Friday, January 27, 2006

Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

Tomorrow is the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas. I'd wanted to do something nice on this blog for the occasion, particularly since I missed it last year to go to a wedding; but the last weekend in January seems always to be a bad time for me. I'll be gone tomorrow (for another wedding). In any case, a few links.

Corpus Thomisticum

Thomas Aquinas in English: A Bibliography

St. Thomas Aquinas by G. K. Chesterton (essay)

St. Thomas Aquinas by G. K. Chesterton (book)

Thomism Links

Jacques Maritain Center

Essays in Existential Thomism

Lublin Thomism (a.k.a. Personalist Thomism)

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any convenient topic-specific website for Analytic Thomism (Haldane, Stump), Transcendental Thomism (Marechal, Lonergan), or Process Thomism (Clarke).

The Offended Consciousness

I jotted this down some time ago; it's a sketch of one particular way in which people claim to be rational without showing it.

The offended consciousness obsesses about the reading of others, considering it dishonest because it cannot conceive of another way to read: it must regard their reading as bad reading because they contradict its own invested opinion. It apes and caricatures, and the principles it uses to denigrate the truth are stolen from the truth; and this theft is the honesty on which it prides itself.

Wounded by the truth it makes up a tale, a just-so story, by which the scandalous truth can be tamed; it explains away by arbitrary fiat: this is due to fear, that is due to craving; this is due to vanity, that is due to hatred. As the wounded animal strikes out without reason, so the offended consciousness strikes out, contradicting not with argument but with clumsy reversal, like an angry child on the playground: "Your love is hate, your benevolence malice, your good bad."

To learn from what offends it is not its way; to be made stronger in honing itself against what scandalizes it is beyond it. The offended consciousness does one thing only: it flees, scorching the earth and poisoning the wells behind it, excusing itself by saying, "If I faced it, it would magically gain power."

And so it flees, calling out encouragements to other fleeing, desperate, offended consciousnesses: "Do not worry, strong ones! We will slay the foe by insinuations!"

Embittered by paradoxes that only its own offense makes paradoxical, it puffs itself up and runs to hide, saying: "You cannot analyze like I can analyze! That is why I will not face you: my weapons are too subtle for you! They are so subtle they would pass through you without any effect!"

A frightened little boy weeping on the edge of the playground dreams up the same fantasies, consoling his wounded pride with repeated self-exaltation and repeated denigration of those who have more power to do and to be than he has. Unable to undo the wound of offense, the offended consciousness whimpers and snarls and occasionally casts a dart from afar.

Thursday, January 26, 2006


[Note: It occurs to me that I should give a caveat for this. You should read the quiz in Tiemann's commentary first; reading it straight may make some people a bit nauseous. I included it primarily to make the point I make at the end: anyone can claim to be rational; the thing is to show it. And, although Shaftesbury was certainly wrong in saying that ridicule is the test of truth, he was certainly right that, when it makes a clear and defensible point, it is sometimes the most rational defense.]

A very funny Transhumanism quiz (HT: Brian Tiemann at Peeve Farm, who says all that needs to be said in the way of commentary on it). Or rather, it would be funny if it weren't clear that someone takes it seriously; as it is it's rather disturbing. My score:

MEMETIC SHOCK LEVEL 01 (0-4): average. More than a few candles short of Enlightenment. The sheepish, conformist, intellectually lazy masses reign supreme here. Hell's overcrowded livingroom.

And that was interpreting the statements as charitably as I could. Somehow I just couldn't say yes to the claim thatphilosophy is useless for anything but scientific popularization; and, as a useless philosopher who studies the real Enlightenment, I just couldn't affirm the contradictions that libertarianism should be imposed by centralized authority and that rational people believe that there really isn't any such thing as reason; nor, of course, could I accept any of the Nazism or attack on human rights.

This is why I always insist that people can't just claim to be rational; they have to show it discursively by reasoning and civil discourse.

A Juxtaposition

John Chuckman:
Religion does not belong in public life, and Stephen Harper's efforts to drag it in, says a great deal about him to those choosing to listen.

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms:
Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law....

The remarkable thing is that Chuckman takes only three paragraphs before he starts comparing any politician who says "God Bless Canada" to Hitler.

Common-Sense Religion

A very odd article by Daniel Dennett at CHR. I found this passage particularly puzzling:

In Marjoe, the 1972 documentary about the bogus evangelist Marjoe Gortner, we see poor people emptying their wallets and purses into the collection plate, their eyes glistening with tears of joy, thrilled to be getting "salvation" from the charismatic phony. The question that has been troubling me ever since I first saw the film is: Who is committing the more reprehensible act — Gortner, who lies to people to get their money, or the filmmakers who expose the lies (with Gortner's enthusiastic complicity), thereby robbing the good folk of the meaning they thought they had found for their lives?

I haven't seen the movie, so I might be missing something; but obviously lying to people to get their money is a more reprehensible act than exposing lies! What sort of moral priorities would one have to have in order to think otherwise? What sort of absurd candidate for a dilemma is this? Nor does it seem at all parallel to the other dilemmas Dennett notes. And this was funny:

Or are all evangelical preachers just as false as Gortner? Certainly Muslims think so, even though they are generally too discreet to say it. And Roman Catholics think that Jews are just as deluded, and Protestants think that Catholics are wasting their time and energy on a largely false religion, and so forth. All Muslims? All Catholics? All Protestants? All Jews?

But which Muslims? Which Catholics? Which Protestants? In fact, anyone who actually takes the trouble to know anything about Muslims knows that Muslims don't generally think evangelical preachers are as false as deliberate liars; they believe them to be mistaken and confused on certain key things, and right about a lot of other things, namely all the doctrinal views they share in common with Muslims. Ditto with Catholics and Jews; ditto with Protestants and Catholics. This is why it's possible to talk across the boundary between them. Dennett goes on to say we don't know how many there are in each group, those who take extreme views and those who actually take the trouble to recognize similarities and distinctions; but it's only because he places such an emphasis on sincerity that this is even relevant to the argument.

And it isn't actually clear why sincerity is playing such a role in the argument. Sincerity only plays a role in assessment of someone's personal character; it tells us nothing about how we should regard a particular position. Pick any position you choose; whether people sincerely accept that position should have an effect on how you deal with them in particular, and none whatsoever on how you deal with the position. The sincerity of a Nazi just makes him more culpable, and alleviates the Nazism not in the least; the insincerity of someone who speaks the truth does not tarnish truth in the least. Dennett's argument is weird because it's a set of equivocations implying to most of us that our faith that truth is better than falsehood is naive; but the equivocations, the failure to make reasonable distinctions, do nothing toward this end. And this annoys me:

In the adult world of religion, people are dying and killing, with the moderates cowed into silence by the intransigence of the radicals in their own faiths, and many adherents afraid to acknowledge what they actually believe for fear of breaking Granny's heart, or offending their neighbors to the point of getting run out of town, or worse.

Again, the question is, Which moderates? If Dennett knew anything about Muslims, for instance, he would know that Muslim moderates have not been silent about extremists, even in very conservative Muslim countries. And the same could be said for many other cases. Further, Dennett just got through claiming that we can't know how many people are sincere or insincere in their faith; so whence comes the 'many' in "many adherents [are] afraid to acknowledge what they actually believe"?

Another puzzle. Dennett says, "In order to adopt such a moderate position, however, you have to loosen your grip on the absolutes that are apparently one of the main attractions of many religious creeds," but at no point in his argument does he give any reasons to think that this is so. He seems to imply that they are (at least more likely to be) insincere -- being a religious moderate generally requires that you be a hypocrite and have a "systematically masked creed". This is perhaps why Dennett puts such emphasis on sincerity: he sympathizes with moderates but regards them as utter hypocrites, and so agonizes over how he should regard them morally. I suppose it's not an uncommon sort of trouble; I have seen it many times with a certain type of very simple-minded Christian who, thinking that all atheists must be hypocrites to be moral, puzzles over whether he should laud them for being moral or condemn them for being hypocrites.

Another odd passage:

Thanks to technology, what almost anybody can do has been multiplied a thousandfold, but our moral understanding about what we ought to do hasn't kept pace. You can have a test-tube baby or take a morning-after pill to keep from having a baby; you can satisfy your sexual urges in the privacy of your room by downloading Internet pornography, or you can copy your favorite music free instead of buying it; you can keep your money in secret offshore bank accounts or purchase stock in cigarette companies that are exploiting impoverished third-world countries; and you can lay minefields, smuggle nuclear weapons in suitcases, make nerve gas, and drop "smart bombs" with pinpoint accuracy. Also, you can arrange to have $100 a month automatically sent from your bank account to provide education for 10 girls in an Islamic country who otherwise would not learn to read and write, or to benefit 100 malnourished people, or provide medical care for AIDS sufferers in Africa. You can use the Internet to organize citizen monitoring of environmental hazards or to check the honesty and performance of government officials — or to spy on your neighbors. Now, what ought we to do?

These are what Dennett later calls imponderable questions -- whether we ought to fund exploitation of the poor, lay minefields, smuggle nuclear weapons in suitcases, make nerve gases, and drop bombs! And again, the question is: Whose moral understanding hasn't kept pace with technology? And according to what criterion do we determine that moral understanding is or is not keeping pace?

Another odd statement:

That's why those who have an unquestioning faith in the correctness of the moral teachings of their religion are a problem: If they haven't conscientiously considered, on their own, whether their pastors or priests or rabbis or imams are worthy of such delegated authority over their lives, then they are taking a personally immoral stand.

But clearly this involves an implausible diagnosis. People with an unquestioning faith in the correctness of the moral teachings (but which moral teachings?) of their religion aren't necessarily giving pastors/rabbis/imams/priests "delegated authority over their lives"; they are giving the teaching itself moral authority and simply using pastors/priests/rabbis/imams to help them pin down what it is. People often don't delegate much moral authority to pastors and the like; they usually assume that they already know what's moral and what's not, and make use of pastors etc. for things that puzzle them. And they do, in fact, consider on their own whether their pastors etc. are worthy of any authority; because it's a very common phenomenon for people to search out pastors, etc., who already agree with them on the points they consider important, and ignore or condemn those who don't.

Indeed, throughout Dennett makes vague generalizations which he never takes the trouble to clarify or defend; the essay is one long tissue of prejudices and stereotypes from beginning to end. This could have been a tolerable philosophical essay if Dennett had stuck with the theme in his Fred passage, and developed it. It wouldn't have been relevant to much beyond a very simplistic position; but it would have been a respectable argument. But instead of discussing a position, he discusses, in a vague, insinuating way, motives and psychology, without any indication that he needs to show that he is doing more than appealing to stereotypes and prejudices. As it is, Dennett's essay turns out neither to be relevant to much nor to be a respectable argument. Dennett says that deeply religious people who are rationally oriented will have no difficulty at all with his conclusions; but I think -- and hope -- this is not true, because I think and hope that they would have higher standards of reasoning than Dennett shows in this essay.

(See also Macht's discussion of it at prosthesis.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Bearing Arms

Timothy Sandefur at "Postive Liberty" looks at Akhil Amar's America's Constitution. I've always liked what I've read of Amar's work, so I'll have to get around to reading it at some point. I found particularly interesting Sandefur's summary of Amar's argument about the Second Amendment. The claim that the phrasing of the amendment doesn't suggest individual possession of firearms for self-defense is not right, I think; Blackstone, for instance, explicitly mentions as one of the absolute rights of individuals "the right of having and using arms for self-preservation and defense." There is no obvious way in which Blackstone's "having and using" would be significantly different from the Second Amendment's "keeping and bearing"; or, at least, I'd have to see the argument for it, since, for instance, there's no hint of an especially martial quality to 'bearing arms' in (say) Johnson's Dictionary, whic largely just treats it as a synonym of 'carry'. (But, as Sandefur notes, the Fourteenth Amendment adds another layer anyway.) It is true, though, that self-defense is not the justification given. In this, as in a number of other aspects, the Bill of Rights echoes the Virginia Declaration of Rights -- specifically, the beginning of section xiii:

That a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state....

This suggests the probable intended meaning of the Second Amendment: The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed because a free state needs a well-regulated militia, which needs people "trained to arms", i.e., who already know how to shoot. Other declarations of rights (e.g., the 1776 Constitution of North Carolina) sometimes give people the right to bear arms for the defense of the State; but Pennsylvania's 1776 Constitution and Vermont's 1777 and 1786 Constitutions explicitly give the people " right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state".

Meinongian Objects

Bill Vallicella at the Maverick Philosopher has a nice post on negative existentials, which is exactly right, I think. I find it interesting, because I've been doing some thinking, off and on, about Meinong and possibilist realism. I don't think Meinongianism is ultimately tenable, but I think it has an undeserved reputation from people who haven't bothered to think it through. For the Meinongian solution to negative existentials -- i.e., that there are nonexistent objects independent of thought -- is a very elegant one. It's usually accused of 'ontological extravagance', but I don't think most people have much of an idea what they mean by phrases like that. There is a straightforward sense in which the Meinongian solution is one of the simplest and most elegant solutions to the problem: it allows you to treat everything you can think about in much the same way. It also allows you to take statements such as "Frictionless planes do not exist" at face value by taking them to be statements about the objects frictionless planes; etc. Likewise, it's often said that there is something weird about saying "There are nonexistent objects," since 'there are' (or existential quantification) implies actual existence; but this is actually not plausible, since existential quantification can apply to fictional entities, instrumental posits, idealizations, etc. -- in short, many things that don't actually exist -- and it is almost impossible to avoid applying it in this way. The Meinongian is not actually proposing something strange in suggesting that nonexistent objects subsist even though they do not exist; or, at least, there is nothing strange about the bare fact that he proposes it, whatever difficulties there may be in being clear about what subsistence is. The ability to talk about modal truths without appeal to the very roundabout and complicated appartus of possible worlds is a potential advantage as well. In other words, the common tendency (among philosophers like myself who haven't studied the matter closely) to dismiss Meinongianism as an obvious absurdity is itself problematic; it seems usually to be based more on a sense of disquiet than on any serious reasons. (Vallicella has pointed out elsewhere that one serious reason to doubt Meinongianism is that it seems to mess up the Cartesian cogito: if Meinong is right, it is possible that I think but do not exist. He also presents an interesting Roycean argument that love and self-love give us another serious reason to reject Meinong's claim, which is well worth reading.)

For my part, I incline toward Buridan's position (see Gyula Klima's excellent paper, Quine, Wyman, and Buridan: Three Approaches to Ontological Commitment (PDF)).

UPDATE: Vallicella notices a point on which I didn't get Meinong quite right (the existence/subsistence distinction) -- always a danger for someone who has only done some light reading in a given philosopher. Conventional wisdom always wriggles into the interpretation; and in interpreting philosophical works it's astounding how often conventional wisdom is wrong.

Parshley Translation

I originally had this as a section of a post below, but on further thought I've decided to give it its own post.

UPDATE: Thanks to Sharon for turning me on to a post on "Alas, a blog" about the English translation of The Second Sex. It's possible to exaggerate the problems with Parshley's translation, but there does need to be a new translation. Not only does Parshley need to be corrected in places, particularly where philosophical terminology is used, but Parshley's translation is actually a translation and abridgement. Beauvoir's complete text has never been translated into English. Unfortunately (which I wasn't aware of) the reason there has been no improved translation is a misuse of copyright protection. There is, however, an online petition to the publisher to change this state of affairs. (At my signing there were 426 signatures total.) In the meantime, I'm working on a post that's an example of just how clearly a new translation is needed: I want to say something about Beauvoir's adaptation of Hegelian theory, which is very cool, but Parshley doesn't translate the Hegelianism very well, and so there's some difficulty, since even for a short post I have to compensate somewhat for the failings of the translation.

Christian Carnival CVI

The 106th Christian Carnival is up at Technogipsy. It's the St. Isaac of Syria edition. I submitted my post on Obadiah. I found the post at "dokeo kago grapho soi kratistos Theophilos" on the Sign of Jonah to be particularly interesting. I was delighted to see a post on Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of the best-written science fiction novels of all time, about the faith that carries hope. It's a work that's filled with fascinating ambiguities.

Notes for Noting and Links for Thinking

* There is some interesting discussion of principles of rational requirement at Philosophy, etc., in two posts: A Paradox for Subjective Rationality and Disjunctive Requirements. The latter is a particularly useful introduction to the difference between a wide-scope disjunctive requirement and a narrow-scope disjunctive requirement -- a slight difference that makes a lot of difference.

* The Bible and Graphic Novels: A Review and Interview with the Authors of "Marked" and "Megillat Esther" at SBL Forums (HT: NT Gateway). The Megillat Esther graphic novel, by JT Waldman, looks like it might be awesome.

* Canon lawyer Edward Peters has an interesting post that shows how important it is to keep a distinction between parish and diocese when handling liability obligations arising from clerical sexual misconduct. To put it very roughly it involves forcing victims to pay (collectively) for settlements given to the victims (individually).

* An interesting discussion by Stephen Carlson of the application of phylogenetic techniques to manuscript traditions: New Testament Stemmatics

* Art and Images Related to the Book of Revelation

* A taste of Benedict XVI's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est:

Nowadays Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed. Yet the contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Eros, reduced to pure “sex”, has become a commodity, a mere “thing” to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man's great “yes” to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will. Nor does he see it as an arena for the exercise of his freedom, but as a mere object that he attempts, as he pleases, to make both enjoyable and harmless. Here we are actually dealing with a debasement of the human body: no longer is it integrated into our overall existential freedom; no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere. The apparent exaltation of the body can quickly turn into a hatred of bodiliness.

* An interesting post on Newman's dedication of the Oxford University Sermons to Dean Church, at "Zadok the Roman"

* A nice little article on critical thinking that can be applied outside its specific domain: Critical Thinking for the Military Professional, by Col. W. Michale Guillot at Chronicles Online Journal, the online companion to Air & Space Power Journal.

* A nice online logic puzzle game: Inspector Parker. It's fairly simple, but whiles away the time quite dangerously.

* There is an interesting discussion, with lots of comments, on national inefficiencies at Crooked Timber. I think that what the comments show is that 'inefficiency' in this sort of context means absolutely nothing without a precise goal in mind. On the sales tax issue: I prefer that the sales tax not be included in the labeled price. It makes more clear , and people are perhaps more likely to think through their priorites in voting on sales taxes or supporting/opposing sales taxes if they have a clear sense of the difference the sales tax is already making. But the real reason it tends not to be done, I think, is that people (quite rightly, I think) tend to regard taxes as something superadded: it is an additional imposition. An acceptable imposition, but an additional one. They don't want taxes factored into the labeled price, because they don't consider the after-tax price to be the correct price. Rather, it's the correct price plus the government's mite. And it must be noted that there's nothing wrong or irrational about this way of looking at it. On tipping the U.S. doesn't seem particularly unusual, since Canada's expectations are much the same. In Atlantic Canada, by all accounts, tipping expectations are much greater than in the U.S.: their idea is that you should be tipping anyone who makes minimum wage or close to it. So if you go into Tim Horton's for a coffee in Nova Scotia the expectation is that you will not only pay for the coffee but that you will tip the people who work there. (But it's still your choice, not theirs.) On metric, it's noteworthy, by the way, that Canada is a good example of conversion to metric that never quite worked. Partly because it's next door to the U.S., and partly because Canadians tend to have similar views to Americans on this point (with the occasional additional, "If it was good enough for the British Empire, it's good enough for me"), the attempt to convert to metric has just led to Canadian measurements being a mess. It's not uncommon for a Canadian to measure his height in feet, his sports distances in metric, his travel distances in metric, long distances that aren't travel distances in miles, short distances in yards, lumber in feet, very short distances in centimeters, the weight of bananas in metric, his own weight in pounds, temperatures in Celsius (usually) &c. Among common measures only speeds are consistently measured in metric. I'm even told that while houses are technically designed in metric, they aren't built in it. But -- and this is really the only thing that matters -- Canadians don't have much trouble handling it at all. You have to learn different scales of measurement for all sorts of things anyway, even in metric, so the gain of an all-metric system would be relatively small. It's not as if you're actually coming up with a new and simple scale that would usably cover weight, length, temperature, and speed indifferently. That would be a gain in efficiency worth having in everyday life. If the U.S. converted it would inevitably be more like Canada in its conversion than the ideal metric enthusiasts always have in their head.
UPDATE: It's also noteworthy that the advantages in mental computation provided by metric are often exaggerated. Metric's primary advantage occurs if you do work that requires a lot of decimal changes. If you work in fractions (e.g., if you do work in which it's useful to divide things in half) you tend not to think in metric terms anyway. And for weather temperatures, Fahrenheit is a more convenient scale for precisely the reason Celsius is often lauded: on a Fahrenheit scale, really hot weather temperatures are near 100 and really cold weather temperatures are near 0. The convenience or efficiency of one or the other just depends on where you put the emphasis.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Canada Goes Blue

In Canada, the Conservatives beat the Liberals, sweeping the prairie and making modest gains in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces to form a minority government with 124 seats. Stephen Harper is the 22nd prime minister of Canada. Canadian policy will probably not change much; the basic Conservative platform this time was to take steps to eliminate corruption in Canadian government, to reduce taxes, and to crack down on crime. Canada will almost certainly pull out of Kyoto; Kyoto has a lot of support in Canada, but with typical Canadian inconsistency only vague and incomplete efforts were ever made to find ways for Canada to comply with it.

I think the major changes won't be for Canada but for the Conservatives; this is the first government for the party in its current form, which is only a bit more than two years old. It's a re-formation of the old Tories out of its two major fragments, the Progressive Conservatives and the Reform Party (later Canadian Alliance); the two conservatisms have tended to be very different, and have sometimes not liked each other at all. This government, I think, will be crucial for the Conservatives, to show their credibility as a governing party and their ability to act as a unified party.

Monday, January 23, 2006

A Poem Second Draft

This is a revised draft of a poem draft I'd already posted. It's unusual; I don't usually post later drafts, just earlier ones, partly because I don't usually get beyond the first. But here's a second, and for the first time. Got that? You can compare it to the original. The allusion, of course, is to The Bacchae of Euripides

The Bacchae

When the god of wine and revel
made dizzy the city's prince,
the omens darkly muttered
with a strange malevolence.

But the king kept to his folly;
he was slain by the godly bull
and carried home in his mother's arms.
Amen: the gods are cruel.

You are proud in your ways, O mortals!
Better to make oneself to mourn
than to march through mocking Theban streets
to where the beasts are torn.

You are vain with the vain cosmetics
by which you hide your soul;
you boast of your civic order,
but destruction is your goal.

You speak the name of Justice?
But Justice moves like a sword
to slit the throats of mortals
with a fate no charm can ward.

And when your life is over --
when we see the path you've trod --
we will see not boasted glory,
but the mocking of the god.

Beauvoir's Positive Side

Simone de Beauvoir has received a great deal of criticism over the years -- some of it quite justified -- for being excessively negative about the status of women: a great many people who have read The Second Sex have come away with the impression, easy to get, that her argument really implies, despite her occasional contrary statements, that women are doomed, and will never cease to be oppressed, because every liberatory move they could possibly make is tainted by prior definitions of Self and Other. But Beauvoir has a positive side that shows up here and there, and that, had she developed it a bit more, would give a very different picture. Some notable passages:

An authentic love should assume the contingence of the other; that is to say, his lacks, his limitations, and his basic gratuitousness. It would not pretend to be a mode of salvation, but a human interrelation. Idolatrous love attributes an absolute value to the loved one, a first falsity that is brilliantly apparent to all outsiders. (ch. xxiii)

Genuine love ought to be founded on mutual recognition of two liberties; the lovers would them experience themselves as self and as other: neither would give up transcendence, neither would be mutilated; together they would manifest values and aims in the world. For the one and the other, love would be revelation of self by the gift of self and enrichment of the world. (ch. xxiii)

[Discussing transcendence in the case of men] It is possible to rise above this conflict if each individual freely recognizes the other, each regarding himself and the other simultaneously as object and as subject in a reciprocal manner. But friendship and generosity, which alone permit in actuality this recognition of free beings, are not facile virtues; they are assuredly man's highest achievement, and through that achievement he is to be found in his true nature. But this true nature is that of a struggle unceasingly begun, unceasingly abolished; it requires a man to outdo himself at every moment. (ch. ix)

See also the passage I quoted in a previous post from the conclusion of the book. Passages like these, although fragmentary and scattered, give us hints of a very attractive path to liberation: friendship and generosity, honesty and mutual recognition, between men and women but (just as importantly, since the last passage is primarily discussing interactions among men alone) between women. This is a side of Beauvoir's feminism, however rarely glimpsed in The Second Sex, that needs to be more widely recognized.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Self-Deception and Belief Formation

An interesting post on Self-Deception and the Problem with Religious Belief Formation at "Philosophy Talk". In a sense it's a rather odd argument; the post, on close analysis, doesn't tell us anything about religious belief formation in general, but only provides a self-critique of the author's own earlier not-particularly-rational response to liturgical formation. I'm glad such a self-critique is out there, though, because these irrational responses do arise when (for instance) people take lines out of the liturgy out of context, or take no trouble to make an inquiry into their meaning or the reasoning behind them. In the particular case noted, it's clear that interpreting the line as a 'vilification of unbelievers' is a very strained interpretation that won't survive much critical examination. For one, thing the line isn't about unbelievers in general; it's about those who partake in communion without believing in the doctrinal principles that ground the practice. Further, the line doesn't stand on its own; in fact, it's version of a verse from 1 Corinthians 11, as a little research would show anyone:

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.

And, recognizing this context, we can see that the author's contention that 'judgment' here implies damnation is simply absurd. Since the author grew up in a Reformed church, a little look at Calvin is perhaps worth our time:

If you would wish to use aright the benefit afforded by Christ, bring faith and repentance. As to these two things, therefore, the trial [i.e., the self-examination] must be made, if you would come duly prepared. Under repentance I include love; for the man who has learned to renounce himself, that he may give himself up wholly to Christ and his service, will also, without doubt, carefully maintain that unity which Christ has enjoined. At the same time, it is not a perfect faith or repentance that is required, as some, by urging beyond due bounds, a perfection that can nowhere be found, would shut out for ever from the Supper every individual of mankind. If, however, thou aspirest after the righteousness of God with the earnest desire of thy mind, and, trembled under a view of thy misery, dost wholly lean upon Christ's grace, and rest upon it, know that thou art a worthy guest to approach the table -- worthy I mean in this respect, that the Lord does not exclude thee, though in another point of view there is something in thee that is not as it ought to be. For faith, when it is but begun, makes those worthy who were unworthy.

Throughout, here and elsewhere in discussing this passage, Calvin puts the emphasis on self-examination: Christians are not to partake of the bread and the cup without first examining themselves to determine whether they believe, as their fellow Christians do, in the body of Christ, and repent of any sins they may have. And Calvin is very clear about the reason for this: those who don't are making themselves into hypocrites, inclining themselves to treat important things (such as the unity of the Church expressed in communion) as unimportant, and inculcating self-deception. And Calvin's view, allowing for different emphases, is very common.

I think in some places the author is either being a bit disingenuous or hasn't thought through properly the way pedagogy actually works. Nobody criticizes medical students, for instance, on the grounds that making up little rhymes and rote memorization is a bad method of 'belief formation' about anatomy; the point of such things is not to induce belief but to aid memory, clarify details, and make belief practically useful. So with much song and chant and the whole schebang of liturgy and devotional life. And the author clearly never took any trouble to make a serious inquiry into the Reformed doctrine of faith, since his account of what was meant by faith is not even recognizably Reformed. So the lesson here to be learned is that it is not enough simply to listen; one must take this as a beginning and then take the trouble to inquire and learn. If we don't take this initiative, the author is quite right that our 'belief formation' will be irrational. This will be true for any field of thought, religious or not.

Jerome Against the Luciferians

Clicking around the web, I came across one of the classics of the anti-Arian debate: Jerome's Dialogue Against the Luciferians, at New Advent. It's an important source for the pre-history of Nicene orthodoxy. It's a good discourse, too, although not quite as exciting as the title makes it sound: 'Lucifer', of course, is a perfectly respectable Latin name, and the Luciferians in the question are the followers of a bishop named Lucifer. Lucifer was excessively zealous against Arianism (in particular, he refused to regard any formerly Arian bishops as legitimately ordained). To which Jerome rightly replies:

It is not the sheep only who abide in the Church, nor do clean birds only fly to and fro there; but amid the grain other seed is sown, "amidst the neat corn-fields burrs and caltrops and barren oats lord it in the land." What is the husbandman to do? Root up the darnel? In that case the whole harvest is destroyed along with it. Every day the farmer diligently drives the birds away with strange noises, or frightens them with scarecrows: here he cracks a whip, there he spreads out some other object to terrify them. Nevertheless he suffers from the raids of nimble roes or the wantonness of the wild asses; here the mice convey the corn to their garners underground, there the ants crowd thickly in and ravage the corn-field. Thus the case stands. No one who has land is free from care. While the householder slept the enemy sowed tares among the wheat, and when the servants proposed to go and root them up the master forbade them, reserving for himself the separation of the chaff and the grain. There are vessels of wrath and of mercy which the Apostle speaks of in the house of God. The day then will come when the storehouses of the Church shall be opened and the Lord will bring forth the vessels of wrath; and, as they depart, the saints will say, "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us." No one can take to himself the prerogative of Christ, no one before the day of judgment can pass judgment upon men. If the Church is already cleansed, what shall we reserve for the Lord? "There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death." When our judgment is so prone to error, upon whose opinion can we rely?