Archive for June, 2008

¡España, al fin campeona!

Congratulations to all our friends in Spain on their country’s winning the 2008 European Championship of Football!  It’s been 44 years in coming, and the only thing I can think of that’s different about this year is that the Metanexus Institute decided to hold its annual conference in Madrid 13-17 July.  Perhaps we’ve brought our friends un poco de buena suerte…?

¡Viva España!


Photo from El País


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F*@% George Carlin!

“I think he’s down there now, screaming up at us.  And I think he’s in severe pain.”  That’s from a bit by George Carlin, recently deceased.  (Why is it “deceased”?  Why not just “ceased”?  George Carlin ceased on June 22, 2008.)  In the bit, Carlin is making fun of those of us who say about our dead loved ones, “I think he’s up there now, smiling down on us.”  Carlin ponders why we never think our loved ones are headed the opposite direction…a fair question, given all we know about our loved ones!  Anyway, I’ll admit it:  George Carlin made me laugh a lot for a very long time.  I didn’t like all his positions on the issues (I only really love comedians who have positions on the issues), but whether he made me laugh until the Guinness flowed out my nose or whether he made me want to throw my pint glass (empty, of course) at him, he also often made me think.

He didn’t think much of those of us who believe (or who claim to believe) in God, but you’ve got to admit he often caught us at our hypocritical worst.  And that produced, at least in me, that kind of laughter mixed with guilt that leads to thinking about things.  But that doesn’t exactly make him a great philosopher or fount of deep wisdom.  Just because what he said he said funny doesn’t mean what he said was right.  But then again, just because what he said wasn’t always right doesn’t mean that what he said wasn’t always funny.  It was always funny, even when it was uncomfortable.

For instance, some people (not me) find Carlin’s use of the 7 Words You Can’t Say on TV makes them uncomfortable.  I am using the lexical strategy of writing F*@% instead of…well, you know…, not because of my sensibilities because of yours (potentially).  It’s called being polite.  Carlin would not make that concession.  He didn’t like tradition or custom of any kind.  For him, it was all bullsh*t and it was all “bad for ya.”  But he does say in his latest HBO show–tellingly, and maybe not in the sense he meant it–that “bullsh*t” is the glue that holds this country (any country, any society, any culture) together.  Where Carlin reads “bullsh*t” as “known to be untruth, (and therefore a lie)” I read it as “something gratuitous and contingent that could’ve been otherwise.”  We both agree that things like whether to doff your hat at the passing of the American flag or whether to wear a tie in formal circumstances is not THE TRUTH of THE WAY THINGS REALLY ARE AND HAVE TO BE.  But we need just those things to have a human life, however dangerous we let some of that bullsh*t become.  My cat does not bullsh*t, but my cat is not human.

HBO is running his latest live show, “It’s Bad For Ya!.”  Carlin’s opening:  “I’d like to begin by saying, ‘F*@% Lance Armstrong….  And while you’re at it,  f*@% Tiger Woods, too….  I’m sick and tired of being told who to admire in this country.  Aren’t you sick of being told who your heroes are supposed to be?”  I couldn’t agree more.  I liked George Carlin ever since I was a kid.  He made me laugh. He made me think.  But to read some obits, Carlin was supposed to be some kind of hero.  The guy who did Al Sleet, theHippy-Dippy Weatherman; the guy who is best known for saying a particular  set of 7 words on television; you mean to tell me that that guy is a hero???  Well, F*@% George Carlin!

I think he would’ve wanted it this way.  I think he’s down there now, smiling up at us.  Or perhaps that’s a grimace…hard to tell from SUCH a distance….



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“this indescribable taste of existence…” (on W. Norris Clarke, S.J.)

Over the course of my life, I have been blessed with great teachers.  I was saddened to learn that one of my favorites passed away on June 10 (our son’s birthday, as it happens).  Fr. Norris Clarke, S. J., (1915-2008) introduced me to the the work of St. Thomas Aquinas and to the profound pleasures of metaphysical exploration.  A couple of decades ago, he was visiting professor at Villanova University, where I was working on my MA.  I still have a copy of the first edition of his book, The Philosophical Approach to God (Wake Forest University Press, 1979; a second revised edition was recently issued by Fordham University Press).  He sold it to me out of his briefcase after I expressed an interest.  Although I haven’t been in a classroom since the late nineties, I still have all his lecture notes on Aquinas close at hand.  When I was teaching, I shamelessly stole his “The Sad Adventures of Substance in Modern Philosophy” talk (I confessed this to him when I ran into him at a conference, and he granted me absolution).  In 1980, the American Catholic Philosophical Association awarded him the Aquinas Medal.  I have here a copy of Vol. LIV of the Proceedings of the ACPA, which contains his Medalist’s Address:  “The Philosophical Importance of Doing One’s Autobiography.”  In it, Fr. Norrie (as we called him) writes:

Why is it important to do one’s own autobiography?  The answer lies in what it means to be a person in the peculiarly human mode.  To be is to be one, as St. Thomas and indeed all great metaphysicians tell us.  And to be a person, he tells us again in what I consider one of the simplest and deepest of all definitions of the person, is to take conscious self-possession of one’s own being, to be master of oneself (dominus sui).  But our incarnate human mode of being a person necessarily involves living in a body whose life unfolds successively across time, whose life is therefore inevitably dispersed across time.  Time is the mode of a being that is not totally present to its whole self.  Hence we have a problem in fully being ourselves, in taking full self-conscious possession of our own being, that is so essentially a history, a story.  If we let our own past slip behind us, drift away downstream unretrieved, save for occasional vivid episodes that stand out like isolated islands above the flow, then we have lost hold of a part, an ever-growing part, of our very selves.  If we wish to know in full self-consciousness who we are, we must assimilate and integrate–self-consciously and deliberately, I think–at least the key moments and phases of our own past, so that the meaningful pattern hidden within them emerges into our self-consciousness, so that our lives reveal themselves as a meaningful story, and not just a collection of unconnected slides about our past, stored up in more or less accurate memory. […] For, unlikely as it may seem to some, there always is some pattern to be discerned, even if so many of the moments seem to be negative, shadow-filled, making a step backwards rather than forwards.  It is not necessary to write down this autobiography, though it certainly helps.  It is enough to reenact it within one’s own inner consciousness–it can even be done quite briefly and still quite fruitfully–but it must be done consciously and reflectively, looking always for the pattern, the connected weave, of the story.

Fr. Norrie wrote much and eloquently on the nature of the human person.  For him, the human person is an “embodied spirit” that is essentially self-possessing, self-communicating and relational, and receptive.  Thus the human person always is who (and not just what) she or he is in relation to others and to the world.  For Fr. Norrie, it is no accident, for instance, that he had such a love of high places.  It was he who helped me discover the relationship between metaphysical inclinations and physical heights and expansive vistas.  In his Medalist’s Address, he relates one of my favorite stories about himself:

Some German philosopher, whose name I have long forgotten, many years ago drew up an impressive list of the correlation between some experience of high places, mountains, etc., and the lives of great metaphysicians.  E.g., St. Thomas was taken at the age of six to live at the great Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino, perched, as many of you know, on the edge of a mountain with a vast perspective over the surrounding countryside.  For myself, I remember with the utmost clarity how I used to love to climb the highest trees I could find, perch myself securely in the crotch of a branch, and look out over the surrounding territory, with a wonderful feeling of expansion of consciousness.

Most exciting was when, at about 14 or 15, I would climb up the great towers of the George Washington Bridge from the river shore to the roadway, some 300 feet above.  It was not really that difficult or dangerous if one had rubbersoled shoes and cool nerves.  I had a sufficient supply of both, and the expansion of consciousness was tremendous.  Even better was to climb up the sheer five-hundred-foot-high cliffs of the Palisades on the other side of the river, finding a niche two thirds of the way up, and sitting there quiet and all alone–I did my serious climbing alone–contemplating the vast panorama of the river, and feeling somehow intuitively  and inarticulately the vast hidden forces of nature supporting me and making the whole world pulse with life, and then hidden behind these and woven somehow through everything some still vaster mysterious unifying Presence, which I thought dimly must be something like God.

This particular climb, as I realized later and perhaps even then, was really quite a dangerous one, requiring considerable skill and a large supply of cool nerves.  When I first tried it, at a place I discovered to be the best, just abouve a large sign, “No Climbing Here,” I had made it two thirds of the way up and then got stuck, and could move neither up nor down.  Looking down, I saw the traffic all stopped on the river below, motorists shouting and gesticulating at me to come down, then a contingent of police yelling they were going to arrest me.  I shouted back.  “Come and get me; I would love to get arrested; anything to get out of here.”  But I knew they would be afraid to climb up after me.  Then they said they would get a rope and pull me up from above, and departed.  I realized that if they did rescue me I would promptly end up in the local cooler, a disgrace to my family, etc.  On studying my situation more carefully I discovered there was a bulge of rock to my right and I could see only that there was a niche for my foot beyond it.  If there was one for my hand higher up, which I could not see, I could swing around and from there on it was easier going and I could get away.  A decision had to be made at once.  With a prayer and a hope, literally not knowing whether death or life awaited me, I gathered up my courage and swung around the rock into space.  Luckily, as you can see, there was a handhold.  I caught on, quickly snaked up the rest of the cliff and fled into the bushes to watch just as the cops arrived with ropes to pull me up and arrest me.  But something mementous happened to me as I swung out into space, suspended between being and non-being.  At that moment I suddenly broke through to the felt awareness of existence as such; I felt the bitter-sweet but extraordinarily exhilarating taste of actual existence in my mouth, the taste of its infinite preciousness and yet precariousness and of its unspeakable difference from non-existence.  I felt I had somehow broken through to a new level of consciousness, and this indescribable taste of existence still lingers in my mouth today, almost as clear as it was then, fifty years ago.  It still nourishes my metaphysical intuition.

Fr. Norrie now has the highest possible vantage point for seeing the truth, beauty, and goodness of what is.

As a Libran, I operate under the sign of the balance scales, and so I am given to being an “on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other” type of guy.  Sometimes I find myself drawn to the highest heights (despite the lingering remnants of youthful acrophobia).  Sometimes I like to keep low to the ground.  As I reflect on my own life, as I try to find the patterns and the key moments, I know that the couple of years I spent at Villanova in the mid-eighties  made a lasting impression.  That’s where I met Fr. Norrie (and St. Thomas) and that’s where I met Jack Caputo (and everything that seems to slip away from a Thomistic approach to philosophy).  Since then, these two teachers have been (unbeknownst to them) riding on my shoulders everywhere I philosophically go.  Fr. Norrie is always somehow whispering in my right ear (definitely the right ear), while Jack whispers in my left (definitely my left ear).  Fr. Norrie seemed to me a Romans 8:28 kind of guy: He seems to be whispering to me: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”).  Jack is more like a Philippians 2:12 kind of guy (sort of).  He seems to be whispering:  “Work out your salvation (s’il y a…if such there be…) with fear and trembling.” Fr. Norrie always knew there was a “pattern,” a “connected weave,” a coherent “story.”  Jack “hopes against hope.”  I am most grateful for this stereophonic education.  (You can get a little taste of what it’s like being in the middle of this conversation in a book edited by Gerald McCool, S.J.,  entitled, The Universe as Journey:  Conversations with W. Norris Clarke, S.J., published by Fordham University Press, 1988.)

Wish I could have said thanks one last time….


Requiescat in pace.

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Shermer on Sokal

Michael Shermer reviews Alan Sokal’s latest, Beyond the Hoax in the New York Sun.  Shermer writes:

Why did academics fall for it [the famous “Sokal hoax,” that spoofed postmodern “theorizing”]? The hindsight bias and the confirmation bias. Once you believe that science holds no privileged position in the search for truth, and that it is just another way of knowing, it is easy to pull out of an article like Mr. Sokal’s additional evidence that supports your belief. It is a very human process, and since science is conducted by very real humans, shouldn’t it be subject to these same cognitive biases? Yes, except for one thing: the built-in defense known as the scientific method.

There is progress in science, and some views really are superior to others, regardless of the color, gender, or country of origin of the scientist holding that view. Despite the fact that scientific data are “theory laden,” science is truly different than art, music, religion, and other forms of human expression because it has a self-correcting mechanism built into it. If you don’t catch the flaws in your theory, the slant in your bias, or the distortion in your preferences, someone else will, usually with great glee and in a public forum — for example, a competing journal! Scientists may be biased, but science itself, for all its flaws, is still the best system ever devised for understanding how the world works.

Shermer is exactly right.  (But science is not the sole arbiter for what it all means.)

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