Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christianity and Universal Values

This was on a hobbyist blog - the exact source doesn't matter as it is a very common sentiment:
I love the Solstice. It's such an important day of the holidays for us, marking the root of the whole season. We're not Christian, so Jesus isn't the reason for our season -  but the ideas that he represents within that religion, light, love, compassion, kindness, generosity, these are pretty universal human values that we can rely on to guide us through the darkest days and the longest nights, and for us, those are the spirit of Christmas, Yule and the Solstice.   Every day between now and Twelfth Night, this family will concentrate on those things- like we try to all year - but it's just so much easier to keep our focus there when there's a big honking pagan symbol of the season in our living room.
Unfortunately, Jesus didn't represent values, or at least any values that make sense without him. The love Jesus represents is a self-sacrificial divine love that transcends the human: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." But more significantly, Jesus did not "represent" that love, he is that love. If Jesus is not real, then in fact God did not so love the world that he gave his only begotten Son, and in that case what becomes of the "universal human value" of love? It remains a merely "human" love, a love that perishes with us and has no more power than any other human value - for instance, the value of social stability (which is why agitators like Christ should be executed) or personal security (which is why it is foolish to give all you have to the poor). Love remains, it is true, but it is not the love with the revolutionary power of Christ. If it tries to be, it ends up crucified like Christ, but without a resurrection and therefore permanently dead and buried in the tomb. The universal human value of love without Christ is a muted love, a love that cherishes others to be sure, but must be tempered by worldly prudence and circumspection. For to love as Christ does is to become vulnerable to the point that suffering is inevitable, and death the only end.

Like Christian love, Christian generosity is revolutionary and, without Christ, appropriately dismissed as crazy. Thus the figure of St. Francis, who gave the very clothes off his back and ran naked into the woods. This is a nutty thing to do - unless you are do it in the Name of the God who volunteered to be nailed naked to the Cross.

And so it goes with all the values. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the universal human values are remade in His image. Without Him, you may keep your human values... but they remain merely human.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Tragedy or Atrocity?

It's already been noted by others that our insistence on referring to atrocities as "tragedies" is a sign of the moral decline of our civilization. Here is another example involving the murder/suicide of a Kansas City Chiefs linebacker and his girlfriend.

The headline in the video itself reveals a skewed moral perspective: "Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher dead at 25." The most significant fact as far as the Globe is concerned is that the man is dead, not that he murdered his girlfriend. Why not "Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher kills girlfriend?" We are all dead in the end, after all, but we do not all murder our girlfriends.

Cannot we summon any outrage over a man who guns down his girlfriend? Not his friends:

‘‘He was a good, good person ... a family man. A loving guy,’’ said family friend Ruben Marshall, who said he coached Belcher in youth football. ‘‘You couldn’t be around a better person.’’

Unless you happen to be his girlfriend. And that is the most appalling aspect of the article: The relegation of Kasandra M. Perkins, who should be the moral center of the story, to the status of a bit player in Jovan Belcher's psychodrama. Her name is mentioned but once in the story, and is everywhere else referred to as "the girlfriend."

"The two of them left behind a 3-month-old girl. She was being cared for by family."

No, the two of them did not leave anyone behind. Belcher left his daughter behind, while the young girl had her mother taken from her by a murderer.

"It’s unknown how the Chiefs plan to pay tribute to Belcher during Sunday’s game."


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Moving Forward

Perhaps the most interesting, and shocking, statistic from Tuesday's election was the fact that Mitt Romney did not pull as many Republican votes as did John McCain. If he had, it is likely he would have defeated Barack Obama. This is both bad and good news for Republicans. The bad news is that Republicans lost what was apparently a very winnable election. They fumbled the ball on the most consequential elections of our lifetimes.

The good news is that the election may not have been the decisive affirmation of the social welfare state that some of us (me) initially supposed. I assumed that Republican turnout would be heavy, so the only way Obama could win is if the generalized vote had moved in his favor. The possibility that Obama's vote total would be way down from 2008, yet he would nonetheless squeak through because Republicans weren't interested enough to vote against him, wasn't something I ever considered. But the depressed vote totals for both Obama and his Republican opponent seem to indicate that voters, while not enamored of Obama, never came to really believe that Romney was an acceptable alternative. This combined with Republican retention of the House (including reelection of Tea Party members), would seem to point to the fact that Romney never overcame his deficiencies as a candidate.

What are those deficiencies? I think it is helpful to compare him to John McCain. I don't have any numbers or poll results, so this is largely based on my own impressions, but here goes. McCain was not a great candidate, but virtually no Republican would have been able to win in 2008, given the fatigue with Bush and the financial crisis that occurred shortly before the election. Yet McCain outpolled Romney despite the fact that Romney faced an Obama after four years of unpopular policies like Obamacare and the stimulus, and McCain faced the still mythologized Hope and Change Obama. The only conclusion can be that McCain was a much more personally attractive candidate than was Romney. And the obvious personal difference between the two men is McCain's history as a Vietnam War hero and Romney's as a business/finance wizard.

I do not like to listen to political speeches and generally find them to be fingernails-on-the-chalkboard unpleasant, but McCain's acceptance of the 2008 Republican nomination was perhaps the most inspiring political speech I've ever heard. He recounted his experience as a prisoner of war, thinking he was tough enough to take whatever the Communists dealt out, and later slunk back to his cell in humiliation after being broken under torture. Asking the rhetorical question of whether he was bitter about his experience, McCain said that he was not bitter but grateful: "After I was broken under torture, my country saved me. My country saved me." Thinking about it still gives me chills and I was never more proud to be an American, a veteran of the Marine Corps, and a Republican.

The virtues are attractive, Aristotle tells us, and John McCain, while far from a perfect man and even farther from a perfect conservative, had virtues people find attractive in a time of crisis: The virtues of duty, sacrifice and service. People understand that sacrifice is necessary in a crisis, and they look for someone they can trust who can reassure them that their sacrifices are neither in vain nor a subtle form of exploitation. McCain was such a man, which is why he did as well as he did despite the favorable political winds for Obama.

Mitt Romney is by all accounts a good and decent man, responsible with respect to his family and personally generous with his money to charity, but he is not anything like an exemplar of the public virtues of duty and service that is John McCain (who could be?) He was never in the military nor do any of his five sons ever seem to have expressed an interest in military service. This is not the only way to express public virtue but it is the traditional one expected of social elites (e.g. HRH Prince Andrew flying in the Falklands War). Conservatives, as the "daddy party" of not only responsibility, self-restraint and self-reliance, but also of duty and sacrifice, must have candidates who can sell those virtues by displaying them. Romney was not that man.

It has been said that this election proves that Republicans have lost the culture. I was sympathetic to this view in the immediate aftermath of the election, but now I am not so sure. Much of the culture has no doubt been lost, but the counter-counter-culture did not really have a spokesman in this election, someone who could sell the sacrifice that is necessary to save the nation from imminent catastrophe. In the absence of such a leader, voters defaulted to the candidate who has promised that sacrifice isn't really necessary (except by "the rich", for whom it isn't really a sacrifice because they've got so much).

But the fact is that broad and deep sacrifice will be required by everyone if a catastrophe is to be avoided. The President is not prepared to demand these sacrifices, nor could he sell them anymore than could Mitt Romney if he tried, not to mention that his reelection was based on his insistence that sacrifice was not really necessary. This means a catastrophe is probably inevitable. Right now Republicans are insisting that no taxes by raised, not even on the wealthy, which will allow the Democrats to blame Republican intransigence when disaster happens - Republicans allowed the country to collapse merely for the sake of saving their rich friends a few dollars. The fact is the tax increases the President is talking about will barely move the needle on the debt and will kill jobs, but much bigger things are at stake. The entire social democratic project is at stake in the President's insistence that he just needs a little more time to make things right. If granted his pathetic tax increase, it will become undeniably obvious that the President must either come on board with substantial cuts in social welfare spending - cuts far beyond the measly cuts Paul Ryan proposed last year and for which he was denounced as a dangerous extremist - or a catastrophe will ensue. The President himself will find it necessary to tell us that what he sold in his reelection campaign was way out of touch with reality. Or he will lead us over the cliff and there will be no denying who was behind the wheel. Reality is about to vote on the social democratic program.

Republicans must be prepared to offer an alternative that involves more than the standard appeals to lower taxes, spending and regulation, but appeals to an alternative understanding of community and civic virtue, an understanding that hearkens back to Jack Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you..." For this conservative leaders must have the personal moral capital to sell the conservative vision of duty, self-restraint, and sacrifice for the the greater good which, in the end, is the only vision that can work because it is in accord with the natural truth. This doesn't mean conservative politicians must have a story like John McCain's, but it does mean that Newt Gingrich-type politicians (no military service or other visible signs of genuine sacrifice, plus multiple wives) should be unacceptable. Nor should the premier conservative voice in the national conversation be a 61 year old man with no children who trades in his trophy wife for a newer model every few years.

If conservatives cannot convincingly sell the virtuous life that is necessary to a free, republican people, then even in the event of the catastrophic failure of the social welfare state, the consequence will be a further descent into tyranny rather than a return to limited government.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Election Thoughts

There were many of us on the right that thought that this election was our last chance to stop America’s decline into social welfare statism. Last night proved that we were wrong - the hour was later than we thought, and our last chance to stop it had already passed. The tipping point had already been reached. Mitt Romney did not run a flawless campaign but it was about as good as could have been expected; in fact, if we remember what we thought of Romney before the general election began, he exceeded expectations as a candidate. The President got a nice gift from the heavens in the form of Hurricane Sandy that allowed him to look Presidential and bi-partisan (thank you Chris Christie) leading into the election. But that is all in the noise; if America were truly interested in remaining a unique bastion of liberty rather than sliding into the soft despotism of nanny-state paternalism, this election wouldn’t have been close.

Give Obama credit for this: He recognized the state of affairs better than conservatives did. Unlike Bill Clinton, he made no pivot to the center and neither did he hide behind a vague Hope and Change mythology as in his first campaign. He ran as a straightforward Big Government leftist intent on punishing the rich with taxes, expanding the size, scope and reach of government, and squeezing religious conscience into a publicly irrelevant private box. He bet that enough people were now getting government benefits in the form of checks or Obamaphones or crony capitalist bailouts that he had a coalition sufficient to explicitly move the leftist project forward, everyone else be damned. And he was right. Those who say he earned no mandate with his narrow victory miss the point; he is not a guy to ever let his ambitions be stopped by lack of a mandate (or even the rule of law), but he can fairly say that pushing forward the leftist project is exactly what he ran on: “Forward!”

The interesting thing about Romney’s much talked about “47%” comment is that critics said it was foolish and insulting... but I didn’t hear anyone say that it was false. In an unguarded moment Romney spoke the truth that we all know but don’t speak: There is a vast constituency of people receiving a government check of one form or another for whom elections come down to the single question - Will the government keep writing the check or not? Talk of trillion dollar deficits, fiscal cliffs, economic ruin through taxation and regulation - these things mean nothing in light of the single question. This is the current situation in Greece. As the Greek nation plunges ever further into ruin and chaos, riots break out and cars burn on any suggestion that the government might scale back the check writing. This is our future.

One of the things that, paradoxically, has helped Obama is the long period of unprecedented prosperity this nation has enjoyed. People are used to seeing supermarkets with shelves fully stocked with a mind-boggling array of good, cheap food, fresh vegetables and fruit, steak for a few dollars a pound, and fresh baked bread. They are used to eating cheaply at places like the 99 or even Wendy’s that are unknown to the vast majority of the world’s population. They are used to having several flatscreen TVs, a refrigerator, washer and dryer, and several computers in their house. This has gone on for so long and so consistently that people cannot imagine it ever ending. They see no connection between the rare combination of relatively limited government, the rule of law, and free markets this nation has traditionally embraced and the prosperity they have enjoyed. They imagine that they can embrace the social welfare statism that has been tried and failed in so many parts of the world and those supermarket shelves will forever go on being stocked with fresh, cheap food. Even in our current recession, Americans live far better than almost anyone else in the world. But there is nothing inevitable about any of this; the goods on those supermarket shelves are the result of a complex, dynamic, and always evolving free market system that needs a specific environment in which to thrive. And we have embraced the man who has made it his mission to change that environment.

Years ago I spent time in England working as an engineer. What struck me about the country was that it was similar to home but everything was smaller, usually dingier, and much more expensive. They had supermarkets, but they didn’t have the quality or variety normal in American supermarkets, and what they did have cost more. When the English engineers would come to the states for a project, they would bring an empty suitcase that they would stuff with American bought jeans and other clothing, and sometimes even electronics (this was pre-9/11) which were far cheaper over here than in the UK. This too is our future. I wonder how long it will be before Americans are bringing empty suitcases to Australia or Hong Kong.

Besides the fact that this election revealed that the bell has already tolled for basic liberty in this country, it also revealed a moral complacency among those opposed to the militant secularism that is part of the Obama vision. I am thinking specifically here of the Catholic Church, which was vocal when the assault on religious liberty in Obamacare became clear with the HHS mandate that health insurance support contraception and abortion. The mandate was an expression of Obama’s contempt for the Church and the moral vision it represents: In an election year, he was willing to give the middle finger to the Church and dare her to oppose him. After some initial public opposition, the response of the Church faded and the bishops were silent about Obamacare in the closing months of the election. The only way to stop the mandate was to unseat Obama, and if the Church really cared about the threat to freedom of conscience it would have publicly and forcefully committed to making it an issue in the election. At least this is how I suspect Obama will interpret it, and the passivity of the Church in the face of Obama’s outrages will only increase his contempt for her. If he was happy to insult the Church in the runup to an election, we can expect him to mercilessly bring the full weight of the Federal bureaucracy, and its regulatory and legal apparatus, down on the Church now that he is safe for his final four years.

There is a Weimar feel to what is now happening, but perhaps I am just overreading things in my gloom. I don’t mean that Obama is leading us to a Hitler-like situation, because he’s not.  I’m referring to a lack of moral resolve in people in positions of power who should know better, but who either stay silent or offer half-hearted opposition until it is too late. In the latter camp I place the Catholic bishops. In the former are the university elites and particularly the mainstream media. Media bias is one thing; deliberately suppressing stories involving someone in the chain of command leaving four Americans to twist in the wind, allowing them to be killed by terrorists despite repeated calls for help over hours, is quite another. I am of course referring to Benghazi. Obama claims he gave orders from the beginning that every effort should be made to help the stranded men. If this is true, someone in the chain of command disobeyed his orders or there was a massive communication failure (over seven hours). Whatever the case, the family of those that died, not to mention the military and the country in general, deserves answers as to how those men were left to their fate. Yet no one in the mainstream media shows any interest in finding out, obviously for the sake of protecting Obama. Isn’t anyone’s conscience in the CBS/ABC/NBC/CNN/WashPost/NYTimes newsrooms troubled by the plaintive cries of the mothers and fathers of these slain men? They are not partisans; they simply want to know what happened to their children. But our media watchdogs are unmoved.

At times like these I ponder my parish Church, a stone building up the street built in the Romanesque style. The ancient architecture is appropriate for a Church, for it is a sign that the Church endures. Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail before the Church; he made no such promise for the United States or its Constitution. The United States is a purely human institution susceptible of no divine guarantees; as an online commenter noted today, 100 years is a pretty good run for a superpower. The most depressing aspect of this is that we did it to ourselves. The British spent 200 years as a global power and only relinquished the status after suffering through two devastating world wars. In 1990, with the fall of the Soviet Union, an enduring era of peace and prosperity seemed at hand. Barely twenty years later, and without suffering any calamity on the scale of a world war, the nation teeters on the brink of economic catastrophe, and has reelected a man who has no serious interest in addressing the problem.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Prager on Gay Marriage

Here is Dennis Prager's take on gay marriage.

Prager thinks that the two sides in the gay marriage debate ask different questions and don't address the other side's question. He summarizes the questions in this manner:
Proponents of same-sex marriage ask: Is keeping the definition of marriage as man-woman fair to gays? Opponents of same-sex marriage ask: Is same-sex marriage good for society?
Prager is ultimately against gay marriage because he does not think it is good for society, but he acknowledges that the traditional definition of marriage is "unfair" to gays. He just thinks the detriment to society outweighs the unfairness to gays.

But Prager never gives an argument as to why the traditional definition of marriage is unfair to gays. He insists that we must be "honest" that it is, but as is generally the case when "honest" is used this way, it is a form of moral blackmail masquerading as an appeal to our better nature; you can either join Prager in the ranks of the honest by immediately agreeing with him or reveal your dishonesty simply by disagreeing. It's a not so noble way to avoid an argument.

Why should we agree that marriage as it is traditionally known is "unfair" to gays? To be "unfair" marriage must deprive someone of something that is their just due. Marriage has always been understood to be a union between men and women (even when it has been between a man and more than one woman or vice versa); it has never been understood to be a union between men and men or women and women. This is independent of anyone's inclinations; I can't marry a man any more than a gay man can and a gay man can marry a woman just as much as I can. Simply because a gay man wants to marry a man and doesn't want to marry a woman, it doesn't follow that there is any injustice in the traditional arrangements. Our desires should follow justice and not vice versa.

This brings me to Prager's points concerning the differences between the sexes:
There is a fierce battle taking place to render meaningless the man-woman distinction, the most important distinction regarding human beings’ personal identity.
Sexual differences surely are fundamental, but doesn't this undermine Prager's point that denying marriage to gays is "unfair?" If the sexes are not interchangeable, then you can't simply substitute a man for a woman in the marriage union and still call it "marriage", or apply the principles of justice appropriate to marriage.  Marriage simply isn't a union between two persons; it is a union between a man and a woman. We may want to discuss whether a union between a man and a man or a woman and a woman should have some sort of legal standing, but if Prager is right about the fundamental nature of sexual differences, it's not simply "unfair" that gay relationships are not included in our definition of marriage.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Holmes and Scientism

"One's ideas must be as broad as Nature if they are to interpret Nature"
      - Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet

Holmes doesn't use it this way (in fact he uses it with reference to Darwin), but this statement is an excellent summation of the problem with scientism. What happens in scientism is that principles that have been shown to be highly effective in interpreting certain aspects of nature are, for that reason, taken to define the extent of nature. What cannot be interpreted in their terms is dismissed as non-existent, a myth, or "emergent." But this is to contradict Holmes's principle, for it must be Nature that judges how broad out ideas must be, not our ideas how broad Nature must be.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Your morality

Here is an online quiz from researchers intending to explore the relationship between morality and politics. The goal is to understand "Why do people disagree so passionately about what is right?" As I took the quiz, I found myself disagreeing passionately that it was a useful quiz. The way it works is you indicate, on a sliding scale, whether you find something "relevant to your moral thinking", with the examples ranging from "not at all relevant" to "extremely relevant." A sample of the questions:

Whether or not private property was respected.
There are times when private property should be respected and times when it shouldn't. If someone is drowning, then it's not relevant that running on to their property to save them is trespassing. Or, if the pool is behind a fence you can't get through, that running your car through the fence to make a hole is not respecting private property. If you are parachuting into Normandy in 1944, it's not relevant that you aren't respecting the property of whomever's farm you land on. But if you happen to like your neighbor's new Ford Mustang, it is relevant that it is his and not yours, and you can't just take it.

But more deeply, "respect" is inseparable from the notion of "private property." Private property for which it is never relevant that it be respected simply isn't private property at all - which is why logically consistent Communists reject the notion of private property altogether.  So positing private property at all necessarily posits respect for it. This question isn't so much about whether respect for private property is relevant as whether logic is relevant.

Whether or not someone's action showed love for his or her country.

What's interesting about this one is why it is not simply the absolute "Whether or not someone's action showed love." Everyone would say yes to this. But if you would say "yes" to the question absolutely, there couldn't be any particular instances when you would say "no." No matter what finishes "Whether or not someone's action showed love..." the answer would always be yes. What the authors are probably after is whether something really counts as love of one's country, e.g. protests against the Vietnam War. The substance of the difference between Vietnam War protestors and their critics is whether the protests count as showing love for country; but both groups would claim they love their country. Because love is always good, isn't it? But if you answer "yes" to this one (because you think everything should be done with love), the researchers are probably going to mark you down as a conservative or Archie Bunker type. Nonetheless, logic demands an "extremely relevant" answer to this question because love is always extremely relevant.

Whether or not an action caused chaos or disorder.

Aristotle begins his Nichomachean Ethics by writing that "Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good." If someone does something not intending that chaos result, but it does, how could this not be relevant? Whatever he intended to do (i.e. the good intended) is threatened by chaos (for the nature of chaos is to be indiscriminant). On the other hand, if chaos is intended and it does result, then in this instance it is both relevant and good; for example, in the case of a commando parachuted behind enemy lines with the mission to sow chaos. So sometimes chaos is a legitimately intended result and sometimes it isn't. But an individual who is entirely uninterested in whether chaos results from his actions isn't so much immoral as irrational - he's like a child who hasn't yet begun to think about the consequences of his actions. This poorly worded question is probably intended to get at the difference between conservatives - who tend to value stability - and progressives, who are more willing to shake things up for the sake of change. But for both people, the conservative and the progressive, chaos and disorder are relevant. The conservative wants to avoid chaos to preserve the already existing good, and the progressive wants to (sometimes) sow chaos to "bring down the system" so change becomes possible.  So whatever your political or moral views, it is irrational to answer anything other than "extremely relevant" to this one.

Whether or not someone conformed to the traditions of society.

It's good to conform to the traditions of society when those traditions are good (like the tradition of fathers taking care of their children) and bad when the traditions are bad (like female circumcision in certain Islamic countries).  This is what conservatives really believe... but the notion that one should "conform" simply for the sake of conforming is the caricature of conservatives embedded in this question. I would have to answer "not at all relevant" to this question because mere "conformity" is not a good.

Whether or not someone suffered emotionally.

Like the question about love of country, why is this one not simply the absolute "Whether or not someone suffered?" Emotion is one form of suffering among many, and surely someone for whom suffering (emotional or otherwise) is simply not a relevant moral consideration is just immoral full stop.  Does anyone other than a sociopath really believe this? Just like love is always relevant to moral questions, so is suffering, so this one would have to be answered "extremely relevant."

Whether or not someone showed a lack of respect for authority.

This one is similar to the private property question; the very notion of "authority" involves the notion of "respect"; an authority that shouldn't be respected simply isn't an authority at all. The disagreement over authority is never whether it should be respected, but whether what is claimed to be an authority truly is. Dissidents from the teachings of the Catholic Church, for example, don't argue that they should not respect the authority of the Pope, but that the Pope doesn't have the authority he claims in the first place.  So again on purely rational considerations, this one has to be answered "extremely relevant" for an authority by nature should be respected (to the extent that it is in fact an authority.)

Whether or not someone acted in a way that God would approve of.

Even an atheist thinks that God should be obeyed; he just doesn't believe there is a God to be obeyed. Someone who believes in God, but also thinks that God should be ignored, is surely a very rare bird. This question is little more than a proxy for belief in God. Why can't they just ask it directly?

Whether or not someone was cruel.
Whether or not someone acted unfairly.
Justice is the most important requirement for a society.

"Cruel" and "unfairly" are virtual synonyms for "immoral." No one thinks anyone should be treated unfairly; what they disagree on is what constitutes "fair" in any particular circumstance. The liberal and conservative both think the wealthy man should be treated fairly. The liberal thinks it is fair to confiscate his wealth for purposes the state considers good; the conservative thinks it is manifestly unfair to take from someone that which is rightfully his.

It is better to do good than to do bad.
This is tautological. The good is precisely that which it is better to do.

If I were a soldier and disagreed with my commanding officer's orders, I would obey anyway because that is my duty.

The military makes a distinction between lawful and unlawful orders. It always a soldier's duty to obey lawful orders, and always his duty to disobey unlawful ones (like shooting prisoners). Agreeing or disagreeing has got nothing to do with it. Like many of the questions in this survey, it is based on ignorance.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Economy of Words

From Open Season by C.J. Box, an attitude well kept in mind for any internet blogger:
Joe had always considered individual words as finite units of currency, and he believed in savings. He never wanted to waste or unnecessarily expend words. To Joe, words meant things. They should be spent wisely. Joe sometimes paused for a long time until he could come up with the right words to express exactly what he wanted to say. Sometimes it confused people (Marybeth fretted that perhaps people thought Joe was slow) but Joe could live with that. That's why Joe despised meetings where he felt the participants acted as if they were paid by the number of words spoken and, as a result, the words began to cheapen by the minute until they meant nothing at all. In Joe's experience, the person who talked the most very often had the least to say. He sometimes wished that every human was allotted a certain number of words to use for their lifetime. When the allotment ran out, that person would be forced into silence. If this were the case, Joe would still have more than enough in his account while people like Les Etbauer would be very quiet. Joe had attended meetings where little got accomplished except what he considered the random drive-by spewing of words, he often thought. What a waste of currency. What a waste of bullets.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Creating the Abstract

Ed Feser has a post on his blog concerning the Cartesian/scientistic error of "concretizing the abstract." He describes abstraction, and what it means to "reify" an abstraction, this way:
[Modern Scholastic writers often distinguish three “degrees” of abstraction.  The first degree is the sort characteristic of the philosophy of nature, which considers what is common to material phenomena as such, abstracting from individual material things but retaining in its conception the sensible aspects of matter.  The second degree is the sort characteristic of mathematics, which abstracts not only the individuality of material things but also their sensible nature, focusing on what is intelligible (as opposed to sensible) in matter under the category of quantity.  The third degree is the sort characteristic of metaphysics, which abstracts from even the quantitative aspects of matter and considers notions like substance, existence, etc. entirely apart from matter.]

Abstractions can be very useful, and are of themselves perfectly innocent when we keep in mind that we are abstracting.  The trouble comes when we start to think of abstractions as if they were concrete realities themselves -- thereby “reifying” them -- and especially when we think of the abstractions as somehow more real than the concrete realities from which they have been abstracted.
Feser later discusses scientism as the error of mistaking scientific abstractions for reality itself:
The irony is that while New Atheists and others beholden to scientism pride themselves on being “reality based,” that is precisely what they are not.  Actual, concrete reality is extremely complicated.  There is far more to material systems than what can be captured in the equations of physics, far more to human beings than can be captured in the categories of neuroscience or economics, and far more to religion than can be captured in the ludicrous straw men peddled by New Atheists.  All of these simplifying abstractions (except the last) have their value, but when we treat them as anything more than simplifying abstractions we have left the realm of science and entered that of ideology. 
My purpose here is not to argue with Feser's conclusions, but to point out something about scientific abstractions that makes his case even stronger. The great revolution that occurred in the development of modern science was that abstractions were not simply read out of nature in the manner of classical philosophy, but read into nature by the actively creative mind. This is what Kant was getting at in this famous passage from the Preface to the Second Edition of the Critique of Pure Reason:
When Galileo rolled balls of a weight chosen by himself down an inclined plane, or when Torricelli made the air bear a weight that he had previously thought to be equal to that of a known column of water, or when in a later time Stahl changed metals into calx and then changed the latter back into metal by first removing something and then putting it back in again, a light dawned on all those who study nature. They comprehended that reason has insight only into what it itself produces according to its own design; that it must take the lead with principles for its judgements according to constant laws and compel nature to answer its questions, rather than letting nature guide its movements by keeping reason, as it were, in leading strings; for otherwise accidental observations, made according to no previously designed plan, can never connect up into a necessary law, which is yet what reason seeks and requires. (From the Cambridge Edition of the works of Immanuel Kant.)
We don't necessarily need to agree with Kant's view that "reason has insight only into what it itself produces" to see that he was saying something deeply significant about modern science and its differences from classical modes of inquiry. The classical philosopher pondered nature and subjected it to rational analysis; this starts by abstracting form (principle) from being as the intellectual basis of analysis. Therefore the forms the philosopher considered were those derived from his experiential encounter with being. The modern scientist, by contrast, does not abstract his scientific principles from nature, but creates them a priori and imposes them on nature.

Consider the principle of inertia - "an object in motion tends to stay in motion and an object at rest tends to stay at rest." Inertia runs counter to our common experience because the objects of our common experience are generally subject to frictional forces, and so don't "tend to stay in motion" when they are in motion. Slide a beer across the bar and it comes to a stop after a few feet. So the principle of inertia is not something abstracted from experience, because we never really experience it. Instead, it is that marvelous invention of modern scientific inquiry, the theoretical construct. Galileo created the principle of inertia and used it to interrogate nature in his scientific experiments.  Kant's point is that science works so well, and gives such transparent results, because there is nothing obscure about its principles; and there is nothing obscure about them because we ourselves create them.

Similar to inertia, the force, mass and acceleration of Newtonian physics were not abstracted by Newton from nature, like Aristotle abstracted rational animal from the nature of man. If they were, we might expect Aristotle to have discovered them. Nor is it an accident that force, mass and acceleration are mathematically related as force equals mass times acceleration. They are related in that equation because Newton created and defined them through the equation. Newton created his second law as a mathematical tool with which to interrogate nature, as Galileo had created inertia. This intellectual procedure - the creation of mathematically susceptible principles that form the basis of a subsequent investigation of nature - is the great breakthrough of modern science.

It's also why modern science is riven with priority claims in a way that classical philosophy was not. The idea that Plato might dedicate himself to a public campaign to prove that he was real inventor of the theory of the forms, and not Socrates or Aristotle, is laughable. Or that Thomas Aquinas might engage in a publicity battle to prove that he was the real originator of the cosmological argument rather than, say, Averroes. But the modern scientific world was subject to such acrimonious disputes from its inception, as exemplified in the long battle between Newton and Leibniz for the title of inventor of calculus. The reason, of course, is that Plato and Aquinas weren't inventing anything but explicating what was already given - nature - while Newton and other modern scientists were doing more than mere explication; they were inventing the tools that made the interrogation of nature possible. And over inventions there may be priority disputes.

Returning to Feser's point about the reification of abstractions, the situation under the understanding of scientific abstractions I've just presented is even worse for scientism than it is if scientific abstractions are considered as plain, old classical abstractions. Classical abstractions are at least derived from nature. In Aristotle's understanding, substance is a composite of form and matter, and the form analyzed in the philosopher's intellect is the same form as in the substance under analysis, since it is abstracted from substance. The mistake of "concretizing the abstract" is to mistake this abstracted form for fundamental reality rather than the substantial being from which it was abstracted. But the Aristotelian abstracted form at least has the advantage of being an aspect of fundamental reality, if not the whole of it. The situation is different with the theoretical constructs of modern science. They are creative products of the human mind and nature is interrogated in their terms; to reify them is to mistake pure products of the human imagination for reality itself.

This is not a novel point: Kant makes it in his Critique in the form of his distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal. If we take science as the only true means of the investigation of reality (other than pure reason, which - according to Kant - can't issue in any genuine metaphysical insights), then what we learn through science is not reality itself, but only reality as it is interpreted through the theoretical constructs of science, which are themselves creative products of the human mind. To reify those theoretical constructs is literally to live in a fantasy world of your own creation.

It was obvious to Kant, and should be to us, that the mind that creates the theoretical constructs of science is both more real than those constructs and yet ultimately unknowable through them, since it necessarily transcends them. Henry Ford's Model T factory in Detroit could be constructed of many things, but one thing it couldn't be constructed of is Model T's, since the Model T's don't exist until the factory produces them. Similarly, the mind of Newton can't ultimately be composed of force, mass and acceleration (as strictly understood under Newton's Second Law) since those things are not naturally occurring elements, but the creative products of the genius of Newton. (It is important to keep in mind the distinction between the common sense meaning of terms like force, mass and acceleration, and their strictly scientific meaning as force, mass and acceleration. Commonsensically, mass means "how much stuff there is", but that isn't what it means under Newtonian science. What mass means under Newtonian science is the strict mathematical relationship of force divided by acceleration. And that meaning of mass is a creative product of the genius of Newton, not existent in the world until Newton created it.) 

The early modern scientists and scientific philosophers like Galileo, Francis Bacon and Kant were quite self-conscious about what they were doing and the genuine revolution in thought modern science represented. Rather than being led around by the nose by nature like the classical philosophers, the modern scientist turns the tables and submits nature to an interrogation of his own invention, literally: Scientific constructs are constructs and nature is forced into their categories. The vindication of a scientific theory through repeatable experiments indicates the extent to which nature submits to the categories created by the scientific mind; but no level of vindication changes the fact that the substance of the scientific theory is a creative product of the mind rather than the substance of nature itself.  These early modern philosophers saw science as a manifestation of the transcendent power and reality of the human mind: The classical philosopher thought the mind, though part of nature, transcended nature by knowing it. The modern scientific mind also transcends nature but in a way far more significant than that supposed by Aristotle. The modern scientific mind is not a part of nature at all because it is behind and prior to nature: Nature comes into existence only when spoken through the creative products of the scientific mind. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Doubt as the Engine of Inquiry?

The Maverick Philosopher has a post here where he asserts that doubt is the engine of inquiry. But surely more fundamental to inquiry, as Aristotle says, is wonder. For you can doubt something without any urge to find out the real truth. In fact, that seems to sum up the ignorant cynicism that passes for sophistication these day.

The oracle at Delphi told Socrates that he was the wisest of men. This puzzled him because he knew he possessed no special knowledge. Did Socrates, then, doubt the oracle? Perhaps, but more significantly, he set out to find someone wiser than himself and prove the oracle wrong. The motivation for this was not doubt, but an urge to see the truth vindicated. If Socrates had merely doubted, he would have heard the oracle, not believed it, and just gone home.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The British Contribution

At the Corner, George Weigel discusses the secular liturgy of the Olympic opening ceremony.

What struck me about it was Danny Boyle's pathetic take on the English contribution to the world. The greatest things the British have given the world are... children's literature and socialized medicine??

Even for a leftist, that's weak. Off the top of my head, how about the Magna Carta, Locke and the modern philosophy of natural right and liberty, Newton, Boyle, and the creation of modern science and calculus, Faraday and Maxwell, the defeat of Napoleon and Hitler, the destruction of the slave trade... no wonder the Queen looked like she was about to cry.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Dawkins on Biological Perfection

In Chapter 4 of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins has this to say about the manner in which organs are adapted to their functions:
The observed fact is that every species, and every organ that has ever been looked at withing every species, is good at what it does. The wings of birds, bees and bats are good at flying. Eyes are good at seeing. Leaves are good at photosynthesizing. We live on a planet where we are surrounded by perhaps ten million species, each one of which independently displays a powerful illusion of design. Each species is well fitted to its particular way of life.
What is immediately striking is Dawkins's unselfconscious appeal to final causes; to say that every organ is "good at what it does" implies that there is in fact something that can be identified as what an organ "does", and its performance can be measured against that ideal. Now of course Dawkins would deny that there really is any such thing as final causes, and that this paragraph can be cashed out in materialistic terms. But it is interesting that in making a point about an illusion (the illusion of design), Dawkins makes it in terms of something that is, for him, just as much an illusion - the illusion of final causes. So it is the illusion of final causes that gives rise to the powerful illusion of design. I wonder what is the cause of the illusion of final causes?

More to the point, our "particular way of life" is the way of life of the rational animal. We are possessed of an organ, the brain, and "what it does" is know the world. According to Dawkins, every organ is good at what it does, so it must be that the brain is good at knowing the world. Yet the theme of The God Delusion is that most people's brains, for most of the time, have been grossly mistaken about elementary facts concerning the world; facts like the non-existence of God, the illusion of final causes and design and, recently, the reality of evolution. It's only because we have lately (in terms of human history) stumbled on the methods of science that we have been rescued from illusion and falsehood at all. The point can be put simply: If man were like other animals and "well fitted" to our way of life, there would be no need for The God Delusion.

Materialists like Dawkins want to claim that man is not different in kind than other animals, but there is simply no denying that we are. Some people say we are made in the image of God, and this makes us different in kind. Dawkins says this is an illusion, but in doing so he only creates a different manner in which man is unique: He is the creature not well-fitted to his way of life.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Dawkins on Intelligent Design

I have no beef with Intelligent Design one way or the other, although Edward Feser has gone a long way to convincing me it is more harmful than helpful. But Richard Dawkins sure doesn't make it easy to write off the ID folks.

In his book The God Delusion, Dawkins discusses creationism in his chapter "Why There Almost Certainly is No God." Arguing against the ID notion of "irreducible complexity", he casts it as a fallacy in the form of The Argument from Personal Incredulity: If I can't imagine how something came about, then it couldn't have come about naturally and must have been the creation of special design. Dawkins says there are many examples where this isn't true, and cites a reference in support of his argument:
In his book Seven Clues to the Origin of Life, the Scottish chemist A.G. Cairns-Smith makes an additional point, using the analogy of an arch. A free-standing arch of rough-hewn stones and no mortar can be a stable structure, but it is irreducibly complex: it collapses if any one stone is removed. How, then, was it built in the first place? One way is to pile a solid heap of stones, then carefully remove stones one by one. More generally, there are many structures that are irreducible in the sense that they cannot survive the subtraction of any part, but which were build with the aid of scaffolding that was subsequently subtracted and is no longer visible.  Once the structure is completed, the scaffolding can be removed safely and the structure remains standing. In evolution, too, the organ or structure you are looking at may have had scaffolding in an ancestor which has since been removed.
Does Dawkins realize he just gave a powerful argument for intelligent design? Yes, arches are typically built by piling stones supported by a structure, then removing the structure. This is how the Romans - intelligent agents - did it. Dawkins carefully abstracts from the agent ("one way is to pile a solid heap of stones...") as though describing an intelligent process without the agent somehow magically removes the agent. This isn't the first time I've seen this kind of thing happen (citing an example of intelligent design in support of an evolutionary process); I wonder if Dawkins knows what he is doing or is simply blind to it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Dawkins and God-like Aliens

I've finally gotten around to reading Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, a book I've had on my shelf for awhile. It's actually an enjoyable read as Dawkins has a nice style and some good humor. All your favorite village atheist arguments are here ("I just go one god further" among other favorites).

In his third chapter, Dawkins discusses the possibility of alien civilizations and the level of their technological development with respect to us. Apparently as a way of undermining the possibility of proof by miracle, Dawkins asserts that such a civilization might have technology so advanced that to us it appears magical:
Whether we ever get to know about them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine. Their technical achievements would seem as supernatural to us as ours would seem to a Dark Age peasant transported to the twenty-first century. Imagine his response to a laptop computer, a mobile telephone, a hydrogen bomb or a jumbo jet. As Arthur C. Clarke put it, in his Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The miracles wrought by our technology would have seemed to the ancients no less remarkable than the tales of Moses parting the waters, or Jesus walking upon them. The aliens of our SETI signal would be to us like gods, just as missionaries were treated as gods (and exploited the undeserved honor to the hilt) when they turned up in Stone Age cultures bearing guns, telescopes, matches, and almanacs predicting eclipses to the second.
The first thing to be said about this is that theologians - even medieval ones - can surely imagine things beyond the power of superhuman aliens, specifically creation ex nihilo, which is in principle beyond the technology of any alien no matter how advanced, as it is beyond the power of technology per se. (I am not quite as demanding; I would be impressed simply with the Lazarus-like raising of someone from the dead. I do not believe this is possible whatever the technology.) More interesting is Dawkins's notion that the technical achievements of aliens would seem "supernatural to us." Surely they would not seem so to Dawkins, would they? Isn't the anticipation of the possibility of advanced alien technology enough to innoculate Dawkins from drawing any unwarranted supernatural conclusions? And us as well, since he's just done us the favor?

It is not insignificant that when selecting someone from the "Dark Ages" to transport into the modern age, Dawkins selects a peasant and not, say, one of his despised theologians or philosophers. Yes, Jacques the Crass might be overawed by modern technology, but would Thomas Aquinas, Avicenna or to go way back, Socrates?*  The reason Stone Age folks took explorers for gods is because primitive peoples know no distinction between nature and supernature. Reality is an unreflected continuum and to be a god really is to just be a superpowerful creature, not different in kind from any other creature. In that respect, it might not be too much to say that the Stone Age people were not actually wrong in thinking missionaries were gods. If the "gods" are just the most powerful creatures immanent in the universe, then the explorers with their guns and telescopes qualify. But Thomas Aquinas did not believe in such "gods" and was in possession of a thoroughly articulated philosophy of nature including the distinction between nature and supernature. If men showed up doing extraordinary things, he would certainly not conclude they were "gods", nor would he necessarily conclude that they were from God. Which brings us to Dawkins's comments about Moses and Jesus.

Dawkins doesn't seem to notice that the remarkable thing about both Moses and Jesus was that they weren't strangers come doing strange things, like missionaries visiting a primitive tribe, but apparently ordinary, familiar men doing extraordinary things. "Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas?" (Matt. 13:55).  There is a "provenance" associated with both men that puts their extraordinary actions in context.  For the distinguishing mark of God is the union of power and wisdom; God is not just powerful, He is good. Jesus Christ did not begin his earthly ministry until the fullness of time, that is until he had fulfilled things in all righteousness. He was born and raised a faithful Jew so that when it came time for Him to fulfill His mission, He did it as a Jew known among Jews, not as a wonder-working stranger. What is the source of His power, then? It is nothing of this world, because we know the carpenter's son and his history; he is just like us.

And unlike an exploitative missionary or explorer, Christ did not serve himself with His miracles but others. This is an area where Thomas Aquinas might prove superior even to Richard Dawkins. While Dawkins is impressed purely with power (what tricks can you perform?), Aquinas is more interested in the question of what good you can do. Thus it's all the same to Dawkins whether a god proves himself with hydrogen bombs or telephones; Dawkins even seems uninterested in what a godlike person might actually do with bombs or telephones. Is someone just as godlike if he destroys the world with h-bombs or saves the world with an h-bomb by blowing up an asteroid about to collide with the Earth? Is he just as godlike if he tells lies over the telephone or if he tells truths? Not to Thomas Aquinas. The question of what one does with power is at least as important for Thomas as the question of whether one has power in the determination of the relationship of the extraordinary to divinity. The stranger who arrives among us performing astonishing tricks that serve no other purpose than to impress us should be treated with robust suspicion; the man among us whom we have known as a friend, neighbor and good man, who then performs extraordinary feats in the service of God and his neighbors, even to his own demise... well, he may be worth paying some attention.

*And even then, Dawkins may be selling the medieval peasant short. There is a wonderful movie made a few years ago named The Visitors, about a medieval French knight and his servant (Jacques the Crass) who are time-transported into the contemporary world (see the French version; the English remake is bad). The medieval Frenchmen are certainly bewildered by modern technology (on first seeing an automobile, the servant calls it a "Devil's chariot"), but they are not for a moment tempted to see anything supernatural about modern people. The medieval peasant may have interpreted certain modern technologies as involving a recourse to magic, but that doesn't mean modern people are magical - only that they are depraved enough to make use of the occult.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Method and Dialectic

In the comments section of this post on atheistic teleology over at Edward Feser's blog,  I had an extended discussion with an intelligent non-Aristotelian regarding the nature of final causes. As often happens in these cases, my interlocutor demanded in one of his comments that I present and defend a method for investigating final causes as a necessary prerequisite to continuing the discussion. As he put it, how could we know we are tracking the truth and not merely indulging in wishful thinking without an established method up front? I resisted, for I well knew that the insistence on an a priori establishment of method involves a host of philosophical assumptions (and mistakes, in my view) that pretty much give the store away to Enlightenment style thinking vs an Aristotelian approach. As an alternative, I proposed dialectic, which my interlocutor interpreted as a form of method (naturally, as he thinks thought must begin with method), and a poor one at that. Well, he was right to the extent that dialectic is a pretty shabby thing if it is interpreted as a degenerate form of the modern methodical approach. But it isn't such a degenerate form; it is a genuine intellectual alternative to method and is necessarily distorted if it is interpreted under the category of method. In fact, it is more accurate to conceive of the modern insistence on method as itself a degenerate form of dialectic.

We can see this through two people, one at the beginning of modern thought and the other a contemporary modern thinker. The first is Descartes, who it may be argued was the foundational thinker of modern thought by establishing the insistence on method as an intellectual first principle. The other is Daniel Dennett, a champion of method in contemporary thought and the supposed scourge of Cartesianism in the philosophy of mind. But as I argue in this post, Dennett is mistaken in seeing dualism as a foundational principle of Cartesianism; it is method that is the foundational principle and it is the insistence on method that has the consequence of dualism. This is why the contemporary philosophy of mind is so haunted by Cartesianism and why thinkers like Dennett, the more they struggle to free themselves of Descartes through method, only find themselves more tightly bound to him.

The problem with insisting on method as primary in thought is that it isn't. It isn't personally, as we all explore and come to know the world as youth without an a priori method in hand. It isn't historically, as there was an undeniable body of knowledge accrued through cultural accumulation over millenia. Nor was it even true of the seventeenth century philosophers who began to insist on the primacy of method. Descartes begins his Discourse on Method not with a method, but with an extended justification of his insistence on method in terms of his historical views and personal experience. He dismisses the philosophical tradition with this comment:

I will say nothing of philosophy except that it has been studied for many centuries by the most outstanding minds without having produced anything which is not in dispute and consequently doubtful and uncertain. (Discourse on Method, First Part)

He then goes on in the Second Part to describe the rules of his method and later, in the Fourth Part, summarizes the method thusly:

... I thought that I should take a course precisely contrary, and reject as absolutely false anything of which I could have the least doubt, in order to see whether anything would be left after this procedure which could be called wholly certain.

When he began implementing his method, Descartes doubted many things, but not everything.  He certainly didn't doubt his original historical assessment of philosophy as doubtful and uncertain, his main justification for method in the first place. If he had, he might have considered points like this: If the mere fact of disputation is sufficient to condemn something as uncertain, then uncertainty is a self-fulfilling prophecy, for we can render something uncertain merely by disputing it. And this, in a just historical irony, is exactly what later happened to Descartes and his method.

The point is that Descartes did not doubt everything because he couldn't. However skeptical he wished to become, Descartes remained a man nonetheless, an embodied knower forced to found his thinking in common sense and nowhere else. There is an entire worldview of thought and history buried in the first part of Descartes's Discourse; his insistence on method has the effect of protecting that worldview from criticism (dialectical criticism) or even acknowledgement that it exists. This is why the insistence on primary method can be considered a debased form of dialectic. All it does is hide the non-methodical assumptions from view and protect them from dialectical criticism. It doesn't transcend dialectic or protect itself from the pathologies of a degenerate dialectic, but only provides the illusion of transcending dialectic by assuming dialectical conclusions without argument.

We can see why philosophy has gotten such a bad reputation in the modern world. The reason is that modern philosophers, beholden to method, find it nearly impossible to engage on the issues that really separate them. For those issues involve the pre-methodical views of the world they must have and that inform their selection and establishment of method. In that earlier post I mention John Searle, who in his books on the mind states flatly his assumption that the fundamental particles described by physics are also the metaphysical fundamentals of reality, and that anyone who disagrees with this should be summarily dismissed. Searle, like Descartes, makes an a priori insistence on method in thought, only Searle's method is the method of science rather than the method of universal doubt of Descartes. But in any case, science is a product of the mind, and to insist a priori on the non-negotiability of the metaphysical significance of science is to already cast in concrete certain conclusions about the mind, e.g. that the mind is such that its methodical conclusions are more certain than any other conclusions it might make. Naturally, the view of the mind baked into Searle's assumptions about the metaphysical meaning of science is not indisputable, but disputing it is very difficult, because Searle has made his scientistic assumptions a barrier to entry to conversation (if you don't accept them, you are not worth talking to). Searle is not unusual but typical in this regard. And since not every thinker will make the same pre-methodical assumptions, discussions between modern thinkers have the flavor of circling the real issue in dispute without ever quite getting to it; for the disputants assume that "real thought" can only begin with their preferred approach, and when it becomes clear that the disputant does not share the same pre-methodical assumptions, bad faith or naivete is concluded.

In the dialog in response to the post on Feser's blog, my disputant insisted that I propose a method before we could discuss the metaphysical ordering of final causes. Without that, he asserted, we could be the victims of wishful thinking, psychological bias, and have no way to know whether we were tracking the truth. Now if I were to accept his demand, I would be implicitly agreeing to his views on wishful thinking, psychological bias and the rest as pre-methodical established facts, for those facts would stand in judgment of any method I might propose. But my insistence is that final causes and their ordering are primary facts about nature that stand in judgment of method rather than vice versa. For instance, why are we concerned with wishful thinking at all? Wishful thinking is a form of error, that is, failure to fulfill the final cause of the intellect to know the truth. Methods are to be judged in light of the extent to which they fulfill the final cause of the mind to know truth. But if the final cause of the mind is doubtful, what objective reason is there to prefer truth to error? Moreover, to allow facts like wishful thinking to implicitly stand in judgment of facts like the final cause of the mind is to already concede the case against final causes; for if final causes are not basic facts of nature at least as transparent as facts about wishful thinking, then they are nothing at all, or at best the illusions modern thinkers think they are.

The point is not that the brief analysis I just gave is a knockout argument in favor of final causes, but that the real point of disagreement between us is at a level that can only be resolved dialectically rather than by an a priori assertion of method. Were I to give into his demands for method, I would be conceding the case against final causes at the outset. The discussion would then be a playing out of that logic to its inevitable conclusion against final causes, or dawn in the eventual realization that the real argument is to be found in the category of pre-methodical facts of nature rather than post-methodical conclusions, at which point the original concession would have to be rescinded (perhaps generating an accusation of bad faith).

I brought up Daniel Dennett in the conversation, and he is a good example of how pre-methodical facts are unconsciously assumed in the development of method that is then used to bludgeon all rivals. In Consciousness Explained, Dennett develops a method for exploring consciousness called "heterophenomology." Like Descartes, prior to explaining and deploying his method, he gives reasons for its development. For Descartes, the villain was the endless disputes of philosophers; for Dennett it is "introspection:"

Or perhaps we are fooling ourselves about the high reliability of introspection, our personal powers of self-observation of our own conscious minds. Ever since Descartes and his "cogito ergo sum," this capacity of ours has been seen as somehow immune to error; we have privileged access to our own thoughts and feelings, an access guaranteed to be better than the access of any outsider...

But perhaps this doctrine of infallibility is just a mistake, however well entrenched. Perhaps even if we are all basically alike in our phenomenology, some observers just get it all wrong when they try to describe it, but since they are so sure they are right, they are relatively invulnerable to correction. (Consciousness Explained, p. 67)

The qualification "some" Dennett puts in front of "observers" may seem inconsequential, but it is crucial to the further development of his project. But more on this in a moment. The idea is that Dennett plans to put the subjective experience of consciousness under suspicion. Rather than accepting at face value what subjects say about their consciousness, Dennett will take a step back and only commit to saying that, when a subject describes his consciousness, we can only strictly conclude that what they are describing is how their consciousness seems to them, not necessarily how their consciousness really is. It may be that how their consciousness really is may coincide with how it seems to them, but then again it may not. Dennett uses the example of anthropologists encountering a primitive tribe. The natives speak of a being called Feenoman, whom the anthropologists gradually figure out is a kind of forest god. The "heterophenomenological fact" here is the fact that the natives are truly and sincerely speaking of Feenoman. But that Feenoman is fictional rather than real is something known to the anthropologists and not the natives; in other words, the anthropologists are able to discern how the native's world seems to them (Feenoman is just as real as anything else) compared to how it really is (Feenoman is fictional). More deeply, the cause of the natives belief in Feenoman is not the existence of the real Feenoman (as the natives think), but some other complex of causes unrelated to an actual Feenoman (since their isn't one).

Dennett's plan is to extend this procedure beyond native beliefs in forest gods to the contents of consciousness in general. His ultimate target is the experience of the unitary "I" itself, which Dennett calls the "Cartesian theater", and he claims in good heterophenomenological fashion to only seem to be real rather than really be real. The procedure is to interview subjects about their experiences of consciousness, and remain objectively neutral as regards their veridical nature until a complete account has been given. The interviewer is happy to grant the subject the authority to define how his conscious experience seems to him, but certainly not how his subjective experiences ultimately relate to reality. This is done later in an analogous manner to the anthropologist described above. And if he finds, like the anthropologist, that there are no objective reasons to believe in the reality of some element of the subject's conscious experience, and he can provide an alternative causal explanation for the subject's seeming to experience it, then the element in question can be reasonably dismissed as illusion. At the end of process, you end up with what is really true about consciousness, results the interview subject should then accept as a generous gift, but usually rebels against because his cherished beliefs in things like the self and gods are shown to be illusions.

Now I mentioned that it is critical that Dennett used the phrase "some observers" in the paragraph quoted above. This is because of the problem of the Prime Interviewer, a problem latent in the heterophenomenological procedure but not acknowledged by Dennett. With respect to subjects who do not meekly submit to heterophenomenological conclusions but have the temerity to question its authority to debunk consciousness, Dennett has this to say:

If you want us to believe everything you say about your phenomenology, you are asking not just to be taken seriously but to be granted papal infallibility, and this asking too much. You are not authoritative about what is happening in you, but only about what seems to be happening in you, and we are giving you total, dictatorial authority over the account of how it seems to you, about what it is like to be you. (p. 96, emphasis in original.)

Well, who has the authority to pronounce on how things really are, and not just how they seem? The interviewer, naturally. But the interviewer is just a man like the subject, and so presumably subject to the same cognitive suspicion as everyone else. He is only authoritative about what things seem like to him, not how things really are. If he is to legitimately serve as a heterophenomenological authority, it stands to reason that he must have already gone through a prior heterophenomenological vetting so that he could know what is real and what is illusion with respect to his own consciousness. No doubt you can see the infinite regress coming, and at some point there must be a Prime Interviewer, an individual whose consciousness is itself not under suspicion so it can serve as the methodical anchor for all other consciousnesses. In the paragraph quoted above, if Dennett had written that "Perhaps even if we are all basically alike in our phenomenology, all observers just get it all wrong when they try to describe it.." rather than just "some" observers, the problem of the Prime Interviewer would have been made explicit. If all observers get it wrong, how can the method get going? No points for guessing who gets the mantle of implicit Prime Interviewer in Consciousness Explained.

The method Dennett describes in Consciousness Explained is really just a way of privileging certain pre-scientific, pre-methodical scientistic assumptions by baking them into the cake of his method, then demanding that all other accounts of consciousness submit to the strictures of his method, which of course means that his pre-methodical account of things must triumph. Dialectic has not been transcended through method; it has merely been avoided through pre-methodical assumptions, and will inevitably reemerge when those assumptions are disputed. Which is why Dennett must order his reader to accept his results.

There are of course cases in which it is appropriate to establish a method and remain suspicious of conclusions not arrived at methodically. But the establishment of method cannot substitute for a dialectical justification of the method itself. And, finally, method cannot be the first thing in thought, for method is not self-evident, otherwise everyone would have it and there would not be disputes about methods. This is one of the many ironies of the modern age. The Enlightenment insistence on method was supposed to put an end to the endless dialectical wranglings of philosophers; instead it just substituted endless wrangling about method, a wrangling that is worse than dialectical because the dialectics were assumed and then forgotten in assumptions about method.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Catholicism and Soccer

Nicholas Farrell asks why Catholic countries are so good at soccer:

"The Holy Roman Church of Football":

"Maybe it is because Catholics prefer sport to work and that is where they direct their energy and passion. For as Weber wrote and my wife Carla confirms: To Catholics work is an obstacle, not a means, to salvation."

Or, in other words, Catholics work to live rather than live to work.

Common Sense

Here I take "common sense" in its broadest meaning. This includes everything from behavioral rules-of-thumb like "don't run with scissors" and "crime doesn't pay" to basic metaphysical principles like "something cannot both be and not be in the same way at the same time" and "everybody's got to be somewhere." What defines common sense in this broad sense is: Common sense is that which may reasonably be taken for granted until proven otherwise.  In other words, common sense is innocent until proven guilty.

Implicit in this definition is the possibility that common sense may be proven false. And, in this broad sense, it might be (at least in part.) For the broad definition includes basic metaphysical principles that cannot be proven false ("something cannot both be and not be in the same way at the same time") but also empirically contingent principles that can be and sometimes are proven false ("the Sun revolves around the Earth" was common sense for a long time).

If common sense might be wrong, why bother with it? Because it is necessary for embodied knowers like ourselves. Angels are eternal intellects who know immediately and directly and so have no need of common sense. Animals live through instinct and so have no need for it either. As rational animals, that is, animals that live through knowledge, we require knowledge to get on yet we are thrown into a world where we are born in ignorance. Our lives are a compromise born of the necessity to make our way in the world in at least partial ignorance.

Common sense is an expression of this compromise. We must take some view of the world to get on in it, and the world requires us to get on before answering all our questions.

There is a mindset that, seeing the apparent lack of foundation of common sense, finds it intolerable. Descartes was of this mindset, and spent his life attempting to construct a complete philosophy from indubitable first principles, so he would have no need of common sense. But whatever his purposes, Descartes remained an embodied knower, and so found it necessary to rely on common sense. This was true not just in his everyday life, where he took the common sense view that his basic perception of reality was correct; that his bed was really a bed, his house a house, and that he woke up in the same house every day. It was also true in his philosophy, where he was forced to adopt a "provisional morality" (i.e. common sense morality) while he spent time developing the "true morality" from first principles.

Contemporary scientism is also an expression of this mindset. The scientistic mind sees the knowledge produced methodically through the scientific method, sees that common sense has no foundation in method, and so dismisses common sense as without foundation entirely, and therefore not knowledge at all. But, like Descartes, the scientistic mind remains a rational animal nonetheless and so finds it necessary to repair to common sense. Again, not just in ordinary life, but in science as well, since science is nothing other than an activity of rational animals. The scientist takes for granted, through common sense, that the universe is consistent through time and space (F=ma both here and on the other side of the galaxy, and tomorrow as well as today) and that his senses more or less reflect reality as it is. He takes for granted that his telescopes, microscopes and galvonometers are in reality essentially what he thinks they are. But most significantly, the scientific method itself is verified only through common sense; when experimental scientists in New York and Paris independently obtain the same results, the fact that we think this strong evidence for the truth of the result is not itself the result of a scientific experiment. It is the result of our common sense belief concerning the consistency of the universe.

There is no escaping common sense, which simply means that there is no escaping our embodied existence (other than through death). But this doesn't mean we are doomed to ignorance, or that common sense must remain without foundation. Philosophy is the existential elaboration of common sense; rather than attempting a false escape from common sense ala Descartes or scientism, attempts that only obscure the foundation of our rationality in common sense, philosophy explores common sense as a means to distinguish firmly grounded knowledge from the merely conventional. The result is common sense uncommonly understood (to paraphrase Mortimer Adler).

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Philosophy and Joining

Is it necessary, or at least helpful, to the philosophical vocation to remain aloof? The Maverick Philosopher's motto is to "study everything, join nothing".  As he explains:
"Join nothing" means avoid group-think; avoid associations which will limit one's ability to think critically and independently; be your own man or woman; draw your identity from your own resources, and not from group membership.
It does seem at first sight that remaining "unjoined" indeed helps the philosopher remain objective in his quest for the truth. But on the other hand we have the example of Socrates who, far from being unjoined, was perhaps the antithesis of the aloof philosopher. He was at one time a soldier in the Athenian army and was respected for his bravery in battle; even as he critically examined Athenian religion, he scrupulously followed its duties, down to making sure religious rituals would be followed on his demise (his last words were "we owe a cock to Asclepius", Asclepius being the god of medicine.) More deeply, he viewed his vocation not merely as a personal, independent search for truth, but in the context of his duty as an Athenian citizen:
For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by the God; and the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has given the state and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. And as you will not easily find another like me, I would advise you to spare me. I dare say that you may feel irritated at being suddenly awakened when you are caught napping; and you may think that if you were to strike me dead, as Anytus advises, which you easily might, then you would sleep on for the remainder of your lives, unless God in his care of you gives you another gadfly. And that I am given to you by God is proved by this: - that if I had been like other men, I should not have neglected all my own concerns, or patiently seen the neglect of them during all these years, and have been doing yours, coming to you individually, like a father or elder brother, exhorting you to regard virtue; this I say, would not be like human nature. And had I gained anything, or if my exhortations had been paid, there would have been some sense in that: but now, as you will perceive, not even the impudence of my accusers dares to say that I have ever exacted or sought pay of anyone; they have no witness of that. And I have a witness of the truth of what I say; my poverty is a sufficient witness. (The Apology)
Socrates was not an autonomous philosopher pursuing a personal career, but a man on a mission fulfilling a duty given to him by God for Athens. For Socrates, then, the philosopher is by nature "joined"; this is the reason he refuses to flee Athens when given the chance to escape prison while awaiting his execution.

But does not his commitment to Athens make Socrates "biased"? I think it is a mistake to view Socrates's relationship to Athens as a "commitment", which is a word with an arbitrary flavor to it. Socrates was born and raised in Athens, and only left it when serving in the Army. He was raised by Athenian parents, educated in the Athenian fashion, and is Athenian through and through. His identity is Athenian whether he wishes it to be or not; he is "joined" to Athens not so much in that he has made an arbitrary decision to reside in Athens, but that his being is Athenian to its core. Were he to attempt to adopt a perspective that was somehow independent of Athens, he would merely be kidding himself, for such a perspective is mythical - and Socrates knew it. Man is by nature a creature embedded in culture; culture isn't like a coat he can discard for a new one (or, worse, no coat at all), but is part and parcel of his identity.

The philosophical quest, then, is one that must be conducted in and through culture. Rather than attempting an impossible abstraction from culture in an attempt to avoid bias, the philosopher is better advised to plunge more deeply into culture. The example here is St. Thomas Aquinas, who generated the supreme synthesis of medieval philosophy by embracing to the full his cultural identity as a Catholic and as an inheritor of Greek rationalism.

But suppose Thomas had been born a Muslim rather than a Catholic? Then he may have become an Averroes or Avicenna, Muslim philosophers whom he engages in his Summa. He may have perhaps even come to the point of converting to Catholicism. But the only subjectively true (in Kierkegaard's words) way to do this would have been by embracing his Muslim faith and critiquing it from within, as Socrates critiqued Athens from within. This is why philosophers of divergent faiths like Avicenna and Aquinas could respect each other, for their respective embrace of their cultures served as an indirect communication of their shared subjective understanding. The philosopher who attempts to remain aloof is not a part of this unspoken community; the attempt itself shows that he is confused at a much deeper level than that of objective doctrine.

This also shows us the answer to the perennial conundrum: If you had been born in Iran, you would be a Muslim, and if you had been born in India, a Hindu. You were born in New York of Catholic parents, so how can you claim that Catholicism is the one true religion? It is quite true that if I had been born in India, I would have likely been a Hindu, and it would have been right and proper to embrace that religion through my education. But I hope I would have taken a Socratic attitude with respect to it, and discovered the truth on the far side of a "joined" critique of it.