Archive for April, 2008

Peripatetic Potpourri

I’ve been running around a lot lately, and I’ve gotten a little behind in my reading.  Let’s see what’s out there…perhaps some good advice….

The civic minded Karl Rove has taken to giving Barack Obama advice (Senator, I’d be careful about that, especially the part about “not attacking…”).  John C. Hulsman and A. Wess Mitchell think all the candidates can get some good advice from the Corleone family (Lord, help us!).  Jenna Schaal-O’Connor, a 20-year-old sophomore who is majoring in cognitive science and linguistics, offers her advice that philosophy is “good for getting girlfriends” (among other things).  However, if you take the advice of Michael Filozov, an adjunct professor at Niagara Community College, you might consider another major if that’s all you’re concerned about.

Speaking of Karl Rove, Tom Mertes complains about the “American Duopoly” that Rove’s strategies leveraged so effectively while reviewing Changing Party Coalitions by Jerry Hough in the New Left Review.  And speaking of “left,” Alain Badiou argues for the “Communist Hypothesis” in the same journal.  Among the various provocations, Badiou writes this about courage:

First, I would retain the status of courage as a virtue—that is, not an innate disposition, but something that constructs itself, and which one constructs, in practice. Courage, then, is the virtue which manifests itself through endurance in the impossible. This is not simply a matter of a momentary encounter with the impossible: that would be heroism, not courage. Heroism has always been represented not as a virtue but as a posture: as the moment when one turns to meet the impossible face to face. The virtue of courage constructs itself through endurance within the impossible; time is its raw material. What takes courage is to operate in terms of a different durée to that imposed by the law of the world.

And speaking of French philosophy, Stanley Fish blogged that “French Theory in America” was really no big deal.  Apparently, 600 comments (and counting) suggest he’s wrong.  So Fish offers part two.  Here’s a profile of Brian Leiter, “the most powerful man in academic philosophy” [Lord, help us!]  Leiter doesn’t have much good to say about “continental philosophy” and has a marked preference for “analytic philosophy.”  For a painful (to Leiter, I’d guess) assessment of analytic philosophy, have a look at Aaron Preston’s Analytic Philosophy:  The History of an Illusion.  (You can read William Larkin’s critical review of Preston’s book here.) 

And speaking of revolution, over at The Edge Stuart Kauffman takes aim at “reinventing the sacred” by “Breaking the Galilean Spell.”  The “Galilean” he has in mind is not that famous teacher from Galilee.  Kauffman writes:

Even deeper than emergence and its challenge to reductionism in this new scientific worldview is what I call breaking the Galilean spell. Galileo rolled balls down incline planes and showed that the distance traveled varied as the square of the time elapsed. From this he obtained a universal law of motion. Newton followed with his Principia, setting the stage for all of modern science. With these triumphs, the Western world came to the view that all that happens in the universe is governed by natural law. Indeed, this is the heart of reductionism. Another Nobel laureate physicist, Murray Gell-Mann, has defined a natural law as a compressed description, available beforehand, of the regularities of a phenomenon. The Galilean spell that has driven so much science is the faith that all aspects of the natural world can be described by such laws. Perhaps my most radical scientific claim is that we can and must break the Galilean spell. Evolution of the biosphere, human economic life, and human history are partially indescribable by natural law. This claim flies in the face of our settled convictions since Galileo, Newton, and the Enlightenment.

And Australian sociologist Michael Casey gives an interview about the meaning of life.  Terry Eagleton weighs in on Slavoj Zizek and his lost causes.  Roger Scruton says conservatives make good conservationists.  Jessa Crispin, book slut (her words!), spent a few days at the London Book Fair.


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Whole Parts are Partial Wholes

All knowledge, however limited or “scientific,” presupposes a horizon, a comprehensive view within which knowledge is possible.  All understanding presupposes a fundamental awareness of the whole:  prior to any perception of particular things, the human soul must have had a vision of the ideas, a vision of the articulated whole.  However much the comprehensive visions which animate the various societies may differ, they all are visions of the same–of the whole.  Therefore, they do not merely differ from, but contradict, one another.  This very fact forces man to realize that each of those visions, taken by itself, is merely an opinion about the whole or an inadequate articulation of the fundamental awareness of the whole and thus points beyond itself toward an adequate articulation.  There is no guaranty that the quest for adequate articulation will ever lead beyond an understanding of the fundamental alternatives or that philosophy will ever legitimately go beyond the stage of discussion or disputation and will ever reach the stage of decision.  The unfinishable character of the quest for adequate articulation of the whole does not entitle one, however, to limit philosophy to the understanding of a part, however important.  For the meaning of a part depends on the meaning of the whole.  In particular, such interpretation of a part as is based on fundamental experiences alone, without recourse to hypothetical assumptions about the whole, is ultimately not superior to other interpretations of that part which are frankly based on such hypothetical assumptions.

–Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, pp. 125-126.

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I know you are, but what am I?

Er, I mean:  I know I am, but what are you?

Nicholas D. Kristof at the NYT (“Our Racist, Sexist Selves”) just found out, to “his horror,” that he is a racist.  He found this out by taking an online test in which the player is asked to shoot armed people and hoster his/her weapon for unarmed people (who might be holding a cell phone or a wallet).  Racial bias is detected by the differences in reaction time.  Do you shoot armed blacks more quickly than armed whites?  Are you slower to holster your weapon for unarmed blacks than unarmed whites?

Kristof reports:

I shot armed blacks in an average of 0.679 seconds, while I waited slightly longer — .694 seconds — to shoot armed whites. Conversely, I holstered my gun more quickly when encountering unarmed whites than unarmed blacks.

I took the test just now, sitting at my desk, peering through my smudgy, mis-prescripted bifocals.  Here are my scores:

Game Over
Your Score:  590
Average reaction time:
Black Armed:725.88ms
Black Unarmed:927.28ms
White Armed:790.32ms
White Unarmed:778.4ms

At first I didn’t figure out that I was supposed to be hurrying.  Anyway, I either have slower reaction times than Kristof or he is more of a loose canon.  My score shows I waited a whopping 150 ms more before holstering my weapon when confronted by an unarmed black.  Like Kristof, I shot more quickly at the armed blacks.

My computer generated score failed to report that I was shot by an armed black while I holstered my weapon, but I did not shoot any armed persons, white or black.

I am willing to just admit that I, apparently like everyone, have built in racial bias.  But if all of us do have this built in racial bias, I am wondering if the construction of the test is also tainted by the same sort of bias.  When taking the test, I believed myself to be only looking for the object–gun or wallet/cell phone.  If you try the test, you will see that some of the objects are quite small (at least for these old eyes) and that they vary in size.  There are also color backgrounds against which the object (and, of course, the person) are viewed.  And there are various sorts of background, from commercial areas to cemeteries.  How were the black and white persons positioned in this test?

Anyway, I’m fairly satisfied not to have shot any innocents.

Kristof notes, as I was trying to do in my last post, that

The unconscious is playing a political role this year, for the evidence is overwhelming that most Americans have unconscious biases both against blacks and against women in executive roles.

He concludes his piece on an optimistic note, however,reminding us that studies do show there are ways to overcome this sort of bias. 

[B]iases are not immutable. […] So maybe the impact of this presidential contest won’t be measured just in national policies, but also in progress in the deepest recesses of our own minds.

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Who are we voting for…and why?

Well, the smoke has cleared here in Pennsylvania after last week’s primary elections, and the “Mod Squad” (remember…? “one white, one black, one blonde”…?  Pete, Linc, and Julie…?) has moved on to make their respective cases elsewhere.  What have we learned after six seemingly interminable weeks?  That PA went for Senator Clinton, which we knew it would six weeks ago.  The only question was the margin, and after outspending Senator Clinton several times over, Senator Obama was able to reduce it from higher double-digits to just under double-digits.  We also know that both Democrat candidates garnered the support from those demographic groups from whom they have always garnered their support.  In short, nothing really moved.

The Mod Squad

The question is becoming more and more focused for the Dems–“who is electable?”  The question is asked in spite of whatever the actual voting might be in the end.  As I write this, Howard Dean, Chairman of the Democratic National Convention, is on Meet the Press with Tim Russert discussing the conundrum.  Part of the problem is the rules that will potentially disenfranchise voters in Florida and Michigan.  Part of the problem is how to count the popular vote (see Jonathan Last‘s explanation of this problem in the Philadelphia Inquirer).  Part of the problem is the practice of using “super-delegates” to act as party elders to sort out the matter.

But let’s suppose that all three candidates were running in a general election.  Who would you vote for…and why?  And how would you know the reason you give is the real reason?  Obama is getting 90% of the African American vote.  White women are overwhelming supporters of Clinton.  Governor Ed Rendell of PA said that there are plenty of voters here in the Commonwealth that will not vote for a person of color.  There are men (and not just men, perhaps surprisingly) who will not vote for a woman (and I don’t just mean that woman, as Clinton is often referred to).

Do gender and race and–in the case of McCain–age matter to you?  Voters were asked these questions in exit polls, and the answers suggest they do not.  But I wonder.  First of all, we are educated to say that race, gender, and age don’t matter, so if asked we are likely to say they don’t matter.  But do they, in fact, matter?  If you vote for McCain, is it because of his experience or political philosophy or position on national security, or is it because he is not a woman or African American?  If you vote for Clinton over Obama, is it really because she is the most “experienced,” or is it because she is a woman?  Or white? Or, suppose you don’t vote for Obama: is it because of his relative lack of experience, or is it because he is black?  And how do you know?

Obama has had a particular problem.  First, he was said to be “not black enough.” One tv pundit this morning suggested that this claim in a sense is another way of saying Obama is “elitist.”  But who was thinking this?  Black voters?  Or white media elite?  And if the latter, what does it mean to say that there is a sense in which Obama is “not black enough”?  What is “black” supposed to be, such that Obama is not enough of it (for the tastes of the media, anyway)?  Is Obama not allowed to be “elite”?  Is it somehow still surprising that an African America is elite?  I am suspicious about this kind of talk.  But then Obama became “the black candidate”–at least Bill Clinton wanted to position him this way after the South Carolina primary.  Well, is the “black candidate” somehow not capable of being the candidate for all the people?  And then, of course, Obama’s remarks about guns and religion shoved him back into the “elitist” category, so who can say?

Polls have asked us whether “America is ready for a black president.”  A year or so ago about 50% of us said we were.  Today, that number is closer to 70%.  I hope that’s right (but again, how honestly do people answer polls?).  But even if we are ready, is Obama the right person to be president.  And how do you know whether your answer is honest?  And you can certainly ask the same questions about gender and even age.

Now maybe you, since the moment you first came into consciousness, have consistently practiced the Socratic imperative to know thyself.  You know for whom you are voting and why, and you know that you have no subconcious or ulterior or perhaps even unsavory motives.  We should all be like you, I suppose.  But let’s assume we are all like you for a moment:  can race or gender still matter?  In other words, suppose I decide to vote for Obama for the overriding reason that he is African American and I want an African American in the White House.  That’s my reason, and I’m sticking to it.  Is that somehow wrong or less than politically or morally virtuous?

I drove through West Philly the other night, and I saw house after house with posters in the window showing an impressionistic image of Barack Obama and the simple word, “Hope.”  What would it mean to neighborhoods like this all across the country for parents to be able to say what all parents say to their children–You can grow up to be anything you want in this country, even President of the United States–but mean it, have an example to prove it?

Or what would it mean for mothers and fathers to tell their daughters that they, too, could be President, that a woman can be the leader of “the most powerful country on Earth”–not just “in principle” but for real?

During one of the Democratic debates earlier on, when John Edwards was still in the race, Obama pointed out that this is an exciting year, that people have a real choice this time around, that they could vote for the first woman president of the United States, or they could vote for the first African American president of the United States, or “they could vote for John.”  Edwards dropped out of the race shortly after that observation.  Could Edwards have been the “best” person for the job, only to be knocked out for his race and/or gender?  Maybe.  But how would we know?  Or how will we know if McCain gets elected that it was because he made the best case?

Anyway, I wish us all a lot of luck.

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If any man be devout and loves God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast! If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his reward. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in not be deprived therefore. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. And if any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness for the Master is gracious and receives the last even as the first.

He gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has labored from the first hour. He shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; And to the one He gives, and upon the other He bestows gifts. And He both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering.

Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord; Receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival! You sober and you heedless, honor the day! Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away. Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.

Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal Kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it.By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered when it encountered Thee in the lower regions.

It was embittered (It is vexed), for it was abolished. It was embittered (It is vexed), for it was mocked. It was embittered (It is vexed), for it was slain. It was embittered (It is vexed), for it was overthrown. It was embittered (It is vexed), for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown! Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen! Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and life reigns! Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.

For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

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Intellectual Charity

The Pope addressed the Presidents and other educators from Catholic universities across the country today. Among his comments:

Set against personal struggles, moral confusion and fragmentation of knowledge, the noble goals of scholarship and education, founded on the unity of truth and in service of the person and the community, become an especially powerful instrument of hope. […]

With regard to the educational forum, the diakonia of truth takes on a heightened significance in societies where secularist ideology drives a wedge between truth and faith. This division has led to a tendency to equate truth with knowledge and to adopt a positivistic mentality which, in rejecting metaphysics, denies the foundations of faith and rejects the need for a moral vision. Truth means more than knowledge: knowing the truth leads us to discover the good. Truth speaks to the individual in his or her the entirety, inviting us to respond with our whole being. This optimistic vision is found in our Christian faith because such faith has been granted the vision of the Logos, God’s creative Reason, which in the Incarnation, is revealed as Goodness itself. Far from being just a communication of factual data – “informative” – the loving truth of the Gospel is creative and life-changing – “performative” (cf. Spe Salvi, 2). With confidence, Christian educators can liberate the young from the limits of positivism and awaken receptivity to the truth, to God and his goodness. In this way you will also help to form their conscience which, enriched by faith, opens a sure path to inner peace and to respect for others. […]

We observe today a timidity in the face of the category of the good and an aimless pursuit of novelty parading as the realization of freedom. We witness an assumption that every experience is of equal worth and a reluctance to admit imperfection and mistakes. […]

How might Christian educators respond? These harmful developments point to the particular urgency of what we might call “intellectual charity”. This aspect of charity calls the educator to recognize that the profound responsibility to lead the young to truth is nothing less than an act of love. Indeed, the dignity of education lies in fostering the true perfection and happiness of those to be educated. In practice “intellectual charity” upholds the essential unity of knowledge against the fragmentation which ensues when reason is detached from the pursuit of truth. It guides the young towards the deep satisfaction of exercising freedom in relation to truth, and it strives to articulate the relationship between faith and all aspects of family and civic life. Once their passion for the fullness and unity of truth has been awakened, young people will surely relish the discovery that the question of what they can know opens up the vast adventure of what they ought to do. Here they will experience “in what” and “in whom” it is possible to hope, and be inspired to contribute to society in a way that engenders hope in others.

But what about the “Rottweiler” stuff…?

In regard to faculty members at Catholic colleges universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission; a mission at the heart of the Church’s munus docendi and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.

Teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice. This requires that public witness to the way of Christ, as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church’s Magisterium, shapes all aspects of an institution’s life, both inside and outside the classroom. Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual.

Well, what did you think he was going to say? Intellectual charity is due on all sides.

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Antecedent Attitudes

A couple of generous quotes, which I offer for your reflection, without comment.  First, from Gianni Vattimo in conversation with Jeffrey Robbins in a book called, After the Death of God:

There is an Italian saying that I sometimes make reference to:  “Thank God I’m an atheist.”  Of course, this is referring to the God of the philosophers.  God can only be propped up for so long.  Yet this effort to demonstrate the rationality of belief is still something the Catholic Church feels very strongly about.  Why?  Partly, it is a matter of remaining faithful to the medieval tradition.  After all, it is only natural that the Church assumes that the real, true human culture was the period when the Church had the most power.  So in many sense there is a sort of historical imprinting in the Church, like they would like to go back to the Middle Ages if they could.  But there is also the matter of power.  As long as the Church can depend on some natural, rational ethical structure, they can try to enforce this ethics not only on the believers but on everybody.  [..] They do this not on the basis that it is an aspect of Christian law but rather that it is an aspect of natural law. […]

This corresponds very well to my idea of metaphysics, which I define as the violent imposition of an order that is declared objective and natural and therefore cannot be violated and is no longer an object of discussion. […] If you admit there is a first principle that can be grasped and known in a definite way, you prevent anybody from ever asking again.  So, on this basis, I have developed the following theory with regard to violence.  As I have explained in Nihilism and Emancipation, violence is the fact of shutting down, silencing, breaking off the dialogue of questions and answers.  That is what ultimate foundations do; they impose themselves as impervious to further questions as objects of contemplation and amor dei intellectualis.

When I say that, it seems as though it is exaggerated.  Why?  Think about war, for example:  as Pascal observed, if you kill someone on this side of the river, you are declared a hero, but on the other side you are an assassin.  What about euthanasia?  Once more, the reason the Church doesn’t want to speak about this is because they believe there is an objective violence in killing.  Yes, but what about God?  If there is an objective violence to killing somebody, then it would follow that God is the biggest murderer of all.  Violence, then, is the fact of no longer permitting the other to ask questions.  Now, the Church, on the one side, pretends that they very much respect human nature, human reasons, and things like that, but, on the other side, the very core of this is that they want to impose their view of the natural essence of man, reason, etc., which involves certain authoritarian posture.

[…]  Even when the Church insists on doctrinal conformity and engages in various  inquisitions–this reveals a certain confessional weakness because it promotes in a conceptual way the idea of the Church as an army.  An army regiments your sexual life, for instance, enforcing rigid conformity and discipline.  In many senses, the insistence of the Catholic Church on these points is a way of training an army that is supposed to be ready for a new war, a new world.  Otherwise it makes no sense to insist so much on their position on prophylactics.  When I try to understand why Pope John Paul II was so strongly engaged in reproduction politics, I wonder whether he was afraid of social changes, such as the reduction of the birthrate or the influx of immigration of other religions.  Does the Pope wish to increase the number of immigrants who are notoriously more prolific?  It seems to me that the most reactionary part of the Catholic Church can count upon the development of the third world churches.  These churches are much worse than ours from a theological view.  For one, many are part of minority communities, so they are strongly communitarian, going back to primitive Christianity.  They are also dogmatic; they believe in wonders, etc. If that is the case, then we secular Europeans are faced with some very difficult days ahead.

Well, you get the idea.

Now, a generous helping of Ralph McInerny, from his book, Thomism in an Age of Renewal:

Being a Christian should surely have a discernible effect on our philosophizing, if only because, as St. Paul put it, our minds have been rendered captive by faith.  But in that captivity we are put in possession of the truth that frees so we are at the least rather equivocal bondsmen.  Faith may perhaps be described as an intellectual attitude whereby, under the influence of our will, moved by grace, we accept as true what we do not and cannot understand.  So described, faith is a possession of the believer; we also speak of the faith, what is believed, the object of belief.  Ultimately, this is someone, God, but it is also what God has told us.  God has told us much about himself and about the relation of the world and man to himself, and the believer accepts all these things because God has revealed them–“the whole bag of tricks,” as a Graham Greene character not irreverently put it.  That is the formality under which he accepts them, God’s word; that is why he cannot pick and choose among the things presented for his acceptance.  Such picking and choosing is what defines the heretic who is, etymologically, choosy.  But on what basis does he choose?  On some basis other than the authority of God; perhaps he looks for what is more agreeable to him, less embarrassing, not so far-out.  Strictly speaking, such a man does not have faith in the strong sense if faith in the strong sense is accepting on God’s word.

Faith is in some sense always and essentially blind if it is the acceptance of things unseen.  Nevertheless, because faith is a disposition of the mind and it is thanks to mind that we are inquiring beings, questioning beings, the believer soon senses that his mind is an arena of apparently incompatible attitudes.  He accepts without question and yet, because he is the kind of being God has made him, he must inquire into and reflect on what he believes.  His becomes a faith seeking understanding, a fides quaerens intellectum.  The presence of inquiry and questioning within a firm adherence to what God has revealed is the source, Aquinas says, of theology.  Perhaps we ought not too quickly think of theology as an academic discipline, a kind of learned prowess; Aquinas saw it in continuity with meditation, the contemplation of the spiritual life.  For him, theology was not something undertaken during a kind of recess from the spiritual life; it was, or should be, an expression of the spiritual life.  The fruit of the believer’s effort to plumb the object of his faith, to draw nearer to it with his whole being, mind, and heart.

[…]  A loose but defensible description of theology is the following.  Theology is an intellectual effort undertaken by believers and for other believers to put revealed truths into relation with what man can know apart from revelation.  By believers, because only they could feel the sustained impulse to undertake the inquiry, only they accept as true the principles of the inquiry; it is for believers, because the function of theology is not to provide faith to those who do not have it or to prove that, given such and such a naturally known truth, a believed truth follows necessarily.  Faith is the presupposition of theology, not its effect.  If the theologian appears to address every man, this is because he knows that in revelation God speaks to us all and not merely to those who have already received the grace, the ears to hear.  Reading theology may be the occasion God uses to give someone faith but then God can employ just about any event or activity as an occasion for granting this gift.  It is not the function of theology to create belief; no man can give faith to another, and theology is a human product.

I have gove into this matter at some length–though it is its sinful bevity that bothers me–in order to have a contrast for philosophy.  Theology is not philosophy, not because theology is an activity for believers and philosophy is not, but because of the difference in the intrinsic assumptions of the two disciplines.  A theological argument presupposes faith because only faith gives the nexus between the components of believed statements.  No philosophical argument can be intrinsically reliant on a statement held on faith, whether this be human or divine faith.  If a philosophical argument proves anything, this can be seen, in principle, by any man whether or not he has religious faith.  What we demand of philosophy, of knowledge, of science, is evidence and cogency.  This does not of course require that every philosophical or scientific argument be necessarily conclusive.  Perhaps the bulk of our arguments are at best probable, but that probability should be read in terms of the things we are speaking of; it is by appeal to those objects that the force of the argument, whatever its degree, must be read.

If we now ask whether a Christian can devise philosophical or scientific arguments, the quickest way to get an answer would be to find objects of knowledge about which nothing specific has been revealed.  Here the Christian will be in the same condition as any man….The mathematics, physics, or logic of the Christian should be indistinguishable from that of the non-Christian….Where the problem seems to arise is in areas where the objects  under consideration are ones about which the Christian already believes something. […] If by Christian philosophy we meant a body of purported knowledge among whose items would be proofs of the soul’s immortality and of God’s existence which could be cogent only for Christians, by appeal to their faith, then the concept of Christian philosophy is ambiguous at best and ridiculous as worst.  Such arguments would not be philosophical in the sense the term had for the most eminent Christian philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas.  No, we must say that if a Christian devises arguments for God’s existence or the immortality of the soul, those arguments are philosophical precisely insofar as they are cogent for any man who inspects the evidence provided; there can be no intrinsic dependence on faith in a philosophical argument.

[…]  As it happens, a goodly amount has been revealed which men can in principle know apart from revelation.  This is the area of what Aquinas called the praeambula fidei, the preambles of faith.  For example, to accept revelation is to accept the existence of God but it is also to accept as true that men can apart from revelaton know that God exists.  To accept revelation is to accept that man’s destiny transcends the fact of death, that his goal is eternal happiness with God.  many Christians, nevertheless, feel, with some other philosophers, that by natural reason alone we can arrive at knwoledge of the immortality of the soul.  One of the more striking aspects of revelation is that it contains what came to be called natural law precepts.  Now a natural law precept is a moral norm that one cannot fail to see by reflecting on the human situation, on the kind of agent man is.  Why would God in revelation speak to man of things man knows, or could come to know, apart from revelation?

From a Christian point of view, this oddity is rather easily explained.  It is one thing to sepak of philosophy and the intrinsic demands and character of philosophy; it is quite another matter when we consider the men who engage in philosophizing.  For the Christian, man is in a fallen condition, he bears on his soul the marks of the fall of the race in Adam.  The net effect of this is that man, however clear we may be as to his destiny naturally considered, that is, apart from grace and faith, is in a condition where it is highly unlikely that he will perform even his natural activities well.  As a result of sin, original and personal, man’s mind is darkened, his nature disorded, his appetites at war with his reason. […] the Christian whose faith englobes those truths has an extra-philosophical ground for being disposed to see them.  His faith provides him with guideposts for his thinking, navigational stars that are fixed both in the evidence of things and his faith.  Furthermore, if he believes that God exists, if he believes the soul is immortal, if he believes there are naturally knowable norms for human action, he is disposed to ground these in evidence other than revelation.  Notice that his faith does not provide him with philosophical arguments; it does provide him with convictions and certitudes about things that can be known and his conviction and certitude are antecendent to his knowledge….Of course, the non-believer would be incensed by such talk and I am under no illusion that what I am saying could be cogent for him.  What I am trying to describe is the attitude of the Christian as he engages in philosophy.  The non-believer can be rightly without interest in that antecedent certitude; he will and should demand from the Christian  philosopher arguments which are independent of his extra-philosophical certitudes. Nevertheless, for the Christian philosopher, the conviction and certitude he has from his faith are a tremendous boon when he philosophizes.  He may search twenty years and more for a cogent proof of God’s existence and know he has not found it.  Yet, while he will continue to strive to find that proof, while he retains all kinds of extra-philosophical motives for continuing the search, he does not dobut that God exists.  His doubt does not bear on his attempted proofs; he knows the ones he has so far come up with are no good.  But he knows, thanks to his faith, that God exists.[…]  It is sometimes said that a proved God is no God.  By this is meant, I suspect, that no philosophical proof could ever ground the total commitment that is the Christian life, and that is true.  But Christians must believe that God can be known by non-Christians, by pagans.[…] the God whose exitence I might prove and the God whom I believe and would continue to believe are the same God.  But what I can know of God and what I believe of God are different and will remain different.  That is why the oft-repeated remark that the God of Aristotle and the God of revelation are different does not have the import that it is thought to have. The remark, in context, suggests that there is something incompatible between what philosophers say of God and what Christians believe of God; this may be true, but it is not necessarily true, true by the nature of the case. […]  Rather than being an invitation to obscurantism, faith should be a felt obligation to intellectual inquiry.

The ringing rhetoric of those final claims may sound a leaden echo in the secular mind.  How can one who admits that for the Christian there are extra-philosophical guideposts to reasoning, antecedent certitudes that await sustaining arguments, possibly speak of free inquiry and withstand charges of obscurantism?  It would be possible to reply to this by saying that no one really is prepared to follow an argument to whatever term.  For example, if someone undertakes to prove to the physicist that the physical world is not really there to be studied, few physicists will be apt to listen with an open mind.  They have prejudged the issue.  They have not the least doubt in the reality of the external world.  If they listen, they look for flaws, for leaps, for ambiguities and, when they find them, they sense with joy that their antecedent conviction is being indirectly confirmed.  There is a sense of free inquiry such that free inquiry is not even an abstract possibility for men–where free means unencumbered by any certitudes prior to a given argument.  There is no argument which does not assume something and assume it as certain….

To the degree that one learns philosphy he is brought into relation with a tradition; he accepts on extra-philosphical grounds a curriculum, a course, and a teacher.  This is not the unique plight of the Catholic in a given kind of school; it is a common situation and one which has advantages as well as disadvantages.  As soon as this point is made, its obviousness is unmistakable  yet it has been overlooked and its being overlooked has led to weird and unreal criticisms; its being recalled can bring us gently back to the real world….

The Catholic has an antecedent certitude that no valid knowledge can be inimical to what has been revealed by God. […] To recall this extra-philosophical influence, which the believer holds will have a salutary effect within philosophy, should not be embarrassing for the Catholic.  If he is embarrassed by such reminders, surely he should examine the phenomenon of embarrassment and see what its sources and justification might be.  It is a melancholy fact of the history of philsophy that extra-philosophical influences other than faith explain odd jumps, lacunae, and a systematic indifference to certain issues; in any philosopher there are tenets and favored topics which caonnot be explained within philosophy.  Why does Heidegger simply refuse to let God intrude into his philosophy?  One who inspects his chosen area of study without Heidegger’s resolve to keep the ontology finite will have difficulty discerning in the things spoken about any warrant for this restriction.  Why does Sartre simply assert that God cannot exist?  Why did some philosophers insist that religious and ethical statements are devoid of meaning?  Once one makes such options he can construct a theory which seems to favor them, but the resulting theory soons reveals itself to be in such flagrant contradiction with what we knew and knew for certain before undertaking the formal study of philosophy that a following generation has to dethrone the controlling assumption and admit as meaningful what no one ever seriously considered to be meaningless.  My point is that every philosopher is influenced in his philosophizing and resultant theory by antecedent attitudes.

That’s more than enough.

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Common Morality (Again)

Eboo Patel told the 500 Evangelicals gathered at the Q Conference:

Muslims and Christians might not fully agree on worldview, but we share a world. We do not have the same understanding of theology, but we have a similar view of humanity.

How do you think that went over?  Chuck Colson told Patel, “I agree with 90% of what you say.”  Well, it’s a start….

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What’s in a name?

Rabih Alameddine makes the following observation in her piece, ‘Allah’ vs. ‘God,’ in the LA Times:

We never say the French pray to Dieu, or Mexicans pray to Dios. Having Allah be different from God implies that Muslims pray to a special deity. It classifies Muslims as the Other. Separating Allah from God, we only see a vengeful, alarming deity, one responsible for those frightful fatwas and ghastly jihads — rarely the compassionate God. The opening line of every chapter in the Koran is “Bi Ism Allah, Al Rahman, Al Rahim“: In the name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful. In the name of Allah. One and the same.

The separation is happening on all sides. This year, the Malaysian government issued an edict warning the Herald, a weekly English newspaper, that no religion except Islam can use the word Allah to denote God. No such edict, or fatwa for that matter, is needed for the New York Times: a quick search through the archives shows that Allah is used only as the Muslim God.

In these troubled times, creating more differences, further parsing so to speak, is troubling, even dangerous. I suggest we either not use the word Allah or, better yet, use it in a non-Muslim context.

Otherwise, the terrorists win.

One nation under Allah?

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A Common Morality

Following up on the CUA conference (see previous post), here’s some wisdom from Jacques Maritain, the “old peasant of the Garonne” who helped us understand the “true new fire” of the post-Vatican II church:

We would be making a big mistake, as I said in a previous section, if we believed that men who are divided in their speculative convictions are thereby prevented from reaching a practical agreement of thought in regard to the principles that govern their actions.  But we would be making a mistake at least as serious in the opposite direction if, on the pretext of making this practical agreement more secure, we tried to camouflage the irreducible oppositions that persist in the speculative order between the parties involved, by lying as to what is and by adapting the true to the false in order to make the dialogue more smoothly cordial, and more deceptively fruitful. [The Peasant of the Garonne, Macmillan paperback edition (1969), p. 98]

In a section of this book entitled, “Practical Cooperation in a Divided World,” Maritain spends most of his time justifying the claim that human beings, no matter their religious beliefs or differences on the theoretical or speculative level, can nevertheless find that they share common, basic moral intuitions.  He recounts a an address he was asked to give to a UNESCO meeting in 1947 on the question of such global cooperation.  He answered that

the finality [i.e., the end in view] of UNESCO was a practical finality, and hence agreement among its members can be spontaneously achieved, not on common speculative notions, but on common practical notions; not on the affirmation of the same conception of the world, man and knowledge, but on the affirmation of the same set of convictions concerning action.  This is doubtless very little; it is the last refuge of intellectual agreement among men.  It is, however, enought to undertake a great work.”

When it is a question, not of a common speculative ideology, nor of common explanatory principles, but on the contrary, of the basic practical ideology and the basic principles of action implicitly recognized today, in a vital if not a formulated manner, by the consciousness of free peoples, this happens to constititute grosso modo a sort of common residue, a sort of unwritten common law, at the point of practical convergence of extremely different theoretical ideologies and spiritual traditions.  To understand that, it is sufficient to distinguish properly between the rational justifications, inseparable from the spiritual dynamism of a philosophical doctrine or a religious faith, and the practical conclusions which, separately justified for each, are, for all, analogically common principles of action.  I am fully convinced that my way of justifying the belief in the rights of man and the ideal of liberty, equality, fraternity, is the only one which is solidly based on truth.  That does not prevent me from agreeing on these practical tenets with those who are convinced that their way of justifying them, entirely different from mine, or even opposed to mine in its theoretical dynamism, is likewise the only one that is based on truth.  Assuming they both believe in the democratic charter, a Christian and a rationalist will, nevertheless, give justifications that are incompatible with each other, to which their souls, their minds and their blood are committed, and about these justifications they will fight.  And God keep me from saying that it is not important to know which of the two is right!  That is essentially important.  They remain, however, in agreement on the practical affirmation of that charter, and they can formulate together common principles of action. [p. 82]

Maritain is speaking about the conditions of our globalized world, “a world which, from now on, is one world for life or for death, while it remains disastrously divided as to political passions and interests.” [p. 84]  In this divided world, still, there are things which we cannot not know: that good politics is first and foremost just; that justice demands a sensitivity to the common good and an “awakening of mutual understanding;” that “to place national interest about everything is a sure means of losing everything;” that a community of free persons must recognize that “truth is the expression of what is, and right is the expression of what is just, not of what is most expedient at a given time for the interest of the human group;” that it is “not permissible to take the life of an innocent man because he has become a useless and costly burden to the nations;” that “the human person is endowed with a dignity which the very good of the community presupposes and must, for its own sake, respect;” that persons have both fundamental rights and fundamental obligations; that the “masses have a right to participate in the common treasure of culture and of the spirit;” that “the domain of conscience is inviolable;” that it is a duty of states to respect religious liberty as well as freedom of research.  Maritain concludes:

If a state of peace worthy of the name, firm and enduring, is to be established one day among the peoples of the world, this will depend not only upon the economic, political and financial arrangements reached by diplomats and statesmen, nor will it depend solely upon the juridical building up of a truly supra-national co-ordinating organism endowed with efficient means of action; it will depend also upon the deep adherence of men’s consciousness to practical principles like those I have recalled.  And to state things as they are, it will depend also upon that bigger soul which, according to Bergson, our world, become technically greater, needs, and upon a victorious outpouring of that supreme and free energy which comes to us from on high, and whose name we know–whatever may be our religious denomination or school of thought–to be brotherly love, a name which has been pronounced in such a manner by the Gospel that it has stirred the conscience of man for all time.

Maritain teaches that to find we have a common, unwritten sort of natural law to guide human action is a bare minimum, enough to  start a great and necessary work, but not enough to finish it.  Nevertheless, will we not start it?  We will forever argue (even when it reduces to mere quibbling) about the bare minimum, while the world descends into a very old madness in perhaps new and more devastating ways than ever?  Will we continue to confuse hair-splitting over the bare minimum with the profundity of seeking and contemplating the essence of the true, the good, and the beautiful.  The bare minimum should guarantee our liberty of conscience and freedom of research into the religious and metaphysical source of our existence–and the freedom to debate those speculations vigorously (even endlessly, should providence require).  But letting those debates thwart our absolute requirment for seeking and defending the bare minimum of common morality is a recipe for disaster.

Jacques Maritain

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