Tuesday, September 16, 2014

But everyone else is raised to believe
their religion, too...

A former student wrote to me recently with the following concern.  It happens to be a common one—one that has occurred to me in the past, so I thought I'd post it with my reply.

The reason I am Catholic is that I was born into a particular family, who brought me up a certain way, and now I believe in something called Faith and God. But people born in any other place (India or Iran) believe their religions are true, and their faith in their gods are correct. Where we were born had a drastic influence on our perceptions of things. So how do we know our faith is the one we should be believing?

There are a few approaches to answering this question.

— First, we could do a rational investigation of the facts, and what are called "reasons of credibility".  If you look at other religions, and you investigate their teachings and history, you should try to be sensitive to problems of consistency and signs of constructed-ness.  E.g. with Islam, there are certain claims made about the Quran—very strong claims.  If the Quran is the sort of thing that Islam claims it to be, when you look at the Quran, does the nature of the text correspond credibly with its claims about itself?  You can do this not just with Islam but with a variety of religions.

— Second, we should be aware of the different roles that different religions play in different cultures.  E.g. most world religions are not centered on claims to truth, but on local cultic ritual practices.  A Hindu does not have any interest in propagating his beliefs, because his beliefs aren't really about believing things so much as fulfilling a set of cultic expectations in the context of his community.  It's not really true to say that Hindus or Shamanists or Animists or Buddhists have "faith" the way Christians have "faith", because they don't, in general, make the sorts of claims that Christians make in the first place.

— Third, there is the question of the supernatural character of faith.  Ultimately, you cannot prove by merely rational means that Christianity is to believed, though you might have good evidence that a variety of non-Christian religions don't meet criteria for credibility.  The evidence of Christian faith comes from the illumination of someone who is ready to receive faith.  Faith is "blind" but only in terms of our external senses.  The deeper you enter into the Christian Faith, the less blind it becomes, because the gift of understanding works in you, and things become intelligible in an extraordinary way.  This is not something you can prove or deduce, it's a grace.

— Ok, now about where you're born.  It's true that people are educated by their parents and formed by their local culture, but there's a temptation to take that truth to an extreme, and assume that because culture and parents form us and teach us, everything about how we think and see the world is dependent on the contingencies of where we're born, and to which parents.  But that's really not true.  Parents and culture give a slant to the development of human nature, but nature remains.  A sign of this is the striking community of ideas, morals, and philosophical tendencies across all the major world civilizations.  These common features of human society aren't just a result of shared influences, they're a result of a common human nature.  And so you have to ask, given the common ground between all humans, which cultures and beliefs tend to perfect humanity.  Some investigation of the different approaches is beneficial here, but there is a totally unique grace to Christianity, which surpasses the other religions of the world.  Basically: it's true that you have prejudices, but not all prejudices are bad.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Dialogue Concerning the First Way

—Consider a collision between two objects.  What happens?
—One object hits another, and causes the other to accelerate.
—Why does the one object cause the other to accelerate?
—Because of the transfer of momentum.
—What does that mean? How does the momentum transfer?
—The short answer is that the electromagnetic force causes energy to move from one object to the other in the form of linear momentum and heat.
—So the electromagnetic force stops the first object, and starts the second object moving?
—Well, no, the electromagnetic force is just a name we give to observed rules of motion in interacting charged bodies.
—So, when we say "the electromagnetic force caused something", really we're just saying "the mechanics of the movement are described by these rules".  I.e. we aren't actually specifying the agent that caused the motion.  Is that right?
—Yes, I suppose that's right.
—So really the cause of the change is just the two objects, right?
—But that leaves the question unanswered.  What caused the two objects to change in precisely this way?  Why do they follow the rules of electromagnetism?
—Because they're made of charged particles.
—But aren't "charged particles" just defined as "things that are observed to follow the rules of electromagnetism"?
—Hmm, I suppose so.
—So why do these things follow those rules?  I.e. why do they act as charged particles?
—Well, it's just their nature.  It's what they are.
—But notice something: before the two objects collide, they're acting one way, and then during the collision they start acting differently.  Is that right?
—Yes, that's right.  During the collision, atomic interactions cause compression waves in both objects, possibly rearrange them, at least partially, and the various interactions cause some of the initial momentum to be converted into heat.
—Ok, so we've established that it's just in the nature of these objects to change as they do when they collide.  But what makes them act in accord with that nature, instead of differently?  Why don't the two objects just keep behaving the way they were, and pass right through each other?
—Well, they just don't.  That's just the way things are.
—But scientifically, it seems like we have to be able to find some explanation, right?  There has to be some basis for the particular rules of transformation that we've identified.
—Well, sure, but we don't have any material evidence about it, so science prefers not to speculate.
—Ok, fair enough.  But it seems like in general science works this way: we observe an effect, and then we make an inference to the existence of the cause, even if we can't identify its exact nature.  E.g. this was how the neutron was predicted, and the higgs boson, and so on.
—That's right.  From an observed effect we make a guess about the existence of a cause, and then we try to draw further conclusions about the nature of that cause, which will allow us to make testable predictions.
—So, here we have an observed effect: the consistent, universal transformation of different substances in accord with observable "natures" or laws of nature.  And we are looking for a cause: something which prompts this or that particular things to act and change in accord with these laws.
—Well, but hold on.  Why do we assume that there is always going to be such a cause of change in the first place?  Maybe it's just a fact that things change the way they do, and maybe there is no reason why.  Maybe the universe is just a sort of ticker that follows observable patterns without there being an external "cause" that moves each thing to do whatever it does.
—Let me make sure I understand.  Are you suggesting that maybe the whole idea that one thing causes another to move is questionable, and that there is no such thing as causation?
—Yes, I think so.  Sort of like in a computer game, the way a space ship can "cause" an asteroid to blow up by firing lasers at it.  In our heads we think "the space ship, i.e. this cluster of lighted pixels, caused the asteroid, i.e. that other cluster of lighted pixels, to explode, i.e. to change the way they are lit."  But in reality the illumination of these portions of the screen in this way did not cause the other portions of the screen to change, since there was no direct interaction.  The computer's video processor caused the whole thing.
—I see.  But it's interesting, because in your analogy, the computer is still causing the screen to change according to certain rules.  I.e. there is still an external cause of change.  But I think you want to get away from that, is that right?
—Well, actually my idea is that the computer software executing the changes is like the laws of nature, and the objects on the screen are like material objects.
—Ok, I'll run with your analogy.  It seems like my question still applies.  Because even in your analogy, we can ask why the computer is running this particular software, with these rules, instead of some other software.  And more compellingly, perhaps, we can ask why it is that the program is running at all.  To translate these questions into our original discussion: why do things follow these laws of physics, and why are there any laws of physics at all?
—Hmm.  I'm starting to see your point, but let me try one other dodge.  Let's just suppose that this particular "program" or "set of laws" is one facet of a single unchanging super-program, i.e. the multiverse, and that our particular way things work is just one of an infinitely large number of variations on the same rules.  The multiverse isn't really a cause in the way you want there to be a cause, it's just the totality of which our natural world forms a part.
—Hmm, well at this point your dodge seems to have landed you into some seriously speculative hypotheses about the nature of the universe.  I'm not sure that qualifies as what you want to call "science."
—Sure, but it's still an alternative to the sort of cause you seem to want to hypothesize.
—Is it?  Well, let's suppose there is a multiverse, and it's infinite, and it includes every possible set of physical laws.  It seems like we still end up with the same problem.
—How so?
—Well, we can ask, why is it that this multiverse exists instead of a different one, e.g. a finite one, or one with just our universe?  Actually you've just shifted the problem back a level.  It's exactly the same.  The multiverse has particular rules and properties, and changes in particular ways, in its various parts, and it could be different.  Why is it the way it is, and why does it behave the way it does?
—Well, we don't have any data yet.  Perhaps some day we can scientifically investigate those questions.
—Ah, but that's just a cop out.  In fact we do have a ton of data.  All the data ever collected conclusively shows that things act and change in accord with fixed laws, and that these laws are different depending on the kind of objects under examination and the way they are interacting.  Whether the reason for this set of natural laws is immediately available or mediated through a multiverse, or through a super-multiverse, or through however many layers you want, it's good science to assume that if there is an observed effect there must be a causal principle behind it.  We notice that things change in a certain way, so we should be willing to hypothesize that there is a thing (not a rule) that moves them to change the way they do.
—But we've already named those things.  They're just bosons, i.e. force carrying particles.  And if you posit the existence of something else on top of them, you're doing double-duty explanation-wise.
—Force carrying particles are just another part of the explanation, though.  They themselves change depending on the circumstances.  They have natures, they interact in certain ways, etc.  What causes the causes to cause change the way they do?  It doesn't seem that there's an answer.
—Well, fine, let's suppose there's another kind of particle or force field or something that causes those changes.  Is that satisfactory?
—But if that cause is itself something that changes in accord with laws of nature, we have to ask the same question for it.
—Ok, so?
—So, the conclusion is that eventually, either there's just a bare unexplained fact "hey the universe is just like this, and there's no reason why", or there's got to be some thing, which causes other things to change, to follow the laws of nature, to act however they do, but never changes itself, and has no random properties that we can ask "why is it this way?" about.
—Hmm.  But such a thing would have to be unobservable.
—Yes, that's right.
—But that's a problem for science, because if we make a theory that predicts the existence of a particular kind of thing, we need to be able to make testable hypotheses about the effects of that thing.
—Well, but notice that this hypothesis is pretty singular.  The thing being hypothesized is different from any other thing that physics describes.  It's not a particular kind of object that interacts with other objects in an observable way.  It's the cause of all the regular phenomena of nature.
—Yes, I see.  Ok, but one more thing: why do we need this sort of explanation at all?  Isn't it enough to just say "hey, sooner or later this is just the way things are"?
—You could, but the problem with that is that it seems to undercut the explanatory power of science.  Instead of being someone who reliably traces events to their underlying causes, the scientist becomes someone who just says  "hey, a correlation!" and leaves it there.  Causation vanishes.
—Hmm, and you want to say that science necessarily makes claims about causation?
—Yeah, I think it does.  To be sure, you could surrender the principle that changes are caused, but it seems like once you resort to "that's just how things are" you've given up real science.
—But how does your proposed super-cause not fall victim to the same criticism?  Why is there this super-cause and not another?
—Well, that line of questioning just clarifies what the super-cause, as you call it, must have to be like.  And whether we can frame a coherent account of the nature of that cause is a different problem.  But if you accept that there must be such a super-cause if we are to preserve the idea of an ordered and intelligible (i.e. investigable, science-friendly) universe, then it seems that we have gotten to the existence of that being which most people refer to as "God".

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

From the 24th Session of the Holy and Ecumenical Council of Trent

(Please note in particular Canon VII.)

CANON I.-If any one saith, that matrimony is not truly and properly one of the seven sacraments of the evangelic law, (a sacrament) instituted by Christ the Lord; but that it has been invented by men in the Church; and that it does not confer grace; let him be anathema.

CANON II.-If any one saith, that it is lawful for Christians to have several wives at the same time, and that this is not prohibited by any divine law; let him be anathema.

CANON III.-If any one saith, that those degrees only of consanguinity and affinity, which are set down in Leviticus, can hinder matrimony from being contracted, and dissolve it when contracted; and that the Church cannot dispense in some of those degrees, or establish that others may hinder and dissolve it ; let him be anathema.

CANON IV.-If any one saith, that the Church could not establish impediments dissolving marriage; or that she has erred in establishing them; let him be anathema.

CANON V.-If any one saith, that on account of heresy, or irksome cohabitation, or the affected absence of one of the parties, the bond of matrimony may be dissolved; let him be anathema.

CANON VI.-If any one saith, that matrimony contracted, but not consummated, is not dissolved by the solemn profession of religion by one of the married parties; let him be anathema.

CANON VlI.-If any one saith, that the Church has erred, in that she hath taught, and doth teach, in accordance with the evangelical and apostolical doctrine, that the bond of matrimony cannot be dissolved on account of the adultery of one of the married parties; and that both, or even the innocent one who gave not occasion to the adultery, cannot contract another marriage, during the life-time of the other; and, that he is guilty of adultery, who, having put away the adulteress, shall take another wife, as also she, who, having put away the adulterer, shall take another husband; let him be anathema.

CANON VIII.-If any one saith, that the Church errs, in that she declares that, for many causes, a separation may take place between husband and wife, in regard of bed, or in regard of cohabitation, for a determinate or for an indeterminate period; let him be anathema.

CANON IX.-If any one saith, that clerics constituted in sacred orders, or Regulars, who have solemnly professed chastity, are able to contract marriage, and that being contracted it is valid, notwithstanding the ecclesiastical law, or vow; and that the contrary is no thing else than to condemn marriage; and, that all who do not feel that they have the gift of chastity, even though they have made a vow thereof, may contract marriage; let him be anathema: seeing that God refuses not that gift to those who ask for it rightly, neither does He suffer us to be tempted above that which we are able.

CANON X.-If any one saith, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema.

CANON XI.-If any one saith, that the prohibition of the solemnization of marriages at certain times of the year, is a tyrannical superstition, derived from the superstition of the heathen; or, condemn the benedictions and other ceremonies which the Church makes use of therein; let him be anathema.

CANON XII.-If any one saith, that matrimonial causes do not belong to ecclesiastical judges; let him be anathema.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Notes on the Notion of Identity

1. Identity comes from a medieval Latin abstract noun, which denotes the quality of selfsameness. Identitas is the relation each thing has to itself.

2. Today when we talk about “identity”, we usually mean the selfsameness of persons, and there are a number of presuppositions that go into the grammar that governs our use of the word.

3. A rigorous delineation of these presuppositions would take the form of an archaeology of modern ethical thought: we would look at Kant, Kierkegaard, Mill, the rest. Others have done this work before — this is a great mercy, because it excuses us from the need to run through lengthy expositions and narratives, and leaves us free to isolate the principles.

4. The fundamental moral principle of identity is ancient. Its most famous expression is taken from the Delphic Oracle: Γνῶθι Σεαυτόν, know thyself. The commandment leaves unstated the promised benefit of self-knowledge, but there are so many different benefits that follow from it, one can fill in the gap as one pleases.

5. No matter how one describes the benefits of self-knowledge, what is assumed is that there is something to be known, and that the nature of that thing is crucially important. The old humanists believed that what was to be known was humanity as such, by which all other things are measured. The Pyrrhonists believed that in coming to know our own ignorance, we would achieve peace in the impossibility of knowledge. For the Stoics, it was the difference between one’s inner freedom and the determinism of the outer world. And so on.

6. For the modern grammar of identity, the “what” of identity is a hypostasis we call “the self”. The grammar of identity today is a personalist grammar, in particular it is an essentialist personalism. What does that mean?

7. We know from Boethius that a person is an individual substance of rational nature. Today we associate personhood with conscious individuals (setting aside all the qualifications and disputes). Personalism is a kind of ethical atomism. Atomism is a kind of metaphysical materialism. Therefore we need to start with materialism.

8. Since “matter” is defined as that out of which things are made, i.e. the component parts of things, “materialism” is a broad name for any method of analysis which attempts to reduce things to their common parts. Atomism is a particular species of materialism, in which the reduction terminates in the identification of a species of discrete, indivisible singular things.

9. Personalism is an ethical atomism. This truth is profound and can produce several layers of insight. For our purposes we will stop at the fact that for a personalist the fundamental unit of moral analysis is the conscious individual. Every moral analysis is in terms of individual persons, and no moral analysis is possible on an interpersonal or sub-personal basis, without returning in some way to the individual person.

10. There are many possible varieties of personalism, but when we speak of identity today, the personalism that comes into play is an essentialist personalism. I.e. a personalism in which what gives identity to these ethical atoms is not their distinctness as separate instances of a common species (e.g. humanity), but an essential “what-ness” determined on the level of the individual.

11. The “what-ness” or essence of individual identity is not thought to necessarily distinguish one from every other person, but to establish a personal kind, the perfection of which one is then called to live out.

12. In fact the great paradox of the elevation of Identity to a prime moral principle is that while it seems on the one hand to promise the liberation of the individual from the impositions of a general moral code, in fact because the personhood invoked by our “identity” discourse is an essentialist personhood, we end up being called to discover and participate in a narrow type of self. Just when one expects moralism to have vanished, it reappears in the form of an ethics of authenticity.

13. Authenticity is based on the idea that one’s self ought to be the origin of one’s behavior, which means that if the self and the manner of life are inconsistent, there is a moral failure. The existentialists call this variously “despair” or “bad faith” or simply “inauthenticity”. To thine own self be true, oh Laertes.

14. The unacknowledged problem faced by all of us as we attempt to discover our selves, is that the self is not easily interrogated. We who place such a high premium on obedience to the Pythia’s command are totally inept at obeying it. Instead we turn to the mysticism of inner inclinations, romanticism about emotions and appetites, and we baptize those inner voices which speak most frequently and clearly to us as our “true selves”.

15. The pressure is tremendous, though. One dare not resist the call of the self, lest one fall into a state of inauthenticity. What shame would follow from this fundamental dishonesty!

16. And so we end up enslaved: to the quest for the self, to our base appetites, which we mistake for the voice of our inner truth, to socially constructed types of identity into which we pigeonhole ourselves.

17. The most remarkable thing about principles of identity is that one can see all the characteristic features of classical virtue ethics tucked away within them. Inauthenticity, the failure to live out the type of self one “truly” is, is a great shame, is dishonesty…

18. The problem is ultimately reducible to a misidentification of the nature of a person. Where do persons receive their natures? From their species. The species is not a type of self or an individual identity. For all of us, it’s quite easy to identify: our species is humanity.

19. Because we are materialists about the visible world, we tend to be gnostics about our inner lives. Man is a rational animal. An animal is just a complex bunch of gears and springs. But gears and springs are not selves. To be a self is therefore not about one’s species: it is radically interior and incommunicable. Etc.

20. But because the human mind has a virtually ineradicable habit of intellectual first principles, it tends to look for the nature of whatever it fixes on. If the self is a thing, the self has a form, a nature, and if it has a form, it has a form that can be perfected or defective or shared.

21. For our personalists, the basic human quest is still a quest for virtue and excellence and happiness, but the problem is that these things are sought relative to a nature constructed by the mind, a nature that is essentially unintelligible (and therefore amorphous, formless, unreal)—a fictitious nature.

22. And yet if we replace this fictitious nature of selfhood with the genuine identity of humans—humanity—things fall into place quite readily. How?

23. Inauthenticity, the failure to be true to one’s nature, is indeed a shameful thing. It is dishonest, because in classical terminology honestas is nothing other than the rectitude of the will and proper order of the passions in accord with the true perfection of one’s nature. As Thomas says, the honest man possesses a certain claritas, a luminosity of soul, which makes him beautiful.

24. What gives the soul clarity? In crystals, clarity comes from the purity of the substance (the absence of anything foreign to or contrary to the order of the whole), and from the collective alignment of all the parts in the proper order. Clarity in human nature comes from the alignment of everything in us: all our powers, passions, appetites, our emotions, ideas, and interests, in the service of the perfection of what we are, our human nature. To be an honest man, to possess clarity of soul, is to be free from all impurity and contrary inclination, to know the good clearly and to desire it totally, so that in every act one tends perfectly toward it.

25. The notion of claritas brings us back to Delphi. Who is it that knows himself? Who obeys the oracle’s command? We know what things are by seeing them, and the best instances of a species show us by their perfection everything it is to be that kind of thing.  

26.  And so we conclude: The one who knows himself truly is the one capable of self-knowledge, the one whose various inclinations and ideas are so aligned with his human nature and whose desires so accord with the good of that nature, that his own life becomes crystalline, achieves the claritas necessary for humanity to shine through him, to be revealed in whatever he does, so that he can see himself as what he is, and everyone else, beholding him, can say “That is a virtuous and honest man.”


Some addenda:

A.  Notice that by substituting a socially constructed "identity" or "identity type" for the reality of human nature, we more or less guarantee that the quest for honesty ordinarily productive of the virtue of temperance produces instead all the vices directly contrary to temperance.

B.  The honest man knows himself because he is an exemplum of human perfection, and also because in his purity he is particularly suited to recognize the truth about things.  Both in the act of knowing and in the object of knowledge there is a real superiority of intelligibility.

C.  The extreme proponents of the ethics of authenticity generally compound their personalist essentialism with voluntarism, so that the self is not merely discovered but created by an act of radical recognition of the groundlessness of one's identity.  Existentialist personalism of this sort is so practically unintelligible that it remains irrelevant, except as another fog bank we can dive into in the struggle to "find ourselves".

D.  One wonders how long the delusion of identity types can be sustained.  The cynic can point at them and ask cui bono?  Because the expression and cultivation of the self normally takes place in the consumption of particular types of goods, there is a strong interest in various mainstream and niche markets to encourage the ethics of authenticity, because it gives a moral imperative to consumer behavior.  

E.  Additionally, because the identity of the self is plastic and amorphous, it is easily shaped by modes of speaking, and can therefore be reshaped by the transformation of stereotypes and typical associations.   Who teaches us what it is to be human, has the power to teach us the types of human, the species of identity, and to regulate the expressions of those identities by stigmatization and approbation, both direct and indirect.