Saturday, February 19, 2011

On Zmirak on Lying

ChristineN drew my attention to this essay by John Zmirak, which I found interesting because it represents much of what is dangerous about the 'lying is OK sometimes' contingent of the Big Catholic Blogosphere Debate about Lies. Most of what Zmirak says is superficially plausible but false.

(1) Calling mental reservation a "legalistic tactic" is essentially a confession that one knows nothing of the basic theory underlying cases of conscience about deception. (I have to say, too, that I am reaching the point that whenever Catholics misuse the word 'legalistic', which as a theological term of disapprobation has a very specific meaning, I'm starting to take it as a sign that the person in question doesn't know what they are talking about.) Anyone who speaks so frivolously of basic casuistics has no business stating an opinion on Catholic moral theology as if it were anything more than a guess. Mental reservation is in fact the very opposite of a "legalistic tactic" because it is not a tactic at all; it is something that people do all the time, and is obviously not lying, and the only question is when it is wrong to do it.

(2) Likewise, with regard to Pius XII: (1) there is no evidence whatsoever that Pope Pius XII authorized the forging of baptismal certificates (we do have evidence he authorized others to do what they could to save Jews, and that those people took it on themselves to forge baptismal certificates, and that the Pope eventually put an end to the practice), and (2) even if that weren't so, the forging of a false document on the authority that puts forward the true documents is obviously not in itself a lie because it can be part of a security system to foil those who have no right to certain information, and (3) even if that weren't so, saints and Popes are not immune from venial sins in extraordinarily difficult times, which those times obviously were. [ADDED LATER: On this point, see William Doino, Jr.'s excellent discussion.]

(3) Obviously in matters like the Nazi at the door the overruling consideration for any Christian must always be the demand of charity. This does not mean that anything you do to save someone else is OK. In fact, saving someone else, while worthy in itself, doesn't tell us anything about whether you used wholly virtuous or partially defective means to do it. That's why there is a whole category of 'officious lies': precisely what the name means is that it's a lie told in the furtherance of a good duty. They are all sins -- venial sins, but sins.

(4) If Zmirak weren't so busy calling mental reservation a "legalistic tactic," he might have learned from some saints who discuss mental reservation, say someone like Liguori, that "literal truth or reverent silence" is a false dichotomy. It is not that the traditional view has an impoverished view of how language works (the discussions in Liguori and elsewhere are dizzyingly sophisticated accounts of language); it's that Zmirak has an impoverished view of how moral theology works. And what is more, practically every paragraph of his essay shows that he does not have any understanding of the major discussions of lying in moral theology. No one who is competent to speak on the subject will make such an amateurish mistake as suggesting that "Do not lie" implies "Answer directly every question put to you" or that parables and other fictional stories have the same characteristics as a lie. These have all been explicitly addressed over and over by people who have a far greater familiarity with virtuous life than Zmirak and myself.

If people like Zmirak had a really, really good argument with some very subtle flaw, it wouldn't be so bad. Moral theology can be difficult at times, and there are things all over the place that can trip up anyone. What is awful is that these are arguments that have been addressed at extraordinary length by saints and theologians for a millenium and a half now, and not only isn't Zmirak coming up with anything new, his argument involves no coherent account of what a lie is, is not informed about the history of the discussion of the subject, and is nothing but a stumblingblock put in the way of his readers.

[ADDED LATER: Zmirak has a follow-up article, which I briefly discuss here.]

On a Recent Dispute about Lying

The Live Action videos about Planned Parenthood have plunged the Catholic blogosphere into a fierce debate about the morality of lying. Some of the notable posts:

Christopher Tollefsen, Truth, Love, and Live Action at "The Public Discourse"
Joseph Bottum, The Unloving Lies of Lila Rose? at ""
Christopher Kaczor, In Defense of Live Action at "The Public Discourse"
Monica Migliorino Miller, Did Live Action Lie? at ""
Christopher Tollefsen, Why Lying is Always Wrong at "The Public Discourse"
Mark Shea, Dawn Eden is Right, Darn It at "The National Catholic Register"
Peter Kreeft, Why Live Action Did Right and We All Should Know That at ""
Mark Shea, Last Comments on Lying for Jesus at "The National Catholic Register"
Hadley Arkes, When Speaking Falsely is Right at "The Public Discourse"

There are more, but that gives the flavor. It's tempting to take it as a sign of just how far Catholic moral theology has collapsed that this is even an issue: Tollefsen's view is the traditional Catholic view, and the arguments brought forward against this view are extraordinarily bad, some of them having been answered for literally centuries. For instance, Kreeft appeals to intuitions even though we know that intuitions on this change often -- in the nineteenth century Catholics were regularly bashed as condoning lying precisely because they were said to allow too much room for kinds of deception that they didn't call lies: in those days intuitions went exactly the opposite direction Kreeft assumes ours will go today. This is the problem with appealing to intuitions in any context: 'intuition' is a fuzzy term including many different things; if you appeal to intuitions you haven't established anything until you've also identified the underlying basis of the intuition. Likewise, Bottum and Miller and some others point to ambiguities when dealing with legal investigations, wars, etc., completely glossing over the fact that there is more leeway in such cases (albeit not infinite leeway) because they are not private actions but actions for the public good authorized by the magistrates given charge over that good. This is obviously not relevant here, because the people in question were not legally authorized investigators. (It would still be a matter of debate how far such investigators can go without doing something morally shady, but it would be much more a real matter of debate than this artificially induced one.)

Arkes says:
I don’t think that a couple of my dearest friends...really wish to put themselves in the position of saying that those householders in Amsterdam were engaged in something “intrinsically immoral” when they spoke untruthfully to the Gestapo about the Jews they were hiding. Nor do I think we wish to say that the householders, who managed in that way to avoid making themselves accomplices in the project of genocide, were running the risk of corrupting their character by “undermining the love of truth.”

But this is precisely the point, and this is exactly what Tollefsen wishes to say, because it is what Catholic theologians have regularly said for more than eight hundred years. Part of the problem in this dispute is the sort of rhetorical greasiness exemplified by Arkes' move here. We don't have to speculate in the abstract about what good and decent people do about lying in the Nazi-at-the-door scenario. We have accounts by these Amsterdam householders of the moral dilemmas they faced in this context, e.g., in the works of Corrie ten Boom; many of them were pious Dutch Calvinists, who were at least as strongly convinced that lying is wrong as Tollefsen. As such, they did not take the consequences automatically to justify them. Some of them refused outright to lie. Many lied but took themselves to be doing the right thing in a morally defective way, and they asked Christ for forgiveness for that defect and admired those rare souls who were able to face the same circumstances without having to stain themselves with a lie. Others did not know for sure whether they had done something that was strictly wrong, but stilled prayed to Christ to forgive them if they had. (All three of these would be legitimate options for Catholics in the same place.) And this was bound up in the very reasons why they were hiding Jews in the first place: it was the very same sterling characters that were often behind both their acceptance of the dangers of hiding Jews and their refusal merely to accept the rightness of a lie. To say that an action is simply wrong is far from saying that it is out-and-out evil for someone to do it; sometimes it's just the one part of an extraordinarily good action that just falls short a bit. It happens; and a moral view of the world that does not recognize this is a moral view of the world that cannot handle the world's actual complexity.

It's worthwhile, I suppose, to point to the fact that Aquinas had already dealt with this same basic argument. In his discussion of lying he asks whether lying is always a sin. (His answer, of course, is that it is.) He considers the following objection:

No one is rewarded by God for sin. But the midwives of Egypt were rewarded by God for a lie, for it is stated that "God built them houses" (Exodus 1:21). Therefore a lie is not a sin.

The midwives of Egypt, of course, lied in order to protect Hebrew children from death at the command of Pharaoh. Aquinas replies:

The midwives were rewarded, not for their lie, but for their fear of God, and for their good-will, which latter led them to tell a lie. Hence it is expressly stated (Exodus 2:21): "And because the midwives feared God, He built them houses." But the subsequent lie was not meritorious.

In the next article, he talks about whether lying is always a mortal sin. A mortal sin in Catholic theology is a sin that is simply inconsistent with loving God and neighbor; a venial sin is a sin that is consistent with love of God and neighbor, but either an impediment to full love of God and neighbor or a defect in the way we love God and neighbor. And Aquinas's position is that some lies are mortal sins, but many are venial: "But if the end intended be not contrary to charity, neither will the lie, considered under this aspect, be a mortal sin, as in the case of a jocose lie, where some little pleasure is intended, or in an officious lie, where the good also of one's neighbor is intended." The lie of the midwives was an officious lie; it was a morally defective way of doing the right thing. Since we human beings are full of defect and limitation, we all do this on occasion. It does not make them any less morally admirable for their courage and dedication, it does not reduce the excellence of their dedication to the good of those Hebrew children. They are heroines of high caliber. But that doesn't change the moral defectiveness of lying itself.

ADDED LATER: Henry Karlson reminded me of his series of posts on Peter Lombard's discussion of lying, which pulls together much of early Christian tradition on the subject, and was influential on much of Christian tradition afterward.

ADDED LATER: Since I note St. Thomas's view above, I should note that I discuss the relation of his view to Bl. John Duns Scotus's here (to which I can add that Scotus agrees with Aquinas on the midwives and other analogous cases in Scripture). They both, of course, agree that lying is in some sense always wrong, and St. Bonaventure agrees with them both; and, of course, St. Augustine before them all had much the same view (and again here, which is interesting because it is in response to undercover operations against heretics). Nor are these the only saints to make this point clear. It's one thing to have slight variations and unusual gray areas; but a question that should be raised by some people in the discussion is: How many saints do you have to contradict flat out before you at least raise for yourself the question of whether you are making the right moral judgment?

ADDED LATER (Feb. 22): I'll have a post up later today on Cassian, and hopefully sometime this week on Chrysostom; Cassian and Chrysostom are usually the ones people appeal to when they want to reject the dominant tradition. There's good reason to be cautious about such a move in both cases. I hope at some point also to have up a discussion of the more purely philosophical reasons to think that the 'right to know' alternative, which seems to be the most popular, is regress rather than progress. [Cassian's up.][Chrysostom's up.]

ADDED LATER: My full position, insofar as it can be crammed into a blog post, is here: A Quodlibetal Question on Lying.

Newman on Notoriety

I am not speaking, I repeat, of what men actually pursue, but of what they look up to, what they revere. Men may not have the opportunity of pursuing what they admire still. Never could notoriety exist as it does now, in any former age of the world; now that the news of the hour from all parts of the world, private news as well as public, is brought day by day to every individual, as I may say, of the community, to the poorest artisan and the most secluded peasant, by processes so uniform, so unvarying, so spontaneous, that they almost bear the semblance of a natural law. And hence notoriety, or the making a noise in the world, has come to be considered a great good in itself, and a ground of veneration. Time was when men could only make a display by means of expenditure; and the world used to gaze with wonder on those who had large establishments, many servants, many horses, richly-furnished houses, gardens, and parks: it does so still, that is, when it has the opportunity of doing so: for such magnificence is the fortune of the few, and comparatively few are its witnesses. Notoriety, or, as it may be called, newspaper fame, is to the many what style and fashion, to use the language of the world, are to those who are within or belong to the higher circles; it becomes to them a sort of idol, worshipped for its own sake, and without any reference to the shape in which it comes before them.

John Henry Newman, Saintliness the Standard of Christian Principle

Friday, February 18, 2011

NS on Thomism and ID, and Some Tangents

Nullasallus has an interesting pair of posts at "Uncommon Descent" on the whole Thomism and ID thing (Part 1, Part 2), entitled "Why Thomists Should Support Intelligent Design." The posts actually don't seem to me to establish why Thomists should support intelligent design, but they do a good job of laying out a way that Thomists could draw upon at least some attempts to formulate an intelligent design theory in the course of arguing against certain philosophical positions. Indeed, there are already Thomists who do or have done more or less what nullasalus is suggesting; Haldane in his debate with Smart is the most famous. But (1) at this level what we're talking about is only very broadly called support; (2) at this level ID has lots and lots of competitors, i.e., positions Thomists could make argumentative use of in much the same way -- and indeed, it is consistent with saying that at least some of the physicalists and materialists arguably have arguments that Thomists could use against ID in the same way; and (3) at any level the whole of ID and all the conflicts in which it is involved are very, very small change in the context of the overall Thomistic project, and would barely be more than a sed contra or objectio, so to speak, in the whole Thomistic awareness if it weren't for the fact that ID theorists keep trying to latch on to Thomism. Nullasalus recognizes that (3) is often in play, it should be said; it's what makes the posts much better than pretty much anything else that has been written at "Uncommon Descent" on the subject.

Thinking about NS's post led me to be more convinced of something I've thought before, but I'm not sure I've ever actually said here. (None of what follows really has much to do with the details of the posts at "Uncommon Descent," being merely occasioned by them.) While it wouldn't be a huge difference, ID would be more than a penny's worth of attention if it had something directly to say about God; and it's usually only in such a light that Thomists can even justify spending much time on the subject. But ID theorists, of course, will always say that ID is not about God but simply about inference of some intelligence in the face of any criticism adding to the mix 'and this all men call God'. All the 'we're really purely scientific' line that ID theorists so insist upon in an attempt to get people to take ID more seriously is exactly a reason Thomists tend to take ID less seriously. If they want to insist that they are purely scientific in character, so be it; but from the Thomistic perspective that inevitably reduces the whole controversy to a parochial dispute over technicalities in one's approach to experiment and theory, and thus to something that on Thomistic principles really is better handled by the art and prudence of those who actually study these things day in and day out -- fallible, yes, and subject to human failings and philosophical biases, but the natural authority in such matters. In the end, ID, at least as its proponents defend it, is neither Thomistic enough in spirit nor, without linking it directly to God, metaphysical or theological enough in importance to merit much attention on its own. (There might be extrinsic reasons for paying attention to it, of course, like personal interest evolutionary topics, or exasperation at yet another ID theorist saying that Thomists should accept ID as a scientific approach because Thomists believe God can work miracles, or concern that the Fifth Way is being muddled up with ID design inferences in the broader public mind.) If it's a matter of scientific method, one might as well demand that Thomists take sides on the best method for lizard sexing on the grounds that Aquinas addresses the question of male and female biology in an Aristotelian commentary. Sure, they could do that if they're interested in lizard sexing; some Thomists somewhere probably are. Conceivably there could be some minor but interesting epistemological issues involved, something, as said above, for sed contra or objectio; in which case it will be dealt with on Thomistic principles rather than anything else. Possibly here and there it might be useful as one possible jumping-off point for another dispute, as nullasalus argues. Everyone else will just treat it as a parochial dispute about lizard sexing, and leave it to the lizard sexers. And it's really not a problem for them to do so. Thomism, Scotism, and the like are not chaotic systems: a flap of the wing of a butterfly can be studied and remarked upon, if one chooses, but it doesn't shift at all the earth and sky of fundamental metaphysics and theology.

Another tangent. I once considered writing a story about an eccentric Unitarian Universalist who writes essays about the important question of how it might possibly be rational to suspect that God might possibly exist in some form or other, and about how anyone who accepted this should be a Unitarian Universalist, because in a sense that's what Unitarian Universalism is: the religion for people who suspect that it might possibly be rational to suspect that God might possibly exist in some form or other. Somehow this always comes to mind when this topic comes up.

One-Stack, Two-Stack

I've been thinking a bit about James's post on a visual representation of universality relations for syllogisms. Aristotle's basic syllogistic is based on the universality of terms. So suppose you have the following premises: "All mammals are vertebrates, all felines are mammals". Then we can arrange the terms in a stack, going from the term that is capable of being the most universal at the top to the term that is capable of being the least universal at the bottom. In a first figure syllogism, which this would be, we would get the following stack:


And every Barabara (AAA-1) syllogism would look like this, whatever its terms. In order to handle all first figure syllogisms, we'd need to add two conventions. First, we need to be able to indicate that we are allowing exceptions in the application of the term. This is just what particular quantity is, so another way to put it is that we need to be able to indicate particular quantity. James's suggestion of an asterisk works well. So the premises "All pets are lovable, some cats are pets" would then get us:


This, of course, would be Darii (AII-1).

Second, we need to be able to indicate negations, and this is, I think, easy enough. Since the stacks make it reasonable to think of terms falling under terms, we can ask ourselves, "If we say, 'No dogs are allowed,' what term is 'dogs' being put under?" And the answer to that is easy: Not Allowed, or Unallowed, or Nonallowed, however one wishes to say it. That is, it's being placed under the negative complement. So we can have Celarent:


Which would represent the premises, "No dogs are allowed, all chihuahuas are dogs." Ferio follows quite easily: it uses both of our conventions:


Thus we have all of the first figure. In essence, what we're showing is the dictum de omni et nullo in action. Our two conventions will handle most of what's needed for the rest of the figures, but the first figure, of course, is the only figure that is easily represented in a single stack without additional conventions. Rather than try to find conventions that would allow single-stack representation of the other figures, I suggest we start with two-stack representation. In the Barbara syllogism above, we could just as easily have represented our premises in two stacks:

Vertebrates Mammals
Mammals Felines

The first stack is the major premise and the second stack is the minor premise; the resulting representation, therefore, will work in a very similar way to the standard ways of handling syllogistic that we've inherited from the scholastics, although our conventions will allow some minor simplifications.

Since we're interested in relations of universality, we can add one more convention: major stack is always on the left, minor stack is always on the right. As James notes, this rules out any fourth figure diagram, because the fourth figure breaks this rule. Representing all the rest of the figures and moods becomes quite easy. Here is Cesare (EAE-2):

-Middle Middle
Major Minor

Notice that in this syllogism, the Middle term tops both stacks, and one of the middle terms is negated. This will characterize all second figure syllogisms. Here is Darapti:

Major Minor
Middle Middle

Here the middle terms bottom both stacks; and this, of course, will be true of all third figure syllogisms. Every non-weakened mood of each of the three figures can be handled by adding the following rules:

(1) Only a middle term or minor term at the bottom of a stack can receive *.
(2) There can be one but only one *.
(3) Only a major term or middle term at the top of a stack can receive -.
(4) There can be one but only one -.
(5) If there are two middles at the top of the stack, one must receive -.

(2) and (4), of course, are just standard rules about particular and negative premises: you can't get anything from two particular premises, and you can't get anything from two negative premises. (1), (3), and (5) each help guarantee that distribution works, or, to put it another way, they prevent violations of the dictum de omni. All the valid moods, then, are permutations of the figures (neither * nor - ; * but not - ; - but not * ; both * and -) that follow these five rules. And that's actually a nice feature. When you just teach Barbara, Celarent, Darii, Ferioque, &c. it's often not really obvious why these moods are the ones we select out, nor why there are four in the first figure, four in the second figure, but six in the third figure.

As one would expect, you can do standard transformations with these stacks, and, say, turn Cesare into Celarent. It becomes very much like a puzzle: given moves like conversion, transmutation, and partial conversion, how do you get from one double-stack diagram to a first figure double-stack diagram (which allows, of course, the simple one-stack diagram where the conclusion can just be read off)? The representation doesn't add any logical power, but it is capable of handling all of the syllogisms Aristotle would have considered non-defective, and also makes clear why these were the syllogisms he thought non-defective, and one reason why Aristotelians have usually considered the first figure to be the complete figure: it allows the most economical representation of all the universality relations between terms.

One could certainly do more with this; not being Tom, I lack the ability to do anything fancy with logical systems without much slow thought, so this is all I have at the moment.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Serpent's Doomful Eye

False, but Beautiful
by John Rollin Ridge

Dark as a demon's dream is one I love --
In soul-but oh, how beautiful in form!
She glows like Venus throned in joy above,
Or on the crimson couch of Evening warm
Reposing her sweet limbs, her heaving breast
Unveiled to him who lights the golden west.
Ah, me, to be by that soft hand carest,
To feel the twining of that snowy arm,
To drink that sigh with richest love opprest,
To bathe within that sunny sea of smiles,
To wander in that wilderness of wiles
And blissful blandishments -- it is to thrill
With subtle poison, and to feel the will
Grow weak in that which all the veins doth fill.
Fair sorceress! I know she spreads a net
The strong, the just, the brave to snare; and yet
My soul cannot, for its own sake, forget
The fascinating glance which flings its chain
Around my quivering heart and throbbing brain,
And binds me to my painful destiny,
As bird, that soars no more on high,
Hangs trembling on the serpent's doomful eye.

John Rollin Ridge also went by the names Cheesquatalawny and Yellow Bird; he was Cherokee, and, indeed, from one of the most important and influential Cherokee families. His The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta is usually named as the first Californian novel, although Ridge seems to have insisted that it was actually a historical account. Brilliant man, but somewhat unsettling: he killed a man in a horse dispute once; he was assimilationist (i.e., he thought that Anglo-American culture should be preferred to Native American culture); and he was an anti-abolitionist (who had owned slaves in Arkansas).

Thursday Virtue/Vice: Gentleness

Gentleness, also known as meekness, mildness, or mansuetude, is, according to Aquinas, the virtue that moderates the passion of anger in accordance with right reason (ST II-II.157). Because it involves a form of restraint or moderation, it is a potential part of temperance, and so is temperance in a broad sense, but it differs from temperance in the strict sense in that it does not deal with desires. While gentleness is not the greatest of virtues, it is very great in a certain respect: anger impedes clear judgment of truth, so there is no virtue more essential to self-possession; for the same reason it removes an important obstacle to coming to know God. Likewise, insofar as gentleness like charity reduces the troubles and evils that others must bear with, it makes us more acceptable to God and neighbor.

Likewise, Hugh Blair has an interesting sermon on gentleness in which he argues that it is a sign of true wisdom (based on James 3:13); he distinguishes gentleness from meekness, with meekness being restraint in anger and gentleness adding to this the positive note of correction of anything offensive in oneself. Gentleness is not the same as passive tameness of spirit, nor is it an unlimited compliance with anything that comes along. It is that virtue, pertaining to charity, that "makes us unwilling to give pain to any of our brethren." It is encouraged by reflecting on what we owe to God, what we share with all human beings, and what our own failings are. Blair also sees gentleness as important for the pursuit of knowledge: it is, he says, the clean air of the mind; the gentle mind is like a smooth stream that reflects the world around in just proportion and vivid color.

For the Christian, gentleness or meekness is one of the virtues especially associated with Christ; Paul in II Cor. 10:1 refers to the gentleness (prautes) and equity (epieikeia) of Christ and Christ himself calls himself gentle (prau) in Mt. 11:29. It is especially associated with his Triumphal Entry (Mt. 21:5). It is one of the beatitudes, insofar as it contributes to happiness, and it is one of the fruits of the spirit, insofar as it arises from the work of the Spirit.

Yeskov's Middle Earth

Laura Miller has a largely nonsensical review of Kirill Yeskov's The Last Ringbearer, which has recently become available in a free English translation. She does give a good summary of the basic plot of the book, which is a telling of events leading up to and immediately after the War from the point of view of Mordor, which is presented as a beacon of industrial enlightenment.

It's actually two stories in one: a bit of bad Tolkien fan fiction -- the term is apt, and and the stereotypes about fan fiction to which Miller refers have little to do with most fan fiction -- that has unfortunately attached itself to a genuinely ingenious and clever fantasy-world spy story. All the most Tolkienish elements are absurd cardboard caricatures (Gandalf is a raving and rabid fool despite somehow masterminding one of the most important strategic victories of all time); all the interesting parts of the story consist of espionage and intrigue in Umbar. Yeskov would have done much better simply to strike out on his own.

Interestingly, the Elves, with some minor exceptions, come out as much more formidable in Yeskov's tale. Tolkien's Elves, for all their splendor and wisdom, are a fading and declining race; as Tolkien himself said at one point, of all the members of the Fellowship Legolas contributed the least, and this was almost inevitable given the waning of their civilization. But Yeskov's Elves are an impressive and dangerous force, in large part because they are, apparently, the only people in all of Middle Earth capable of consistently formulating and following rational plans: they are the only race whose war strategy makes any sense (and correspondingly are the only race who actually come out of the War genuinely better off than they went in), they are the only race who are consistently competent at political intrigue, and for much of the book they are the only people who have any intelligible motivations at all since they are the only people who plan on the basis of what they know they have rather than on desperate gambles. Ruthless, conniving, and manipulative, they are nonetheless (except, apparently, for the Lord of Lorien) competently ruthless, conniving, and manipulative, which makes them show up to good effect against a background that, barring a few individuals here and there, consists mostly of irrational incompetents.

I'm amused that Miller buys into the line that the morality of Yeskov's tale is less black-and-white than Tolkien's. Tolkien has a sharp line between Light and Dark, but you will find nothing in Yeskov's tale that has the moral nuances of Gollum's vacillations, or Faramir's temptation, or Frodo's final failure through exhaustion of will. What we do have is a different sharp line between the forces of Freedom and Reason and their agrarian opponents. We are told repeatedly that Mordor is a land of reason, of freedom, of tolerance, of education, of progress. I say 'told' advisedly because we are not shown but told. Over. And over. And over again. What we actually see of Mordorian society is pretty sparse and not clearly connected with Mordor's status as a nation undergoing Enlightenment. We learn that a really badly designed engineering project almost completely destroyed its agricultural capability, leading it to put its full force behind industrialization and to sentence the designers of the irrigation project to twenty-five years in the lead mines (our only real acquaintance with Mordor's justice system). We learn that Mordor has mandatory literacy and a university, that its scientists are in the process of making a number of medical, mechanical, and chemical discoveries that are leading up to a full-scale Industrial Revolution. And we also learn that the whole realm of Mordor, because of its agricultural disaster, is almost entirely dependent on caravan trade for its food supply, a problem that all these rational and clever Mordorian scientists and inventors apparently never saw as serious enough to merit much attention, despite its putting them obviously at the mercy of known rivals and enemies. Indeed, virtually the only reasons we have to think that Mordor was in fact a beacon of reason and tolerance are (a) obviously partisan descriptions that read like badly written propaganda; (2) the cartoon villainery of Mordor's enemies; and (3) its technological advancement. It's a world in which moral issues have been simplified, not complicated. There is one complication, I suppose, that does add some twists to the story but does not, in fact, work very well: repeatedly we are both shown and told that reason and progress are saved by people acting irrationally. Rational people, after all, are predictable.

Likewise, it's somewhat amusing to see Miller buying into the notion that Yeskov's version is more realistic, as if there were anything about the story, outside the espionage narrative, that isn't less plausible and more mind-bogglingly fantastic than what we find in Tolkien. The novel, in fact, is too joke-ridden to be seriously considered realistic; it is not trying to be more realistic but to be hyperbolic and exaggerated for comic effect. This sometimes pushes the borders of both taste and sense, as when the rape of a woman by a local landlord chiefly serves as the occasion for satirizing the landlord. This is no more a greater realism than it is a greater moral nuance. Treating it as realistic is like treating Terry Pratchett as realistic: it's a sign of confusion about what reality is. (Actually, it's not too far off to think of the book as The Lord of the Rings re-written by Terry Pratchett. Pratchett would have done a far better job with the Tolkien elements, but it does have broadly Pratchett-like features.)

All this said, the actual book is readable -- the Tolkien caricature doesn't really take up as much of the book as one might think, and the spycraft plot actually starts getting interesting after Yeskov gets it fully up and running. The jokes are heavy-handed (perhaps an artifact of translation -- Russian jokes somehow always seem heavy-handed when translated into English) but some of them aren't bad. The love-interest elements of the story aren't handled all that well, but in some cases they do give key characters a more human air, and the descriptions of background events are generally interesting. The back-and-forth in time is a bit disconcerting, but is easier to follow than Miller suggests. You can download it for free from the translator, so you don't even have to pay for it, and for the most part it's at least as good as the more readable and enjoyable kinds of light fiction you find sold in airport bookstores, so it's a much better deal.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Truth and Freedom

Truth is a condition of freedom, for if a man can preserve his freedom in relation to the objects which thrust themselves on him in the course of his activity as good and desirable, it is only because he is capable of viewing these goods in the light of truth and so adopting an independent attitude to them. Without this faculty man would inevitably be determined by them: these goods would take possession of him and determine totally the character of his actions and the whole direction of his activity. His ability to discover truth gives man the possibility of self-determination, of deciding for himself the character and direction of his own actions, and that is what freedom means.

Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, Willetts, tr. Ignatius (San Francisco: 1981)p. 115.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

McCormick's Argument Against Omnipresence

Matt McCormick has an argument that omnipresence is inconsistent with what he calls "higher consciousness", based on some ideas Kant puts forward in his criticism of Berkeley's idealism. Arguments that are both genuinely interesting and relatively new are fairly rare on this subject, so it's nice to find one. For a number of reasons, however, I don't think the argument works. The basic argument is laid out by McCormick in this way:

1. A being with higher consciousness possesses two abilities A) the ability to discern between the object and a representation of the object, and B) the ability to apply concepts and form judgments about objects.
2. If a being has the ability to discern between the object and a representation of the object, and the ability to apply concepts and form judgments, then that being must be able to grasp the difference between the self and not-self.
3. A being is omnipresent when that being occupies or is present in all places, far or near, in all times, past, present, or future.
4. There is nothing that is not-self for an omnipresent being by definition of omnipresence.
5. So an omnipresent being cannot grasp a difference between the self and not-self.
6. Therefore, an omnipresent being cannot possess higher consciousness.
7. In short, God cannot have a mind because omniconsciousness is impossible.

(4) is obviously the weak point. The definition of omnipresence for the purposes of this argument is given in (3), but what about this definition gives us the claim that "there is nothing that is not-self for an omnipresent being"? The basic idea here is that an intelligently conscious being ("a being with higher consciousness") must be able to distinguish the objects of which it is conscious precisely as objects of consciousness. So in order to have a conscious being there must be a way to draw a distinction between subject and object -- self and not-self. This seems right enough. Where (4) seems weak is that getting (4) from (3) requires us to say that the subject/object distinction is an internal/external distinction: there is nothing external to an omnipresent being, so there is nothing that is not-self for the omnipresent being. As McCormick says:

If there is nothing external to a being or nothing that the being can accurately think of as external, then that being cannot draw a distinction between itself and objects which are not itself. There are no objects that would make such a distinction possible. Without the subject/object distinction, a being cannot possess either of the capacities of higher consciousness.

It's not so clear, however, that it is necessary to think of something as external, in a physical sense (i.e., the sense relevant to presence in a place), in order to recognize it as an object: we surely have internal objects as well as external objects. I not only recognize that I am not a fish, I also recognize that I am not my idea of a fish. I know I am distinct from the stone, which is external to me, but I also know I am distinct from the thought of the stone, which is not. Hume argued that the taste of the fig is not actually external to us: the taste of the fig really exists, but it doesn't exist anywhere. It has no location, although, of course, we can associate it with one through habits of imagination. If Hume were right about this, though, it wouldn't rule out the taste of the fig being an object of consciousness: it would merely tell us that something can be an object of consciousness that really exists but doesn't exist in any location external to us. And while one might not think the taste of a fig an especially good example, there are other examples in which Hume's claim is a bit more plausible -- e.g., desires. Likewise, in the course of making this argument, Hume also notes (and rejects) a position that, while very different, would have the same effect of prying the two distinctions (subject/object and internal/external) apart: namely, the scholastic doctrine that some things, e.g,. the soul, can exist wholly whole in many parts.

The point of bringing these up is not to insist that (say) Hume was right, but rather to point out that we seem to be able to make some sense of subject/object distinctions that do not rely on any distinction between the internal and the external, and which, if they really do occur, would still allow one to distinguish one's self from what is not one's self.

In the case of an omnipresent being are there any distinctions on the basis of which such a being could recognize the things it is present to as not itself? Certainly, and one of the more obvious ones really does follow from the definition of omnipresence in (3): the omnipresent being is omnipresent, whereas at least many of the things it is present to are not. An omnipresent being is present to, and not external to, a chair, but it is also present to, and not external to, a table, even though both the chair and the table have to be external to each other. So there is a distinction in mode of presence (God is present everywhere, chairs are not) that could perfectly well serve for a distinction between self and not-self.

Further, omnipresence, like most of the basic attributes attributed to God, is closely associated with the notion of God as cause -- in Christian terms, God as Creator and Provider. God's presence to everything is at least partly due to His causal relationship to everything. And thus there is a distinction here, as well, that could serve as the foundation for a distinction between self and not-self.

And, third, there are potentially differences in intrinsic character that could equally serve to ground such a distinction: for instance, God is simple, i.e., not composed of parts, while things that exist in bounded places typically are composed of parts. Here, too, we have a distinction that could distinguish the omnipresent being from the non-omnipresent being.

The basic Kantian idea at the core of this argument is that our ordinary self-consciousness of ourselves as existing in time (the temporal feature is actually fairly important for Kant's argument) requires being able to distinguish our selves from objects in space outside us. Kant holds that all our objects of consciousness are experienced under the forms of space and time, so in Kantian terms it would make sense to take, in our case, the internal/external distinction and the subject/object distinction to be closely related. But Kant himself recognizes that this need not be the case for every kind of consciousness -- indeed, he explicitly mentions God as an exception, since he thinks God is conscious of things not under the forms of space and time but simply in themselves. Further, since Kant's concern is refuting idealism, which denies that there is a real 'external' at all, his actual argument presupposes that there is at least a conceptual difference between the subject/object distinction and the internal/external distinction: because we can distinguish subject and object (and also recognize ourselves as persisting through time) it is necessary to say that there are objects external to us.

In other words, not to go on about this, the real question in response to (4) is, "Are there other distinctions beside the internal/external distinction that could serve as a ground for a distinction between self and non-self?" And it seems that there are many: philosophers have at least proposed some such distinctions in cases that don't even have anything to do with this subject, and an omnipresent being has certain features that already distinguish it from what is not omnipresent.

Morning Music

This song, "Baba Yetu," is a version of the Lord's Prayer in Swahili; it was written a few years ago for the video game Civilization IV, but Christopher Tin, the composer, put a new version of it on his Calling All Dawns CD, which came out this past year, making it eligible for a Grammy. It was nominated for the Grammy in "Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s)," the first piece of music for a video game ever to be nominated for any Grammy at all, and won. (ht) The actual lyrics come from an a capella version sung by Stanford Talisman, who sung the (somewhat livelier and instrument-backed) version on the game; but this one is sung by the Soweto Gospel Choir.

There are very few songs that do a better job of starting your morning right.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Examination of Conscience

By now you've probably heard about the Confession app for the iPhone; the app doesn't actually give you confession, but is primarily a guide for the examination of conscience required for it.

One of the things that much of the joking about the app has made clear is that this is precisely what some people find strange about it: they literally have no clue what examination of conscience is, and think it's some weird Catholic thing rather than a pretty common thing that Catholics make a full effort to preserve. So it seems worthwhile to point out two classics in the examination of conscience genre that are not Catholic at all:

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations. The Stoics used examination of conscience extensively, although we mostly only know what is involved indirectly. Sorabji's Emotion and Peace of Mind is a good reference work if one wants to know the primary Stoic methods and their philosophical rationale; Hadot's The Inner Citadel is good for seeing how Marcus Aurelius's work in particular fits within the larger context of Stoic moral therapy.

Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, Chapter IX. Franklin's Plan for Attaining Moral Perfection is an examination of conscience coming out of the American Enlightenment; this being Poor Richard, it's devoted wholly to making oneself a useful member of society on your way to self-sustaining contentment in Philadelphia. Really, it's hard to get more American than that; it makes you want to watch the Rocky movies which, indeed, come pretty close to being movies about Franklinism.

For Catholics, of course, the primary sources tend to be works like St. Francis de Sales's Introduction to a Devout Life or St. Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises or any number of other works. But it's the sort of thing everyone should be able to recognize, and the sort of thing that everyone should be doing, even if they aren't as systematic about it as Franklin or St. Ignatius.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Links for Thinking

* The physics of snow crystals. The diagram of snow-crystal shapes at various temperatures and levels of humidity is especially interesting.

* Alexis Torrance, Precedents for Palamas' Essence-Energies Theology in the Cappadocian Fathers

* Facts about the world's major river systems.

* The Suburban Banshee talks about Ethiopian and Abyssinian saints.

* A student atheist group is trading pornography for Bibles. "It is to send a message that the stuff in the bible, and the Quran, and the Torah, and all that sort of thing is, in our case worse, in our opinion worse, than pornography." OK, but I'm not sure who's going to get that message. The people who already are willing to turn in their Bible to get pornography?

* Jason Zarri is collecting information on how many sides you can clearly imagine a polygon to have. Go over and test yourself on it, and let him know.

* John Farrell has an interesting interview with J. Scott Turner on evolution and embodied physiology.