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All wisdom begins in wonder, and this delight kindles a desire for truth that leads us on a quest for the really real -- the source of being itself. Hence, the philosophical impulse, albeit often manifested in atheistic and irreverent stumblings in the dark of human ignorance, begins and ultimately ends in theology -- communicating and communing with our origin and goal. We men are rational animals who seek to know. We are agents of truth who want correct answers to questions that we must ask. From the noblest objects of contemplation to the seemingly insignificant everyday trivialities of life, we attempt to unravel perplexing knots. Limited, blind, and distracted, we nevertheless struggle for wisdom. This is our lot, and it is also our glory.
Epistemology
Knowing is most of the battle
Monday, October 31, A.D. 2011
Painting in the Dark

Happy Halloween!

I do not have anything to add about our favorite less than Christianized pagan feast that I did not already mention in “All Hallow’s Eve.” Enjoy your All Saints’, your All Souls’, and even your Samhain.

However, the shadowy character of the holiday reminds me of an image that came to me during a recent discussion about mathematics. Nominalism is so rampant in the spiritual air that we breathe that I frequently find myself arguing with folks who hold that men created mathematics—ex nihilo, I suppose. In my last quixotic attempt to open the eyes of the blind to realism, my interlocutor suggested that mathematical concepts were entirely conventional. If that were true, then we should be able to dispose of them and to create another system of mathematics from scratch. Yet, even when we tweak various axioms that underly a particular mathematical approach, as in non-Euclidean geometry, the fundamental logic of mathematical relations continues to operate. There is much controversy in the philosophy of mathematics regarding the relationship between mathematics and formal logic, and I do not understand the problem enough to have any conviction on the matter. Yet, I cannot see how we could maintain logic or an understanding of mathematical relations without the other. I do not know if one implies the other, but, intuitively, they seem to coexist, at least in our thought process. To say that mathematics is entirely conventional is to say that we can think independently of what we mean by mathematical relations, and I do not see how such is possible. It is like asking a computer to function without programming or like asking a painter to copy a visible setting in the absence of light. We cannot think beyond the confines of thought. Could we have thought without mathematical reasoning? I am not sure if the simplest act of recognizing identity involves a mathematical judgment, but I am not comfortable in maintaining that we could still keep reason without such a significant constituent of it. We may manipulate which principles we apply in a given situation or thought experiment, but we do so still knowing and thinking with the suppressed principles in mind. Can we do violence to νοῦς without losing our mind entirely?

Posted by Joseph on Monday, October 31, Anno Domini 2011
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Monday, June 27, A.D. 2011
Synchronicity

One of the occasional, non-political features on Auster’s View from the Right is synchronicity, where Auster and his readers relate the quirky coincidences that befall us throughout our lives. A few weeks ago, Kristor commented on one of these posts, “Can’t get away from that synchronicity (or, God has a mischievous sense of humor),” and he was characteristically Kristoresque. In other words, he wrote something worth repeating:

No one should fret about the fact that material causation cannot explain much of what happens in our lives. In fact, it is a grotesque error to expect such a thing from material causation. After all, material causation cannot explain material causation. Indeed, there is no possible material cause of material causation. I can’t think of a more succinct way to express the Aristotelian argument for a First, and Unmoved, Mover (or, ipso facto, to indicate the epistemological limits on the domain of merely scientific inquiry).

If there is no utterly transcendent First Mover, then there is just no motion, at all—no change of any kind, nor any being. Likewise, if there be no utterly transcendent Order, then there is just no order at whatsoever. If on the other hand there is such a Mover, and such an Order, then nothing that happens—nothing whatsoever, no matter how trivial—can fail to be connected in every respect to that Mover, and thereby wholly ordered to that Order. Nor, being wholly ordered to the source of all Order, may anything that exists fail to be part of a comprehensive and coherent ordering toward all other things. As Whitehead said, “each atom is a system of all things.” Furthermore, those multifarious connections between things, being all orderly, must at least in principle all be intelligible to any rational observer. So that, in principle, investigating anything carefully enough may provide us an opportunity to discover everything that can be discovered. This is one of the reasons poetry is useful—poems help us attend to significations we usually neglect to notice. That’s how poetry can engender apprehensions of sublimity. And, love is like poetry. Love a thing or a person well enough and properly, and in the object of your charity you may discover all that there is to be known.

Thus synchronicity is pervasive in what exists—this is just another way of saying, “things happen together, and we live in a coherent world”—and Hannon is quite right that whether we notice it depends upon how well we are paying attention to the connections and mutual significations among the disparate elements of our experience, by which that coherence is obtained, in every moment, and from each moment to its successors.

Kristor’s offers a provocative insight about poetry. It is an old idea that the poet sees the divine in some way. Kristor suggests that the poet truly sees nature, though perhaps with a divine perspective.

Posted by Joseph on Monday, June 27, Anno Domini 2011
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Thursday, May 26, A.D. 2011
Nominalist Things

I found a playful piece by Professor Henry Fitzgerald that was published in Analysis: “Nominalist things.” My favorite part:

It’s all right, children! One need have no quarrel with dragons, qua nominalist! The number two would be a far greater stain on the world’s ontological purity than a mere dragon!

With apologies to Sister Maria . . .

Posted by Joseph on Thursday, May 26, Anno Domini 2011
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Thursday, March 24, A.D. 2011
Criterial Argument for the Existence of God

Last week, Kristor forwarded an entry from Ultimate Object: “Criterial Argument for the Existence of God.” It briefly explains that God is implied in all rational thought. I think that such an observation must be obvious to any thinker not infected with the delusion of nominalism. For a unified complex universe, one needs a principle capable of unifying that complexity without reducing everything in it. Rational, observant analysis of the world therefore inevitably leads one to monotheism, just as denials of monotheism ultimately lead fools to relativism, clever fools to solipsism, and intelligent men to nihilism.

Kristor wrote:

In this short (and therefore dense, and somewhat challenging) entry, machinephilosophy sets forth his Criterial Argument for the Existence of God. The Argument explains why Darwinists and materialists can’t help using teleological language: teleology, final causation, the whole panoply of the eternal truths of math, logic, and metaphysics, and therefore implicitly God himself are

necessarily

presupposed by thought as such, and thus also by its expression in language (I would add that if they are presupposed by being anywhere, they are presupposed by being everywhere; that’s part of what we mean when we call them necessary truths). This is the basis for the Socratic doctrine of anamnesis, set forth in the

Meno

: that when we reason about first principles (in math, logic, or metaphysics) we are expressing truths we already implicitly embody, and presuppose, by and in everything we say or do; so that, if we just think carefully about what we do indeed think, any of us can in principle discover any of the eternal truths.

Key sentence: “I don’t wake up in the morning wondering whether reason is going to be functioning, like I might wonder about my computer.” In order to live, we have

no alternative

but to presuppose that existence is rational, somehow, through and through; and that it is therefore in principle wholly intelligible, through and through. If these two presuppositions are groundless, then it is impossible in fact (whatever we might think) to explain or understand anything whatsoever, even a little bit.

Thus, as I have pointed out numerous times, if the atheists are right about God, then everybody is wrong about everything, because it is in that case not possible to be truthful. But this would mean that the atheists too are wrong about everything; and this would in turn mean that they are wrong in thinking that God does not exist. So God exists.

I wrote to Kristor:

Didn’t Lewis have a line for the general argument that the linked blog entry presents . . . that he believes that God exists as he believes the sun exists, not because he sees it, but because he sees everything else due to it?

What troubles me is how common it is for people to be blind to what seems obvious to us. The preponderance of human error often makes me question myself. I just don’t want to believe that so many people could be so wrong—perhaps I am wrong and the nihilists are right. But then I sober and realize how contradictory their position is. I call this move the “nihilistic temptation”—no matter how ridiculous and foolish it is, it continually reasserts itself to me. It must be an intellectual sin. I also think of the monstrous moral lapses in the history of man (consider abortion in America today, for example), and I remember how difficult the truth must be for our race. I wonder if such blindness affects different civilizations to different degrees. Eleventh century Frenchmen surely saw God in all things more easily than their descendents a millennium later, right?

To which Kristor responded:

Lewis did indeed say something like that, I think.

In the blindness of atheists there is I think something willful. They don’t

want

God to exist. They don’t want this to be that sort of universe. If God existed, that would entail all sorts of uncomfortable things, like chastity, or perfect honesty. If God does not exist, then their petty sins may go by the wayside, and they can go about the business of life, interested only in maximizing their profit on the deal, however they construe that profit.

Not so for Christians, or Jews. Or Muslims, for that matter. All three are totalistic religions.  But then, a religion that is not totalistic is not really a religion at all, but rather nothing more than a species of magic – a technique, and no more. This is I think why liberals so often accuse religions of being totalitarian. Liberals are afraid of religion, because true religion requires a repudiation of their worldly idols – and, so far as they can tell, of themselves.

As to the temptation of nihilism, I feel it, too. But is not this the same thing as to say simply that I feel temptation? Temptation to any sin, however trivial, is a temptation to some turn or other toward nothingness. Followed persistently, all sins lead ultimately to the outer darkness.

Nihilism is tempting because in eliminating all good it ipso facto eliminates all shame and guilt at our persistent failures to achieve the good. It gets us off the hook by insisting that there is no hook. So it is a fantastic relief.

It is the nihilists, I have long thought, who are most ripe for conversion. They have fully understood the existential stakes, and in their ignorance of the truth about the alternative – willful or not – they have consciously chosen death. Indeed, they have embraced death. So, naturally enough, they are in agony. This is why, in my apologetical responses to them, I generally take a moment to ask: given the fact that you believe nothing really matters, why are you so

angry

about theism?

Kristor’s comment about willful atheism recalls Maverick Philosopher’s post, “Nagel on Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion.” I confess that I just cannot understand it, having been raised in a theistic home and community. My loss of faith was extremely painful and troubling to me, and my years of agnosticism regarding Christianity, ever somewhat lingering, have never been desired by any part of my soul. I cannot empathize with anyone who desires the illusion of nihilistic chaos. I suspect that such folks do not want nihilism in itself, thinking instead that the world of their satisfactions and pleasures is self evident and self grounded.  Yet, these men are philosophers! It is their chief vocation to hunt down every assumption and underlying principle, to investigate the very nature that loves to hide. That such people would willfully accept facts without questioning their ground lowers them. Men like Quine and Searle cannot be dismissed as bovine; why, then, do they accept the shadows for the sun?

Update: Alan R. adds:

His position is basically what Reformed presuppositional apologists call the Transcendental Agrument for God: All thought requires as a presupposition a God who makes reality to obey laws of logic that we can know and use, therefore even if you argue against God, you presuppose Him and contradict your position.

I especially appreciate his line:

Therefore, there is some sense in which these ultimate decisive rules and ideals of thought actually communicate knowledge and even wisdom by merely thinking about them and their relationship to our belief systems and our world of objects.

In other words, comtemplating God and His Word makes one wise, especially wise unto salvation.

Posted by Joseph on Thursday, March 24, Anno Domini 2011
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Tuesday, March 15, A.D. 2011
The Hubris of Reductionism

I occasionally read Dennis Mangan’s blog, which has a humorous subtitle—Adventures in Reaction. Like John Derbyshire, Steve Sailer, and other “human biodiversity” enthusiasts, Mangan offers many interesting ideas that are appropriately dismissive of the reigning idiotic idols of the tribe. However, like Derbyshire, Sailer, and friends, sometimes Mangan wanders into uncharted territory where his overconfidence in contemporary natural science leads him to say bizarre things. Last week, for instance, Mangan posted “The Biological Basis of Music,” which he ends thus:

Music has long been considered something of a conundrum in philosophy and psychology, but the main result of this and other studies seem obvious in retrospect. How could music not have a biological or evolutionary basis?

Schopenhauer, one of the best philosophical theorists on the arts, thought that music was the highest and greatest art, since it is “about” nothing, but at least in its higher forms is pure abstraction. However, he lived before the age of Mendel and Darwin, and though he anticipated some of their findings, for instance in assertions of the heritability of character and the clash of will in nature, all his theorizing was just that: theorizing. He had little science on which to base his ideas.

Much the same could be said about many other philosophers in the past, e.g. John Locke’s idea of the tabula rasa, which surely made a lot of sense at the time but which we know now to be completely wrong. Kant’s notions of what can be known a priori vs. a posteriori were likewise uninformed by biology.

Studies like this show that the revolution in our knowledge of the biological basis of human culture and psychology is only beginning.

Leaving aside the other comments, let us just consider “Kant’s notions of what can be known a priori vs. a posteriori were likewise uninformed by biology.” What can this mean? I am no Kantian, but it appears to me that Kant’s distinction between what can be known through examining the structure and nature of reason itself and what can be known from experience is an appropriate and fundamental distinction. Increased knowledge of human biology cannot add to or alter that distinction. As we come to understand human evolution and the development of our cognitive faculties better, we might be able to grasp why and how human beings came to be aware of such distinctions, as we might be able to learn why and how human beings became rational beings, but the distinction itself is not attributable to evolution or biology. The distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge is like the principles of mathematics. The relationships between numbers and geometric figures did not evolve. Our biological evolution did not produce them. Rather, we evolved to be able to know them. Our biology developed so that we became animals capable of mathematical reasoning. Reason itself cannot be reduced to biology; reason just is. I think that it is telling that Mangan did not write that Newton’s Principia Mathematica was uninformed by our superior biological knowledge after Darwin, Watson, and Crick. Why not?

I am a great admirer and supporter of natural philosophy, but natural philosophers—“scientists”—have appropriate objects for their work. When natural philosophers attempt to reduce larger spheres of knowledge such as underlying metaphysics or prior considerations of epistemology to the limits of their discipline, they speak folly. Husserl noted that modern intellectuals tend to reduce all other disciplines to their own. The enthusiasts of mechanistic science frequently err in this way. When postmodern literature professors reduce other disciplines to their “narrative speak,” it is idiotic but not that surprising. Consider the rigor and standards of their discipline, where truth itself has been rejected as a matter of principle. Yet, when rational natural philosophers make the same mistakes, I find it tragic. For these folks should know better.

Posted by Joseph on Tuesday, March 15, Anno Domini 2011
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Saturday, October 23, A.D. 2010
Vallicella on Bundle Theory

Bill Vallicella of the excellent Maverick Philosopher blog has been tackling his theory of particulars as bundles of universals. If you appreciate mindwatering metaphysical morsels, I recommend the eats.

Total Dependence and Essence/Existence Composition

Metaphysics at Cindy’s: The Ontological Stucture of Contingent Conreta

Two Questions About the Bundle Theory Answered

Can a Bundle Theory Accommodate Change?

Bundling is Symmetrical But Not Transitive

The Bundle Theory and the Identity of Indiscernibles

Hardy and delicious.

Posted by Joseph on Saturday, October 23, Anno Domini 2010
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Saturday, May 29, A.D. 2010
Can We Speak Truth without Knowing It?

As I was eating a hummus and spinach sandwich on pumpernickel bread today, I was thinking of truth statements. In particular, I was wondering if a statement is true when it is true but not known to be so by its speaker. I am sure that the ancient Greeks, the medieval schoolmen, and contemporary analytics have dealt and still deal extensively with such elementary issues, but I do not know much in the philosophy of language realm. So, please excuse my childlike foray into alien territory.

I am not interested today in the simple version of my question, which would involve a true statement by a person in a state of ignorance—or at least in a state of unconfirmed opinion. If we follow the general Platonic and Aristotelian distinction between knowledge and opinion in the dialogues and in the Posterior Analytics, we see that knowledge has to do with what is necessary and that it is known as necessary, whereas opinion concerns that which is not necessarily so. Opinion appears to cover far more phenomena, including “knowledge” (or an awareness that is a shadow of knowledge) of things that could be otherwise and assertions about the world that are not grounded in knowledge. So, for example, a man who asserts that the hypotenuse of a right triangle is the longest side without knowing the relationship given in the Pythagorean theorem knows such differently than a man who asserts that the hypotenuse of a right triangle is the longest side while understanding the Pythagorean theorem. In a way, both assertions are true. Yet, the truth in the soul of the speaker differs. I reckon that the analytics have a rich vocabulary to map these distinctions, but I am ignorant of them.

My peculiar wondering today involves a more complicated and colorful case. Imagine two men, strangers to each other, are together on a train—one a pious though somewhat naive fellow on his way to a pilgrimage destination, the other a cynical, hedonistic type . . . you know, the typical European. These fellows begin to chat about various topics, when the worldy fellow exclaims, “It is most important to look out for #1.” The Christian nods in agreement, though slightly confused as to how the other fellow’s statement followed his previous stories. The train stops, and the hedonist disembarks. The train starts up again, and the Christian man ponders the wisdom of looking out for #1 and reminds himself that he ought never to judge people based on their statements; for their hideous actions and words often mask invisible pearls of heightened spirituality.

In this story, the self centered man’s claim is “It is most important to look out for #1.” To him, he is #1. He means that his actions should all be oriented toward maximizing his own good, however he conceives such. To the Christian, however, God is #1. Therefore, our pious fellow readily agrees with the hedonist’s statement, though the intended object of “number one” differs. Assuming that the Christian is correct in his ranking of the Good, what truth value does the hedonist’s statement have?

As I indulged in my spinach and hummus (such bestowals of divine beneficence upon the palate of man), these thoughts reminded me of Thomas’ discussion of ethics, mainly in the Prima Secundae of the Summa Theologiae, where he makes many useful distinctions to describe moral action. For an action to be moral, the agent must intend a good end and intend this end as good and known as good. For example, let us suppose a wicked assassin who intends to kill a good king. To simplify the example and avoid complicated political issues, let us assume that the king is truly good as the leader and that the assassin is evil. Let us also assume that the king suffers from some ailment that will shortly lead to his death without a special treatment. Well, in our story, the assassin puts what he thinks is poison in the king’s food, but it turns out that the poison is actually the medicine that the king needs to recover. So, the assassin performs a good deed in that he saves the king’s life. However, he did not intend to save the king’s life. He rather intended to kill the king, which surely appeared to him as a good, though he was mistaken. Thus, his deed is still wicked, as performed by him, though the act abstracted from him was good and led to good conseqences. For an action to be moral, the end of the action must be good, and it must be intended by its agent as good.

I think that these distinctions help to illuminate the problem with truth statements in complicated situations like the one previously mentioned. The hedonist claims that it is most important to “look out for”—let us say “serve”—number one. Abstracted from the hedonist’s intended meaning, the statement is arguably true, or at least true-ish. Theological nitpicking might claim that God’s own action of being God is more important than our creaturely action of serving God, but one might argue that, for human beings, there is no greater activity than serving / imitating / instantiating the presence of / worshipping God, or some such formulation. Casual conversations on trains are not treatises on the ultimate questions, and we must allow for some imprecision. However, the hedonist’s statement has nothing to do with God for the hedonist. There is no equivocation from his point of view; the self (or perhaps only himself) is the “#1” of his statement. Therefore, the statement is wrong, at least for him as he makes it. As I wrote above, there has to be a vocabulary for these phenomena. Those wily analytics, always parsing statements and doing the grunt work of philosophy! One has to admire them.

So, I propose that a statement can only be true, at least for its speaker, if it is a true statement and if its truth is intended and known by the speaker when he makes it. Is this a good theft from the treasures of the Scholastics?

Posted by Joseph on Saturday, May 29, Anno Domini 2010
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Wednesday, March 17, A.D. 2010
Words That Hurt

A few months ago, I read the following article about a Washington state legislator who wishes to remove “negative language” from state law: “Wash. lawmaker wants to banish negative language.”

Decades ago, poor children became known as “disadvantaged” to soften the stigma of poverty. Then they were “at-risk.” Now, a Washington lawmaker wants to replace those euphemisms with a new one, “at hope.” . . . Positive labeling is more than a gimmick or political correctness, Franklin says. She believes her idea could lead to a paradigm shift in state government and to changes in classrooms across the state.

Of course, the politician is a Democratic woman, Rosa Franklin. I suspected that Franklin was black from the level of unseriousness that she exudes in the article, and I was correct.

By stating such, I am not referring to population disparities in the intelligence bell curve. Rather, and perhaps relatedly, there is far less quality control in the Democratic Party for their black politicians. Leftists harbor many stupid ideas based on foolish principles and the consequent unwillingness to consider reality when the world contradicts their cherished values. However, despite their perplexing adherence to stupid ideas, most Leftists in positions of power are not stupid themselves. Yet, Democrats’ white guilt and noblesse oblige curdle together to mollify any criticism of the leaders that poor, dysfunctional black communities elect. Occasionally, after much long suffering, the Democratic establishment may attempt to hoodwink the masses with back room political coups, but the diversity tooting Democrats are content to allow clowns to run around the circus as long as their antics do not generate too much bad press. As we know from experience, it takes a lot of bad press to tarnish a black Democrat politician—that soft bigotry of low expectations is rather widespread.

Yet, does Franklin fit that mold? My guess was that she was a public school teacher before politics. However, it turns out that she was a nurse who entered politics after being involved in community charities. According to an online biography, she has been married for almost sixty years and she is likely a pious Protestant. So, maybe we can simply attribute her silly ideas to classic, well intentioned, Christian Leftism.

My friend Andrew used to remark that Leftists locate power and meaning in words rather than the ideas and experiences behind words. Perhaps, this is logical for nominalist, postmodernist, deconstructionist folks who reduce insight and thought to word play and confusion. For many of them, there is no nature—only descriptions of our imagined objectivity that seem to originate in the will rather than the intellect. For the consistent (well, as consistent as such people can be), discourse can never be a joint labor with the ascent to the truth as its goal. Argument is simply a battle for domination. As such, propaganda replaces philosophy; he who frames the debate wins (and thus imposes his will on others). Have you ever wondered why the Left loves George Lakoff so much? He speaks their truth to them, insofar as they can use the word truth.

I do not deny that word choice is very important, and “framing the debate” matters immensely in persuasion. However, true thinking ought to rise above rhetoric. It must strive to overcome the limitations of convention and of the routine, well worn paths of the herd. Yet, it is this possibility that Leftist nihilists deny. For the honest ones, it is all about the will to power.

I certainly do not think that low level left wing politicians consciously entertain decadent Nietzschean or even Derridean theories, but I do think that the general world view and assortment of values and commitments of the political Left have been fully colonized by anti-rational philosophical theories (“philosophical” taken quite liberally). The judgmental non-judgmentalism, the intolerant cult of tolerance, the dogmatic hatred of dogma, and the (pseudo-)rational undermining of reason that pervade Leftist thinking all seep from the same murky waters. Dear Rosa Franklin may not realize the ideological genealogy of her proposal to help children through newspeak, but she has been compromised. She may genuinely wish to help “at hope” youth, but her understanding of the world has been distorted to think that words—and systems in general—are more primary than ideas and minds.

By the way, happy Saint Patrick’s Day to the Micks on the new calendar!

Posted by Joseph on Wednesday, March 17, Anno Domini 2010
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Friday, February 19, A.D. 2010
McGuckin on the Beautiful

I hope that Christians, West and East, are having a productive Lent. I know that several people refrain from the internet during the fast to spend more time in prayer, study, and charitible activities. I am not among them, but I wish them well. I have found that when I am “stranded” from the web while on trips or during projects, it is quite refreshing. In my normal life in East Coast exile, though, I find the net quite useful in maintaining sanity. In the film, Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins, asks a student why we read. The student responds—with his father’s wisdom—that we read to know that we are not alone. Lewis repeats the line later in the movie, and it is the sort of line that one remembers. I find it truthful. Though the internet is not a substitute for good books or personal conversation, it is a way to encounter other human minds—some quite excellent in insight and in wit.

Rather à propos, on the Serbian Church’s web page, I found a short essay by J.A. McGuckin, “The Notion of The Beautiful in Ancient Greek Thought and its Christian Patristic Transfiguration.” After summarily discussing how the Christian theological and philosophical tradition interpreted and transformed the Socratic notion of the beautiful, McGuckin suggests that this forsaken synthesis serve as medicine for Western civilization’s current malady:

The one reconciliation possible for a society that is in danger of losing even the distant memories of its religious civilisation, at a time when its preferred religions have turned solipsistic, and its schools of political, philosophical, and artistic thought have elevated short-term self interest to new heights, is no less than the return to a renewed sense of the Beautiful. It is, in the Christian reinterpretation of the Greek notion of kalokagaqon, the ideal synthesis of a religious, mystical, and moral transcendental. It is, if the Church can still act decisively enough to be the intellectual midwife and interpreter, the one concept and experience that can still be remembered well enough by a generally ‘paganised’ society to serve as the basis for a new pro-paideusis of what civilisation and human aspirations to ascent are all about. If the Church can find the wit, and the voices in the present generation who will be up to the task as were the farseeing saints, founders and teachers in the past, ( who dealt with an equally ambiguous and decadent society ), then this pro-paideusis will be no less than a re-evangelisation of the western world which has already declined far from its once high standards of civilisation, and now urgently needs catechising about the very nature of the simplest truths - what constitutes Beauty ; and where lies the reconciliation of Aesthetics and Justice - central ideas constitutive to a civilisation that even a few decades ago might have been thought to be hardly capable of being forgotten in so short a time and so widespread a fashion.

It delights me to find contemporary scholars who acknowledge the complementarity of Platonism with the gospel. It is no surprise that Plato has served as the paedagogue who has led many thoughtful people to Christ for two millennia. From men on the Areopagus who heard Paul’s sermon to Augustine to Lewis to many people whom I know, that beautiful transcendent vision has led philosophical minds to meet the God of Abraham as the God known by λόγος.

Posted by Joseph on Friday, February 19, Anno Domini 2010
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Monday, December 14, A.D. 2009
Is God an Accident?

I am hopelessly behind the times. Only this past year did I learn of the latest reductionist explanation of religion, wherein the nearly universal belief in the divine is dismissed as an accident of human evolution. The reductionist argument basically holds that it has been so vitally important for human beings to distinguish agents from things that men developed their sensitivity to agency too much. We humans tend to project agency onto all sorts of things that have none and even onto non-entities. The survival advantage in being able distinguish sentient beings from rocks led to the tendency to see spirits everywhere. It is a mere accident of evolution, then, that we are religious.

Last week, I read a four year old article by Paul Bloom in The Atlantic about this theory, “Is God an Accident?” Even though I do not find the argument ultimately convincing, I must credit Bloom for a good read. Why can’t American discourse exist at such a level? Let the secularists put forth a rational and honest Bloom, and the theists will offer Platinga or some such chap. We the audience public may actually learn something.

Anyway, I recommend Bloom’s article, which I find quite interesting and fair. My favorite part is when Bloom recounts the fascinating research that cognative scientists are doing with babies. When scientists actually do science, it is indeed a glorious affair. However, natural science is a species of philosophy, and it is natural (as I affirm teleology) for seekers of truth to search for deeper answers to underlying questions. Unfortunately, these intelligent folks are not well equipped to address metaphysical questions, and I believe that is why they fail to appreciate the problems of their reductionism.

For example, one of Bloom’s main arguments is that through evolution, human beings have become innately dualistic. We recognize from our earliest stages of development the difference between the life of the mind and the mechanics of lifeless things. What the Kantians call the noumenal and the phenomenal are basic insights into how we experience reality. I think that a sensible philosophical approach would have us accept the legitimacy of this distinction. The mind, the will, the realm of the spirit really is of a different order than the mechanistic cause and effect world of billiard balls in motion. We must see the difference, intuitively and rationally, as reason will not permit a sane person to understand reality otherwise. Yet, it seems that the reductionists hold that such an insight is merely an illusion that accidentally resulted from some adaptations in the human mind that make survival and reproduction more likely.

Perhaps, I misunderstand the subtlety of their argument, but it appears that the reductionists fail the test of retortion. I have mentioned this basic argument before, but it cannot be repeated enough in this twilight age of reason. The reductionists offer their scientific theory as an explanation of how the world (well, in this case, the human mind) works. They propose a theory as true. Yet, they dismiss the foundations of human rationality—including the basic perception that mind and the mindless operate according to very different principles—as accidents of evolution quite unrelated to truth value. We hold such intuitions—and our reason operates thus—not because such are true but because such give us a survival advantage. I wonder if the reductionists’ dismissal of human rationality undermines their own attempts at explanation. They are not simple relativists; so, maybe they pass the test of not refuting themselves. However, I do not know how one can salvage human wisdom once one dismisses such fundamental insights. As with the nominalists, how does one proceed to build castles of philosophical systems in the air after one has destroyed their possible foundations? Epistemological violence leads to metaphysical nihilism.

Bloom offers as an argument the following remarkable passage:

This notion of an immaterial soul potentially separable from the body clashes starkly with the scientific view. For psychologists and neuroscientists, the brain is the source of mental life; our consciousness, emotions, and will are the products of neural processes. As the claim is sometimes put, The mind is what the brain does. I don’t want to overstate the consensus here; there is no accepted theory as to precisely how this happens, and some scholars are skeptical that we will ever develop such a theory. But no scientist takes seriously Cartesian dualism, which posits that thinking need not involve the brain. There is just too much evidence against it.

I always think back to the analogy of language when I encounter these ideas. We cannot reduce the meaning of a word to its letters or to the sounds that it takes to speak the word. Nonetheless, a word cannot exist as a written word without letters or as a spoken word without sounds. Reality ought not to be reduced to its necessary conditions. It may be correct that the material structure of the brain makes thought possible, but thought transcends its origin. I accept as a possibility that human consciousness may only occur to or with embodied human beings. However, even as bodies with brains, we attain the spiritual and immaterial through our very thought. Having thought thoughts, we know that order and the innumerable intelligible qualities that we witness cannot be reduced to a jumbling of particulars with no evidence of the transcendent. We see God when we see the world because we see the world. While our experience does not rationally justify belief in the afterlife, it does validate the distinction between thought and the world. In thinking, we noetically reach beyond the limits of time and space. We know, in thinking, that we are truly more than just bodies. Whether such existence outlasts the body is another matter. It remains that case that we are more than flesh and blood.

Bloom and his comrades of the material mind find it conclusive that one can have design without a designer, and they believe that evolution proves it.

Sometimes there really are signs of nonrandom and functional design. We are not being unreasonable when we observe that the eye seems to be crafted for seeing, or that the leaf insect seems colored with the goal of looking very much like a leaf. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins begins The Blind Watchmaker by conceding this point: “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” Dawkins goes on to suggest that anyone before Darwin who did not believe in God was simply not paying attention.

Darwin changed everything. His great insight was that one could explain complex and adaptive design without positing a divine designer. Natural selection can be simulated on a computer; in fact, genetic algorithms, which mimic natural selection, are used to solve otherwise intractable computational problems. And we can see natural selection at work in case studies across the world, from the evolution of beak size in Galápagos finches to the arms race we engage in with many viruses, which have an unfortunate capacity to respond adaptively to vaccines.

I marvel at how clever creatures can draw explanatory principles from the empty well of chance. Chance does not explain; chance merely signifies the complicated levels on which intentional agents experience reality. With apologies to Aristotle, allow me to talk about my fictional pals, Bob and Matt. Bob the bartender owes Matt the Maytag repairman money that he intends to pay him when he sees him again. One day, Bob goes to Best Buy to buy his belle, Betty Sue, a microwave oven. Matt happens to be at Best Buy trying to catch up on the latest developments in the laundry machine trade. Bob sees Matt and pays him. We can say that Bob’s paying Matt when he did was the result of chance. There was agency by both men, but the result of their intended ends was not intended by either one of them. Chance explains an element in the story.

Yet, note that chance only indicates how the intended actions of two agents interelated in a wider theater than their own perspectives. When we consider a theater as wide as reality, what role does chance play? Is it not simply what we might call the order of being’s manifesting itself in motion? When people speak of chance, they often mean random and unpredictable. Yet, we observe everywhere the tendencies of nature and the probability of phenomena that betray an order. The universe has a structure that is intelligible. It has patterns that human reason perceives and understands. When we attribute causality to chance, we simply admit that we remain ignorant of the whole as was Bob of all the facts. Yet, Bob and Matt both acted as agents with will and ends, and they acted so in an orderly universe. Likewise, evolutionary biology does not show that order develops from chaos. Rather, evolutionary biology recognizes that the particular qualities—the particular structure of our universe—gives rise to the multiplicity of life as we know it. There is no way to pass the buck of design to nothing. As the ancients knew, there must be an uncaused cause. When, in thought, we encounter the wondrous beauty and unity of the intelligible world, we recognize such a source. For Bloom, this recognition is an illusion. It is strange to consider how much effort the blinded put forth in order to remain in darkness.

Bloom’s strongest point, in my opinion, is that the human mind sees design where there is arguably none. We see patterns and qualities in artworks that were designed to be random (an odd cultural phenomenon, to be sure). Personally, I know that my mind sees faces in almost any grouping of lines and colors. Couldn’t it be that we simply project meaning onto this meaningless world?

As previously argued, I do not think that we can undermine human rationality in such a severe way and still maintain knowledge in any sense. There is another explanation for the human mind’s readiness to attribute order, meaning, and patterns to “randomness.” It could be that we do see such examples of order, meaning, and patterns in what were intended by their craftsmen to be random and meaninglessness because they actually do instantiate such order, meaning, and patterns. Hume may be a reductionist nominalist, but his theory of mental association is quite insightful. We understand many phenomena by relating them to memories of other phenomena. I do not think that we can reduce our ideas to such, but that is not to say that such does not occur in our minds. Of course, we learn and remember based on experience and association. The man who harbors a lifelong disgust of Cheerios because of an unfortunate breakfast incident in his youth shows how strong such associations can be. Thus, clouds may appear to us as palaces or dragons—or at least cotton balls for the unimaginative—because the clouds resemble such things in certain respects. Our minds do not thus lie or falsify information; for the qualities that cause us to see the resemblance are truly present in the clouds, such as certain shapes, sizes, and relations. We only fall short of truth when such resemblance tricks us into assessing something incorrectly. For instance, I may mistake a mannequin for a real man because of its resemblance to a real man. Such errors ought not to cause us to question the power of human thought; rather, they are good reminders about the limitations of empirical evidence.

So, I recommend Bloom’s article, but the ease of intelligent men in making intellectual errors continues to baffle me. Do materialists really find such arguments convincing, or are they trying to dismiss their own awareness of the transcendent? With the latest reductionist theory, these materialists may soothe their minds by explaining away their suppressed religious tendencies as natural, homo sapiens normative, irrational impulses. Then, there will be no need to think more about the contradictory stances that one takes when he reduces reality to a level that does not even allow for his act of intellectual reduction.

Posted by Joseph on Monday, December 14, Anno Domini 2009
EpistemologyMetaphysicsCommentsPermalink
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