Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Shocking as a Moral Measure

George Takei posted the following picture on his facebook page:

For those who don't know Takei played Sulu on the original Star Trek series. He's been making something of a pop culture comeback these days, appearing in commercials and cameos on various TV shows. Takei is gay and his cameos sometimes play off his homosexuality (e.g., in one commercial he gives advice to a boy making moves on a girl. When the boy asks "How would you know?", Takei replies "I read.") As might be expected, Takei is an advocate of so-called "marriage equality."

What occurred to me on seeing the picture was just what a poor standard "the shocking" is as a measure of morality. When we look to the past, we find that for any time and place, there were things that were found shocking that we don't find shocking now, and other things we find shocking that were not found shocking back then. In other words, at every time in the past there was some aspect of the shocking that did not line up with today's understanding of morality. In yet other words, at every time in the past, reliance on the shocking as an accurate measure of the moral would have been wrong in at least some respects according to current lights. Which leads to the question: What about now? Is the contemporary sense of the shocking the one time in history when that sense maps accurately to the moral? Or is it simply the case that we, like everyone in the past, tend to make the same mistake of making our subjective reaction of shock the measure of the moral?

Obviously I think the latter is the case. We should strive to be shocked by the truly shocking, and not shocked by what is truly not shocking, with the truly shocking measured by reason. An interracial kiss is not truly shocking, for it is normal throughout history and across the world, and only became shocking in the peculiar racial circumstances of America with its history of slavery and racial division. So the fact that we are no longer shocked by Kirk and Uhura kissing is a laudable instance of Americans conforming their sense of shock to the truly shocking. White men kissing black women is truly nothing to worry about.

On the other hand, while we are not shocked at Uhuru and Kirk, we are also not shocked at 1.2 million abortions per year or the fact that 70% of black births are now out of wedlock. (It's 40% for whites, which should be shocking as well, but is tame compared to the black rate). One or two hundred years from now, will people look back on us and wonder how blase we could be about such states of affairs? The fact that we are not shocked about such statistics should at least give us pause that our sense of the shocking is an infallible guide to the moral.

And, increasingly, we are not shocked by same-sex marriage. Although we still seem to be shocked by two men kissing, which - despite Brokeback Mountain - is rarely seen on the screen. Whether or not people tolerate or even "celebrate" it, it seems that most people would rather not see it, and this may be something that never changes.

In any case, the question is not whether we are shocked by same sex relations, but whether we should be shocked, for we should measure our shock by the moral, and not the moral by our shock.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Derbyshire on Scruton on the Church of England

From John Derbyshire's review of Roger Scruton's The Church of Somewhere:

Not all the mockery is well-founded. Roman Catholics jeer that the Church only exists because Henry VIII wanted a divorce. There is much more to be said than that. Henry's father had become King after decades of strife over who should succeed to the throne. Henry wanted to ensure a clear succession, for the peace of the nation, but his wife was barren. Scruton: "The refusal of the Pope to grant an annulment of Henry's first marriage was experienced by the King as a threat to his sovereignty." Henry was driven by rational statecraft, not — or not only — by sexual boredom.
So, the Roman Catholic jeer about the genesis of the Church of England in Henry VIII's desire for divorce is false because, for reasons of statecraft, Henry VIII wanted.... a divorce.

Derbyshire is my candidate for the most compulsively readable yet frustrating author on the web.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Augustine on Leisure

"The charm of leisure must not be indolent vacancy of mind, but the investigation or discovery of truth, that thus every man may make solid attainments without grudging that others do the same."
- The City of God, Book 19, Ch. 19.

Friday, March 22, 2013

H. Allen Orr, Kant and Nagel

I discussed Kant and the philosophy of mind recently in this post.  H. Allen Orr's review of Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos at New York Review of Books provides a good illustration of the fact that the contemporary investigation of the mind still hasn't caught up to Kant. Here is a quote from Orr's review:

Despite this, I can’t go so far as to conclude that mind poses some insurmountable barrier to materialism. There are two reasons. The first is, frankly, more a sociological observation than an actual argument. Science has, since the seventeenth century, proved remarkably adept at incorporating initially alien ideas (like electromagnetic fields) into its thinking. Yet most people, apparently including Nagel, find the resulting science sufficiently materialist. The unusual way in which physicists understand the weirdness of quantum mechanics might be especially instructive as a crude template for how the consciousness story could play out. Physicists describe quantum mechanics by writing equations. The fact that no one, including them, can quite intuit the meaning of these equations is often deemed beside the point. The solution is the equation. One can imagine a similar course for consciousness research: the solution is X, whether you can intuit X or not. Indeed the fact that you can’t intuit X might say more about you than it does about consciousness.

And this brings me to the second reason. For there might be perfectly good reasons why you can’t imagine a solution to the problem of consciousness. As the philosopher Colin McGinn has emphasized, your very inability to imagine a solution might reflect your cognitive limitations as an evolved creature. The point is that we have no reason to believe that we, as organisms whose brains are evolved and finite, can fathom the answer to every question that we can ask. All other species have cognitive limitations, why not us? So even if matter does give rise to mind, we might not be able to understand how.
In that prior post I argued that the scientific explanation for consciousness, which can be cast in terms of a generalized function that explains consciousness (X) in terms of some set of factors, necessarily falsifies the nature of consciousness by turning it from the constitutor of the world into just another thing in the world. Even if this project is in some sense successful, it will not touch the consciousness Y that underwrites the scientific explanation of consciousness X in the first place. Orr's point in his first paragraph is irrelevant. It doesn't matter whether we intuit X or satisify ourselves with an equation about X ala quantum mechanics. It is the form of science itself that vitiates the possibility of a thoroughgoing scientific explanation of consciousness.

A scientific equation divides and unifies. It divides reality into a set of factors (force, mass, acceleration, brain chemistry, photons, etc.) and then reunifies them in the equation. The ground of that reunification necessarily transcends the factors that are unified. This is not a mystical point. It merely says that if we are going to split things into force, mass and acceleration, and then say F = ma, it can't be either force, mass or acceleration that synthesizes these factors in the unity (to use Kant-speak) of the equation, since the equation hypothesizes them as factors of division rather than unity. The unifiying synthesis, of course, happens in the mind of the scientist, which is entirely non-problematic in normal scientific investigation. It becomes problematic when this same method is used in an attempt to understand consciousness itself, for then the attempt is made to include consciousness both as a factor of division ( as in the equation consciousness X = some function of brain chemistry, photons, neurons, etc) and as the ground of the unifying synthesis (as consciousness Y of the scientist constructing the theory). This is to attempt to cross the border that Kant identified in his delineation of the modern understanding of the mind. And Kant argued that this border can never be crossed because whenever we try to cross it, we simply push it further in front of us. Any scientific explanation implies a consciousness that transcends the factors of explanation and serves as the synthesizer of them into the unity of explanation. As soon as we try to understand consciousness scientifically, we turn it into a scientific factor that is transcended by the scientific mind analyzing it. This may be useful and rewarding for some purposes, but it will by the nature of the case leave the most signficant aspects of consciousness untouched.

As for Orr's second paragraph, with Kant we can do more than idly speculate concerning cognitive limitations that evolution might have imposed on us. We can analyze the nature of cognition, and scientific investigation, a priori and show that their very natures preclude a scientific understanding of consciousness, whatever evolution may or may not have done for us.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Kant, Consciousness and the World

I''m in the middle of reading a "hot" book (Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos), which has generated considerable critical reaction as well as extended analysis by Edward Feser over at his blog. Feser has developed a wonderful metaphor to describe the philosophical problem materialism (and, indeed, any philosophy founded in the Enlightenment views of Hume, Descartes and Locke) has with the mind: One may get rid of dirt in a house by sweeping it all into a pile and then sweeping the pile under a rug. And this is certainly effective in getting rid of all the dirt in the house, at the price of collecting all the dirt under the rug. But this same method is obviously unavailing as a way to get rid of the dirt under the rug now that it is there. Some other way must be found if we want to get rid of that dirt.

Feser says that this is analogous to the modern problem of the mind. Hume and Locke swept all the "secondary qualities" (e.g. color, taste, sound) out of the world and into the mind, classifying them as subjective responses to the "real" world, which is composed solely of colorless, tasteless, soundless particles in motion. Contemporary materialist philosophers now want to dispose of the mind (i.e. color, taste, sound as we subjectively experience them) in a similar manner, which is just like trying to get rid of the dirt under the rug.

My purpose here is not to go further into Feser's metaphor, but to show that the metaphor can also be interpreted in terms of Immanuel Kant's views on the mind, views that also expose problems with the contermporary understanding of the mind but from a different perspective. My starting point will be a quote from page 51 of Nagel's book:

The existence of consciousness is both one of the most familiar and one of the most astounding things about the world. No conception of the natural order that does not reveal it as something to be expected can aspire even to the outline of completeness. And if physical science, whatever it may have to say about the origin of life, leaves us necessarily in the dark about consciousness, that shows that it cannot provide the basic form of intelligibility for this world.
This is true as far as it goes, but it carries the danger of shortchanging consciousness in ways that Immanuel Kant would not approve. Writing of the existence of consciousess as a thing "about the world" misses the fact that consciousness is not a feature of the world, but is rather the constitutor of the world. Consciousness is the ground on which there is (for me) a world at all; it is the thing with reference to which anything at all can be said to be "about the world." There is nothing "about the world" for a book, a stone, the number five, or 5:00 pm, for none of these things is conscious and therefore they have no world. And as Nagel made clear in his famous 1974 article "What Is It Like To Be a Bat?", the world of a bat is likely so very different from our own that it is nigh on inconceivable to us. Now physical science is one of those things that is "about the world" for human beings; not being conscious, books and stones have no physical science, and not being men, bats don't have it either. Physical science is a creation of man and is therfore a product of his consciousness. This makes it problematic, then, to suppose that physical science can "say" anything about consciousness at all, let alone say it the same way it says things about everything else. To adapt the rug metaphor to the Kantian point I am making, it's not just secondary qualities like taste and sound that have been swept under the rug of the mind in modern philosophy; everything has been swept under the rug, including the physical sciences. The reason the physical sciences cannot ultimately grasp consciousness is because they are under the rug rather than outside it, and what is under the rug is in no position to grasp the rug itself.

Let me flesh out this point by applying it to physics. Physics deals with things like force, mass and acceleration. But force, mass and acceleration as we understand them in modern science are not things we just stumble across walking down the street. They are theoretical constructs with which the scientific mind analyzes the world. Any physics student understands how this works. In physics 101, the student is presented with problems involving blocks on a ramp or weights and pulleys. The first step in the solution, and often the most difficult step, is to analyze the blocks, ramps and weights into forces and masses. The block on the ramp is the relevant mass, the relevant forces are directed down the ramp and also straight down (the force of gravity on the block), etc. Once this analysis is complete, the student then plugs the quantities into the relevant Newtonian equations and cranks out the answer, which is then mapped back from the forces and masses back onto the blocks and pulleys (e.g. the block will take 10 sec to travel down the ramp).

Everything about this problem has an ineluctable reference to consciousness. The "block" is a block because I perceive it as such; a bat would not perceive it in this manner nor would a stone. The relationship of the block to the ramp ("the block is on the ramp") is only such because my consciousness perceives both the objects and the relationships between them. The mapping of the objects to the theoretical constructs of Newtonian physics is most obviously dependent on consciousness, as is the mapping back once the problem is complete. My point is not the solipsistic one that the world is a creation of consciousness; it is that the ground of our experience of the world is consciousness, and therefore the attempt to draw conclusions about the ultimate nature of consciousness from experience via modern scientific methods is problematic; in fact, it is doomed to failure. It is in the end an attempt to sweep the rug under itself.

Consciousness cannot be just another "thing about the world", or a variable in a physical description of something, as other things are. This is to misunderstand the relationship of consciousness to science. Take the basic elements of Newtonian physics:

They do not exist for us in this undifferentiated, unrelated manner. They have existence, and indeed only have meaning in the relationship specified by Newton:

Here X is the consciousness that is the ground for the scientific relationship between force, mass and acceleration. The arrows indicate that the consciousness X is the ground both of force, mass and acceleration, as well as the mathematical relationship between them. Again, I want to stress that the point is not that scientific constructs are purely subjective, but that they only have meaning in light of a consciousness that can ground their meaning. Someone uneducated in Newtonian physics may use the words "force", "mass" and "acceleration", but they will mean other things than they do for the Newtonian physicist, and will have meanings bound up with his non-Newtonians comprehensive understanding of the world (or, perhaps, lack of understanding). The relationship of consciousness to science is as the ground and constitutor of science, not as one of many "things in the world" analyzed by science.

What happens when we attempt to investigage consciousness as though it were as amenable to scientific investigation as anything else? Consider that Newton's Second Law (F=ma) can be written in terms of a function:

Again, X is the consciousness that serves as the ground of the scientific understanding of the world. Now a scientific account of consciousness, whatever it's specific content, can be cast in terms of a generalized function:
X is consciousness as it appears under scientific investigation, and the arguments of the function are possible elements in a scientific account of consciousness; the ellipsis indicates that the list may go on indefinitely or have whatever elements one might suppose. Notice the difference between X and Y; consciousness X is now a thing in the world in the world constituted by consciousness Y. It has changed from being what consciousness really is (the constitutor of the world) to being what it is essentially not (a thing in the world). When science attempts to understand consciousness, what it inevitably ends up understanding is consciousness reduced to what is amenable to science, that is, a thing in the world - which is finally not consciousness at all.

Can't consciousness Y just be the same as consciousness X? Even if this could be so it doesn't change the fact that consciousness has changed its essential nature in going from the constitutor of the world to a thing in the world, so what ends up being understood about consciousness in science is something much less than is necessary to ground the scientific consciousness in the first place. This is why Kant says that ultimately our rational natures are opaque to us and must remain eternal mysteries. And this accounts for the "shell game" impression given off by much of the scientific writing about consciousness these days; books have grandiose titles like Consciousness Explained or The Synaptic Self, but when these titles are cashed out in terms of what is actually explained in the works, the reader can't help but feel he has been given the bait and switch. The "consciousness" explained seems but a pale shadow of the consciousness we were hoping to be explained.

There is also the problem that an explanation should not include in its explanation that which is to be explained. F=ma can't include force on both sides of the equation if it is to explain force. But this is what happens if we take consciousness Y to be the same as consciousness X. Consciousness Y is implicit in all the terms on the right side of the equation that form the basis of the explanation of consciousness. Worse than this, it is implicit in the relations between the terms themselves. In terms of the rug metaphor, what we have here is the attempt to sweep the rug under itself.

Of course, if the rug (and the dirt under it) is going to be swept somewhere, it can only be swept under a yet larger rug that is big enough to hold the first rug and its dirt under it. Consciousness Y is that larger consciousness under which consciousness X is swept. But consciousness X is not really swept under the rug of consciousness Y, for consciousness X is in itself a constructor of the world, and it is only swept under the rug of consciousness Y as a thing in the world of consciousness Y.

One of the peculiar features of the philosophy of mind is the manner in which the participants seem to talk past each and cannot agree on even the apparently simplest things. John Searle tells us that "all of the most famous and influential theories are false." The exasperation of Daniel Dennett is palpable in much of his writing. Imputations of bad faith abound. The reason for this is that each participant takes for himself the role of consciousness Y, the transcendent consciousness or constitutor of the world, and from that vantage point tells all other consciousnesses (which he treats as things in the world) how things are. This is done in hilariously explicit manner in Dennett's Consciousness Explained:

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

Now while you may be entirely mistaken about the meaning of your consciousness (nothing in your consciousness has any metaphysical gravity until it has been subjected to heterophenomenological analysis), the author of Consciousness Explained is in no such predicament. His consciousness is reliably in contact with reality without it first needing to go through the heterophenomenological boot camp. This is how a transcendent consciousness (consciousness Y) talks to a consciousness immanent with respect to Y's scientific constructs (consciousness X). And a good thing, too, at least if you want books like Consciousness Explained to be written, for it could not be written otherwise. But then we must remember that Consciousness Explained at most explains consciousnesses of type X and never of type Y.

All this was thoroughly understood by Kant back in the 18th century and explicated in his Critique of Pure Reason.  It is captured in his fancy terminology as the synthetic unity of apperception.

... it is only because I am able to comprehend the manifold of representations in one consciousness, that I call them altogether my representations, for otherwise, I should have as manifold and various a self as I have representations of which I am conscious... It is true, no doubt, that this principle of the necessary unity of apperception is itself identical, and therefore an analytical proposition; but it shows, nevertheless, the necessity of a synthesis of the manifold which is given in intuition, and without which it would be impossible to think the unbroken identity of self-consciousness... I am conscious, therefore, of the identical self with respect to the manifold of representations, which are given to me in an intuition, because I call them, altogether, my representations, as constituting one. This means that I am conscious of a necessary synthesis of them a priori, which is called the original synthetical unity of apperception...
(from Basic Writings of Kant, Modern Library, p. 73). 
Kant is responding here to Hume's argument that, since we find no self in empirical experience, we are unjustified in thinking that there is some substantial core to ourselves that goes beyond the chain of impressions that constitutes our experience. Kant's answer is not a metaphysical argument for the self, but a consideration of "pure reason" (i.e. logic independent of empirical experience), to the effect that some unifying principle must be assumed in experience merely to allow me to claim my experiences as mine. More significantly for my purposes, Kant argues that our experience is not purely passive, but that we actively construct our experience in some measure (this is the "synthesis of the manifold") and therefore there must be some principle unifying that construction. This is all the more significant when it comes to science, for things like Newton's Second Law (F = ma) or theories of consciousness are not things we stumble over in nature; they are very definitely constructions of the human mind. Kant takes the truth that Hume saw - that there is no self encountered in empirical experience - and drew the correct conclusion that Hume missed, which is that the self is not in empirical experience because it is the ground of empirical experience.

Kant's aim was to save science and modern philosophy from the extreme skeptical empiricism of Hume (while retaining the authentic insights of Hume), while also ruling out the metaphysical speculations of the classical philosophers. In other words, he wished to show that the nature of human thought is just what modern thinkers want it to be: Metaphysics is a waste of time, and the only true way to know the world is through empirical science supported by logical thought. Kant saw that the price to be paid for this resolution is that the conscious self must ultimately be a mystery to itself. The only legitimate way to know the world is through empirical science, but the relationship of the scientific consciousness to science is not as one of the things in the world of science, but as that which grounds and underwrites the constitution of the scientific world itself. Thus the scientific consciousness will always slip behind any attempt to understand consciousness through science.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Jeff Jacoby on Papal Infallibility

Jeff Jacoby has an opinion piece in the Boston Sunday Globe today entitled "Supreme - but not infallible" which gives his take on the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall so I can't link to it here. But I can quote enough from the article to show that Jacoby misunderstands the doctrine.

Jacoby himself quotes several times from Lord Acton, a 19th century critic of the doctrine when it was affirmed at the First Vatican Council. "There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it" says Acton. But of course Papal Infallibility has nothing to do with sanctification, and the quote reveals the typical basis of the misunderstanding, which is to mistake the doctrine as being primarily about the Pope when it is really primarily about Jesus Christ. Paragraph 890 of the Catechism reads:

The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium's task to preserve God's people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church's shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. 

 What is a "charism?" It is a gift from God, a grace; the infallibility of the Pope is therefore a gracious act of God primarily, and only secondarily an act of the Pope.

Jacoby compares the authority of the Pope with authority found in Judaism:

But infallible? As an observant Jew, I come from a religious tradition that has always expressed a very different view of religious leadership and authority. In normative Judaism, not even the greatest leader, the wisest sage, or the most renowned rabbi is infallible. The Great Sanhedrin of Jerusalem was the supreme legal and religious authority in ancient Israel: its 71 justices were required to be men of humility, integrity, and compassion, known as much for their scholarship in religious matters as for their wide-ranging knowledge of science, mathematics, and languages. Their credentials were stellar, and their rulings were final.

The appropriate Judaic comparison with the Pope is not the Great Sanhedrin, however, but with Moses being given the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. It would be an obvious mistake to suppose that those who hold the Ten Commandments infallible are guilty of supposing Moses to be some sort of superman or "sanctified." For Moses is merely the messenger, and whatever his personal sins and limitations, they are irrelevant to the status of the Ten Commandments, the author of which is God. Similarly, when the Pope pronounces authoritatively from his office on matters of faith and morals, it is not he who is the author of the opinion, but God, and God is not fallible despite the flaws of his servants. Whether the Pope is a great leader or the wisest sage has nothing to do with it.

Jacoby also quotes Acton's famous aphorism about power: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." With respect to the Pope, this is a confusion of power with authority. For the doctrine of Papal Infallibility is actually a limit on the power of Popes; the current Pope is bound by the infallible pronouncements of all previous Popes. Those who say that the essence of Protestantism is that it makes every man his own Pope haven't quite gone far enough. The ordinary Protestant is not bound by the decisions of any other Protestant or even his own prior decisions, as the Pope is bound by all prior Papal pronouncements, his own as well as others. Protestant Pastor Joe may get up one day and after reading his Bible one more time, decide that John 6 really does mean that Christ is literally present in the Eucharist, and may preach that from his pulpit that evening. But Pope Francis can never get up one day, read his Bible to the effect that the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist is hooey, and preach the same that evening, for the doctrine of the Eucharist is settled and unchanging, no matter how wise or profound a skeptic of the doctrine may be.

The article ends with Jacoby telling us that

Pope Francis is described by those who know him as modest and self-effacing, committed to a church "that does not so much regulate the faith as promote and facilitate it." You don't have to be Catholic to pray that the cardinals have chosen well, and that the 266th pope will lead with wisdom, honesty, grace and an understanding heart. Ultimately it is those qualities, not "infallibility", on which the success of his papacy will depend.

Infallibility is another name for the promises Christ has made to the Church to be with her always; if the success of the papacy does not depend on it, then it doesn't depend on Christ or, in other words, it isn't what it claims to be and is really just another man-made institution. In that case, it really does come down to the personal qualities of the Pope. But, then, how could the Pope be wise and gracious if he is gravely mistaken about the very nature of his office?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Pope and Conservatism

The Maverick Philosopher has a post here on the recent election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis. He notes that people drawn to religion tend to be of a conservative bent and that conservatives don't like change, tolerating it only when necessary. In his view, "The Church ought to be a place of stability and order, an oasis of calm, a venue where the ancient is preserved as a temporal reminder of the eternal." The Mav is not at all approving of the election of Pope Francis.

I am certainly of a conservative bent, and am sympathetic to preserving the ancient, but this misses the essence of Christianity. Christianity is not primarily about the eternal, or remembering the eternal, but is the news that the eternal has broken into the temporal in a decisive way. This gives the Catholic Church a fundamentally revolutionary nature despite its ancient Sacraments and rituals. Or, rather, the Catholic Church embodies the paradox of ancient rituals in service of ongoing revolution. Chesterton captures this perfectly in his description of Christianity as the "Eternal Revolution."

The mission of the Church is to preserve and proclaim the Gospel to the world, and to provide the concrete encounter with Christ in the Sacraments. The conservative aspect of the Church comes from the fact that it is the authorized proclaimer and interpreter of the Gospel, but is not its author and has no authority to modify or "improve" the Gospel message in any way. Christ established the means of transmission of the Gospel through a Church founded on twelve hand-picked apostles, the successors of whom are the bishops, and the Church has no authority to modify this structure (by making the Church a democracy, for instance, or making the authority of bishops subservient to biblical scholars).  The revolutionary aspect of the Church comes from the fact that the Church is charged with challenging the world (and itself) with the Gospel, as Christ challenged the world when he walked the Earth. The paradox of this revolutionary challenge is that it loses its force as it is routinely proclaimed; the words are worn down to nubs and gradually lose their ability to effectively communicate, and the Church, despite itself, settles into a worldly conservatism that has nothing to do with the genuine conservatism of the Gospel. At such times a radical personality is called for, one who renews the Gospel challenge, with words, yes, but words proclaimed in new ways and also, and perhaps more significantly, with his actions - a St. Francis.

Our new Pope seems to capture this truly Catholic paradox of the Eternal Revolution. The progressive types aren't even writing their usual false hopes that the new Pope will change basic doctrine on abortion or married priests, as Francis has been rock solidly orthodox on doctrinal matters. On the other hand, Francis's ascetic life, obvious humility, and public eschewals of the perquisites of status are an existential rebuke to our indulgent, celebrity obsessed and self-absorbed culture. Just the man the times call for, it seems.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Pope and the President

The contrast between our new Pope and the current President is hard to miss. Francis is a man who eschewed the episcopal palace in Buenos Aires in favor of a small apartment, road the bus around town instead of a limousine, did his own cooking in his apartment, and frequently wore the simple cassock of an ordinary priest. Barack Obama, famous for the crease in his tailored pants, has given new meaning to the Imperial Presidency with his lavish lifestyle, hobnobbing with Hollywood celebrities, and 40 car motorcades to go golfing with Tiger Woods. Not to mention his patent disdain for the common people ("bitter clingers") he supposedly champions.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, of course, has embraced a specific religious calling that involves simplicity and sacrifice that Obama has not. Nonetheless, the office of the President of the United States was created in specific contrast to the prerogatives of the European royalty against which Americans originally rebelled. The Presidency was supposed to be a secular office of limited power and perquisites, elected to perform certain specific functions necessary to the maintenance of a free republic. It has now been transformed to the point that, as Mark Steyn notes, the yearly maintenance of the Presidency costs more than that of all European royal houses put together.

There is a reason the Catholic Church has endured for more than 2,000 years, and the secular democracies of Europe and, now, the United States, may be entering their twilight years after no more than 200. The broken nature of man, a consequence of original sin, is a fact for secular democracies as much as it is for the Church, even if the former do not acknowledge it; and the only cure for original sin is submission to the Divine Physician.

The great puzzle for secularists is why the Church hasn't disappeared after its many failures and scandals. The reason is that the Church is under no illusions about the fallen nature of man, and does not hope in itself in the manner of a political institution, but places its Hope in the Savior, who promised that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it. So when yet another scandal occurs, as in the recent Vatileaks brouhaha, the Church does not lose hope, but finds that God has raised a simple priest from Argentina to reform it. In contrast, our nation seems unable to correct itself from the path of spending, debt and crushing government regulation that is driving us to ruin; at a time when we desperately need a man of virtue to restore simplicity, transparency and frugality to our government offices, we put in place a man who seems to think of himself as Good King Barack the First, and us his subjects who should be duly awed.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Debt and Empire

Does this sound familiar? From The Victory of Reason by Rodney Stark:

"Even so, the wealth of the empire was largely illusory when account is taken of its truly staggering debts. It began with Ferdinand and Isabella, who never managed to balance their budgets, so that Charles V assumed their very substantial debts at his coronation. Charles expanded these debts on a properly imperial scale, starting with a sum of more than half a million gold guilders borrowed from Jakob Fugger to gain the Holy Roman emperorship. This too was but a drop in the bucket. During his reign Charles secured more than five hundred loans from European bankers, amounting to about 29 million ducats. Much of this amount still had not been repaid when his son Philip II ascended to the throne in 1556, and a year later Philip declared bankruptcy. Nevertheless, only four years later imperial debt was again so high that 1.4 million ducats, more than 25 percent of the total annual budget, was paid out as interest on current loans. Worse yet, by 1565 the imperial debt in the Low Countries alone stood at 5 million ducats, and interest payments plus fixed costs of governing produced an additional deficit of 250,000 ducats a year. The same pattern held for the empire as a whole - debt dominated everything. During the first half of the 1570s, Phillip II's revenues averaged about 5.5 million ducats a year, while his total expenditures often nearly doubled that amount, with interest on his debts alone exceeding 2 million ducats a year. No one was too surprised when again in 1575 Phillip disavowed all his debts, amounting to about 36 million ducats. By doing so, however, he left his regime in the Netherlands penniless."

Of course the Spanish monarchs were constrained by a monetary system based on precious metals, so they had no choice but to honestly declare bankruptcy when they were, well, bankrupt. We have another option: Print our way out of debt!