Alternativism

Call Alternativism the doctrine that reason is incapable of deciding among the various fundamental philosophical doctrines. We have no rational principle to award the palm to, say, either Idealism or Materialism or any of the proposed middle ways between them. Reason is simply gets a list of possible package deals, like a set of phone plans; or perhaps rational doctrines are like personalities – there is diversity without hierarchy.*

Alternativism divides into theoretical and practical. Theoretical alternativism states that human reason as such is necessarily alternativist.  Practical alternativism states that human reason is not necessarily in this position, but only happens to find itself in it. Perhaps we’re all stuck in it because we haven’t made some major breakthrough, or perhaps only those of us without a 180 IQ, perfect intellectual formation, and perfect moral rectitude are stuck with some sort of alternativism.

Theoretical alternativism is probably self-contradictory: a final theory that posits no final theory. If it is the right way to go, it has to be just one more alternative about how to go, but it cannot be this and still be right. Practical alternativism, however, is much more interesting. Am in a position to decide among alternatives? If I’m not, then can I do anything to put myself in some position to?

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*I think this might be the key principle of alternativism, or “Post-modernism”. We want there to be diversity without hierarchy. Indeed we see this as a good and therefore a sign of truth – whereas someone like St. Thomas argued that this was impossible, and that all diversity reduced to being and privation and so to better and worse. Perhaps St. Thomas was right, but even if he is, are we prepared to follow him out? There is an obvious diversity of sexes – are we willing to say one is better? There is a less obvious but still inescapable diversity of races, and a more questionable but still widely accepted diversity of lifestyles, sexual preferences, etc. St. Thomas saw hierarchy and divisions into evil/good/better/best running through all of these, we see the necessity of denying hierarchy and all most of all teh rest.

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Ovid on Daedalus and Icarus

Ovid tells the myth of Daedalus and Icarus as about the transmission of knowledge: Daedalus figures out how to fly, gives the fruits of his insight to Icarus, but then adds one note of warning: keep to the middle course. Icarus, of course, doesn’t. In the same way, the insights of the master are pushed to the extreme by his students, which end up destroying both the student and the insight he was given. This destruction arises from wanting to fly too close to the sun – i.e. to make things more clear, manifest, and put forth in the light of day.

Response to Objection.

Analysis of any sequence of movers quickly and certainly inevitably gets pretty complex, and so one can’t object that we need to turn to some sort of systematic method or science in order to make any progress identifying the movers. Put in terms of contemporary science, the First Way predicts that whatever physical science claims as an explain motion will either (a) be itself in motion or (b) be immobile, but a purely abstract or universal entity. Examples of (a) are force, energy, momentum, the inertial power of a body and anything else explained by a conservation laws; examples of (b) are physical laws, mathematical entities, absolute space, Tegmarkian or Galilean accounts of the mathematical universe, etc. But (a) entities can’t explain motion but simply take some motion as given and order other motions to it, and (b) entities can’t move anything except as ideas in the mind of something. Either way, we get no explanation of motion, which is exactly what a science of motion would be looking for in the first place. Taken in this sense, the God one concludes to in the First Way is not so much the last entity in a series of movers as he is the first entity after whatever physical analysis ultimately reduce every motion to. Again, it’s not that we count backwards till we hit God, it’s that we recognize that this backwards analysis can only discover entities incapable of answering the question that initiated the backwards analysis in the first place.

Within the context that the First Way articulates, our options are to posit the existence of some supernatural explanation of motion or to abandon the explanation of motion altogether, posting some motion or another as both unexplained and inexplicable, even though all other motions presuppose it. We stop talking about explaining things and insist that we only co-ordinate phenomena with each other. We don’t mean merely that physics does this – the First Way insists that the advance in physics will come to the extent that it realizes it does not explain but only co-ordinates phenomena – but that we start insisting that this is all that can be done. But this traps us in the logical hypocrisy of the liar paradox – our theory of explanation (not our physics) is that explanations are not possible.

Objection to the First Way

“You’ve just proved that every series of movers terminates in something that everyone calls God. Very well, let’s cash in your theory in a particular case. There is a car going by, and here are my wiggling fingers. Just take me back through the steps to your divine mover, please. Wouldn’t this have been a much easier way of progressing anyway? You wouldn’t even have needed to go through an induction of many cases – just one case would do! In other words, you’ve argued for a way to conclude to the existence of God from the falling of a leaf, and yet no one has ever done so. But there can’t be a general idea that is never cashed in in some definite case. Therefore, the First Way is false.”

Catholic weakness

Maggie Gallagher:

Even when you ignore liberal Catholics, and those Catholics in Name Only who never attend church, and you look only at traditional Catholics who attend Mass at least three times a month — the Catholic weakness leaps out.

The thesis is followed by a series of statistics showing how such Catholics believe far fewer points of basic Christian orthodoxy than Evangelicals or other Protestant groups.

But there is a difficulty with the metric involved: Catholic attendance at mass measures a far lower level of dedication one’s religion than Protestant attendance at sermons and services. Even Catholics in very remote regions have multiple opportunities to attend mass, and the mass itself is fourty-five minutes long with a predicable structure which allows one to always know exactly how far we are from the end. The very word “Mass” is from the moment of the celebration where the priest says, in effect, “You can leave, we’re done”. Protestant services simply ask much more of a time investment from those who attend them – Evangelical services are many hours long, and aren’t offered multiple times on Saturday evening and all day Sunday. For example, I’ve spent the last few Saturdays at Christmas parties and late birthday parties and have slept in past my usual 8:30 mass – but I just went to another Church at 9:30. I could have also gone to a hundred different vigil masses on Saturday and many times more than that  that on Sunday, all the way to 10PM. A Protestant under the same circumstances would have to have a lot more dedication to get to his service – a good deal more than I would have, and this is with me believing every point of orthodoxy mentioned in the Gallagher article.

In other words, Mass attendance isn’t designed to be a sufficient indicator of Catholic orthodoxy. This is one reason why being a Catholic in good standing is defined not just by Mass attendance but going to confession. The demand is minimal (once a year) but in my experience those who don’t meet even this minimal burden have no problem disregarding all sorts of Catholic beliefs even when they almost never miss Mass. Gallagher’s survey would only shock me if the numbers stayed the same when we compared Evangelicals to Mass attending Catholics who confessed at least once a year. In fact, I’m actually shocked that her numbers are as high as they are, and my suspicion is that the “traditional” Catholic designation in Gallagher’s survey is just a clumsy and imperfect proxy for a Catholic in good standing.

Prosthetic gametes

Say you succeed in making a completely prosthetic person, overlooking the contradiction in such an idea mentioned two posts ago. If you make a woman, what are her prosthetic eggs? Here you want a prosthesis that is also a factory for making prosthetics. But haven’t we just hit a point of absurdity with this? We can make sense of finding prosthetics in their factory, but not of finding the factory in the prosthetic.

The deeper problem, however, is that the necessity of inputs into prosthetics means that they cannot be selves, and reproduction is essentially a reproduction of a self. It makes no difference if this reproduction is of a cell dividing into identical twins, a potato into cuttings or a couple bonding into offspring. Prosthetic causality cannot enter directly into the process anywhere.

The chicken-egg problem

Why does the chicken-egg problem have an immediate and obvious answer if we put it like this: which came first, Jessica Chastek or the eggs in her ovaries?

So maybe the problem arises because we’re asking whether some egg or another or some chicken or another came first. But this is too vague – obviously my wife is some woman or another too. So then the question has to be whether a chickens as a sort of thing come before eggs as a sort of thing. But what sense can we make of one sort of thing, i.e. an abstract thing, coming before another? Abstractions don’t play by the same causal rules as concrete things: maybe all chickens come from eggs, but the idea of chicken doesn’t: we can get the idea of chickens from any number of non-egg realities – like a series of letters C-H-I-C-K-E-N.

So the question seems to turn on an interesting idea of intelligible structures that somehow pre-exist various individual concrete realities, like a sort of plan in things that the things themselves follow. What we want to know is whether, in nature’s own instruction book, the chapter on chicken eggs comes before the chapter on chickens, and it is precisely these chapters, and not the individual chickens, that count as the chicken. So what we’re assuming about nature in the question turns out to be just as interesting as any resolution we might give to it. The question itself turns out to be a rather interesting one about to what extent we can enter into the mind of nature.

Notes on identity

– A memory theorist of personal identity would need an account of how person could have amnesia, degenerative Alzheimer’s, total memory loss from brain damage, etc. How could we treat a person for memory loss? Say something goes wrong in the limbic system and makes it impossible for some person to remember. I invent some artificial limbic system part. I it possible for me to implant in on a person? Perhaps we say that the identity of that person bootstraps on my own identity. The patient participates in the memory of his family members who bring him to the clinic, or the doctor who treats him. But then we get the fascinating but probably incoherent concept of a “person by participation” or “person not of himself”.

-Say we want to distinguish ontological identity (being an individual) from verificational identity (knowing that one is an individual). What to do with the problem that personal identity seems to be largely self-reflection? The first person act of knowing enters into the ontology. So do we evade the problem of confounding ontology and epistemology, or become trapped in it?

-Robert Koons formulates a thought experiment about identity:

Suppose that subject A is suffering from a disease that causes cerebral neurons to die off, one by one. An ingenious treatment is applied: as each neuron dies, it is replaced by a small 2-way radio modem, connecting to a neuron-simulating program dwelling on the cloud (i.​e.​, realized by different combinations of hardware fixtures at different points in time). Eventually, A’s entire cerebrum has been replaced by such modems, with the result that all of A’s cerebral processing is being handled by the simulation program on the web.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. There are a large number of subjects suffering from the same condition.

Another approach to the experiment would be to replace the neurons with prosthetics: assume a world of perfectly advanced prosthetics, like the Star Wars universe. Now let a Jedi become progressively more and more beaten in battles: first he looses a hand, then an arm, a leg, digestive tract, etc. Or, less dramatically, let him have a progressive disease that requires more and more of his organs and tissues to be replaced by prosthetics. The problem is that there is a limit to this replacement: a prosthetic is essentially an imput-output device: you need to hook it up to something. A completely prosthetic organism is either a contradiction, or a being that could not do anything. It would be a prosthetic not hooked up to anything, which wouldn’t do anything more than a prosthetic on the shelf.

But where does this leave us? It is an obvious objection to considering organs as tools, but it’s unclear what other option we have. “Organ” is just the stem of the Greek word for “tool”. By the same token, it seems to argue that identity cannot be the property of any input-output system.

– We want the physical to be close enough to the scientific to always be symmetrical, i.e. just as open to going in the reverse direction to the way it goes. But the chemical processes underlying life, as life, cannot be characterized in this way. Life and death or sickness and health are not the same sort of things as freezing and thawing, oxidation and reduction. The difference doesn’t require philosophy either, but is built into the science: oxidation and reduction are dealt with indifferently by physics, and as simply two halves of what one is studying; but the living and the dead are not two halves of what biology studies. Likewise, sickness and health are not two indifferent halves of medicine or anatomy. The anatomy book does not show the amputated, tumor-having, etc.

-If by “identity” we mean a whole (complete entity) that acts for itself as a whole, then there is no such thing as natural or physical identity. The best a natural whole can do is to have one part move another part. This is simply a lemma to the First Way, one which happens to prove that God alone has personal identity, at least as described in the opening sentence. As a further lemma to this, divine simplicity is not God as property-identical so much as God being the only being that actually acts entirely for himself: i.e. an entity that acts entirely as the entity he is. What we imagine is true of all identity is in fact verified only in the divine instance of it.

Offences against law vs. the heart

We have competing accounts of sin as offences against a divine person and violations of divine law. Given the approach that natural theology takes to God, it has tended to see him as more law-like than person-like, which makes sin and its remedy an essentially impersonal affair, in much the same way that any legal matter is an impersonal affair. The “person” of God is offended only in a metaphorical and extrinsic sense, the way the dignity of the crown is offended by pickpockets or vagrancy. Understanding sin in this sense makes both sin and its response given from the outset: some offence happens, we accuse the offender, marshal up the evidence for and against him, and no matter what happens the way forward will be clear and given in advance. If the prosecution fails, the accused is let off; if it succeeds he is assessed a penalty laid down in advance.

But this is not at all a description of what an offence against a person is like, especially when love gets involved. Persons are given with all of their virtues and faults, and loving relations usually start out in a state where the good elements of the person dominate consciousness, and the faults and vices of the person are seen in light of them. The vices are sometimes overlooked for the sake of love, other times more or less gently corrected. other times joked about. But when an offence against the relationship occurs, these faults suddenly shift to a new modality of consciousness: they begin to be seen as characteristic faults. All of a sudden even minor offences are seen as indicating what the person is. We go over to our brother’s house for Christmas and notice that his wife bought vegan egg-rolls again. “Dammit!” I think to myself, “She knows that everyone hates those except her – but that’s just the sort of self-absorbed bitch that she is. Why did my brother every marry that woman? No wonder her kids are such brats!”* Now all these claims might be perfectly true – maybe she is self-absorbed, maybe this is why she keeps buying egg-rolls, and maybe it does have a bad affect on her children. Like everyone else, your sister-in-law has not just moral blemishes but real vices – she habitually enjoys and insists upon actions that really wound the hearts of those around her, and to point out that everyone else has vices too does not make the wounds she inflicts any less painful. What I want to stress is that we are facing  problem that cannot be resolved by multiplying insight or objectivity, even to the point of omniscience. In the face of such faults, hatred is just as reasonable as overlooking, gentle correction, or irony. Ceteris paribus, it is just as reasonable to sever the relationship as to continue it.

Legal relationships are mediated by the law, which is detached, impartial, and predictable, and where the response to offences is impersonal and given in advance; personal relationships are mediated by the heart, where the response to offences can never be impersonal or given in advance. The response to offences against law is some sense of proportion, restitution, and measure; but the response to offences against the heart is very different. The heart overcomes offences against it by some sort of mutual suffering. The one offended has to consume the offence inside of himself, the one giving the offence has to recognize that he must do something in response to the pain he is caused, but it is not at all in his power to control the outcome. This absence of control is a crucial difference: the law always gives the offender some active control over the power of restitution – he can pay the fine, serve the time, kowtow to the right authority, offer the prescribed sacrifice. Offenders against the heart have no power over the situation, even though they are duty bound to some sort of response.

It is in this light that the opposition between law and grace becomes so striking. We will never quite escape the desire to see sin as a matter of law – for this allows us to control it. There are no shortage of arguments that sin could only ever be law – how could it be a matter of the heart, if God could never be deprived of some good or glory by his creatures? What could it possibly mean to wound the heart of the divine nature? This works fine as poetry – silly self- indulgent poetry – but what could it mean in theory?

*Obviously, all the events, words, and persons spoken of are completely made-up

Moral commandments vs. the heart

After throwing a worldwide dragnet and sifting through it, an atheist group has published “Secular 10 Commandments”. As it happens, I found myself reading them at the same time that Fr. Edmund’s wonderful extended argument that we live in a Pelagian age inspired me to re-read Augustine’s The Spirit and the Letter. The apposition of the two is remarkable: Augustine is arguing that all commandments destroy and condemn the self, and so he sees the question of life not as (a) the opposition between secular and Christian commandments but (b) the opposition between commandment and reform of the heart. Taken in the first way, we simply disagree about where reason leads and what exactly the right formulation of the demands of reason are, taken in the second sense we are disputing whether reason by itself, or any power of the self suffices to accomplish what reason demands, and it’s interesting to read the Secular Ten Commandments in both ways.

The phenomenology of Commandment is that it is extrinsic and binding upon choice. Moral commandments are not declared in matters that everyone freely decides to do anyway, and so the one giving such a commandment always recognizes the necessity of resistance to what he is declaring. Commandment therefore always comes with the threat of violence – not necessarily violence in the sense of bloodshed but in the sense that it allows us to perform some actions that are against the will of another – and in fact it is precisely these persons for whom the moral command must exist at all. Moral command always presupposes a field of resistance to the command, and therefore presupposes the opposition of the heart to the command. At the same time, moral command always sees itself as rational in one way or another. We don’t think we simply declare any old thing good or evil by sheer fiat. This is precisely why the atheist group mentioned above crowdsourced the discovery of their ten commandments to a worldwide search, sc. because they see moral commandments as there to be found, and as somehow objectively “out there” in moral space. Perhaps the items in this moral space are only questionably subsistent, like the objects in logical or mathematical space, but there can be no doubt that they are as objective as logical implication or geometrical reasoning. Why else would we try to discover them by looking?

But if this is right, then moral commandments of any kind, whether secular or Christian, all testify to one and the same thing: the resistance of the heart to what is objective. This resistance is as universal as the extension of the commandment, though this universality should not be understood in a mechanical or ridiculous way – it’s not as if every person resists every objective moral fact in every way. At the same time, the universality of the command assumes that a resistance to the objective is creeping in somewhere, and though a person might look fine before those who can only see how his actions appear, he doesn’t look the same “before Him who looks into our very heart and inmost will, where he sees that, although the man who fears the law keeps a certain precept, he would nevertheless rather do another thing if he were permitted. The Spirit and the Letter, c. 14” We only need to impose commands on ourselves so far as we would view the (at least occasional) suspension of those commandments as a relief. So let’s stipulate that these Secular Commandments are correct, perfectly objective, and conducive to happiness. Still, like all commandments, they do not so much solve moral problems as they manifest that deeper level of human existence in the face of which all moral problems become vitiated and insoluble: the foundational level at which the heart resists the objective and real, whatever we think it is.

In this sense, the traditional Christian doctrine of grace is equally a critique of Moses’s ten commandments, the secular ten commandments, and even all the modern and contemporary Christianities that see Christ’s teaching as simply the perfect expression of the moral law. We don’t need more moral truths or research into cognitive biases or rational and scientific morality – we’ve already got untold milleniae-worth of perfectly objective commandments to annoy and condemn us, and which we are no more eager to follow than when we discovered them at some time out of mind.  The truer they are, the worse we’ll feel – the letter killeth. All this can only succeed in convincing everyone, whether sacred or secular, that reason requires that  the human person needs to be somehow remade by a will other than his own. And who, morally speaking, will be allowed to do that? God, if he exists, at least has some claim to act upon the heart since he made this heart for himself; moreover, God can act on the heart from within, taking the heart according to its unique, contingent, and infinitely varied circumstances. But human being have no such divine right, and they can act on it only extrinsically, i.e. by violence; and in uniform circumstances, like re-education camps and campaigns, propaganda, universal shaming etc. True, many religions have also claimed this power, and try again and again to find a letter that will not killeth – Sabbath laws, forced conversion, religious violence, etc. But all this means is that the Augustinian doctrine critiques some religious practices equally with all secular ones.

For the secular moralist, the vision of the human heart that opens up with the articulation of rational commandment  can only to despair or totalitarianism. This present list of commandments chooses despair, and mentions blithely in its ninth commandment that there simply is no right way to live. This of course undermines all else that they say, but what else could they say? Only that the success of moral living requires that one group is entitled to use violence on another. I’m of course relived that they don’t yet advance this option, but I can’t say that, based on their principles, it is any better or worse than their choice of despair.

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