Saturday, November 29, 2014

Harris, Faith and Science. Commentary on Waking Up Part 5

This is the fifth part of my commentary on Sam Harris's Waking Up.

A theme that Harris repeatedly emphasizes in Waking Up is that the Eastern spirituality he advocates does not necessarily require any belief in a faith-based system (which Harris thinks is pernicious) or subscription to any metaphysical dogmas. According to Harris, it can be approached entirely empirically. For these reasons it is allegedly superior to Western spirituality, in particular Christian-inspired spirituality.

But Harris's proposed spirituality does in fact require faith, or at least faith as it has been understood in the Christian tradition. This differs from the currently popular understanding of "faith", which just means willed belief in propositions without evidence. The traditional understanding of "faith" is closer in meaning to what we think of as trust; as in we believe in something because we trust the person proposing it, and have reason to think he is in a position to know the truth of it. This understanding of faith is, in fact, not restricted to religion but is how the mass of individuals are related to, for instance, science. The average man cannot duplicate the experiments of the trained scientist or perhaps even understand the details of the scientist's theories. But he believes what the scientist proposes to him because he has reason to believe that the scientist knows what he is talking about when it comes to science. The average man is rightly impressed with the technological wonders that are based on science and sees them as confirmation of the scientist's theories. Trust is involved because, not understanding the science and therefore the true connection between science and technical wonders, the average man must take the scientist's word for what the science truly is and what it implies.

With respect to Christianity, and specifically with respect to the Catholic Church, faith does not mean believing propositions without evidence, but in trusting  that the Church is a true witness to what it claims to have witnessed - the Resurrection of Christ. That witness, and its ratification by Christ Himself,  is the basis of the authority of the original Apostles, and that authority has been passed on through history to the generations of bishops. The average man's relationship to the bishops is much like that of his relationship to scientists. He must trust the bishop, as he does the scientist, to communicate to him the true meaning and significance of that which he is in no position to fully understand.

The big difference, of course, between the bishop and the scientist is that the bishop does not have the full spectrum of modern technical wonders with which to impress the average man. But he does have, perhaps, the occasional miracle, and he certainly has the ordinary witness of saints. The impressive lives of saints like Francis, Thomas Aquinas, Francis Xavier, and many others, testify to the effect of Christ in their lives and through that testimony support the witness of the Church.

What is the nature of the faith involved in Sam Harris's spirituality? He claims there is none, but in fact the prospective meditator is taking it on faith that meditation will have the effects that Harris claims it will. In the extreme, Harris claims that meditation will reveal the illusion of the self, but even if this is true, it will be experienced only after many years of meditation. The person who spends years meditating just to discover if the claims about meditation are true so he can take up meditating, has of course already answered his question. Skeptics rightly make the same point with respect to some Christian apologists who claim prayer can be tested empirically. When prayer doesn't soon have the evidential effect that was hoped, the apologist counsels patience that God works in his own time (which He does). But asking someone to pray for an indefinite period as a way to establish that prayer is a worthwhile activity in the first place is hardly a reasonable request.

Sam Harris is asking us to trust that meditation will have the evidential effect he says it will - specifically, that it will bring one to perceive the illusion of the self. Harris implicitly admits this by spending considerable time bringing in science in an attempt to support this belief (which I have addressed in earlier posts.) Such preliminaries would not be necessary if Harris weren't writing a check he promises to cash later.

But the same thing is true of "faith-based" Christian spirituality. The Church claims that through prayer, fasting, and reception of the Sacraments, the Christian will discover a relationship with Christ that fulfills all the promises that the Church makes about Him. Such a promise must be taken on trust (faith) but, like Harris, the Church does not demand that anyone believe this promise without evidence, but marshalls evidence in support of its promise - just as does Sam Harris.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Self, Immanuel Kant, and Sam Harris. Commentary Part 4

In this fourth part of my commentary on Sam Harris's Waking Up, I will continue with his chapter The Mystery of Consciousness and on into the next chapter The Riddle of the Self.  Both these chapters provide the opportunity to bring in Immanuel Kant, the great Enlightenment philosopher.  Kant was a deep, thorough and disciplined thinker who thought through the implications of modern philosophical premises to a level that is still often underappreciated. Modern materialists like Harris still haven't come to terms with Kant.

In the latter parts of chapter 2 and into chapter 3 Harris attacks the unity of conscious experience and the subjective experience of an "I" (the latter of which he does think is an illusion, in contrast to consciousness itself). Harris distinguishes between consciousness itself and its contents:

Here is where the distinction between studying consciousness itself and studying its contents becomes paramount. It is easy to see how the contents of consciousness might be understood in neurophysiological terms. Consider, for instance, our experience of seeing an object: Its color, contours, apparent motion, and location in space arise in consciousness as a seamless unity, even though this information is processed by many separate systems in the brain. Thus, when a golfer prepares to hit a shot, he does not first see the ball's roundness, then its whiteness, and only then its position on the tee. Rather, he enjoys a unified perception of the ball. Many neuroscientists believe that this phenomenon of "binding" can be explained by disparate groups of neurons firing in synchrony. Whether or not this theory is true, it is at least intelligible - because synchronous activity seems just the sort of thing that could explain the unity of a percept.

This work suggests, as many other finding in neuroscience do, that the contents of consciousness can often be made sense of in terms of their underlying neurophysiology. However, when we ask why such phenomena should be experienced in the first place, we are returned to the mystery of consciousness in full.

He then goes on to discuss the division of the brain into hemispheres, and circumstances under which the hemispheres appear to have their own individual consciousness:

What is most startling about the split-brain phenomenon is that we have every reason to believe that the isolated right hemisphere is independently conscious... The consciousness of the right hemisphere is especially difficult to deny whenever a subject possesses linguistic ability on both sides of the brain, because in such cases the divided hemispheres often express different intentions. In a famous example, a young patient was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up: His left brain replied, "A draftsman," while his right brain used letter cards to spell out "racing driver." In fact, the divided hemispheres sometimes seem to address each other directly, in the form of verbalized, interhemispheric argument.

What Harris is after is undermining the notion that there is some unified self, soul, or "I" that is behind human nature. Consciousness is real for Harris, but any unified experiencer of consciousness is not.

Much of what makes us human is generally accomplished by the right side of the brain. Consequently, we have every reason to believe that that disconnected right hemisphere is independently conscious and that the divided brain harbors two distinct points of view. This fact poses an insurmountable problem for the motion that each of us has single, indivisible self - much less an immortal soul. The idea of a soul arises from the feeling that our subjectivity has a unity, simplicity, and integrity that must somehow transcend the biochemical wheelworks of the body. But the split-brain phenomenon proves that our subjectivity can quite literally be sliced in two... However, the most important implications are for our view of consciousness: It is divisible - and, therefore, more fundamental than any apparent self.

Harris is anxious to show that science suggests that the self is an illusion because that is the same place he is going with Eastern spirituality.  For Harris, science tells us the truth about the objective world, while Eastern meditation can reveal to us the truth about the subjective world - specifically, that the self or "I" is an illusion. Since consciousness is not merely subjective but is itself part of the objective world, consciousness is the meeting place between science and meditation. Like a good medieval theologian, Harris rejects any temptation of a "double truth" about consciousness - the truth discovered by meditation and the truth discovered by science, which might possibly disagree. For Harris they must agree and, he argues, in fact they do.

My goal in this chapter and the next is to convince you that the conventional sense of self is an illusion - and that spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment.

And the benefits of realizing this, moment to moment, is, according to Harris, peace of mind.

Harris, however, in attempting to hold on to the truths (allegedly) revealed both by modern science and Eastern meditation, is trying to have his cake and eat it too. We can see this by turning to Kant, who saw the problem in his analysis of the thought of David Hume. Hume, like Harris, did not think there was any unified self undergirding our experience, for the simple reason that we do not directly encounter any such self in experience. Such a self would be one and the same through all our experiences, but we have no experience of anything that persists invariably the same, so the self must be merely an illusion.

We don't need to go into the details of Hume's thought other than to remark on its resemblance to the position Harris takes. Kant was not particularly concerned about saving the idea of a persistent self, but he was concerned with saving the idea of empirical science, and he saw that the Hume/Harris position threatens the very possibility of science. For science requires scientists, and if there is no persistent self, how can there be a scientist to pursue science? Kant, who respected Hume as the man who "awoke me from my dogmatic slumbers", wondered how he could save science in light of the Humean view of the self and Humean epistemology. Specifically he asked: What are the minimum requirements, rationally speaking, to get science up and running?

Let's consider one of the famous experiments at the origin of modern science: Galileo's investigation of acceleration by rolling balls down ramps. What is necessary for this experiment? Beyond the physical equipment of balls, ramps and timing mechanisms, there is the necessity of a scientist to conduct the experiment. Consider what Galileo must be capable of for the experiment to work.

At time t1 Galileo releases a ball at the top of the ramp. At some later time t2, when the ball reaches the bottom of the ramp, Galileo marks that time and, at a yet later time t3, he calculates the difference between t1 and t2 and deduces from that difference some conclusions about acceleration. What is Galileo doing at time t3?

He is recalling what he did at time t1 (release the ball down the ramp) and considering it in its relationship to what happened at time t2 (when he recalls that the ball reached the bottom of the ramp.) So at time t3 Galileo is experiencing the remembered experiences of t1 and t2 and uniting those memories in his consciousness at time t3. Now, as Clint Eastwood might say, we have to ask ourselves a question: Just what is the object of science? Is the object of science the real balls, ramps and events that happened "out there" at times t1 and t2, i.e. is it about objective reality itself? Or is science only about our experiences of reality and not reality itself? Specifically, are the conclusions that I arrive at during time t3 about something more than merely the memories I have of what happened at times t1 and time t2?

Let me table this question for a moment and consider what Kant showed regardless of how that question is answered. For Galileo's scientific project to work, whether we think science is about reality itself or only about our experience of it (both now and remembered), certain things are necessary. For starters, no conclusions about what was going on at t1 and t2 are possible unless they are united in what might be called "a unified field of rational inquiry." (These are not Kant's terms but my interpretation of what Kant is getting at.) This simply means that t1 and t2 must be viewable from some one rational perspective. If you remember what was going on at t1 but not t2, and I remember what was going on at time t2 but not t1, and we don't talk to each other, the science can't get on. Either I have to remember what was going on at both t1 and t2, or you have to tell me what went on at t1 (assuming I remember t2). Either way, the events at t1 and t2 must appear to some one rational viewpoint for any scientific analysis of them to occur. And this rational viewpoint must be capable of supporting the meaning of the relationship between t1 and t2. It must underwrite the meaning that t2 is "after" t1 and that such a difference is measurable as precisely some number of seconds.

Furthermore, the rational viewpoint must also underwrite the spatial relationships that constitute the substance of the events at t1 and t2. Galileo was standing at the top of  the ramp at the start of the experiment, which he experienced as here at that moment and the bottom of the ramp as there. Later, he moved to the bottom of the ramp to catch the ball, which he then experienced as here and the top of the ramp as there. Yet later, when analyzing the experiment, Galileo is able to identify the top of the ramp as the same identical spot in space despite it having been here at one moment and then there at a later moment, and similarly with the bottom of the ramp. Just like the experience of the times t1 and t2, it doesn't really matter if Galileo himself both released the ball and then caught it. Someone else might have released the ball and Galileo caught it, but the science can't happen unless the man who released it tells Galileo exactly where he was when he released it. The point is that the ball's place at the start of the experiment - call it p1 - and its place at the end of the experiment - call it p2 - must be united in some one field of rational inquiry capable of seeing and analyzing the geometrical relationship between the two points. And beyond that, this rational viewpoint must be capable of uniting the geometrical considerations in the relationship between p1 and p2 with the temporal considerations of the relationship between t1 and t2. p1 happened at t1 and p2 happened at t2 and all four of those elements can be united in a single theory of acceleration in a single rational field of inquiry.

We might see the problem Hume would have here. If I am nothing more than merely the passing parade of experience from moment to moment, then there is nothing to unite that experience in a single rational field of experience to make science possible. That passing parade must somehow be integrated across time and space, and integrated in a way that makes it mathematically tractable, for science to happen.

Now I have been careful not to identify the "rational field of experience" that makes science possible with the "soul", the "self", or the "I" or - and this is what materialists miss - the "brain". I haven't done that because Kant didn't do it. Kant restricted himself to elaborating the purely rational requirements for the possibility of science and he found no warrant in that purely rational consideration to go beyond the "formal" requirement of an integrated field of rational experience to an identification of what, in reality, the substance of that field actually is. He can, strictly speaking, only say that such a field of integrated experience, whatever it's ultimate nature might be, is necessary for science.

It is at this point that we return to the question I tabled earlier: What is the object of science? Is it the balls and ramps themselves that are "out there" in objective reality? Or is it merely our experience of those things with all the qualifications alluded to above? Kant refused to go beyond what he could justify with strict rational necessity, and he held that science is about our experience of reality but not reality itself, which is the basis of his famous distinction between the noumenal (how things truly are in themselves) and the phenomenal (how they appear to us).

But suppose we want to go beyond Kant and hold that science is about reality itself and not merely reality as it appears to us as conditioned by our cognitive apparatus? This is only possible if the rational field of inquiry required by science supports such a move. Galileo's cognitive apparatus must have enough integrity so that at time t3, when he remembers what happened with respect to the ball and ramp at times t1 and t2, he can have the rationally justifiable confidence that his memories reflect reality itself at those times and places. Furthermore, he must have the rationally justifiable confidence that his analysis of the relationship between times t1 and t2, and places p1 and p2, reflect reality as well.

On what basis can Galileo justify such confidence? It is hard to see how such justification could be arrived at in terms of the Hume or Harris views of the self or mind (which, of course, is why Kant never went there). Since we are talking about the rational justification of science itself, we can't call on scientific conclusions to do the work without begging the question. The only other available basis of justification is pre-scientific common sense. By "pre-scientific" I don't mean temporally prior, i.e. what was thought to be common sense prior to the rise of modern science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I mean logically or "existentially" prior. The scientist takes for granted that his telescope is in reality what it appears to him in his sight and touch; that it behaves more or less the same as long as its nature isn't changed; and that the things he views through his telescope will not change their behavior without some cause. And, of course, he will assume that his spatial and temporal intuitions (here and there, before and after) reflect reality itself and not merely a reading into reality of the conditions of his own cognition.

But the intuition of an enduring self is just as much a pre-scientific common sense intuition as are our intuitions about space and time. We might, indeed, say that the intuition of self is even more fundamental that the intuitions of time and space since it is only in reference to a self that time and space have meaning (space - here and there - has meaning only in reference to a self which is here and something else is there and time only has meaning in reference to a self to which before and after appear.) So if we are going to take our common sense intuitions about space and time, and what appears in space and time, as reflective of reality - and this seems the only way to underwrite a science that is about reality itself rather than merely the human perception of reality - then we must accept our common sense intuition about an enduring self to be reflective of reality as well.

All this is to the point that when Harris wishes to invoke neuroscience or brain science in general to undermine the notion of an enduring self or "I", and in particular our common sense notion of an enduring self, he has sawed off the limb on which sit the brain sciences themselves sit. Brain science can get going only if there are brain scientists who, like Galileo, can be rationally confident that their scientific intuitions about the "brain" actually reflect reality itself rather than merely their experience of reality conditioned by their cognitive apparatus. And, again, such confidence cannot be a product of brain science itself without begging the question.

Typically, thinkers like Harris fail to see this problem. They think they can blithely invoke science to undermine common sense, including common sense notions of the self, without effecting the rational foundations of science, as though scientists do not share the same human nature as the rest of us. So when he makes statements like

The idea of a soul arises from the feeling that our subjectivity has a unity, simplicity, and integrity that must somehow transcend the biochemical wheelworks of the body.

we can respond that any scientific talk about biochemical wheelworks is only possible if there is subject around with the unity, simplicity and integrity to support it.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Commentary on Waking Up by Sam Harris, part 3

At this point I would like to jump ahead to Harris's chapters 2, the Mystery of Consciousness. I'll come back to the intervening parts later (or maybe not).

In chapter 2, Harris struggles with coming to terms with the fact and nature of consciousness in terms of modern materialist philosophy.

And the question of how consciousness relates to the physical world remains famously unresolved... Whatever the ultimate relationship between consciousness and matter, almost everyone will agree that at some point in the development of complex organisms like ourselves, consciousness seems to emerge. This emergence does not depend on a change of materials, for you and I are both of the same atoms as a fern or a ham sandwich. Instead, the birth of consciousness must be the result of organization. Arranging atoms in certain ways appears to bring about an experience of being that very collection of atoms. This is undoubtedly one of the deepest mysteries given to us to contemplate.

Harris's perplexity is a function of the materialist philosophy he takes for granted. This philosophy, having its origin in the Enlightenment, holds that reality is composed of bits of brute matter (or energy fields or whatever) banging together, the "clockwork universe" thought to have been implied by Newton's discoveries. What's important here is that one of the points of this philosophy was to banish Aristotle's formal and final causes from nature. These causes are fundamental to our experience of consciousness. My thoughts are "directed" at their object as an arrow to a target (an example of final causality). And I can understand why the angles of a triangle must add to 180 degrees (which is to understand the formal causality of a triangle). Aristotle thought this "directedness" was a basic feature of nature itself, which was why consciousness did not seem to him the scandal that it is to modern philosophy. Fire is "directed" to heat, acorns are "directed" to grow into oak trees, and minds are "directed" to understanding. And our ability to understand formal causality is simply a reflection of the fact that formal causality is part of nature itself.

But how are such experiences to be understood in the clockwork universe of the materialist? As Edward Feser's pithy expression puts it, formal and final causality were "swept under the rug of the mind." The directedness of nature is not something we discover in nature but is rather read into nature by the mind. This creates a problem, however, when we try to understand the mind itself in terms of the clockwork universe. For our experience of the mind just is those experiences of formal and final causality that were banished in principle from the materialist universe. This makes the mind more than merely a mystery for the materialist; it makes it a scandal. The difference being that a scandal is not in principle solvable in terms of the fundamental principles of a philosophy, while a mystery is in principle intelligible, even if practically it may never be fully illuminated.

The temptation in the face of scandal is to deny its basis, and this has been done by some modern philosophers who simply deny the reality of the mind (e.g. Daniel Dennett), dismissing it as an illusion of the material brain (a position that does not make sense - more on that later). Harris, to his credit, is unwilling to simply dismiss the significance of our experience of consciousness: "Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion."

The next few pages of Waking Up consist of Harris further wrestling with the incongruity of consciousness in a materialist universe:

First there is a physical world, unconscious and seething with unperceived events; then, by virtue of some physical property or process, consciousness itself springs, or staggers, into being. This idea seems to me not merely strange but perfectly mysterious... To simply assert that consciousness arose at some point in the evolution of life, and that it results from a specific arrangement of neurons firing in concert within an individual brain, doesn't give us any inkling of how it could emerge from unconscious processes, even in principle.

Harris, again to his credit, refuses to accept the empty answer that time, genetic mutation and natural selection are responsible for consciousness. Even if they are, no light has been shed until it is explained how they account for it. It is like claiming that gravity is responsible for the movement of the planets without providing any theory that accounts for planetary orbits in terms of gravity (e.g. Newton's theory of gravitation).

I am sympathetic with those who, like the philosopher Colin McGinn and the psychologist Steven Pinker, have suggested that perhaps the emergence of consciousness is simply incomprehensible in human terms. Every chain of explanation must end somewhere - generally with a brute fact that neglects to explain itself. Perhaps consciousness presents an impasse of this sort.

When brute facts are invoked, you know you are at the point of a philosopher waving the white flag. A chain of explanation that ends in a brute fact isn't really a chain of explanation at all, since you might as well have invoked the brute fact at the start of the explanation as at the end. In any case, if Harris's first sentence is amended to "... perhaps the emergence of consciousness is simply incomprehensible in materialist terms" he might be on the way to a breakthrough, or at least a breakout, from the materialist prison in which finds himself without realizing it.

One of the charges against philosophy is that it makes no progress. Philosophers have been arguing over the same basic questions that they always have. While this is true, it is not true that this eternal philosophical conversation is fruitless. For it is a good clue that a particular philosophical school is fundamentally mistaken when it gives up attempting to account for something after having struggled with it for a long time. Materialist philosophers have been trying to find a place in their philosophy for the fact of consciousness - a fact, Harris concedes, that is undeniable - for a long time, with little success even by their own lights. They are now at the point of simply giving up on the project. The alternative to giving up on explaining consciousness, of course, is to abandon the philosophy that makes such an explanation impossible and go in search of another one.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Commentary on Waking Up by Sam Harris, part 2

On pages 12 and 13, Harris makes some good points about happiness and the variability of existence (points that are standard fare in classical philosophy) but are well-made nonetheless:

We seek pleasant sights, sounds, tastes, sensations and moods. We satisfy our intellectual curiosity. We surround ourselves with friends and loved ones. We become connoisseurs of art, music, or food. But our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting. If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for an hour, or perhaps a day, but then they subside. And the search goes on. The effort required to keep boredom and other unpleasantness at bay must continue, moment to moment.

Ceaseless change is an unreliable basis for lasting fulfillment. Realizing this, many people begin to wonder whether a deeper source of well-being exists. Is there a form of happiness beyond the mere repetition of pleasure and the avoidance of pain?... is it possible to be happy before anything happens, before one's desires are gratified, in spite of life's difficulties, in the very midst of physical pin, old age, disease and death?

This is well-said, and Harris goes on to draw out the logic of the situation:

If there exists a source of psychological well-being that does not depend upon merely gratifying one's desires, then it should be present even when all the usual sources of pleasure have been removed. Such happiness should be available to a person who has declined to marry her high school sweetheart, renounced her career and material possessions, and gone off to a cave or some other spot that is inhospitable to ordinary aspirations.

The first thing to note is that Harris is looking for merely psychological well-being. But what of well-being simpliciter? We are more than merely our psychology, and the question may be asked if psychological well-being is a good when our overall human well-being is not. Tony Soprano, for example, sought help from a psychologist to overcome his panic attacks. It turned out that treating the panic attacks involved a more comprehensive psychological analysis of Soprano's life - the life of a mafia boss and killer. Can a mob killer be "psychologically healthy" yet remain, and be comfortable with, his life of crime? This was the question that bedeviled Soprano's psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, and raises the question of the relationship of the psychological sciences to an evaluation of human character.

In the book Artificial Happiness, physician Ronald Dworkin discusses the widespread use of psychotropic drugs to give people a feeling of well-being they don't really deserve. While such drugs are appropriate in some cases of genuine psychological illness, they are increasingly administered to people who are simply unhappy, and often for very good reasons. They are unhappy because they have messed up their lives through poor choices, alcohol, simple irresponsibility or unfortunate circumstances (e.g. a woman staying with an abusive husband.) Their feelings of unhappiness could be a spur to a reconsideration of their lives. Instead, they seek and are sometimes granted drugs that merely make them feel better, derailing any motivation they had to change themselves or their situations. The man who can't keep a job because he's too lazy to consistently get to work on time feels just cool with that; the woman with the abusive husband abandons any plans she had to leave him and thinks things are fine because she feels content with what is going on.

Psychological well-being is not a good thing if it doesn't reflect genuine well-being. Why does Harris focus on it? It is because he is captured by the scientistic mindset that does not permit a deep philosophical analysis of human nature. Such an analysis presupposes that some views of human well-being are better than others and, even more significantly, that they can be objectively ranked through philosophical investigation. And that implies that the truth about human nature, including its end or purpose, is also a philosophically available truth. The Enlightenment tradition of which Harris is a modern exemplar holds that such truth simply isn't available to us. We can pursue "happiness", but of what happiness consists - in terms of desires and their fulfillment - isn't something that can be objectively determined. We cannot say precisely in what absolute human well-being consists; but we can at least say in what psychological well-being consists.

The classical philosopher, as exemplified by Aristotle, is not afraid to rank desires or to insist that the truth concerning human nature, including its end, is a philosophically available truth.  That truth is that man is by nature a rational animal, and that fulfillment for him involves ordering his being to reason. Psychological well-being is not the primary goal here, it is merely a by-product of a deeper transformation, a transformation of character. Well-being for man means well-being in terms of virtue. The good man (the man who is truly "well") is courageous, temperate, just and wise, all virtues conditioned by reason. Man will experience pleasure at the result - psychological well-being - but that well-being is simply delight in the true good he possesses. Pursuing psychological well-being as an end in itself is, on this view,  to mistake the by-product for the product.

Modern thinkers are wary of speaking of human nature classically understood - that is, in terms that go beyond the restrictions of science to a philosophical consideration of man as such. Psychological well-being has the advantage that it sidesteps questions of the nature of man in terms of man's end or purpose, but for that very reason, will not turn out to be what an unsatisfied man is really looking for.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Commentary on Waking Up by Sam Harris, part 1

I'm reading Sam Harris's new book Waking Up, A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Harris, you may remember, is one of the New Atheists and is the author of, among other books, the popular The End of Faith. Less well-known is that Harris is an advocate of Buddhist meditation, and in this book he discusses meditation in terms of its benefits and its relationships to religion in general and atheism. As I've mentioned elsewhere, Harris is a pleasant author to read because of his straightforward style and obvious sincerity. I think he is sincerely wrong about many things, but one of his virtues is that he has the courage of his convictions and tells you exactly what he thinks in plain language. As I was reading along I noticed that he wrote so many things of which I felt the urge to respond that my space in the margins filled up. So instead of writing there, I'm going to write here. This will not be a book review or essay on Harris's work, simply my comments on Harris as I read through the book.

Here goes.


In the first chapter, pages 4 and 5, Harris describes the results of his experimenting with the drug MDMA (Ecstasy) in 1987:

And then came the insight that irrevocably transformed my sense of how good human life could be. I was feeling boundless love for one of my best friends, and I suddenly realized that if a stranger had walked through the door at that moment, he or she would have been fully included in this love. Love was at bottom impersonal - and deeper than any personal history could justify. Indeed, a transactional form of love - I love you because... - now made no sense at all. 

The interesting thing about this final shift in perspective was that it was not driven by any change in the way I felt. I was not overwhelmed by a new feeling of love. The insight had more the character of a geometric proof: It was as if, having glimpsed the properties of one set of parallel lines, I suddenly understood what was common to them all. 

The moment I could find a voice with which to speak, I discovered that this epiphany about the universality of love could be readily communicated. My friend got the point at once: All I had to do was ask him how he would feel in the presence of a total stranger at that moment, and the same door opened in his mind. It was simply obvious that love, compassion, and joy in the joy of others extended without limit. The experience was not of love growing but of it no longer being obscured. Love was - as advertised by mystics and crackpots through the ages - a state of being... It would take many years to put this experience into context... I still considered the world's religions to be mere intellectual ruins, maintained at enormous economic and social cost, but I now understood that important psychological truths could be found in the rubble.

Harris writes that what happened was a shift in "perspective" and not driven by "any change in the way I felt", but its significance is calculated in terms of how felt about his best friend, and how he would feel about a total stranger walking through the door. And at the end of the passage, he understands that he found an important psychological truth. Love, then, for Harris is a psychological experience and the state of being he mentions is a psychological state.

We may contrast that with the traditional Christian understanding of love, which is not so much a feeling or psychological state but an action. When Christ teaches what it means to love your neighbor as yourself, he teaches it in terms of parables like the Good Samaritan, a story that tells us what the Samaritan did and very little about what he felt. Harris and his friend take Ecstasy and sit around having warm feelings for each other and the world in general. All very nice, but where does that get Harris or anyone else?

Love, for the Christian, involves a state of being, but that state is much more than psychological and is dynamic rather than static. "Being" is an action word, and a man who is actually in a state of love must actually be doing something based on it. In fact, from the Christian perspective, simply having warm feelings about others that does not issue in action is very dangerous, since it invites one to mistake a mere psychological experience for the genuine state of love.


On page 6, Harris notes that:

Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.

Admissions like this are one of the things that makes Harris worth reading, since he doesn't deny the obvious as many atheists do. For them, religion must be a malignant force through and through with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. If it were, why have so many people followed it? There must be something about religion that accounts for its persistence over millennia. The typical atheist response here is to account for religion in terms of evolution or some reassuring but false consolation it provides. This isn't good enough either, as it is obvious that, whatever else may be said about it, religion has produced some remarkable people who have managed to transcend the ordinary human condition in some way - the Buddhist monk serene in his contemplation being an example. 


page 9:

Nothing that a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu can experience - self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light - constitutes evidence in support of their traditional beliefs, because their beliefs are logically incompatible with one another. A deeper principle must be at work.

That principle is the subject of this book: The feeling that we call "I" is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is - the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at ta world that is separate from yourself - can be altered or entirely extinguished.

It's clear that Harris arbitrarily limits experience here. For example, while Harris does not accept revelation, there is nothing logically impossible about it. Someone could experience a private revelation from God through which God reveals certain truths to him inaccessible by other means. That experience being private, of course, means that it need not carry cognitive weight for anyone else, but that does not rule out the possibility that it could be genuinely meaningful for the person who experiences it. But in any case, Christianity has always depended on public witness rather than private revelation. The Apostles proclaimed the Gospel based on their witness of the risen Christ, a witness that involved him speaking to them, touching them, and eating their food. Subject experiences of ecstasy or love have nothing to do with. Today, the Church carries on the public witness of the Resurrection of Christ that was handed on to them through the ages starting with the Apostles. Now you may not buy that witness - as many did not buy it in the first century - but that is where the game is, not in subjective experience.

The doctrine that the self is an illusion involves profound consequences, and it will be interesting to see where Harris goes with it.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Chesterton and Harry Potter

I'm a longtime Harry Potter hater, having once waged an unsuccessful mini-crusade to keep the series out of my kid's Catholic school. I haven't thought about Potter much in the last few years, but I've recently been reading In Defense of Sanity, a collection of Chesterton essays compiled by Dale Ahlquist, Joseph Pierce and Aidan Mackey for Ignatius Press.

One of the more frustrating aspects of being both a Potter hater and a Chesterton fan was the - to me - perplexing affection some Chestertonians had and still have for Harry Potter. One of the primary reasons for my Potter hatred, and one of the qualities of the series that struck me almost immediately on reading it, was its anti-Chesterton imaginative cast. I never could understand how anyone who read deeply of Chesterton could stomach Harry Potter.

My anti-Potter jihad is long over (and failed), so it is too late that I stumbled across the essay "Magic and Mystery in Fiction" in the Ignatius Press collection. The essay includes a passage relevant to what Chesterton's view of Harry Potter might have been:
In contrast with this, it will be noted that the good miracles, the acts of the saints and heroes, are always acts of restoration. They give the victim back his personality; and it is a normal and not a super-normal personality. The miracle gives back his legs to the lame man; but it does not turn him into a large centipede. It gives eyes to the blind; but only a regular and respectable number of eyes. The paralytic is told to stretch forth his hands, which is the gesture of liberation from fetters; but not to spread himself as a sort of Briarean octopus radiating in all directions and losing the human form. There runs through the whole tradition the idea that black magic is that which blots out or disguise the true form of a thing; while white magic, in the good sense, restores it to its own form and not another.
In these terms, the magic in Harry Potter is all black magic, whether used by Harry himself or Voldemort, for it bears no relation to form. What it does bear relation to is will - the will of the wizard himself and his desire to impose himself on the world. Thus the beginning magic classes in Hogwarts feature students turning small items arbitrarily into other small items, precisely what is of no consequence, since the goal is not to respect the form of the thing but to develop the power of the wizard. For the point isn't what it is with Christian miracles (or the genuinely good magic in Lord of the Rings), which is to restore things to the forms originally intended for them by the Creator, but to practice the technique of forcing things to be what you want them to be, whatever that might be.

The key to understanding the Harry Potter universe is to understand that it is a world without a Creator. A world with a Creator is a world made in the light of transcendent intelligence, in which everything is brought into being according to a pattern of wisdom that includes both the forms of things themselves as well as their relationships to each other. The wisdom of the creature is measured by the extent to which he knows, respects and conforms himself to the Divine Wisdom. "Magic" in such a world - another world for which is "miracle" - is really just another name for a specific act of Divine Grace. The great saint who has submitted himself extraordinarily to the Divine Will also becomes an extraordinary channel of Divine Grace, and so may appear "magical" to the ordinary man when, of course, he is no more magical than anyone else. He is simply more in tune with the way things really are, like the Elves in the Lord of the Rings. Sam Gamgee, on being presented with the gift of an Elvish cloak, asks if it is magical, a question that puzzles his Elvish benefactor. The Elves simply understand and conform themselves to nature to such an extent that they can produce from nature things that others, less consonant with nature than they are, can only interpret in terms of magic.

A world without a Creator is a world that does not express any deep wisdom in its origin; a being in this world has no assurance that his own nature is intelligible or that he necessarily bears any intelligible relation to anything else. Such a world is chaotic. It is chaotic not just in the relationships of things to each other, but in the relationships of things to themselves. Thus Hogwarts is populated with ugly, distorted and disproportionate things, like ghosts with half-severed heads and plants that have babies for roots, the cry of whom is dangerous. Why would a plant have a baby for its roots? Who knows? It's not a question anyone at Hogwarts, teacher or student, is interested in asking. In a chaotic world, questions of form are not worth asking since they don't have answers. Only questions of expediency matter, which is why the students concentrate on the most practical way to handle the Mandrake plant (that's the one with babies for roots) without getting injured. It's also why the students practice seemingly trivial exercises like making a pineapple dance across a desk or turning a beetle into a button. Why would one do either of those things? Again, that is not a relevant question at Hogwarts since beetles and pineapples are not created things with a nature and end informed by the Divine Wisdom, but merely random items that are grist for the will of the wizard.

The point is that the Harry Potter world, not being a created world informed by Divine Wisdom, is not an imaginatively Catholic world; and for Chesterton, this would have been a fatal flaw. Chesterton loved the children's literature of the Western tradition because it made us all imaginative Christians whether or not we ever became confessing ones. The fact that we no longer instinctively recoil from a story in which the "good" magic is less than a metaphor for grace, and is not restricted to creatures like Gandalf with the nature and wisdom to wield it, but is instead distinguished from "bad" magic only in the supposed moral character of those who wield it, should tell how deteriorated our cultural imagination has already become.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Game of Thrones, Machiavelli, Socrates and Plato

[This post has spoilers for Game of Thrones]

Ethan makes an interesting comment here on my earlier post concerning Game of Thrones. The context is the decision of Eddard Stark, while a prisoner of the Lannister family, to condemn himself as a traitor in return for the sparing of his daughter's life. He takes issue with my point that Stark would have done well to have heeded the Socratic principle not to voluntarily do evil to oneself, for even though things didn't turn out as he thought they would, at least his daughter's life was in fact spared.

Ethan is right about that, but I think to understand what is really going on here, we need to turn to Plato's modern nemesis, Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli would tell us that there is a crucial difference between Socrates and Eddard Stark: Socrates is a private citizen and Eddard Stark is a king. And - according to Machiavelli - the morality of kings is different from that of ordinary citizens. Ordinary citizens live an intra-city existence in the context of the city's laws and courts; to be a good man in the city is to live well socially. It is to obey the city's laws and customs, and to follow the ordinary rules of morality with which we are familiar. It is to live in Plato's Republic. In that work Plato developed the notion of justice based on the well-ordered city, where every citizen knows his place and fulfills his duty.

But the king does not live an intra-city existence; his life is inter-city, dealing in the "community of the world", except that there is no such community. There is no world-wide law or court system, or world-wide set of customs in the context of which the king makes his decisions. The international world is not a well-ordered Republic but remains in the state of nature as described by Thomas Hobbes - a war of all against all, in which peace occurs not as a reasoned state achieved via a rational Republic, but merely as an agreement between two foes who realize they can't (for now) get the better of each other. And without a worldwide city in which to develop the notion of justice, the Platonic understanding of justice is stillborn - for the king if not the people.

The wise king, according to Machiavelli, understands this and does not make the mistake of judging his decisions in light of an understanding of justice - the justice appropriate to the life within the city - that cannot apply in the context of his life as king. The king must use "evil well", which means that he must not be afraid to perform acts that, according to ordinary morality, are base, but in the context of his rule as king he finds necessary. (Incidentally, this applies not only to his relations to other cities but to his rule as king in his own city. His rule constitutes the city, and so is not an appropriate subject of Platonic justice, which appears as a consequence  of the rationally founded city. The justice that comes into existence with the city cannot be the justice against which the city's creator is judged.)

What would Machiavelli think of Eddard Stark? One thing we are taught by Machiavelli is that, if you are going to play the "game of thrones", you must play it all the way or not all. The prince who only goes halfway and remains constrained by "conscience" will find himself a victim of his more ruthless rivals. He will be the man who brings a knife to a gunfight. Eddard Stark is such a man. He wants to play the game of thrones and is not above practicing deceit in pursuing his aims, most notably in his revision of Robert Baratheon's final words concerning his heir (which Stark changes from specifically naming Joffrey Lannister to the generic "rightful heir.") But Stark is also constrained by his conscience. When he discovers that Joffrey is actually the product of incest between Cersei and Jaime Lannister, he informs Cersei in private and offers her the chance to flee with her children. Cersei uses the opportunity, and Robert Baratheon's death, to orchestrate the assassination of Stark's bodyguards and his arrest as a traitor.

Machiavelli would have predicted such a result, for he tells us in The Prince that "men must either be caressed or annihilated; they will revenge themselves for small injuries, but cannot do so for great ones." The most dangerous thing a prince can do is injure a rival but leave him in a position to retaliate. Cersei does not make the same mistake, for when she turns on Eddard she makes sure he is thrown in prison in chains, completely helpless. Once this has occurred, Eddard really has no good alternatives. He's lost the Machiavellian game he entered without understanding what was necessary to win it; by falsely reporting Robert Baratheon's final words, he has also compromised his own integrity and turned away from the Socratic path. In the end, he's listened neither to Socrates nor Machiavelli. So it is true that, by the time he receives Varys's counsel in prison, his doom is already more or less sealed and he makes the best of a bad situation.

It doesn't help him that Varys is hardly Socrates, and is a poor Machiavelli as well. The Machiavellian truth of Eddard's situation in prison is that he and Sansa will live only insofar as they are useful to the Lannisters. The Lannisters have already demonstrated their ruthlessness by assassinating Eddard's guards, throwing him in prison, and demanding that he falsely testify against himself. It should be obvious to anyone, and especially to a supposedly wise counselor like Varys, that the Lannister's word means nothing in this context. Machiavelli: "A prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when by doing so it would be against his interest, and when the reasons which made him bind himself no longer exist. If men were all good, this precept would not be a good one; but as they are bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them."

Furthermore, Joffrey is now king, and it is in Joffrey's hands - a man who is an obvious psychopath - that Eddard's life will be placed, whatever agreements he might have made with other Lannisters. And with respect to Sansa, does Varys really expect the Lannisters to spare Sansa should they find it expedient to do away with her, based on some private agreement they made with Eddard? Such an expectation would be dangerously naïve. Probably nothing Eddard could do in prison would change how things turned out for himself and Sansa, except for Eddard doing an injustice to himself by falsely confessing to treason.

The Stark family in general suffers the same ambivalence of character shown by Eddard and, unfortunately for them, learn no lessons from his demise. Robb Stark accepts the consensus of northern nobles and becomes King of the North. He prosecutes the war against the Lannisters with both skill and zeal and, moreover, claims to fight in the name of justice. He executes Lord Karstark, again in the name of justice, for the murder of two Lannister prisoners, even though his mother Catelyn correctly predicts that this will cause the Karstark forces to abandon Robb's army and seriously weaken it. But when it comes fulfilling a vow he made to marry a daughter of Walder Frey, his commitment to justice wavers and he breaks the vow in favor of marrying the woman he loves, a healer attached to his army named Talisa.

Robb later realizes he can't win his war without Frey's forces, and attempts to reconcile with him by offering to apologize as well as have one of his nobles marry a Frey daughter. Robb would have done well to listen to this piece of Machiavellian advice : "And whoever thinks that in high personages new benefits cause old offenses to be forgotten, makes a great mistake." And, as happened with Eddard, Robb find himself in a situation where he has injured an enemy and also put himself in a vulnerable place. At the wedding banquet at the Frey castle, Robb, his family, and their forces are all slaughtered at the infamous Red Wedding.

The argument I am making is that the Starks come to a bad end because of their ambivalent moral nature: They follow neither Socrates nor Machiavelli; they attempt to play the game of thrones, but don't do it with the ruthlessness that Machiavelli teaches us is necessary to succeed. Instead, their half-hearted commitment to justice, sometimes submitting to it and other times ignoring it,  only creates a series of dangerous enemies who are powerful, devious and ruthless, and furthermore, are themselves more consistent followers of Machiavelli.

It's clear how a more consistent Machiavellian approach might have changed things for the Starks. After Eddard discovers that Joffrey is a product of incest, instead of warning Cersei and giving her a chance to escape (as well as retaliate), Eddard would have used the information to destroy Cersei outright, and in a context in which he was safe from retaliation. Robb would not have executed Lord Karstark, the justice of the situation not even entering the calculation, and his forces would have been sufficient for him to continue his string of battlefield victories.

But how might things have changed for the Starks if they had been more consistent followers of Socrates? Socrates would surely have advised them that they can't both be committed to justice and yet pursue the game of thrones. This doesn't mean they couldn't be kings. But it does mean they can't try to manipulate events, especially when doing so involves compromising justice. Eddard could have honestly reported King Robert's final words and let the chips fall where they may. He could have acknowledged Joffrey as Robert's successor and simply gone back to Winterfell, forgetting any notions of scheming events to his liking. And Robb Stark could have forestalled his unfortunate end by simply fulfilling in justice the vow he made to marry a daughter of Walder Frey.

It remains to ask the question: Who is truly wiser, Socrates or Machiavelli? We can first note that Machiavelli takes the prince's motivation for granted. He addresses the question of how the prince shall gain and retain power and defeat his enemies, and never asks the question of the ultimate purpose for which the prince wishes to use power. It is a Socratic principle, however, that one should pursue wisdom before power, for the man who gains power without wisdom will only become a danger to himself as well as others. Joffrey Lannister is a good example of such a man. But we may also ask the question of a thoroughly Machiavellian character like Tywin Lannister. Tywin is no fool and regularly demonstrates his superiority in the game of thrones over his opponents. He is not constrained by notions of justice in formulating and carrying out his plans. Nor is he constrained by sentimentality in using the marriages of his children for political ends. But what has he won with all that scheming? Power, yes, but he is hated by both his daughter Cersei and his son Tyrion. He has no real friends and has in fact become a lonely, bitter old man, prosecuting the game of thrones in the name of the family Lannister when the meaning of family has long since been lost on him. He is reminiscent of Michael Corleone, another man who ends up destroying his own family by "being strong" for that family.

We might also consider the character of Robert Baratheon. He ends up miserable as king, frankly confessing to Eddard Stark that he thought being king meant doing whatever he wanted, when it turns out he is constrained by the necessities of state and politics. Worst of all, from the Socratic perspective, is Joffrey Lannister, whose ascent to the throne permits him to unleash the worst aspects of his character. The fact that Joffrey fails to appreciate the evil he does to others and himself only makes the situation all the more horrifying.

Perhaps the difference between Socrates and Machiavelli can be cast in terms of being careful what you wish for. Machiavelli may be able to get you what you want (if you are a prince), but he cannot help you understand if it is something you should really want after all. For that, you need Socrates.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Derbyshire and the Red Pill

John Derbyshire's latest column is an interesting example of what happens when an intelligent but non-philosophical mind bumps up against some realities that can only be addressed philosophically.

The most fundamental of these realities is that most people live non-reflectively and accept uncritically whatever the conventional wisdom tells them. One reason this happens is that it is simply easier to live as one of the crowd ("the herd" as Kierkegaard put it). Challenging the conventional wisdom, the established ways, is perceived by the crowd as a threat to the stability of the established order (which, in truth, it may very well be); so the critical thinker will naturally find his life more difficult than one who just goes along with the prevailing wisdom. As Derbyshire puts it:
It is also antisocial. Who wants to hear you say that the emperor has no clothes, when everyone else they know—including all the cool people!—says otherwise.
Those who follow the crowd are known as the "well-adjusted."  In the terms of Derbyshire's column, they have taken the "blue pill", an apparent reference to the film The Matrix (which I haven't seen). The far fewer people who take the "red pill" are the "realists", the ones who take the truth as it is and damn the consequences. Naturally, Derbyshire includes himself in this latter group. (How can one be sure which pill you actually took? Maybe the red pill is just a blue with some food coloring on it.)

Derbyshire finds demoralizing the fact that most people are non-reflective, and so not open to the truth he wants to tell them. He consoles himself that there are still, in fact, some redoubts of reason left in the modern world:
Crazy as the social and political worlds undoubtedly are, looking at things realistically, reason still holds its fort. Mathematics, the homeland of reason; science, the mostly-well-behaved offspring of math; and technology, the child of pure science, continue to produce wonders and enlarge our understanding.
Noticeably absent from the list of citizens Derbyshire welcomes into the fortress of reason is philosophy. But without philosophy, the fortress of math and science will not last long, for the question of the value of math and science is a philosophical one, not a scientific one. No wonder he is depressed. His own canon of reason is in effect a form of unilateral disarmament in the face of those who would undermine the things he loves.
Putting yourself outside the circle of reason would make anyone gloomy. Yet Derbyshire's occupation - writing pop math books and opinion columns - qualifies as neither math, science nor technology, and so does not qualify as reason under his requirements. This gives Derbyshire's columns their peculiar flavor: He desperately wishes that everyone would take the red pill and deal with reality, but can't make an argument to that effect since no such argument is possible in terms of math or science. All he can do is lament the fact and report that he, unaccountably, prefers the red pill to the blue pill.

The fact that most people do not prefer to face the truth, and resent those who would reveal it to them, is no recent discovery. It is, in fact, one of the original insights of philosophy and is memorably allegorized (yes, that is a word) in Plato's parable of The Cave. The difference between Plato and Derbyshire (or, at least, one of them) is that Plato didn't simply throw up his hands in light of this situation, but thought deeply about it and its implications for the practice of philosophy. The result was The Republic, one of the great philosophical documents of Western culture, in which Plato makes the argument that the city in which philosophers rule is not only ideal for the philosopher, but for everyone else as well. Plato's ideal city was never realized in fact (and, indeed, even in The Republic he acknowledges that it was never really practical), but that doesn't mean the work was without influence. The alternative to crowning the philosophers kings is to make kings, to the extent it is possible, philosophers. Another way of saying it is that it isn't necessary that the mass of people become philosophers - it is only necessary that the influential ones become philosophers. That has happened in history - Marcus Aurelius comes to mind - but most notably in the founding of our own nation. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are nothing if not documents claiming to found a nation on reason.

Derbyshire ends his column with a note of demoralization, lamenting the fact that he is on the red pill:
I want to believe the pretty lies. I’ve had enough of depressive realism. I want to take the blue pill. Where’s the nearest retail outlet?
It's a little hard to take Derbyshire seriously in his melancholy, for there is about him a bit of what G.K. Chesterton called the "boyish delight in the grim and unapproachable pose of the realist." In any event, the answer to depressive realism is more realism, not less, and we can only hope that Derbyshire's depression might drive him to the point of reconsidering the scientistic (not scientific) dogmas that prevent him from thinking truly philosophically.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Game of Thrones: Unleavened

[Warning: This post has spoilers for Game of Thrones]

"The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and buried in three measures of flour, until all of it was leavened." - Matt 13:35

This verse keeps coming back to me as I finish the third season DVDs of Game of Thrones. The world of Game of Thrones has no leaven; that is, no individuals formed in terms of the moral horizon of the Gospel. And that for good reason, for it is a world in which the Incarnation never occurred.

The leaven of the Gospel raises an entire culture, not merely the individual lives of believers. The important thing about St. Francis is not how many people he inspired to follow him in his passionate imitation of Christ, but what his example meant for the medieval world as a whole. When St. Francis joyfully rejects all standards of worldly success and failure, sings in his rags and his hunger, supremely happy with nothing but Christ in his heart, it is difficult for everyone, including sinners and unbelievers, to continue to take with absolute seriousness the worldly hopes that previously occupied them. We like to think that atheists introduced skepticism into the world, but actually Christ introduced a skepticism more radical than any atheist skepticism. The atheist, in his denial of God, leaves men where they are, focused on their temporal hopes of gold, glory, power, money, fame and romance (or simple lust). Christ shattered that existential horizon forever, and saints like Francis remind us of the fact.

Except in Game of Thrones. Without Christ, it is a world in which the secular goals of wealth and power remain absolute. It's actually a little worse than that. Even in the pre-Christian world philosophers like Socrates challenged conventional values to the point of driving their fellow citizens to execute them. Socrates never revolutionized a culture the way Christ revolutionized the West, but Game of Thrones doesn't even include a Socratic-like character, or indeed any philosophers worthy of the name. (This is one of the many ways in which it is distinguished from The Lord of the Rings, which includes genuinely philosophical figures like Gandalf who regularly shake men out of their moral complacency.)

The absence of the Gospel, and any authentically philosophical culture, gives Game of Thrones an ethically cramped and oppressive feel. The characters tend to melancholy, trapped in a variety of unhappy lives from which they'd love to be free, but escape from which they cannot conceive. Watching it, I found myself wishing that someone, somewhere, would muster a little moral imagination, sufficient to challenge the existential parameters that keep them prisoners. But this is Plato's Cave without a Socrates, who challenged the shadows from the inside, or a Christ, who shatters them from outside. For those in Game of Thrones, the shadows on the cave wall represent an absolute horizon.

The happiest people in the series are, naturally, those that have found some measure of love and romance. I say naturally because romantic love tends to subvert the scale of values one had previously taken for granted, and creates freedom by making one open to new existential possibilities. Combine this with the tradition of the nobility marrying for political reasons rather than love, and you have the primary engine of plot development in Game of Thrones. Cersei Lannister is matched in a loveless marriage with the drunk and sexually uninterested Robert Baratheon. In frustration she pairs off with her twin brother Jamie, and when Eddard's son Bran is crippled by Jaime after witnessing the incestuous Jaime and Cersei, we have the origin of the war that is the central action in the story. Robb Stark, the King of the North, is pledged to marry a daughter of Walder Frey, but instead marries the woman he loves, Talisa Maegyr, leading to perhaps the most shocking plot development of the series. Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf son in the family of the Stark's primary rivals, loves a prostitute but is forced to marry Sansa Stark, teenage daughter of the slain king Eddard Stark. Jon Snow, bastard son of Eddard, is vowed to the (celibate) order of the Nights Watch, but falls in love with a wildling woman while out on patrol. And on it goes.

But absent any religion or philosophy that gives them a taste of the transcendent, the love-struck in Game of Thrones typically fail to break through the Platonic shadows that define their lives. Tyrion's lover suggests that she and Tyrion elope (in effect) to a far off land, but he cannot get past the mundane question of making a living ("What would I do? Juggle?"), even though he is among the most educated men in King's Landing, and confesses that he finally cannot escape his familial ties ("I am a Lannister").  Jon Snow and his love Ygritte understand that neither Ygritte's wildling tribe nor Jon Snow's Nights Watch are really worthy of their devotion, but they ultimately can find no way to transcend their connections to each, and Ygritte winds up firing arrows into Jon as he returns to his people.

We are well short of the drama and passion of Heloise and Abelard here, let alone someone like St. Thomas Aquinas. Born into a noble family, St. Thomas not only renounced his aristocratic privileges, but insisted on joining the Dominicans, a mendicant order of friars. As G.K. Chesterton put it,
Thomas of Aquino wanted to be a Friar. It was a staggering fact to his contemporaries; and it is rather an intriguing fact even to us; for this desire, limited literally and strictly to this statement, was the one practical thing to which his will was clamped with adamantine obstinacy till his death. He would not be an Abbot; he would not be a Monk; he would not even be a Prior or ruler in his own fraternity; he would not be a prominent or important Friar; he would be a Friar. It is as if Napoleon had insisted on remaining a private soldier all his life. Something in this heavy, quiet, cultivated, rather academic gentleman would not be satisfied till he was, by fixed authoritative proclamation and official pronouncement, established and appointed to be a Beggar. (from GKC's St. Thomas Aquinas)
 His resolve survived two years of imprisonment by his own family and various subterfuges designed to corrupt his virtue and his vocation, like an attempted seduction by a prostitute. But, supported by the example of Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit, St. Thomas only became more firmly dismissive of the worldly goals his family had in mind for him. St. Thomas is a wonderful example of a man, inspired by the example of Christ, expressing the freedom that the Gospel makes possible. There is nothing remotely like this in Game of Thrones. The point is not that Game of Thrones is poorly written because the characters are trapped within an existence prescribed for them by their culture. In fact, the reason I am writing this post is because of the excellent job Game of Thrones does in showing what happens to people in a culture that has no window into the transcendent. It shows by contrast just what it is that (true) philosophy and religion bring.

But isn't there religion in the series? There is the Lord of Light, after all, and a priestess that is his prophet, and various characters periodically pray to a variety of gods. All this is, however, a primitive paganism that is merely an expression of the utilitarian purposes of men rather than a window to transcendence. The gods are just another way to get what you want. Stannis Baratheon pays attention to the red priestess because he thinks she, and the Lord of Light she serves, might be useful to him in his efforts to regain the Iron Throne. There is no Gandalf - or Socrates - around to tell him that the gods do not serve men, and when they appear to submit themselves to our purposes, it is only on the way to enslaving us. There is one man who attempts to warn him, an old smuggler and compatriot of Stannis's named Davos Seaworth, and while he correctly senses the danger the red priestess portends, he is not philosophically sophisticated enough to be a match for her. He is certainly in no position to tell Stannis to forget about the gods and instead fear God, the utterly transcendent Creator of the Universe and Ground of Being. Since God created all we are, He would only be frustrating himself were he to frustrate us, so we know God is by nature trustworthy, red priestesses or not. Especially if He condescends to come in the form of a man, and suffer and die at our hands, for our sakes.

One of the distinctive features of Game of Thrones is the level of torture it shows, reaching to the virtually pornographic. The bad people in the series can be very, very bad. This is not disconnected from the fact that the series lacks any serious religion or philosophy. This absence limits the moral range of the characters in the positive direction. But to maintain our interest, the story needs to morally distinguish the players, so we can root for the good guys and cheer the defeat of the bad guys. The best people in the series are not much more than moral mediocrities, since they can see no end beyond the capture or retention of their thrones - the same ends pursued by the villains. The difference between them is the level of ruthlessness and duplicity the villains are willing to use versus the heroes. The bad are portrayed as such vicious, heartless and cruel men that we can't help but root for the alternatives, even if, in a normal state of affairs, we really wouldn't see much reason why we should care if Robb Stark is to become King of the North. But given that the alternatives are men who take various amounts of enjoyment in torture for its own sake, Robb appears pretty good in contrast.

The Stark family is, in general, the "good family" in the series. And that doesn't mean much more than that they are basically honest, brave, dutiful and take no pleasure in cruelty for its own sake. That is, among the classic Aristotelian four natural virtues, they are temperate, courageous and just. But they lack the crucial fourth virtue, wisdom, which Aristotle tells us is the most important since it underlies all the others (e.g. the courageous man must not only be able to overcome his fears, but be able to distinguish when danger is worth risking and when it is merely foolish). Eddard Stark, the patriarch, imprisoned by the Lannister family, is offered the opportunity to save his daughter in return for his life. One of the "wisemen" of the series, a eunuch named Varys, urges him to take this course. In the event, Eddard gives his confession, but then is immediately executed anyway by the cruel young king Joffrey Lannister. So Eddard not only loses his life, but damages his family's honor and goes down to history as a traitor.

It was Eddard's misfortune that he did not have the counsel of a true wiseman like Socrates or benefit of his experience. Socrates, like Eddard, was offered the opportunity to plead guilty to the charges against him in return for a small fine, but on the principle that he would do no evil to himself, whatever others might do, refused. This principle was developed in Western culture to the general principle that evil may not be done that good might come of it - something the characters in Game of Thrones desperately need to hear, but no one is around to tell them.

I mentioned above that Game of Thrones is well written to the extent that it shows what happens to people in a culture with no vision of the transcendent. There is a question as to whether this an accident or a deliberate intention of the author. I know nothing of the author, so it may very well be his intention, but I suspect it is not. One of the interesting points made by several friends with whom I've discussed the series is that, in their opinion, it is more realistic than The Lord of the Rings in depicting the true moral nature of men, and in particular the way life must have been in the Middle Ages. They base their opinion on the very thing I have been discussing in this post - the moral mediocrity of even the best characters in Game of Thrones. They are impressed by the fact that most of the characters are neither completely good nor completely bad, but are sometimes good and sometimes bad, and they think this reflective of real life.

This isn't quite true, as I discussed above. There are no superlatively good characters in the story, but there are several, like Joffrey Lannister, for whom it is difficult to find any redeeming qualities. The moral range of the story does not extend to extraordinary goodness, but it does extend to extraordinary evil. And this certainly was not true of the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages had its vicious characters surely, but St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Louis, St. Catherine of Siena... these are not fictional characters. The point is not that these individuals never sinned - they surely did and would insist on the fact - but they transcended moral mediocrity through the imitation of Christ, a way of life that reordered their being from the bottom-up, giving them a perspective from which the incessant chasing of thrones and whores looked petty.

I suspect that the reason we might find Game of Thrones more "realistic" is that it effectively reads our contemporary moral exhaustion into a medieval setting. The people in Game of Thrones act more or less like the people around us, and respond as we might respond in their extreme circumstances. Like them, we can see no end beyond the purely secular aims of money, security and women, and we take it for granted that no one else can or ever could. Our one point of moral pride is that we are not as violent or cruel as people once were, and the series plays on that conceit in its emphasis on physical cruelty. And yet, while we can no longer imagine the moral greatness of a medieval saint, we have no problem imagining the moral depravity of a medieval sadist. Perhaps this is the characteristic contemporary manifestation of original sin.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Heaven is for Real and False Consolation

Is heaven for real? Of course it is. How do we know? Because Jesus Christ died, rose from the dead, and created a Church that has borne continuous witness to His Truth from that day to this. We need nothing more, at least as far as knowing that heaven is for real. If we think we need more, it isn't because there is a real need for more, but because we have not yet fully appreciated what God has already done for us.

This is one reason that the Church has always maintained a measured view with respect to visions or other private revelations. God, of course, is not constrained by the Church, and does what He will, so private revelations are a genuine possibility and, in fact, the Church has recognized a number of them throughout history. But it is not incumbent on any Catholic to believe in any private revelation, and there are some dangers associated with them, among which is the possibility of shifting (perhaps unconsciously) the basis of one's faith from the historical witness of the Church to a private revelation. Logically this makes no sense, since it is only on the authority of the Church that we should put stock in a putative private revelation in the first place, but emotionally this might happen since a private revelation - especially a contemporary one - can seem more immediate, fresh, and exciting than the ancient witness of the Church. And in that case we are on very dangerous ground, since while the historical witness of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, is both true and unchanging, a private witness not recognized by the Church may well contain a mixture of error and truth, and is liable to change with the vagaries of the individuals involved. This is indeed a house built on sand.

While we need to wait for the Church to pass judgment on an alleged private revelation before believing it, we need not wait for the Church to discover for ourselves sufficient reason to discount a private revelation. And it's not hard to find those reasons in the popular book, and now movie, Heaven is for Real. I read the book last year - I think - but didn't remark on it at the time. It's now received much more exposure because of the associated movie (which I haven't seen.)

Heaven is For Real is the story of Colton Burpo, the son of pastor Todd Burpo, and three years old when the critical events in the story occurred. What happened is that Colton became very sick, had an operation in which he nearly died, then later began making statements that implied he had journeyed to heaven while unconscious during the operation.

Colton's age is important. Three year old children have no clear understanding of the difference between truth and falsehood, fantasy and reality, and only a limited understanding of the moral implications of telling a lie. What they do have is a fine perception for detecting their parents emotions, and especially the extent to which they are pleasing their parents and gaining or losing their attention. What I think happened here is that young Colton, doing what three year olds do, which is saying whatever comes to mind, discovered that certain things he was saying drew an unusual, strong and positive reaction from his parents. Naturally this encouraged him to further explore this line of thinking, which was then reinforced by increasingly strong reactions from his parents. This is not a matter of Colton "lying." At that age, he doesn't understand what that meant with respect to relating events from his past - especially events that supposedly happened when he was unconscious - a realm where it is very difficult to separate fantasy, wishful thinking and simple dreaming from reality even for spiritual masters of profound wisdom and experience.

The dynamic is established right in the book's prologue. In the car, Colton's mother Sonja innocently asks him if he remembers the hospital in which he had his operation. Colton's answer is that, yes, he does remember, because "That's where the angels sang to me." Now this could mean a lot of things: It could mean he dreamed of angels singing, imagined angels singing to him, or he is simply saying something for no particular reason he understands, among other possibilities. The response of his parents is worth quoting:
Inside the Expedition, time froze. Sonja and I looked at each other, passing a silent message: Did he just say what I think he said? (Emphasis in original)  
Sonja leaned over and whispered, "Has he talked to you about angels before?"  
I shook my head. "You?"  
She shook her head. 
It's not exactly clear what Todd and Sonja think happened here. Colton has not talked about angels before, but there is always a first time, and there is no reason to think that he hasn't already overheard a lot about angels (his father is a pastor after all). What is clear is that, if Colton's parents think that by passing "silent messages" through looks and whispers Colton is not going to pick up what is going on (specifically, that something just happened that drew unusual attention from his parents), they are naïve. Paying attention to the emotions and reactions of his parents is virtually a full-time job for three year olds. And Colton's parents confirm the reaction by shortly following up with questions about the angels and what they sang to him. (In an odd note, Colton says that he asked the angels to sing We Will Rock You We Will Rock You but they demurred. It doesn't disturb his parents that Colton - three years old - is familiar enough with Queen rock songs to request them, but it should give us a clue that Colton may be more exposed than we might expect a three year old to be, especially as the Burpos belief in Colton's experience is largely based on what they think he hasn't seen.)

In light of what is revealed later, it is also interesting that Colton mentions angels singing as the significant event he associates with the hospital. Later, we learn that Colton, while on his heavenly journey, not only heard angels singing in heaven, but met Jesus, the Holy Spirit, his grandparents, a dead sister, John the Baptist, saw Satan, the gates of Heaven with gold and pearls, the Holy Spirit pouring grace into his father, and even the battle of Armageddon, among other things. Yet, here, it is none of those latter memories that spring to his mind when thinking of the hospital, but only the relatively banal memory of singing angels. We may be forgiven for suspecting that the real origin of the heavenly experience was in the car with Sonja's innocent question, rather than in Colton's operation.

The car story in the book's prologue is meant to whet our appetites for further revelations and keep us interested while we get the backstory of Colton's illness, operation and aftermath in chapters one through eleven. In chapter twelve we get back to revelations of Colton's experience in heaven. This time it is explicitly prompted by his father:
Sitting at my makeshift desk, I looked over at my son as he brought Spider-Man pouncing down on  some nasty-looking creature from Star Wars. "Hey, Colton," I said, "Remember when we were in the car and you talked about sitting on Jesus' lap?" 
Still on his knees, he looked up at me: "Yeah." 
"Well, did anything else happen?" 
He nodded, eyes bright. "Did you know that Jesus has a cousin? Jesus told me his cousin baptized him." 
"Yes, you're right," I said. "The Bible says Jesus' cousin's name is John." 
Todd takes it as given that the only explanation for this "revelation" is that Colton actually went to heaven and met Jesus and John the Baptist (who, we are told, is "nice.") The obvious explanation is that Colton is merely repeating things he has overheard that he thinks will please his father - especially since we are told, just before this incident occurs, that Colton is playing near Todd while he works on his sermon.

And, as is natural, as time goes on the revelations get more detailed, elaborate and sensational while Todd Burpo's critical faculties increasingly abandon him. Todd is blown away when Colton mentions that Jesus has "markers", his word for Christ's Wounds, because he somehow thinks it impossible that Colton would know anything about them since Protestant kids aren't around crucifixes much. For my part, it's hard to believe that a three year old as perceptive and attentive as Colton, in a very religious household headed by a pastor, wouldn't have had any exposure to the fact of Christ's wounds. The kid has never seen a picture of Christ on the Cross? In any case, in his description of the "markers" Colton leaves out the fifth wound - the spear wound in Christ's side - which might be explained by the fact that the wound would be less visible behind Christ's robes, but it is also just the wound one would expect not to be retained by a three year old when he is briefly exposed to a crucifix or picture of Christ on the cross. Todd is also amazed by Colton's description of Christ as wearing a white robe with a purple sash, when such a description pretty much describes the generic picture of Christ found in children's books.

In the next chapter, Sonja Burpo remarks with respect to Colton that "It's like he just pops out with new information all of a sudden."  It doesn't occur to her or Todd that this might be because it really is new information, in the sense that no one, including Colton, knew about it before. And this particular new information really is tough to swallow. According to Colton, everyone in heaven has wings; not just angels, but men as well (everyone but Jesus).  Furthermore, they all have halos. This isn't meant allegorically, but literally. Todd Burpo struggles mightily for scriptural support for this vision of physical halos, and the best he can come up with are references to Stephen's face "becoming bright as an angel's" before he was stoned to death, an angel's appearance "like lightning" after the Resurrection, and John's vision of an angel's face that "shone like the sun" in Revelation. Of course these aren't references to halos, and in any case halos and wings have their origin, and have always been understood, as physical signs of non-physical reality - in the case of wings, the transcendent nature of angels with respect to terrestrial reality; and in the case of halos, the sanctified nature of the individual's soul. Naturally a child will miss the allegorical nature of these symbols and take them literally, but an adult certainly shouldn't. And when a child explains that he saw in heaven the physical manifestations of medieval artistic motifs, we don't really need to search our memories to discover if we ever mentioned wings and halos to him, as the Burpos do.

Things become more serious in the succeeding chapters when Colton moves on from wings and halos to encounters with his dead relatives. He meets his grandfather ("Pop") and, then, a sister who died in the womb. This may be the most affecting section in the book, and we cannot but feel sympathy for the Burpos in their pain and joy in their consolation when Colton tells them that their little girl is in heaven. The Burpos say they never told Colton about the miscarriage, but they did tell Colton's older sister Cassie; it is surely not outside the bounds of probability that either they or (more likely) Cassie let something slip at some point to make Colton aware of a missing sibling. In any event, there are several interesting things about Colton's sister in heaven. The first is that she doesn't have a name, which comes up when Sonja asks about it:
Sonja's eyes lit up and she asked: "What was her name? What was the little girl's name?" 
Colton seemed to forget about all the yucky girl hugs for a moment. "She doesn't have a name. You guys didn't name her."   
How did he know that? (Emphasis in original)
Well, he knew it because children are typically named when they are born. More revealing is the fact that Colton, clearly a perceptive and intelligent young boy, is generating a conclusion rather than reporting a fact. He doesn't know the girl's name. This might be because Colton never asked her name and she never volunteered it, even if she actually had one. (Colton doesn't say that she told him she doesn't have a name). Instead, the girl-with-no-name is taken by everyone as just another fact of revelation, when we are given its deductive origin. And it would be strange if the girl really did have no name. Colton's heaven is beyond our ordinary understanding of time (this is how Colton's elaborate visions of Armageddon, meeting relatives, watching the Holy Spirit beam grace into his father, etc., are fit into the three of minutes of Earth time Colton says he was in heaven.) So, in this realm beyond time, Colton's sister is doomed to be ever-nameless? Or is she waiting for her parents to join her in heaven and name her? Then heaven isn't really beyond time, is it? In any case, Christ has told us familial relationships in the beyond aren't quite what they are on Earth (Matthew 22:30), and there are precedents for God naming children - Jesus Himself, for one. It's hard to believe that God, the angels, and Pop would be content with "Hey you" when addressing Colton's lost sister.

The second interesting thing about Colton's sister is her age. We later learn from Colton that no one in heaven wears glasses and no one is old (Pop exists in heaven as a man in his prime). Yet Colton's sister's heavenly existence is not as a mature young woman, but a young girl in the age range of Colton and his sister Cassie. The question then arises: Is Colton's sister physically growing in heaven? If she is, does she reach a particular age and then stop maturing? Or does she stay a young girl, as both Colton and Cassie grow to adulthood here on Earth? Colton, naturally, imagines his sister as something similar to himself and Cassie, and so imagines her in heaven as a child, even though it doesn't really make any sense. Indeed, the whole notion of physically meeting people in heaven is suspect. Angels do not have bodies; we men are awaiting the end of history and the general Resurrection when our souls will be reunited with our glorified bodies here on Earth (which will also have been redeemed.) Heaven, for us, is a state of peace and joy in the presence of God, but we exist in it as disembodied souls awaiting the end of time. The only individuals with physical bodies in heaven are Jesus and, perhaps, Mary (if you are Catholic). Yet Colton makes no distinction between Christ and everyone else in heaven insofar as physical being is concerned; everyone is pretty much the same, wearing white robes with different colored sashes and wings of various sizes. (An aside: The uniformity of clothing in Colton's heaven makes one think of futuristic sci-fi movies like Logan's Run or Star Wars. Why do we tend to imagine advanced states as always involving a monotonous uniformity of appearance? The story would be more believable if Colton related seeing things of unimaginable beauty and variety - even if as a child he was at a loss to describe them - rather than unimaginable banality. Dante didn't miss this point. And another aside: Colton describes many animals in heaven, but animals do not have immortal souls and they are not in heaven. They may be present on the redeemed Earth, but we will have to wait for them till then.)

Colton's initial announcement, recounted in the book's prologue, about angels singing to him in the hospital, gave some clue about the psychological dynamics at work in this story. So too with the circumstances concerning Colton's revelation about his sister. Colton is attempting to get his mother's attention, and doesn't get it until he comes out with the announcement that his mother lost a child in the womb. And just like in the car, time stops for the Burpos:
At that moment, time stopped in the Burpo household. and Sonja's eyes grew wide. Just a few seconds before, Colton had been trying unsuccessfully to get his mom to listen to him. Now, even from the kitchen table, I could see that he had her undivided attention. 
"Who told you I had a baby die in my tummy?" Sonja said, her tone serious.
Certainly a good way to get your Mom's attention in the Burpo household is to announce a new bit of heaven-inspired information. And, of course, to have the same impact, the revelations must get increasingly sensational. Announcing that angels sang to you wouldn't grab Mom's attention so much if you already told her you met your grandfather and sister in heaven. And, so, by the end of the book, we get into full-fledged accounts of the Battle of Armageddon, complete with swords and bows and arrows. If this sounds familiar, you may have read C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or seen the movie. And so has Colton. In fact, it is right after seeing the movie that Colton comes out with his Narnia-like account of Armageddon. By this point, the Burpos seem to have abandoned whatever critical distance they had and simply accept Colton as an all-purpose oracle concerning things heavenly.

Isn't this all harmless? Not really. Take Colton's grandfather Pop. Is he in heaven? Maybe, but maybe not. The Church encourages us to pray for the dead because our prayers may benefit the souls in purgatory. But if Pop is in heaven, he is in no need of our prayers; in fact, he may be praying for us. Were we to think conspiratorially, we might consider that, while the Devil cannot steal the souls in purgatory away from God, he can make their time there longer than it might be by somehow tempting those on Earth not to pray for them. And a good way to do this is to convince men that the souls of the dead don't need our prayers.

And what will happen when Colton finally grows up and develops some critical thinking abilities of his own? In the best case, he would see his childhood revelations for what they are and confess their mundane origin. To use an old word, this would cause "scandal" among those who used his story as part of the foundation for their faith. Maybe some will fall away. Again, thinking conspiratorially, the Devil cannot prevail against the Church, but he can tempt us to give our faith a false foundation in something other than the witness of the Church. In the worst case, Colton would go "all-in" on his story - perhaps because of the humiliation that would come from admitting it wasn't really what he thought it was, perhaps because he doesn't want to embarrass his parents, or perhaps because he knows it would cause scandal - and continue to defend it even though he now knows better. In this case the Devil would have a victory that keeps on giving.

We all struggle with uncertainty in this life - St. Paul tells us we see through a glass darkly - and yearn for the certainty of seeing Christ face to face. But this is the condition of our existence, in which we must work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Kierkegaard). We are all tempted to grasp at certainties that are not ours to have - not unless God has willed it, which in the case of private revelations, He rarely does. We need to remember that God has already given us everything we need in the Birth, Death and Resurrection of His Son and the historical witness to that in the Church. And we need to remember that the primary spiritual weapon of our adversaries is temptation, and among the most dangerous of those is the temptation to replace the true foundation of our faith with a false one; to exchange the house built on rock with one built on sand.