enhances the illusion, though beyond a certain rate the illusion gets no better for creatures like us. But it's still an illusion. There is noting to it but the succession of still pictures. That's how movies perpetrate their illusion. The large set of still pictures is organized together in a way that produces in creatures like us the illusion that the images are moving. In creatures with different brains and eyes, ones that work faster, the trick might not work. In ones that work slower, changing the still pictures at the rate of one every hour (as in time-lapse photography) could work. But there is no movement of any of the images in any of the pictures, nor does anything move from one photo onto the next. Of course, the projector is moving, and the photons are moving, and the actors were moving. But all the movement that the movie watcher detects is in the eye of the beholder. That is why the movement is illusory.

The notion that thoughts are about stuff is illusory in roughly the same way. Think of each input/output neural circuit as a single still photo. Now, put together a huge number of input/output circuits in the right way. None of them is about anything; each is just an input/output circuit firing or not. But when they act together, they "project" the illusion that there are thoughts about stuff. They do that through the behavior and the conscious experience (if any) that they produce.

The sentence "Of course, the projector is moving, and the photons are moving..." is written in passing put it points out a consideration fatal to the analogy. Without the actual motion of the projector and the photons, there wouldn't be any illusory motion through the film. The projector stops, the illusion stops. So the illusory motion in the film, far from providing evidence that there is no actual motion, is conclusive proof that there is actual motion in the world. Yes, the viewer may be mistaken as to the actual nature of the motion, but Rosenberg's point with the analogy is that there is no intentionality at all in the world. For the analogy to support such a conclusion, it must support the analogous conclusion that all motion is an illusion. It does just the opposite.

The standard fallback here is to say that all analogies are limited. True, they are, but in a good analogy, those limitations arise only when the analogy is pushed beyond the limited point it is designed to make. The fact that in Rosenberg's analogy the illusory motion of a film proves rather than refutes the actual reality of motion is not an irrelevant point, but is the point. And it is not an accident. There is no way to design an analogy showing the illusion of motion without also establishing the actuality of motion.

The deeper point is that we can't be mistaken about fundamental categories like motion (or change). 
This is Aristotle's answer to Parmenides.  Change is an undeniable metaphysical reality, for if there were no such thing as motion, then we couldn't possibly know it, since thought itself is a kind of motion. (And if you say that thought is an illusion, and the underlying matter is unchanging, then you need to explain how a non-moving projector can produce the illusion of movement in a film). We may be mistaken about the content of change, but the fact of change is literally self-evident.

Neither can we be mistaken about the fact of intentionality. It is really as simple as saying that if there were no intentionality in the world, there wouldn't be any intentionality, and we wouldn't experience any. For the illusory intentionality must have a source in some real intentionality, just as illusory motion must have a source in real motion. If there weren't some real intentionality somewhere, neither would there be any illusory intentionality anywhere. "Intentionality" would be something that simply didn't exist in the world even as an idea. The discovery of counterfeit money is not proof that there is no real money, but that there must be real money, for there is no sense in counterfeiting something that doesn't exist. Are you in any danger of falling for a counterfeit Martian dollar?

From the subjective side, we are only subject to the illusion of motion in the film because it mimics actual motion in the world. If there were no actual motion in the world, just what would illusory motion in the film mean to us? We are receptive to the illusion of motion in the film because it appeals to a part of our nature that is receptive to actual motion. Animals who live for generations in the darkness of a cave or the depths of the sea gradually lose their sight as it is of no use to them. Eventually they are unable to detect light at all. It disappears for them. At this point, they are in no danger of falling for "fake light" (whatever that might be) because they can't detect any light at all. The creature loses his ability to fall for the illusion as he loses his ability to detect the reality. The fact that we experience intentionality at all is proof enough that there is something "intentional-like" in reality.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

On the Commercialization of Christmas

This is about the time of year we begin to hear laments about the "commercialization of Christmas." Christmas, it seems, has become nothing more than a materialistic bacchanalia celebrating the worst aspects of our greed, all for the purposes of corporate exploitation. It has always struck me as odd that a holiday dedicated to buying things for other people should be denounced in these terms. The guy who otherwise spends his money on a new BMW and fancy clothes for himself, instead spends it on gifts for his relatives and friends. This is a bad thing? Money represents buying power and nothing else. The question is ultimately not whether it should be spent, but on what it will be spent. An annual celebration that involves a cultural tradition of spending your money on others seems like it should be far down our list of social sins.

Perhaps it is the whiff of excess that fuels the scolds. Christmas isn't just about buying a gift or two, but about buying a lot of stuff for a lot of people. But it is this element of excess that distinctively reflects its Christian origins. A distinguishing principle of Christianity is the notion of unmerited reward. Christ becomes Incarnate to save sinners who don't deserve to be saved. And not only that; Christ offers the greatest of all possible rewards, friendship and union with God Himself. I remember as child anticipating the cornucopia that would greet me Christmas morning. It wasn't just one or two things that would be under the tree for me, but a whole bunch of stuff. And although Santa supposedly knew who was naughty and nice, it didn't seem to make any difference as far as the amount of booty inevitably found under the tree. This is strictly in line with Christian principles: Christ grants the greatest of rewards to saints and sinners alike, so long as they simply believe in his willingness to do so. As I have remarked in the past, it doesn't really matter that you ultimately discover that the Santa in the red suit who lives at the North Pole is a myth, for someone was providing that unmerited reward, and the mere fact of its provision proves that a will capable of doing so exists in the world. This is part of what G.K. Chesterton describes as the education of the imagination that occurs when we are very young. In the innocence of youth, we are open to the association of seemingly contradictory ideas that we not only accept, but that form our perception of the world to the extent that they seem perfectly natural.  Anyone who grew up with the story of the the Nativity, for example,will forever have the association of infinite power with perfect vulnerability in his imagination. Our early experience with Santa stamps us with the idea of an infinite reward that is unmerited - a distinctively Christian fusion of seemingly contradictory ideas (isn't a reward a reward for something?)

What about those businessmen who cynically exploit Christmas for commercial gain? In this fallen world, there will always be people looking for a way to make a buck. The question is how that energy is channeled. The sort of guy who is looking to make the quick buck could be spending his time in far more destructive activities than trying to dream up the toy that every kid will beg his parents for next Christmas. This is one example of the famous compliment that vice pays to virtue. Because Christmas is about gift-giving, the businessman can't appeal to the consumer's own temptations or selfish desires; he's got to convince him that what he is selling is what someone else might like. In other words, the businessman, in order to make a profit, has got to get the consumer thinking about other people than himself.

What's really behind the complaints of the commercialization of Christmas has something to do with the psychology of a Judas, I think. Not Judas insofar as he was a betrayer, but insofar as he objected to expensive perfume being used to anoint Christ (John 12:4-6). Judas's pride prevented him from sharing in the mystery of Christ's redemptive act as did Mary. What follows is envy and the will to destroy the good of another. So he objects that the oil could better have been used for the poor. Similarly, some see the joy of Christmas expressed in others and are unable or unwilling to share it themselves. So they must find a reason to poison the fruit, and the method at hand is the condemnation of Christmas as too commercial.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

St. Thomas, the Irrational Man and Kierkegaard.

I've finally gotten around to reading a book that has been on my list for several years, Irrational Man by William Barrett. Barrett has long been a favorite of mine; he is one of those philosophers who combines deep insight with plain writing and is always worth reading.

Irrational Man is an introduction to existentialism written in 1958. In Ch. 5, Barrett discusses the Christian sources of existentialism, including the relationship of St. Thomas Aquinas to existentialism. Certain Thomists, Etienne Gilson for example, had claimed to find existentialist themes in the Angelic Doctor. Barrett does not find much merit in this position:

A good deal of the Thomistic existentialism current nowadays looks indeed like a case of special pleading after the fact. A book like Gilson's, for example, shows so strongly the influence of Kierkegaard (albeit at work on a mind that is granitically Thomist) that it is safe to say the book could not have been written if Kierkegaard had not lived. Without Kierkegaard, indeed, Gilson would not have found in St. Thomas what he does manage to dig out, and the fact is that a good many other Thomists found quite different things before the influence of Kierkegaard made itself felt. And, to go one step further, what Gilson finds is not enough. The historicity of truth is inescapable, however perennial the problems of philosophy may be, and we should be suspicious in advance of any claim that the answer to modern problems is to be found in the thirteenth century. Granting St. Thomas' thesis of the primacy of existence and of the real distinction between existence and essence, we are still very far from an answer to those questions which have led modern thinkers like Heidegger and Sartre to a reopening of the whole subject of Being.

This passage is worth reading, by the way, for the use of the neologism "granitically" alone.  But I think Barrett misses the value of reading St. Thomas with respect to existentialism. It is true that the existentialist question as we know it today is a modern problem that was not really known to St. Thomas; this is somewhat like noting that the modern problem of sin was not known to Adam and Eve before the Fall. Even if true, it doesn't follow that the primordial state has nothing to teach us now.

The philosophical "state of innocence" analogous to the Edenic primordial state is the philosophical state prior to the modern disruption between thought and existence. Prior to the modern era, thought and existence were united in the being of the philosopher. All this means is that the philosopher lived his thought and lived in his thought; or, rather, the unity of life and thought was something taken for granted.

The difference can be seen in the lives of Socrates and St. Thomas vs. the modern academic professor of philosophy. The biography of St. Thomas is inseparable from the philosophy of St. Thomas; if you knew nothing about St. Thomas's philosophy but knew the story of his life, you would be able to guess a good deal of the philosophy. Compare that with the modern professor of philosophy. If you knew the biographical facts of a particular professor, would you necessarily know whether the professor was even an atheist or a theist? Kant was perhaps the first and greatest example of the modern academic philosopher. His thought was revolutionary in the deepest senses of the word; he was deliberately embarked on a "Copernican revolution" in thought that was intended to change man forever. Yet his day to day life was the epitome of conventional respectability and regularity. It was said that he was so predictable in his habits that the housewives of Konigsberg could set their clocks by the time of his daily walks. The "form" of Kant's life did not reflect the revolutionary content of his thought. St. Thomas was something of an intellectual revolutionary in his own day, given that his philosophical master Aristotle was, at the time, viewed as a dangerous innovation (having recently been rediscovered) in a world dominated by Platonism. And St. Thomas was no tidily respectable university professor; he scandalized his noble family by committing himself to joining an order of mendicant friars - the Dominicans - who at the time were at least as disreputable among polite society as hippies or Jesus freaks are now. As Chesterton so pithily puts it - "St. Thomas would not rest until he was duly and regularly appointed a beggar." (I paraphrase from memory from his biography of St. Thomas). The "form" of St. Thomas's life followed its revolutionary content.

This isn't to say that every modern philosophy professor lives abstracted from his thought. It is only to say that we no longer take such integration for granted, and this is a real difference. Humpty Dumpty can be put back together, but our default philosophical state is that of Humpty Dumpty in pieces on the ground. Surely a thorough appreciation of the integrated existence that philosophers once possessed is worthy of study, just as Humpty Dumpty might gaze on his fellows who never fell off the wall. Suppose Humpty Dumpty wakes up from his fall and forgets what it was like to be on the wall or, worse, thinks that his broken state is his natural condition? This is the state of modern man and it was the genius of Kierkegaard to recognize the condition; and his further genius to find a way to communicate that the modern and existentially fragmented philosophical condition is not natural, but a self-inflicted fall induced by modern philosophy; and to point us back and reveal to us the true nature of the philosophers who were classical and whole.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Occupy Movement, Sin and the Monastery

This article from The Nation about the Occupy movement got me to thinking. Why do attempts at creating progressive utopias always fail? I don't mean merely the grand disasters like Bolshevism, but also the micro attempts like hippie communes and, recently, the Occupy encampments. It occurs to me that the utopian communities of the progressive dream do actually exist and have survived for centuries: They are the monasteries; communities where everyone is equal, goods are shared in common, and there is no "income inequality".

Why does the monastery work but the progressive commune fail? Because the monks have self-consciously embraced the cross. That is, rather than grasping after justice, they have embraced injustice. Not injustice for others, but injustice for themselves. Every monk understands that life in the monastery will not be "fair." Rather than fairness, the monastery demands obedience, piety, chastity and humility. The modern world, of course, sees in this nothing but the purest form of oppression. It pursues fairness through the assertion of rights and demands, the louder and more uncompromising the better. The active embrace of meekness and submission can only be understood by it as an invitation to slavery.

And yet the monastery produces in fact the ideal society the progressive movement has repeatedly tried and failed to create. At least, it produces a society as close to ideal as we are likely to get in this broken world. The irony of the monastic movement is that it has produced just communities through the embrace of injustice, when the progressive movement has only produced tyrannies through the pursuit of justice.

The reason is that monasteries are based on a true understanding of the reality of sin, and progressive movements aren't. One of the manifestations of sin is that we overestimate the injustice done to ourselves, and underestimate the injustice we do to others. The monastery corrects for this by demanding that justice for oneself be forgotten, and only justice for others pursued. It is the practical application of the Commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, which performs a jiu-jitsu move on sin: it demands that we apply to others the justice that we, in our sinful state, demand for ourselves.

Life in the monastery is not perfect, of course, because sin always remains despite the discipline of the Rule of St. Benedict. But the monasteries have survived for millennia, when utopian communes unfailingly collapse after a few years, because the monastery is founded on the only true basis such a community could have.

The sin that the progressive movement recognizes is not located in the human heart, but in external forces and systems - "sinful structures." Every falsehood is based on some truth, a truth that leads to error when it eclipses other truths. In the case of progressivism, it is true that there are systems and structures that are inherently oppressive and cruel; but it is also true that any system may become oppressive and cruel because people, of any station and at any time and under any system, may become oppressive and cruel. This is the reason for the monastic emphasis on a routine of prayer and confession. Only by keeping the specter of sin - one's own sin - ever present before our eyes, and petitioning God for the grace to avoid it, does such a community have any hope of survival.

The progressive conceit is that by getting the processes right, and without any concomitant change in the human heart (for it is the system that is sinful, not human nature, thinks progressivism), the ideal world can be brought  into being. Or if not the ideal world, then one far more just and equitable than the one we experience now. Thus the fascination with, and near fetishization of, process in the Nation article. They are sincerely and logically consistent: Since it is process that makes the world, creating a novel process should bring a new world into being. The Nation writers approach the Occupy movement like shepherds approaching the Manger, looking for the signs and portents of the new world aborning in the various Working Groups and General Assemblies. Alas, the Occupy movement, built as it must be from the "crooked timber" of humanity, is already accelerating to it's predictable end. The Oakland chapter has turned violent, rapes and various sexual assaults are occurring at many chapters (even as the organizers try to hide them from police), the garbage starts to pile up as the Trash Pickup Squad proves to be, not surprisingly, less popular than the film-making crew or the drum group. It's the speed with which the camps have degenerated that is surprising, as it is the persistence of monasteries that is amazing.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Evil God Challenge

Edward Feser recently took on the "evil God challenge" from atheist philosopher Steven Law. Law wrote a paper on the evil god challenge here. This is the abstract:

This paper develops a challenge to theism. The challenge is to explain why the hypothesis that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and all-good god should be considered significantly more reasonable than the hypothesis that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and all-evil god. Theists typically dismiss the evil-god hypothesis out of hand because of the problem of good - there is surely too much good in the world for it to be the creation of such a being. But then why doesn't the problem of evil provide equally good grounds for dismissing belief in a good god? I develop this evil-god challenge in detail, anticipate several replies, and correct errors made in earlier discussions of the problem of good.

So the idea is that there is an "evil God" that parallels the "good God", and that if we don't think arguments for the evil God work, then we shouldn't think the arguments for the good God work either, since the arguments for one can be paralleled in the other. Now Feser's point is that this argument, whether or not it works for a God understood along personalist lines, is not applicable to the God of classical theology, since the God of classical theology is by nature good. Hypothesizing an "evil God" is like hypothesizing a "triangle with four sides"; it is just nonsense.

My purpose here is not to rehash the arguments that followed on Feser's blog, but to explore Law's idea of an "omnipotent, omniscient, and all-evil god" that parallels the good God. Does such a being really make sense? I don't think it does, and I will explain why here.

In Law's paper, he references Charles Daniels, who comes close to making the argument that I will make. According to Law, Daniels argument is that "we always do what we judge to be good. Even when I smoke, despite judging smoking to be bad, I do it because I judge that it would be good to smoke this cigarette here and now. If follows, says Daniels, that no-one does bad knowingly. But then it follows that if a being is omniscient, he will not do bad. There cannot exist an omniscient yet evil being." Law's answer is that "I believe Daniels's argument trades on an ambiguity in his use of the word 'good.' True, whenever I do something deliberately, I judge, in a sense, that what I do is 'good.' But 'good' here need mean no more than, 'that which I aim to achieve.' We have not yet been given any reason to suppose I cannot judge to be 'good', in this sense, what I also deem to be evil, because I desire evil. Yes, an evil god will judge doing evil to be 'good', but only in the trivial sense that evil is what he desires."

The problem with Daniels's argument is that the Platonic understanding of evil is false. It is true insofar as we cannot choose an evil except under the aspect of good; I don't smoke the cigarette because I judge it to be absolutely good for me, but because I desire pleasure, and pleasure is a good, even if I know that cigarettes are bad for me in the long run. So I choose the evil that is cigarettes, knowing they are evil, but under the aspect of a good (in this case, pleasure). Why do I choose the lesser good of pleasure rather than the absolutely better good of health? Because, as Aristotle wrote, our reason does not rule our nature as a tyrant; sometimes our lower nature overpowers reason and leads us to choose a lesser good rather than a greater one. This is why moral education is necessary. Moral education not only trains us to know what is right and good, but disciplines us to develop a nature that chooses the greater good rather than the lesser one. This is the difference between being a virtuous man and a vicious one.

But to really answer Law we must put some meaning to "good" and "evil." In the exchanges over at Feser's blog, Law strenuously resists doing this, and insists he need only use the everyday, "pre-theoretical" understanding of the terms to make his argument work. Yet the words must be defined, pre-theoretically or otherwise, and Law resolutely resists any attempt to define them at any level. I think this is because, as soon as good and evil are defined, even on a pre-theoretical level, it becomes clear that good and evil are not symmetrical, and the argument from symmetrical gods collapses. And he certainly wouldn't create a universe.

Let me show this by providing definitions of good and evil, definitions that are true to our pre-theoretical understanding of the terms and, without engaging in extensive dialects over the meaning of good and evil, show that the parallel between good and evil gods collapses. I think our pre-theoretical understanding of good is that which enhances nature, and evil that which frustrates it. We think smoking is bad, for example, because it damages our health; in other words, it frustrates our body's natural ability to maintain itself. A disease that kills a small child is evil because it, obviously, frustrates the child's natural inclination to survive. Of course we might launch the argument that we have competing natural fulfillments here, since the disease fulfills its nature only by destroying the child's. But since we are staying at the pre-theoretic level and avoiding dialectics, it is sufficient to remark that we commonly understand a child to be more valuable than a disease, and so avoiding the frustration of the child's nature takes precedence.

With this pre-theoretic understanding of good and evil, let us consider the God of classical theology, the all-good God. This God does good everywhere and whenever it can; to the universe and to its creatures. What about itself? Naturally, it does good to itself as well, and so avoids frustrating its own nature. It's in the business of avoiding the frustration of nature. The classical argument from evil arises; how is it then, that so much evil exists in the universe? How is it that creatures so often find their natures frustrated? The classical answer to this question is that "God permits evil only insofar as good may come of it." The key term there is "permits"; God never frustrates the nature of any creature directly, but does permit creatures to frustrate each other's natures, and that only insofar as a further good may come of it. The point is that there is no inconsistency in hypothesizing an all-good God.

Now let us consider the parallel universe evil god, the one who is omniscient and omnipotent like the good god, but tries to maximize evil. In converse to the good god, he will do everything he can to frustrate nature, both the natures of his creatures and himself. We hit an immediate snag: Why would this god ever create anything at all? Since god is the greatest being there is, the greatest evil would be to frustrate his own nature, and so god would always do evil to himself (frustrate himself) before doing evil to anything else. But to create a universe for the purpose of doing evil to creatures (doing good that evil may come of it) is to perform the greater good for a lesser evil, since the evil done to god is always the greater evil compared to an evil done to creatures. So the evil god would always choose to frustrate himself rather than create a universe he could torture.

There is a further problem, for the parallel between good and evil can't hold. The good god permits evil that good may come of it, but he never directly does evil himself; the evil god must directly perform the good of creating a universe if he is ever to engage in the evil of frustrating his creatures. This reveals the asymmetry between good and evil that is latent in even a pre-theoretical understanding of the terms.

There is a more subtle problem with the notion of an evil god creating a universe so that he may commit evil. He commits evil by frustrating the natures of the beings he has created; so when he creates creatures, he does so for the purpose of later frustrating them. When he in fact later frustrates them, he is therefore fulfilling his own purposes; in other words, he is not frustrating his own nature but fulfilling it and, to that extent, he is good rather than evil. But the good god doesn't ever resort to evil; he is purely good. The evil god can't be purely evil; he must in part be good - so there is no real parallel between an all-good and an all-evil god.

In summary, if we use a pre-theoretical understanding of good as what enhances nature, and evil as what frustrates it, then we can see that an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-evil god doesn't make sense. This god would frustrate himself before he frustrates anything else, since he is the greatest thing that can be frustrated. And if he did attempt to create a world on which he could perform evil, he could only do so by contradicting his own nature. This all-evil God that parallels the good God can't exist.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Death as a Release

Andrew Stuttaford comments on a man with locked-in syndrome over on the Secular Right blog here. The syndrome is a horrifying state described in a quote from Stuttaford like this:

The man, known for legal reasons only as Martin, suffered a severe stroke three years ago, which left him unable to move. His only method of communication is by using his eyes.

Stuttaford is outraged that the British state does not allow Martin to commit suicide, and it is impossible not to sympathize with Martin's wish to end it all. But my purpose here is not to argue whether Martin should be assisted to commit suicide, or what the involvement of the state should be.

My point here is to remark that Stuttaford's post sets off my philosophical alarm bells. He is not arguing formally, of course, so it isn't fair to hold him to strict definitions, but there is nonetheless significance in the way we frame a discussion. The title of the post is "Shut in by the State", and Stuttaford repeats several times the notion of the "release" of Martin from his dismal condition. But Martin is not "shut in by the state"; he is shut in by an unfortunate act of nature. The state can't do anything about "releasing" him one way or the other. Surely a prisoner recognizes a distinction between being released from prison to go on with his life, and being "released" from prison in the sense of being put up against a wall and shot. Either way he is no longer in prison, but it is at best a euphemism to call the latter case a "release." Now it may be that a person prefers to be executed rather than remain in prison; but that is not a choice for "release."

No one can release Martin from his condition. But it is possible to do away with Martin altogether. Again it is not my purpose here to argue whether this is morally justifiable in this case. But, if the case is as morally self-evident as Stuttaford supposes, why must he resort to euphemism? Why not state plainly that for which he advocates - the death of Martin?

Euphemism is a misdirection used when we do not wish to state directly what we mean. It is sometimes justifiable, e.g. when sexual matters must be discussed in the presence of the young. Otherwise, and generally, it is simply a way to misdirect a reader away from the consequences of one's position, and is a philosophical "red flag." I see no legitimate reason for euphemism in the discussion of assisted suicide; in fact, the use of euphemism seems to me to be an indication that even assisted suicide advocates cannot face directly what they advocate.

The state is not "shutting Martin in." At most it is "forcing Martin to live," a proposition that more transparently carries the moral weight of the issues involved.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Maverick Philosopher on Hylemorphic Dualism

Edward Feser and Bill Vallicella (aka the Maverick Philosopher... isn't a philosopher by definition a maverick? Or can one truly be a philosopher yet follow the herd?) have been dueling over hylemorphic dualism. Vallicella thinks that the Thomistic doctrine that the soul is a subsistent form doesn't hold water. His latest is here.

The problem with the Mav's analysis can be located here:

Obviously, this won't do. Well, why not just say that the soul does not think, that only the compound thinks? One might say that soul and body are each sub-psychological, and that to have a psyche and psychic activity (thinking), soul and body must work together. Soul and body in synergy give rise to thinking which qualifies the whole man. But this makes hash of substance dualism. For one of the reasons for being a substance dualist in the first place is the conceivability of disembodied thinking. (We'll have to look at Kripke's argument one of these days.) Disembodied thinking is obviously inconceivable if it is a soul-body composite that thinks. Second, if it takes a soul and a body working together to produce thinking, then the soul is not a mind or thinking substance -- which again makes hash of substance dualism.

and followed by here: 

In the Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II, chapters 49-51, we find a variety of arguments to the conclusion that the intellect is a subsistent form and so not dependent for its existence on matter. This is not the place to examine these arguments, some of which are defensible. Now since the intellect is that in us which thinks, the same ambiguity we found in Cartesian dualism, as between pure dualism and compound dualism, is to be found in Aquinas. Is it the composite that thinks, or a part of the composite?

Bill conflates the Cartesian thinking substance with the Thomistic intellect. But the the Thomistic intellect is not a thinking substance; the Thomistic intellect is the organ of knowledge, albeit an immaterial one. Like any organ, it only functions (except in extraordinary circumstances) in the context of the human being of which it is an integral part. Just as the eye doesn't see nor does the ear hear unless it does so in its organic role in the human body, neither does the intellect know except in its organic role in the human being - except under extraordinary circumstances. These extraordinary circumstances are when the soul, separated by death from the body, nonetheless comes to know through direct infusion of knowledge by God. In death, the subsistent form of human being still remains in existence, but it is "inert", utterly incapable of independent action detached from the material body of which it is a form, and this includes an activity like thinking.

For the Thomist, there is no immaterial "thinking substance" like there is for the Cartesian. The subject of thinking, in the sense of an active process of reasoning is, for the Thomist, the particular human being, a composite of body and soul. Thinking involves the imagination, among other things, and the imagination is a function of bodily organs. There is no thinking as such after death. But there can be knowing, and a subject of knowing, should God grace a subsistent human intellect with infused knowledge.

Contra Bill's statement that one of the reasons for being a substance dualist is the conceivability of disembodied thinking, the Thomist is not a substance dualist because he is worried about disembodied thinking. He is a substance dualist because he recognizes that knowledge of universals cannot be the function of a material organ (which is the substance of the arguments the Mav cites in the Summa Contra Gentiles). St. Thomas is strictly disciplined in his conclusions from this fact: He has only proven that man must have an immaterial organ to know universals, not that man can think in a disembodied state. In a disembodied state he is a potential knower, but has no way to become an active knower absent the grace of God.

So man, the composite of body and form, is the subject of thinking. Within him, his immaterial intellect is the subject of knowing (universals). When he dies, the composite no longer exists, so there is no longer a subject of thinking. But there remains a subject of knowing.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

More Secular Miracles

Thumbing through my highlights in Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, I came across this passage:
The conceptual metaphors we met in chapters 2 and 4 were rooted in substance, space, time, and causation (itself rooted in force). These concepts were certainly within the ken of our evolutionary ancestors. In the preceding chapter we saw experiments by Marc Hauser and his colleagues showing that rhesus monkeys can reason about cause and effect (for example, they know that a hand with a knife can cut an apple but that a hand with a glass of water cannot).  In other experiments Hauser has shown that tamarin monkeys have a rich understanding of the spatial and mechanical relations we express with nouns, prepositions, and verbs. When given an opportunity to reach for a piece of food behind a window using objects in front of them, the monkeys go for the sturdy hooks and canes, avoiding similar ones that are cut in two or make of string or paste, and not wasting their time if an obstruction or narrow opening would get in the way. Now imagine an evolutionary step that allowed the neural programs that carry out such reasoning to cut themselves loose from actual hunks of matter and work on symbols that can stand for just about anything. The cognitive machinery that computes relations among things, places, and causes could then be co-opted for abstract ideas. The ancestry of abstract thinking would be visible in concrete metaphors, a kind of cognitive vestige. (p. 242, emphasis mine).
One of the attractive features of the Catholic Faith for me is its philosophical transparency. You must believe some hard-to-believe things, certainly, such as resurrection from the dead and the Real Presence in the Eucharist. But rather than hiding these doctrines in some obscure corner of the faith, they are put front and center; in fact they are celebrated weekly in the Mass. There are no surprises in the Catholic Faith in the sense that, after studying it for months or years, you won't stumble across a doctrine that is magnitudes more difficult to believe than the ones with which you are already familiar. The hard-to-believe doctrines are met directly and early on; from then on, everything gets more believable rather than less.

The opposite tends to be the case in secular philosophy. It initially sounds plausible: It is only after studying it for some time that you find yourself confronted with doctrines far more unbelievable than anything you have heard so far. Worse, secular philosophers often fail to recognize the implausibility of their doctrines. They spend book-length time proving the essentially trivial while accepting the outrageous in passing. They strain on a gnat while swallowing a camel.

The passage highlighted above is such a camel. There is a world of philosophy hidden in Pinker's casual suggestion to imagine neural programs cutting themselves loose from matter and working on abstract symbols. It is the fact that such a thing is unimaginable, and in fact inconceivable, that led classical philosophers to conclude that man's intellect must be immaterial - for only an intellect abstracted from matter could understand abstract symbols. The classicals were perfectly happy to allow that feelings and states of mind could have a purely material origin, and even that something passing as reason (e.g. the animal cleverness cited by Pinker) could be material in origin. Where they drew the line was at the understanding of universals, or "abstract symbols." Monkeys can reason about cause and effect, that has been shown. But there is no evidence that they can reason about cause and effect as such; that is, the notions of cause and effect abstracted from any particular instance and considered universally. That is the reason monkeys can reason about cause and effect in particular cases, but have no monkey culture that develops a science or philosophy based on universals like substance, accident, and being, or force, mass and acceleration. Each instance of cause and effect is sui generis for the monkey, whereas for us, each can be an example of the universal classes of cause and effect.

The quote from Pinker at least has the value that it tacitly admits that the transition to a truly intellectual reason is not merely an evolutionary innovation of no more significance than any other. It is one thing for a monkey to evolve a new trick for gathering food; quite another for the monkey to evolve an intellect that is capable of understanding "food gathering tricks" as an abstract universal applicable to all his prior activities. The former monkey is merely an animal in an environment; the monkey with the intellect is a rational being in a world. Surely this passage merits more than a passing mention; it really should have a place in secular thought analagous to the place of the Resurrection or the Eucharist in Catholic thought.

Aristotle's Rational Animal

Aristotle famously describes man as a rational animal. We may not appreciate the depths of Aristotle's view if we interpret him within the modern evolutionary categories that are our default intellectual equipment. We probably imagine, sometime in the past, an animal like any other animal that, through evolutionary circumstance, happened to develop a particularly clever brain. Our picture is that of a layer of rationality imposed on an irrational animal nature underneath. This isn't Aristotle's view.

Consider the start of Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics. Here Aristotle discusses the relationship of the virtues to nature. The virtues cannot be contrary to nature, or it would be impossible to achieve them. Nor do they come to us by nature, for then no effort would be required to obtain them. "So virtues arise in us neither by nature nor contrary to nature, but nature gives us the capacity to acquire them, and completion comes through habituation." (From the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy version of the Nichomachean Ethics).

Not all acts conduce to virtuous development, however. Which ones do? That is a question for reason to determine. Given that habituation to virtues perfects human nature, we are left with the following conclusion concerning man: His nature is constituted such that its development and completion is possible only through a course of action prescribed by reason. This is a remarkable statement, for it means that what we think of as the "irrational", animal part of man's nature is ordered to reason; rationality, for Aristotle, is not limited to the roof of man's nature but penetrates all the way to the basement. Reason is to man's nature something like the way the sun is to a tree's nature; the tree's leaves may be the immediate interface to the sun's energy, but the entire nature of the tree is ordered to the capture and exploitation of solar energy. Similarly, "the brain" may be the immediate organ of reason, but man's entire nature is ordered to the development of, and subjection to, reason.

The analogy is far from perfect. For one thing, the sun is external to the plant's nature, but reason is internal to ours, and indeed constitutive of it. This is why we are free in a way that plants and animals are not. The plant's nature is immediately ordered to an external being; our nature is only indirectly ordered to it, as the truth of our end discovered by reason. Our nature is immediately ordered to reason; rather than blindly following the sun, we follow the truth as we come to know it, the truth about ourselves, the universe, and God. This is what it means to be a rational animal.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

On the superficiality of the New Atheists

Edward Feser often complains that the New Atheists have a superficial and inaccurate understanding of the traditional arguments for God (for example, see the posts here, here and here).  There is considerable merit to Feser's complaint, as an inspection of Ch. 3 of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion will readily confirm. What interests me here, however, is not showing the inadequacy of Dawkins's treatment of Aquinas's Five Ways (Feser does a better job of that than I ever could), but the relationship of New Atheist thought to its original inspiration in the Enlightenment. Specifically, Dawkins et. al. seem unaware of the movement of thought that gave birth to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment never "refuted" the reasoning of the classical philosophers; instead, in a bold move, it simply put the classical tradition aside and started philosophy afresh.

Perhaps the most succinct statement of the Enlightenment attitude toward the philosophical tradition is expressed by Immanuel Kant in the Preface to the Second Edition of his Critique of Pure Reason (from Cambridge Edition of the CPR):

Whether or not the treatment of the cognitions belonging to the concern of reason travels the secure course of a science is something which can soon be judged by its success. If after many preliminaries and preparations are made, a science gets stuck as soon as it approaches its end, or if in order to reach this end it must often go back and set out on a new path; or likewise if if proves impossible for the different co-workers to achieve unanimity as to the way in which they should pursue their common aim; then we may be sure that such a study is merely groping about, that it is still far from having entered upon the secure course of a science; and it is already a service to reason if we can possibly find that path for it, even if we have to give up as futile much of what was included in the end previously formed without deliberation.

Kant's paragraph simultaneously reveals what the Enlightenment sees as the problem with classical philosophy, and provides the Enlightenment solution to it. The problem (as the Enlightenment sees it), is this: Philosophy, as traditionally practiced, is futile. Rather than continue along the traditional lines, Enlightenment philosophers prefer to jettison the philosophical tradition altogether and make a fresh start, a start that promises to support the new science then emerging and perhaps make progress in its own right. But how does one reasonably dismiss the philosophical tradition as futile? Something is futile if it fails to do what it proposes to do. It seems like the Enlightenment philosopher must therefore be a master of the philosophical tradition, at least enough to understand what it proposes to do and to show that it fails to achieve it, and will continue to fail.

Understanding the philosophical tradition, however, is a task for a lifetime, and it is just this task that the Enlightenment philosopher is desperate to avoid; at all costs he must avoid engaging the classical philosopher in a never-ending roundabout concerning the meaning and "end" of classical philosophy. What the Enlightenment philosopher requires is a means to summarily dismiss the philosophical tradition, a means that relieves him of the task of engaging the classical philosopher on the latter's preferred ground and allows him to get on with the modern project of reconstructing philosophy.

In the Preface, Kant both proposes such a means and applies it. He writes that a "treatment" can "soon be judged by its success." We immediately hit a snag. Mustn't we understand the philosophical tradition so that we can know what "success" means with respect to it? We are right back to engaging the classical philosopher in his favorite game of never-ending debate. Kant first deals with this problem rhetorically, by hurrying the reader past it with that "soon." He then sidesteps it by proposing, or rather asserting, several measures by which a project of thought may judged. First, does it "get stuck" when it approaches its end (i.e. goal)? Second, does it repeatedly start over again in frustration? Third, does it result in unanimity of opinion as to its conduct?  Kant applies his criteria to logic, mathematics and the new science of physics in turn, not surprisingly concluding that they all pass the test. He then turns to metaphysics (i.e. classical philosophy):

Metaphysics - a wholly isolated speculative cognition of reason that elevates itself entirely above all instructions from experience, and that through mere concepts (not, like mathematics, through the application of concepts to intuition), where reason thus is supposed to be its own pupil - has up to now not been so favored by fate as to have been able to enter upon the secure course of a science, even thought it is older than all other sciences, and would remain even if all the others were swallowed up by an all-consuming barbarism. For in it reason continuously gets stuck, even when it claims a priori insight (as it pretends) into those laws confirmed by the commonest experience. In metaphysics we have to retrace our path countless times, because we find that it does not lead where we want it to go, and it is so far from reaching unanimity in the assertions of its adherents that it is rather a battlefield, and indeed one that appears to be especially determined for testing one's powers in mock combat; on this battlefield no combatant has ever gained the least bit of ground, nor has any been able to base any lasting possession on his victory. Hence there is no doubt that up to now the procedure of metaphysics has been a mere groping, and what is the worst, a groping among mere concepts. (again from the Cambridge Edition of the CPR).

Metaphysics, according to Kant, fails all his tests for a successful "treatment of cognitions." It repeatedly "gets stuck", it must repeatedly start over, and their is no unanimity of opinion in its adherents. The question of the "success" of classical philosophy still lurks in the background, since a philosophy "gets stuck" to the extent that it no longer makes progress toward its end (goal); but it would seem one must know the end of something to know if progress is being made towards it, so Kant's conviction of metaphysics on the charge of "getting stuck" implies that Kant knows the end of classical philosophy. As noted, however, Kant wants to avoid the question of the end of philosophy at all costs, as it will (he thinks) lead him into the interminable debates of the philosophical tradition. He cleverly brackets the question of the end of philosophy by saying that metaphysics "does not lead where we want it to go", changing the objective question of the end of philosophy to the subjective question of whether it gives us what we want; and in Kant's case, it manifestly doesn't. And this is the bold stroke of the Enlightenment that allows it to summarily dismiss the classical philosophical tradition: It is the philosopher himself, and his subjective desires, that is the measure of philosophy.

We can sympathize with the motivation of the Enlightenment philosophers. The world seemed to be undergoing revolutionary change; from the discovery of new continents, to the staggering innovation that was the birth of modern science, to new, republican political ideas, everything was becoming new; and the philosophical tradition appeared (I emphasize appeared) to be inadequate to deal with it. What was needed was a revolutionary new philosophy to accompany the revolutionary new world in the making. Slogging through the finer points of the Five Ways or Plotinus to eventually disprove them would miss the point entirely. Columbus didn't spend a lifetime justifying his voyages to skeptics; he never would have gotten out of port if he had wasted time on the timid. Nor did Galileo or Newton puzzle themselves over whether their new physics could fit within Aristotelian metaphysics. Like Columbus, they simply and boldly went ahead with their investigations and discovered what would never have been discovered any other way. Aristotle must reconcile himself to the new physics, not the other way around. Similarly, the Enlightenment philosopher cannot bear to be bound within the philosophical tradition as in a cage. Like Columbus and Newton, he must leave the past behind and strike out for fresh lands.

But there is a key difference between Columbus and Newton on the one hand, and a philosopher on the other. In a certain sense it doesn't really matter if Columbus or Newton knew what they were doing; Columbus always thought he actually made it to the East Indies, and Newton spent much of his time in bizarre religious speculation. But you can still discover the Caribbean even if you're navigation is so poor that you think you've arrived in Indonesia. The philosopher, however, is the wise man, and the wise man, as opposed to the fool, knows what he is doing. Philosophy, perhaps, may even be defined as striving to know what you are doing. So the philosopher must be self-aware in what he is doing, and this holds true for the Enlightenment philosopher as much as the classical. Kant can't simply assert that he doesn't like classical philosophy and he's going to try something new; he's got to give a reason for dismissing classical philosophy.

As I've hope I've showed above, the reasons Kant gives for dismissing the philosophical tradition are a bit of a bluff. He says that philosophy has proven itself futile, but he never actually proves the point; he asserts that it has and hopes the reader goes along. He must bluff because the attempt to prove the point would lead him into the interminable arguments so beloved of the classical philosopher, and this is just what he wishes to avoid.

And this is what Richard Dawkins doesn't seem to understand. Similar to the typical Enlightenment philosopher, he doesn't really have time for classical philosophy, which he sees as a waste of time. He should, then, summarily dismiss it in the fashion of Kant. Not having the self-understanding of a true philosopher like Kant, however, he instead takes a halfway position that is unreasonable on any account. He gives a little time to classical philosophy, enough to rapidly refute classical arguments for God, he thinks. But all his simple refutations reveal is his simplistic and superficial understanding of the arguments involved. This doesn't bother him, however, because he has already decided on Enlightenment grounds (i.e. the manifest futility of classical philosophy) that the arguments are worthless. Rather than an insult, I suspect he sees his condescending to treat the classical arguments even in a superficial manner as generous, since from his perspective they rate no treatment at all.

Efforts like those of Richard Dawkins discredit the Enlightenment tradition (if we can call a "tradition" something that was born in the rejection of tradition). Kant dismissed classical metaphysics as a mere "groping" among concepts, but at least the classical philosophers knew what it meant to grope. Even more embarrassing is a contemporary thinker, supposedly freed two hundred years ago by Kant from even needing to address classical philosophy, blundering about in classical philosophical concepts in a manner that it would be too kind to call "groping."

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Battle of Titans: Omniscience vs Omnipotence

Imagine that you and I each plan a vacation starting from Boston. You consult the family, do your research, and conclude that Disney World is the ideal destination. You plan your route accordingly. I don't do research, don't consult the family, and just figure we'll go to Disney as well. We start out together but, as we approach Washington after eight hours of driving, we've decided Disney isn't really the place we want to visit after all. We've heard good things about Niagara Falls. So we turn around and head north. As soon as we arrive, however, we realize how boring we'd find the Falls so instead of spending our vacation there, we head to Dollywood in Gatlinburg, Tennessee; one of my son's friends thought it was cool. After another day in the car, we arrive in Gatlinburg and are immediately repulsed by the country, honky tonk feel of the place. So again we pile into the car; being a Civil War buff, I decide to head to Gettysburg. Unfortunately, when we get there, I'm thrilled but everybody else is bored. By now we are tired of driving, so we head back to Boston. We end up spending an afternoon at Canobie Lake Park in New Hampshire as our vacation.

You on the other hand, having done the research and preparation, are quite confident of what you'll find in Disney World and have no second thoughts about going there. You drive straight there, have a ball at Disney, and come home refreshed and pleased with your vacation. Everything happened just as you planned.

Here is the question: Did all your prior planning, which lead to a confident expectation concerning what would happen on the vacation, somehow constrain your freedom of action? Is there some conflict between your knowledge of what was going to happen and your ability to "change your mind." Are you a hopeless slave to your knowledge and am I a true free spirit?

Richard Dawkins seems to think so, at least given what he writes in The God Delusion. While discussing arguments for God's existence, he says this in passing:

Incidentally, it has not escaped the notice of logicians that omniscience and omnipotence are mutually incompatible. If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he can't change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent.

I hope we can see from the vacation example that "changing your mind" isn't really an expression of power and freedom; it's an expression of weakness and ignorance. We change our minds when we realize our actions are counter-productive; and that happens when some mistaken view of the world we hold gets corrected. Since God is omniscient, He's never in that position. He's never mistaken about the way things are so His decisions are always optimal. That makes Him more powerful, not less, because He never wastes his energy on useless or counterproductive endeavors. Sure, God always knows what He's going to do, but it's not possible for Him ever to have a reason to do anything other than what He will do.

The deeper import of the apparent "conflict" between omniscience and omnipotence is its basis in the modern understanding of freedom. Freedom, for the modern mind, is found in the spontaneous act of the will uninformed by the intellect. This is why Dawkins sees "changing your mind" as just another arbitrary choice, like deciding you like chocolate rather than vanilla ice cream. "Know the truth and it shall make you free" is the foundational principle of classical philosophy established by Plato, because Plato saw the rational soul of man as an intrinsic part of nature. It is man's nature to know the universe, and through that knowledge he rises above his beastly nature and expresses the freedom unique to him. But the Enlightenment brought in the idea that the universe is fully governed by non-rational laws (e.g. the laws of science); the rational principle essential to man's nature is either placed outside nature (Kant) or simply denied. In either case, reason only applies to the universe known by science, and reason only reveals ever new laws that govern man's behavior. The more man knows, the more he realizes his actions are dictated by unconscious urges, psychological conditioning, genes, etc., etc. Freedom, it turns out, is only an illusion that persists as long as we are ignorant of the forces controlling us. It's not knowledge, but ignorance, that makes us free, or at least grants us the illusion that we are free. This is why Dawkins grants such significance to the act of "changing your mind": It's the paradigmatic act of modern freedom.

This modern and paltry understanding of freedom shouldn't be laid at the feet of the God of classical philosophy. His freedom is much more profound.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Old vs new philosophy

One thing of which I am thoroughly convinced is that there is no such thing as a perfect philosophy. By that I mean a philosophy free from any knotty problems or apparent contradictions. If someone claims to have such a philosophy, what it means, invariably, is that the philosophy has not been thought through enough to make the problems apparent. Chesterton's dictum that "nine out of ten new ideas are old mistakes" is appropriate here.

I believe one reason people avoid classical philosophy is because, having been thoroughly thought through, its problems have been exposed and are apparent to the uninitiated. Plato's philosophy, for example, struggles with the problems of the ontological status of the Ideas (where exactly do these things exist?) and their relationship to the physical world (how do physical beings "participate" in Ideas?) The long history of struggling with such questions led to Aristotle's revision of Platonic philosophy, through the philosophy of the Middle Ages, and culminated in the synthesis of St. Thomas Aquinas, each step having its own peculiar difficulties. Since the opponents of classical philosophy are quick to home in and advertise the problem areas, even those only passingly acquainted with classical philosophy are likely to know what they are.

But another way to look at the situation is to recognize that there won't be any surprises in classical philosophy. Whatever the difficulties are (and there will always be difficulties), they will have been smoked out by the centuries of philosophical reflection. There is virtually no chance that a philosopher will come along who notices some grave difficulty that hadn't already been noticed; anyone who thinks he has stumbled across such a thing only proves that he is not familiar with the history of philosophy. In vulgar marketing terms, in classical philosophy you can rest assured you will get a product that has been thoroughly tried and tested. (And not just in abstract philosophical reflection; classical philosophy has been tested in the court of life as well, forming the foundation of Western civilization in Greece and sustaining it for millennia through the Middle Ages).

It is tempting, in the face of some of the difficult problems classical philosophy has struggled with, to abandon the tradition altogether and start afresh from a clean state. This is essentially the attitude that gave birth to modern philosophy, most explicitly stated in Descartes. The experience can be heady, but it soon becomes apparent that the modern philosopher has only exchanged one set of problems for another. Descartes may have been satisfied with his philosophy, but the philosophers who followed him certainly weren't. Yet rather than drawing the lesson that it may have been foolish to abandon the classical tradition in the first place, modern philosophers adopted an attitude of permanent revolution. Each one starts philosophy afresh, convinced that his effort, finally, will put philosophy on the one absolutely sure footing. The most serious effort in this regard was that of Immanuel Kant, who was convinced he had established with his "critical philosophy", once and for all, the permanently sure foundation of philosophy. Alas, his followers were not convinced, but only drew the lesson that they themselves must begin philosophy yet again anew. The history of modern philosophy is a form of degenerate tradition; not a tradition that absorbs and organically grows an ongoing project of philosophical knowledge, but a "tradition" that repeatedly rejects as problematic all that came before and starts philosophy afresh. The hope of a modern philosopher is not to understand his philosophical predecessors and expand on their reflections, but to discover a "revolutionary and new" technique or principle in terms of which philosophy must be recast, and which will free philosophy from the problems discovered in the last revolutionary cycle. Since the problems latent in this new technique are as yet undetected, this ignorance offers the philosopher the illusion of the hope that he has finally "solved" philosophy. This continual cycle of creation, revolution and destruction is what gives philosophy its bad name in the modern world; it actually does go nowhere as its critics claim.

In any event, the upshot is that there isn't much point in trying to convince someone of the value of classical philosophy who is under the illusion that he possesses a problem-free modern philosophy. Classical philosophy is preferable to modern philosophy because the problem areas of classical philosophy are the problem areas of reality; trying to escape them is as futile as trying to escape from reality. But the appropriate response to someone attempting to escape from reality is not to convince him of the benefits of reality; it is to show him that in trying to escape reality he has only exchanged one set of problems for a worse set and, furthermore, the problems of reality remain. In other words, before introducing classical philosophy, a modern mind must first be convinced of the unsatisfactory nature of whatever modern flavor of philosophy he has adopted.

My experience commenting on philosophy blogs bears this out. I've found there is no point in discussing the virtues of Aristotle or Aquinas immediately, because whatever their virtues might be, the modern thinker usually only knows some of the problems associated with them, and he is usually convinced that he himself is in possession of a philosophy that does not suffer similar flaws; his own philosophy, at best, suffers from minor problems. (On the blogs I haunt, this philosophy is generally some form of empiricism.) Why waste time on some ancient philosophy with unresolved problems when there is a straightforward modern philosophy that suffices? Only when someone sees that the modern philosophies not only have a raft of critical problems of their own, but evade rather than face the problems addressed by classical philosophy, will Aristotle and friends get a hearing.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Kierkegaard and Chesterton

I make no secret that Soren Kierkegaard and G.K. Chesterton are two of my favorite thinkers. I've often thought there was a great deal of similarity between their thought, and if I were doing something like pursuing a master's degree in philosophy, I might propose as a thesis an exploration of their commonality. For, instance, the following passage is a pithy summary of SK's message:

All Christianity concentrates on the man at the cross-roads. The vast and shallow philosophies, the huge syntheses of humbug, all talk about ages and evolution and ultimate developments. The true philosophy is concerned with the instant. Will a man take this road or that? - that is the only thing to think about, if you enjoy thinking. The aeons are easy enough to think about, any can think about them. The instant is really awful: and it is because our religion has intensely felt the instant, that it has in literature dealt much with battle and in theology much with hell. It is full of danger, like a boy's book: it is at an immortal crisis. 

It uses some of Kierkegaard's favorite ideas expressed in the Kierkegaardian way: "The instant" as the true subject of philosophy, opposed to "huge syntheses" that distract a man with "talk about ages and evolution", etc. Of course, this passage isn't from Kierkegaard, but from the chapter "The Romance of Orthodoxy" from Chesterton's Orthodoxy. As far as I know, Chesterton never read Kierkegaard and perhaps never heard of him; SK did not become well-known in the English-speaking world until later in the 20th century. The fact that two such distinct thinkers, one Danish in the first half of the 19th century, the other English in the first half of the 20th, could speak with the same peculiar yet nearly synonymous voice is a reason for confidence in their message. The truth, when discovered, is what it is, whether it is discovered by a spiritually-tortured Dane, or a jolly Englishman.

GKC, Christian Paradoxes, and the the Secular Right

In his chapter "The Paradoxes of Christianity" in Orthodoxy, Chesterton discusses the contradictory charges that are often leveled against Christianity:

As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind - the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons.  No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far to the east than nother demonstrated with equal clearness that it was much too far to the west. No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness. 

Chesterton goes on to give several examples. The Secular Right provides another one in this post and this post. In the first, Heather MacDonald explains that her main problem with religion is that it falsely offers a "special friend" who will protect you from suffering:

That, to me, is the essence of religion: I have a special friend who will keep me safe from the usual disasters that rain down on my fellow human beings (see killer earthquakes and tsunamis, town-destroying tornadoes, fatal car crashes, children born with half a brain, and other Acts of God).

This understandable desire for a few strings to pull in the great random play of fate, for a special someone to get you out of tight fixes and to mop up messes, is an even more fundamental impetus behind religious faith than the hope for an exemption from death, in my observation.  The desire for a personalized leg-up lies behind the constant propitiation of the gods in the Aeneid and continues unbroken into the Christian cultivation of saints and the nonstop din of petitionary prayer...

In the second, Andrew Stuttaford explains that the problem with religion is that it teaches people that suffering is a blessing. He quotes a grieving father to that effect:

One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling—that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation. Isabel’s suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world.

With Chesterton, we might ask how Christianity can both sell people on the idea that God will protect them from suffering, and also sell them on the idea that suffering is a blessing and should be embraced. Chesterton did not immediately conclude that the attacks were baseless; but he did draw the deduction that if they were true, Christianity must be an extraordinary thing:

I wished to be quite fair then, and I wish to be quite fair now; and I did not conclude that the attack on Christianity was all wrong. I only concluded that if Christianity was wrong, it was very wrong indeed. Such hostile horrors might be combined in one thing, but that thing must be very strange and solitary. There are men who are misers, and also spendthrifts; but they are rare. There are men sensual and also ascetic; but they are rare. But if this mass of mad contradictions really existed, quakerish and bloodthirsty, too gorgeous and too thread-bare, austere, yet pandering preposterously to the lust the eye, the enemy of women and their foolish refuge, a solemn pessimist and a silly optimist, [masochistic yet hiding from suffering behind a divine skirt- DMT], if this evil existed, then there was in this evil something quite supreme and unique. 

Chesterton eventually had the inspiration that the problem may not be with Christianity but its critics:

And then in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a still thunderbolt. There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation. Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape. Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men might feel him to be tall. Old bucks who are growing stout might consider him insufficiently filled out; old beaux who were growing thin might feel that he expanded beyond the narrow lines of elegance. Perhaps Swedes (who have pale hair like tow) called him a dark man, while Negroes considered him distinctly blonde. Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the center. Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity that is sane all its critics that are mad - in various ways.

And with respect to suffering, it may be that Christianity is the sane center. There seem to be two truths with respect to suffering: The first is that we would like to avoid it; the second is that no matter how much we try, some suffering in this life is unavoidable. A philosophy that answers suffering must speak to our desire to avoid it, but also provide meaning to the suffering that will inevitably come our way. Christianity speaks to our desire to avoid suffering by affirming it. It was not always thus; man was originally created in a world without suffering, but since has come to suffer as a result of his sin. Our repulsion from suffering is not merely an animal reaction against pain. It reflects a knowledge, deep in our being, that things are not supposed to be this way; our outrage at suffering is a dim memory of Eden. (Pascal: we are fallen Kings.)

But despite the legitimacy of our outrage at suffering, suffer we will in this life, one way or the other. The Christian answer to this is Hope. Even a small amount of suffering absent hope rapidly becomes unbearable; this is one reason our hopeless culture is a slave to convenience. Suffering becomes more bearable the more one possesses hope. This is one of the truths that is meant when Christians sometimes speak of the "blessings" of suffering. It is not that suffering in itself is ennobling; but in our distress we may turn to the source of Hope, and in that hope discover a power to persevere through suffering that we imagined would destroy us. Yes, Christians pray that God relieve us of suffering; that is part of hope. But they also understand that following Christ must involve suffering. The Christian's attitude to suffering is summed up in Christ's prayer at Gethsemane:

Father, if you are willing, remove this chalice from me; nevertheless not my will but yours, be done. (Luke 22:42)


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Intellectual Liberation

Andrew Breitbart, in his Righteous Indignation, describes his intellectual liberation in these words:

I was taking ownership of my own education. Words cannot describe the emancipation I felt to discard those confusing works and philosophers that my gut instinct had told me to reject. Nihilism, after all, is never a comforting companion. I had known it was garbage, but I felt that I couldn't tell a Harvard PhD. that I thought it was garbage. Surely my professors had known something I didn't. Now I was realizing that just wasn't true.

I think his phrase "taking ownership of my own education" is apt. Only when this happens can true education begin. Up until that point, one is at best going through the motions. Taking ownership of education happens when we begin to understand the effects of ignorance, and dread them. We begin to see that ignorance is the worst possible affliction; for in our ignorance, we are not even aware that we are afflicted. Of course, the fact that we begin to understand the nature of our ignorance means that we are already on the road of true education, the only road, the one clearly marked once and for all time by Socrates. Socrates must be the foundation of education because the Socratic experience must be replicated in every soul that hopes to be truly educated.

Another interesting aspect of Breitbart's experience is his deference to the established educational authorities. Surely Harvard PhD's can't be shoveling manure? It is a part of wisdom to be deferential to educational authorities; for if we are ignorant, how shall we know where to learn the truth or even how to recognize it should we encounter it? It takes a wise man to distinguish the wise from the foolish, and since we are by hypothesis without education (prior to going to school), we defer to those reputed to be wise. The diabolical state of our educational system is such that the educational authorities use this very faith to abort true education in its infancy. They use their authority to teach that true education is not really possible (there is no truth) or, what amounts to the same thing, that the wise man is the one who understands that there is no "truth" out there for him to know. The soul awakening to its intellectual possibilities is strangled in its infancy by the very people who should be feeding it.

Fortunately, true education is always a possibility; it only awaits "the occasion" in Kierkegaard's terms. The occasion may be someone who simply does not accept the so-called educational/cultural/political authorities on their terms. He sees that the Emperor has no clothes and says so. Hearing this, we see that our own deference to such authorities is no more than a prejudice; a prejudice worthy in the general case when educational authorities deserve it, but unwarranted in the specific case when they don't, as is the case now. And deference is downright vicious when the authorities use it to maintain the populace in ignorance and slavery, as is also the case now. Breitbart's "occasion" happened when he began to listen to AM talk radio and encountered speakers who had limited academic credentials but simply spoke the obvious truth that the authorities spent their time avoiding.

For me, education didn't really begin until I read Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript. It was then that I began to see my true condition of ignorance, and the fact that I was in unconscious thrall to the "authority" of experts in all things. With Breitbart, I agree that "words cannot describe the emancipation I felt..."

Saturday, July 2, 2011


These posts (here and here) at the Secular Right blog, and recent family events, have led me to reflect on the meaning of suffering. What I write below is not particularly original, but having read similar things for many years, it is only now that I am truly beginning to understand what was meant.

The first thing we must understand about suffering is that it is unavoidable to some degree. The question then, is not whether we need to seek out suffering, but how we handle the suffering that life inevitably inflicts on us. Of course everyone agrees, secular and religious, that suffering should be minimized to the extent reasonably possible. The Catholic Church is the sponsor of hospitals and relief agencies throughout the world. I read somewhere that the Church is the single largest organized provider of such services; I don't know if this is true, but there is no doubt that the Church actively supports such activities in a big way. Clearly then, when the Church asks us to do things like "embrace suffering", she doesn't mean that we should needlessly endure suffering.

Despite our best efforts, however, some suffering in life is inevitable. In fact, quite a lot is inevitable. The basic metaphysical fact that our being includes a body that can be damaged means that suffering is a possibility in our existence; even if such physical suffering never becomes actual, its possibility causes anxiety which is itself a form of suffering. So as soon as we come into the world, we begin to suffer in one way or another. How shall we respond to the suffering that is unavoidable? This is the question of suffering that we all must face, religious or secular.

Furthermore, it is not obvious that avoiding suffering is the greatest good; there may be goods that we can obtain only through suffering, but that are worth obtaining even through suffering. In fact, it is obvious that there are such goods. Every child who endures vaccination shots has experienced this truth. And every parent who disciplines a child, even though such discipline causes suffering, knows that the suffering is worth it. (Both for the parent and the child. Remember "this hurts me more than it hurts you?") So the principle that "suffering should be minimized to the extent reasonably possible" takes a lot of unpacking, since it must involve a judgment with respect to goods obtainable only through suffering, and the degree of suffering that is reasonable in attempting to attain them.

My problem with the typical secular approach to suffering, as illustrated in the two posts linked to above, is that it never addresses this question, or even seems to be aware of it. In Andrew Stuttaford's post, he quotes a father grieving over the death of his daughter, a father who rages against what he takes to be the religious interpretation of suffering. I will not take issue with a grieving father, but I only note that Stuttaford offers no alternative interpretation of suffering. He simply agrees that the religious interpretation is unacceptable and moves on. In other words, he avoids addressing the question of suffering head on.

Is it merely accidental that Stuttaford quoted a grieving father in his post? If we begin to understand what Christ teaches us about suffering, we will see that it is not. For love is one of those great goods that is not obtainable without suffering. This is one of the meanings of the Cross. We live in a world where everything born must suffer and die; therefore, as soon as we love, we are presented with the fact that what we love will decline and disappear in one way or another. This knowledge in itself causes suffering, something every father or mother knows. As soon as a child is born, we are already anxious about all the things that can go wrong for him. And the more we love the child, the more anxious we become.

If we embrace love, then, we must also embrace the suffering that accompanies it. If we wish to avoid suffering, we must also avoid love. We see this happening in the fact that people no longer have love affairs, but "relationships." A relationship is understood to be an essentially temporary thing, makeable or breakable by either party at will, and so successfully avoids the deep entanglement  - and suffering - that a genuine love affair would involve. But if we wish to have real love affairs, and to love deeply, how can we deal with the suffering that we know must come our way?

This is what Faith and Hope are about, the two theological virtues supporting the supreme theological virtue of Love. Christ loved greatly and so suffered and died on the Cross; but that is not the end of the story. The Resurrection shows the far side of suffering when suffering is undergone in union with Christ. In Christ, there will be life and love when all appears hopeless, destroyed and finished. The key word is appears; for in this life, there is no "proof" that we will be experience a resurrection after suffering; all we see and know is the suffering and its apparent finality. But Christ reveals that suffering and death are not necessarily final; in Faith, we embrace the possibility through Him that it is not final, and through Hope, find the strength to face the suffering that will come our way through love. This is what Christians mean when they talk about "embracing suffering." It means not turning away from the suffering that love brings, but facing it and enduring it through the strength of Christ, for our own strength is not sufficient for the journey.

Absent a connection to Christ, how will we endure suffering? We all have greater or lesser natural gifts in this regard, but natural gifts are different in kind from the divine gifts flowing from Christ. Without Christ, we are simply unable to endure the suffering true love entails. So we find ways to avoid it: At the end of life by embracing suicide, or at the beginning of life by embracing abortion, and in the middle of life by avoiding the deep commitments true love involves.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Social Animal

I'm reading David Brooks, The Social Animal. He has this to say about language:

Words are the fuel of courtship. Other species win their mates through a series of escalating dances, but humans use conversation. Geoffrey Miller notes that most adults have a vocabulary of about sixty thousand words. To build that vocabulary, children must learn ten to twenty words a day between the ages of eighteen months and eighteen years. And yet the most frequent one hundred words account for 60 percent of all conversations. The most common four thousand words account for 98 percent of conversations. Why do humans bother knowing those extra fifty-six thousand words?

Miller believes that humans learn the words so they can more effectively impress and sort out potential mates.

Or it could be that men use those extra words simply to express themselves more precisely. Naturally the greater part of our conversation is filled with general purpose words useful in a broad range of contexts. Then when we wish to narrow our meaning, we must employ words that are only occasionally useful. Since the world is composed of infinite variety, there is no limit to the precise but rarely used words we can learn, and the more we learn, the less frequently they are used.

I love the way Brooks writes about "humans" as though he is a space alien who just stumbled across a new life form on the previously undiscovered planet Earth. Why do those strange humans learn those fifty-six thousand words? Why not ask yourself? You've got a pretty large vocabulary and, being a writer, probably have a good idea why those extra words are useful.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Maverick Philosopher on Man

The Maverick Philosopher has a post on the nature of man, and in particular his destiny, here. He identifies man's nature as problematic because man can soar with the angels, but also grovel with the beasts. With respect to the riddle that is man's nature, he writes:
Kierkegaard solves the problem by way of his dogmatic and fideistic adherence to Christian anthropology and soteriology.  Undiluted Christianity is his answer.  My answer:   live so as to deserve immortality.  Live as if you have a higher destiny.  It cannot be proven, but the arguments against it can all be neutralized.  Man's whence and whither are shrouded in darkness and will remain so in this life.  Ignorabimus. In the final analysis you must decide what to believe and how to live.
You could be wrong, no doubt.  But if you are wrong, what have you lost?  Some baubles and trinkets.  If you say that truth will have been lost, I will ask you how you know that and why you think truth is a value in a meaningless universe.  I will further press you on the nature of truth and undermine your smug conceit that truth could exist in a meaningless wholly material universe.

The argument bears a resemblance to Pascal's Wager, but I think it lacks some of the latter's virtues. For instance, what does it mean to "live so as to deserve immortality"? This implies a real distinction among ways of living; in other words, there is a truth with respect to life. But the Mav explicitly denies the value of truth in the last paragraph. He needs to do this because his argument starts with the premise that man's destiny is shrouded in darkness. (I won't ask if he insists that this premise is true.) But as soon as we've given up on whether we can know the truth about man's destiny, then we've lost any possible ground for offering advice on different ways to live. Thus the Mav can't give any substance to what it means to live so as to "deserve" immortality, and he leaves us with the empty exhortation to live a "higher destiny." Chesterton remarked that philosophers start talking about the "higher" life when they wish to talk about the better and worse, but have denied themselves the possibility of doing so.

The argument is similar to Pascal's insofar as Pascal also does not argue from the truth of Christianity to what man must do here on Earth. But Pascal does require that there is truth with respect to different ways of living. His clincher argument for the Wager is that, whatever happens in the next world, accepting the Wager results in a better life in this one:

Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing. (233)

Another aspect of the Mav's argument that is interesting is the notion of "deserving" immortality. Atheists sometimes argue against hell that no one can possibly do anything deserving of eternal punishment. The converse of the same point would be that no one can possibly do anything deserving of eternal reward. Indeed, the classical philosophers did not argue that man deserved immortality. Plato argued that man's soul is immortal by nature; his destiny varied according to its just desserts, but it was immortal either way. The Catholic Church also holds the immortality of the soul as a matter that can be philosophically established. But such immortality does not necessarily involve the fullness of life, for man is only fully alive in his body. "Eternal life" for the Catholic means eternal life in the glorified body that is assumed at the general resurrection, and this eternal life certainly cannot be deserved. It is gained only as a gift freely given through the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Monday, June 13, 2011

John Paul II, Youth and Hope

 An impression John Paul II always made on me, even in his last days, was that he was essentially a young man. I've not encountered anyone else who has made such an impression, and I've pondered off and on for years what could be the source of this impression.

The youthfulness of JPII is different than, say, the boyishness of Robert Redford or Brad Pitt. It expresses something deeper, as though JPII expressed throughout his life the essence of what it means to be young . Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that JPII expressed the virtue of youth, or the virtue that is best expressed through youth. The most apt comparison I can think of is the wizard Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf expresses the essence or virtue of what it means to be old; in Gandalf's case, that virtue is obviously wisdom. Wisdom is the prerogative of age, and the wise man is essentially old, as Socrates is already old when he appears in Plato's dialogs. And so when we imagine Gandalf, we imagine him as eternally old. We can't imagine Gandalf a young man.

The virtue of hope is essentially expressed through youth, and I think it is because JPII so thoroughly embodied hope that he struck me as essentially young. Hope expresses confidence with respect to the future (although not in the future; we hope in God for the future).  With respect to the future we are all young, so hope is the virtue of the young. If one has hope, even if he is 90 years old and physically decrepit, he is young.

I wonder if our culture's worship of youth is an expression of despair; we are without hope and so long for the one period of life when hope, or the appearance of hope, was a possibility. But as Kierkegaard pointed out, such "hope" is not genuine but an aesthetic suspension of the self in possibility. As long as we have the possibility of becoming many things, but have not yet become any, the illusion of hope is before us. But as soon as any possibility is actualized, it must be at the expense of other possibilities ("opportunity cost", although Kierkegaard didn't call it that) and the pseudo-hope of youth disappears. So the aesthetic self chooses to remain in the realm of possibility, not really becoming anything at all, and so retains for itself the illusion of hope; but it is only an illusion and nothing but a yet deeper expression of despair.

JPII appears youthful even in old age because he was the apostle of hope. True hope is not intoxicated with possibility, nor does it suspend itself in the possible without ever becoming actual. True hope is anticipation of what is to come on the far side of actuality; it is longing for the consummation of possibility in actuality. John Paul II was one of the most actual men who ever lived. I'm tempted to use the word commitment with respect to him, but commitment has a voluntaristic tint to it that reflects more our modern subjectivist orientation than what JPII was about. Submission may be a better word because it has an objective orientation; we submit to things that are outside of and greater than ourselves; we "commit" to "values" the significance of which is grounded in our own will. True marriage is a submission rather than a commitment. John Paul II's life was animated by a deep submission to God, and so was grounded in true hope for what will come on the far side of that submission.