29 August 2015

Counting by Factors (A Short Story)

(The following was written over a series of nights this week.  The whole thing has an idea to it, which I would like to pursue with greater seriousness at some later date.  However, for the moment I am satisfied with this expression of it.)


1. Every encounter between people is perfectly defined by the expectations, memories and desires they bring to it. The result is that each encounter is unique, and could be described—if one had the ability to distill out the components—as the product of the features of the people involved, at the precise moment of their meeting.

2. Denis sat alone, counting hairs as he plucked them from his chin. One... two... three... four... The counting was difficult, because he had started pulling at his beard without noticing, and so the sequence had no certain starting point. Was one really one? If not, was ten really ten? On top of this, the further he went, the more hairs came off with each compulsive tug. Was it sixteen that came after fifteen, or was it really twenty?

3. Tricia's cats followed her everywhere. She did not need to instruct them, or worry about them. They did not wander from her. Even when she was alone, she was never alone, because they were always with her.

4. Denis stared down at the pile of hairs fallen on the desk in front of him. He needed groceries. Feeling the baldness of his chin, he asked himself "Can I go out like this?" In the mirror, his image scrutinized his image. He asked it, "How do you compare to the most slovenly person, who could still be called average?" The image didn't answer, being an image, but Denis caught its eye for a moment and guessed what it was thinking. After a few intense moments of mutual scrutiny, they turned together toward the door.

5. Quentin unfolded paper bags. Each paper bag began as a flat, folded rectangle, but it was Quentin's job to make it so that none of the sides touched. After completing this exercise several thousand times, Quentin had concluded that the folded bag would always have some sides touching, unless you destroyed it. And isn't that what folding means?

6. Denis thought little of Tricia's cats. Tricia thought Denis's habit of staring at his own reflection and pulling out his beard was weird. Denis would say, "But Tricia, it cannot be allowed to bring cats everywhere. It cannot be allowed. The cats will hurt someone. The cats will be killed by a car. The cats will upset the merchandise in stores. Look at yourself with these cats!" Tricia would say, "Denis, the cats are a fact of life, a force of nature. They are one of those features of the universe with which we must simply come to grips. If you resist the truth of the cats, your life will end in shipwreck."

7. Septimius laughed. We must admit, he was prone to sudden shifts in thinking. Septimius liked to take things to extremes. He could not discover something new without trying to find out how to break it.

8. Denis knew what he thought about people with cats. In fact, he knew it so simply that he never needed to express it to himself. Instead, he thought about other things. While he and Tricia were discussing the cats, inside he was silent. He looked into her eyes, and he saw her seeing him see her. While the spoken words continued, he thought: "In her eyes I am an image, and in my eyes she is an image. We are hidden from ourselves and from each other."

9. Tricia preferred her cats to most people. They could read her thoughts. Their names were Zweig and Elmo. When she spoke to them in her mind, she would say "When we are united, we are strong." Zweig and Elmo could not read her thoughts, and she knew this. But in her head they were personae, and she knew them this way. Zweig would remind her that "By splitting, one branch becomes two." Elmo only ever spoke to her in silence, counseling peace by his lack of words.

10. Quentin said to Denis, "Did you bring your own?" And Denis said, "I don't need a bag." Quentin touched the soft brown paper, and Denis told him "Thanks, though."

11. Elfrid swept her tongue along her teeth, pressing each gap along the bottom row. She did not know she was doing this. They said that Elfrid was something special, but she didn't think she was. Whenever she was mentioned they said she was important, but she was always being left unmentioned.

12. "Look here," said Tricia, "Would you quit staring at me like that? I know you're not listening when you pluck at your beard." The next moment, Tricia knew that Elmo had spoken peace to Denis in the silence, because he said "Soon I will not have a beard." To himself he thought, "What is a beard, but the wasting away of another life without lasting meaning? The waves of sunlight wash away the ink. Nothing endures."

13. Triscuit was very busy. She could never seem to find time for herself, you know. But though she often and habitually expressed this thought, she did not know what it meant. A reasonable observer would be left with two choices: to conclude that Triscuit was wrong, and spent all of her time on her self; or to conclude that Triscuit must not have a "self", since evidence of a life beyond the things she did each day was nonexistent.

14. Septimius had an excellent plan. Oh yes. The man with the patchy beard did not expect it. Denis stared at his feet as he walked away from the grocery. He stared into them, he saw their rhythmic falling, their pattern of soft contact with the concrete. "Plodding", he said. The man with the shopping cart followed him with his eyes.

15. Quentin spoke to Elmo too, sometimes. Quentin said, "In pop topography, they often speak of sharp folds, or creases." Elmo said nothing. But Zweig picked up the conversation: "Is there 'often' in pop topography?" Tricia held out the cat to him in consolation. Elmo closed his eyes, beholding the All. Quentin handed Tricia her filled bags.

16. "I... I... I.... I...." Denis heard this in his head. He heard his voice playing back the voice of someone else he had heard speaking of himself. "I..." He thought a little bit about the limitations of self-awareness. He contemplated the vastness of the myriad.

17. Ezekiel bent over the front left tire of his father's car. It was sinking into the pavement. He had noticed that when you look closely, tires are always sinking into the pavement a little. Ezekiel was too young to ask about the relation between the arc length of the wheel's contact with the road and the internal pressure of the tire. He hugged the tire, because he fit around it well.

18. It was evening, and Denis had shaved. He was watching the cats with Tricia. Tricia thought about the mechanics of machine looms and how her carpet must have been woven. Elmo was silent. Tricia said, "A cat could never go deep sea fishing. For cats, fishing seems to be something more like a slap on the surface." Denis said "It is because they are so social. A cat can never reach the riches of the deep, because it cannot be alone. And Tricia said, "In solitude one more often sinks into the depths... of one's own navel, and finds nothing more than undigested remnants of yesterday's food."

19. Whenever Nina washed the dishes, she would look at the task as being almost done. She did this with many routine tasks. It was easier to finish up than to start something. And, after all, given the number of dishes she had washed so far in her life, the current load was always only the tiniest fraction of the whole job.

20. Quentin complained that books about knots focused too little on the practicalities of knot tying. He said to Denis, "All the books on knots are pop topography. What if I want to learn about rope handling instead of trefoils?" Denis quoted back at him the line: "I’ve got these words that mean completely different things inside myself, and it’s tearing me apart." To himself, Denis simply repeated over and over again his latest mantra, "Wasabi sunrise. Wasabi sunrise." He wondered a little at Quentin's unusual interests.

21. It was just as he had planned. The cats were jogging calmly in Tricia's wake. She was looking for some carrot juice, with which to make a cocktail. Septimius peered at her from the magazine rack. She saw him. He did not move, but mouthed the words at her, "Cats are inferior animals." She called back: "They know how to avoid catastrophes."

22. Elfrid did not know Denis. Nevertheless, one day when they were sitting next to each other on the train, she took his hand, squeezed it, and told him "It's ok. It's ok." He squeezed her hand back. Without looking over, he told her "I love you. I am very grateful."

23. Ian behaved oddly. He never spoke of textiles. He never thought about the production chain for plastic bottles. His behavior was robotic and regimented, but without any apparent design on his part. Many evenings he sat with empty eyes, gazing at the play of dancing lights on a screen.

24. Tricia set six candles out on the table. She wanted dinner to be perfect. The wall behind her chair was a mirror. She debated: should we face each other, or sit at angles? Denis preferred to sit at angles at meals, because there was space for his gaze to wander without the risk of locking eyes with someone. Elmo perched in her chair, his furry arms resting on the edge of the table. Six candles, eight bits of china, twelve rose petals on each plate. One table, four of them (including the cats). Her and Denis. Perhaps not perfect, but close. Denis had told her, "I will arrive by midnight."

25. Late at night, Quentin thought about warding off vampires. He said, "Crossing your fingers is supposed to ward off evil, like holding out a crucifix." He wanted to practice tying knots in cherry stems with his tongue, but he did not like cherries. It seemed a waste to only use the stem. The quiet of the room at night was brilliant. Still, he shouldn't fall asleep.

26. Triscuit took the letter confirming Denis's resignation. She told him what she thought: "I don't want to have to go through another round of hiring to replace you." Denis said, "I am nothing. I am simply dead tissue in the institutional body, which is now being expelled." Triscuit didn't hear him, because she had no ears. Denis said, "In reality, this body is dead, and I must escape before its lifelessness infects me."

27. Tricia had triple checked everything three times. She sat now, legs folded, on the floor, with Elmo and Zweig facing her. Elmo said nothing. Zweig stared in the mirror.

28. Septimius looked with loathing at Denis. Denis remarked to him "Do you hate me because you are complete? Is it that completion in human life means that death is at hand?" Inwardly, Denis saw immediately that these thoughts made no sense at all. Septimius simply told him: "I must conquer Britain. But if I cannot conquer you, how can I conquer a whole island full of people? Sometimes it is the stability of life that is the greatest impediment to someone's advancement."

29. Twila enjoyed baking eggs. More time consuming, it's true, but she loved the texture and warmth of them.

30. At midnight Quentin wandered down to the apartment below him. He told Tricia, "I would like to join you for dinner". Tricia was surprised but pleased. She said, "You are very welcome." When Denis arrived, he thought for a moment. He told Quentin, "It has been an interesting day."

26 August 2015

Nature Photography, W.C. Williams, and the Emancipation of Memory

(Notes inspired by nature photography and the memory of WCW's fragment "The Descent", which often appears as an individual poem, but also notably in the midst of Book II of his epic Paterson.)

For whatever reason, as life goes on things from our past become encrusted with a patina of bitterness or disdain.  As a child, one likes a particular story.  When one reaches adolescence, one says to oneself "I am tired of this story! It is time for me to move on."  The adolescent then moves on, but this moving on is not so much an act of progress as one of alienation from things that were once familiar.

What I am describing is different from the simple act of forgetting—once I found flashlights delightful and collected them, but at some point without any particular act of will I forgot this love and it faded away through lack of attention.  When one forgets, one can always remember, and renew the gestures of love and engagement which made an object or interest or place significant.  When one intentionally moves on, the thing is no longer available, and one returns to consider the acts of love or engagement only through the distance provided by one's notion of self-progress.  The person who loved that story is an object of interest or study, and not the persistent "I" who can, with a few moments of imagination and renewal, love the story again.

Sometimes we encounter this phenomenon in precocious children who wish to demonstrate their adulthood by distancing themselves from things they perceive to be associated with childhood.  If the habit of moving on gets out of hand, it develops into a generally cynical outlook on life.  The person no longer allows himself to love or be engaged by anything, out of the conviction (or fear?) that anything or everything can eventually prove to be contemptible and unworthy.

But moving on is only one cause of the tarnishing of memories and past objects of interest.  There are others.  Sometimes we cease to love something because it is associated with the memory of pain, or with an enemy, or because it invites us to despair.  The most memorable paragraph in Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks (Part VI) describes this phenomenon:
"He could not stand it. He despised his brother so much that he would not allow him to love the things he loved. He would have much preferred to hear Christian speak of them in his Marcellus Stengel voice. Thomas had read a book, some historical work, that had made a strong impression on him, and he praised it in stirring words. Christian was impressionable and easily influenced, always depending on others for his views; he would never have found such a book on his own. But he read it now, and, having been primed and made receptive by Tom's praise of it, he found it quite splendid himself, describing his reactions as precisely as possible. And from that moment the book was spoiled for Tom. He spoke of it with cold disregard. He pretended that he had barely looked at it. He left it to his brother to admire it all by himself."
Here Thomas loves some book, but the pain of his resentment for his brother is such a powerful psychic force that his brother's appreciation for the book is enough to make the book hateful to him—he cannot abide anything tainted by his brother.

Imagine a different scenario, less extreme: you are in a relationship, with a person who loves a particular bit of music.  Under their influence, you too begin to love the music, and not merely out of a desire for harmony, but for the music's own revealed excellences.  Then the relationship ends.  Perhaps it ends poorly.  Perhaps there is a lingering wound left by the separation.  Now you return to that music.  Can you still love it?  It is difficult, because the act of loving the music is now associated too much with the closeness of the other person, and so that habitual proximity involves the music in the pain of the separation.

As time goes on, the clutter of these unlovable objects lingering about in one's life becomes a hindrance.  One goes about avoiding things, or reliving painful memories.  You cannot love this bit of music, because it brings you close to that person.  You cannot delight in this story because you have chosen to progress "past" it.

But if one can suspend these associations, it becomes possible to delight in things again.  This one, which called up memories of pain, does not belong to the source of the pain.  It is its own thing.  We would tell Thomas, if we could, that Christian's love does not subsume the book under his own nature. And as for moving on, at some point one has to progress to the point at which the idea of moving on is itself jettisoned, and one allows oneself to abide and behold things as they are.

25 August 2015

Random Thought

Reading through an introductory textbook on Cryptography tonight (this one, which is well-written at least as far as the first few chapters).  Reached the section on AES.  Before explaining how AES works, the authors run through the basics of Groups and Galois fields.  They run through the properties of Groups (closure under whatever function, associativity, having an identity element, invertibility).  I've thought a little in the past about closure, which is a very cool property.  But I hadn't thought much about associativity before.  It's funny, because they teach you associativity in your first algebra class.  It's a very basic thing.  But there it's grouped with all the other basic algebraic properties which are taught functionally as instruments for understanding the relations between terms and the order of operations implied by a given expression.  I was never taught to consider what it would mean for an algebraic system to be non-associative.  Obviously we encounter functions that are non-associative all the time (exponentiation, the cross product, etc.)...  Still, it's interesting.


21 August 2015

λίθος ἐπὶ λίθον


ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, οὐ μὴ ἀφεθῇ ὧδε
λίθος ἐπὶ λίθον ὃς οὐ καταλυθήσεται.
Amen I say to you, there will not remain here
one stone upon a stone which will not be thrown down.
(Matthew 24:2)

"I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone"
(Robert Frost, "Mending Wall")


Such an incredible phrase.  I wonder what other occurrences there are of it.

18 August 2015

Notes on Matthew 16:13-14

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
Is the confusion of the present age greater or lesser than the confusion in ages past?

We live in a time of great unity. There are common languages, there are easy channels of mass communication. We also live in a time of great confusion. I do not know whether the confusion present now is greater or lesser than what was experienced in the past.

What authority did the people look to in the days of the Judges? It doesn’t seem that they had any clear authority to look to. “In those days no king ruled in Israel.” The author of the book of Judges seems to speak of this “no king”, looking forward to the coming of David. But there is no king in terms of adherence to the law of God, either. Even in their half-hearted dealings with the sacred, the Israelites in the book of Judges are sacrilegious… When there were kings, who did the people have to look to? Sometimes a good king, but more often than not a wicked king. Then what did they do? They remembered the way things were in the days of a good king, or they sought out the law, or they listened to a prophet… If not, they were corrupted like their wicked leaders.

When did adherence to the law become something of enduring and national importance in Israel? After the Babylonian exile? Could this have been one of the fruits of the exile?

11 August 2015

A Conversation about J. Alfred Prufrock



Fred and Walter are unacquainted.  Walter has sat down on a public bench in the evening, near a fountain in the local square.  He is writing in a notebook, and occasionally stops to flip through a magazine.  Fred sits down at the other end of the bench and lights a cigarette.  It is around 8pm.  After some time, they speak.


___________________


FRED
What do you make of the people who gather here tonight?  There are a decent number.

WALTER
Yes.  I think it is one of the last evenings like this of the summer.  Lots of children.

FRED
Do you wonder how people survive?

WALTER
Yes, I wonder.  Who are you?

[Silence.]

FRED
Your shirt, it has a pattern on it.  I would ask about it, but I don't care enough to ask.

WALTER
I love the smell of tobacco smoke.  When you sat down, I hoped the wind would waft it toward me.

FRED
Second hand smoke is the best, no?

WALTER
Yes.

FRED
Yes.

[Silence.]

FRED
I noticed you are copying out Prufrock.

WALTER
Yes it came back to me earlier.  It was very dear to me some years ago.

FRED
And then?

WALTER
And then I assumed I had grown out of it, the way one grows out of children's novels and such.

FRED
But you don't believe in these things, do you? "Growing out of"

WALTER
No, you're right.  I don't believe that there should be distinct culture for children and young people.  So why should I insist on abandoning literary objects associated with youth?

FRED
You abandoned Prufrock because Prufrock is an expression of indirection and anxiety, and you thought you had found hope and certainty.  Is that so?

WALTER
Yes.

FRED
And you did not find hope and certainty?

[Silence.]

FRED
There are many things of childhood which are not washed away by later experiences and discoveries.

WALTER
I am very tired.

FRED
I do not believe that you are tired.

WALTER
I am unhappy.

FRED
Everyone is unhappy.

WALTER
That is little consolation.

[Silence.]

WALTER
Did you judge me for copying out Prufrock?

FRED
I thought of you the way I think of the men with mental problems who sit in libraries or on trains, furiously filling up spiral notebooks.  Why copy out a memorized poem into a notebook?

WALTER
Because I wanted to read it, or savor it.

FRED
To savor.  Do you think the poem is wise?

WALTER
No, but ... at particular times, particular objects have greater resonance with a person.  It's perhaps like fitting flavors into a meal.  The chocolate goes well after this, but poorly after that.  And right now the flavor or tune of this poem fits my state of mind.  So I savor it.

[Silence.]

WALTER
"I do not think that they will sing to me."

FRED
Who is this "they"? The mermaids? And who are these mermaids?

WALTER
For Prufrock, I think they are his socialite women talking of Michelangelo.  For myself I think they are the fates, or the muses, or something.

FRED
The fates?  What would it be for the fates to sing to you?

WALTER
The fates tell one ones destiny, or so I imagine it.

FRED
And if they sang, it would be a known destiny, and a beautiful one?

WALTER
Yes.

[Silence.]

FRED
I did not judge you.

WALTER
What does it mean to judge?

FRED
Perhaps it means to think ill of someone, or to think of them in a way that they would not want to be thought of.

WALTER
No, merely to condemn them for their moral imperfection or determine that they suffer from some defect of character.

FRED
I thought "this person may well be insane, or perhaps is in the younger stages of that same insanity."

WALTER
I thought the same thing of myself when you approached.  But really I am just sad and trying to find something to draw me on.

FRED
One can be both sad and insane, no?

[Silence.]

WALTER
And who are you?

FRED
I am Mystery.

WALTER
Ha! You don't get to be mystery.

FRED
Ego vox clamantis...

WALTER
I don't think you get to be John the Baptist either.

[Silence.]

WALTER
You must have smoked three cigarettes before speaking.

FRED
One should always think before speaking.

WALTER
Yes.  I think so as well.  I often have.





09 August 2015

A Few Thoughts on Jargon

A friend introduced me today to the notion of "realia", which is an educational neologism originating (it seems) in the study of foreign languages, and which refers to the concrete particulars of foreign culture.  The term in that context is reasonably old. A quick Google Books Ngram search shows that the term has been in use for at least 200 years, though most of the references in the 1800s are to a genus of mollusks.  The term is used extensively in an article of an educational journal published in 1921.  However, it seems to have taken on a more generic use in education, as evidenced by this wikipedia article.  I didn't know the history of the term when I wrote the following thoughts, so the facts have robbed me somewhat of the legitimacy of their occasion, but the Wikipedia article irritated me and reminded me of a lot of educational jargon I've heard.  So here are the thoughts I shared with my friend.

__________________________


"Realia" seems like one of those really obvious things that someone came up with a jargon word for so they could publish a paper or a book or something on education theory.  (Commence ruminations on jargon.)

Normally, I think jargon develops to minimize the "costs" of communication.  We agree on a bit of jargon, or one arises spontaneously, in order to make it easier to reference something, either by shortening its existing name or by drawing a distinction between two things which would be easily confused given existing nomenclature.  (Simplifying the name, or narrowing the reference.)  I suspect that jargon develops primarily around things that get referenced a lot in a particular community (because it's useful to have a short and precise way of naming that thing), or in technical analytic work when an important fine distinction is being drawn.  

For example, in biology people refer to "sequencing", because this is discussed frequently, and people will know without further specification basically what you mean.

Or in Catholic theology one often hears about semi-pelagianism, which is a strain of theological viewpoints which have one particular element in common with the theological views of Pelagius. Saying that something is "semi-pelagian" saves one the effort of saying "that theory has in common with pelagius the idea that the grace one receives initially which enables one to act for sanctifying grace is merited by human efforts without divine aid" or of calling something pelagian and then distinguishing the particular way it's pelagian.

But I don't think "realia" is actually useful in this way.  The cost of remembering the jargon word, and the cost of explaining it to outsiders both seem to outmatch the benefit of not having to say "real world objects" (which has the same number of syllables, I think, and pretty much exactly the same meaning, as far as I can tell).  I suspect that the advantage of education jargon like this (and on some level probably the reason so much of it floats around) is that it creates a linguistic difference between educational "professionals" and non-professionals that enables the former to surround their work in an obfuscatory fog, thereby preventing outsiders from passing judgment on what's being done or the validity of the underlying rationales, and adding perceived value to one's status as an "education professional".

Of course there are other reasons for it: sometimes people who train teachers want a catchphrase with which to communicate a method or approach to their trainees that will be easily memorable as a maxim later on when they're teaching or planing lessons.  I'm not sure how much "realia" would help there, but who knows.  It also creates a distinctive flavor to a particular teaching methodology (an insider code).  But honestly if you spend enough time surrounded by people who use this lingo, it becomes clear that it's all a bunch of hype and common sense (or stupidity).

I can also remark that the same sort of jargon-for-the-sake-of-a-professional-aura occurs sometimes in theology, especially in the area of biblical studies, where academics tend to want to mask the fact that a large amount of their work is piling up conjectures on the basis of a fairly small amount of historical data.  So we end up with things like the "Johannine Community" or "Q" or "deutero-Isaiah".  And people are introduced to these concepts in a way that focuses on applying them to texts, and quickly become invested in performing analysis based on them, so that one somehow forgets to ask whether they're supported by the historical evidence well, and eventually doesn't care because all the important professionals agree on them.  Outsiders might say "deutero-Isaiah is a stupid idea", but outsiders aren't the ones deciding on your tenure application or reviewing the article you submitted to the Journal of Near Eastern Studies.  (This is an oversimplification, obviously, but the phenomenon is real, even if complicated by other factors.)

But perhaps I'm totally wrong about realia.  Doubt it, though.  


[I was, at least in part.]

07 August 2015

Addressing Some Common Questions about the Most Reverend Archbishop's Recent Statement on Planned Parenthood



Did my local ordinary issue a statement about something? 
—Yes, he did! Exciting!

Does it mention God, Christ, the Gospel, the Church, Catholicism, or the Catholic Faith?
—No, none of these are mentioned at all, directly or indirectly.

Is it an exercise of my ordinary's teaching office as a bishop of the Church?
—Given the total lack of mention of any of the things you asked about, and the fact that he does not invoke his own authority in any way, we can safely say that it is not an exercise of your ordinary's teaching authority.

What does it talk about?
—Mostly it attempts to redirect moral outrage over mass murder into concern over inadequate healthcare, workers' rights, urban violence, and unemployment.

Given that it has no apparent official weight, is it morally edifying?
—No, in fact it seems to be rather unedifying. The injustices mentioned (especially immigration and urban violence) are serious evils that need to be confronted, but do not really seem comparable to the systematic murder and exploitation of children they're being equated with. On top of this, the display of such a lack of moral judgment puts your ordinary in a bad light, and is unedifying for that reason as well.

So, should I read it?
—No, you probably shouldn't.

04 August 2015

Does God Exist? (Part 1)

About 18 months ago I did a full treatment of the fourth of St. Thomas's "Five Ways" of demonstrating God's existence, for my blog, Tollat Summam, which was the first draft of a commentary on the first few questions of the Summa.  I'm currently re-drafting the commentary, amending the various inadequacies of the earlier version, and have, for the past month and a little more, been stuck on Ia q.2 a.3, which is incredibly dense.  Thus far I have constructed expositions of the first three ways, which, while still in need of some further tweaking, are at least satisfactory.  The Third Way in particular was extremely difficult to work through.  The Fourth Way is more difficult than the Third, so now that I come to it, I feel a little dismayed.  ("More? Really?" some part of my psyche seems to say.)  The five ways are foundational for the subsequent questions in the first half of the treatise de Deo Uno (Ia qq.2-26).  To skip any of them, or do them imperfectly with the intention of substantial later revision, would invite massive difficulties in the way of pedagogical re-ordering and the re-composition of sections of text.  In this post I would like to give a quick run-up to the fourth way, for my own purposes.  However, I suspect that what follows will be useful to others as well.


I. The Notion of Theology
St. Thomas begins the Summa by defending the existence and scientific character of theology.  Theology is weird as a discipline for two primary reasons: first, its subject is incapable of being really defined in the present life and seems superfluous when one considers merely the mundane lines of inquiry suggested by the ordinary sciences; secondly, its data are largely non-empirical.  When theology works off of experience, it does so in a highly speculative way, but much of its content is incapable of empirical verification, and is based on faith in divine revelation.

Because of the weirdness of theology, the first difficulty the theologian has in doing theology is specifying what exactly he's talking about.  Is one talking about anything at all?  What is signified by the word "God"?  Is there anything signified by the terms of this discourse?

II.  The Idea of Proving God's Existence
Thomas has a habit of asking "is there such a thing" before he asks "what sort of thing is it".  This habit seems strange, but it makes sense once one acclimates oneself sufficiently to his thought.  Why?  Because Thomas is interested in scientific investigations and demonstrations, and science concerns the nature of existing things.  It is no use to define an abstraction and then subsequently try to pidgeonhole things into it.  One should start by looking at what is, and then try to figure out what it is.  This spares one a host of problems caused by rationalizing prejudices and what the phenomenologists might call "totalizing intentionality".

So, when Thomas demonstrates the existence of God, he is saying "what is" that we're going to be talking about.  The goal is to jump-start the rational investigation of the Divine Essence by showing a number of indirect ways of specifying what aspect of reality we're looking at.  The five ways act as the substrate upon which all subsequent discussions in the first eleven questions of the Prima Pars are built.  "Hoc dicimus Deum" may seem like a cutesy conclusion to a complex metaphysical argument, but St. Thomas's saying, which is the general conclusion to his demonstrations, serves two purposes: first, it grounds the indirect evidence in the common usage of the name, making clear that what ordinary people would call "theology" is in fact being done in the investigations performed—"We're talking about just that sort of thing here too."  The second function of the "hoc dicimus" is to serve as a definition of the term as used in subsequent investigations.  When St. Thomas uses the word in qq.3-11, what he means is "this sort of thing", i.e. an unmoved mover, which is a first efficient cause, which is absolutely necessary and permanent, which possesses maximal actuality and perfection, and which orders the natures of unintelligent things toward their fruition.  The goal, and this is extremely important for properly reading his text is not apologetic, but illuminative.  The goal is not primarily to answer the protests of atheists, but to ground the discourse of theology by identifying its subject.  We can think of qq.3-11 as bookended by two major investigations.  On the front end (q.2), there is the question of what in reality we are talking about as theologians; on the back end (qq.12-13), there is the equally ticklish question of how our petty minds could know—and how our theological talk could be capable of analyzing—such a reality.

III.  The general form of these demonstrations
In q.2 a.2, Thomas lays down the principles which must be used in any demonstration of God's existence.  He distinguishes between demonstrations propter quid—demonstrations of a reasoned fact—and demonstrations quia—demonstrations of fact.  A demonstration propter quid proceeds from something which is objectively prior, to another thing (fact, effect, event, end, being) which is consequent upon it.  These demonstrations give us a fact, but because they give us something which is the basis of the fact, we understand the fact better: it is understood with at least some of its reasons for being so.  Demonstrations quia on the other hand, proceed from an observed consequence to the inference of the existence and, indirectly, the nature of the cause.  Such and such a thing happened, and therefore whatever caused it must belong to the genus of things whose proper effect such and such a thing is. Inferences of this variety are weaker, because the precision with which the cause is specified in the demonstration depends on the uniqueness of the effect and the kind of nature necessary to produce it.  Because we cannot know God directly through our senses, and because nothing is objectively prior to God, it is impossible to demonstrate his existence using a demonstration propter quid.  Any demonstration therefore, must proceed to God by identifying him through his proper effects.  The key, then, for forming any demonstration of the existence of God is to identify a feature of the known world which cannot be explained without recourse to some being which is outside the order of mobile, contingent beings.  Genuine demonstrations of this kind cannot take the form of "God of the gaps" arguments, because the latter simply point to the lack of an explanation, where any number of alternative and reasonable explanations are theoretically conceivable.  A "God of the gaps" argument says "no one has explained the mechanism behind this material phenomenon, therefore God did it".  A genuine demonstration of God's existence says "the nature of this observed feature of the universe cannot be explained by anything other than a radically transcendent cause."  All of St. Thomas's arguments have this latter form.

IV.  The First Way
The first way is based on the nature of motion (i.e. transformation or change, not strictly locomotion).  Motion is the reduction of potency to act.  Everything which undergoes motion is in potency to that which it is becoming, and therefore cannot actually be what it is becoming in the way it is becoming it, since potency and act are mutually exclusive by definition.  But potency is not self-actualizing.  In order to become, something must be caused to become by something which already is.  Therefore whatever undergoes motion must be moved by something other than itself.  But, to consider the chain of movers which are presently actualizing any particular thing in a given moment, it is impossible that this essentially subordinated simultaneous chain of movers should be infinite and without a first cause, since then every mover would be in potency to that which it is becoming, and the entire change would be an instance of self-actualizing potency, or non-existence causing itself to become real.  Therefore in any change, there must be some first mover, which is not in any way moved, and forms the basis of motion.  "God" is the word used for such an unmoved first mover.  So, when we speak of "God" we speak of this sort of thing, which evidently exists.

V.  The Second Way
The second way is based on the order of efficient causes.  Evidently some things cause other things in such a way that their ability to act as causes is dependent on some higher thing.  For example, one giraffe begets another giraffe, but this ability of giraffes to reproduce is essentially dependent on the activity of whatever caused giraffes to exist as a species.  Every successive generation of giraffes is merely a mediator or communicator of the form of giraffe to some other thing.  Now, nothing in a particular species or genus can be the cause of absolutely everything of that kind, because obviously then it would have to be cause of itself.  Therefore whatever kinds of things are caused to exist must refer back to some other kind of thing which caused them to exist.  And when we consider this chain, again we realize that it cannot go on to infinity, because in this case all of the accidental "mediator" causes which are transmitting their forms or kinds to each other, cease to function as mediators, there being no ultimate origin or reason for the particular nature or existence which  they pass on.  So in any series of efficient causes there must be something which is first, which is uncaused, ungenerated, and which acts as the cause of other kinds of things.

VI. The Third Way
The third way is, like the second way, focused on the fact that things are generated, but deals mainly with the question of permanence and the possibility of nonexistence.  Thomas asks whether it is possible that everything is generated and corruptible, and nothing has the absolute permanence which he calls "necessity".  If everything were this way, then the fundamental matter and primary stuff of which the universe is composed would have not existed at some point in the past.  Because nothing comes from nothing, if absolutely nothing had existed in the past, nothing would exist presently, which is absurd.  And had there been some prior cause in the past which created the whole mess of stuff of which the universe is composed out of nothing, such a thing would necessarily exist of its own nature (being able to cause existence simply and absolutely), and therefore could not be contingent.  So there must be something which is necessary and always exists, either conditionally (based on some other thing's necessity) or of its own nature simply.  But if there is a conditionally necessary being which depends on some other conditionally necessary being, etc., we can be sure that there is not an infinite chain of dependent necessary beings, because, taken as a simultaneous composite, the chain would not suffice to explain its own necessity.  Therefore there must be some necessary being, which is absolutely permanent and the existence of which is due to its own nature and nothing else.

02 August 2015

William Buckley, Michael Davies, Malachi Martin, and Joseph Champlin Analyze the State of the Church in 1980

I've been recommended the episode of Buckley's Firing Line linked below several times in the past, but only just ended up watching it now.  It is fantastic.  Do watch it.


Really....

So good.

01 August 2015

Cutting the Gordian Knot in St. Thomas's Third Way

[Having languished over this little bit of argumentation for about two weeks now, I have finally clarified it to my present satisfaction.  Here is a summary of my results.]

St. Thomas's Third Way seems obviously fallacious.  Here's the text, divided (by me) into two parts:

PART A
  1. The third way is taken from the possible and the necessary, and runs thus. 
  2. We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, since they are found to be generated, and to corrupt, and consequently, they are possible to be and not to be. 
  3. But it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which is possible not to be at some time is not. 
  4. Therefore, if everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence. 
  5. Now if this were true, even now there would be nothing in existence, because that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing. 
  6. Therefore, if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be in existence—which is absurd. 
  7. Therefore, not all beings are merely possible, but there must exist something the existence of which is necessary. 

PART B
  1. But every necessary thing either has its necessity caused by another, or not. 
  2. Now it is impossible to go on to infinity in necessary things which have their necessity caused by another, as has been already proved in regard to efficient causes. 
  3. Therefore we cannot but postulate the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity. 
  4. This all men speak of as God.

Part B is relatively straightforward, but Part A causes lots of trouble.  Our first problem is in line 3: "that which is possible not to be at some time is not".  One common line of interpretation understands this to mean that everything which is possible happens at some point in time.  This is patently absurd, however.  Consider for example an infinite past which consists merely of one ice cube floating through space, toward another ice cube, then passing near it, and floating away from it.  In such a universe there could be an infinite past without every possible state of being having occurred already.

The correct interpretation of line 3 returns to the thought in line 2, which is about generation and corruption.  Thomas's understanding of "possible not to be" in this case is related to a thing's being generated and corruptible.  If something is, and is possible not to be, then it must be generated and corrupted.  And therefore it must at some point in the past not have existed, and will again in the future not exist.

Next he says that "if everything were possible not to be", i.e. if everything were the sort that is generated and corrupted, "then at one time there could have been nothing in existence", and therefore "even now there would be nothing in existence".  One line of interpretation takes him to be making an immediate deduction here: "if everything were possible not to be, then at some point nothing that presently exists existed, and if this were the case nothing would exist presently".

This line of interpretation is, again, ridiculous, because it neglects the possibility that there were previous things which were generated and corrupted, which generated the presently existing universe.  Thomas does not address this objection, presumably (if we are generous, as we should be) because he sees it as obvious and easily dealt with.  The response to the objection is, that such prior generating causes would have had to generate the stuff of the presently existing universe ex nihilo, and this action, because it requires an unlimited power to give things existence, is incompatible with something whose existence itself is contingent.  Therefore if we are to sustain the assumption of a purely contingent universe, we cannot admit a necessarily non-contingent creator in the past, and have to assume that the universe was utterly void of existence at some point, prior to the generation of all presently existing things, their parts, and their fundamental matter.  This is absurd, however, because it would imply that nothing presently exists (since nihil ex nihilo fit).  And so there must be at least something which is permanent and at least conditionally necessary.

Then follows the second half, which is as straightforward as the first and second ways.

Notes on Word Processors

Last night I signed up for a trial of Office 365, the Microsoft software subscription service, so I could try out Office 2016 for Mac before its official release. Over the years I've switched between various word processors.

Back in the days of Mac OS 9, I was an occasional user of AppleWorks (and ClarisWorks before that). MS Word was obviously superior to these at the time, just as it remains superior every successive Apple word processor.  

Late in high school I experimented with LaTeX, which has a kind of beauty and conceptual purity to it, but which is not easily customizable, and requires one to de-bug text, which can be enormously annoying (normal proofreading is bad enough).  Also, I tend to be a little obsessive about formatting and design, and adjustments are not very easy to do in LaTeX without a lot of tinkering under the hood.  

During college I used MS Word for the most part, but also did a lot of drafting in Google Docs, which had the (then newfangled) guarantee that you would never lose your work from crashes.  I also experimented with a web-app called "Write or Die", which encourages you to keep writing by playing horrible sounds and flashing unpleasant colors on the screen if you stop for more than a few seconds.  This was a great help in forcing myself to focus and simply put down ideas I had already worked out. 

In graduate school I used Write or Die periodically, but mainly MS Word. In my first year, I experimented with hand-writing papers, including one extended composition written entirely by hand over the course of a day and a half, and another lengthy essay written in a single evening. (Typing does not always increase the speed of composition.)

Write or Die made me accustomed to listening to Hanson's "Mmmbop" while writing (it was one of their punishment tracks).  In my second year of graduate school, I wrote a significant portion of my MA Thesis on Foucault and Aquinas listening to that song.

Two years ago I tried a minimalistic "markdown" text editor called iA Writer.  This application and its relatives promise to make focusing easier, but their formatting idiosyncrasies prevent me from wanting to write anything in them.  Who wants to have to fiddle with conversion from mark-down to normal rich text?  Also, the focus factor really wasn't there any more than in any of the simple standard plain text editors.

A little over a year ago I splurged on Srivener.  I'd been working on a book project, and wanted to keep it organized.  Scrivener makes organization very easy, and it has a nifty two-window feature that makes it possible to put source material in one pane and your draft in the pane immediately next to it.  

This summer I finally realized that Scrivener, for all of its doodads and organizational tech is more of an impediment to organization than a help.  The way it divides up and funkly formats your text makes me uncomfortable.  I have nearly two decades of experience with MS Word.  I know how to get what I want out of it.  Scrivener, not os much.  So, when I started re-drafting my Summa commentary, I ditched Scrivener and went back to Word.

That brings us to the original point, which was my acquisition of Office 2016 for Mac.  It's beautiful! The interface is very clean and tasteful and it feels stable (so far).  It fits with the new look of Mac OS (the Yosemite/El Capitan look), and it is compatible with the new El Capitan split-screen feature, which is a huge plus for me.