Christ’s teaching on poverty

One of the greatest challenges to my own faith was Christ’s teaching about the elevation of the poor. It simply makes no sense to me to see any special spiritual significance to mere poverty. By itself it does nothing to improve behavior or adherence to law, and for every “smiling face in an impoverished village” that gets mentioned in sermons there are just as many savage and violent faces, to say nothing of the cheerful faces among those in penthouses or lake homes. But I think my challenge was based on confounding two separate elements in Christ’s teaching that need to be kept separate. I’ll call these two elements “the older account” and “the newer account”.

The older account of Christ’s elevation of poverty imputes a mystical character to to it, as though the condition itself was a sort of prophesy. The newer account is not mystical but practical and political: we must elevate the poor above others because the rich, so the reasoning goes, have the means to fend for themselves but the poor need advocates to advance their interests. On the first account, Christ elevates the poor because of a mystical vision of what Francis would call “Lady Poverty”; on the second he is modeling how a social and political leader should act and speak so as to ensure justice.

Notice that the newer understanding is based on the idea of human equality. We advocate the rights of the poor in an effort to ensure equal access. The older understanding is based on the idea of hierarchy and ordered separation. On the new understanding, poverty is ultimately an evil that, of itself, is hostile to justice and so needs to be remedied by the polity; on the older understanding it is a sort of blessing that sets someone in a group above another group. Both elements seem necessary to the Christian message – on the one hand the poor have a unique likeness to Christ who though he was in the form of God, emptied himself. At the heart of the Incarnation is this sort of acceptance of poverty, along with all of the spiritual theology that teaches that the goods of this world and those of God are in some sort of contradiction (here I’m thinking of John of the Cross, who sets the material and the spiritual as playing a zero-sum-game). But this account becomes nonsensical on the political or economic plane. Advocating poverty as an economic policy is either exploitation or contradiction.

So, at the moment, my resolution to Christ’s challenge is to divide the economic sphere* from another sphere of existence. This other sphere does not admit of an easy name – it is at once symbolic, spiritual, and prophetic while not being in every case a sphere of existence leading to better morals or cheerfulness. This second sphere has a likeness to the sacramental order, where, for example, marriage is at once symbolic, spiritual, and prophetic while at the same time being a secondary state. I’m bungling this last point but I won’t erase it since there’s something there.


*”Economic” is also too limiting a name. Persons are not equal in a merely economic sense, and ensuring this equality of state is not limited to economics. But this sphere, however broad its scope, is limited by the other one.

Metaphors for sex as the raw material for gender

Let’s take for granted both the contemporary distinction between sex and gender and that sex is the “raw material” for gender, i.e. that sex is the biological basis for the social construction of gender.  This leaves two crucial unexplored questions: (1) how different are the raw materials of masculinity and femininity from each other and (2) how great a distance is there between the raw material of sex and its completing form of gender?

Different raw materials are more and less like each other, so if we are to see men and women as different raw materials, are they different like Kevlar and feathers? Butter and margarine? Analog and digital? Here the metaphors won’t do much – there’s really no way around just laying out the various male-female sex differences: characteristic hormonal levels, propensity to aggression, hand strength, number of nerve endings in skin, skeletal structure, amount of striated muscle, communication patterns, amount of body hair, love of cooperation or competition, body mass, alcohol tolerance, distribution of intelligence, non-verbal communication skill, average height, extraversion…

What’s more essential to understand the “raw material” idea is what might be called the distance between the material and the final thing. The distance between plaster and a statue, it seems, is much greater than the distance between coffee (beans) and coffee (the drink) even though both the plaster and the beans are the raw material for the statue or drink. The plaster is so formless and indeterminate with respect to the statue that it stands like one to infinity; the coffee is so determined to the drink that we use the same word to refer to both, and the only variations are within a pretty narrow range of strengths. We have another example of what I here call a short distance in the difference between a musical score and its performance, which seems to close that there seems to be an identity between them. Both just are Beethoven or Debussy or whoever.

And so while everyone can admit a distinction between sex and gender, this doesn’t determine how long or short a leash gender roams around on. If it is like clay to a shape or sound to a language, then gender is a form so different from its matter that the matter (sex) is barely worth mentioning. If it is like coffee and coffee or a musical score and its performance, then gender is so much a proxy of sex that gender is almost not worth mentioning.

Gender difference is thus a function of two independent unknowns: the distance between sex differences (A) and the distance of these sex differences from gender (B). One gets the sense that more traditional accounts of men and women saw A as large and B as small, where we are more likely to see A as small and B as large, or perhaps we see B as so large as to render sex differences unimportant.

Notes on sacred time

- A friend argues that the laws of nature are symmetrical with respect to time because of the resurrection of the body. We canot find a physical sense to the arrow of all things being lost to the crashing Niagra of entropy, because all will be recovered from it again.

- One widely dispersed theory in eschatology holds that after death we wake immediately to the resurrection since only beings in space-time experience time, and so our last experience in this time must coincide with our first experience in the resurrection. Ratzinger critiques this idea from an interesting angle: it requires that the saints are no longer active in history, which seems a non-starter for anyone who would be committed to the Christian idea of resurrection in the first place. Ratzinger’s insight leaves open the question of the temporality of the saints, however, and opens up an interesting line of inquiry into how this sanctified temporality relates to the mundane time of the viators.

-I explain the Hypostatic union through the unity of self and body: I am not my hand, but in touching my hand you touch me.  And so identity: body:: Christ’s divine person : human corporality and therefore temporality. Temporality – this one we enjoy now – is God’s – not in the crude and extrinsic sense that he made it and is in control of it, but in the sense that my hands are mine.

Charles Taylor: a Christian at a Good Friday service will feel closer to the Passion than he felt last October, even though in terms of calendar time he was closer to it last October.

-Marking out time in a linear manner requires something that counts as the first event, but we find none in physics. The birth of our own universe can only seem like it counts as one in a relative way. We no sooner find a beginning of time then we raise the possibility of a multiverse system. The linearity of time, and the fact that it is here now, cannot have physical meaning.

-While blessed angels help and fallen ones tempt, there is no opposite action of the damned souls corresponding to the intercession of the blessed souls. The damned occupy a time that is divided from causality – it is a time that just “goes on forever”, as an image of the old preacher metaphors about the bird who brushes its wing against a mountain every thousand years until the mountain is all gone. The blessed souls are caught up in an activity they love and which makes time fly by; the damned – like those sentenced to watch the bird – have nothing to do but mark off insipid and largely meaningless events forever, punctuated by vast stretches of time where nothing happens.

There’s the burning too.

-The universe burns on both ends: the seraphim and the damned.

Arguments for the death penalty

The only argument for the death penalty that seems to have any purchase in the contemporary conversation is one that argues by proportionality: some crimes are so bad that they deserve death, or (to speak in slogans) we need the ultimate punishment for the ultimate crime. But this whole line of argumentation seems to beg the question since “the ultimate punishment” clearly has to be the ultimate just punishment, and we can’t help ourselves to the assumption that the penalty is just while we’re trying to establish that it is. Likewise, “the deserved” either is the just or presupposes it. Anything deserved is justly so; and nothing unjust is deserved.

St. Thomas’s argument that the death penalty is needed to defend the body politic seems pretty hard to swallow in the face of modern technology. This seems to be St. John Paul’s critique of the death penalty, at least in modern industrialized nations: while justifiable in principle, its justification requires the peculiar and no longer applicable circumstance that those who would use it have no other reasonable means to assure that a convicted prisoner will never kill again, and saying this in the face of Supermax prisons is not very believable. This argument also undercuts any Scriptural support for the death penalty, since it was clearly limited to times and places in which the circumstances necessary to make the death penalty just still applied.

I write all this reluctantly since I have no moral repugnance toward the death penalty and even have a strong desire to have it applied both more often and more broadly than it is. But I can’t see any reason to do so and so I suppose I need to give up on the idea.

Phil of language.

Language captures rationality only as material: it is intelligence so far as it must make use of the unintelligent, blind , and what is outside of intelligence to communicate.

Why it is easier to know observation than free will

(A philosophical modification of an idea of Costa De Beauregaard)

The set-up:

All objects in natural science require observation to be known.

Observation is interaction

Interaction resolves into two principles: the action of one on the other and the other on the one.

Every observation is both an action of the world on a knowing subject and vice versa. In the first, the world causes knowledge and so is an observation, in the second knowledge causes action and so is chosen or free. 

The Hypothesis:

In the observation-freedom binary, either (a.) the observation is (usually) the dominant element and the action very slight, or (b.) it is impossible to know the extent to which the observation and action are diverse. (a) is a common opinion in contemporary science, where the active aspect of observation only counts on the quantum level; (b) is Kant’s exact argument that the noumenon can never be known. Dekonninck to agrees with (a) as a description of observation, since the difference between sensation in act (the actual observation) and sensation in potency (the real object in the world) can never be known. While human intellection really transcends  sensation, so far as it is concretized in the body even intellection can be viewed as sensation at least in a broad sense.

The Alternatives

(a)  If observation is the dominant element, this means that it is much easier to understand observation and being acted upon by objects than to understand the way in which knowledge itself is the cause of action. If I open my eyes and see a cow, there is an obvious way in which the cow is acting on my subjective awareness, but only a weak and negligible way in which my subjective consciousness, using various physical processes as instruments, is affecting the cow. This perturbation gets much larger with the instruments consciousness uses act upon things much smaller than cows.

The upshot is that observation and the causality of the world on us is much easier to know, and the mode in which knowledge affects the world itself is much harder to know. This predicts that science must spend a long time as determinist. On its first level of approximation, it will not assign any statistical significance to knowledge acting on the world, that is, by free will.

Physical science is in the business of giving laws applicable to the universe as a whole, and within this context the way in which consciousness affects the world is vanishingly small. Any account of freedom is so localized as to be negligible, and will not enter into science until it attains an extraordinary precision; for all we know, it might be a level of precision beyond human attainment.

(b) In the second sense, we will be certain that there is both action of the world on knowledge and action of knowledge on the world, but we will never be able to draw a precise line dividing the two elements. When I choose to do something I can know that there is an element of free choice in it in the same way that when I sense something I can know that there is something outside consciousness acting on consciousness,* but I can never adequately divide my free action of knowledge acting on the world from the way in which the world acts on me.  Soul and body are distinct, but there is no junction point or leaping off point where some last moment motion of the body that which then passes off to the soul. The interaction problem is thus correct to say that it is impossible to identify a place of nexus between soul and body, but it is wrong to assume from this that there are not two really distinct elements involved.

*It is entirely possible that this all occurs “in the head”, as it does in illusions. But even then there are subconscious, automatic, and reflexive processes going on outside of consciousness that affect and condition it. As Tim Wilson shows, conscious processes are largely conditioned by such action outside of consciousness.

Moral realism and its opposite

Say you start with an account of the real as “whatever can be put in a box”. On this account paper clips, elephants, my liver, ten pounds, and the moons of Venus are all real. At the same time, you can show that fictional characters, leprechauns, and impossible entities are not real. You waver over mathematicals, the color read, and a few other things, but moral values are decidedly unreal. But for all the explanatory merit of the theory, it doesn’t capture what anyone thinks is moral realism, whether they support or reject it.

So say we take another account of the real, as what is universally given. But here again one can take something as universally given without taking it as real or objective. Perhaps morality is just an innate disposition to see princess Alice. By the same token, morality might be as eternal as a Platonic form and still not be one bit more real.

The same might be said of an account of the real as what is discovered as opposed to made.

So the dispute over moral realism can’t be over some crude sense of its being a substance, or over whether it is universal, or eternal, or discovered as opposed to invented. All these are compatible with non-realism.

Nagel’s response is that moral realism is the claim that there is nothing over and beyond the facts that is required to make them count as moral facts. Moral realism would apply if my reason for giving you water was just that you were dying and it would save you. Non-realism would require adding something in addition to this description; a world of values that is an addition to (non moral) facts. One supposes that this non-realism, in addition to the facts, adds the voice of command, or the sense of obligation or being forbidden.

But then we seem to hit the strange conclusion that divine command theory is a sort of non-realism; or at least that there could be some account of DCT that was non-realist. It’s hard to tell whether this reveals or refutes the thesis.


Our need for beliefs about the whole of time

The syllogism:

What we believe about the whole of time has very significant affects on our beliefs about  the nature of the cosmos and human life

None of our beliefs about the whole of time can be grounded in human knowledge.

and so significant potions of our beliefs about the nature of the cosmos and human life cannot be grounded in human knowledge.

We can have rational beliefs about at least some of the events in the near future (which allows for planning and prudence) but beliefs about the whole of time – whether it is infinite or finite, linear or cyclical, or whether history will come to an end in some apocalyptic event or continue just as it is ad infinitum are not things admitting of rational foundation. We are in no position to see which of these is correct; the only hope of having an answer is to be told by an intelligence other than our own. A revelation is necessary.

The beliefs of the whole of time clearly affect our evaluation of the universe now: if all is progressing to an apocalyptic event, then this time we experience now is one of trial, imperfect existence, and a non-final state of things; if all will continue like this forever then we must either be naturalists or dualists since either this world is all that will ever be or our perfection is never to be found within it. Whether time is recurrent or unrepeatable will affect just how unique and irreducible we understand individuals to be.

Notice we work from accounts of time that cannot both describe the whole of it: on the one hand we see time as linear either by progress or regress, and in this sense the years click by odometer-like; but nature itself appears to prefer only cycles inside of larger cycles. The same hour occurs day after day, the same day month after month, the same month every year, and even the same years in the rotation of the galaxy. The collapse of one thing is the rise of another and vice-versa, and so we can either take the rise-collapse-rise aspect as exemplifying a linear or cyclical time. Either of these descriptions work fine in relative, limited, or pragmatic contexts, but both of these cannot ultimately describe time. But no intelligence in time as such is in a position to resolve the question.

The generality of the named

We can say things that neither exist nor can be understood, and in this sense the named is more general and universal than being, and contains it as a subset.

But this can’t be quite right. The ‘generality’ in question is one made by ignorance: either plain ignorance or of an ideal construction or simplification that we need to make when the real thing is too hard to understand in its own right. But ignorance can’t contain the real.

This might be one critique of the Anselm’s ontological argument: it tries to make the real a subset of the named, and then shift to the former by way of the difference that it is better to exist not only in thought (that is, by way of the sense of the name.)

Doxa, Absolute and Relative.

While doing research on cars, I read an article saying “Though they made a strong finish, Chevy is going to have to try harder to establish itself as ‘the longest lasting, most dependable’ on the road”. The line came as a shock since in all the thousands of times I’d encountered that slogan in advertisements it never crossed my mind to take it as a claim about anything. The advertisement was processed as just another piece of slogany gibberish – it would have made no difference if they had said “Chevy: the American you” or “Roadstrong”. Ads aren’t claims that one weighs, disputes, or even looks into.

The problem is that, by sheer force of repetition and the omnipresence of advertisements in my life, there are large regions of my consciousness that are dominated by this sort of speech. One can’t escape being continually baited, spellbound, and drawn into multiple fantasy narratives that place him in an ideal world created by some product. We know that others daydream in the same way and so to consume the product would affect the opinion others have of us. Since the opinion of others is a significant part of our world, we know that buying the product can really change our world significantly.

Advertising thus taps into that elemental power that the Greeks called doxa – the power of reputation, opinion, glory, and their resulting power to include us in the group. Anyone can recognize in himself that, to a large extent, he is what others see him to be. There’s nothing odd in this – I can only teach students if they accept me as a teacher, just as I can only but something in dollars if someone accepts them as currency. But Plato was right to recognize that doxa has only a contingent value – it is entirely open to good as well as evil. Saints and gang members both measure their worth by their value in the eyes of others.

Advertising, however, seems problematic on exactly the same point that the Greek rhetoricians were: it cultivates an indifference to truth. Gorgias famously didn’t care if he understood what he was convincing people to do: if statesmen want to build walls, Gorgias could persuade people to build them; if doctors wanted patients to take their medicine, Gorgias could persuade them to take it. The persuasion would be just as effective if the walls were a boondoggle or the medicine were poison. So maybe Chevy is the most durable truck out there – even if this is so, Gorgias is not telling we this to inform me about Chevy but to get me to buy one; and he tells me this not because he loves Chevy’s himself but only because someone paid him to persuade others to buy them. To be more precise, the problem is not with persuasion but the fact that this persuasion is happening in a region where rational discourse is inapplicable. Even if Chevy wanted to make a rational claim in a commercial it would be hard to see how they would make it. The conclusion would just be another slogan, the discourse just another campaign.

This throws the difference between doxa and nous into sharp relief. Doxa is an inseparable part of life simply because we are gregarious animals and because all intelligent entities have second person perspectives as integral to their perfection. Doxa is just as transcendental as nous, and just as verified in God as in man. But human doxa carries with it the possibility of phoniness, hypocrisy, shallow consumerism, machismo, and the vapidity of both the masculine and feminine modes of status seeking. It is more apparent how human doxa is in need of correction a rectification in relation to what Plato called the Good itself. We would only add, with St. Thomas, that doxa is integral to the Good itself. It is not the case that doxa is, as it were, explained away by reason or nous but rather that it is perfected in relation to an absolute doxa. Human happiness consists in a knowledge God has of man’s acts, and God’s blessedness consists in his being seen by other persons like himself.


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