The Second Commandment

The Second Commandment was transliterated from Latin, as so the command not to take the Lord’s name in vanum became in vain. The Latin in turn reflects a puzzling and idiomatic Hebrew, where the word shav often means “in vain” in the sense of pointless but usually means “false”. Sometimes the meaning is clear: when Psalm 127 says that “unless the Lord builds the city, they labor in shav who build it”, it clearly means “in vain”, and when Deuteronomy’s version of the Commandments speaks of “not bearing shav witness against one’s neighbor”, it clearly means “false”.

So the meaning of shav seems to lean heavily on the verb: one can’t labor falsely, and one usually speaks falsely and not in vain. But how does one “take up” or “bear” the “Lord’s name”? In speech and in thought, no doubt, and in doing so it should not be shav. What does that mean?

Perhaps one of the reasons for putting the command negatively was because to put it positively would make it too long. Our speech about God must not be shav because it ought to be intentional, reverent, grounded, true, substantial. The commandment is usually understood to be speaking about the first two, i.e. don’t use “God” as in interjection or blasphemously, but it demands that speech about God also be grounded, true, substantial.

So the ground is Scripture, right? Yes and no: Contemporary philosophy makes clear that speech or language is not fundamentally text but participation in the life of a community. Seen from this angle the Second Commandment is fundamentally demanding that our speech about God take place within the community of which God himself is a part. Scripture has a crucial role to play as the record of that community, but the community itself is the living persons living thought time, which is one element of what Christ meant in saying that Moses “calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for to Him all are alive (Lk. 20-37).”


Philosopher’s kid stories (2)

Monika: Dad, why are all those white things [dogwood tree seeds -ed.] blowing around?

Me: They’re seeds.

Monika: Why are all the seeds blowing around?

Me: Because the tree wants to have a baby.

Monika: Oh. I call that a baby tree, but the tree calls it a baby.

(some time later)

Monika: Why do trees want to have a baby?

Me: Don’t all grown ups want to have a baby?

Monika: But trees can’t talk.

Me: What about dogs? They have babies.

Monika: Yeah, (emphatically making an important distinction) but they can’t talk to them. They can have a baby but they can’t talk to the baby.

Me: There was a man named Aristotle who said that all grown-up things want to have a baby. What do you think about that?

Monika: No. I don’t get it. I was not born from Mom. All things are born from the world. Mom had four babies in our world: Felicity, me, Manny and Charlie.

Me: What about Frankie and James?

Monika: They were not born in our world. [James and Frankie were born when we lived in other places that Monika has never been to – ed].

The puzzling mechanics of the divine name

Psalm 63 is a great example of the puzzling mechanics of the divine name. All the English versions I checked rendered the opening line as:

O God, thou art my God.

Why are both capitalized?

The first capital is easy: the vocative indicates personal address. But the second would be odd to take as a personal address. Example: if I were talking to my mom I could say

Mom, you are my mom.

The structure is identical, but to convey the sense the second noun has to be lower case. If I say

Mom, you are my Mom.

then the sentence is equivalent to

Mary Quayle, you are my Mary Quayle.

But I don’t know what I am saying when I say that.

Theologically, perhaps the point of this pan-capitalization was to emphasize the divine simplicity, sc. to stress the point that G/god, properly understood, cannot be in a genus or one among many. God in this sense is The (Neoplatonic) One, who cannot be multiplied in any way, even in thought. Even though we can say “The One is one” the sentence involves a failure to understand who one is speaking about.

Or maybe the point of the pan-capitalization is to stress Buber’s idea that God can only be Thou and never an it. Obviously, this theory is too late to explain anything, unless we take it as making explicit something implicit in an earlier idea (like the Neoplatonic one?)

More likely, the original point of the capitalization is to divide the true from the false or the honorific from the false, but this is self-defeating since it renders the distinction impossible to write down. We can’t say “God is the true god” since the capitalization rule itself demands that we change the sentence into something that is either incoherent or tautological, i.e. “God is the true God” which, again, is like saying “Barack Obama is the true Barack Obama.” …Sure, I guess, but such a sentence has no possible use, even if you were in a room full of Obama clones and wanted to point to the real one.

Most likely of all, however, is that the only rule in play is a speech-taboo, comparable to the speech taboos that now exist against “dead-naming” or referring to a transgender person by their old name or gender.* Since some search engines have been programmed against dead-naming if you ask “What was Caitlyn Jenner’s old name” you get “Caitlyn Jenner’s old name was Caitlyn Jenner”.

*Where “to refer” means “any utterance or use of the word”. This is a crazy theory of reference for normal words, but remember that these are taboos, and reference among taboo words does seem to be something like this: hence “the f-word” and “the n-word”.

Abortion as medical

Abortion and sterilization* are unique in being non-cosmetic medical procedures where the expertise of the doctor plays an entirely instrumental role.

Say I go into a dentist with tooth pain and want him to pull my tooth. I’d still expect him to examine the tooth for himself and diagnose that the best course of action is extraction. Notice that this need not be because he thinks I’m ignorant: even if I am a dentist myself and know exactly what is causing my tooth pain I still expect him to pull the tooth only after he concurs with me or sees himself as part of a larger diagnostic project. This is because doctors are not contractors that I hire to execute my own ends but have ends in virtue of being doctors that must be respected.

So either abortion and sterilization are not medical procedures or they are medical procedures which can be infallibly diagnosed by non-experts. The second option is a joke, but the first can’t be right either- we clearly don’t seek the procedures just to look better but because we believe that they will improve our quality of life or protect us from some major trauma.

Or is it that the procedures are medical, but that doctors are at this moment in history unable to determine when they will lead to health and when they won’t? But it would be a strange response to our ignorance to charge ahead and default to the decision of the patient.

My interest is only with showing how these sorts of procedures* instrumentalize medicine, which is some sort of perversion. That said, it might be the lesser of two evils – if doctors were actually forced to develop rules when bearing children, fertility, etc. were healthy and when they should be cut off, I’m not confident that this would lead to better results.

*At the moment, sex-reassignment surgery and assisted suicide still seem to involve some sort of diagnosis, but both have a tendency toward becoming purely instrumental. Abortion once required diagnosis too, but later became a fundamental right. The irony of justifying the procedures for “the health of the mother” is that the justification of the procedures tends to sideline the question of health and replace it with simply the desires of the patient.

On material things

We call things material because they are relative to a different future state: building materials make buildings, the course will go though the course materials, etc. To see a deer like a hunter is to see it as material, and oil is material for lamps but not for refineries.

The different future state of the material is a different substance or not, and if not, matter is substantial.

Whatever is different at a different time is, of course, something now. Taken as it is now we either understand it as form or as the form of what was material to it. This gives another sense of matter and material, though one that is not material as such.

Material relates to the future state either necessarily or contingently depending on the description. That the material be something else at some later time is necessary; that it be this or that might be more or less probable or perhaps completely unpredictable. Given this, matter is in one sense a source of necessity and in another sense a source of irrationality and unpredictability, but because future states are more irrational than rational so also is matter.

Mathematical objects are not relative to some future state and so are not material. Limits seem like they are exceptions to this, since we speak about quantities approaching them, but quantities do not approach limits as though they were possible futures. It is not meaningful to ask when the derivative or integral happens, as though it takes a Sisyphean run to infinity every time a 12th grader takes a derivative.

Mathematical quantities cause and explain physical activity, though not by interacting with it or forming a physical system. They are nevertheless not spirits. The Platonic suggestion is that spirit acts on matter through the mediation of mathematical objects, or that mathematics is the nexus between eternal spirit and a cosmos of becoming, which would be consistent with the success of modern science.


Philosopher’s kids stories

Monika (age 4): “Dad, is it all imagination?”

Me: Are you asking whether, just maybe, everything is not real, but a dream?

Monika: Yes.

Me: What do you think?

Monika: Well, that door is over there.

Me: Sure, but that door would be there in a dream too, Monika.

Monika: But that door is over there, and that picture has a scar on it, and that door is open, and you are having black shorts…

(Monika seemed either to think that if she multiplied enough details or if she described them distinctly enough it would show that this was not a dream.)

Me: There was a man named Descartes who said this world could not be a dream because God wouldn’t want us to dream forever, but see things as they are. What do you think about that?

Monika: No. God lets us dream.

Francesca (age 7) Dad, who are there more of on earth, children or grown ups?

Me: I don’t know Francesca, you’d have to count up all the populations and divide them into…

Francesca: No, there are more kids.

Me: why?

Francesca: because everyone is someone’s child, but not everyone is grown up.


Jordan Peterson notes

-Neither his fans nor his critics praise him for his less flashy/ controversial work as a teacher of personality psychology, but his lectures on the Big Five are the best I’ve heard:  they dig out the roots of the theory in a clear, systematic and careful way while dealing easily with the sort of distinctions that others trip over.

-Peterson is a born therapist. He’s an extremely good listener and his ability to think quickly in fluid, hostile, and complicated conversational situations is one in a million. He has a very strong grasp of many of the basic faults that lead to difficulties in life and is able to present them as solutions in a way that is very attractive to the listener. Here comes the “but” in 3, 2, 1…

-But he isn’t as famous as he is for his undergrad-teaching chops or his work as a therapist but for all that politico-philosophical stuff that makes fans rave and critics rage, and it’s not always easy to know what to make of it. I’ve come away from some number of his videos and a reading of 12 Rules puzzled about this part of his project. The rest of this post will be criticisms, but I don’t take all of them as insurmountable. Puzzling over someone’s deep philosophical commitments is not the same thing as claiming to know they are false.

1.) Peterson became famous for protesting a law that sought to extend speech protections to transgender persons, but as far as I can tell, the law didn’t bring speech codes into existence but only  extends existing ones, so Peterson seems to already accept speech codes but simply doesn’t want them extended to a new class of persons. Such a position can’t be defended by a general appeal to free speech, but this seems to be the only defense that Peterson offers. It’s not enough to say that transgender persons demand special pronouns: any speech code is going to make some part of speech against the law.

2.) Peterson gives elliptical and often tortured answers to questions about his own belief in God, usually settling on “I act as though he exists”. At the same time, he insists that no one is an atheist in his actions. But how meaningful can it be to act as though God exists when this commits one to doing nothing a professed atheist wouldn’t do?

If his claim is that there is some archetypal, unconscious divine belief that may or may not be recognized consciously, why not just say so? Peterson seems allergic to the thought of saying something definite about God, but this is one of those moments where the principle of contradiction demands that you put yourself somewhere. If you don’t know what to think about God, that’s called “agnosticism” or maybe “open-minded inquiry”, and if this is where Peterson is at he differs from many of the New Atheists only in the details or method of approach. Even Dawkins is open to the possibility that there might be a god.

3.) Peterson’s account of belief seems to be that we first acted without symbolic representation of action, then we represented our action in myth and story, and last (and recently) we interpreted out myths and stories rationally. So just as myth encodes action so reasoning encodes myth. Peterson’s project seems to be a Westerner’s preservation of Western myth. So far so good, but then the puzzles creep in: what exactly is the alternative to preserving the Western myth? If reasoning simply encodes myth it is not clear how it can be lost. Again, is the alternative to Western myth some new, scientific myth or no myth at all?

Here it might seem that Marx is the alternative myth since Peterson is clearly very concerned by the history and presence of Marxist ideas, but this doesn’t get us any closer to understanding the alternative to the Western myth since Marxism is no more mythical than Kantianism or the Laval school. Marx is an economist, philosopher, and early scientist – he may be wrong, but failing at economics doesn’t make the failure mythical.

Peterson is strongly motivated by a horror of 20th Century totalitarianism and sees it as a loss of the Christian myth. But since Peterson’s account of reasoning doesn’t allow for non-myth based reasoning, myth was lost altogether but only replaced with some other myth. This points to a foundational difference and conflict between Peterson and Nietzsche that is not easy to resolve. For Nietzsche, science itself was the last, most degraded stage of Christian mythology, but for Peterson the Christian myth was lost in the technological and scientific utopianism of 20th Century totalitarianism and threatens to be lost in the New Atheism.

I should pause on this since it is so central to Peterson’s commitments to myth and Nietzsche. When Nietzsche critiques the scientific mindset as the last form of Christianity, he critiques it at its most sympathetic. It will be helpful to read Russell contrast science in this most sympathetic sense to Soviet communism:

[A Soviet Communist] is a man who entertains a number of elaborate and dogmatic beliefs—such as philosophic materialism, for example—which may be true, but are not, to a scientific temper, capable of being known to be true with any certainty. This habit, of militant certainty about objectively doubtful matters, is one from which, since the Renaissance, the world has been gradually emerging, into that temper of constructive and fruitful scepticism which constitutes the scientific outlook. I believe the scientific outlook to be immeasurably important to the human race. If a more just economic system were only attainable by closing men’s minds against free inquiry, and plunging them back into the intellectual prison of the middle ages, I should consider the price too high.

This is just the account of science that Nietzsche argues does not escape from “the intellectual prison of the middle ages”, since it places an absolute value on not being deceived, and science, according to its own self understanding, cannot underwrite any absolute commitments.

Peterson could put his fundamental philosophy like this: “I agree with Nietzsche that science is the last form of Christianity, but I think this last form of Christianity is good and I want to preserve it. Therefore I seek to preserve the Christian West so as to keep science, and above all its commitment to free inquiry”.

But then we are left confused about just what Peterson is up to. Nietzsche recognizes science itself as the last Christian myth, even without Christ, the Bible, God, etc. If Peterson wants to preserve the Western myth, then he should then be emphatically pro Naturalist while, in fact, the critique of Naturalism is central to his project.

This point has rambled for a while but it summarizes to this: if Peterson accepts the mythical foundation of all thought as found in Nietzsche and he wants to preserve the free speech and inquiry, he needs to be a Naturalist when, in fact, he is not.

4.) It’s always a bad sign when someone unifies too much evil in a certain group, and Peterson seems to cross the threshold of doing this with his accusations of “Postmodern Neo-Marxists.” Even setting aside that its strange to see someone love Nietzsche and critique postmodernism, it’s hard to see how even the problems of the modern university are exclusively or even significantly Neo-Marxist. Sure, group identity and suspicion of power structures is a problem, but so are a half-dozen other philosophies and mere moral failings. Don’t American universities, at least, suffer from serious capitalist perversions like oppressive tuition costs, the exploitation of workers (i.e. adjuncts), and a consumerist “lifestyle” view of the college experience? While Neo-Marxism is a problem, the structure of the modern university seems less function of domination by a marxist vision and more the result of the loss of any kind of vision beyond a desire to be everything to everyone in a relentless pursuit of warm bodies that can meet minimal requirements.

Behind the subjective and objective

The distinction between the subjective and the objective existed before Descartes but he seems to have both cast it in a definitive form and convinced everyone that it was a basic ontological distinction. I think this misses what Descartes was up to, and that our present distinction between the subjective and objective should be replaced by the older distinction between the mode of knowing and the mode of being.

The Cartesian division of the subjective from objective arises because the former can’t be doubted but the latter can. This seems to be the whole point of the cogito, where we discover a subject that alone is incapable of being doubted.

The distinction between modes of knowing and modes of being claims to be more basic by problematizing the supposed clear distinction between the inner and the outer world.  True, the cogito proves that there would be a contradiction in doubting at least one item in our mental world, but in order to spin this into a sharp distinction between the subjective and objective we need to rule out the impossibility of rationally denying the the extra-subjective, which Descartes himself insists cannot be done since, within his system, God is extra-subjective even though there is a contraction in denying his existence. And so even the cogito as Descartes originally understood it cannot suffice to divide a subjective from an objective world, since even if we don’t think Descartes’ theistic argument is sound none of his arguments suffice to rule out a contradiction in the denial of the external world.

Descartes raises the possibility of a theater from which we have to infer the existence of the exterior world, but what he seems to establish is that our experience can be analyzed into a subjective component with certain properties that may or may not distinguish it from an objective component. Our experience is constituted both by subjective and objective elements and the problem of his to distinguish them. If he called this ens commune, or being that is first divides into real being and beings of reason, he’d have succeeded in hitting on a fundamental distinction – not into the subjective and objective but into the jumble of being as first known.


Note on christian philosophy

If you think that christian philosophy is like christian geometry then it is obviously absurd, but you could also understand it like “algebra for engineers” or “statistics for psychologists”, i.e. Christian philosophy is that part of philosophy that deals with questions that most interest Christians. Given the sort of things Christians are interested in this section of philosophical topics can seem very universal, treating of God, the order of creation, human life and moral perfection, the goals of human life, social order, and the progress of history, etc. In fact, it would be easy enough to take christian philosophy as philosophy itself, and it seems to have been taken this way until about 100 years ago. What we’ll end up talking about after this framework is lost is anyone’s guess.

Myth and sciences

Interpreting or explaining myths tends to make us raise the question whether the myth is superfluous. Why can’t we just extract the ethical kernel and throw the rest away? Once we learn, say, that curiosity that defies authority is dangerous but that it can be redeemed by hope, can’t we just forget the story of Pandora, or maybe keep her around as a useful didactic tool or memory aid?

What’s so interesting about this move is how utterly arbitrary it is. If myths and ethical precepts are equivalent in this way we might just as easily take the ethics as pre-mythical. Why can’t ethical imperatives be the primitive stages before embodiment in stories, epics, and liturgies? There’s no shortage of popular science media that seem aimed at making the sciences/ universe just such an object of devotion. Contrarily, it’s certainly a sign of the corruption of Christianity that its best work is now abstract and argumentative and not artistic, architectural, or expressed with decent poetry or hymns.

We might be busily deconstructing old myths and explaining their ethical kernel, but all this is autopsy. People want the sciences to be the embryo of a new humanist myth. As a Christian and a theist I’m horrified by this, and even see it as the staging ground for the Antichrist. But then again, God help me, I miss high culture, literature, art aiming at transcendence, and maybe even a public liturgy (though I’ve never seen one).

The great apostasy is not everyone becoming skeptical and enlightened, but in rediscovering the thrill of state liturgy, even if it’s the worship of the flesh.

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