Consensus truth

John Meier explained his definition of a “historical Jesus” as the result of imagining the results of what an “unpapal enclave” of what a Jew, Christian, Aganostic, etc. could all agree about Jesus. In other words, the “historical” is formally what can win broad consensus. The historical shares this formal characteristic with the scientific.

Science is consensus-truth, scientific truth is what you can get your own “unpapal enclave” to accept, and short of this it is at best capax scientiae. Not all truths can be like this: If someone decided he was only going to believe what was communly accepted he (a) wouldn’t be able to act politically, be religious or irreligious, have definite beliefs about mysterious things in nature, write a legal opinion, critique a movie, etc and (b) he’d be living according to a belief that itself had no community consensus.

And what if we wanted to prove that consensus truth was superior? We’d have to show consensus was truer, which can’t be done without an account of truth broader than consensus. So maybe we ask everyone to guess the number of balls in a jar and find that taking the average guess is almost always better than taking any individual at random. This is fine, except that the whole meaning of “better” requires some access to a truth for which consensus is irrelevant, namely opening the jar and counting the balls. Even without this formal problem there would be clear scaling problems: not all cognitive work is like guessing the number of balls in a jar. So it’s It’s pointless to argue, as Tim Maudlin did, that science is better than religion because it is better at producing consensus – it’s like arguing that knives are better than forks because they are better at cutting. Science is designed to produce consensus by excluding a priori all sorts of beliefs that can’t be “boiled down”  or for which there is no “least common denominator”.

Consensus inevitably involves some degree of boiling things down, so its value for truth only extends to the sort of truth that can be distilled and not evaporated. Distilling truths tolerates a degree of superficiality for the sake of a kind of self-evidence, though in the usual case the superficiality consists in the truth in question not being the sort of thing for which one could live, die, kill, pray, be celibate or fast for but which gives value to life in other ways.

Said without metaphor, consensus truth is a sort of abstraction or separation from truth as we actually find it. In real life there is an interpenetration of what we can get consensus on and what we can’t.






Psalm 90: 7

By your wrath we are troubled. 

The original has two words, one that unambiguously means fury or wrath, the other (bahal) which seems to indicate any response we have to finding the world other than we would wanted or expected it. Sometimes the world has scary things and so bahal means afraid, sometimes it has annoying things so bahal means annoyed or vexed, sometimes it has confusing things or utterly amazing things and so bahal means troubled or amazed. There is some restriction with how it is used in v. 7 since though Mary was clearly bahal at the annunciation in the presence of an angel no one would claim she was an object of wrath. In 90:7 the wrath is extending to those who want the world other than it is, not just those who expected it otherwise.

In this sense God’s wrath is in the experience of being annoyed, troubled or vexed that the world is not as we wanted it. Put another way, the wrath of God is what the world feels like when we refuse to accept it as it is. Sometimes this refusal is just and not directed at ourselves, and so God’s wrath is also just and not directed at us, but in normal experience the refusal is simply our wanting things otherwise – less traffic, more free time, other company, fewer duties. In this sense, the refusal isn’t a matter of justice but of preference, and at these times to escape the wrath of God means simply to accept the world as it exists, and to be crushed by the wrath of God is to sulk and flee from the world as it comes.

I’ve never tried to count my vexations or moments of annoyance but I expect I’d never have to go back a day to remember the last one. In this sense I suppose I am living continually under divine wrath. Contrarily, all sin involves some refusal to take the world as it is: coming as it does with limits on pleasures that fall short of the infinite satisfaction we want them to provide and with the attendant pains that can’t be sloughed off from the goods we want to achieve.

Fill in the blank modern holidays

Father’s Day. Is it the day we remember the heroic martyrdom of St. Father? No… Is it when we remember the heroic sacrifice and fortitude shown at the battle of Father? No…

So is it at least a day with a paradigm of fatherhood that we can celebrate or rededicate ourselves to? No….

What’s happening in a wish for a happy Father’s Day? That it was a way to sell cards and increase consumption is clear, but the wish is not for consumption or card-buying.

The meaning of the day is designed as self-defined, i.e. what we communially celebrate is the collective blank we all confront after the prompt: describe what you celebrate in your father and/or the idea of fatherhood. On the one hand, there is a presumption that fathers are to be celebrated – and without this we could have no communal celebration at all –  but on the other hand what is celebrated is self-defined. By way of contrast, it would be absurd for a Christian to see Easter in the same way, or a WWI Veteran to see Remembrance Day as a blank space in which everyone fills in his own meaning.

The “blank space” is comme il faut for modern celebrations. The moment of silence is a blank space as is Santa Christmas, Pumpkin Halloween or candy-heart Valentine’s Day.

The blank space allows for pluralism and for self-definition of meaning, and in this sense it both ratifies a central modern belief and/or still meets our minimum need for collective activity. That said, it clearly comes at the cost of ontological depth. What one is celebrating in Rudolph-Frosty Christmas or Sweetheart Valentine’s is attenuated and abstract, and what once required a theophany now only requires a mood.


A Mom Post

The Other Dr. Chastek is up at the cabin this weekend with kid 2 and 3 for a work weekend and he’s asked me to hop on do a “mom post”. So here I am!

Our oldest will turn 13 in about a week. Most of the time he is content to just let his sister (kid 2) be The Big Sister: she is super responsible and super helpful, leads her siblings in night time prayers, reads to the littles before bed, corrals them when we are having pizza at Costco, etc. Usually she’s the one we leave in charge if we have to run out for a quick errand.  He is perfectly content to just sit back and watch, or retreat to a quiet spot and play legos, out of the reach of her orders and directions. When they were small I could not have James and Frankie in the same swim lessons even though they were developmentally at the same spot because James would just shut down around her.  So he has *really* shown up the past two days and taken on the role of The Big Brother: he read to the littles before bed, has been taking the lead to buckle the smallest in his car seat, and tonight this is what I came upon after I ran to the restroom at Costco – he’d brought Charlie up into his lap getting him to eat his pizza and keeping them all calm and collected. It did my mom heart good to see! And he has been so visibly proud taking on this role. Frankie will be home tomorrow night so she’ll take over the reading and all the other roles, but it’s nice to know that he can and he will and he’ll even enjoy it.

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And I know that the girls are having a BALL up at the cabin with their dad, uncle, cousin and grandpa. They revel in these opportunities to do something that the “others” don’t get to do. This year we are adding a screened porch/3 season porch to the cabin and it’s a pretty big project. James is so good about getting the kids involved. I am sure that Felicity will tell me ALL about how she got to screw the boards in with a POWER tool. She’ll love that porch more than any other part of the cabin because SHE built it. I can’t wait to eat meals out there with her.


Have a great weekend.  And to all you dad’s out there, I hope you have a great day tomorrow and feel appreciated for the important work you do in your families.

Thomistic participation

Three ways of saying “can fly”

1.) Insects fly (some do, some don’t)

2.) Falcons fly, 757’s fly (all do, and this follows from what a falcon or a 757 is)

3.) Things that create more lift than drag fly (this is the definition of a thing that flies)

or again, three ways of being white:

1.) The man is white (if he is, it’s not qua man)

2.) The snow is white (snow is white qua snow)

3.) Surfaces that reflect all wavelengths of light are white (this is not just a necessary truth but a truth first of all)

In medieval speak, the first two are “per participationem” and the last one is “per essentiam”.

Thomas teaches that God exists, is good, is true, knows etc. per essentiam while all creatures do so per participationem. This is Thomas’s bona fide theory of participation.

The obvious objection is that that if God : existence :: things that create more lift than drag : fly then God is a property of creatures. The response is clearest in Banez: existence is not formally an accident or property, even in creatures. Banez is strikingly emphatic about this:

Thomas saepissime clamat, Thomisticae nolunt audire 

Thomas shouted this claim as often as he could, and today’s Thomists still don’t listen.  

Divine love as mercy

Argument from evil: Evil is that from which God would save us.

Scriptural religion: Evil is that from which only God can save us.

Both leave a hope: the AFE that we will save ourselves from evil; Scripture of when God will save us completely.

-Briefly: AFE: God hasn’t saved us from all evil, and he won’t because he doesn’t exist; Scripture: God hasn’t saved us from all evil, but he exists, so he will. Man can decide rationally between them only at the end of history.

-The ceaseless saccharine sermons about God’s love forget its main marvel: we’re not lovable. It’s mercy. God’s love can stay as it is, what has to change is the assumption that it must be like our love of an adorable lamb or a nubile and agreeable lover when in fact it is God’s love of what does not command or justify love.

-We shouldn’t confuse knowing that we don’t command or justify love with knowing just how and in what way we don’t command or justify love. Correctly experiencing our own wickedness is as hard as experiencing the presence of God, and they grow in tandem. We are as likely to make mistakes about our unloveableness as we are to make mistakes about God’s nature. Only one knowing God’s love as a saint could know man’s depravity correctly.

-I try to imagine myself as a sinner, unlovable, grotesque. I visualize God as an old man with a beard on a throne yelling at a dungheap and threatening to burn it while somehow loving it. Why not just put the throne on Olympus and gladden the scene with a sacrificed chicken?

-A demon is just as happy to work with your self-loathing as your self-esteem.


5. First pray for the gift of tears, so that through sorrowing you may tame what is savage in your soul. And having confessed your transgressions to the Lord, you will obtain forgiveness from Him.

6. Pray with tears and all you ask will be heard. For the Lord rejoices greatly when you pray with tears.

7. If you do shed tears during your prayer, do not exalt yourself, thinking you are better than others. For your prayer has received help so that you can confess your sins readily and make your peace with the Lord through your tears. Therefore do not turn the remedy for passions into a passion, and so again provoke to anger Him who has given you this grace.

-The pagan thought he loved the divine but loved only a crude facsimile that he had created. The Christian was told for the first time to hate his own sins and hated the same thing.

-Human wickedness and God’s goodness are two sides of a mystery. Some things about both are self-evident or at least widely believed, some things can be figured out with effort, other things are beyond reckoning.

God’s love for man is seen in man as unloveable, and man’s unloveableness from God’s mercy toward it.


Truth, virtue and justifying violence

University professors in the 1980’s – Alan Bloom, Neil Postman, James Q. Wilson – complained about the relativism of their students. A generation later the complaint is about absolutist militancy.  Both descriptions are extrinsic since no one tends to describe himself as either a relativist or a dogmatist. What got called relativism appealed to an insight that belief in “human nature” were both uninformed and violent: uniformed since the scientific study of deviant sexuality, other cultures, countercultural rebellions, marginalised populations, etc showed that they were equal to our own; violent because our old, uninformed sense of superiority led to inflicting violence upon those we wrongly judged inferior. Now we have to inflict violence on those who really are inferior because they fail to recognize the scientific truth of total equality and its consequent liberation.

So all sides agree that truth justifies violence against inferiors, but the earlier generation believed that the inferiors were incorrectly identified while the later one believes they have finally found them. Again, the earlier generation critiqued living according to a lie because it lead to unjustified violence while the later generation lives according to a truth which justifies violence.

The ur-thought that truth justifies violence goes unexamined. What to think of it? Here’s how Thomas sees it:

The perfection of virtue must be acquired by man by means of some kind of training… [this perfection] consists chiefly in withdrawing man from undue pleasures, to which above all man is inclined, and especially the young, who are more capable of being trained…. [S]ince some are found to be depraved, and prone to vice, and not easily amenable to words, it was necessary for such to be restrained from evil by force and fear, in order that, at least, they might desist from evil-doing, and leave others in peace, and that they themselves, by being habituated in this way, might be brought to do willingly what hitherto they did from fear, and thus become virtuous. Now this kind of training, which compels through fear of punishment, is the discipline of laws.

So law uses violence to educate, so that those who oppose the truth might be brought to do willingly what hitherto they did from fear, and thus become virtuous. This seems to be more or less how the university students see it: violence against fascists or oppressors will reform the culture, and that reformed culture in turn will educate persons in the virtue of non-oppression and liberation.

On the other hand, Thomas sees the fundamental problem not as oppression and power structures but man’s connection to undue pleasures, to which above all man is inclined, and especially the young, and one suspects that the university students would take exception to this. Being young, they’d have to call into question the belief that they are in position to be wielding violence, and few of them would tolerate being told that the main problem was their attachment to the pleasures of sleep, intoxication, and sex.

So the disagreement seems to center around whether violence must be focused on our liberation from social structures or on our attachments. Sure, they interpenetrate and co-implicate each other in obvious ways but they are still distinct enough for us to realize as very different objects of focus. The details of the student’s account of virtue put them even more at odds, since them main  liberation from social structures they are demanding are structures impeding the maximal enjoyment of the greatest of pleasures of intoxication and sex.




The secular world of entertainment

Does it matter that the all the cartoons, TV dramas, movies etc that I grew up depict life almost entirely devoid of prayer, heartfelt religious desire, almsgiving, fasting…? Should I want the default secularity of entertainment to be otherwise?

Some part of the secularity is just the worldliness of the world – but is there also the problem of alienating the religious image from liturgical or devotional acts? You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain, put positively, commands that we always use the name of the Lord in a way that recognizes its power to save, make righteous, be revered, etc and it’s not clear how using it to entertain maps onto this. Should we want a separation of the liturgical-devotional and the entertaining, just as most of us were trained to want a separation of church and state?

There is also a numinous quality to holiness that can’t be reproduced or faked by actors and which seems only cheapened by realism – even the classical realism of Renaissance painting (cf. Endokimov’s critique.) Perhaps the reason for being against religion on screen is the same as one of the reasons for not wanting sex on screen: Both acts can only exist in the close, intimate space of interpersonal connection and so are violated by being put on display. Obviously, I’m not arguing that religious realism is pornographic, but there does seem to be something wrong with taking it as an object of mere display.





-Generated substances come to be.

The principles of generated substances do not come to be

The principles of generated substances are not substance.

The major premise is almost tautological. Things are generated when they come to be and vice versa. The minor premise is in some sense even more widely believed, since it’s accepted even by those who deny the that generated substances exist, like Empedocles in the ancient world or physicists who’d claim that things are really just heaps of fundamental particles. Whatever is fundamental is neither created nor destroyed but only changes states.

Empedocles and [particle physicists that take their dialectical accounts as metaphysical ones]* can’t have a generated substance since the resulting form is an effect of a substance already given and so is by definition accidental (it makes no difference if this accident is simply reductive or emergent). Still, the notion that the principles of generated things are not themselves generated is common to all. What Aristotle meant by matter and form were as ungenerated as a fundamental or conserved quantity.

We know things by what they do, but sometimes the thing is constituted by an accidental form and other times it isn’t. If so, the thing can’t be said to act for itself since the “itself” in question is not what acts, but only an accident. The only “itself” is the decision (usually**) of a human being to treat the object as a single thing, and so a stack of books that helps my kid reach the table is one thing when the stack is tall enough to reach, and several things when I think about reading them. In the first sense, the stack is a single booster, in the other it’s separate books. As Ed Feser proved somewhere, what’s true about the stack of books is just as true of a pile of wires that someone might call a computer. Whatever acted in virtue of an accidental form would not act of itself, but in virtue of something else treating it as one. Responsibility – whether moral or physical – is something that can only be imputed to substances so far as they act as substances. This too seems to be a point of common agreement – if you think all there is (in the “haystack” sense) are fundamental particles, then moral and physical responsibility exists in those particles or not at all.

*Put better, I’d say that everybody who’s not a complete idiot or crank agrees that, say, a tortoise is nothing but fundamental particles. The question is about the sense of is – is it the “is” of The haystack is a bunch of hay straws or the “is” of The Euro is 1.13 dollars or a dollar is ten dimes? The latter two aren’t the same sort of identity as the first one, but its hard to see what experiment could answer the question of what sort of identity is in play when we say that a tortoise is fundamental particles arranged tortoise-wise. Empedocles insists on the first sense of “is”, Aristotle on something like one of the last two.

**If an animal makes a nest or trap or mating bower or whatever and considers it as one thing then the same would apply.

The heart (5)

We visualize heart spacially, but heart is not a location. What should be done with the image we can’t slough off?

The heart is spacial by being the innermost organ, the one surrounded by the greatest mass of flesh and bone and cloth. We’d expect anything at that location to be the first among things necessary for survival. This is both how we would design things and a key feature of fitness.

The heart is innermost in the same way as the king in chess: all is sacrificed to it since, were it lost, one is no longer in the game at all. The heart is thus shorthand for being or life. So what’s life?

Life is natural and therefore double. In one sense the living or natural individual preserves existence through his form and resists death; in another sense the individual as matter loves any form as much as the one it has and so longs to sacrifice itself for the good of the whole of which it is a part. Among finite spirits the drama is analogous but crucially different due to the absence of matter: subjectivity in finite spirits is analogous to matter, but it too longs for union that comes from sacrificing itself for the sake of union with forms of the whole that are higher than itself. Religious mystery is the sacrifice of self which, while remaining a real death and sacrifice, is somehow an elevation of the self. The application of this mystery to Christian, Buddhist, Temple Judaic, and jihadist Islam is straightforward.

Hence there is no spirituality without some sacrifice of the individual for the sake of union with the transcendent and whole. What this looks like will be both inflected through and garbled by the various religious traditions, but getting it right is their whole task. This is why religions might even have no notion of God though they still have some sense of sacrifice of the self and individuality to what is transcendent and whole.

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