Science contra privacy / autonomy

Science has structural components that lead to undermining privacy and personal autonomy. Two arise from the way in which it increases the reach of the nervous system.

1a.) The presumption for use. Hey, if you’re not doing anything wrong, why are you worried? You wouldn’t object to having a cop monitoring that area, why not a camera? We’re just collecting data/ trying to do our due diligence/ avoid litigation…

1b.) The value of the shocking. Novel and bizarre information has power to catch and keep attention and has always been used as an attempt to hold a crowd.  But when these crowds go to the size that science allows, whole societies of the novel, bizarre and shocking become possible. Outlier cases like child abductions, freak deaths, or terrorist attacks are seen as urgent public problems to be addressed. But one can’t catch outlier freak cases without being a good deal more invasive, making a presumption for surveillance, and going on mass fishing-expeditions for data.

2.) Limitations of case study. The double-blind case study has pretty significant limitations in studying certain populations (see “Gender and Physiology” here for difficulties in studying the transgendered) though these limitations can be overcome by forcing everyone into observational structures, i.e. making everyone a participant in a longitudinal study. This turns at least some defenses of privacy into defenses of ignorance, which sets up a ratchet effect away from privacy or autonomy.

Mutation and the common good

1.) Take natural selection as the paradigm “brute fact” that can account for the initial conditions carried forth by laws.

2.) Selection is a happy accident of a mutation finding an environmental fit conferring reproductive advantage. It is a game of chance whose outcome can be expected if we just get enough tries. Finding the password is just a matter of taking enough attempts.

3.) But a machine randomly trying passwords until it hit on the right one is a code cracker. This is particularly a propos to selection. The mutation of bacteria is their one defense against antibiotics, and the mutations of microorganisms in the face of our genetic modifications resembles nothing so much as an attempt to pick the locks we have placed on plants. If not for the mutation, to find one defeater of a species would be the absolute doom of that species. Mutation and reproduction are thus both species-level survival systems, with mutation being the redundant system.

4.) Mutation provides the same species-level good as reproduction. Mutation often fails, but so do almost all attempts at reproduction (the success rate of seeds is comparable to the success rate of mutations.)

5.) Reproduction differs from mutation in that the former requires complex structures while the latter does not. Mutation occurs only because of the absence or imprecision of the system that might check for it. It is this absence of a system that allows for it to be mistakenly understood as a brute fact.

6.) Mutations arising from the absence or imprecision of the system is defined relative to species-level goods in the same way reproduction is.

7.) And so the paradigm case of an originating fact in nature is defined relative to species-level goods, i.e. common goods.


Dialogue on religion and laïcité

A: We can’t isolate religion from the public square. Christians need to be able to live their faith and work it into policy.

B: Yeah, we tried that system and it ends in endless war.

A: That’s crazy, the largest wars were in the twentieth century by atheist regimes.

B: Pinker has done a good job debunking that, and at any rate I think the sorts of totalitarian ideas they advocated need to be kept out of the public sphere too. We can do that by advocating representative government, compromise, and focusing on shared beliefs. At the end of the day, what’s wrong with those totalitarian schemes is exactly what is wrong with religion: it is a totalizing view of life and a claim to the complete truth of things, and all these schemes end up collapsing into violence and murder.

A: Ah, so we have to cordon off religion out of fear of death?

B: Exactly. It’s a simple matter of survival.

A: But in fact it’s only religion that can confront what we fear in death. I’ve been at the bedside of many who were dying, and what they fear is exactly what religion alone can provide. I say that in banishing this from the public square you are not saving people from death but leaving them defenseless against it.

On good and bad murder in a non-moral sense

Let’s name names and flush out a distinction that everyone seems to work from anyway: there’s good and bad murder. By “murder” I mean the familiar definition of killing the innocent, where the relevant sense of innocence belongs to all individuals not personally guilty of life-threatening acts. The definitions can be tightened up, but the sense just specified remains.

Bad murder is the familiar sort – it’s the one the TV news calls murder, that drives courtroom dramas and detective stories, and that gets committed by gang members, jealous redneck husbands, and the occasional preppy socialite. This is the sort of murder that shocks and horrifies, leads to the call for tougher laws, and leaves us wringing our hands over the terrible callousness of all those other people.

Good murder is, well, you can hear Leon Panetta confess to a paradigm case here:

I was tempted to have the link start at the actual good murder, whose victims are first introduced at 2:04, but a crucial part of good murder is its context. One can’t just start with a description of the act, the one who commits the act has to have his name introduced, have his struggles laid bare, and have all of his difficult moral problems put center stage so as to make us understand why he just had to kill some nameless person(s).

I honestly can’t tell if I’m being ironic in writing all this. I suppose I can virtue-signal and tell you that I think good murder is morally wrong, but I can’t experience outrage over it and I don’t think that I would demand Panetta or his accomplices in the White House should be treated as a murderers, except in a world so counterfactual that it need not be considered in a moral debate. The reason I would spare them prison is not because they lack moral agency (except in the sense that their conscience is deeply perverse) but because the criminalization of murder seems to have limits that keeps it from being able to capture all murders. Everyone is familiar with this sort of thing in the criminalization of lust:

Human government comes from Divine government, and should imitate it. Now even though God is omnipotent and supremely good, he allows some evils to take place in wold he might prevent, since without them greater goods are forfeited, or greater evils ensue. So human government also and those in authority rightly tolerate certain evils, so that certain goods be lost or certain greater evils be incurred: thus Augustine says (De Ordine Book 2, c. 4): “If you do away with prostitutes, the world will be convulsed with lust.

For most readers of this blog the most familiar case of good murder is abortion. Even when it is criminalized it is not punished like bad murder and it’s hard to see how it ever could be. We love our mothers with much the same fervor that we love our nation and so we can’t help but excuse them for killing nameless, faceless threats to their security. Occasional attempts will be made to positively justify such killing, or even – God help us – to celebrate it, but for the most part we are content to treat it as a difficult choice that we had no choice but to make.

What goes and what doesn’t

We need to be clearer on the nonsense that science really did cast out: ringing bells to ward off lightning strikes, centuries of bleeding and quack cures that no one ever thought to test, the confused ways of confronting mental illness, the fanciful ways of mixing fact and idealization in hagiography and other attempts at history, the often unreflective teleology, etc. Good riddance to the whole bewildering embarrassment, and God bless science for driving it out. It’s hard to look back on it without feelings of condescension or anger.

But then, no one is fighting to bring back bloodletting or fanciful hagiographic legends. What science drove out is something we’re all happy to part with. Even the most die-hard traditionalist doesn’t want his doctor to tie radishes to his feet to ward off the ague. So it’s hard to see what we can do with this stuff that no one wants to return to – presumably some want to bring it up to cast aspersions on the religion, philosophy, and politics of the time. The critique might have some merit, but the categories one has to jump across to make it are so far apart make it hard to push the it very far – it’s something like an argument that questioned how the Mayo clinic could be of any value since it belonged to a society that dropped the atomic bomb, terrorized nations by murdering their citizens with drones, and was on track to incarcerate a third of the black male population. This isn’t giving context, it’s just poisoning the well.

There are areas where ancient thought could do with a good dollop of experimentation – Aristotle always insisted that the only point of ethics was practice and not theory but the resulting ethics is nowhere as close to the practical as contemporary cognitive science. But it is lunacy to think we can just pitch the ethics and do cog. sci.

An Aristotelian Ontological Argument (using the LBA)

1.) Act and potency are really divided and not just notionally distinct.  We can have a skill to play music when not playing.

2.) Act and potency are not correlatives. Potency depends on act to exist but not vice versa. Shown in three ways:

a.) Potency is defined relative to act but act is not defined (Metaphysics IX. esp. c. 6)

b.) If act as such depends on potency then act, as act, is potential. But they are really distinct (see 1).

c.) Potency depends on act intrinsically and in its logos but act does not so depend on potency (see 2a)

3.) If act and potency are not correlatives and are really distinct, an-act-that-lacks-all-potency  (pure act) is metaphysically and not just logically possible. In other words, when we say that pure act is “possible” we don’t just mean that we see no contradiction (and for all we know there might be one) but that we see that there is not a contradiction.*

4.) To prove that there are no contradictions in a necessary thing is to know it exists, in the same way that to prove there is no contradiction in denying the Fifth Postulate proves that Non-Euclidean quantities exist. Call this the Leibniz-Brentano Axiom. 

5.) Whatever lacks all potency is by definition necessary.

6.) Pure act exists.

*When apologetics seeks to prove that there are no contradictions in the dogmas of the faith, it arguably only establishes logical possibility.

“free will” n’est conduit pas

“Free will” is probably not the best guide to the thing we want to talk about. “Will” connotes assertion, imposition, the fiat that brings something forth; “free” means absence of constraint or control. Put the two together, and it sounds like what we’re fighting about the unconstrained assertion or a chaotic fiat. This is why people have been objecting since Chesterton’s time that “free will” would be a sort of mania or madness: Mr. R.B. Suthers said that free will was lunacy, because it meant causeless actions, and the actions of a lunatic would be causeless (Orthodoxy, c. 2 “The Maniac”).

The better term is simply “choice”. Not “free choice” – which is pleonasm – just choice, i.e. the rational decision for one of many real alternatives, where “real” means “not just conceivable or logically possible”. Determinism merely denies the reality of alternatives – one can conceive of acting otherwise but it was never a real possibility.

So taken, the fight between determinism and its opposite seems very esoteric: it involves trying to come to terms with the ontological status of things that do not happen. But, as Aristotle points out, the debate does have one crucial outcome: it seems to determine the value of deliberation. Deliberative processes rest on the supposition that something is really at stake, and so we need to collect evidence, sift through it, weigh arguments, and try to do our best to pick between which really live option is the best. Determinism has a very difficult time accounting for why we should care about this.

O.J.’s (logical equivalent of a) confession

(I was in the midst of typing this when I got called away to do something and posted it by mistake. This is the full version. UPDATE. Then I went back and added some more stuff.)

In what appears to be recordings made in prison during his criminal trial for killing Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman, O.J. says:

If the situation was reversed with Nicole and I, and I was the one who was shot and killed, she wouldn’t spend a day in jail (laughter).

at 6:13.

Ah, but then Nicole’s situation would be that she was framed for murder out of racist hatred for being an affluent black woman!

I guess you could say he meant “if I were murdered, Nicole would never be tried for it”. But why begrudge Nicole’s failing to be tried for a crime unless she did it?

I’m not going for a smoking gun, or even for a piece of court-worthy evidence, and I come to all of this convinced that he was guilty already.* I’m speaking to those likewise convinced of guilt who can take the quotation as manifesting something about the character of lies. Lies differ from truths in that it’s hard to tell the events of a lie out of chronological order, and so a fortiori, it’s hard to keep the lie straight when you try to make it function in a counterfactual. Unless by “counterfactual” you mean the truth.

*Not just by the mountain of uncontested evidence but by the ridiculous nature protestations against the rest of it. To take the paradigm example, no matter how racist Fuhrman was, in order to frame anybody he would have had to buy an Aris leather light XL glove from Bloomingdale’s after midnight on his way to driving to the Rockingham estate (and never be found out).** If that’s your theory, you don’t have one.

**Bailey’s insinuation that he found it at the Bundy crime scene requires that the fourteen other cops that got there before him missed it, missed him picking it up, missed him bagging it and pocketing it… and all this in a yard the size of a large foyer.

“Exists” as “life” in the living

Geach provides a way to sidestep two hundred years of Kantian-Analytic critique of theistic arguments by saying that the arguments use the sense of “exists” that is synonymous with “life” in living things.

The Kantian critique was that there was no more intelligible content in the existent than in the merely possible, but one can’t make the same claim about the living and the dead. The Analytic critique that making existence a predicate requires making non-existence one too, and so a shepherd should go out every morning to divide his non-existent sheep from the existent ones, doesn’t make any sense when we use the sense of “exists” that is the same as “alive” in the living. Taken in this way, it’s exactly the thing one expects a shepherd to pay attention to. In fact, the only reason that shepherds exist is to pay attention to this.

Speaking in this way also makes it much easier to understand how existence is gradient in medieval theology. Things exist more or less in exactly the ways that they may be more or less alive, or have a higher or lower sort of life.

First half of a Sermon

1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. 2 Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: 3 And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that [spirit] of antichrist

1 John 4:2

“I suspect most of those looking for advice on how to discern spirits take John’s advice as cold comfort. In fact, what comfort can a pastor take in this advice? We deal with sincere and devout young people questioning whether they should get married, or go on a mission; with devout middle aged persons who want to discern how much of their income to give to the people of God or how to stop yelling at their children; with devout older persons who cannot tell how to respond to their children who do not go to church or make peace with family members that they’ve become estranged from. What would happen if the pastor told all of these persons to seek out that “spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh”? Shouldn’t he expect a blank stare? All these persons have taken this for granted since Sunday school. So perhaps we should be content to read this passage in it’s historical context: it’s a condemnation of Gnosticism that denied the physical body of Jesus. We do not struggle to divide Gnosticism from the Gospel and so this passage can be read only by interested historians.

“But are we ready to sell the Incarnation short like this? is it just the triumph of a certain sect, which now for us is just a background for the faith, with no cash value in everyday life? If this really were the case, wouldn’t it serve more as a critique of our Sunday school belief? One thinks of Schleiermacher writing a book on the people of God and relegating the Trinity to a three-page appendix. The Trinity! Just imagine! And yet Schleiermacher’s reason is exactly the one we are seeing now: if a belief makes no difference in how we act, what value is it to us in discerning spirits, since how to act is usually what we want to know when we are discerning spirits!  Can it really be of any value to us to reflect that “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh”? Schleiermacher borrows this sentiment from Kant, who develops it at great length in Religion within the Limits of Reason AloneWhat Kant says here about the Trinity applies just as much to the John’s doctrine of the Incarnation:

But if this very faith (in a divine tri-unity) were to be regarded not merely as a representation of a practical idea but as a faith which is to describe what God is in Himself, it would be a mystery transcending all human concepts, and hence a mystery of revelation, unsuited to man’s powers of comprehension; in this account, therefore, we can declare it to be such. Faith in it, regarded as an extension of the theoretical knowledge of the divine nature, would be merely the acknowledgment of a symbol of ecclesiastical faith which is quite incomprehensible to men or which, if they think they can understand it, would be anthropomorphic, and therefore nothing whatever would be accomplished for moral betterment.

“One can almost hear the echoes of Hume’s fork: if it has no value for life, commit it to the flames! What can we say to this?

“There is in the Apostle’s formulation a clear reference to God becoming man, but it is clear that the flesh takes center stage in the formula. We must confess a divine person in the flesh, i.e. not just in a complete, concrete human nature but with all the weakness of that human nature. Augustine has already shown that “flesh” means “man”, but always with the overtone of man in his distinction from God and so as finite, limited, knowing relatively little, and able to be wounded, suffer, and die.

“But isn’t this the first repudiation of the Kant-Scheiermacher hypothesis? Jesus Christ has not come as something that needs to be translated into moral terms, as if Christ is a symbol for the moral life that would be just as illustrative whether he actually lived or not. No, God has come in the flesh. He is not an instance of a moral doctrine but the divinization of the mundane. Kant is offended by anything that goes beyond the intuitions of the mundane world, and yet John insists that these very intuitions have to be seen as things now suffused with divinity: What John calls “Christ” is not made meaningful in the measure that he can find a place in human action or concepts; these mundane concepts now have their ultimate value in their reference to a divine mystery. What could possibly be a more appropriate Johannine label for the Kant-Scheiermacher hypothesis than anti-Christ? 

“John is in fact far from giving a doctrine with no practical value – he’s setting forth the opposite practical project than one we are familiar with: one where the challenge is to see the mundane as waiting in eager anticipation for the revelation of the Son of God. Go back to that pastor seeking to give counsel: has the one seeking how much he should give really come to terms with the fact that money has been divinized through Christ’s use of it? I very much doubt it – most of us see money in the same way Kant would. It’s useful for practical life and any reference it might have to Christ is “a mystery transcending all human concepts, and hence a mystery of revelation, unsuited to man’s powers of comprehension… if they think they can understand it, would be anthropomorphic, and therefore nothing whatever would be accomplished for moral betterment.” But it’s pretty clear that if we see things in John’s way our approach to our money would be very different…


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