Sunday, December 22, 2013

Tolkien and Moral Complexity

The Boston Sunday Globe has an article in its Ideas section by Ed Power (behind the paywall) today called "What Tolkien Didn't Do". The article is concerned with making the point that Tolkien is not truly the father of modern fantasy (the author has in mind works like Game of Thrones).  The argument is that modern fantasy owes more to the pulp fiction of the 20's and 30's than to Tolkien.

It's clear along the way that the author is not a big fan of Tolkien (guilty of "plodding" prose), and in particular what he thinks of as the simplistic moral universe of Tolkien. Tolkien has an "old-fashioned sense of moral certainty" and his failings include "prudishness, his sometimes archaic prose, and his Boy Scout characters." Power much prefers the grittier worlds of pulp fiction: "A cesspool of inequity [sic - does he mean iniquity?], populated with feuding guilds, conspiratorial cults, and cutthroats lying in wait. Lankhmar feels vividly alive in a way Middleearth arguably never does. You can almost smell the exotic spices, the open gutters, the freshly spilled blood."

I'm not concerned with whether Tolkien truly is the father of modern fantasy, but I would dispute the common presumption that "gritty" fiction is somehow more realistic than the allegedly simplistic fiction of a writer like Tolkien. Ultimately, it involves the mistake of thinking that vice is more real than virtue. But Boy Scouts, whether or not Power has a use for them, are after all real people. And as philosophers since Plato have argued, vice cannot be more real than virtue (or evil than good), because both vice and evil are parasitic on virtue and the good. The feuding guilds, conspiratorial cults and cutthroats of Lankhmar are only possible because somewhere else in that universe are good, ordinary (and, from the sophisticated perspective of Power, boring) people tending the crops, spinning the wool, minding the shops and raising the children. Without the latter the former would soon starve to death. But the latter can get on quite well without the former, in fact better without them, which is why the classical philosophers understood that good is more fundamental, and real, than evil - even if modern pulp writers prefer not to show the goodness on which their worlds depend.

Tolkien was not afraid to show it. The difference between Tolkien and the pulp writers preferred by Power is not the presence of conspiratorial cults and cutthroats in the one and their absence in the other.  Middle Earth has its cult of Saruman and its conspiracies (Grima Wormtongue). The difference is rather the location of the moral center of the story. In  The Lord of The Rings the moral center is The Shire, the pastoral home of the Hobbits inspired by the English countryside of Tolkien's youth (a real place, after all). The Shire is real, perhaps the most real place in Middle Earth (except, perhaps Rivendell), and it is rather evil places like the Mines of Moria and Mordor that suffer a murky reality in comparison. The story has morally complex characters (like Boromir) but there is never any doubt that some things are truly good and others truly evil - and "there is some good in this world, and it is worth fighting for" (Sam Gamgee).

Contemporary writers like Power find such moral certainty unsophisticated- or "old-fashioned." The use of "old-fashioned" as a criticism is revealing, however, as it is nothing other than an historical conceit. Surely the relevant question regarding moral certainty is whether it is true or false, not whether it is old-fashioned, for if moral certainty is possible, would it not remain stable over time? What's really going on is that Power find's Tolkien's description of goodness boring (thus the "plodding") and wants to dismiss it without doing the work to substantively address it, and what easier way to do that than to dismiss it in terms of the calendar.

But Power never addresses the fact that Tolkien has an enduring permanence that his favorite pulp writers do not. The Lord of the Rings is a work beloved by more than just fantasy nerds. And that is because the pulp works provide a certain superficial thrill, but having no moral center - and you can't have one without moral certainty - they have no depth and no staying power. Men may dabble with the fun of the gutter or conspiracies, but what they really want is to come home - to the Shire.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Empathic Civilization or The Just Civilization?

My brother pointed out an interesting video by Jeremy Rifkin here, on what Rifkin calls The Empathic Civilization. The basic idea is that we are hardwired for empathy and should strive to expand our range of empathy beyond tribe and nation to embrace the whole world, and even into the animal kingdom.

That's all well and good, but the problem is that empathy by itself isn't enough to serve as a moral guide.  I may feel empathy for both the Red Sox and the Cardinals in the World Series, but one of them has to win and one of them has to lose. More seriously, our moral life often consists in making difficult choices between parties both of whom may engage our empathy. We may empathize with the poor man and support taxes to help him, but might we not also empathize with the working man who has his life's work confiscated from him through those taxes? We may empathize with the young woman who finds herself pregnant when she didn't plan it, but what about empathy for the unborn child in her womb who finds himself a potential victim of abortion? Empathy by itself doesn't decide which empathy takes precedence.

Even when empathy has a clear focus, it is not always a good guide. We may empathize with a child getting a shot, but we understand that the shot is in the best interests of the child even if getting it is unpleasant. More important than empathy is a well-developed sense of justice, which is simply willing the good for others - whether we empathize with them or not. We owe it to a child to give him the shots he needs whether he likes it or not, and however we feel about it.

Using empathy as a moral guide is to mistake the engine for the captain. Empathy can drive us to act for the good of others, but it doesn't by itself reveal what that good is or how it is to be achieved, nor how to balance competing goods. For that we need justice.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sam Harris and the Moral Landscape

Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values is several years old at this point but is still generating controversy. Ross Douthat's recent take on it is here. For my part,  Harris is worth reading because of the straightforward, transparent manner in which he argues his case; Harris is an honest atheist and sincerely wishes to rationally persuade his audience. He also has a certain philosophical naivete, such that he does not always perceive the philosophical consequences of his positions, consequences that atheists have long struggled to avoid. I think this latter aspect of Harris's writing accounts for the not quite friendly response he has gotten from some secular reviewers. But more on this later.

Harris has issued a challenge to critics, offering a cash award for the best criticism of his book and an even larger cash award if that criticism persuades him. (Given that Harris is by definition the judge of the latter, it's not too much of a leap to suppose that prize is in no danger of being won.) I might submit an essay to this challenge just to see what happens. If I do, the essay will run along ideas like the following.

Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape acknowledges a fundamental challenge to his attempt to determine human values through science: If it is through science that human values are to be determined, how is the value of science itself to be determined? Harris recognizes the only possible answer: Science cannot  determine its own value, so that value must be recognized pre-scientifically:
Science is defined with reference to the goal of understanding the processes at work in the universe. Can we justify this goal scientifically? Of course not. Does this make science itself unscientific? If so, we appear to have pulled ourselves down by our bootstraps. (p. 17 - all references to paperback edition)

In the chapter "The Future of Happiness", he argues in this way:

It seems to me, however, that in order to fulfill our deepest interests in this life, both personally and collectively, we must first admit that some interests are more defensible than others. Indeed, some interests are so compelling that they need no defense at all. (p. 191)

The interest of finding truth through science is, of course, the principal interest Harris has in mind. In the Afterword to the paperback edition, Harris puts the matter in a way that makes the philosophical implications clear:

The fatal flaw that Blackford claims to have found in my view of morality could be ascribed to any branch of science - or to reason generally. Certain "oughts" are built right into the foundations of human thought. We need not apologize for pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps in this way. It is better than pulling ourselves down by them. (p.201-202, emphasis mine)

The italicized sentence is the one that will cause heartache in Harris's secular critics, for although Harris appears not to know it,  it is a foundational principle of traditional natural law philosophy, something modern philosophers have been hoping to discredit since the Enlightenment. Indeed, the typical modern philosopher thinks natural law philosophy was discredited at the dawn of the Enlightenment with the "discovery" of the fact-value distinction. This is why Harris's secular critics sometimes, like Colin McGinn, simply repeat the fact-value distinction and think they are done - for the fact-value distinction is a foundational principle of modern philosophy and functions as something of a litmus test. Denying it serves to identify oneself as one of those naive pre-modern philosophers who still believes in things like the natural law, and therefore may be justifiably and summarily dismissed (which is what McGinn does).

As I say, one of the attractive features of Harris is his relative philosophical innocence with respect to the larger philosophical battles waging around him. He simply calls things as he sees them, and does not hedge his views or couch them in obscurity for the sake of broader philosophical consequences. In this case, Harris acknowledges what is obviously true, that there are certain values (certain "oughts") that are self-evident to human reason and need no other justification. He does this because he sees the self-evident value of scientific inquiry. What he doesn't see (which his secular critics recognize with horror) is how much of modern philosophy is undermined, and classical philosophy affirmed, with that simple acknowledgement.

For starters, the Kantian project is shown to be misguided. For Kant's premise is that nothing can be truly known without a prior evaluation of the range of human reason - a "critique" of reason that defines its powers and limits. But if the value of something (in this case science) can be immediately known absent a prior critique, then the Kantian project is shown to be unnecessary and even counter-productive, since it may result in the obscuring of truth that can be immediately known yet might not survive a critique.

Harris doesn't see that the consequentialism he favors - and is popular amongst modern philosophers - is put in danger by acknowledgement of fundamental natural law principle:

Here is my (consequentialist) starting point: all questions of value (right and wrong, good and evil, etc.) depend upon the possibility of experiencing such value. Without potential consequences at the level of experience - happiness, suffering, joy, despair, etc. - all talk of value is empty. Therefore, to say that an act is morally necessary, or evil, or blameless, is to make (tacit) claims about its consequences in the lives of conscious creatures (whether actual or potential). (p. 62)

But Harris has already given us an instance of where the talk of value without respect to potential consequences is not empty: Talk about the value of science itself, which is based on an "ought" built into the foundations of human thought, not demonstrated via its consequences. Given that Harris acknowledges the existence of at least one pre-consequentialist "ought", he must acknowledge the possibility that there might be others (maybe there isn't, but the possibility can't simply be dismissed without investigation). And if there are other pre-consequentialist "oughts", they must be discovered and understood and consequentialist conclusions evaluated in light of them rather than vice-versa.

Another way of saying the point is this: Harris recognizes that "certain oughts are built right into the foundations of human thought." He has in mind the value of science. We "ought" to prefer truth to falsehood and science is the best way of distinguishing between the two. His project is to recognize the value of science pre-scientifically, then use science to bootstrap a comprehensive theory of good and evil. All well and good.

But he fails to see certain consequences of this view. The first is that it is clear that the most important values are the ones known pre-scientifically, for it is on the pre-scientific value of science itself that Harris's whole project is based. All other values stand or fall on it. The second consequence is that there may be other pre-scientific values other than the value of science itself, other "oughts" built right into the foundations of human thought. Simply because Harris only recognizes the value of science and simply ignores any other possible pre-scientific values does not mean that they are not there (and, incidentally, violates Harris's oft-stated distinction between "no answers in practice" and "no answers in principle" p.  3)

It is no good to critique other possible pre-scientific values based on the results of Harris's scientific inquiry into morality: For those other potential pre-scientific values compete with science at the level of science's own value. To take the value of science for granted, then evaluate other potential pre-scientific values in light of science's conclusions, is simply to beg the question against other pre-scientific values that might compete with the value of science. Those other candidate's for value must be evaluated the same way the value of science was: Pre-scientifically.

What I have been just discussing exposes a typical misunderstanding of natural law philosophy found in writers like, well, Sam Harris. Traditional opposition to things like abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage and contraception comes in for rough treatment by Harris in The Moral Landscape, where he writes as though his scientific morality case against traditional views is conclusive almost before he states it. What he doesn't understand is that his case for his scientific morality on those questions begs the question against traditional natural law opposition to them: For that natural law opposition operates at the level of pre-scientific value, "oughts" built right into the foundation of human thought itself, and is susceptible to criticism of the "scientific morality" sort only to the extent that the question is begged.
The natural law opposition may be opposed, but it must be done in the same way that the pre-scientific value of science was defended - not through science, but a philosophical case.

The irony of Harris's project, an irony that I think his modernist critics recognize and want to distance themselves from, is that to the extent Harris is right he must leave off the scientific criticism of the things he most wants to attack (traditional moral views on matters sexual and life-related) and fight them on the traditionalists own turf in the arena of natural law. For the game is all about those pre-scientific values - by Harris's own account the most important ones - that he acknowledges exist but modern philosophers have been struggling to banish to the realm of mythology since the sixteenth century.

The Moral Landscape is, I think, a case of needing to be careful what you wish for.

I will have more to say about Harris's book and its relation to traditional thinking on morality in subsequent posts.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Sam Harris and Free Will

I just finished reading Sam Harris's Free Will, a brief defense of Harris's view that free will is an illusion. Harris is worth reading because he is an excellent writer, with a clear and succinct style. He doesn't hedge or avoid the more disturbing logical implications of his position, but addresses them head on and with confidence.

Free Will is also worth reading because Harris, unintentionally, reveals the weaknesses of the modern understanding of free will while leaving the classical understanding entirely unscathed. In fact the classical understanding becomes all the more attractive in comparison to Harris's conception. (By "classical" I mean mainstream philosophy up to roughly St. Thomas Aquinas, with Aquinas representing the pinnacle of the classical tradition).

The key to understanding the classical conception is that it is inextricably linked with the intellect. The intellect and will in classical philosophy are almost two sides of the same coin, and it is difficult to make sense of one without the other. Freedom is found in the interplay between the two.

Harris writes at the start of his chapter "Changing the Subject:"

It is safe to say that no one was ever moved to entertain the existence of free will because it holds great promise as an abstract idea. The endurance of this notion is attributable to the fact that most of us feel that we freely author our own thoughts and actions (however difficult it may be to make sense of this in logical or scientific terms). Thus the idea of free will emerges from a felt experience. (p 15)

The fact that Harris is likely true about this says more about the poor state of contemporary popular philosophical reflection than any failure of the promise of free will as an abstract idea. The old notion of free will did not arise out of any felt experience, but simple empirical observation, and it issued in an idea (aren't ideas by nature abstract?) straightforwardly intelligible. Men observed that inanimate objects  like stones are acted on but have no interior principle of action. In that sense they are entirely unfree. They also noticed that plants, unlike rocks, can initiate their own actions like sinking roots into the soil or growing toward the sun, and so are in that sense freer than rocks. Animals, beyond plants, have the ability to perceive their environment and pursue their desires as well as flee from their fears. An oak tree can't move itself to better soil or run away from a forest fire, but a wolf is free to find better hunting grown or flee a conflagration. In that sense, the wolf is yet more free than the oak tree.

Man, alone in physical nature and by the power of his intellect, can know the truth about himself and the universe, and so perceive his own good through that truth and pursue it as such. The wolf will devour raw meat because it perceives it as desirable and it reacts on that basis. Man also perceives meat as desirable, but he also knows the truth that meat is good for him because of its nutritional value, and the end of nutrition is health, and so he may not devour meat even if his animal nature desires it if he decides it is not healthy for him (e.g. he is cutting down on red meat to lower his cholesterol). Man, then, is free in a way that no other earthly creature is because freedom for him means the power to act in light of the truth and in pursuit of the good as such.

It's easy to see why the classicals stressed the relationship between intellect and will. Free will in the classical sense means a will enlightened by the intellect with truth; absent the intellect's knowledge, the will has no object and becomes impotent. It becomes reduced to an animal or plant will that merely responds immediately to perceived desire or fear.

We can also see that the classical conception of freedom is dynamic. It depends on knowledge, and as our lives move between the poles of ignorance and knowledge, so our will moves between the poles of slavishness and freedom: A philosophically primitive barbarian is in a very real sense not as free as Socrates, but may become so to the extent that he is educated. Thus the classical aphorism that "the truth shall make you free."

The classical conception also recognizes that our behavior is derived from both rational and non-rational sources. I may conclude that it is good for me to lose weight and so begin a diet (a rational cause). But I may have difficulty staying on it because my desire for cheesesteak subs (a non-rational cause) overwhelms my rational determination to diet. The moral life consists, in part, in training the non-rational side of our nature to follow the rational side.

Finally, it is important to see that the classical conception of freedom does not involve rescuing free will from a chain of causation. The free will is caused just like everything else is caused. The difference is that the will becomes free when it is moved in the chain of rational causes rather than the chain of non-rational causes. Why did I write "4" to the answer "What is 2+2?" Because it is true, and mathematically provable, that two added to two is four. This is an explanation in terms of rational causes. There is a parallel explanation in terms of non-rational causes as to how that "4" got written: My brain sent an electrical signal to my hand which moved a pencil to write a symbol of the shape "4." But no matter how detailed this account, it has no bearing on the truth of the account in terms of rational causes that is the basis of freedom: I wrote "4" because 2+2=4.

The modern version of free will differs from the classical insofar as it separates the will from the intellect. This had its origin in the early modern's dazzlement by the advances of science. Science seemed to provide an account of the world entirely in terms of dumb matter and irrational causes - Newton's clockwork universe. Rational causes - Aristotle's formal and final causes, and which are at the heart of the classical understanding of free will and intellect - were not so much refuted as simply left out of the account, having lost respectability in the non-rational account of nature provided by science. The classical intellect and will simply disappeared from view as invisible to modern science.

The result was that free will, which was not particularly mysterious for classical philosophers, became an impenetrable mystery for modern philosophers, for what could freedom mean in a clockwork universe devoid of rational causation? The issue of causation becomes the central focus of modern thinking about the will because the only way moderns can conceive of freedom is as some sort of escape from the chain of non-rational causation (which is why free will can only be felt rather than demonstrated, because demonstration necessarily involves an account in terms of causes, and for moderns free will is a mysterious uncaused cause).

Sam Harris puts great stock in experiments like the Libet experiments that detect neural evidence of our decisions before we are actually conscious of making the decision:

The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain's motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. Another lab extended this work using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Subjects were asked to press one of two buttons while watching a "clock" composed of a random sequence of letters appearing on a screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made. More recently, direct recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person's decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it. 
These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. (p. 8-9)

They are certainly difficult to reconcile with modern attempts to find some space for freedom within the clockwork universe thought to be heralded with the advent of modern science. Those attempts, e.g. those of Descartes or Kant, attempted to save freedom by removing it to a realm beyond the reach of science, either in an immaterial soul mysteriously attached to the body (Descartes), or another realm beyond the reach not only of science but of rational inquiry altogether (Kant). They are all, in the end, attempts to rescue free will as some sort of spontaneous uncaused cause. It is not surprising that this conception of freedom would fall apart as soon as human choice was shown to be susceptible to physical causes (something, incidentally, the classical philosophers never denied because they had no need to.)

But experiments of this type say nothing about the classical understanding of free will. I am free to the extent that I act in light of the truth. Suppose I take a math test, and write down the answer "0" to the question "What is the limit of 1/x as x goes to infinity?" I am free because the answer to the question "Why did I write down 0" is "Because it is true." It is entirely irrelevant that Benjamin Libet could detect my impulse to write the answer down a few milliseconds before I actually decided to move the pencil. And it means nothing that someone could predict with 100% accuracy what my answers will be to a simple math test before I take it. They can safely predict that I will get nearly all the answers right because I am educated enough to know the answers to simple math questions.

It is fascinating, and revealing, that all the examples Harris cites in his book to refute free will involve non-rational decision making, i.e. they do not involve the engagement of the intellect with the will that is the foundation of the classical conception of freedom. In the above cited case, subjects were asked simply to press a button based on a visual cue; in other words, a test suitable for a monkey. That the resulting decision is something that might be explained in terms of purely physical causation is nothing that would surprise Aquinas or Aristotle, for it is only when we consciously act in light of rational causes that we are free in the sense of human freedom.

Here is another example of free will in terns of non-rational causes that does not survive Harris's deconstruction:

I generally start each day with a cup of coffee or tea - sometimes two. This morning, it was coffee (two). Why not tea? I am in no position to know. I wanted coffee more than I wanted tea today, and I was free to have what I wanted. Did I consciously choose coffee over tea? No. The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not inspect or influence. Could I have 'changed my mind' and switched  to tea before the coffee drinker in me could get his bearings? Yes, but this impulse would also have been the product of unconscious causes. (p. 8)

But as we have seen, the really relevant distinction crucial to free will isn't between conscious and unconscious causes, but between rational and non-rational causes. From the classical perspective, the decision to choose tea over coffee (unless it involved a rational deliberation about the good) was never really an instance of free will in the first place. It was on the level of a dog choosing which bowl of food from which to eat; something entirely explainable in terms of the physical chain of causes involving non-rational desires and stimuli.

Here are some of the other putative examples of free will Harris examines:

"For instance, I just drank a glass of water and feel absolutely at peace with the decision to do so. I was thirsty, and drinking water is fully congruent with my vision of who I want to be when in need of a drink.  Had I reached for a beer this early in the day, I might have felt guilty; but drinking a glass of water at any hours is blameless, and I am quite satisfied with myself. Where is the freedom in this? [Nowhere, because there is no freedom in water buffalos going to the watering hole, which this essentially is. DT] It may be true that if I had wanted to do otherwise, I would have, but I am nevertheless compelled to do what I effectively want. And I cannot determine my wants, or decide which will be effective, in advance. My mental life is simply given to me by the cosmos. Why didn't I decide to drink a glass of juice? The thought never occurred to m. Am I free to do that which does not occur to me to do? [italics in original] Of course not. (p 19)

Harris has essentially described the life of a bear or a fish. Animals are driven by their desires, not rational consideration of the good, and so are not free. What's interesting about this example are the words in italics at the end, which present the possibility of recovering something of the classical understanding of freedom. The will cannot choose that which is not presented to it as an object; the will cannot choose that which we do not know. So the more we know, the more freedom we may have as the range of our options increases. This, again, is why knowing the truth can make you free - and why the best way to keep someone a slave is to keep him ignorant.


Thoughts like 'What should I get my daughter for her birthday? I know - I'll take her to a pet store and have her pick out some tropical fish' convey the apparent reality of choices, freely made. (p. 32)


For instance, in my teens and early twenties I was a devoted student of the martial arts. I practiced incessantly and taught classes in college. Recently, I began training again, after a hiatus of more than 20 years. Both the cessation and the renewal of my interest in martial arts seem to be pure expressions of the freedom that Nahmias attributes to me. I have been under no 'unreasonable external or internal pressure.' I have done exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to stop training, and I stopped. I wanted to start again, and now I train several times a week. All this has been associated with conscious thought and acts of apparent self- control. 
However, when I look for the psychological cause of my behavior, I find it utterly mysterious. Why did I stop training 20 years ago? Well, certain things just became more important to me. But why did they become more important to me...?" (p. 43)

and the final and clearest example of an attempt at non-rational free will:

In fact, I will now perform an experiment in free will for all to see: I will write anything I want for the rest of this book. Whatever I write will, of course, be something I choose to write.  No one is compelling me to do this. No one has assigned me a topic or demanded that I use certain words. I can be ungrammatical if I pleased. And if I want to put a rabbit in this sentence, I am free to do so. 
But paying attention to my stream of consciousness reveals that this notion of freedom does not reach very deep. Where did this rabbit come from? Why didn't I put an elephant in that sentence? I do not know. I am free to change 'rabbit' to 'elephant,' of course. But if I did this, how could I explain it? It is impossible for me to know the cause of either choice. (p. 65)

This is a perfect example of the muddle into which modern thinking about free will has gotten itself. The search for a truly free act is seen as the search for an act immune to any intelligibility; somehow an act can only be free if we can't find any reason for it, rational or otherwise. This is freedom as the Uncaused Caused, i.e. a freedom only God could possibly have.

Thomas Aquinas would be baffled at this understanding of human freedom. Surely the best evidence of Harris's free will would not be the random insertion of words into the text - again, something a well-trained monkey could do - but rather the intelligible content of the book as a whole. Harris's freedom is expressed in his attempt to grasp the truth about free will and communicate it to the rest of us, something monkeys, trees and rocks are not free to do.

Free Will is a relatively short book (82 pages), but then the case against freedom in the scientistic worldview of Harris is straightforward and brief:

Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them. (p 5)

This is surely true if you only recognize as causes non-rational efficient causes. But if the reality of rational causes (Aristotle's formal and final causes) is acknowledged, then we can be responsible for our actions, and our actions be free, even if they occur within a chain of rational causation. Socrates made the distinction a long time ago in the Phaedo:

I felt very much as I should feel if someone said, 'Socrates does by mind all he does'; and then, trying to tell the causes of each thing I do, if he should say first that the reason why I sit here now is, that my body consists of bones and sinews, and the bones are hard and have joints between them, and the sinews can be tightened and slackened, surrounding the bones along with flesh and the skin which holds them together; so when the bones are uplifted in their sockets, the sinews slackening and tightening make me able to bend my limbs now, and for this cause I have bent together and sit here; and if next he should give you other causes of my conversing with you, alleging as causes voices and airs and hearings and a thousand others like that, and neglecting to give the real causes. These are that since the Athenians thought it was better to condemn me, for this very reason I have thought it better to sit here, and more just to remain and submit to any sentence they may give. For, by the Dog! these bones and sinews, I think, would have been somewhere near Megara or Boeotia long ago, carried by an opinion of what is best...

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Inspiring Socratic Quotes, Part 2

"You are wrong, my friends, if you think a man with a spark of decency in him out to calculate life or death; the only thing he out to consider, if he does anything, is whether he does right or wrong, whether it is what a good man does or a bad man."

- Apology, WHD Rouse translation

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Inspiring Socratic Quotes, Part 1

This may be my favorite quote in all the Platonic works, and the one I go back to when tempted by despair of philosophy.

" 'Then, Phaidon', he said, 'it would be a pitiable disease, when there is an argument true and sound, and such as can be understood, if through the pain of meeting so many which seem sometimes to be true and sometimes not, instead of blaming himself and his own clumsiness a man should in the end gladly throw the blame from himself upon the arguments, and for the rest of his life should continually hate and abuse them, and deprive himself of the truth and the knowledge of what is real.'
... 'First, then, let us be careful', he said, 'and let us not admit into our souls the belief that there really is no soundness or health in arguments. Much rather let us think that we are not sound ourselves, let us be men and take pains to become sound: you and the others to prepare you for all your coming life, I to prepare myself for death.'"

- Phaedo, from the WHD Rouse translation.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Breaking Bad Finale and Moral Truth

/*** Warning Breaking Bad Spoiler Alert ***/

 Breaking Bad may be the best television series ever. Certainly I can't remember savoring every moment of a series the way I have this one. And the series finale lived up to the quality of the rest of the series. Vince Gilligan did his fans a service by resolving all the major plot lines and not taking a cheap way out (ala Lost).

But although I enjoyed the series finale, it did nonetheless break the arc of the plot and, in the end, muddled the moral truth that was at the heart of the series. Gilligan has stated that his idea with Breaking Bad was to turn "Mr. Chips into Scarface". Walter White certainly started out as Mr. Chips, but he wasn't really Scarface at the end. In fact, in many ways Walter White at the end of the series is a more virtuous man than the Walter White at the beginning of the series.

At the series start, Walter White is a mild-mannered chemistry teacher and something of a milquetoast. He lacks self-confidence in everything but his chemistry. Diagnosed with cancer, he embarks on a secret career as a crystal meth producer in order to make money for his cancer treatments and to leave a legacy to his wife and family. In this secret life Walter is put in a number of life and death, kill or be killed situations that force him to find inner resources of courage, cleverness and coolness under pressure. In that sense, Walter grows in virtue through his criminal life, for courage and coolness under fire are certainly virtues. This is all well and good because Walter also grows in ruthlessness and develops a coldly calculating heart, to the point that, besides committing a number of cold-blooded murders, he also permits a girl to drown in her own vomit and poisons a child. It is clear that Walter is becoming an evil man, even a monster, and whatever practical virtues he has developed are overshadowed by the degeneration of his soul and its moral compass. One of the great virtues of the show is the manner in which it shows that Walter, even as he grows in self-confidence and practical cleverness, becomes ever moral blind to both the moral truth and the truth of his own nature.

And this is, of course, one of the consequences of sin. We don't become wise through sin, we become ignorant. Sin leads to darkness and lies to oneself and to others, not self-awareness. The Godfather series shows this in Part 2, which ends with Michael sitting silently alone in his Lake Tahoe boathouse, pondering his life as the execution of his brother is carried out on his orders out on the water. There is no flash of self-awareness, just a parade of images of where he was and where he is now, which only serves to show how much more (morally) attractive Michael was at the beginning of the series than he is now.

Breaking Bad shows this through most of its length as Walter's lies become ever more elaborate and his rationalizations ever more flimsy. In the penultimate episode Walter kidnaps his own daughter and calls his wife with the authorities listening on her end. He engages in a self-justifying, irrational rant that his brother-in-law got what was coming to him by crossing Walter. This would have been an excellent way to end the series, or to end it by following it up with the traditional shootout with the police ("Top of the world!"). But it turns out that the phone call was really just a clever con job by Walter to get his wife off the hook, who was in trouble for being an accessory to his crimes.

In the last episode, Walter has one final meeting with his wife, where he admits that his standard justification for his criminal life ("everything I did was for the family") was a lie: In fact, he admits, everything he did was for himself and because he liked it. It made him feel alive. This is a level of self-awareness well beyond that of the Mr. Chips at the beginning of the series, and it is a level of self-awareness that should not be available to someone who has corrupted himself through sin as deeply as has Walter White. Despite his crimes, the Walter White at the end of the series is more attractive than the Walter White at the beginning of the series. The later Walter is stronger, more courageous, more self-aware, and even more at peace with himself than the earlier Walter. This makes for an enjoyable ending, but not one genuinely reflective of the moral character of the universe.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Dennis Prager and the Natural Law

Richard Dawkins, unsurprisingly, thinks that religion doesn't provide us with a true moral compass. Dennis Prager responds to Richard Dawkins's at National Review here.

Unfortunately, Prager's argument undermines itself. He seems to favor some version of a divine command theory of morality: "To put this as clearly as possible: If there is no God who says, 'Do not murder,' murder is not wrong." He then goes on to denigrate reason in its quest to discover the nature of good and evil:

So, then, without God, why is murder wrong?
         Is it, as Dawkins argues, because reason says so?
My reason says murder is wrong, just as Dawkins's reason does. But, again, so what? The pre-Christian Germanic tribes of Europe regarded the Church's teaching that murder was wrong as preposterous. They reasoned that killing innocent people was acceptable and normal because the strong should do whatever they wanted. In addition, reason alone without God is pretty weak in leading to moral behavior. When self-interest and reason collide, reason usually loses. That's why we have the word 'rationalize' - using reason to argue for what is wrong.

The question naturally arises as to why Prager is writing the article at all. If reason is little more than rationalization, and if reason loses when it collides with self-interest, who is the intended audience? Those who already agree with Prager need no convincing, and those who don't won't be convinced by his arguments - since they will rationalize in favor of their self-interest. The only point of writing an article in the first place is if reason, at least sometimes, can overcome self-interest and rationalization and apprehend the truth. To the extent that Dawkins believes this more than does Prager, I'm on the side of Dawkins.

I wonder if Prager has thought through his divine command theory of morality. The natural law view is that God wrote morality into the very fabric of the universe; it isn't something he later pasted on with the Ten Commandments. (Was murder okay before God announced its immorality on Sinai?)  Murder is wrong because it is the nature of rational creatures to be ends in themselves; it is true that God is ultimately responsible for the creation of this nature, but it is also true that it is possible to reason to the nature of man (to the extent of appreciating him as an end in himself) while failing to reason to the existence of God, or to God as conceived by Judaism and Christianity. If murder is only wrong because God says it is, rather than being written into the nature of man himself, then man can't be an end in himself (otherwise there would be the possibility of reasoning to morality which Prager denies). It would then follow that man may be licitly used as a means (rather than an end in himself) unless God has explicitly spoken against the case in question. Slavery, for instance, is the paradigmatic case of treating a man as a means rather than an end, and it is famously permitted in the Old Testament (as atheists are not shy about pointing out). Neither it is explicitly condemned in the New Testament, although here the case is a little more ambiguous given certain Pauline texts (e.g. the Letter to Philemon). Since God has not explicitly condemned slavery, what is the basis for condemning it? There is either a case founded on reason or there is no case at all.

Generally speaking, God's pronouncements to us are necessarily finite (we can only listen to so much) but the moral life is potentially infinite; it is forever presenting us with novel circumstances and situations. Either we can reason our way to an authentic moral understanding of such novelties, or our divine command version of morality will always be a day late and a dollar short.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Pope Francis and the Narrow Focus

So everyone is all abuzz about an interview with Pope Francis published by America. The New York Times take is here.

As usual, there is both more and less here than meets the eye. There is less in the sense that the Pope is not changing any doctrine or advocating the same. There is more in the sense that I don't think the NYT really understands what the Pope is getting at.

The issues mentioned by Francis - abortion, gay marriage and contraception - are peculiar obsessions of the Catholic Church in the West, particularly the United States. From a global perspective, the great challenges facing the Church are the persistent persecution of the Church in Africa and the Middle East, and the millions of people living in desperate poverty and hopelessness. You don't care much about gay marriage either way when your church has just been burned down or your kids have nothing to eat. And you don't start experimenting with gay marriage unless you are so wealthy and bored that you've got nothing better to do.

I think what Francis has done is give a subtle rebuke to Western Catholics for their self-obsession, and indicated that his priorities are not his priorities. It's not "all about us" anymore. Pope Francis is no more in favor of gay marriage than was Benedict XVI; the difference is that he's not going to give the West's obsession with boutique issues like gay marriage significance by spending time on it. Gay marriage is a rich nation's problem not a poor nation's.

That is what the NYT misses. It thinks the Pope is finally starting to think like it does. In fact, the Pope thinks the NYT's obsessions are so trivial as to be not worth bothering about. The "narrow focus" the Pope is rejecting is the narrow focus of the West on itself, as epitomized by the NYT.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Derbyshire and the Science of Man

From John Derbyshire's column of August 15:
Science insists that there is an external world beyond our emotions and wish-fulfillment fantasies. It claims that we can find out true facts about that world, including facts with no immediate technological application. The human sciences insist even more audaciously that we ourselves are part of that world and can be described as dispassionately as stars, rocks, and microbes. Perhaps one day it will be socially acceptable to believe this.
It is a continual source of amazement to me that people of Derbyshire's intelligence cannot see the profound difference between understanding a microbe scientifically and understanding a man scientifically, and how much more problematic the latter is than the former. For the simple fact is that in any scientific investigation of man, man is both the subject under investigation and the investigator; the enterprise is therefore necessarily "dialectical", a two-dollar word that just means that the nature of the investigation, and indeed its very possibility, is conditioned by the investigation's own conclusions.

The scientific investigation of microbes is not dialectical. A scientist may conclude whatever he wants about microbes without it saying anything about the possibility of the scientist's investigation. But if he investigates man and concludes, for example, that man's cognitive apparatus is such that what man knows is "models" his brain constructs out of raw and unformed sensory data, then the scientific investigation is itself undermined. The scientist, as a member of the human race, is a mental model-maker like everyone else, and so his scientific theories reach only to those mental models and never to the reality behind the models. The brain, eyes and nervous system that feature in the scientists' account are not directly known elements of reality (for this is impossible on the scientist's account of things); they are cognitive models constructed by the scientist's mind just as much as anything else. It may appear that the scientist is getting somewhere when he says that "the apparently persistent natures of things we perceive are not really out there but are our brain's construction on sense data", but he hasn't really gotten anywhere. For the brain on this account is just as much a construction as anything that is purportedly to be explained by the brain's constructive powers (which powers are, naturally, themselves constructions). The dialectic is not avoided simply because it is not always recognized.

I believe there is a small voice in the mind of even "stone-cold empiricists" (as Derbyshire calls himself) that hints at this truth. It is kept at bay by recourse to mythology, the mythology of science, which is easily recognized when science is reified as in "The human sciences insist..." Science as an abstraction is, of course, not subject to the dialectical difficulties a merely human scientist must suffer. If "Science" concludes that the brain is a model-maker, this is no more problematic for it than any conclusion Science may make about microbes, for Science is no more a brain than a microbe. For science that is conducted by actual scientists, however, the dialectical difficulties remain...

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Trivial Things We Share

Causing a minor stir on the internet is this Commonweal article by Joseph Bottum - "The Things We Share." Bottum, a former editor of First Things and an alleged conservative Catholic, has apparently decided for unconditional surrender on the issue of gay marriage.

As others have remarked, the article is a strangely rambling and lengthy piece. I'm not going to address any of the arguments Bottum makes for gay marriage here - others have done that better than I can (Ed Feser's take is here.) Instead I'd like to discuss the nature of the things that it is that Bottum shares.

For Bottum this is principally folk music and specifically bluegrass music. "The Things We Share" is framed by Bottum's relationship with Jim Watson, like Bottum a bluegrass musician, but with the difference that Watson happens to be gay. And in the end, this makes all the difference, at least when it is combined with Bottum's Catholicism:
A few years ago, his friendship began to cool, bit by bit. You understand how it is: a little here, a little there, and last time I was through New York he didn’t even bother to answer my note suggesting we put together one of our low-rent urban hootenannies. The problem, our conversations had made pretty clear along the way, was that I am a Catholic, and Jim is gay.
Well, actually, gay isn’t the word he would use. I have what might be the worst ability to recognize sexual orientation on the planet, but no one needed sensitivity to guess Jim’s views. Not that he was campy or anything when I knew him, but he was always vocal about his sexuality, naming himself loudly to anyone nearby with words that polite society allows only in ironic use by gay men themselves.
Anyway, Jim gradually started to take our difference personally, growing increasingly angry first at the Catholic Church for its opposition to state-sanctioned same-sex marriage and then at Catholics themselves for belonging to such a church. His transformation didn’t come from any personal desire to marry—or, at least, from any desire he ever articulated or I could see.

A few years ago, his friendship began to cool, bit by bit. You understand how it is: a little here, a little there, and last time I was through New York he didn’t even bother to answer my note suggesting we put together one of our low-rent urban hootenannies. The problem, our conversations had made pretty clear along the way, was that I am a Catholic, and Jim is gay.
Well, actually, gay isn’t the word he would use. I have what might be the worst ability to recognize sexual orientation on the planet, but no one needed sensitivity to guess Jim’s views. Not that he was campy or anything when I knew him, but he was always vocal about his sexuality, naming himself loudly to anyone nearby with words that polite society allows only in ironic use by gay men themselves.

Anyway, Jim gradually started to take our difference personally, growing increasingly angry first at the Catholic Church for its opposition to state-sanctioned same-sex marriage and then at Catholics themselves for belonging to such a church. His transformation didn’t come from any personal desire to marry—or, at least, from any desire he ever articulated or I could see.

Bottum clearly misses the friendship with Jim, but what is it that he misses? Like Bottum, I am a folk musician, but instead of bluegrass I play traditional Irish music, not too difficult to find here in the Boston area. There are  players I have known off and on for fifteen years, and others I have played with consistently over that time. There are very few, maybe one, that I could call a genuine friend, including players I have spent hundreds of hours playing with. I doubt any of them are aware of this blog, and some would be put off - just like Jim - if they read it. On the other hand, I started last year attending a lectio divina group on Mondays. Although I have spent far, far fewer hours in the lectio divina group than I have in Irish music sessions, people who have known me for only a few hours on Monday know me much better than anyone in the Irish music sessions who have played with me for years.

And the reason is that true friendship, as Aristotle teaches us, can only be based on the good, and therefore also on truth. The Irish music tradition was founded in poor farmers playing in the kitchen or pub after a long day's hard work; these farmers shared a Catholic faith and a dedication to family that found expression in their music. I once heard Martin Hayes recount stories of his boyhood watching tough, gruff men play music in his father's kitchen, music that was sweet and gentle and in contrast to the rough exterior of the men playing it. What joined these men was not the music so much as their shared sacrifice and vocation, their sense of tragedy, struggle, faith and joy, all of which came out in their music. Bluegrass music in this country has a similar origin.

You can lose the shared sacrifice and faith but keep the music, but when you do you have lost its substance and have hold of something essentially trivial. It is no longer an expression of a deep human friendship but a sort of lightweight end in itself. Fun, sure, but beware trying to attach anything meaningful to it:

At the same time, there’s been damage done in the course of this whole debate, some of it by me. And I’m not sure what can be done about it. I certainly lost my friend Jim along the way. Some come here to fiddle and dance, I remember he used to sing. Some come here to tarry. / Some come here to prattle and prance. / I come here to marry. You remember how it goes. “Shady Grove,” the song is called. A bit of old-timey Americana, the stuff we all still share.

Sorry, Joseph, what that song is singing we no longer share and haven't for some time now.

A few years ago, his friendship began to cool, bit by bit. You understand how it is: a little here, a little there, and last time I was through New York he didn’t even bother to answer my note suggesting we put together one of our low-rent urban hootenannies. The problem, our conversations had made pretty clear along the way, was that I am a Catholic, and Jim is gay.
Well, actually, gay isn’t the word he would use. I have what might be the worst ability to recognize sexual orientation on the planet, but no one needed sensitivity to guess Jim’s views. Not that he was campy or anything when I knew him, but he was always vocal about his sexuality, naming himself loudly to anyone nearby with words that polite society allows only in ironic use by gay men themselves.
Anyway, Jim gradually started to take our difference personally, growing increasingly angry first at the Catholic Church for its opposition to state-sanctioned same-sex marriage and then at Catholics themselves for belonging to such a church. His transformation didn’t come from any personal desire to marry—or, at least, from any desire he ever articulated or I could see.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

On Browsing Bookstores and Libraries

Here I am thinking particularly of used bookstores and, at the library, the new arrivals shelf. Just this afternoon I was at the library to pick up a book on hold and, as is my custom, I browsed through the new arrivals shelf and came away with three books: Bad Religion by Ross Douthat, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism by A.C. Grayling, and World War Two: A Short History by Norman Stone.

I remember as a child browsing through the library with the excitement of a treasure hunt. I still get that excitement on entering a used bookstore or a library (not at the same intensity, naturally) and it is an experience that you can't get online. It is possible to browse through but it is not quite the same thing; the physical element is essential, the feel and look of the book, its heft, and the experience of wandering through the shelves wondering when and if that one special work will catch your eye.

I've started on the Douthat book and I can tell already I'm going to like it, maybe because Douthat is so obviously influenced by G.K. Chesterton. Page 11 includes these Chestertonian paragraphs:

What defines this consensus, above all - what distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy, the central river from the delta - is a commitment to mystery and paradox. Mysteries abide at the heart of every religious faith, but the Christian tradition is uniquely comfortable preaching dogmas that can seem like riddles, offering answers that swiftly lead to further questions and confronting believers with the possibility that the truth about God passes all our understanding.

Thus orthodox Christians insist that Jesus Christ was divine and human all at once, that the Absolute is somehow Three as well as One, that God is omnipotent and omniscient and yet nonetheless leaves us free to choose between good and evil. They propose that the world is corrupted by original sin and yet somehow also essentially good, with the stamp of its Creator visible on every star and sinew. They assert that the God of the Old Testament, jealous and punitive, is somehow identical tot he New Testament's God of love and mercy. They claim that this same God sets impossible moral standards and yet forgives every sin. They insist that faith alone will save us, yet faith without works is dead. And they propose a vision of holiness that finds room in God's kingdom for all the extremes of human life - fecund families and single-minded celibates, politicians and monastics, queens as well as beggars, soldiers and pacifists alike.

And, of course, as soon as I turn the page I see that Douthat has explicitly quoted GKC on page 12.

Incidentally, I think I would disagree with Douthat that what defines consensus in (American) Christian orthodoxy is a commitment to mystery and paradox. Missing here is the subject of mystery and paradox. Zen Buddhism certainly has a commitment to mystery and paradox but it has a different subject than orthodox Christianity. What constitutes orthodox Christianity is mystery and paradox with respect to a particular subject, who is Jesus of Nazareth. And for that union of subject and paradox you need authority, for the difference between a genuine paradox (which is also a merely apparent self-contradiction) and a genuine self-contradiction is a deeper truth that is not immediately intelligible to us. Our access to genuine Christian paradox, then, must be mediated by an authority that can distinguish for us between the genuinely paradoxical and the merely self-contradictory. For Protestants, this authority is the Bible and for Catholics it is the Magisterium; but for either, the commitment to authority is what makes the commitment to mystery and paradox possible. And it is the eclipse of authority, I believe, that is the ultimate cause of the "bad religion" in America.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Losing God and the Self

One of the consequences of the Fall was that man not only lost God, but also became disordered in his own soul. More specifically, he lost knowledge of himself as well as God. This is why we tend to wander through life without really knowing what we are doing.

I accepted that the Fall had these consequences, but the connection between losing God and losing yourself was never obvious to me. As has been happening regularly in my re-reading of Gilson's The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, Gilson made clear what should have been obvious all along:

The trouble is that he is himself involved in the mystery. If, in any true sense, man is an image of God, how should he know himself without knowing God? But if it is really of God that he is an image, how should he know himself? There are depths in human nature, unsuspected by the ancients, that make man an unfathomable mystery to himself. (Ch. 7)

Of course. Man is an unfathomable mystery because he is an image of an unfathomable mystery; as long as he in God's grace, and God grants him supernatural of Himself (and therefore that of which man is an image), man may know himself. But when he no longer knows God, he no longer knows that of which he is an image, and so he no longer knows himself.

But his ignorance has a particular cast in light of this analysis. While all beings naturally refer to God as the source of their being, man does so in a special way as an image of God. When he falls, he may no longer know God, but he still knows himself to the extent that he recognizes that he is the image of something. In other words, man is not the creator of his own meaning, and he senses that to know himself means knowing something greater than himself. This is one of the themes of Plato's Republic; the search for the nature of the soul is simultaneously the search for that within which the soul finds its meaning, which for Plato is the city. But as Gilson notes, the true touchstone of human nature is something far more profound than the secular city.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Gilson on Christian Personalism

In The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, Gilson discusses the basis of Christian personalism and why Christian philosophy gave the individual a dignity impossible for the Greeks:

Thus we are carried far beyond Greek thought, whether it be Plato's or Aristotle's. For if the human soul is a substance and principle of substantiality, it is because it is an intellect, that is to say an immaterial being by definition and consequently incorruptible. After that, St. Thomas can turn to his own account, and does so unweariedly, the famous Aristotelian principle that the individual exists for the sake of the species; only, by a now inevitable reversal, the consequences that favoured the species in the Aristotelian system work out in favour of the individual in the Christian system. That to which the intention of nature now tends is much less the species than the incorruptible. If, sometimes, it looks to the good of the species rather than that of the individual it is only in those cases where the individuals are corruptible and the species alone endures; but in the case of incorruptible substances, it is not only the species that permanently endures, but also the individuals. And that is why the individuals themselves fall within the principle intention of nature: etiam individua sunt de principali intentione naurae. Now it is the soul that is the incorruptible part of man; and consequently we must admit that the multiplication of human individuals is a primary intention of nature, or rather of the Author of nature, Who is the only Creator of human souls: God.

With respect to species in which the individuals do not endure, the individual exists for the sake of the species. The end of the individual is the perpetuation of the species. But in species in which the individuals are incorruptible (i.e. eternal) we have the paradoxical situation that the individual himself is an end in himself; even more than this the end of the species is not merely itself but the individuals. Gilson is making a philosophical point here; the immortality of the human soul is known through philosophical analysis, not merely revelation (although Christian revelation may have provided the initial motivation to pursue this line of philosophical investigation.) That the species man exists for the eternal individual man is a principle of nature, and can be known through nature; it isn't something imposed on nature through an arbitrary act of God's will.

But what happens when the immortal nature of man is lost to view, as it has been in the modern world? Then, inevitably, the relationship between the species man and the individual man will change, or rather, it will be perceived differently. There will no longer be a rational basis for holding the individual man to be an end beyond the species. Like every other species, the individual man will come to be seen to exist for the sake of the species, as the individual dog exists for the sake of its species. It's not hard to see here the foundation for the horrors of the twentieth century, where millions of individuals were sacrificed for the material progress of humanity (in Communism) or for pseudoscientific biological progress (as in Nazism). Those horrors have tempered the ambitions of secular man, but the immortal nature of man is still no longer in view anymore than it was in the past century; so while we may not be in immediate danger of twentieth century style mass atrocities, it may be expected that the current century will provide novel assaults to the dignity of the individual man.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Gilson on Christian Humanism

In his The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, Etienne Gilson has a wonderful summary of what has been called "Christian humanism" (although he doesn't refer to it as that here). This passage had not stood out to me on prior readings of this book, but this time it struck me that I finally understood what Christian humanism really is:

It is clear to start with, that in virtue of his very rationality man is able to use other things as his instruments. They may destroy him eventually by sheer brute force, but they can never use him; on the contrary, he uses them. Things, therefore, are ordained to man as to their end, not man to things, and that amounts to saying that the rest of the universe is directed towards its end by man and through man. Reasonable beings are there, in a sense, for their own sake, the rest are there only for the sake of reasonable beings. The case is like that of an army, of which the whole object is the achievement of victory; those who are to achieve it are the soldiers who fight, and as for the auxiliary services, they exist only for the soldiers and participate in the victory only through the soldiers. it is the same with the universe and man; for the end of the universe is beatitude, and since only reasonable beings can enjoy it, the rest are called to participate it in them and for their sake. Providence, therefore has specially chosen the human species and leads it towards its end in an altogether special manner, since God is the end of the universe and it is through humanity that it is to attain Him.  (Ch. 8)

Gilson points to the utility men make of other things as the key empirical fact separating man from the rest of material creation. Man uses things, but they never use him, although they may destroy him. This undeniable phenomenon cuts through the ongoing debates respecting the metaphysical status of animals, e.g. to what extent they share rationality with us. Whatever extent it is, it is never to the extent that animals domesticate men the way men domesticate animals. And the relationship between men and animals is one of instrumental to final ends; man uses other things for his own ends. This is not a metaphysical conclusion but a simple observation of empirical fact; but from that fact significant conclusions, including the metaphysical, may be drawn. The relationship between men and animals is itself constituted by nature - man did not set himself up as lord of the earth but it is nature that makes him so. Since this relationship is constituted by nature it reflects nature's ends as well as man's. That man is an end for nature in a way superior to other things is not merely an anthropological conceit. Nature proclaims it so in its very constitution.

And note that it is nature that does so. Gilson does not quote Scripture. This makes it a "humanism" not only because it ratifies the essential dignity of man, but because it does so on the basis of man's own nature as we know it independently of revelation. Yet it is a Christian humanism because, although based on an empirical analysis of man's nature, it provides a ground in which the specifically Christian understanding of Providence makes sense. God has specially provided for man not to separate man from nature but because man is nature's glory; and it is through man that nature attains to God.

The Contemporary Need for Socrates

In our highly technical age, it might seem that the crucial element in education is its scientific content. But I am convinced that it is not science, but Socrates, that we really need. And the more technical our culture becomes, the more necessary becomes Socrates.

The key aspect of science to keep in view is that it is science only if you do it. A physics student investigating Newton's laws of motion in his lab is doing science; a casual reader of Discover magazine reading about the discovery of a new planet is not doing science but only reading about the science that others have done. Actual science is painstaking and time-consuming, with the consequence that a genuine scientific relationship to knowledge is possible, even for the most intelligent and ambitious man, for only a very limited range of topics. On everything else, a man does not have a scientific relationship to knowledge, but only a relationship to a scientific relationship to knowledge. Put simply, most of what we think of as scientific knowledge is not genuinely scientific, but only science at second hand - which is not genuinely scientific knowledge for us at all.

The more our scientific culture advances, the more any particular scientific career becomes an exercise in specialization. Back in the days of Pascal and Boyle, a man of talent could easily bring himself abreast of the current state of scientific knowledge. He could even replicate for himself many of the relevant experiments, thus making his relationship to the knowledge genuinely scientific. Those days are long gone, not merely because the breadth and depth of scientific knowledge is far too vast for any single man to have any hope of mastering, but because scientific investigation nowadays typically involves expensive equipment available to only a few. Galileo's homemade telescope isn't good enough anymore; now you need the Hubble Space Telescope.

The paradox, then, is that as our scientific culture advances our individual relationships to science become less direct and increasingly mediated through others. Maintaining a reasonable relationship to science no longer means performing experiments like it did for Pascal (except for a few), but maintaining a reasonable relationship to those conducting and reporting science. And this relationship is not a matter of science, but of philosophy - and Socrates is its master. For the Socratic excellence was not the ability to discover knowledge on his own, but to discern whether others had in fact discovered knowledge - or only thought they knew things when they really did not.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Gilson on the Modern Philosopher

"Many of them live by what they choose to forget."
 - from The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Legacy of the Enlightenment

I'm just finishing reading The Enlightenment And Why It Still Matters by Anthony Pagden, an excellent history of the enlightenment as well as Pagden's interpretation of its significance. His last chapter - The Enlightenment and Its Enemies - is a robust defense of the Enlightenment legacy against its critics.  While Pagden is certainly right that the Enlightenment has bequethed us some genuine treasures, in particular the modern theory of rights and constitutional government, he gives the Enlightenment far too much credit. Why, for instance did the Enlightenment happen at all?

What so many of these opponents of Enlightenment have failed even to ask is why the world of virtue and moral authority that had apparently served our ancestors so well should have been overturned in the first place. Why, in other words, did the Enlightenment happen at all? It cannot simply be explained away, as the De Maistres and the Burkes had hoped, as the murderous revenge of disinherited minorities suddenly - and inexplicably - grown powerful. I have tried to offer an answer, not in terms of a conflict between "reason" and belief, between science and religion, but rather in terms of the historical failure of Christianity to continue to provide the kind of intellectual, and consequently moral, certainty that it had once done. By the mid-seventeenth century the entire structure on which all monotheistic beliefs rest, that the universe had been the creation of a divinity who continues to dictate every aspect of its being, had come to seem to many Europeans as threadbare as paganism had once seemed to Plato and Aristotle. In origin, all except the strictly theological aspects of Christianity - all that it could salvage from its Judaic origins - everything that relates to the human, and to life on earth - derived exclusively from ancient pagan sources manipulated by a powerful and often brilliantly imaginative clerical elite. Hence the description of it as "Hellenized Judaism." What the Enlightenment did was to replace this Christianized vision of the human condition with a more appealing, less dogmatic account, derived initially from the same attempt to reshape the most powerful of the ancient philosophical schools.

It is appropriate that Pagden gives a characteristically Enlightenment-style argument in defense of the Enlightenment. What makes it peculiarly Enlightenment is its use of history as a category that stands in judgement of all other modes of thought. By the mid-seventeeth century, Pagden tells us, the ancient view of God as Creator and Sustainer of the Universe had "come to seem to many Europeans as threadbare as paganism..." (that's my emphasis.) What is significant, and what justifies the Enlightenment, is the historical fact that the ancient view came to seem threadbare; whether it actually was threadbare, whether that perception was in accord with the truth of the matter, is irrelevant. History has spoken and the "age of theology" was over and the "age of reason" had begun.

The difference between Plato and Aristotle on the one hand, and the Enlightenment thinkers on the other, is that paganism (and by that I assume Pagden means the sophists and pre-Socratics) was more than merely apparently threadbare to Plato and Aristotle. They provided extensive arguments to show that the older pagan philosophy actually was threadbare and inadequate. Enlightenment thinkers by and large could not be bothered with such details. Descartes, for instance, merely informs us that he found the scholastic philosophy he was taught in school unbelievable and decided to chuck it overboard and start afresh. The great polemicists of the Enlightenment like Voltaire, and like their contemporary counterparts Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, didn't and don't actually refute their medieval nemeses. Instead, they heap scorn on traditional philosophy and theology, flattering their readers that they are too smart to believe such nonsense, and hope no one sees the bluff.

It is understandable why they took this approach. The sense of the Enlightenment thinkers was that the ancient ways of thinking had played themselves out and a new approach was needed. Whether this was true or not, coming to terms with  someone like Thomas Aquinas to the point of genuinely demonstrating the bankruptcy of his thought is potentially the task of a lifetime. But that very task, through the length and difficulty of its execution, would thwart its purpose - which was not to spend a lifetime in scholastic thought, but to move beyond scholasticism to something new.  The whole point of the Enlightenment was to get out of the (so they thought) suffocating thicket of medieval thought.

But "moving beyond" St. Thomas is not the same as refuting him. Ironically, instead of trying to sidestep the scholastics, St. Thomas might have served as a model for a genuine movement of Enlightenment rather the icon of medieval obscurity he became. For St. Thomas actually performed the task mentioned in the last paragraph - the task of moving beyond an older school of thought via a thorough refutation of it. And this brings me to Pagden's counterfactual account of history.

Pagden imagines what might have happened had the Protestant Reformation never taken place:

Luther, who was burned as a heretic in 1521, has gone down in history as nothing more than yet another troublesome friar hankering after the purity of the early Church. Christianity, although rarely ever at peace, remains united. The discovery of America has led to some flutters of uncertainty within the universities, but any thought that it might present a challenge to the traditional view of the laws of nature or God have been successfully repressed. There have been no French Wars of Religion, no English Civil Wars. The Revolt of the Netherlands, lacking ideological cohesion and foreign aid, has been swiftly suppressed. There has been no Thirty Years' War. Spain continues to be the richest, most powerful nation in Europe and remains locked in an unending struggle with France. Copernicus and Galileo, Bacon, Descartes and Mersenne succeed in creating a new kind of Renaissance, which flourishes for a while under moderately tolerant regimes. Thomas Hobbes, however, although he enjoys some small success as a mathematician, eventually follows his father into the Church and dies, like him, an embittered alcoholic. John Locke is an obscure doctor at Christ Church, Oxford, renowned only for the silver tap he succeeded in inserting into the Earl of Shaftesbury's lower intestine without killing him in the process. Newton achieves recognition as a gifted astrologer and competent administrator and some notoriety as a somewhat heterodox theologian. By the end of the century the "Scientific Renaissance," as it later came to be called, as been silenced, the heliocentric theory and Descartes's atomism between them having proved too much for the Church to tolerate. The next generation has nothing to build on. The "mighty Light which spreads itself over the world," which Shaftesbury had seen in 1706 and which he believed must ensure that "it ... is impossible but Letters and Knowledge must advance in greater Proportion than ever," is instead a steadily darkening cloud. Western Christendom drops behind its centuries-old antagonist to the east, the Ottoman Empire. In 1683 Vienna falls to the armies of Sultan Mehmed IV. Russia, or "Muscovy," as it still calls itself, backward and divided, is easily defeated and overrun in January 1699. Spain and France still control the western Mediterranean and dominate most of northern Europe. But threatened by the seemingly irresistible Ottoman armies, they become increasingly theocratic and resistant to any innovation, from mechanical clocks to vaccination, which, they fear, might offend their ever-unpredictable God... Lacking any capacity for scientific or social innovation, the European powers not already under Ottoman control steadily decline until finally, in May 1789, Sultan Selim III marches into Paris. Within a few years what the English ecclesiastical historian Edward Gibbon had predicted in 1776 has come true, and "the interpretation of the Koran is now taught in the schools of Oxford and her pupils demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the Revelation of Mahomet." United in one massive religious and political community, which reaches from the Himalayas to the coasts of Scotland, the Ottoman Empire survives into the twentieth century... 
An utterly implausible flight of fancy? An illusion? Perhaps, but something not wholly dissimilar did, in fact, befall the Islamic world. During the reigns of the Caliphs al Mansur (712-75) and his successors Harun-al Rashid (786-809) and al-Ma'mun (813-33), an entire school of Hellenizing philosophers, jurists and doctors greup: men like the surgeon Abul Qasim Al-Zahravi, known as "Albucasis"; the mathematician and astronomer Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khawarizmi, after whom a crater on the far side of the moon is now named; Abu or Ibn Sina, called "Avicenna" in the West, the author of a vast treatise that brought together all the medical knowledge of the ancient Greek world then available, from Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen; Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni, physician, astronomer, mathematician, physicist, chemist, geographer, and historian, who in 1018 made calculations, using instruments he had created himself, of the radius and circumference of the Earth that vary by as 15 and 200 kilometers from today's estimates. The best known in the West, however, was Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Rushd, or "Averroes" as he was called by his Latin readers, who was so highly regarded in the Christian world that he became known simply as "The Commentator" (just as Aristotle was known as "The Philosopher)... But Averroes was not only the greatest of the Arab Muslim scholars and perhaps the most influential of all Muslim philosophers, he was also the last. In the late twelfth century the Muslim clergy began a concerted onslaught on translation from the Greek and against all forms of learning that did not derive from either the Qur'an itself or from the sayings of the Prophet...

Pagden mentions Averroes "Latin readers", among whom were Thomas Aquinas, but doesn't seem to see the implication for his counterfactual history. At the time St. Thomas was reading Averroes, Platonism was the reigning philosophical school in Christendom and set the terms within which the Christian Revelation was interpreted. Aristotle was, in the twelfth century, a recent, revolutionary discovery. His major works had been lost in the West and only became known when translations from the Arabic (which themselves were translations from the Greek) became available. Not only because he was a pagan philosopher, and not only because he contradicted Plato in fundamental ways, but also because he came via the Arabs - complete with Muslim gloss by Averroes and Avicenna - Aristotle was greeted with a great deal of ecclesiastical skepticism. So much skepticism that the teaching of Aristotle was banned by the Church for decades, with his advocates like Aquinas also coming under a cloud of suspicion.

But Thomas Aquinas was not Descartes or Voltaire. He criticized the reigning philosophical regime from the inside, showing that he was its master and knew it better than did its defenders. He also demonstrated that, for those who love the truth, there was nothing to fear from Aristotle. For the truth cannot contradict itself. If the Gospel is true, whatever is true in Aristotle cannot contradict it, despite superficial appearances. Far from his faith being in conflict with reason, Aquinas's faith was a spur to an intellectual revolution in Christendom: His faith that Christianity was true meant that Christianity could have nothing to fear from the truth wherever it is encountered, even if it comes through pagan philosophers and Muslim translations.

Something similar could have happened with the revolution of thought that occurred in the Enlightenment. Like Aristotle and before him, Plato - who was also initially resisted as a pagan interloper ("what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?") - Enlightenment style thinking would have gone through some bumps and bruises but what was good in it would have eventually been accepted by the Church. This, in fact, was what was happening with Galileo. He initially had the support of the Pope, but through a series of unfortunate circumstances and scheming by the established bureaucracy, found himself on the wrong side of an ecclesiastical ban - just as had happened to Aristotle. But, unfortunately, Galileo was not St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas was not merely brilliant, but also humble, pious, charitable and selfless - a saint. Galileo, in contrast, was vain and egotistical, and it is interesting to wonder how things might have turned out if the Galilean personality was more Thomistic. Nonetheless, the Church would have come around to Galilean physics eventually, as it had come around to Plato and then Aristotle.

In Pagden's counterfactual history "by the end of the century the 'Scientific Renaissance,' as it later came to be called, has been silenced, the heliocentric theory and Descartes's atomism between them having proved too much for the Church to tolerate." But there is no precedence for this in the (even by then) long history of the Church. The Church successfully absorbed Plato and other Greek thinkers, the pagan Latin intellectuals like Cicero and Virgil had been taught for centuries (and even figured as heroic figures in works like The Inferno), and only relatively recently Aristotle had been absorbed through his Islamic commentators. Pagden's alternative, anti-intellectual history, a history where the truth is "too much for the Church to tolerate", is without precedent in Christian history.

A crucial difference between the Church's approach to truth and the Enlightenment's is that the Church was not willing to absorb new truth at the expense of old. It is certainly true that scholastic-type thinking was in many ways proving a hindrance rather than a help at the dawn of the modern age, and the temptation to clear the thickets by slashing away wholesale at traditional thought is understandable. But it is surely an unwise thing to destroy that which you don't really understand,  for you may very well destroy a cultural inheritance that was gained by centuries of effort, and that could be gained no other way. And that is what happened with the Enlightenment, which in its efforts to get on with the scientific revolution, destroyed the ancient philosophical inheritance of the Greeks. The result is the modern world: Scientifically unsurpassed but philosophically bankrupt. The Church, in its efforts to avoid losing the accumulated wisdom of centuries in the hurry to get on with novel investigations, surely slowed the pace of scientific progress, and did so consciously; but it is a mistake to confuse a commitment to a measured pace of scientific progress with an opposition to scientific progress altogether, which is Pagden's mistake.

Pagden's counterfactual military history has a contradiction in it. He uses the history of the Ottoman Empire as an example of what might have happened had the Enlightenment not occurred in the West, but then has the Ottomans defeating the West because of the subsequent lack of innovation in the West.  But if the Ottomans are the actual historical exemplar of a culture that lacks Enlightenment and stagnates for lack of innovation, wouldn't the lack of Enlightenment in the West simply have resulted in a stalemate between East and West, rather than the Western triumph that actually occurred?

In fact, the Western superiority in innovation long predated the Enlightenment. This is ably documented in the works of Victor Davis Hanson (e.g. The Western Way of WarCarnage and Culture, The Soul of Battle) among others. All the way back to the ancient Greeks, the West showed a unique openness to innovation, particularly in military matters, that provided a sometimes subtle but persistent military superiority with respect to the East. The only way the medieval Crusades were possible was that Western technological superiority - both in arms and in logistical support - allowed far smaller Christian armies to compete on level terms with Islamic hordes.

The Enlightenment did not happen out of the blue, but was made possible by the medieval innovations that pre-dated it. Innovations in agriculture like the plow and the harness, which made medieval farms far more productive than their ancient (or Eastern) counterparts, contributed to population growth; medieval navigational innovations like the compass and the sextant made possible the voyages that discovered new worlds, and medieval inventions like modern banking made possible their financing.

The truly interesting counterfactual history would be one in which the Enlightenment acknowledges its debts to the past and remains within the innovative tradition going back to the Greeks, rather than constructing a mythology of the past that justifies its own revolutionary, and philosophy destroying, origin.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Scientific Absolutes

Steven Novella has a post on SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) here. What interests me are his comments on science and absolutes. Using the classic question concerning the possible existence of a black swan, he has this to say:

Sometimes a hypothesis can be stated in such a way that a single counter-example will disprove it. The now classic example is that all swans are white. A single non-white swan will falsify this hypothesis. How thoroughly do you have to search, however, before we can conclude that all swans are white? Would you have to simultaneously survey every swan in the world? If it takes 10 years to conduct a thorough survey can you be sure that a black swan was not born in the last 10 years? 
The problem here is in thinking in absolutes. Scientific theories, rather, often deal with probabilities and are not necessarily wrong when exceptions are found. In the case of swans, the more thoroughly we look for non-white swans without finding them the greater our confidence is that all swans are white, and we can certainly conclude that most swans are white and that any exceptions are rare.

While it is true that science does not deal with absolute conclusions, it doesn't follow that science doesn't involve absolutes at all. In fact, science can't be done without some thinking in absolutes. Consider those swans that are the subject of a worldwide survey. Assumed in the story is that scientists have no problem distinguishing swans from non-swans, be they black or white. We might say that, as far as the experiment is concerned, scientists are absolutely able to distinguish swans from non-swans.

Why, for instance, on encountering a creature that is furry, has floppy ears, and barks, doesn't a scientist announce a revolutionary discovery: Not only can swans be black, but they can have fur and floppy ears! Because, of course, what the scientist has encountered is a dog and not a swan. Experiments like the one described by Novella presuppose, albeit unconsciously, an Aristotelian natural philosophy - specifically, the distinction between essential and accidental properties of being. An essential property is a property that makes a being the kind of thing it is; an accidental property is a property that, whether a being has it or not, does not change the kind of thing it is.

How is it possible for us to make absolute statements regarding essential properties? How can we know, for instance, that while all swans may not be white, all swans are naturally born with the ability to fly? (I qualify that statement with "naturally" because, through accidents of birth or injury, a particular swan might not be able to fly. This does nothing to change the fact that its nature is directed toward flight and would have achieved it but for accidents of fate). Hume famously denied such a thing was possible with his criticism of induction. But what Hume overlooks is that when we analyze something, we not only understand it as a catalog of properties, but we also understand it's mode of being, the why behind its collection of properties. A swan has a mode of life peculiar to it, and very different from the mode of life of a dog, that accounts for the essential properties of the swan vs. a dog. A dog is an animal that hunts prey through smell, and so is built low to the ground with a wet nose and an extraordinary sense of smell. The swan eats plants at the bottom of ponds, and so has a long neck and a bill, but a poor sense of smell since it doesn't need it. The dog's nose is essential to its mode of being so we can be sure we will never encounter a dog with a bill, and similarly we won't find a swan with a soft wet nose. But being black or white is irrelevant to the mode of life of either, so we should expect that we might find different colored dogs or swans. And in that case, statistics tell us the probability of occurrence of the various colors.

If we don't like Aristotle, Kant saw the same thing with respect to the distinction between essential and accidental properties, but he hoped to avoid any metaphysical assertions concerning being. His solution was to relocate the essential/accidental distinction from being (i.e. in the world out there) to the subjective (i.e. in your mind). Kant argues that in order for experience to be possible for us at all, it must be organized by our cognitive faculties into some sort of coherence - otherwise our experience would be the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of William James. Actually, it would be worse than that, for Kant insists that it wouldn't be experience at all, not even a confused one ("confusion" still implies a relationship between the confused elements, some stable background with respect to which they are confused.) So the mind organizes experience spatially and temporally, with space and time being the terms in which the mind constructs that organization. Essence and accident are categories within which the mind refines experience. For Kant they are imposed on nature rather than read off it as with Aristotle. But it doesn't really matter for the purposes of this post, for they are just as absolute for Kant as they are for Aristotle; they are just subjectively absolute rather than objectively absolute. Either way, empirical investigation is impossible without some thinking in absolutes.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Williamson the Humean

I'm reading the "hot" conservative book right now, "The End is Near and It is Going to be Awesome" by Kevin Williamson. Williamson is an excellent writer and always worth reading. But in Chapter 3, he reveals himself to be a 100 proof Humean:

If you believe that liberty is the paramount political good, then you probably will be some sort of libertarian; if you believe that socioeconomic equality is the highest political good, then you will not. But there is no way of proving that liberty or equality or some other abstraction should be paramount. These disputes are metaphysical, meaning that they are, by definition, beyond resolution through logic or through any process rooted in empirical evidence. Unless you are a professor paid to do so, engaging in metaphysical speculation is almost always fruitless. No valid process of reasoning can take us from the evidence of our senses to transcendent truth. Your conception of justice may be valid or it may be invalid, but there is no way to prove it in either case. We have spent ten thousand years devoted to such discussions, and we have made no progress.

That's an important hedge - engaging in metaphysical speculation is almost always fruitless. Because in the next sentence Williamson gives us an example not only of metaphysical speculation, but a full-fledged metaphysical dogma: "No valid process of reasoning can take us from the evidence of our senses to transcendent truth." I would be interested in the valid process of reasoning through which Williamson established this truth for himself. For it will of necessity involve many metaphysical ideas - for example, just what transcendent truth is, what the evidence of our senses is, and what the relationship between the two is, disputes about which, according to Williamson, are by definition beyond resolution through logic. So how did Williamson resolve it?

And as far as our conception of justice may go, Williamson may hold that there is no way to prove a conception of justice valid or invalid, but he certainly holds that there are ways to prove that reasoning about justice is valid or invalid. In fact, Williamson's implicit claim is that all reasoning about justice is invalid, if we mean by valid a chain of argument that should persuade the reasonable and open-minded person. But if we can make metaphysical claims about the nature of reasoning about justice, why can't we make metaphysical claims about justice directly?

Perhaps Williamson means to prove his case historically, as hinted at in his last sentence. But such a proof is circular, for those ten thousand years of discussion have made no progress only if all the reasoning in them has been invalid - and there are plenty of people who think there was some pretty sound reasoning about justice going on at least sometimes in those ten thousand years (see Aquinas, Thomas).

Speculative metaphysics is, unfortunately, unavoidable. The question is whether it will be done well or poorly, or openly or in hiding. Humean arguments like Williamson's are a big bluff (perhaps an unconscious bluff), claiming to eschew metaphysics while taking for granted profound metaphysical assumptions. These assumptions are often about the nature of human reason rather than nature directly, but they are no less metaphysical for that, for human reason is a part of nature. But we may be less likely to recognize them as metaphysical - which is why they often work as a bluff.