Last month before the March for Life, I was thinking about an idea that I have encountered in recent years that abortion is a sacrament for the Left. Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life notes that Ginette Paris published the book, The Sacrament of Abortion, in A.D. 1992, wherein she supports abortion as a pagan affirmation of life. I was surprised that the idea has its origin on the Left, but I should get used to the perversity of this world. Although the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!,” one must not forget that the wicked delight in wickedness.
Upon reflection, however, I think that the Left’s position is remarkably consistent given human nature. Consider sacrifice and its place in human society. Sacrifice is pretty much a universal human phenomenon. Man gives up something dear to his gods. Crudely, this act is seen as a transaction wherein the sacrificer seeks to appease divine anger or curry divine favor. The more philosophical understanding is that by sacrifice man makes clear to himself and to everyone the proper order of being, where lesser goods are given up for greater ones. The act of sacrifice to the gods demonstrates vividly to the human soul and to the human community the appropriate hierarchy of the world; it is an impressive (as in impression making) act that proclaims the community’s ranking of values.
Among sacrifices, none is greater than offering human life, especially the life of a child who represents the very continued existence of the human community of which he is part. We find stories of child sacrifice repellant, and we are quick to condemn the practitioners of such acts as evil and demonic. However, from their point of view, they are offering their most precious good to the divine. In the scriptures, we read of the Moabite king:
And when the king of Moab saw that the battle was too sore for him, he took with him seven hundred men that drew sword, to break through unto the king of Edom; but they could not. Then he took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead, and offered him for a burnt-offering upon the wall. And there came great wrath upon Israel; and they departed from him, and returned to their own land.
The king killed his son and successor to gain divine power. It is obvious from the story that he did not want to do this for its own sake. He did it to prevail in battle and to save his kingdom, and it appeared to have worked. We on the Abrahamic side of the story might conclude that his murdering his son would only have pleased demons, and the great wrath was not a divine force but a Satanic one. Nonetheless, from the Moabite point of view, offering one’s own child to the gods was the most powerful offering because it was the greatest sacrifice possible. What more can a loving father give than his own child? Child sacrifice, seen in this light, is the supreme act of submission.
We have this in our own heritage with Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac. Of course, the Lord saved Isaac at the last moment, but there can be no doubt that the test of Abraham demanded the most from him that God could ask. As Christians, we further see the extreme expression of sacrifice in the crucifixion of Christ, and I propose that the sacrifice on Golgotha is the archetype for all sacrifice. Every sacrifice, whether burnt, blood, or living, of fruits, beasts, or human beings, of enemies, friends, or children, is an imperfect attempt to copy the sacrifice of Jesus the Christ—“the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”—whose peculiar metaphysical status makes the crucifixion an eternally significant event that connects time and space to that which is beyond being. Consider, for instance, how the author of the letter to the Hebrews contrasts the temple cult to the sacrifice of Christ.
What, then, does this talk of child sacrifice have to do with abortion?
I believe that the positions and goals of the “Left” are the logical consequences of modernity. By that, I mean that the shift in world views that occurred in the late medieval period and Renaissance has been playing itself out over the past seven centuries, and the “cutting edge” of this development is, unsurprisingly, the “progressive” Left. The end of the Middle Ages saw the rise of nominalism—a philosophical doctrine that denies that essences exist in the world. The Franciscans who created this theory did so from a certain kind of piety, thinking that formal ontological realities limited the power of God. They thus conceived God as an omnipotent and unrestricted will, disconnected from and superior to anything known and, therefore, to knowing. This fundamental change in thinking about God revolutionized everything else, including the West’s understanding of nature and of mankind. Will has become the most important reality. Indeed, it is the only reality in quite a few philosophical currents. Having discarded the divine will, atheists keep only the human will, or perhaps will as such, and the will remains the touchstone for all other considerations. This change is the origin of all modern philosophical movements, almost all of which deify the will and discard any restraint upon the will. As with the original nominalists’ theology, the elevation of will corresponds to a diminution of truth. For truth is a restriction upon will, and the glorification of will necessarily accompanies a demotion of the intellect. For if we admit that there is reality apart from will, then the will’s freedom and scope become limited as there would be truths independent of the will. In summary, modernity is fundamentally an idolatry of the will.
I do not know if we should blame this aberration on the medieval nominalists or on Augustine who ensnared the West with the will’s tangle, but I do think that the reduction of reality to the will underlies all modern madness from the Cartesian mastery of nature to liberalism to utilitarianism to nihilism to Marxism to fascism to feminism to postmodernism to all the insane -isms that afflict men’s minds. Contemporary political thinking remains a prisoner in these fetters.
One obvious problem when everything is reduced to will is how we manage conflicting wills. One possibility is the Darwinian world where the stronger overcome the weaker. Think of Nietzsche’s will to power and the struggle of wills that we call life. Then, there are the ways of liberalism, where society attempts to maximize the ability of each will to exercise its power. Classical liberals seek to manage such conflicts loosely by instituting general rules of fairness, whereas egalitarian liberals want to engineer a society wherein each will has an equal ability to manifest its power. For why should one will be considered more important than another? If will is the fundamental reality, then everything else such as talent, intelligence, fortune, and discipline are irrelevant in discussions of justice. A just world is one of equal outcomes that allow equal opportunities to exercise power. Biology, consequences of decisions, and considerations of social stability cannot have any standing in this court of justice; for they are external to will and the Left is therefore uncomfortable with them. Nature must be reconstructed to agree with our choices, not the other way around. Something is willed; it therefore must be.
Therein, we see how abortion is a sacrament. For one sacrifices his children to his highest god, and there is no higher authority or power in the modern world than the individual will. Abortion is our society’s form of child sacrifice where babies are killed on the altar of the ego. There is no higher authority than the will; there is no greater good than the will’s current object. Abortion is simply a powerful manifestation of this belief. It is an affirmation of the superiority of the will over instinct, tradition, morality, and nature. The sacrificing priests of old both represented and taught the community through their sacrifices, and contemporary women and abortionists do the same in our society. Hear, all ye nations, the will is most supreme. Choice is sacred.
Update: This topic continues in “Nominalism, Nihilism, and the Will.”
Christ is born!
Merry Christmas on this seventh day of the Nativity and happy birthday to my nephew, Austin. Many years and blessings to him! He was born on Friday the thirteenth of January (December 31 on the Church’s calendar), and so the cycle has revolved, again.
Yesterday, Lawrence Auster explained a bit more of his recent change in outlook in “Small moves away from liberalism are not going to turn around the society as a whole.” Auster states that he no longer thinks that our civilization will repent from its spiral toward nihilism and barbarity. He therefore counsels what we may do without falling into despair. The ever insightful Kristor adds the following comment:
Back in 1973, when I was a teenaged commie, I used to engage with my commie friends in political discussions that would go on for hours and hours. The only thing I remember from those discussions is a dictum that arose from within me one day, unbidden, yet fully formed, when we were talking about what it meant to be a radical: “To be a radical is to be forever unsatisfied with the content of history, yet reconciled to the process of history.” This attitude will be familiar to readers of VFR from the phenomenon here oft noted, of the fact that liberals understand there to be no limit, no stopping point, to the process of social reform. What has happened and is now happening, however many improvements there might have been, is totally unsatisfactory, and awaits the incipient onset of a gnostic New Age, in which every sordid thing that has come before will be repudiated and destroyed. Nevertheless, however, the ugly things that are happening now are the birth pangs of that New Age, and since birth is painful, it is to be expected that the process should make most of us quite uncomfortable (and even, many of us, dead); yet for the sake of that glorious New Age, we should not chafe at our discomforts of ugliness, but rather shoulder them cheerfully, happy with the way things are tending. That’s a radical: forever unhappy with things as they are, while delighted with the endless evolutionary/revolutionary process of history as it works its way toward a new utopian order.
It strikes me that this dictum is just as applicable to Traditionalist radicals as it is to those of the Left, albeit along a diametrically different vector; for the Traditionalist sees history as having Fallen from a Golden Age, and tending toward an ultimate, inescapable eschatological catastrophe, while the Leftist sees it as going the opposite direction. As pessimists about the prospects for a merely human project of saving the world, Traditionalists are more apt to respect and cherish the beauties it has so far produced, that are in the nature of things always eventually lost to the flux of time, and skeptical about their “new, improved” replacements. Until the Enlightenment, such was the prevalent attitude—the traditional attitude—in all cultures and throughout history. The hope added thereto by the Christian Gospel, of an ultimate, permanent, and total redemption of history at the eschaton, completed that vision, healing and correcting the despair that it had recommended to men, and nerving them to the creation of new and sublime creaturely beauties: cathedrals, songs, voyages, poems, discoveries, philosophies, enterprises of all kinds.
Our job then—indeed our duty—as Traditionalist radicals is, to name the uglinesses now pervading our world, not surrendering to despair thereat, but rather rejoicing nonetheless in the marvelous and orderly beauty that still, always, nevertheless surrounds us, and determined to enact such new beauties as may be within our poor powers. We are all of us engaged throughout our lives in a steady progress toward our own personal holocausts, in which every good thing we have loved will be immolated. Yet we may have confidence that, as all of history is an instrument and expression of Beauty Himself, so must that Beauty which is the source of all things eventually, utterly prevail in and through all things. We may therefore—indeed, we should—make our way toward our common doom, singing and rejoicing, if only to adorn this world’s everlasting resurrection. For, thanks to the Divine omniscience, no worldly good can fail of resurrection in the life to come.
And that, in the final analysis, is why we humans have children, and want to have children. It is why we want to preserve them, and to preserve our culture, and our lives. It is why we are ordered toward reproduction, survival, prosperity, enjoyment. Mere death makes all these things vain, empty, stupid. If death were the end of the story, none of these things would be worth doing, much; so that as our culture has come to believe in the ultimate finality of death, it has done less and less of them. But if death is not the end of the story, and the goods of this world are destined to permanent life in the world to come, then all these vital pleasures are objectively and immensely important—not all-important, to be sure, not first things, but important nonetheless.
What then ought we to do about the death of our culture? Do what is good, and beautiful, and virtuous. Nothing will be wasted, no good thing forever lost; everything will be remembered, and accounted for. From the good and virtuous things that we engender—children, mostly, but also our work, our charity, our thought, our art—something appropriate will arise. We may trust in that.
Kristor beautifully reminds us of the Christian hope and offers sage advice on how we may act as instruments through which the Lord transfigures the world into his perfected creation. Moreover, I found it more than a little ironic that Kristor begins his comment, “Back in 1973, when I was a teenaged commie,” in a thread about the hellish trajectory of the modern West. If a Communist can become what Kristor is now, then anything is possible! But, of course, we have always known this. The hagiographies of the saints remind us over and over of the power of repentance and of the transformation that God affects upon men and women who allow him to do so. Mary of Egypt and Moses the Black come to mind.
I had a friend in college who was raised in an extraordinarily pious Roman Catholic family. His mother appeared to me as the very incarnation of the traditional Catholic maternal presence. His parents and siblings would continually pray together; road trips would be opportunities to say the rosary as a family. Very Catholic! Then, one day, my friend told me about his parents’ youth. His mother was a radical feminist in college, rebellious against traditional society and the Church. The Lord works many wonders, and the human mind may be surprisingly resilient in struggling for truth in the midst of lies. Given such examples, it is reasonable to hope for the salvation of our civilization in time and not only in the eschaton.
Auster frequently addresses the Darwinian question on his View from the Right, but a tangential post from a few days ago caught my eye. In it, the ever insightful commentator Kristor elaborates on the Bonaventuran distinction between apprehension and comprehension:
When we speak of knowing something, we may mean either that we apprehend, or that we comprehend. To apprehend is, literally, to “grasp at or toward.” To comprehend is to “grasp together.” Apprehension happens when we know of something, but do not understand it; we can touch it, but it escapes our grasp. Comprehension happens when we know of something and have some understanding of it; when we are able to wrap our minds around it.
So, then: we can apprehend that there is—that there must logically be—something outside our world, and greater, for only thus could there be a context, a way, a receptacle in which the world could come to be. We may come to understand certain things about that transcendent reality. But only a few things, and them but dimly. We cannot ever understand it in its fullness, or even come close. There is no way to grasp him, who has our whole world in his grasp.
The only sorts of things it is possible for us to comprehend are those that are lesser than we. These we may encompass. Part of the reason we have theories about the world is that the theories are small and intellectually manageable, as compared with the complex concrete realities to which they refer. The theories are smaller than we are. The realities to which they refer never, ever are.
To apprehend something without understanding it, is to be confronted with mystery. Sometimes we can dispel the mystery a bit by our own efforts. Our understanding may even be good enough to give us great power. But no matter how deeply we plumb a phenomenon, howsoever humble, we can never find its bottom. Take a pebble. What is it? What is its complete, exhaustive description? The answer cannot be completed, even in an infinite span of time. Nicholas Rescher points out that the number of true statements that can be made about anything is infinite; and Gödel proved that no self-consistent answer to any question can ever be completed. Thus the more one learns about something—about anything—the more one learns that there is more to learn about it. Think of something homely and familiar—say, knitting, or model railroading. One could never get to the bottom of them, never finish them, never express all their beauties. Every concrete actuality is infinitely deep.
And the reason this must be so is not far to seek; for every instance of definite being must necessarily arise in the context of, and as a derivate of, the limitless indefinite. Being as such is the necessary prerequisite and source of every particular being. Reality is infinitely deep, because its depths are in the fathomless abyss of God. So, a pebble is as rooted in God, and as full of his presence and expressive of his glory, as the highest seraph. One of the reasons scientists—even the atheists among them—do science is that, in delving into the depths of the real, they apprehend that glory, wonder and power at the root of all things. Depth calls to depth.
No matter what it grasps at, knowledge never suffices to its object. Only being suffices; for a being can suffice to itself, indeed must do so if it is actually to be. The only way to comprehend a thing fully, then, is to open oneself to it and make oneself a part of it, to partake in it. Comprehension is trans-rational, trans-cognitive. It happens when we allow ourselves to be comprehended by something larger than we are.
Such is worship. It is effected by sacrifice.
Curiously, as mystics all tell us, in the utter turn of the soul to God is delivered a full comprehension of all lesser things.
It seems to follow, then, that progress toward knowledge is an infinite activity wherein we come to know more and more what we apprehend. We never exhaustively comprehend eternal truths, but we conform our minds to being as we continue to understand it better. Only God comprehends completely.
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?
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.
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 . . .
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.
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
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
: 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
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
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
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.
Maverick Philosopher has a post this week on the common atheistic case against God that asks how evil could exist in a world governed by God: “Gratuitous Evil and Begging the Question: Does LAFE Beg the Question?” As always, it is a joy to read Maverick Philosopher, who writes clearly and logically about important matters.
I have never understood why people find the “Auschwitz argument” so convincing. It just does not make sense. The problem of evil should trouble us greatly, but the problem presupposes a good God. Without a benevolent, omnipotent God, there really is no problem of evil. Evil is then just another fact of reality—a constituent and condition among others. It is only when we come to hold that the nature of being is good that we confront the problem of evil. As such, we Platonists, Jews, Christians, and other adherents of the world’s fundamental goodness must address theodicy, yet such is a very different problem from the atheistic case against God based on the presence of evil in the world.
Fr. John Zuhlsdorf recently mentioned a Latin phrase on his WDTPRS site that merits mentioning here: Qui Bene Distinguit, Bene Docet. It is a repeated lesson from the masters’ works throughout the centuries—and for good reason.
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.
I found a funny site called the Random Mutation Generator, which allows you to “Do your own Darwinian Evolution experiments.” The generator randomly mutates text. The default example is the classic, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” From there, let us see the generator arrive at a line from Shakespeare.
Of course, the Darwinian minded will say that given enough time and instantiations, we should expect to see something coherent come to be. I have always found this argument curious in that it appears to me to be willfully blind to the point of probability. Normally, we concern ourselves with probabilities to indicate not the field of the possible, no matter how unlikely, but rather the probable and likely. Such statistics are informative about the world; they reveal tendencies of how things are and act. The Darwinian approach to probability is different. Instead of considering probabilities, it rather takes a specific outcome—namely, the living world as it is—and argues that it could have come to be so through random changes with only natural selection as the ordering mechanism.
Imagine that every man in New Zealand stood at his door with a coin heads up on his open palm. It is within the bounds of the possible that such a situation followed a random coin toss by all those New Zealanders. There is nothing contradictory therein. However, it would be extremely improbable. A more sensible explanation would be that the New Zealanders agreed to place the coins heads up on their palms, maybe due to some odd Kiwi cultural quirk. Neither explanation involves a contradiction, but only one strikes the normal person as reasonable. Our minds appreciate probability; for the world typically follows predictable patterns.
The Darwinian seems to assess evolution as one who thinks that the New Zealanders had a simultaneous coin toss that resulted in all pieces heads up. For he presumes that order comes from chaos when the extremes of possibility are entertained. Even without criticizing the metaphysical problems with attributing explanatory power to randomness, this presumption defies good sense. Order does not arise from chaos, a chimpanzee pecking at a typewriter is not going to compose Hamlet, and the amazing order that we see in life comes not to be through random mutations. To be fair to the Darwinians, they do offer natural selection as an ordering principle. Yet, natural selection only “works” with the random mutations provided; it does not determine or guide which mutations occur. As such, natural selection as an explanatory principle for the emergence of prevalent traits in particular environments is totally convincing. It makes sense, and it is observable. Given the diversity of a population, it is easy to see how certain traits would be advantageous in certain circumstances. Yet, we must keep in mind the probabilities involved in random mutations occurring at just the right times and places and numbers to explain the evolution of all life, and to me such appears absurd.
Besides acknowledging the creative power of God, I have no idea what forces have driven the evolution of life. In other words, I do not know how the divine creative power manifests in the genealogy of life. Given what little I know of genetic research, I suspect that there is some sort of biological force of which we are still ignorant. Consider the following. Before the discovery of the weak and strong nuclear forces, we could not explain the structural behavior of the atom. The atomic level could not behave as things on the planetary scale in a Newtonian world, with gravity as the determining force, or atoms would not be able to retain their structures given their interactions. Hence, we discovered that other forces are present in matter. Similarly, it seems that another such force may exist that would explain evolution from a “horizontal” perspective. Are we on the edge of witnessing another scientific paradigm shift to one wherein teleology complements mechanism? Dare I say that it is probable?