The Dark Knight of the Soul: Fortitude in the Batman

Behold, a humorous essay I recently wrote for a moral theology class, with some slight edits. Enjoy!

Mr. Bruce Wayne had a troubled childhood. Not only did he lose his parents to a crazed gunman, but he also fell into a deep well full of bats. The former occasioned the inheritance of vast amounts of wealth, while the latter occasioned an intense case of chiroptophobia (fear of bats). Together, these effects would eventually lead him to undertake a massive bat-themed vigilante project which would dominate his life and cause a complicated set of benefits and drawbacks in Gotham City. The question is: whether the act of becoming the Batman was an act of true fortitude on the part of Bruce Wayne?

What is clear is that in Batman’s vigilante project there is matter for fortitude, namely, dangers of death. “Now fortitude is a virtue; and it is essential to virtue ever to tend to good; wherefore it is in order to pursue some good that man does not fly from the danger of death.” (1) Wayne, of course, is choosing to fly toward dangers of death, and literally at that. With countless thugs, gang leaders, and dastardly supervillains, Gotham is anything but safe; and this is not even to mention the means which Wayne adopts for fighting crime, which includes jumping off skyscrapers and careening in between all kinds of obstacles, supported by some mesh wings. He is doing battle with criminals who might kill him, in a way that might kill him. “Dangers of death occurring in battle” are the proper matter for fortitude, beyond lesser evils like bodily pain or the annoyance of standing in line at the DMV. (2)

It seems that Wayne might have gone to a vicious extreme in overcoming his own private chiroptophobia by becoming “half bat.” Yet there is really nothing to fear about bats in themselves, so to fear bats at all seems to be a case of timidity. This means that overcoming such a fear is a good thing to do. In facing his repressed traumatic experience of nearly dying in the well, which became so closely associated with the well’s bats, Wayne becoming Batman would only tend towards a vicious neurosis if his new bat-persona did not serve some purpose beyond itself. That is to say, if Wayne habitually dressed up like a bat in his own house and looked in the mirror, this would be disordered. Taking on the bat-persona for the sake of intimidating criminals, which is his primary motivation, is something else entirely.

Wayne does not become Flowerman or Butterflyman or Puppyman, he becomes Batman. Even if he had had traumatic experiences with flowers and butterflies and puppies, surely he would not want to deal with those memories in the same way. The idea of a vigilante qua bat (or alternatively qua spider) is simply terrifying, which is the point: it is an effective aid to fighting crime. This, however, does not necessarily make it prudent, as prudence means that justice and other virtues are not being violated. Here we will simply mention the possibility that vigilantism is unjustifiable in Gotham, given that there are good cops like Commissioner Gordon around. If Wayne had not considered this, or had not considered the physical risks involved, then the decision would be imprudent regardless of whether it is just. Becoming a vigilante virtuously requires serious counsel and an understanding of the principles of law. (3)

There are certain appearances of fearlessness and daring throughout the career of Batman, but one must wonder if this is merely a result of having mastered the fear of death during his time training in the mountains with the League of Shadows. On the contrary, Wayne goes to great lengths to protect himself, investing in the production and maintenance of extremely sophisticated protective devices, and this could exonerate him at least of fearlessness. Batman, supposing his project is just, certainly ought to fear death, not just for his own sake, seeing as life is a great good, but also for Gotham’s sake: “Death and whatever else can be inflicted by mortal man are not to be feared so that they make us forsake justice: but they are to be feared as hindering man in acts of virtue, either as regards himself, or as regards the progress he may cause in others.” (4) This is also part of why concealing his true identity is so important, for if it was widely known that Batman is Bruce Wayne, he would be easier to destroy.

As for magnanimity, Wayne already has great honors, insofar as honors accrue to a man of enormous wealth such as himself. Ironically, his public identity as a billionaire is a cover for what he really lives for privately, which is the accomplishment of great things like deposing crime bosses and deterring supervillains at great personal risk. He accepts the “unofficial honors” that come with such acts, but he does not care for them for their own sake, so he is not ambitious. He takes on the project to give the city of Gotham hope, which is where he refers the glory given to him as Batman. Therefore, Batman has a degree of magnanimity. (5) There is, however, an element of Wayne’s public life that is pusillanimous, as he purposefully distances himself from seeming great by being an arrogant, dishonest, quarrelsome womanizer. He could gain more honor publicly by being more virtuous, but he rightly fears that this could lead to the suspicion that he is Batman. Insofar as this component of concealing his nocturnal activities is vicious, it is neither magnanimous nor fortitudinous, as sins cannot be called acts of virtue.

The crime fighting skills of Wayne are second to none, and since he has ordered his life and vast wealth towards crime fighting without compromising his fortune or social status, he most certainly deserves to be ascribed the virtue of magnificence. For, “[It] belongs to magnificence not only to do something great, ‘doing’ (facere) being taken in the strict sense, but also to tend with the mind to the doing of great things.” (6) Since Wayne could do almost anything he wants on account of his wealth, the good use of which is the proper object of magnificence, his mind certainly tends with great force toward the accomplishment of masterful crime fighting. (7) Otherwise he would do whatever it is that other billionaires do.

To the question, whether Bruce Wayne’s choice to become Batman was an act of true fortitude, we answer in the affirmative, with two qualifications. The first is that the entire vigilante project is just, which is unclear. The second is that the artificial public persona taken on as part of the condition for the project, which can be assumed to have been part of the means from the start, is at least mildly vicious and therefore reduces the fortitudinous character of the choice.

(1) STh II-II q. 123 a. 5 ans.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Namely, gnome and epikeia would be required. See STh II-II q. 51 a. 4; q. 120 a. 1, a. 2

(4) STh II-II q. 126 a. 1 rep. 2

(5) That his voice is extraordinarily deep is not a sign of greater magnanimity, it is merely another component of his intimidation, as well as a way to conceal his public identity. Furthermore, that he does not walk slowly to accomplish his tasks does not imply a lack of magnanimity, as the particular kind of great things which he seeks to accomplish demand agility.

(6) STh II-II q. 134 a. 2 rep. 2

(7) STh II-II q. 134 a. 2


Post by: Eamonn Clark

Art and Lying

Can you lie through a piece of art?

“My father used to say that artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians use them to cover it up.” -Evey Hammond (V for Vendetta)

Thanks, Evey.

This will be a pretty technical post. There is a TLDR summary of some of the complex stuff if you scroll down. But come on, give it a shot!

All lies are sins. A lie is a willful statement of what one believes is a falsehood in order to deceive another person. In other words, it is a statement at variance with the mind, which says what one thinks is false is true or what one thinks is true is false, so that one’s interlocutor erroneously believes what is said.

This is the teaching of most Catholic moralists throughout the ages, and the teaching of the Catechism (the official Latin “Editio Typica” version, which came after the edits to the original French version that removed a qualification about the “right to know the truth,” much to the pleasure of then-Cdl. Ratzinger if I recall correctly… and to this day the Vatican website quite lamentably has different texts in Paragraph 2483 in Latin and English, the former without the qualification, the latter with it). Lying is a willful misuse of our faculty of communication. Here are some resources on this topic. Knock yourself out.

According to the general trends in moral theology since St. Thomas’ time, lies are indeed wrong because of both the kind of statement (thought to be untrue) and the intention of deceit (trying to get someone to believe that statement). They are not, as has been argued by some, wrong merely because of the object… sort of. Get your moral theology hats on – or, should I say, get your Duns-caps on?

Bl. John Duns Scotus… Yes, that is the etymology of the word “dunce.”

Most lies are done through normal, verbal speaking. If I really did shoot both the sheriff and the deputy, I cannot truthfully say, “I did not shoot the deputy,” if I am asked about this particular deputy who has been shot and who is the only really possible referent to my utterance of the word “deputy.” However, if  there are  multiple deputies that have been shot (most of whom I did not shoot), or there are some deputies which have not been shot, all of whom I could realistically be talking about, that statement is not necessarily a lie – I could really speak those words in meaningful reference to one of those deputies I did not shoot. It is probably an unjust use of deception, but it is not a lie… It is what is called a “broad mental reservation.”

If I’m talking about some deputy nobody in the conversation could realistically possibly understand to be the referent of my use of the word “deputy,” then it is a “narrow mental reservation.” (This is distinct from the question of what will probably be understood, which is not at issue. The interlocutor must not realistically have conceptual access to the referent of my use of the word. I cannot legitimately make my referent the deputy of Hicktown in Nowheresville “out of the blue.”) That is actually a lie, because the use of language is for the communication of true things broadly available to those who are communicating – so I am misusing the faculty of communication, doing an act which is inherently frustrating its natural end of conveying the truth. Another way to show the problem is with a question. If I ask, “Which deputy,” those I am speaking with should be able to understand what other deputies I might be speaking of, if they try hard enough. It is this same deputy-pool out of which I might legitimately speak of a deputy whom I did not shoot, given that I did shoot the one that the others are actually speaking of.

This is not totally clear, but hopefully it’s clear enough. Exactly how to demarcate the precise limits of the “referent pool” is a great challenge but is not necessary to get into further.

The second issue at stake is whether every instance of falsehood-telling is really “lying,” supposing that all lying is wrong. I am going to do something rare and – are you ready for it? – challenge St. Thomas on something.


Language was probably not something St. Thomas was that interested in, I’m guessing. I argue that there are several lacunae (or “errors”), or at least large deficiencies in his treatment of language-related issues in the Summa. This includes his articles on derision and blasphemy, but here we will limit ourselves to his treatment of lying.

It means no errors, for the rest of your days. It’s a problem free philosophy… Lacuna Matata.

The definition St. Thomas gives of a lie is “a statement at variance with the mind.” For him, a lie even includes statements not intended to deceive. The famous story of the flying ox will come to mind of other St. Thomas fan-boys… As it goes, he was teaching a group of Dominican friars one day when one of them pointed out the window and said, “Look Brother Thomas, a flying ox!” He hurried over to the window to look, while the brothers all laughed playfully. We would not recall this incident were it not for his response: “It is better to believe that an ox can fly than that a religious could tell a lie.” The room was probably pretty quiet after that.

Maybe the story isn’t true… Or maybe the common interpretation isn’t true, insofar as it might be unreasonable to think St. Thomas would actually think it better to believe something ridiculous than something obvious – maybe he was just joking back!? But given his treatment of “jocose lies,” or “lies for fun tricks,” maybe not. They are, as he says, “not meant to deceive anyone,” and yet he treats them as venial sins… because they are lies, or statements of falsehood (which are against the mind, which cannot really be said to contain “falsity,” or else it would be rejected by the mind as false).

Why is this so? It comes down to his view that the statement against what one has in one’s mind necessarily contradicts the faculty of communication regardless of what one intends by that deed, be it deceit or some trivial pleasure. However, one must ask at least two questions…

First, can there be such a statement without the intent to deceive, given the nature of language as a tool for communication? That is, can a statement really be “at variance with the mind” without trying to put a falsehood into another’s mind, or must a statement necessarily carry with it a communicative import in accord with the falsehood one’s actual words indicate?

Second, is the act of communication limited only to the “dictionary meaning” of one’s spoken words, or is there a broader milieu of signals by which ideas are transferred?

Ironically, we may take the doctrine of St. Thomas to answer these questions. “Sins of speech are measured primarily by their intention,” he says. This is because words only have meaning inasmuch as they communicate ideas, and they only have moral relevance inasmuch as they have meaning. Given that, one must intend certain words to communicate some idea for them to have moral significance (negligence notwithstanding – you should know that yelling “fire!” in a movie theater is bad unless there’s a fire, even if you don’t actually intend to communicate anything by it). If the words are known to convey a falsehood within the linguistic context in which the communicators are part of, that is, their lexicon, cultural idioms, exclusive code-words, etc., it seems St. Thomas would call this a lie. Yet it is clear to him that this might not be meant to deceive but only to jest. Here is why this is inadequate: we also use non-verbal language as our communicative act, such as inflection, physical gestures, and the particular context in which we are in.

“My homework took sooooooo looooong last night.” This same statement could really communicate two opposite things, given a variety of factors. Is the class really easy, or really difficult? Is this person rolling his eyes playfully, or with real anguish? Etc. He could really be communicating a truth, even if his homework took no time at all.

So, words are not the exclusive matter of “statements.” St. Thomas admits this, but he fails to incorporate non-verbal communication into his treatment of jocose lies. (Here is some more information on jokes vs. jocose lies.)

It can still be said that lying is “intrinsically evil,” even though it involves a certain kind of intention in addition to a certain object. In the case of sins of speech, intention actually informs the object in a special way, because there is nothing inherently good or bad about producing collections of sounds with one’s vocal chords, unlike fatally stabbing an innocent person walking down the street, for example. Instead, one must adopt the means, “tell a falsehood,” within a particular linguistic context, to serve whatever end.

Clear as mud? Well here’s where things get trippy. Hold on to your Duns caps.

If you think you are speaking to a knowing and thinking person, all willful telling of falsehood necessarily involves an intention to deceive. But if you think you are speaking to a plant, or to a computer, or to Fido, the contradictory proposition holds: NO willful telling of falsehood involves an intention to deceive.

“Dave, although you took very thorough precautions in the pod against my hearing you, I could see your lips move.”

Yes, HAL (and Fido) can be “deceived,” but it is not the kind of deceit which matters for morality. HAL may be misled but does not actually rationally believe anything, so there is no such thing as “true” or “untrue” for him, only the “useful” and not “useful.” (I’m looking at  you, William James.) What we are actually doing when speaking to these creatures is producing sounds to bring about some exterior change in them or to satisfy our own little emotional whims through a personification of a non-rational being. Psychologically, we might think of ourselves as “communicating” with them, but in the strict sense (which depends on the “rationality” criterion) we are not trying to do this. We are not trying to get Fido to believe some idea, merely to act on some collection of sounds in a certain way.

TLDR: We only communicate with persons, so we can only lie to persons. There is more to communication than mere words, so not all false communicative verbal utterances which indicate an untruth by their linguistic context constitute lying.

All this brings us to the question of art and lying. Can a painter lie through a painting? And no, I don’t mean writing some untrue words in his painting to deceive admirers. I mean to ask: is it possible to lie with an image?

The first distinction to make is that of an assumption of non-communication and an assumption of communication. In WWII, the Allies used dummy tanks to confuse the Germans prior to the invasion of Normandy. They also used fake radio traffic. In both examples, there is an assumption of non-communication on the part of the Axis. This means that the Axis was not thinking that the Allies were trying to convey a real message to them – instead, it was just the opposite. Reconnaissance and espionage were employed to gather information secretly. So, it could not have been an act of communication on the part of the Allies, provided they believed the Germans were spying in this way. Instead, the Allies put inflatable tanks and aircraft in strategic locations and let the Germans think whatever they wanted if they should happen to see them. The same is true of the radio interception, which consisted of words being spoken by persons who were not actually trying to communicate between themselves but simply to create a believable conversation which could be interpreted however any interceptor might like. Of course, the Allies knew what would be erroneously thought by the Germans, and this was the intended effect. Yet, because they were not actually telling the Germans falsehoods, this deception is not communicative and is therefore not lying. (This would be distinct from what occurs in games of deception like “Mafia,” where there is not real communication because players knowingly enter into an artificial paradigm of suspicion, where one only looks for truth based on players’ non-verbal behavior. The entire communicative dynamic is shattered.)

On the other hand, if there is an assumption of communication, there can be lies even in non-verbal signals.

“Children, what do you know of the Fuhrer?”
“Follow the true path, comrades!” (Lenin is depicted)
From North Korea. American soldiers depicted.

The images above (including the main image of this post) do not contain words that say something untrue, but they certainly contain messages that are untrue: “All bishops and priests are out to corrupt the morals of our children,” “Hitler is a loving and fatherly national hero,” “Socialism is the best thing for the country,” “All Americans are bloodthirsty war criminals.” These images were made and received with a communicative assumption, so they could be lies. But unless their artists or distributors thought those messages to be untrue, they are merely falsehoods told without the intent to deceive. That means they would not actually be lies, just the blameworthy spreading of error.

A normal image, of a basket of fruit for example, is not intended to convey some political or ideological message, but it still might be intended to get the viewer to ascribe to some more fundamental worldview. Suppose a painter puts a white dot in a black field, and his intention is to get the viewer to believe there is no purpose in living. This could be a lie if the painter believes there is a purpose in living, and if we grant that there is some characteristic of a little white dot on a black field that is inherently enough ordered toward conveying purposelessness about human life (like the word “deputy” referring inherently enough to an assistant of a sheriff). Indeed, it is difficult enough to demarcate words, let alone artistic conventions and their relation to cultural assumptions and deeper, more universal (or Jungian) archetypes in the human mind. We don’t need to figure this out here in order to point out that the issue exists. On the other hand, if the painter simply wants the viewer to feel insignificant but not believe anything in particular, this is certainly not a lie. Other non-verbal mediums, like instrumental music, have this same property.

How about mildly false advertising? If a company produces bags of chips which are 50% empty inside, and the company wants customers to see those bags and think they contain more food than they really do, is this a lie? Possibly, but only if there is no reasonable way to tell that the bag is half empty before actually physically verifying it even without opening the bag. (If one physically verifies the contents of the bag, communication from the company about the quantity in the bag by advertisement and presentation is no longer occurring.) One example of a reasonable way to obtain this knowledge without verification would be seeing on the package how many grams of chips are in such bags on average, and it would even include accessing the general knowledge that most chip bags are half empty. (It would probably not include a chart on the company’s website that almost nobody knows about.) When there is a widely available “pool” of such information, it seems that companies may take advantage of this without lying – but that does not mean that a broad mental reservation or withholding significant information would necessarily be justified in any and every case. One example might be the sale of pseudo-scientific or similarly worthless products to vulnerable elderly persons… Yes, it might be true that a study which Healing Crystals Inc. did on its own product showed a significant increase in health in persons who have purchased their healing crystals, and it is certainly widely available knowledge that correlation does not imply causation. So to manipulate Granny out of 6 easy payments of $29.95 for what the vendor knows is an ineffective product is not a lie on his part, but it is still wrong, unless there is some extraordinary circumstance which justifies such deceptive manipulation.

Okay, got that covered. Now onto plays, films, novels, etc. Surely, actors are not really trying to communicate their lines to each other, they are trying to act. But the interplay with the audience is different. The answer should still be clear enough – audience members know they are at a play or film, so it is rightly assumed that what they expect is a group of characters speaking about the world of the play or film, even in the average instance of breaking the third wall. The “referent pool” lies within the story and setting itself. When a character speaks a line that is misleading about the imaginary world, or there is an image that deceives in a similar way, it merely takes advantage of the audience’s bad assumptions about the world of the characters, so these are not lies either… The audience should expect the possibility that a character is speaking in a way that misleadingly refers to something that has not been fully revealed yet, or that not everything is at is appears on the screen. If a character – even an omniscient narrator – does tell the audience a falsehood, he cannot really intend to deceive, because he, the character, does not really exist. The playwright or author or screenwriter exists and is ultimately the one doing any and all communicating within the story, which means the words of characters are really about exploring and explaining those characters and the world in which they live – even if the author is trying to show that the omniscient narrator is a liar. However, the above point about conveying a belief about the real world still holds. If your play is a propaganda piece that you wrote for the sheer amusement of tricking people into supporting what you think is a bad political ideology, then you are telling a lie through your play.

Documentary films do not enjoy this privilege of an artificial “referent pool,” because it is presumed that their object is the real world, not a fictional one.

Illusions are a tricky topic. (Get it?)

The blue lines are parallel.

Simply “tricking the eyes” is not a lie, because there is no attempt at communication. The point of drawing such images is to show that our senses can be misled about the reality of what is right in front of them – if anything, these are anti-lies! These kinds of illusions could be used deceptively, however, but it remains immediately available information that the blue lines, for example, are parallel, so a trick which is predicated merely upon a person assuming his immediate perception about the blue lines is accurate would not constitute a lie.

Magicians are on a different ground altogether. If you have a gaffed deck of cards, but you tell your audience that it is “normal,” it is difficult to see how this would not be a lie. (But could you say it is “ordinary” and mean that it is “numbered”? It seems you could!) Yes, an audience should know that a magician is likely not to tell the truth, but so too should citizens expect falsehoods to be told by politicians and kingpins. Simply presuming a high likelihood of some person knowingly telling a falsehood does not automatically excuse that person from the possibility of lying. On the other hand, if you asked an audience member to inspect a regular deck of cards, ask their opinion about the cards, and then subtly switch to a deck with a gimmick while all the attention is on your eyes, all that occurs is a deception.

Moral theology can be “messy, messy, messy!” But there is still always a right answer. There are no voluntary acts with an inherently inscrutable moral significance.

Finally, we arrive at the question of comedy. Is it a lie for a comedian to tell a story that he passes off as true? This seems to be just as problematic as the magician speaking about his gaffed deck… Certainly, some people are expecting falsehoods to be told at the comedy club, but many story-based jokes are only so funny because the audience believes them to be true. Can you imagine a comedian starting a joke, “What if my kid walked up to me the other day and said…”? No, instead it is, “My kid walked up to me the other day and said…” The strength is predicated on the audience being deceived about reality. It is not merely the use of a convention, or the use of a broad mental reservation, and it is not a non-commutative act altogether. Once again, just because some people are expected to tell falsehoods knowingly does not entail the inability of them to lie. It does not seem that telling tall-tales, even as a professional comedian, can escape the label of “lie.” As for only briefly deceptive  jests, see this article, already linked to. Those might not be lies, so long as the punchline or reversal comes quickly enough to precede the real formation of a belief in the person being joked with, because the reversal changes the message that is actually being delivered in a single communicative act that simply has a strategic pause in between its verbal parts. “Look, Brother Thomas, a flying ox! . . . JK, LOL!”

To summarize… Art can be a means of lying, but when it is used rightly it might represent something unreal but in order to convey a truth, or even just a feeling.

“The cake is a lie.”

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: Thomas Nast, American River Ganges, 1871

The Transfiguration and the Meaning of Christian Mystery

“Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (Luke 9:33)

Peter had two options for approaching the event of the Transfiguration: he could see it as (a) a problem that needs to be solved, or (b) as a mystery.

When Jesus led Peter, James, and John up the high mountain, they woke up to a scene that seemed to defy all understanding. Jesus brings them up to the top of Mount Tabor and begins to glow unworldly bright. Then Moses and Elijah from the Old Testament show up and all three of them have a conversation.

Peter, thinking quickly on his feet, intrudes into their conversation and asks whether he should build three tents. For us, this sounds like odd, but for Peter, he must have thought he had solved the problem: this had to be the beginning of the end times. He might have picked up on how Jesus is fulfilling the Old Testament festivals. He knew of the Jewish tradition that Moses and Elijah would come again before the end of the world. Jesus, along with Moses and Elijah, was finally going to restore the kingdom of Israel and reap the much-anticipated harvest of souls. It was the Christological fulfillment of the Jewish Festival of Booths.

They needed tents.

However, Peter “did not know what he was saying.” He approached the Transfiguration as a problem to be solved, not as a mystery to be entered into. So while Peter was still speaking, a higher voice corrected him: “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

The Limits of Science

When Christians use the word “mystery,” we do not mean a problem without an answer. No, for Christians, a mystery is something that is so intensely knowable that it exceeds the powers of human comprehension.

Let me give you an example.

Once, my five-year old niece told me, “Did you know that, when I’m in the car, the moon follows me? It really does!” My immediate response was to try to explain to her that since the moon is so far away, it only looks like it is following her. My impulse was to set up an experiment, putting her in one car and her sister in another car. They would go separate directions and observe how the moon follows both of them. Then I could prove to my niece that, since the moon cannot possibly be following both of them, there must be another explanation. That explanation would be in the reality of the great distance between the earth and the moon, a distance that can be observed and measured. Science would win out over childish naïveté.

But before I could thoroughly disprove her childish notion, she interrupted, “No. The moon really follows me.” With such opposition, I thus abandoned my attempt to scientifically disprove her childish perception.

For my five-year old niece, the moon was a mystery; it really did follow her. The moon was so beyond her that, rather than disconnecting her, it implicated her in its path. However mistaken her understanding of perspective, she approached it with wonder. And she rightly would not let that wonder be extinguished.

To me, the moon was a problem that needed to be solved; it could be measured and placed conceptually at a distance. I knew that its movements and phases are configured to a different pattern than my sporadic movements. Although technically more correct, the approach that reduced the moon to a problem prevented me from being gripped by the mystery of the moon and sharing in my niece’s wonder. To my niece, however, the moon was a mystery to be entered into.

Like my niece with the moon, a mystery is so beyond us, that we cannot help but be pulled into it. A mystery is so large that it necessarily involves the viewer. In this way, God Himself is a mystery, being so far beyond us that, at the same time, He embraces us and loves us in our very being.

Mysteries are not problems; they are not to be solved – they are to be entered into. A mystery is like a piece of art that pulls the viewer in; it is not a mere opportunity for scientific analysis.

The Mystery of the Transfiguration

It is in this way that the event of the Transfiguration is a mystery. Since mysteries overwhelm us, they implicate us – they require our response. Our response, then, to the mystery of the Transfiguration is not to solve the puzzle of Moses and Elijah’s appearance, but to enter deeply into the reality of what is before us. Through the mystery of the Transfiguration, we share in Jesus’ own prayer with the Father. By beholding the glory of Christ transfigured and listening to him, we become sons and daughters in the Son. By entering in to the mystery of the Transfiguration – by listening to God’s chosen Son – we become what we contemplate.

How do we enter in to the mystery of the Transfiguration? For us Christians, we go to the source and the summit of the Christian life – the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Like Peter at the Transfiguration, we can look at the Mass just as a problem to be solved, a ritual to be analyzed, a puzzle to be deciphered. Or we can enter into the mystery of the Mass.

In every celebration of the Mass, we ascend the mountain with Christ, and we encounter something that overwhelms our understanding: God incarnate – the second Person of the Holy Trinity – comes to us as bread and wine. So great is the glory of Christ in the Eucharist, so utterly beyond us, that we are pulled into the mystery. The altar is our Mount Tabor, where we see His glory, not with the eyes of flesh, but with the eyes of faith. Over the altar the Father’s voice mystically resounds, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” We who enter into this mystery by receiving the Body of Christ in Holy Communion are enveloped by the cloud of the Holy Spirit. At Mass, we enter in to the mystery of God’s glory. He gazes on us, and we gaze on Him, and we become what we contemplate.


Main Image: The Church of the Transfiguration

Science and Value: Why you can’t “just do science”

Science can never be “value-free.” If science in the broadest sense is “knowledge coming to be in us,” then it cannot help but be informed by one’s personal metaphysical schemata. To claim that a statement is objectively true is one thing, but to say that all have the same understanding of that statement is quite another. For the same word can represent different realities to different minds, so any kind of conversation about objective truths runs aground on the issue of “manifesting the essence” of what one intends to express the truth about. It cannot be done through human language (though perhaps it can be done through the Divine Word).

The empirical sciences do not by any means escape this problem, for they inherently involve a type of conversation: one collects data and re-expresses it. This is in no way different from any ordinary way of conversing. Saying that science is free of this “problem of expression” is like saying that truth can be told objectively and without any kind of interfering values in English but that it can’t be in French. The language of the most basic science consists in numbers representing quantity, and quantity is based on unity. The inductions made by those advancing to knowledge of such unities are pre-logical and can in nowise be considered as perfectly objective or “value-free.” The language of the more complex sciences is firstly based on the simpler sciences and consists essentially in words representing qualities, the original problem has in no way been avoided. Perhaps it has even been exacerbated.

However, the special place that “modern science” has earned is not wholly undeserved, and its (legitimate) practitioners are indeed to be given somewhat of an elevated authority. The relevant differentiae of “science” as a means of communicating truth is its rigor in observation, care in expression, and “plainness” of its object. By the latter I mean that the field of science generally extends to things that can quickly be made intelligible to the reasonable inquirer, whereas the truths of history or theology are less easily approached.

But that does not mean the less immediately intelligible sciences aren’t worthy of pursuit… theology in particular. Unfortunately, that is a popular attitude. Perhaps the occasional recollection that the whole project of “SCIENCE!” is dependent on more basic and invisible “values” would help correct this.


Main image: “Louis Pasteur in his Laboratory,” Albert Edelfelt, oil on canvas, 1885

Justice for Harambe? Sorry, not possible.

“What was that?”

“We just hit a raccoon.”

“Jonathan, don’t you think we should stop?”

“Oh trust me babe, that raccoon would not have stopped for us.”

I’ve had this hilarious exchange from Hot Rod in my mind recently.

There is a reason we say someone is “acting like an animal” when he’s doing crazy or immoral stuff… Animals have no real moral sense, no conscience, no supernatural end to which they are called. We don’t really think of them as guilty or innocent, except inasmuch as those words mean the existence or non-existence of some act.

To begin with, even asking the question sets one off on the wrong path: “Is there a morality gene?” All the dispositions of our bodies can ever incline us to desire are temporal goods (like pleasure or security), even if they are delayed in their acquisition in some way or are diffused among a community to which one belongs, UNLESS they are ordered somehow to the preservation of the species in such a way that it is altogether compulsory. Genetics, therefore, could only ever tell us why a person feels like doing x which will ultimately redound to his own temporal benefit in some way. And in animals, genetics are altogether compulsory, so the disjunction above is irrelevant for them.

In humans, these impulses can be intellectualized into rational selfishness, and certain kinds of structures of cooperation can indeed bring about a society that on its surface is stable and healthy. Read an Ayn Rand novel and you’ll get the idea.

But that’s not what real morality is. Real morality searches for the good in itself, not just for I me myself, even through others, but for others in themselves. Real morality moderates self-interest, while genetics can only incline one to seek his own good.

What about all those birds who are so committed to caring for their chicks? What about those elephants that cry for their dead? What about, etc., etc.?

If an animal does something we might call moral or right that does in fact only lend itself to the preservation of the species (which we would be tempted to call altruism), it is because it had an instinct to. Isn’t that the same as a morality gene? No, it is a gene that compels them to act in such a way, and the satisfaction for them lies precisely in the completion of an urge rather than “doing what is ‘right'” or something similar. There is no order to which a bear clings outside of itself when it protects its cubs – it has no reason for protecting them that it is aware of other than “because that’s what bears do.” We would call this a virtue if it was rationally chosen among other options, but the bear doesn’t have real rational options: it just has genes which force it to act in such a way. In fact, the very same impulse to protect its children would compel it to kill an innocent man, which we would NOT call virtuous.

“So what? It’s still bad to kill animals.” Well, while you chomp down on your burger tonight, think about what Cecil the Lion would have done to you (or your village) if given the chance. Think about what Harambe might have been about to do to that child. And so on.

We are not in a real community with animals, because they can’t communicate with us rationally. They can’t do that because they can’t reason. We are simply better and higher in the order of creation, as Genesis teaches. We have immortal souls, they do not. We can relate with God intellectually, they can not. We are called moral or immoral, they are not. This means that justice, with regard to animals, is nothing more than their proper temporal use as part of the goods shared among ourselves and God, and we expect absolutely nothing from them in return. The conclusion is this: unless you are killing animals for the sheer pleasure of destroying them, or the animal you kill is somehow important for human flourishing (like a cow that makes a family’s milk), or in killing them you are desensitizing yourself to human pain and death, you’re not doing anything wrong.

So there can’t even be such a thing as justice for Harambe. He’s owed nothing – especially since he no longer exists. But that won’t stop our culture from hashtagging more about a gorilla than about the innocent victims of abortion, or the news from covering Harambe’s death six times more than Christians recently killed by ISIS. As G.K. Chesterton famously opined, where there is animal worship, there is human sacrifice.

And anyway… Harambe would not have wanted justice for you.


Main image: By TKnoxB from Chemainus, BC, Canada – Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

Logical Positivism & the New Atheists

The 21st century has very few well-known intellectual movements to its name thus far. In fact, perhaps the only one that the average American (or Brit) would even be vaguely aware of is the “New Atheism.” Characterized by evangelical unbelief – that is, the spreading of anti-religious/theistic sentiments in an attempt to destroy all belief in God – and an unwavering belief in the monopoly of empirical science on knowledge, the New Atheism is not particularly friendly toward some of the most predominant thoughts arising out of Western philosophy, especially the existence of God. Despite its relative popularity, the New Atheism comes on the heels of the utterly failed school of logical positivism, and it is not to be mistaken for a serious philosophical movement.

Before examining the New Atheism (which is really not all that new), it will be helpful to reflect on the school of thought which helped give rise to it: logical positivism. Two of the largest figures in what is perhaps the only school of thought ever to become truly extinct in university departments of philosophy were Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer. After being exposed to the New Atheism for just a short while, one will quickly come to realize that Russell is something of a hero of the movement. However, since Ayer wrote the book on logical positivism that Russell said he had wished he’d written, it will be more helpful to look at Ayer’s seminal work published in 1936, Language, Truth, and Logic.

Logical positivism is fiercely anti-metaphysical, such that it makes Kant look like kind of a sissy. According to Ayer, there are really only two kinds of truth-apt statements: tautologies and propositions directly available to verification by the senses. “We say that a statement is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express – that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false” (LTL, 35). Such an attitude places metaphysics and questions of value, according to Ayer, completely out of the realm of significance. In line with this, Ayer also espouses the emotivist vision of metaethics: “But in every case in which one would commonly be said to be making an ethical judgment, the function of the relevant ethical word is purely ‘emotive.’ It is used to express feeling about certain objects, but not to make any assertion about them” (LTL, 108).

It is just intuitively obvious that there are some kinds of truths that are not verifiable by the senses. As is so often repeated, “Man is a metaphysical animal.” An appeal to intuition is perhaps something of a cop-out, but to anyone who has thought about “the thing in itself” or a universal conception of some particular thing, it is clear that non-material things have existence and that on the heels of that existence closely rides significance. The problem is that one who is stuck in the materialism-positivism-scientism bent will have too narrow an idea of what “existence” is. (But of course, that one can have such an idea at all proves the point once again.)

There were other well-known criticisms of logical positivism. The most obvious is that the main ideas in the system are themselves unable to be true by the system itself. How is it that we verify by sense that there are no meaningful metaphysical statements? And is the thought that there are no meaningful metaphysical statements itself supposed to be taken for a meaningful metaphysical statement? W. V. Quine offered a sharp criticism of the analytic/synthetic distinction in his earth-shattering paper, Two Dogmas of Empiricism, and soon enough, the school of logical positivism was completely dead. Or was it?

If there are any New Atheists involved in the serious practice of academic philosophy such as one would find at a university, they are few and far between and do not seem to make much noise. However, this does not mean that it is irrational to conclude that there has not been any influence of the logical positivists on the New Atheists, however difficult it may be to trace the course of the influence in its entirety. The sort of men involved in the work of logical positivism were heavily influential on 20th century philosophy of science, so the intellectual heritage might very well have cut through there and into the minds of philosophically-curious scientists like Richard Dawkins.

Whatever the case, there are clear similarities between the New Atheism and logical positivism. There is perhaps not an overt disdain for metaphysics like Ayer and Russell had, but there seems to be a level of distrust that prevents them from understanding it. For instance, there is a general incomprehension of major metaphysical ideas like the deduction of the existence of a simple God. There is little concern with value-reasoning (even though the leaders of the movement constantly find themselves dealing with questions of value, such as the worth of religion, or the moral goodness of eliminating religious belief), and there is really very little attempt to understand anything in terms of essences, formal causes, or anything indicative of or contingent upon teleology (the study of natural purposes).

The most classic example of their collective metaphysical inanity is perhaps the most fundamental to the entire project of the New Atheism in terms of a philosophical critique. Just as nearly all of St. Thomas’ work flows out of his “Five Ways,” almost the entirety of the philosophical dimension of New Atheists’ project rests on objections to the traditional proofs of God’s existence. The foremost instance is probably the cosmological argument.

Misunderstanding the cosmological argument is easy enough to do for the layman; it requires a critical mind that can grasp abstract ideas like “act” and “potency” and “simplicity.” It should not, however, be too difficult for the full-time philosopher to understand. Nor should it be dismissed so easily by the skeptic: there are possibly serious objections to the cosmological argument, but it does not appear that any such objections are on the radar of the New Atheists. Rather, they just plain misunderstand it. For example:

“If the universe’s existence requires an explanation in terms of an intelligent designer, then why doesn’t God, with all of his supreme and complex attributes, beg for an explanation in terms of yet another intelligent designer, ad infinitum? Indeed, who designed the designer? Alternatively, if God can simply exist without requiring an explanation, then why can’t the universe simply exist unexplained as well, thereby removing the need to posit a designer in the first place?”


The idea that this argument poses a serious threat to the cosmological argument is laughable, and indeed, it is almost embarrassing. Clearly, the God proposed in the cosmological argument does not possess “complex attributes,” or any “attributes” at all that are distinct from Himself. On the contrary, the universe is complex, thus necessarily implying a cause. Since there cannot be an infinite regression of causes (or else there would be no explanation for why there are any causes/effects at all), there must be some First Cause.

In his absolutely wonderful blog, Edward Feser notes that “most people who comment on the cosmological argument demonstrably do not know what they are talking about. This includes all the New Atheist writers.” The question is, why? Why is it that they do not understand it? Feser goes on: “[W]hile the basic structure of the main versions of the argument is fairly simple, the background metaphysics necessary for a proper understanding of the key terms and inferences is not.” Such “background metaphysics” might include a belief in or recognition of “actuality” being distinct from “potency.” This sort of language would be dismissed by Ayer as meaningless. Could a kind of hidden assumption of this thought account for the New Atheists having such trouble beginning to approach the cosmological argument? It is certainly a possibility.

God is not “a being” in the way that objects of empirical study are, although it appears that this is the current running through the entirety of the popular atheism generally fueled by the leaders of the movement. How else could the difficulties with the cosmological argument arise? This tendency to try to make something completely “beyond” the everyday kind of object to be very observable and even testable is indicative of distrust or even contempt for metaphysics. If the things of the immaterial world were really taken seriously by figures like Dawkins, they would not have such difficulties with the cosmological argument. Since the refutation of this argument is so critical, however, it is shameful that they do not even give a reasonably fair representation of it in their criticism.

Further evidence of this anti-metaphysical (and sharply anti-mystery) worldview is given in the widespread attempt to make “God” the object of scientific testing. After constructing a Bayes’ Theorem for God’s existence, Fishman concludes, “The fact that no devout Christian amputees have ever had their limbs grow back following prayers to the Christian God requesting limb re-growth is strong evidence that the Christian God does not exist.” Never mind that this is untrue – the deeper issue is that it is inconceivable to the New Atheists that perhaps God is wise to tests and chooses to abstain from participating in them, or that prayer is an altogether mysterious activity that will always escape science in some way. Instead, God is “a being” that can be measured, tested, and controlled just like any other being. This kind of God is not only rejected by the Bible, it is also rejected by Aristotle! It crams pre-conceived and wildly incorrect notions of benevolence, mercy, and intercession into the Christian (and Western) worldview.

Not only in the assessment of proofs for God’s existence is there a trace of logical positivism in the ideas of the New Atheism, but in the examination of value-claims as well. Dawkins writes:

“The question, ‘What is right and what is wrong?’ is a genuinely difficult question that science certainly cannot answer. Given a moral premise or a priori moral belief, the important and rigorous discipline of secular moral philosophy can pursue scientific or logical modes of reasoning to point up hidden implications of such beliefs, and hidden inconsistencies between them. But the absolute moral premises themselves must come from elsewhere, presumably from unargued conviction. Or, it might be hoped, from religion – meaning some combination of authority, revelation, tradition, and scripture.”

What is this “unargued conviction” he references? He does not say, but it is altogether likely that he means something very or indeed altogether subjective and/or arbitrary. He goes on to note that “some kind of liberal consensus of decency and natural justice that changes over historical time, frequently under the influence of secular reformists” provides us with most of our moral convictions rather than religion.

It might be shocking that Dawkins does not think that science can tell us about moral truth. It is maybe not that shocking that he does not appear to realize that he makes himself to be emotivist by this admission, if the foregoing explanation of “unargued conviction” is correct. If moral convictions are arbitrary or always subjective, and science can shed no light on the matter of moral principles, then we are left with an emotivist constructivism, since it does not seem that Dawkins would want to say that there can be “many moral truths” along the popular relativist line.

In the final analysis, both logical positivism and the New Atheism rest on turf highly unsympathetic to metaphysics and all things related. Being such, they both draw out the skeleton in the philosopher’s closet: science-envy. There are obvious remnants of Ayer and Russell in the work of the New Atheists, so regardless of how the influence came about it is clear that there exists one at least to some degree.


Main image: “atheos” from Ephesians 2:12

Scientific Realism vs. Instrumentalism: A Primer

From the outset, it’s clear who lost the “name game” here.

The scientific realist posits that it is the job of scientific theories to explain the causes of observable phenomena in terms of whatever may cause them. He includes unobservable entities in his consideration, as he believes firstly of course that such things may exist, and secondly that science does not consist only in predicting similar phenomena by forming a “law,” but also about knowing what it is that is occurring in such a transaction between the objects of study. In other words, it’s about finding out the whole truth.

“YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!” (A Few Good Men, 1992)

Quite on the contrary is the position of the instrumentalist. However, the instrumentalist view does not go so far as the anti-realist, who says that there just plain aren’t any unobservable entities. Rather, the instrumentalist is agnostic as to whether or not there are such entities, and he avoids them in theorizing. He believes that it is enough for science merely to be able to predict the effects of observable events. Any statements made about things that cannot be sensed are regarded by him as almost altogether meaningless in themselves. Instead, they hold only an “instrumental” meaning for him; that is to say, he may see them as being useful for grounding a theory in. This might remind one of the pragmatism of William James, which said that “truth” is whatever is useful for thinking.

An example will help to illustrate these differences. The Higgs-Boson particle has not yet been directly observed, despite those successes in 2012 and 2013. The existence of this particle would provide an account for why certain particles have mass. The scientific realist is greatly interested in knowing whether or not there is such a particle, and it is these sorts of people who tend to want to build particle accelerators and telescopes. The instrumentalist is content with the “idea” of the Higgs-Boson, but he does not care if it really exists. It fills a gap that did not need to be filled. What the instrumentalist cares about is collecting enough data to understand that there is mass in certain kinds of things.

Instrumentalism is antithetical to the spirit of Christianity (and classical philosophy) as it bears on the motivation for natural scientific knowledge. We ought to want to know “what lies beneath,” because it reflects the beauty and wisdom of God… It is good for the soul to seek this kind of knowledge for its own sake, since that is one of the highest purposes of our existence. The “speciating principle” of man is his ability to reason and possess speculative knowledge, which therefore becomes primary in the determination of how he flourishes. Instrumentalism shucks this virtue and turns it into about gaining what is useful rather than what is good in itself.


Main image: The Very Large Array
By John Fowler – Flickr: VLA, CC BY 2.0,

Can’t Spell “Cannabis” Without “Can I”

So guess what? Turns out some researchers in the Netherlands think more countries should legalize pot.

Captain Obvious, of fame

For those who think flying to Amsterdam (or Colorado, etc.) to indulge in the herb is just fine and dandy, let’s do some thinkin’.

Principle 1: Creation is good.
Principle 2: Not all creatures are equally good.
Principle 3: We ought to avoid evil.
Principle 4: Rastafari is a false religion.

Humans are ontologically higher than rocks, plants, and animals. We can use them, even to their detriment, if they are beneficial enough to us. Jesus was not a vegetarian. And yes, Brother Carrot and Sister Lettuce are okay to kill, unless it is out of sheer disdain and spite for their existence as creatures of God.

But Uncle Bud is a little different, because when we harvest him, it’s usually for the sake of affecting our bodies in a way that suspends our intellect.

Eat-ay ad Thomam:

The sin of drunkenness, as stated in the foregoing Article, consists in the immoderate use and concupiscence of wine. Now this may happen to a man in three ways. First, so that he knows not the drink to be immoderate and intoxicating: and then drunkenness may be without sin, as stated above (Article 1). Secondly, so that he perceives the drink to be immoderate, but without knowing it to be intoxicating, and then drunkenness may involve a venial sin. Thirdly, it may happen that a man is well aware that the drink is immoderate and intoxicating, and yet he would rather be drunk than abstain from drink.

That’s from the Summa TheologicaII-II, Q. 150, art. 2. Wine stands here for any intoxicating substance… One might not know a substance to have intoxicating effects, and so there is no sin in such drunkenness (unless its use was immoderate for other reasons). But if one knows something to be potent, it is another story. But just how drunk is “drunk?”

[The third kind of man] is a drunkard properly speaking, because morals take their species not from things that occur accidentally and beside the intention, but from that which is directly intended. On this way drunkenness is a mortal sin, because then a man willingly and knowingly deprives himself of the use of reason, whereby he performs virtuous deeds and avoids sin, and thus he sins mortally by running the risk of falling into sin. For Ambrose says (De Patriarch. [De Abraham i.]): “We learn that we should shun drunkenness, which prevents us from avoiding grievous sins. For the things we avoid when sober, we unknowingly commit through drunkenness.” Therefore drunkenness, properly speaking, is a mortal sin.

So there is still a mystery… How intoxicated must one be before he “deprives himself of the use of reason?” Let’s remember a few things though before we shame the Angelic Doctor for being obscure. First, he expects a student to have read all the text which precedes this Article. That would give one a better idea of what he means. Second, the Summa really is just a beginner’s crash-course. It is not meant to be exhaustive. In some articles, this is more evident than in others. Third, it’s unlikely St. Thomas had much firsthand experience with drinking to provide us with more subtlety… When Albertus Magnus is your professor and Bonaventure lives on your hall, you’re inspired to “rise above the influence,” as it were.

“Bonaventure Shows Thomas Aquinas the Crucifix,” Francisco Zurbaran, 1629

However, we know that some of the more austere saints occasionally indulged, such as Charles Borromeo and John Vianney. And of course, the Lord did as well, as He so famously pointed out in Matthew 11:19. Since potent substances will technically have some effect no matter how little is taken of them, we can say from this alone that it is not evil in itself to use intoxicating substances.

Then there is the principle of totality to keep in mind. Later in the same Question, Thomas alludes to this by saying a physician might tell one to use drink to induce vomiting – but since lukewarm water works too, that should be used instead. However, if it didn’t (and we hadn’t discovered Ipecac) then it would be fine. This is because the greater health of the body is worth the temporary loss of reason… That’s also why it’s not a sin to plan on going to sleep each night! And while there is violence done to the body and soul when, for instance, a gangrenous limb is removed, it is for the sake of the entire person. But this too should be moderated by wisdom, since not every ailment is worth doing violence to yourself. If you get occasional leg pain, that doesn’t mean you should cut off your leg.

So anyway, how drunk is drunk? How high is high? It is so difficult to say because of the problem in trying to quantify a quality. “It’s when you feel like… you know, drunk.”

There he is again!

We won’t solve the issue of exactly where “the line” is today – maybe another post with some ¡HARDCORE SCIENCE! – but perhaps we can lay down some guideposts based on Thomas and basic research.

Certain drugs act far more quickly than others. THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) acts more quickly than alcohol, based on the popular conventions of consumption. That is a big deal.

Reason helps us to distinguish the true from the false. Once you have trouble doing that, it’s time to call it a day… If sober people around you start laughing at everything you say, it’s probably not because you’re witty and charming, it’s because you’re diminishing your material brain’s capability to interact with your immaterial intellect (AKA you’re becoming drunk). And so on.

If you’re starting to forget stuff that you shouldn’t forget, then that’s another sign your faculties are slipping. So put it down.

When you feel like doing something really dumb that you normally wouldn’t, STOP and don’t do that much again. Once you know that tequila makes your clothes fall off, then kiss it goodbye. It’s better to enter into life without a bottle of Patrón than into Gehenna with all you could ever drink. (And Tequila burns even without being on fire…)

If you can’t walk right and are slurring words, then your brain is shutting down. Same story.

So no hard answers here today, but basically the faster and stronger the drug, the less morally safe it is to use. AND, if one uses any substance for the pleasure of changing his mental state in a way that diminishes its capacity to execute its proper function, as distinct from some some other effect, this too is a red flag… We should not delight in an unnatural state!

All this would make the average consumption of pot pretty bad.

Comet and Cupid

The 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko Comet (or “Rosetta’s Comet”) has been found to have organic elements on board. That’s quite a discovery, but how much bigger would it have been if the Mars Rover had found a little clump of algae?

There’s an entire industry around extraterrestrial life. One can just imagine with what care and reverential fear the world’s scientists would handle (or even discuss) some Petri dish of alien amoebas. How many billions of dollars would go to the protection, preservation, and cultivation of that life?

Meanwhile, it’s springtime, and you know what that means: hormones. And we all know hormones lead people to make dumb choices.

“Romeo and Juliet,” Ford Madox, oil on canvas, 1870

Nobody seems to care so much about destroying human life in the womb, even though it behooves us far more to protect our own kind than to grovel over some alien fungus. Space-grass won’t take care of you when you’re old. It will never look you in the eye and tell you it loves you. And no matter how hard you try, you will not be able to teach it how to ride a bike. The list goes on.



Yes, aliens. But yes, humans, too. Shouldn’t we be our first priority? Shouldn’t we figure out how to flourish on our own before trying to flourish as an inter-galactic community?

The drive to search for space-buddies isn’t as strong as the drive for human intimacy. And no matter how many remakes there are of War of the Worlds, the prospect of having a child is more threatening. So we cheat the system.

Pfft. Puny humans.

Although this is less ridiculous than the fact that the destruction of the eggs of endangered turtles carries a higher penalty than the destruction of your own child. At least aliens are cool… No offense to the hawksbill turtle.

One last question… If there really is intelligent extraterrestrial life, and they know anything about our planet, why exactly would they want to have anything to do with us?


Main image: Haley’s comet in 1910

What makes art good?

I read a piece recently about a kid who left a pair of glasses on the ground at a modern art museum. Hilarity ensued.

Following our earlier post on the essence of art, now we can ask the question: what makes art good?

We can limit ourselves here to the question of what we’ll call “didactic art,” that is to say we will consider a work inasmuch as it is to be enjoyed for its own sake rather than some practical function like digging a hole or magnifying light… Obviously, in those cases, the measure is how well the job is accomplished.

In didactic art, there is not as clear a solution. One might immediately say that it is “a thing well made which is beautiful.” Okay, but that not only raises the thorny question of what beauty is but also seems to exclude many things that we have an impulse to call good art but would probably not call beautiful.


If Francisco de Goya had meant for “Saturn Devouring his Son” to be “beautiful,” we would say he failed. But who would deny that this is good art?

Clearly then, the intention of the artist is important. It is important not only in the sense of craftsmanship – how closely what is in the mind is actually achieved in reality by the work done – but also in the sense of purpose. What is the artist trying to effect in his audience, and how is he trying to accomplish it? What point is he trying to get across to people, how is he trying to make them feel, what is he trying to get them to think? These questions seem pertinent.

Here’s a radical thought… Not all points should be made, not all feelings effected, and so on. If the point is not something true, or if the idea is to make one hate something good – or even to feel a disordered passion, like lust – perhaps it can’t be good didactic art. Alternatively, if there is no message, or the message is so obscure as to be comical (as highlighted so well by the glasses prank), or the message is obscured by the work evoking some distracting feeling (like sensuality), perhaps it can’t be good didactic art. The intention must be a worthy one, and how well that worthy intention is communicated through craftsmanship would be the measure. Here is a familiar painting we might consider:


“Conversion on the Way to Damascus” by Caravaggio was a wildly controversial work upon its release. It was thought sacrilegious that the hind end of a horse would occupy the main focus of such a scene! One could see why that might have had an adverse effect on people, especially when it is coupled with Caravaggio’s scandalous life, a life that even included having the pope give him a death sentence (which he evaded by running off to Malta and then bribing a relative of the Holy Father with several paintings).

This work has become greatly admired though, to the point where most people think that the Scriptures actually say Paul fell of a horse on the way to Damascus! But is the shift in public opinion due to a better appreciation of a righteous intention or a deadening of spiritual sensitivities?

Of course there is no doubt that it is well crafted: the chiascurro, the perspective, the expressions – all wonderful. But was Caravaggio making fun of St. Paul? We can only wonder at his intention, but if it was evil and we get only good out of the work anyway, it is by accident rather than by art.

Just some food for thought.

So maybe didactic art, too, is about “how well the job gets done,” but the job is done in the audience themselves. And maybe good art is more about truth and goodness than beauty… But we’ll keep beauty in our tagline anyway.


Main image: By cea + from The Netherlands – Ecce Home, Before, After, and After the After, CC BY 2.0,
Second image: “Saturn Devouring his Son,” Francisco de Goya, 1819-1823
Third image: “Conversion on the Way to Damascus,” Caravaggio, 1601