Friday, August 24, 2007

The Dark Night of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu

There has been some discussion of this article on Mother Teresa. I don't really have all that much to say on it; it's old news. See here and here for discussions in 2003.

Upon my bed at night
I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no answer.
"I will rise now and go about the city,
in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves."
I sought him, but found him not.
The sentinels found me,
as they went about in the city.
"Have you seen him whom my soul loves?"

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Paine and The Age of Reason

James Hrynshyn has a post in which he notes a passage in which Christopher Hitchens defends his rhetoric in God Is Not Great by appeal to Thomas Paine.

I think I see what Hitchens is getting at, but the passage seems written in a confusing way that might easily be misunderstood. The work of Paine's that was tremendously influential was not The Age of Reason, but Common Sense. CS was published in 1776, whereas (as a commenter notes) AR was not published until well after all the fundamentals of the U.S. system of government were worked out and in place. CS notably does not have any virulent criticism of religion; it spends a good deal of one chapter, for instance, arguing that the Bible does not support monarchy as a form of government, in order to persuade those who would appeal to the Bible as an authority in the case.

Tracing influences is tricky, but I'm inclined to think the truth of the matter is this: AR quickly became a classic for freethinkers, but it had relatively little influence outside the circle of people who already agreed with it; it was for a short while very widely read in America, and one of the causes of a small, and very temporary, deistic revival. And it was well-liked by enough freethinkers that they kept in publication. But for the most part its result, both immediate and long-term, was to force almost everyone sympathetic to Paine's overall views to distance themselves from him because of his rhetoric. And most of what influence it did have in the wider world may have had little to do with its rhetoric and a great deal to do with sympathy for Richard Carlile, the clever book publisher who was put on trial for publishing the work and used the trial as advertising. Common criticisms of the work from freethinkers and non-freethinkers alike included: (a)despite Paine's intelligence, he simply showed in the work that he didn't have sufficient knowledge of religion to present a criticism of it worth taking seriously; and (b) it showed more dogmatism than reasoning; and (c) it was lopsided and tendentious, ignoring contrary evidence and alternative interpretations. Hmmm, perhaps Hitchens is right to regard Paine as a predecessor, since those criticisms sound familiar....

Paine is certainly a deist; but I don't think it's quite correct to say his deism is 'nebulous', as Hrynshyn does. (There is a tendency to conjoin automatically 'deism' with the adjective 'nebulous', for some reason; I'm not sure why. But not all deists are fairly characterized as 'nebulous'.) He's actually very specific about a great many theological issues; he speaks at great length, in lyrical language of the design argument, of which he is one of the period's most passionate defenders. It is perhaps notable, incidentally, that Paine is very explicit as to the reasons he is attacking the Christian churches so fiercely in AR; and one of the reasons is that he thinks they are proposing a view of the world that is very close to being atheistic ("as near to atheism as twilight is to darkness" as he puts it in one place). There is a certain irony in Hitchens appealing to Paine as an ancestor given that Paine's rhetoric was inspired in part by an intense loathing of anything that he thought suggestive of atheism. Christianity was too much like atheism because it had too much man and not enough God, too much politics and not enough awed reverence before the Author and Designer of creation. AR, indeed, is not put forward primarily as an attack on organized religion, but as an expression of faith in God, a faith that would brook no hypocrisy or mental lying; he makes this clear in the book, and was clear again when discussing the book with others (e.g., in letters to Samuel Adams).

Sophie and Moral Dilemmas

Charles Larmore has a good review of Alasdair MacIntyre's The Tasks of Philosophy (vol. 1 & 2). In the course of discussing MacIntyre's view of moral dilemmas, he says:

What about "Sophie's choice", for instance? It is not essentially through any fault of her own that she finds herself confronted with having to choose which of her two children she will save from slaughter by the Nazis. Nor will it do to say that her duty is clear and that she should save one of them even if she cannot save both. For choosing one means attributing greater value to that child's life than to the other's, which is contrary to all conscience, whereas choosing not to choose entails giving them both up to execution. Whatever she does, she does a horrible wrong.

I'm inclined to think this is the wrong way to characterize it. Whatever Sophie does, the Nazis do a horrible wrong; the problem Sophie faces is, on the contrary, the prudential one of how to limit that to the limited extent she can. She herself does nothing wrong unless she chooses an immoral means of doing this. Choosing one child over the other will be a heart-rending decision, but it will not mean "attributing greater value to that child's life than to the other's"; if it did, the choice would still be difficult, but Sophie would just be choosing the one she values most, as she might if the choice were not between her children but between a husband and a stranger, or between her own child and another's child. There is nothing contrary to conscience about such a choice. What makes this choice so difficult is that it is not such a situation at all; the agonizing feature is that she values both equally, because they are both her children, and so she has to make a terrible prudential judgment in which lives are at stake. Sophie's dilemma is arguably not a moral dilemma at all, in the sense we usually use the term; it is an unbearable dilemma, a tragic choice. No matter what path she takes, one can only pity her having to make it, not condemn the choice itself, which is a sign that this is not a moral dilemma of the right sort.

So I think. How about you?

[ADDED LATER: David Corfield has pointed out to me a number of weaknesses in the review that I had overlooked on first reading, so perhaps the weakness here is simply a symptom of a broader failure in the review.]

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Heretics and Trusters of Heretics

If, Honoratus, a heretic and a man trusting heretics seemed to me one and the same, I should judge it my duty to remain silent both in tongue and pen in this matter. But now, whereas there is a very great difference between these two: forasmuch as he, in my opinion, is an heretic, who, for the sake of some temporal advantage, and chiefly for the sake of his own glory and pre-eminence, either gives birth to, or follows, false and new opinions; but he, who trusts men of this kind, is a man deceived by a certain imagination of truth and piety.

Augustine, On the Profit of Believing.

It seems a simple enough distinction, but it is remarkable how rarely people recognize the difference between someone perversely in error and someone in error because of "a certain imagination of truth and piety"; and this is not only true in theological and religious matters.

Notes Upon Notes

* Mark Lilla has an interesting discussion in the NY Times on political theology, from his new book, The Stillborn God (ht). It makes for interesting reading, and there are some important things right in the discussion. I'm a little unclear, though, about what he means by 'political theology'. There are a number of different things that could be intended by such a phrase: the politics of someone with a religious perspective; providential history, i.e., a theological account of the human race through time; civil theology, i.e., the political form of natural theology, which is supposed to be a sort of metaphysical foundation for politics (a fairly standard example of which is found in the Declaration of Independence); religious law insofar as it touches on political matters; or a revelation-based theology of politics. They are all radically different. I have difficulty determining which of these Lilla has primarily in mind, since he seems to mean now one, now another. But this may be due in part to the fact that we only get a selection of the argument here.

Gabriel McKee at "SF Gospel" has some critical discussion of Lilla's article, and makes a number of good points.

* Carnivalesque 30 is up at Recent Finds (with a supplement due to unavoidable problems with getting the edition out).

* Ron McK, in discussing Demand Deposit at "Blessed Economist" has a post on the Bank of Amsterdam in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, noting that it was favorably mentioned by both David Hume and Adam Smith. He quotes the passage from Adam Smith; Hume's mention can be found in Hume's Essay on Money.

* A lot of people have been talking about this paper on bad science in movies (PDF). A few of the examples, though, are stated in ways that just show bad movie-watching. Magneto, for instance, doesn't have to "fuel the magnetic fields"; as anyone who knows anything about the X-Men knows, Magneto doesn't primarily create the magnetic fields (although he does this it has never been clear even in the comics the degree to which he is able to do it) but manipulates those that already exist (through an unknown process). (With the comics, it is a matter of some dispute the degree to which he can create magnetic fields, in fact; and even those who think he can create immense magnetic fields recognize that he usually just manipulates them.) All the long exposition about calories is not really to the point; and it sticks out in a paper that pompously moans and groans about moviegoers not engaging in critical thinking that it never once seems to have occurred to the authors of the paper that they might be wrong in their characterization of the problem to begin with, when that is obviously one of the most important places in which critical thinking is required.

No doubt this still leaves plenty of issues to quibble about. I suppose you could note that to levitate things you need very strong magnetic fields, and Magneto's primary instrument, the magnetic field of the earth, is very weak in comparison, and that the force required to wrench the bridge free would no doubt have to be very great, and then work out the equations from there. But that, I think, is not so much a serious issue; it's obvious poetic license proportional to what is required by the character in the first place. The real problem with the way Magneto is portrayed is that his powers are always confined to influencing metal. But anyone who can do what Magneto can do with metal should be able to levitate lots of non-metallic things as well, because the magnetic fields would affect their electrons as well. You can levitate a little frog, for instance, with a sufficiently strong magnetic field. You can levitate anything with sufficiently powerful magnetic fields; the only difference between metal and non-metal is that metallic things would be tend, as a rule, to be easier, i.e., you wouldn't need magnetic fields that are as strong. HFML has a good set of introductory pages on diamagnetic levitation. In any case, the real error is in treating magnetic fields as if only metals were affected by them. (It would be understandable, of course, if Magneto preferred metal because (1) it's common; and (2) it's relatively easy to manipulate compared to most non-metallic things in everyday life. But it's clear from the way Magneto has always been characterized that, while not strictly confined to metals, his abilities when metals are not involved are not generally significant.)

And this, I think is the point. 'Bad science' in movies does not consist in the liberties deliberately taken for moving forward the characters and the plot. Those are easily placed under willing suspension of disbelief; if you are going to admit the existence of a man who can without any instruments manipulate magnetic fields on a massive scale, it's silly to fuss about the strength of the field unless the plot really turns on it. You should just shrug your shoulders and enjoy the spectacle, because, as there are no genetic mutants with the ability to manipulate the earth's magnetic field to levitate the Golden Gate Bridge, and as it's obviously an impressive thing to do, nobody is going to start thinking, Hey, it's a piece of cake to levitate the Golden Gate Bridge with magnetic fields. The thing you should worry about is where it might feed into genuinely flawed assumptions (e.g., that magnetic fields don't affect non-metallic things). And the major issue, actually, is that it is often very difficult to pin down the real violation of physics in cases where the story-world is not supposed to be highly realistic, precisely because the event is fictional and there are any number of things one could make up to save the phenomena. In that sense there's no bad science in movies if they are not clearly intended to be realistic; only events likely to result in misleading impressions about the world. And as someone has pointed out somewhere, the reason these exist (when they aren't simply posited for the story) is that widespread scientific confusion exists, not vice versa. Make the facts more generally known, and failure to conform with them will be less tolerated when it is not strictly required by the story; and when they are less tolerated, movies will stop making them.


* People have also been talking about Anne Rice's endorsement of Hillary Clinton as someone she could vote for in good Catholic conscience; although I actually found more interesting her discussion of why she hasn't repudiated her earlier vampire novels, farther down on the same page. In essence, her point is that the books tried to capture a mood that really exists -- alienation and a search for meaning in an apparently meaningless world -- and that they still serve that function; all that has happened as a result of her re-conversion to the Catholic Church is that she has now shifted her interest for future works from alienation to reconciliation.

* PZ Myers and Seed (which hosts ScienceBlogs) are being sued for millions of dollars, for defamation and libel. Timothy Sandefur points out that the suit is dubious on the face of it. (Myers is not currently discussing it, for legal reasons.) But it's unfortunate nonetheless; no one should have to face a hassle like this on such weak grounds. Here's wishing Myers good fortune in the matter, and hoping that this absurd event doesn't interfere too much with his life.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Pop Apocalypse

A distinction can sometimes be made in the apocalypse genre between dark apocalypses and gentle apocalypses; they both exhibit the Final Judgment but in different ways. It's interesting to compare in this regard two of Leonard Cohen's songs from his album The Future: The Future and Closing Time.

"The Future" is a dark apocalypse. In the future mankind has become fundamentally corrupt:

Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul
When they said Repent Repent
I wonder what they meant

It's therefore no surprise that God's judgment is correspondingly harsh:

You don't know me from the wind
you never will, you never did
I'm the little Jew who wrote the Bible
I've seen the nations rise and fall
I've heard their stories, heard them all
but love's the only engine of survival
Your servant here, he has been told
to say it clear, to say it cold:
It's over, it ain't going any further
And now the wheels of heaven stop
you feel the devil's riding crop
Get ready for the future: it is murder.

Mankind is in hell, a hell so terrible that we would rather have the evils we have now; but humanity deserves every bit of the future it has made for itself.

We get a different apocalypse in "Closing Time". There, too, the human race has piled its sins high; there, too, the Final Judgment comes, bringing hell with it. But it's pictured in terms of a drunken humanity getting busted by the cops because "the Boss don't like these dizzy heights." And the tone is one of sad resignation:

And I loved you when our love was blessed
and I love you now there's nothing left
but sorrow and a sense of overtime
and I missed you since the place got wrecked
And I just don't care what happens next
looks like freedom but it feels like death
it's something in between, I guess
it's closing time.

It's closing time; the drunks are all being thrown out of the bar. It's hell; but hell here is almost a relief, something like death but also like freedom, because the party has gone on too long anyway.

Some More Poem Drafts


The clouds grow dark; they grumble, crash;
the tongues of storm, those sparks of light,
charge recklessly across the clouds,
bolts on black that break the night,
form cracks and creases in the mind,
each strike a clarity-imposing fire.
Winds hurl the world with the world's own force,
rush and roar, with wildness inspire
the rain that pours, the thought that streams.
No shield can ward these flooding showers,
the endless drops that drip from heaven,
each drop a wish upon the streets.
Those wishes wash my words away.
The rain-swept world is drenched in silence.
The clouds alone still have their say:


Fan-blades blur translucent,
so swiftly do they spin;
even so the innocent
have a swifter rate of sin.


Hope is a strange thing.
It leaps from the skies,
softly sings,
then, phoenix-like, dies.

Eight Random Things

Clayton tagged me for an eight random things meme. So here goes:

* Books currently scattered and stacked on my desk:
Etienne Gilson, Linguistics and Philosophy
David Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals
Nicolas Malebranche, The Search after Truth
Leonard J. Brooks, Business & Professional Ethics for Directors, Executives, & Accountants
Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being
Isaac Newton, Principia Mathematica
Richard Fafara, The Malebranche Moment: Selections from the Letters of Etienne Gilson and Henri Gouhier
Paul Guyer, Kant and the Claims of Taste
Peter A. Redpath, ed. A Thomistic Tapestry: Essays in Memory of Etienne Gilson
Henri Gouhier, Fénelon Philosophe

* I'm a tea-drinker. I favor Darjeeling and Earl Grey.

* Change currently in my pocket: $3.31 (7 quarters, 14 dimes, 1 nickel, 11 pennies)

* CD currently in my Discman: Lifehouse, No Name Face.

* Brand of shoes I usually wear: Vans.

* I have been writing and revising, off and on, for several years now, a fantasy novel whose title is The River Already. The title is derived from a Kabbalistic gloss on Ezekiel 1:1.

* I attended first grade and part of second grade in Opelousas, Louisiana, in St. Landry Parish. (Counties in Louisiana are called parishes.)

* My favorite bit of geographical onomatopoeia: Tzintzuntzan, on Lake Pátzcuaro in the Michoacan province of Mexico. It was the capital city of the Tarascans (also called the Purépechas), one of the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica whom the Aztecs could never conquer. It was named after hummingbirds, which do, of course, go tzin - tzun - tzan. I briefly visited the Yácatas of Tzintzuntzan one summer when I was studying in Morelia.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


The truth, indeed, is not to be found in a philosophy which keeps the mean between contrary errors by its mediocrity and by falling below them, being built up by borrowing from both, balancing one against the other and mingling them by arbitrary choices made without the light of a guiding principle (eclecticism): it must be sought in a philosophy which keeps the mean between contrary errors by its superiority, dominating both, so that they appear as fragments fallen and severed from its unity.

Jacques Maritain, An Introduction to Philosophy. E. I. Watkins, tr. Sheed and Ward (New York: 1930) p. 270.