War

The atomic bomb made wars between nations absurd, but rather than keep the nations and lose the war we preferred to keep the war and lose the nations.

“Atomic bomb” is a synecdoche for the whole package of modern war: poison gas, trenches, Krupp guns, firestorms, machine guns, etc.

Why could we agree to stop using poison gas but not to stop using machine guns or even rifled barrels? Why not agree to use no guns at all? Let both sides meet on a field with lances and horses and farming tools. But if it came to that, we’d never cease from wars. In this sense, we want the technology to save us from war. But this is a pointless thing to want.

If technology made wars ridiculous, then technology ought to be abandoned. Political entities cannot live without war and so we must either choose to exist in such a way that allows war to be a path to virtue or we will be existing in a way contrary to human happiness. Pacifism isn’t just naive, it’s contrary to social well-being.

One city with a big enough bomb could level another, but instead the city advances or retreats against its own occupants, whether we’re talking about the occupants of Baghdad in 2004 or of Paris today.

Explanations

- Again: to have a theory of explanation that relies on brute facts is to commit the fallacy of the accident. No one rests an explanation on the inexplicable as such.

-If we actually intended to make the inexplicable fundamental, we wouldn’t give explanations at all. We’d just take the sensory phenomenon as inexplicable and be done with it.

-We call the foundations axioms because they are worthy starting points, not because they have no explanation.

-Explanation starts from some explanandum, and terminates in finding what the explanandum actually is. We start off with the word “malaria” as an explanandum and figure out that it’s not tropical climates, or swampy water, or bad air (mal-aria) but a parasite in mosquitoes. Now it was altogether possible that what we called malaria might have turned out not to be one thing at all, as happened with the thing we called cancer, or the thing called “a game” or the thing contemporary persons call “religion”. In these latter cases the explanandum has only a logical unity, like the list of meanings in a dictionary.

-Plato’s irrefutable insight is that X (the word to be explained) traces back to what is X itself. Aristotle makes this “X itself” the nature of the thing, concrete and with it, but does not change its explanatory function.

-Because we don’t start off knowing what things are, it is possible that we gather together a bunch of things that differ in themselves. This allows us to have one word applied to many things which differ w/r/t/ what they are.

-Thinking that science does not attain to what things are because its knowledge can change is like thinking that we don’t hold to absolute goods because any good we hold to could be otherwise. Sure, I could revise my opinion about the good of anything, but some revisions will lead to complete crises of identity and others won’t. To lose confidence in some goods would leave one in an identity crisis; and so also to lose some scientific truths. Taylor calls the good a “hyper-good”, and the scientific truth might be a hyper-truth. One cannot have a “healthy skepticism” about, say, common ancestry, or atomic theory, even if it is logically possible that both would disappear. Such disappearance is too disorienting. Pretending we could have a blithe skepticism about hyper truths is like thinking that we could be equally unruffled by the change of moving to the suburbs and the change of death.

-The nature we attain to has a historical dimension, and so has a sameness that is still divided from what it was and will be. The whole frog is in one sense the mature thing, ribbeting and croaking; in another sense it is the totality of egg, tadpole, the hopping green animal, and whatever frogs will become in the eschaton.

Temporality, anti-being

So if we understand time not through visual metaphors but through auditory ones, we see that time is a way of depending on anti-being. To explain, sight differs from hearing precisely in this: sight does not depend on its anti-field but hearing does. If an animal sees 188 degrees, it has an anti-field of unseen things behind its head of 172 degrees, but sight as such doesn’t depend on this anti-field. If every animal had omni-vision of all 360 degrees, it would not be any less vision. But auditory information is completely different: you can’t hear a melody all at once or hear an animal approach if you heard all his footsteps at once. Hearing depends on the anti-field for its information. This is the difference between the written and the spoken word.

And so what the anti-field is to hearing, some X is to temporal existence. What then do we call X? We’re constrained to call it “anti-being” or the anti-temporal. We aren’t stipulating it, but arguing for it by analogy, and using it to throw light on the riddles of temporal existence.

Notice that we cannot make an a priori identification of the anti-temporal with the past or future. The anti-temporal is logically prior to either presentism or eternalism about time. For presentists, the past and future are clear cases of the anti-temporal field, but we can still allow for this anti-field in eternalism. Eternalism about time must still has to account for the finite existence of things i.e. the fact that a temporal thing can remain the same while being this and not that (not identical to some earlier or later state).  And so we can still make sense of anti-being even while allowing for the real existence of the past.

Ruyer argues that the contingent requires not only God but an anti-God. The Thomistic tradition might see prime matter as fitting this sort of description. It is logically incapable of conveying information, and yet is a pre-condition of a temporal thing being able to convey any information at all. Aristotle himself suggests a unity between matter and time so far as he sees time as essentially tied to corruption. That said, it is a radical revision of the traditional ideas of matter and form to see first matter as a sort of anti-being. The revision is not entirely verbal.

The sharing-not-multiplication hypothesis of the Loaves and Fishes

The sharing-not-multiplication hypothesis of the loaves and fishes tends to serve more as a rant or an anecdote than a hypothesis worth considering or refuting. One problem is that no source for the claim is ever given, nor is any argument given for it.

I didn’t find the hypothesis in Strauss or Troltch (can anyone find an older reference among the Germans? Bultmann?) but any explanation of the popularity of the claim in the Anglophone world has to go though William Barclay’s 17 volume Daily Study Bible, which was a best-seller in its day and continues to be so. Barclay gives the same explanation of the miracle though his fullest account is given in his commentary on John 6. (Follow the link to the parallel Commentary in Mk. 6 Lk. 9 and Mt. 14).

Barclay always prefaces the sharing hypothesis by allowing that many want to take the miracle at face value and should be allowed to do so. He is clear that it was meant only to be given to those who struggled with the reality of miracles. This means the usual way of presenting the hypothesis is completely inappropriate: it presumes an audience of persons who are scandalized by miracle and are therefore disposed to understand the text in a non-miraculous way. It’s not at all fit to be mentioned in a sermon to popular audiences or to young kids in a CCD class.

Barclay gives a descent reason to be scandalized by the multiplication: it seems much like the sort of miracle Christ refused to do when tempted in the desert. Even if the reason doesn’t hold up, it makes an interesting point of comparison. After this, he mentions the possibility of a “sacramental” interpretation of the loaves and fishes: each person only got a crumb broken off from the loaf, but saw great spiritual significance in it. Crucial difficulties seem to be overlooked here: it’s no easier to see how there could be enough crumbs to go around than full meals. But, again, it makes for an interesting point of comparison.

The sharing hypothesis is prefaced by the claim that “It is scarcely to be thought that the crowd left on a nine-mile expedition without making any preparations at all. If there were pilgrims with them, they would certainly possess supplies for the way.” This is just the sort of detail that usually gets left off but which plays a crucial part in the plausibility of the account. The account itself is brief, and many of the details are probably familiar anyway (viz. “It may be that this is a miracle in which the presence of Jesus turned a crowd of selfish men and women into a fellowship of sharers”) but there is much to recommend the Barclay account of the hypothesis that gets left off in the account of the sharing hypothesis that is simply in the wind. I don’t think the hypothesis is ultimately plausible, but it raises some interesting issues, and it might have a limited pastoral value in ministering to persons who are scandalized by the miracles in Scripture.

Orientationism

I grew up on the theory that sexual orientations existed. We can call all the theory “orientationism”, though, like all the successful theories of its kind, it was taught as though it were not a theory at all but a simple observation of the world. The idea was that all persons discovered within themselves a desire for sexual contact with some gender of person, and by acting on it they found a significant part of personal fulfillment. Logically, this seemed to give us three orientations: toward the same sex, toward the other sex, and to both the same sex and the other. The theory had four elements worth drawing attention to:

1.) Orientation was discoveredI pick the word carefully. We were never sure about the origin of the desire – maybe it was innate/ given from birth or maybe it was based in part on social/cultural/ personal drives, but orientation was still viewed as something discovered in oneself. You had one before you started acting on it, indeed sexual activity could only be authentic when it was an expression of an already existing orientation.

2.) Orientation was to another person. Though I never knew anyone who drew attention to this, orientation theory was essentially interpersonal. One couldn’t have an orientation toward finding sexual fulfillment by oneself, with animals, or with those who were incapable of consent.

3.) Orientation specified a moral good. Orientation was an essentially moral designation. It specified a condition of happiness and came with various obligations to action. One shalt not be ‘closeted’ or inauthentic to their orientation; and one had to be tolerant of all orientations as paths to fulfillment.

4.) Orientation was determined. You got one of them. This could be seen as a corollary to #1. If it could change, then it would open the possibility that some sex act might not come out of an orientation. Given the structure of the theory, this would render sexual desire incoherent.

But the theory cannot last since it is too much at odds with other more fundamental modern commitments. First of all, orientationism is explicitly teleological in a strong sense. Orientation is discovered prior to any action upon it, and it specifies a moral good.

Second, it was restrictive in a context that sees the absence of restrictions as crucial. Who could stand to tell someone that they have a moral obligation not to change their orientation? What if they want to? But a changeable orientation is not really an orientation at all. If it can change, it is not fundamental.

Third, it was too tied to the interpersonal, and so was at odds with an ethic of expression. The difficulty of accounting for the transgendered arises from this – to say nothing of the 50-odd sexualities that we now want to account for.

The logic of orientationism seems to lead to an ethic of pansexuality or sexual indifference. Orientation will ultimately prove too teleological and restrictive and so we’ll want to replace it with an infinity of indifference. Much of ancient sexuality seems to be like this – at once divine and blasé. Or perhaps we can’t have sex except as transgressive, which requires that we somehow prop up a law so as to continually have the thrill of breaking it.

Christ and Rebirth

Pope Leo’s Letter 28 was a watershed moment in orthodox Christology, but there is a long history of teaching his conclusion while leaving off his reason. The conclusion is the dual human and divine natures of Christ, united without confusion (that is, they aren’t united in such a way as to form a third nature other than the two) and distinct without division (that is, they’re separate without belonging to what would be later called different persons).

But to simply assert different natures in Christ is ad hoc and unpersuasive. “Nature” has always had a whole spool of meanings, many which have fuzzy edges, and the use of the term can start to feel suspiciously like trying to cram revealed mysteries into philosophical preconceptions. Leo’s case is better than this. He starts with the fact that when one thing is born of another, they’re in one sense the same thing (call it the A sense of “thing”) and in another sense different things (call it B). The “A” sense gives us the cluster of descriptions species, essence, sort of thing, family (in both its social and classificatory sense) and the first meaning of nature. The B sense gives us the cluster of descriptions individual, particular, or (in the case of things with minds) person or self. There is also another class of words that are more general than the A and B sense, but which in any particular usage might mean only the A or B sense. “Thing” is obviously one of them, but so are substance, entity, being, something etc. Call this sense C of ‘thing”.

But – and here’s the crucial axiom – the heart of creedal Christology is that Jesus has two births. The first thing we affirm about him is that he is Son of the Father / born of the Father before all ages, etc. and that he is born of the Virgin. What this means is that Christ is one thing (B) born of two different things (C) who are also different things (A); or (to change up the terms a bit) Christ is a single entity (B) who is the same thing (A) as two different beings (A).

At some point it helps to standardize the terms and avoid the ambiguity of C-class terms, and so we get the familiar formula that Christ is one person in two natures, united without confusion and distinct without separation. This is not so much a theoretical development as simply a clarification of what it would mean to have two births. Asserting that the natures were “confused” (mixed together to form a tertium quid) would mean that he wasn’t the same thing (A) as his father or mother, and therefore that he was not born of either of them. We likewise insert the “distiction” clause to clarify that it is the same being (B) that is born of the father and of Mary, since without this it make no sense at all to talk about him having two births. The “One person two natures” formula simply follows a priori from one being having two births.

It’s just this birth language that tends to get left off of most discussion of what Christ is. This occludes not only the reason why we speak of two natures in one person, but also the way in which we are called to be like Christ. Note that Christ is the paradigm case of being “born again” – it is precisely because Jesus, eternally born of the Father, was born again of Mary by the Holy Spirit that we might be also born again by the Spirit into union with the Father. The Incarnation is not some divine trick done once but a paradigm of how all creation will be born again to the Father in Christ by the Holy Spirit. In insisting that Christ is one person in two natures we are not merely doing tiresome apologetics, or working in the advance of some supposed Nicene “Hellenism” – we’re proclaiming the one chance creation has to find its way back to the Father.

Time: a philosophical project written like a science fair project

The goal: give an account of time

The trick: understand it’s reality though the sense of hearing as opposed to sight.

The hope: that, because hearing seems to be closer to time that it will throw more light on it (e.g. a melody relies on time for its existence in a more integral way than, say, a brick), and to resolve some of the conundrums about time by seeing them as making assumptions about time that apply only to visual experience and not to auditory experience.

The project: figure out what counts as real or not to the sense of sight. Use this primarily as a contrast to what counts as real to.

What is Unseen?

1.) What is in the dark.

2.) What is in ultraviolet or infrared light.

3.) The borders of the visual field (depending on what one means, this is somewhere between 188 and 10 degrees)

4.) All in the negative visual field (when we see 10 degrees of information, the negative field is 360 – 10 degrees)

Hypothesis: by “the seen” we usually mean what falls in the visual field, and is so “at once”. But the heard seems to be comparable to something continually entering and exiting the visual field. Sight does not depend on the negative visual in the way that hearing depends on its analogue to this.

The visual field does not depend on the negative field. There is no contradiction in a 360 degree field – it might even count as a perfection. But hearing does depend on the negative field.

Here we get one resolution to Parmenides’s problem, which Aristotle failed to answer: if something exists, it exists now, and so it is impossible for something to arise from it or depend on it. This is true where “exists” is understood visually, but not when it is understood audibly, since this depends on its own anti-field in a way that the visual need not.

The argument from scale

The argument from scale claims that the size of the universe counts as evidence against God. Loftus gives a version of it, though I first learned of it through Nicholas Everitt:

1) If the God of classical theism existed, with the purposes traditionally ascribed to him, then he would create a universe on a human scale, i.e. one that is not unimaginably large, unimaginably old, and in which human beings form an unimaginably tiny part of it, temporally and spatially.

(2) The world does not display a human scale. So:

(3) There is evidence against the hypothesis that the God of classical theism exists with the purposes traditionally ascribed to him.

“The purposes of God” are that God created human beings to be the most important things in the universe.

But the answer here is pretty straightforward: if God wanted the universe to produce human beings he couldn’t have made it on a human scaleAs far as we can tell, the only way a universe can even create life is by sheer chance, and the odds are so long against it doing so that you need an immense amounts of time and event-space to be confident it will happen. IOW, it’s precisely because human beings are the pinnacle of creation that the universe can’t have a human scale in either time or space.

This is part of a larger problem that arguments of this sort tend to overlook that the only reason to create some X at all is because you want it to do X-ish or exzy stuff, which means you want it to do it by itself and without the outcomes having to be rigged or monkeyed with. If you’re going to make animals in a universe, you’ll want a universe of the sort that can pull this off, and you’ll want the sort of processes in place that allow for the animals to arise and develop in it. As far as we can tell, this commits us to natural selection and all of its attendant mass extinctions and maladapted structures (like human backs or blind spots or love of fat). These are evils, to be sure, but ones that you are perfectly willing to tolerate under the hypothesis that life is the pinnacle of the universe, and human beings the pinnacle of life.

In other words, arguments like this seem to take it as a live option that God could have just designed animals or *poofed* them into existence, without ever having the universe contribute its own proper causality to the process. But he couldn’t have done this if he wanted them to be natural things, that is, to do natural things and/or to arise from natural causes. This is particularly significant since the only reason to make human beings, or even a universe at all, is because you wanted them to be natural things.

Civilization and war

A: You look at pictures of old movies and old newsreels. All the men have suits, even the poor ones. All the women are dressed classy.

B: What do you think of that?

A: I wish we could be like that. Our dress is too often slovenly, unmannered, me-based.

B: We want to be individuals in our dress as opposed to being collective and civilized.

A: I was just hoping we could dress well – show a basic respect for our life with others. I want to raise the standard of our public image.

B: I’m not sure I want that at all.

A: What do you mean? Wouldn’t you want a well-mannered and civilized world if you could have one?

B: I just said I’m not sure. I’m really just unsure. It seems to me dress presents us with the choice between a uniform world and an individualist one. I see some value in a uniform world – it really is more unified and collective. But you can see in those old newsreels you’re fond of all those well-dressed ladies waving handkerchiefs at soldiers marching off to World Wars.

A: So what? You can’t think that a common dress causes World Wars!

B: It gives people the sense of acting collectively, and one of those collective actions will always be war – and modern war is too massive and horrible. Weapons are ridiculously destructive – they have been so for over a hundred years now.

A: What war has ever not been horrible?

B: Well, sure, they’ve all involved killing, but at some point the technology became so overwhelming that wars between industrialized powers ended up killing everyone like insects.

A: Stop. You’re reading way too much into this. We can have more uniform dress that doesn’t lead to war.

B: Maybe we can. But we should take seriously the possibility that we gravitated to individualism in dress and manners because we were too horrified by the results of uniformity. We couldn’t have collective mores without having Nationalism, and Nationalism proved horrible.

A: I suppose this would explain our cynicism and suspicion of authority too.

B: Maybe it would. I don’t know that any of us has come to terms with World War 1 yet. Sure, we might be shallow for our cynicism, perpetual amusement, and our decadent fascination with transgressive behavior. But what if we really were a national collective? It’s great while you’re getting literature, high art, classy architecture, etc. but what about what about when it comes time to march to war? Haven’t we just seen the downside and judged that it isn’t worth it? Remember that the me-generation was essentially an anti-war one. Those who defined what the generation was going to be were both individualist and anti-war, and this was all apiece.

Response to a question on vocation discernment

In response to a parenthetical claim I made about vocation discernment being a ‘futurist superstition’, a commenter asked

I’m a young Catholic, and think I am definitely a “futurist superstitious.” What do you think is the best way to approach vocations?

Christi pax,

Socrates

Dear Socrates,

First, it might help to situate this problem in the culture in which we all now have to encounter it. In the contemporary West, various religious and consecrated lives are options for persons as young as 18 while marriage for the most part isn’t. Sure, it’s a legal possibility, but almost no one starts taking marriage as a live possibility till they are closer to 30. This leaves many persons in a no-man’s land where they are left having to consider a choice between two alternatives that they can see no examples of among their peers, and which they can therefore do little more than think about. On top of this problem, the process of religious formation takes a long time, and so you can’t look at your friends in the religious life and decide if it’s for you. Sure, you might have the odd friend here and there that gets married at 21 or ordained at 24, but there aren’t enough of them for you to abstract a clear pattern of what the life might be in general, and so give you a sense of what you’d be in for if you chose it. There’s the added problem that there are all sorts of powers that want to exploit benefits of both treating you as mature and keeping you a child (advertising, college, employers who want a slave-class) and all this cross-pressuring is perverse and confusing. The self presented by such institutions is essentially contradictory, and so constitutes a sort of anti-education in actually becoming mature, or even human.

One response to this confusion is the idea of vocation discernment. This can mean more than one thing, but in practice it seems to involve praying for a special revelation about God’s plan for your life. The (often unarticulated) theory behind all this is that God has decided in advance which of two vocations it is right for you to choose and that if you pray hard enough he will give you a special insight into which one he had in mind for you when he gave you your particular talents, skills, desires, etc. To be blunt, this whole theory is nonsense and superstition. The search for a special insight is the superstition, the idea that persons are determined by talents to one vocation or another is the nonsense. Leaving aside obvious impediments (like epilepsy for priests) vocations are not so determined that we can be sorted into them by diverse talents and desires. There are all kinds of possible priests, religious, and married persons. The very reason why these vocations are the dominant ones is because we aren’t sorted into them in advance by peculiar talents, desires, faults, etc. To riff off of Socrates, do whichever one you want: you’ll regret it either way, and you’ll become holier either way. Once you take your vow, chances are you’ll have the same diverse daily experiences of purpose, joy, confusion, despair that you have now, but you’ll have the added benefit of knowing that some way of life is your vocation after you take your vow to it. But you can never have the assurance before the vow, nor lose your assurance after it.

The proper response to the situation of the West is (a.) to stop thinking about vocation altogether until both options are live possibilities, by which I mean you believe it is a live possibility that you could either get engaged or enter an order and (b.) to roundly reject this stupid idea of “God’s plan for your life” with respect to vocations. God’s plan for your life is for you to exercise free will, not try to pray your way into getting some peek at his coaches’ clipboard where he supposedly has your whole life scripted out. If you ask God’s opinion on vocation, all you’ll ever get are the standard Scriptural answers, which, if stripped to their essentials are “the religious life is higher than the married” and “marriage is a good help for concupiscence” and “love God above all else” and “Both marriage and Orders convey grace”. Anyone who promises you anything more is trying to sell you something. The choice isn’t scripted. This is what freedom means.

It might be better to have a culture where we had more social help in making these decisions. It certainly seems like person had more help like this in the past. But in our present situation the proper response is one that stresses the freedom of the person to take his own vow. Where the vow is not practically possible, the practical thought of about it is unnecessary. Stop praying for a special insight and start praying in thanks that God leaves some decisions up to you.

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