Babel University

There is an old adage that a PhD is given to someone who knows everything there is to know about nothing. This is to say that as someone advances more and more in education, he will have to choose a field, then a sub-field, then finally a very precise issue in some topic within that sub-field on which to write a dissertation. That person might become the world’s foremost expert on the life cycle of African dung beetles, or the influence of Shakespeare on early 19th century Russian literature, or the architectural history of Plano, Texas.

Obviously, a person has to do preliminary studies to prepare to enter a doctoral program and might become extraordinarily well-educated in all manner of topics beyond his own specialty along the way and after earning his doctorate. So while the aphorism is ultimately untrue, there is still something right about it: simply because a person has an advanced degree within some larger field (biochemistry, American history, music theory, etc.,) does not necessarily imply that that he is truly an expert in the entirety of that larger field; it only implies expertise in the narrow sliver of that field which he focuses on. Much less does it imply that he is an expert in “science” or “history” or “art.” Yet often there is indeed such a delusion of grandeur in the academy, and even more so in those who look up to it and aspire to it.

In today’s world, some 18 year old Americans are shipping off to colleges where they will be taught remedial English skills, be coddled with trigger-warnings and safe-spaces, celebrate diversity by forcing everyone to share the same childish values and opinions as themselves, and complain that national election results are making them too distraught to take tests which they will then be allowed to skip. After four exorbitantly expensive years of this foolishness, these bright-eyed and bushy-tailed graduates will go on to call themselves “well-educated,” and they will be confirmed in this delusion by the society which they will then be poised to run.

There is nothing “higher” about this sort of education, except the greater availability of illicit substances. Students may be free to take all kinds of elective courses, often basing their choices on fleeting interests or even by factors having nothing at all to do with the content of the course itself (such as friends taking the course, having it at a certain time, etc.), or conversely, they will immediately be deeply plunged into their field of choice without ever being exposed to anything outside of it, putting them on the fast-track to knowing everything about nothing. And all of this after a primary and secondary education which probably left them with little more than a rudimentary understanding of algebra, a couple of names and events in world history, and some loosely connected ideas about science. After all, why should one bother to master these topics when they will not be part of one’s profession, especially since in a pinch all the answers can be accessed instantly by consulting WikiOracle? All the specialization without regard for the whole and all the reckless ambition and vanity which can drive educational pursuits create a paradoxical trajectory of learning for the sake of income or for the sake of advancing a political agenda without regard for what one would do if he made enough money to have no need to work anymore or actually accomplished that political agenda. It’s an upward trajectory, but where does it lead? We will never know – the tower is crumbling, just like at Babel.

Fulton Sheen was complaining about some of these exact imbalances of higher education some 60 years ago. Take a second to let that sink in.

It goes without saying that standards of education have dropped over the ages. What “well-educated” used to mean for an adolescent was having obtained serious proficiency in the classical group of liberal arts (grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy – in that order) as well as literature and history, plenty of Latin, and maybe some Greek as well.

Today it means “having a degree.” The argument from authority no longer works so well when appealing to the words of God or the Church, but one can appeal to the opinions of “experts” without feeling a touch of shame. If only Jesus had gone to an Ivy League and wore a lab coat!

The salve for this wound is precisely a return to older standards and methods of education. Since college has in many ways become the new high school, colleges ought to be teaching students at least the basics of the world which they are about to step into, no? Sure, let kids have a major, but a strong core curriculum is absolutely indispensable in these mad times. The tendency toward rapid specialization in education has gone too far. As each individual learns only his own language, the common language disappears, and so too does a recognizably unified culture. We are building a tower to the sky, but our base is shaky and nobody knows anything but his own special craft. The polymaths are gone. Will the West ever see another Alcuin? Another Dante? Another da Vinci? If we do, it will be in spite of our educational priorities, not because of them.

Instead of turning to the treasures of our own culture and seeking to present them in the most effective way possible, Catholic schools often get distracted by trying to be on the “cutting edge.” It is a losing race, of course… We are outspent, especially in primary and secondary education. Most Catholic schools will never be able to beat secular schools at their own game even if they pay the hefty fees of conscience and identity. But we can offer the richness of the Western tradition from the platform of revealed truth without indoor plumbing, let alone without an iPad for every student. Perhaps endlessly trying to “keep up with Principal Jones” is a waste of our time, money, and energy, when we already have on the shelf an incredible product that we own by Divine right and therefore have an educational monopoly on.

We need an academic Pentecost to undo our academic Babel. A rigorous and holistic Catholic liberal arts education is the God-given way to make that happen. Otherwise, our universities will be full of sub-curricula which are so “united” that they will create students who are too “diverse” to share significant goals with each other in a meaningful way.

I will suggest in harmony with the mind of Professor MacIntyre that we as a Church ought to focus much more energy on building up our own communities in sound doctrine and morals, in addition to providing a solid education in secular knowledge. Perhaps parishes could invest “real money” in local homeschooling programs. But whatever the solution is, it will necessarily involve an openness to what has come – and is coming – from above.

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: “The Tower of Babel,” Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1826972

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?”

philmeme1

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.

truth1
“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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23385127

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

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

captobv
Captain Obvious, of Hotels.com 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.

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“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.”

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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.

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“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.

BUT, BUT… ALIENS!

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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

Science and Sacrament on Corpus Christi

Today is the Feast of Corpus Christi. Deo Gratias!

The Eucharist baffles materialists… Such a radical paradigm can easily invade a mind to the point where it can’t even understand how someone could possibly begin to believe the doctrine of the Real Presence, and not only because two elements (Soul and Divinity) are immaterial to begin with. A materialistic vision of the universe, if applied honestly, will reduce all things to a soup of non-distinct matter. There are words or concepts that can be useful, but they don’t correspond to real “substances.” There is no “Socrates,” only “this bit of matter that we call Socrates.” There is no “essence,” in general or in particular.

So, if there is no such thing as substance, (and only “accidents,” such as position, quality, etc.) then it is easy to see why it would be hard to begin to grasp how the Real Presence could work, even hypothetically. “Bracketing” beliefs that much can be very hard sometimes.

Furthermore, the Real Presence, like so many doctrines of religion, is “pseudoscientific.” That means that it is impossible either to prove or to disprove through empirical science, even though it makes a claim about reality. The difference here is that we can touch its consequence – unlike with the division of grace, the Ascension, and so on. This is often frustrating and confusing to secularists. The whole sacramental world is, after all, a giant wrench in the modernist machine: God actually involves Himself in the world, and in certain ways He has subjected himself to men, like that day Joshua made the sun stand still.

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The “science of the sacraments” depends upon the “science of the Page.” Theology is a science whose principles are authority and witness rather than direct observation. The primary witness is God Himself, the secondary witnesses are those with whom He has had interactions directly by certain kinds of revelation, and tertiary witnesses are those who have trusted the preceding witnesses… However, tertiary witnesses could also be those events which testify by their nature and circumstance to the authority of the secondary and primary witnesses.

We might rightly call each confection of the Eucharist “miraculous,” since indeed something supernatural is happening in the natural world, but it is ordinary, inasmuch as it can be expected. There are also extraordinary events surrounding the Eucharist, even in our present day: note that a Host was found bleeding in Poland in 2013, and it has just been confirmed after several years of study.

And there are loads of these.

I remember the first time I was turned on to this phenomenon… It was a short video of a presentation by a cardiologist on a recent Eucharistic miracle which happened in Buenos Aires. (Interestingly, Pope Francis has not made much mention of it.) A host had been dropped, put into water, began bleeding and had turned into living heart tissue exhibiting great signs of distress.

How edifying that was to me! “What a slap in the face to those who don’t believe,” I thought. Except it is very, very hard to pull oneself out of the swamps of materialism, secularism, and hedonism, into which so many individuals in our society have fallen. Many of them might say that encountering just one miracle would change their whole lives – but we know how that panned out in the Book of Exodus. Perhaps they will change, but it is easy to slide back again. Humans are both rational and animal, after all.

Miracles can be aids to receiving faith, but faith is only given by God. When Peter confesses his faith in the divinity of Jesus, he gets the reply, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.” What a paradox to reflect on during this feast of the Lord’s Body and Blood.

 

Main image: “Bénédiction des blés en Artois,” 1857, Jules Breton
Second image: “Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Upon Gideon,” 1816, John Martin