CRISPR: The Eugenitopia is Here

Have you heard of CRISPR? No it’s not a breakfast cereal… It’s a fast, accurate, and cheap means of changing DNA. It stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.

If you haven’t heard of it, then you need to: this is a HUGE deal.

There is a protein in bacteria called Cas9 which helps defend against viral attacks. (Yes, bacteria get viruses, too!) The bacterial DNA can take the viral DNA and store it in a special place (CRISPR). When the virus attacks a second time, RNA loads Cas9 with the viral DNA. The loaded Cas9 scans the bacteria’s DNA to find the new viral DNA that has infiltrated it, and it cuts it out – a little like a DNA antibody. Personified, that means the cell says, “I’ve seen this change before, it’s a mistake, I need to replace the change with the original information.” Then it sends a message to the Cas9 protein with the bad DNA sequence to modify, and off we go.

The Cas9 protein can be taken out of bacteria, be given a DNA sequence from any kind of living thing, be injected into any other living thing, and it will make changes in that organism based on the information it was “programmed” with.

Got that? You give Cas9 a DNA sequence you want to modify, inject it into an organism, and it will make the changes. It is fast, it is accurate, and it is CHEAP.

Okay, this is a bit of an oversimplification. There’s more to it, and no you can’t just walk into the right lab and get a shot that will make you grow wings… yet.

There are obvious benefits to this kind of procedure. CRISPR might provide us with a cure for cancer, AIDS, any number of genetic diseases, and could help us generally keep healthy (like by increasing our metabolism or improving our eyesight). Once it is really nailed down, it is very likely that a couple of $12 shots at the minute clinic will be able to get rid of your asthma, or Alzheimer’s, or cerebral palsy… forever.

But… With great power comes great responsibility.

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Thanks, Uncle Ben. Wait a minute – was Spiderman CRISPR’d?

Unfortunately, the 21st century West is not very responsible. Where might CRISPR go wrong?

Well, what color eyes would you like your child to have? Should we bump up his IQ while we’re at it? Hey, you’re an athlete, maybe we can give him long legs and enhanced muscular growth as well, so he will be sure to be athletic too. Just an extra $300, please. Oh, you’d like him to have Shiva arms and a third eye, because you’re into that kind of thing right now? You’ll have to go down the hall for that.

Anti-aging cream? Psh. Take the right injection, and your body will actually start DE-AGING. As long as you don’t get hit by a truck or something, you’re good to go for another hundred years… a thousand years… indefinitely, perhaps. Or at least we will try.

Let’s say you’re running a poor nation and, well, need things to go more “smoothly.” So you put something in the water to make all your citizens have a defect that only you can provide the fix for. And you will only provide it to a person if his taxes are paid on time, he doesn’t have too many children, and he votes for you again. (This could be done now, but not with nearly the same ease and dramatic effects.) Meanwhile, you are pumping your soldiers and police full of testosterone 2.0…

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It’s only cool if he’s on your side. You might look like an alien once the Great Leader poisons you.

And once such genetically modified people reproduce (whether they have been helped to be healthy or have been “upgraded” or “downgraded” somehow), those screwed up genes get passed along. At that point, there’s no stopping it. And we have no idea what that will actually mean.

Here’s a video helpful for understanding more:

This technology is developing very quickly. The Church needs to get ready with a response, ASAP. Where is the line for modification, and why? If life is a good thing and death is to be avoided, is anti-aging wrong? What is to be done in terms of people who have already changed themselves by addition – how far does the obligation extend to have such a thing undone? Is this technology really worth the risk of irreversible changes to the gene pool which we don’t even know the danger of? Could there be an obligation to use this technology to prevent certain kinds of diseases? These are the kinds of questions we have to begin asking.

Get ready. It’s coming. And once it comes, it is here to stay.

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: Cas9 in the Apo form

Main image source (modified): By Ben.lafrance – Template:Own rendition of the crystal structure solved by M Jinek et al, published in Science 2014, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37224108

The New Albigensianism, PART II: Comte and the Combox

For Part I, click here.

Just as the woman with the hemorrhage reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ tunic, so do post-modern secular Westerners reach out to touch the hem of scientists’ lab coats. Despite the plain fact that any given scientist or doctor or other “expert” will be tend to be specialized in only some tiny sliver of his or her field, hopeless intellectual wanderers will gather at the feet of these people to learn all the mysteries of the universe… which is dumb. How did this happen?

Let’s take a step back.

The manifesto of the post-modern Westerner par excellence is this: “Real knowledge is only of irreducible information about the material world, and I can manipulate that same material world however I want in order to express myself and fulfill my desires.”

Herein we see two strands of thought colliding, one about the mind and one about the will: positivism and existentialism. Historically, they are not friends. How they have become fused together in post-modernity is a strange tale.

Today we will break open the first clause – real knowledge is only of irreducible information about the material world, the positivist element.

From the outset, we must make a distinction between “positivism,” which is an epistemic and social theory, and “logical positivism,” which is something more metaphysically aimed. My goal here is to show the roots of the broader idea of positivism, how it found its academic zenith in logical positivism, then how the aftermath of its fall has affected Western philosophy and science at large as well as in the minds of millennials.

A brief sketch of the positivist genealogy will suffice. We recall Descartes to point out his obsession with certitude, just as we note the empiricist thrust of Bacon, Locke, and Hume. We must mention Kant, both as the originator of the analytic-synthetic distinction (which will become enormously important) and as an influence to Hegel, who is notable for his approach to philosophy as something integral with history. Condorcet and Diderot should be pointed out as influential, being the greatest embodiments of the French Enlightenment, wherein reason and revealed religion are opposing forces. Marx, though he would reject positivism as a social ideology, helped inspire it along the same lines as Hegel had. The penultimate step was Henri de Saint-Simon, whose utopian socialism was all the rage during the French Revolution which was attempting to put his political theory into political practice.

Of course, these men were not positivists. It is Henri de Saint-Simon’s pupil, Auguste Comte, who brings us this unwanted gift of an empiricism so strong it entirely and unabashedly rejects any and all metaphysical knowledge outright. This led Comte to build a reducible hierarchy of the sciences based on their certainty or “positivity,” and he claimed (rightly) that the trend of empirical studies was heading toward a “social science.” This conception of a reducible scientific hierarchy – one where, for instance, biology can be put in terms of chemistry, and chemistry in terms of physics, etc. – was a rather new way of thinking… Previously, it had been more or less taken for granted that each science has its own irreducible terms and methods, even admitting some kind of hierarchy (such as with the classical progression of the liberal arts).

Not only was Comte the first real philosopher of science, he was also the first sociologist. According to Comte, humanity was passing from its first two stages, the theological and the metaphysical, into the third and final “positivist stage” where only empirical data would ground truth-claims about the world. Having evolved to a higher clarity about what the world is, and having built up enough of the more basic physical sciences to explore how that world works, sociology could finally occur. Mathematical evaluation of social behavior, rather than qualitative analysis, would serve as the proper method of the “queen of the sciences” in this new age.

Comte outright jettisoned religion qua supernatural and revelatory, but his intensely Catholic upbringing had driven into him such a habit of ritual that he could not altogether shake the need for some kind of piety. What was a French Revolution atheist to do? Well, start a “religion of humanity,” of course. (The “positivist religion” never became a major force, especially since Freemasonry already filled the “secular religion gap,” but it did catch on in some areas. Take a closer look at the Brazilian flag and its meaning, for example…) We should also note, for the record, that Comte was only intermittently sane.

The epistemic side of positivism almost ended up just as much of a flop as the pseudo-religion side of it. Unfortunately for the West, Durkheim and Littré became interested, and they, being altogether sane, effectively diffused Comte’s ideas and their own additions through the West at the start of the 20th century. Eventually, a group of like-minded academes started habitually gathering at a swanky café in Austria to discuss how filthy and naïve metaphysics was compared to the glories of the pure use of the senses and simple mathematical reason – the Vienna Circle was born.

Together with some Berliners, these characters formulated what came to be known logical positivism. When the shadow of Nazism was cast over Germany, some of these men journeyed westward to England and America, where their ideas were diffused.

The champions of logical positivism were Hans Hahn, Otto Neurath, Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, A.J. Ayer, and Bertrand Russell. While Russell is no doubt familiar to some readers (think “tea pot”), the others fly lower under the radar. It is Ayer’s formulation of the logical positivist doctrine which we will use, however, for our analysis.

“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.” (Language, Truth, and Logic, 35)

Got that? What this means, in the context of the whole book, is that in addition to statements which are “analytic” (“all bachelors are unmarried”) being true necessarily, only statements which we can actually use our 5 senses to verify the truth of can be meaningful – that is, able to be true at all. These are “synthetic” statements. If I say that Pluto is made of bacon grease, I am making a meaningful statement, even though I cannot actually verify it; it suffices that it is hypothetically possible to verify it. If I say that the intellect is a power of the soul, this is not meaningful, since it cannot be verified with the senses. For the details, see Ayer’s book, which is rather short.

Needless to say, it is rare that a school of thought truly dies in academia. A thorough search of university philosophy departments in the Western world would yield a few die-hard fans of Plotinus, Al-Gazali, Maimonides, and maybe even Heraclitus. Perhaps the best or even only example of ideological death was logical positivism. W.V. Quine’s landmark paper “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” was such a blow to the doctrine that eventually Ayer actually admitted himself to be in massive error and repudiated his own work.

What was so blindingly erroneous about logical positivism?

First, the analytic-synthetic distinction, as formulated by the logical positivists, is groundless. Analytic statements supposedly don’t need real referents in order to be true, but they are instead simply about the meanings of words. For some kinds of statements which employ basic affirmation and negation, this might work, as it is simply just a dressing up of the principle of non-contradiction. Fine. But if one wants to start using synonyms to take the place of some of the parts of these statements, the distinction begins to disappear… What the relationship is between the synonym’s object and the original word’s object cannot be explained without a reference to real things (synthetic!), or without an ultimately circular appeal to the analyticity of the new statement through a claim of the universal extension of the synonym based on modal adverbial qualifications (like the word “necessarily,” which points to an essential characteristic which must either be made up or actually encountered in reality and appropriated by a synthesis). In other words, it is analytic “just because.” (Thus, the title of Quine’s paper: Two Dogmas of Empiricism. Read more here.)

Beyond that, logical positivism is a self-refuting on theory its face… If meaningful statements can only be about physically verifiable things, then that statement itself is meaningless because it is not analytic (or is arbitrary if it is, and we go back to the first problem) and cannot be verified with the senses so is not synthetic… How does one verify “meaningfulness” with the senses? Logical positivism is a metaphysical theory that metaphysics is meaningless. Once again, this can only be asserted, not discovered. Except with this dogma, it evidently claims itself to be meaningless.

But the cat was out of the bag: “Metaphysics has completely died at last.” Logical positivism had already made its way from the salons of Austria to the parlors of America and lecture halls of Great Britain. The fuel was poured on the fire that had started in England by Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore after they had decided to reject the British Idealism that dominated the scene by creating an “analytic” philosophy that didn’t deal with all those Hegelian vanities that couldn’t be touched with a stick or put in a beaker. Russell’s star pupil, Ludwig Wittgenstein, would also come to be a seminal force in strengthening the analytic ethos, after having already inspired much of the discussion in the Vienna Circle. Though Quine did indeed destroy the metaphysical doctrine that metaphysics is meaningless, the force of positivism continued nonetheless within this “analytic” framework – and it is with us to this day en masse in university philosophy departments, which has led several generations of students to miss out on a solid education in classical metaphysics and philosophical anthropology.

In sociology there arose the “antipositivism” of Max Weber, which insisted on the need for value-based sociology – after all, how can a society really be understood apart from its own values, and how can a society be demarcated at all without reference to those values, etc.? A liquid does not assign a value to turning into a gas, which it then acts upon, but a group does assign a value to capitalism, or marriage, or birth status which it then acts upon.

In the broader realm of the philosophy of science, Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn’s postpositivism came to the fore. Science in general cannot be best explained without regard for some kind of value, but that the possibility of and/or actualization of the falsification or failure of a scientific theory is the characteristic feature of the sciences – in contrast to the optimism of the positivists that we can “just do science,” and that that will be useful enough.

In “science” itself, an air of independence was diffused. Scientists do “science,” other people do other things, and that’s that; never mind that we have no idea how to define “science” as we understand it today, and never mind that values are always brought to bear in scientific evaluation, and never mind what might actually be done with what potentially dangerous knowledge is gained or tool developed. A far cry from the polymaths, such as St. Albert the Great or Aristotle, who never would have considered such independence.

Then there are the “pop scientists” who try to do philosophy. A few examples of many will have to suffice to show that there exist three traits among pop scientists who are the go-to sources on religion and philosophy for countless curious millennials and Gen-Xers alike.

The first is an epistemic myopia, which derives immediately from positivism: if you can’t poke it or put it in a beaker, it’s not real. (Yes, it is a little more complicated than that, but you’ve read the section above describing positivism, right? Empirical verification is the only criterion and process for knowledge… Etc.) This is often manifested by a lack of awareness that “continental philosophy” (as opposed to analytic philosophy) often works in totally immaterial terms, like act, or mind, or cause, or God. This immediately creates equivocation – a pop scientist says “act” and thinks “doing something,” for example.

The second is an ignorance of basic philosophical principles and methods, which follows from the first characteristic. If you don’t know how to boil water, don’t go on “Hell’s Kitchen” – everyone will laugh at you and wonder what you are doing there in the first place. We might do well to have a philosophical version of Gordon Ramsay roaming about.

The third is the arrogance to pontificate on philosophy and theology nonetheless, and this of course follows from the second characteristic. They don’t know what they don’t know, but they got a book deal, so they will act like they are experts.

Everyone knows Dr. Stephen Hawking. (They made a movie!) But did you know that the average 6-year-old could debunk the central claim of his most recent book? It is now an infamous passage:

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.” (From The Grand Design)

I can hear the 1st graders calling out now: “But gravity’s not nothing!” And they would be right. The myopia of Dr. Hawking (and Dr. Mlodinow, his co-author) is evident in the inability to grasp that, as Gerald Schroeder pointed out, an immaterial law outside of time that can create the universe sounds a lot like, well, God. The ignorance of basic philosophical principles, in this case, the most basic, is clear from realizing that “gravity” can’t be both SOMETHING AND NOTHING. Then, the arrogance to go on pontificating anyway is self-evident by the fact of the existence of the book, and then a TV series which aired shortly afterward wherein we find philosophical reflection which is similarly wanting.

If you really want to do a heavy penance, watch this “discussion” between Hawking, Mlodinow, Deepak Chopra, and poor Fr. Spitzer – I had the displeasure of watching it live several years ago:

Then there are folks like Dr. Michio Kaku. He regularly shows up on those Discovery Channel specials on string theory, quantum mechanics, future technology, yadda yadda. All well and good. But here’s an… interesting quotation for our consideration:

“Aquinas began the cosmological proof by postulating that God was the First Mover and First Maker. He artfully dodged the question of ‘who made God’ by simply asserting that the question made no sense. God had no maker because he was the First. Period. The cosmological proof states that everything that moves must have had something push it, which in turn must have had something push it, and so on. But what started the first push? . . . The flaw in the cosmological proof, for example, is that the conservation of mass and energy is sufficient to explain motion without appealing to a First Mover. For example, gas molecules may bounce against the walls of a container without requiring anyone or anything to get them moving. In principle, these molecules can move forever, requiring no beginning or end. Thus there is no necessity for a First or a Last Mover as long as mass and energy are conserved.” (Hyperspace, 193-195)

The misunderstandings here are as comical as they are numerous… The conflation, found explicitly in the full text, of the first 3 Ways as “the cosmological proof,” which obscures the issue, the belief that “motion” is a term about something necessarily temporal, the thought that only recently did we discover that matter and energy don’t just appear and disappear, and then the most obvious blunder – Thomas does NOT start any of the 5 Ways by saying anything like “God is the First Mover, therefore…” There is no such ungrounded assertion which “dodges the question,” as Kaku puts it. One must wonder if he even bothered to read the original text – which is readily available. Kaku has even weaker arguments (unbelievably) against both the “moral proof” (which is a characterization I have never heard of the 4th Way until Kaku’s book, which troubles me from the start) and the teleological proof on top of this disastrous critique, but I won’t bore you. (Basically: “Because change and evolution.” Read it for yourself.)

Once again, we see three qualities: epistemic myopia (as evidenced, for example, by the error about “motion”), ignorance of the most basic philosophical principles (albeit these are a little more complicated than the one Hawking whiffed on), and the arrogance to pontificate about God and the act of creation nonetheless.

Next you have a man like Richard Dawkins, one of the nastiest examples of publicly evangelical atheism the world has to offer at present. Here’s one particularly embarrassing quotation from his seminal anti-theistic work, The God Delusion:

“However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable.” (p. 138)

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Can you see the three characteristics? Material beings only (or at least “things” with “parts”), no idea what metaphysical simplicity is and how it relates to God in Western philosophy, and yet here we have one book of many which address this theme.

It is not that these folks don’t believe in classical metaphysics – it’s that they don’t understand them in the least. They play a game of solitaire and claim to be winning a game of poker.

We won’t even get into discussing Bill Nye the Eugenics Guy… for now.

Okay, yes, quote-mining is easy. But this is the cream of the crop from a very large and fertile field. I am not sure I recall ever reading an important and sensible argument about religion or metaphysics from a world-renowned scientist who lived in the past 50 or so years. Someone prove me wrong in the comments.

All this leads us to the average “scientism” which one finds in the comboxes of Youtube videos about religion, threads on various websites, and debates on social media. Yes, there are plenty of religious people in those arenas, but the skeptics who try to make wild claims like “science disproves religion” or “evolution means God does not exist” or even just dismiss the idea of revealed religion outright with some kind of mockery ought to be seen as the children of positivism. It is the most probable explanation – the sources of their myopia, ignorance, and arrogance can usually be traced back through intermediate steps to a talking head like Dawkins who ultimately owes his own irrational ramblings to Auguste Comte.

Why is post-modern positivism so naïve? At the combox level, it is because these people, as all others, have an instinctive drive to trust in someone beyond themselves. For many it is due to circumstance and perhaps a certain kind of emotional insecurity and intellectual laziness that they latch on to the confident scientistic loudmouths to formulate their worldview – and it becomes a pseudo-religious dogmatic cult of its own, a little like Comte’s “religion of humanity.” At the pop-science level, it is just plain laziness and/or intellectual dishonesty combined with arrogance, as we have investigated. At the lecture hall level – and I mainly speak of the general closed-mindedness towards classical metaphysics found in analytic circles – it is a deeper kind of blindness which is the result of the academic culture created by the aforementioned ideological lineage. Each level has its own share of responsibility which it is shirking.

The truth is that matter is known by something immaterial – a mind or person – and this reveals to us a certain kind of hierarchy and order, seeing as matter itself does not know us. Man is indeed over all matter and ought to control it and master it, and all without the consent of matter; but this does not mean that there can’t be knowledge of things nobler and/or simpler than man, like substance or causation or God. Not looking at matter as the product of non-matter, and as being ordered to the immaterial in a certain way, is part and parcel of the New Albigensianism.

So there we have the first part of the manifesto explained. Irreducible facts (the ones devoid of metaphysics and value judgments) about the material world constitute the only real knowledge. The less reducible, the less it is really known. Even though the West is full of supposed “relativists,” it would be difficult to find a person who would truly let go of the objectivity of “science.” To say, “Christianity is your truth but not mine” is one thing; it is quite another to say something like, “Geocentrism is your truth but not mine.”

There is yet more to be explored… Next time, we will dive into the second half of the “postmodernist manifesto” with a look at its existentialist roots and how misconceptions about the relationship of the self to one’s bodily life have led to transgender bathroom bills.

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: The Positivist Temple in Porto Alegre, Brazil

Source: Tetraktys – User:Tetraktys, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3295600

The Real Reason People Like 13 Reasons Why

There have been plenty of reasonable critiques of the new hit Netflix show, 13 Reasons Why, which follows the story of a community dealing with a young girl’s suicide and the creative “notes” she left behind. Bad acting, bad writing, the “role models” are extraordinarily clueless, suicide is romanticized, etc. Okay… then why is it so popular?

Take a look at the trailer (language warning):

The most powerful moment in the trailer, at least for me, is the revelation that the tapes are from Hannah, at 37 seconds… The following 20 seconds build on this force.

I suggest that the reason people are so intrigued by the show is this: it presents a concrete, realistic example of someone speaking from beyond the grave. Through her tapes, the Hannah Baker character presents a benign version of otherworldly communication, and people find this attractive. We human beings have a deep-seated need to go beyond this world and encounter something greater than ourselves. By committing suicide and leaving voice recordings of herself, Hannah half-accomplishes this – she is half-encountered, and she is half-greater, as she has become “ubiquitous” and commands enormous attention, but… spoiler alert… she’s dead. At any rate, people’s sense of the otherworldly is “turned on” by the show, and since many are not activating that sense adequately through religion, they watch this show to compensate. (This goes hand in hand with Hollywood’s obsession with exorcisms and the occult – a topic which merits its own post.) Hannah takes the place of God, Who, by the way, does not seem to find His way into the screenplay.

The problem is just that. Being convicted by an accusation of a dead girl through an audio tape is painful, important, and final, but she neither necessarily has got everything correct (as the show explores at length) nor is anyone’s life truly measured by her judgment. Furthermore, there can be no reconciliation with her… it’s over.

On the other hand, being convicted by an accusation of the living God through Scripture or preaching or conscience is quite different. Because God does not make mistakes, and because He does indeed provide the true measure of our life, His accusations, if seen rightly, are more painful, important, and final. It is no use arguing or rationalizing – we must reconcile, which thankfully we can do. It is even more powerful to find oneself being accused by God due to the fact that He is not just looking to prove a point, or to get some kind of attention, or to show that He’s really upset and can’t take it anymore… He convicts us of sin because He loves us, and reconciling with Him and amending our lives to be in accord with His Will are the best things for us.

Not so with Ms. Baker.

The characters in the show indirectly contributed to the death of Hannah, but she is clearly the one who is actually responsible for taking her life… Christ, however, was really put to death by others; and we ourselves are indirectly responsible for His death, at least insofar as we are sinners standing in need of that death, which He chose for our sake. So each and every one of us is one of His “reasons why.” He speaks to us now, but unlike Hannah Baker, He is alive and is waiting for us to speak back. And once you realize that, it is much more powerful than a suicide note could ever be.

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: thumbnail from Netflix’s trailer for its show, 13 Reasons Why

The New Albigensianism, PART I: From Scotus to S.C.O.T.U.S.

For the most part, religious errors are reducible to four basic ideas.

  1. Jesus is not by nature both fully God and fully human (Arianism, Eutychianism, Monothelitism, Agnoetism, Mormonism, etc.)
  2. There are not three Persons in One God (Modalism, Unitariansim, Subordinationism, Partialism, etc.)
  3. Sanctifying grace is not a free and universally available gift absolutely necessary for salvation (Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Baianism, Jansenism, Calvinism, etc.)
  4. Matter is not essentially harmoniously ordered with spirit (Manichaeism, Buddhism, Albigensianism, etc.)

While the first three ideas are certainly prevalent in our own day, the correct doctrines are only available through the grace of faith. The falsehood of the fourth, however, is evident from a rigorous use of natural reason alone. Therefore, it is more blameworthy to succumb to that error.

We are seeing today the resurgence of the fourth error in four ways: the sexual revolution, radical feminism, the culture of death, and most recently, gender theory.

The three forms mentioned in the first list (Manichaeism, Buddhism, and Albigensianism) more or less say that matter is evil and needs to be done away with. The Manichees thought that matter was created by an evil god, the Buddhists think that matter is only a distraction, and the Albigensians (or “Cathars”) became so enamored with the thought of the spirit escaping its fleshy prison that suicide became a virtue… But we will talk all about the Cathars later, and we will find some striking similarities between this medieval rigorist dualism and some of the most recent value developments in the Western world.

The current manifestations of the fourth error do not quite say “matter is evil,” but they instead say that the determination of human matter (the body) is irrelevant to the good of the spirit, and/or that the spirit is one’s “true self” which can be served by the body according to one’s whims. Some proponents may claim they don’t believe in spirit, that is, immaterial reality (in this case, the “soul,” or formal principle of life), but when they speak of someone being “a woman trapped in a man’s body,” or something similar, they betray their real thoughts. Still, even if a person insists on denying the reality of spirit, it remains the spirit within him who denies it. There can be no “self-determination” without a self to determine, and if the body simply is the self, then how can there be real determination? There could then only be physical events without any meaning. This, of course, is contradicted by the very existence of “experience.” It is not merely a body which acts, but a person who experiences.

The error in its current expressions can be traced to Descartes, whose laudable project of attaining perfect certainty about the world was, ultimately, a disastrous failure. After shedding all opinions about which he did not have absolute certainty, he was left only with one meaningful truth: cogito, ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am.” No person could both think and not exist.

This was not new, as St. Augustine had come to a similar realization over 1,000 years earlier. The difference was the context and emphasis of the thought; to Augustine, it was an interesting idea coming out of nowhere and going nowhere. To Descartes, it was the foundation of every knowable proposition, and it led to the idea that human beings are essentially thinking (spiritual) beings rather than a body-soul composite… Think “soul trapped in body.”

This came after the ruins of the scholastic project. With the combination of the fixation on choice and freedom in Scotus’ work and Abelard’s troubling take on the problem of universals (how to account for similarities between different things), the stage for Ockham’s Nominalism was set. (See Gilson’s detailed description in his wonderful book, The Unity of Philosophical Experience.) It was Ockham who hammered in the last nail of St. Thomas’ coffin and who paved the way for the “cogito” to be intensely meaningful not only to Descartes, but to the entire Western academy. Nominalism’s dissociation of “things” from any real universal natures which would make those things intelligible as members of species was the first step towards overthrowing classical metaphysics. This “suspicion of being” understandably increased exponentially with the publication of Descartes’ Discourse on the Method, as it cast a serious doubt on the reliability of the senses themselves, doubt that many felt was unable to be overcome, despite a sincere effort to do so on the part of Descartes himself.

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Descartes: The Movie

The anxiety finally culminated in Kant’s “nervous breakdown”: a total rejection of metaphysics in the denial of the possibility of knowing “the-thing-in-itself” (noumena). From there, much of the academy generally either desperately tried to do without a robust metaphysics or desperately tried to pick up the pieces, and this theme continues today in the strange and fractured world of contemporary philosophy.

Ideas have consequences. As McIntyre shows so well in his book After Virtue in the case of “emotivism” (the position that ethical statements merely express one’s emotional preference for an action) a powerful idea that spreads like wildfire among the right academic circles can eventually stretch into the average home, even if subconsciously. A very well educated person may never have heard of G. E. Moore, but everyone from the wealthy intellectual to the homeless drunkard has encountered some shade of the emotivism Moore’s work gave rise to. The influence which both Descartes and Kant had on the academic scene in their respective eras was so vast and powerful, that it is not unfair to say that Western philosophy after the 17th century was in response to Descartes, and that Western philosophy today is in response to Kant.

The reaction to Descartes’ rationalism was first empiricism, then idealism. The reactions to Kant’s special fusion of rationalism and empiricism (that started “transcendental idealism”) which here concerns us were logical positivism and French existentialism.

Logical positivism is basically dead in academia, although the average militant atheist has taken a cheapened form of Ayer’s positivism to bash over the head of theists, and the general inertia of positivism remains in force in a vaguer “scientism” which hangs heavy in the air.

Existentialism, on the other hand, has become a powerful force in the formation of civil law. The following lengthy quotation is from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion given in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (my emphases):

“Our law affords constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education. Carey v. Population Services International, 431 U.S., at 685 . Our cases recognize the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child. Eisenstadt v. Baird, supra, 405 U.S., at 453 (emphasis in original). Our precedents “have respected the private realm of family life which the state cannot enter.” Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 166 (1944). These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.

“These considerations begin our analysis of the woman’s interest in terminating her pregnancy, but cannot end it, for this reason: though the abortion decision may originate within the zone of conscience and belief, it is more than a philosophic exercise. Abortion is a unique act. It is an act fraught with consequences for others: for the woman who must live with the implications of her decision; for the persons who perform and assist in the procedure; for the spouse, family, and society which must confront the knowledge that these procedures exist, procedures some deem nothing short of an act of violence against innocent human life; and, depending on one’s beliefs, for the life or potential life that is aborted. Though abortion is conduct, it does not follow that the State is entitled to proscribe it in all instances. That is because the liberty of the woman is at stake in a sense unique to the human condition, and so, unique to the law. The mother who carries a child to full term is subject to anxieties, to physical constraints, to pain that only she must bear. That these sacrifices have from the beginning of the human race been endured by woman with a pride that ennobles her in the eyes of others and gives to the infant a bond of love cannot alone be grounds for the State to insist she make the sacrifice. Her suffering is too intimate and personal for the State to insist, without more, upon its own vision of the woman’s role, however dominant that vision has been in the course of our history and our culture. The destiny of the woman must be shaped to a large extent on her own conception of her spiritual imperatives and her place in society.

No doubt, a critical reader will observe some tragic oddities in this passage. We will table an in-depth analysis, but I do want to point out the bizarre idea that our beliefs can determine reality. One might be tempted to call this “relativism,” and there is indeed some relativism in the passage (the evaluation of the fact of whether a life or potential life is taken in abortion “depending on one’s beliefs”). Without denying this, I also assert that beyond a casual relativism, which might be more a product of a lack of reflection than a real worldview, Kennedy is a deeply committed existentialist. (Indeed, it seems that existentialism naturally disposes a person to relativism.) The thought that one’s beliefs define one’s personhood comes almost directly from Jean-Paul Sartre. The doctrine is: existence precedes essence. Essence is determined by beliefs and actions, according to the existentialist. Such an affront to traditional metaphysics would have been impossible without the aforementioned ideological lineage – Scotus, Abelard, Ockham, Descartes, Kant… Seeing Justice Kennedy through the existentialist lens also helps to account for the striking absence of respect for a human being who can’t believe or meaningfully act. After all, how can such a thing really be a person?

Today’s common philosophy of the Western liberal elite (and their spoiled millennial offspring) seems to be a chimera of these two diametrically opposed worldviews: positivism and existentialism. These ideologies have been filtered into the average home, and watered down in the process in such a way that they can appear to fit together. In this series of articles, we will thematically wind through a maze of philosophy, science, hashtag activism, and moral theology to understand the present crisis and to propose possible remedies for it.

After now having given a brief sketch of the ideological history, we begin next time with a look at the positivist roots of the so-called “New Atheism” and how an undue reverence for science has contributed to what I have termed the “New Albigensianism.”

Stay tuned…

 

For Part II, click here.

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: Carcassonne, France… one of the old Albigensian strongholds.

Main image source: http://en.destinationsuddefrance.com/Discover/Must-See/Carcassonne

Christian Rock and Rocky Soil

It used to baffle me. “How can so many of my peers who were so ‘churchy’ and ‘involved’ in high school have just drifted away in college?”

It doesn’t baffle me any more.

If you are a new DRE, youth minister, or high school chaplain in the USA, here’s a sobering reality check: the chances are that a lot of the kids volunteering on the weekend, helping lead retreats, signing up for work camp each year, etc., etc., will fall away when they leave high school. No, not all, and probably not most, but many. Some will eventually find their way back, maybe by a chance encounter with a priest, or a random itch of their conscience, or if and when they get married in the Church and decide it’s time to “get serious.” Some will find their way back, but not all.

Why does this happen, how does this illusion of commitment work, and what can be done to prevent this?

Despite the provocative title of this article, music is only part of the problem, though it is one of the best examples of the core conflict – trying to choose both God and mammon in parishes and ministry programs.

But let’s talk music first.

It is possible for rock music to be authentically Christian and still be good rock. But the Christian message must be indirect, or else there will be a lack of proportion between what is being said and how it is being said. Proportion is an essential element of beauty, and who wants music that isn’t beautiful to be used for worship?

Here is one comparison between two songs with similar themes but achieved in radically different ways.

This song is a first-person account of someone trying to overcome some life obstacles.

The lyrics are vaguely Christian, but it seems like even if they were more direct it would not help much – it would still be inappropriate for worship, because it is taking a music genre entirely from and for the world and trying to Christify it explicitly. That is why it’s so awkward, at least for me, even just to listen to.

Furthermore, the music itself in this example is just plain second-rate. The message itself also is very self-centered, which would be one thing if it wasn’t marketed as “Christian” and there wasn’t the almost artificial insertion of a mini-prayer in the lyrics, “God, I want to dream again.” I’ve never heard this at church, but I don’t frequent Protestant megachurches. I can certainly imagine it being used.

The next song is about a couple of kids whose lives are going terribly wrong, starting with one who gets shot on his way to school.

This is good rock music. It’s also profoundly moving, albeit in an unexpected way. Nobody would play this at a church, and rightly so, but I argue that this is a much better example of “Christian Rock” than the first song, not only because it is better musically but also because it knows what it is: the artists don’t try to insert the explicitly other-worldly into a worldly genre, apart from a one-off Scriptural reference (“the blind leading the blind”). Instead, they vividly illustrate real world problems and the emotions associated with them. This leads the listener to the simple consideration of the bleakness of sin and the need for something dramatically good to counter young people’s hopelessness. Finally, they suggest that the solution is at least in part our responsibility: “We are, we are, the youth of the nation.” That’s about a thousand times more Christian and artistic than the previous song. (The band, P.O.D., is loosely self-described as Christian, by the way.)

Anyway, as an alternative to Christian Rock at church, we have masterpieces like this available to us:

It’s very hard to pull off something like this well – and it really MUST be recited live – but that is part of what makes it worth so much as an act of worship. It involves serious dedication. Sacrificial worship doesn’t only mean killing goats, of course: it can also mean slaving away for a few dozen hours just to produce one beautiful arrangement for a single Mass. God likes that.

“But I like the churchy Christian Rock. So do lots of other people. In fact, a lot of the people at my church come because we play that kind of music.”

Now we come to the root.

If it were a simple matter of aesthetics, one taste does not rule over other tastes. Chocolate is not inherently better than vanilla, etc. Except we are not talking about ice cream, we are talking about the public worship of Almighty God and spiritually encountering Him in that worship (which is distinct from emotionally encountering Him). There is an objectivity to music and worship, which is why the objection that “classical” music is just the “rock” or “pop” of the 17th century (etc.) does not work. Certain kinds of music do not appropriately resonate with our soul inasmuch as it is ordered toward loving and encountering the otherworldly. As the famous saying goes, “Lex orandi, lex credendi” – as one worships, so one believes. If someone heard a “Christian song” without knowing the language in which it’s being sung, and he thinks it’s probably about some guy’s girlfriend, for example, there is a big problem. If God, as the Author of Grace, is going to be treated directly, He deserves something more than what your girlfriend deserves, as nice as she may be. And the more one treats God like a girlfriend in worship, the more one is likely to think of God that way. It’s just how human beings work. When your girlfriend gets boring or too challenging, you can leave her for someone else. When God or the Mass or the one true Church is treated like a girlfriend in worship, when they get boring or too challenging, they are all too likely to be left for something else. And the more one tries to dress them up like some other “girl,” the more one will realize that it would be easier just to go after that girl instead. We can’t make God in our image, and when we figure that out, the choice is forced upon us: we either destroy our little idol and worship God on His own terms, or we go seek the thing that we were trying to make Him into.

The trumpets that will blare at Our Lord’s return will be playing music closer to Mozart than to Meatloaf, and not for no reason. If I don’t like the Parousia’s music – or even Heaven’s music – will it be because God doesn’t know what’s “relevant,” or will it be because He knows there’s something more objective about transcendence than my fleeting emotional inclinations?

Liking secular-ish Christian-ish music and feeling good about God on its account is not wrong in itself.

feelsmeme
Go on ahead! Feelings and emotions are NOT evil. But they are only GOOD if they are in line with reason.

What is wrong is when those things are at the foundation of one’s spiritual life, instead of the imperceptible indwelling of the Holy Spirit and sanctifying grace expressing themselves in the exercise of moral virtue and frequent prayer (even continuous prayer, to the point where instead of talking to yourself to think through the mundane tedium of your daily life, you talk to God). If and when well-performed secular-ish Christian-ish music and/or nice feelings about God become inaccessible for some reason, a person who had seemed to grow up in the spiritual life so quickly is liable to become “withered by the sun and die,” so to speak, just like the seed sown in rocky soil (Mt. 13: 1-23). Such a person will eventually notice that the world (or even some other church) gives quicker and easier nice feelings, and that continuing to pray and go to Mass diligently is really hard when faced with that alternative. And why resist? “If spirituality is all about the feels anyway, when I get them, great, when I don’t get them, then I just won’t kill anyone or rob any banks, and I’ll go to Heaven, or something like that. But maybe the whole ‘organized religion thing’ is all just a psychological prison anyway, and a nondescript ‘spirituality’ is where it’s at.” And down the slope we go. People don’t usually think or express their desires in exactly these terms, but they often act based exactly on the ideas found in them.

If you live in the Western world, this process is almost certainly happening with people in your parish, especially to millennials. The problem, of course, is not limited to music – the approach of condescending indefinitely to worldliness can permeate the air of entire parishes. Let pastors who are looking to “Rebuild” be aware of the lesson of Aaron and the calf… Money and popularity do not make a parish a spiritual success. Your sanctuary may be tricked out with the latest live streaming gear and some nifty projector screens, and your band may make a 6 figure salary due to generous tithing, but if there’s not perpetual or nearly perpetual adoration; if there aren’t vocations; if there aren’t long lines at the confessional; if people are not praying before and after Mass in silence… these deserve more attention.

The Protestant megachurches and the world will always win the game anyway. They produce better, flashier, trendier stuff, including morals and doctrine. They produce better rock music. They condescend to our worldliness better. Therefore, the game ought not be played. Our Lord did not play the game, though He was invited to by the Devil. (Mt. 4: 1-11)

Christ condescended to our worldliness by becoming a human being. Beyond that, He used language and images we could understand. He identified with us in our need for food and drink, as with the woman at the well, or with the Eucharist itself. He pointed out the way to perfection to the Rich Young Man and to those wondering about divorce by meeting them where they were, and yet He did not insist on poverty or celibacy as Commandments. All this condescension, however, actually serves the will of the Father by calling people to look beyond the world. Christian Rock, as commonly understood, does not do this, but instead lowers God more than He lowered Himself by putting Him into a worldly genre of music which can certainly make people feel nice feelings but cannot lead one to contemplation as it is understood by the spiritual masters. (In fact, prolonged silence is one of the best things for that.) And of course, some other parochial and ministerial projects fall into the same trap. We must not be in the business of making good novices: we must be in the business of making saints.

The longer one pretends he can find God in the storm, the earthquake, and the fire, the more likely he is to miss the small whispering sound that calls a soul out of the cave. God showed His might on Sinai with signs of His fearsome power, but now, in the invisible life of grace, the signs of His love manifestly prevail – and lovers very often want to be alone together in silence, do they not?

Education in the spiritual life must become a greater priority in parishes, especially youth ministry programs, if we are to stop the bleeding of parishioners looking “to be fed” somewhere else – back in Egypt, that is, where there were melons and leeks and fleshpots.  We especially ought to curb the enthusiasm in our young people for getting chills and thrills on retreats – and certainly for “speaking in tongues” and being “slain in the Spirit,” for goodness’ sake – and instead teach them that the greater effects of prayer and the sacraments are in an undying thirst to do what is right out of love for God and the pursuit of union with Him at the expense of any and all other pleasures. Growth may seem slower, but it will be steadier.

Better, more subdued, more dignified music is just one part of the solution. Christ our Rock is more spiritual than worldly, after all.

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: The Sower, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Why Thomas the Apostle was so Skeptical

The Apostle St. Thomas Didymus (“The Twin”) was conveniently absent for the first Resurrection appearance to the rest of the Eleven. (Jn. 20: 24-29) Then he famously insisted on seeing and touching the wounds of Jesus, which he then got to do 8 days later. This reading comes to us every year at the close of the Easter Octave to commemorate the event. Let’s take a look.

Aside from “telephone” conspiracy theories (which ultimately don’t allow for any sensible understanding of what happened in 1st century Palestine nor of the text of the Gospels), there are usually three alternate explanations for the supposed Resurrection.

  1. Mass delusion.
  2. A spiritual resurrection proclaimed as if it were a physical one.
  3. The body was stolen and the disciples lied about it (the story that “circulated among the Jews”).

Each of these have plenty of issues, of course. Leaving aside #3 (which has the largest problems of motivation among the 3, and it ultimately just destroys the trustworthiness of the entire text), #1 and #2 do not explain the skepticism of Thomas. Why was he not part of the delusion or vision of the spiritually risen Christ from the beginning? How was he incorporated into it?  What sense does recounting Thomas’ separate physical encounter make given such scenarios? There is no good answer.

There is a fourth alternative. It is the scenario, in fact, which Thomas had in mind when he questioned the claims of his friends.

He clearly doubted that they had seen the Risen Christ… But he did not doubt that they had seen someone. It just does not make sense that he would think all his friends would lie.

The words of the Gospels are careful. If you see some little detail that is added, you can be sure it is an important detail… The author went out of his way to add it. Paper was expensive in the 1st century – no Kinko’s, remember – and drafting the Gospels would have involved the most serious attention to what was going into the text. And of course, this is all under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That being said, in this passage we do not find the Apostle called plain old “Thomas.” We also don’t find “Thomas the Scientist,” or “Thomas the Physician,” or “Thomas the Skeptic.” We find “Thomas called Didymus,” or “Thomas the Twin.”

Why add that detail?

Thomas thought Jesus had a twin who until that time had been in hiding. He figured the supposed Resurrection was part of a massive scheme of some sort, like the tricks he and his own twin brother would have undoubtedly played as children but with an agenda far larger. It may even be the case that Thomas’ brother had died, and that one time Thomas was confused for him, no doubt producing a similar effect of shock and confusion and joy in the mistaken person or persons.

This also makes sense of Thomas’ startling insistence on seeing and touching the wounds, as he knew that this would be the best way to show that it was actually the same person who died on the Cross. (There was a recent movie based on this theme. Spoiler alert.) No mere man could walk around with those wounds! The others had been shown the wounds (Jn. 20: 20), but it does not seem they had “double-checked” as Thomas wanted to do by completely verifying that they were the same kind of wounds that one would get from a crucifixion rather than being some serious paper cuts.

This incident with Thomas the Apostle, then, also preemptively answers the Muslim objection to the Resurrection, which is simply the “twin claim” in reverse: Jesus had a look-alike who was killed. (The Muslims, however, wave their hands over the inconvenient parts of the New Testament though, so it matters little. If every clear bit of evidence from the text is a corruption, then there can be no efficacious textual demonstrations.)

All this can also help shed light on the slight differences in Christ’s appearance before and after the Resurrection. Mary Magdalene and the men walking to Emmaus didn’t recognize Him at first. While identical twins can usually be told apart on close inspection, they are mistaken for each other easily. Jesus must have looked quite different indeed – unlike a twin, but close enough to His old appearance that one would be able to see that it is really Him. This is certainly not a twin – no one would dare try to pull off such a stunt unless he did indeed have an identical twin.

Perhaps seeing the Risen Christ was like running into a grown man you had been friends with in childhood… different, but the same. With the Risen Christ, the flesh-cloak of Adam’s sin has been shed so that the man Jesus, the New Adam, could be as glorious as the Divine Person He embodies. (See Gen. 3:21, Rom. 5:12-18) Yet He keeps the wounds, as if to be in solidarity with us and to remind us of His suffering, in addition to proving He has risen.

The Scriptures are wiser to objections than we are ourselves. That is not only because God understands us better than we do ourselves, but also because the Resurrection actually happened… That removes the need for creative thinking and gives the writer of the text the freedom simply to say what really happened.

St. Thomas Didymus, pray for us!

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: The Incredulity of St. Thomas, Caravaggio, c. 1601-1602

Art and Lying

Can you lie through a piece of art?

v-for-vendetta-evey-hammond
“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?

Johannes-Duns-Scotus
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.

shocked
*GASP!*

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.

lacuna1
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.

hal9000
“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.

propaganda1
“Children, what do you know of the Fuhrer?”
propaganda2
“Follow the true path, comrades!” (Lenin is depicted)
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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?)

illusion1
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.

Professorhinkle
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.

cake-a-lie
“The cake is a lie.”

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: Thomas Nast, American River Ganges, 1871