Monthly Archives: December 2015

Pediaphobia

An important and thoughtful effusion from one of our favorite bloggers:

I recently happened upon 26 Important Reminders Why Birth Control Exists being posted on Facebook. It features 26 photos of children making giant messes. At first I assumed it was meant as a joke. Because, surely, some unexpected Crayola art on my wall is an infinitesimal inconvenience in light of the infinite worth of a human life. I mean, nobody ACTUALLY thinks that “they might spill paint on the floor” is a reason kids shouldn’t exist. Or so I thought until I saw the comments. And then I felt physically ill.

Because, for a lot of people, it wasn’t a joke. Statements like, “Exactly. This is why I’m never having children.” or “This is why animals are better than kids.” or “Thank God I’m sterile.” “This is why the only children I want have paws.” “Kids are sticky and they smell bad. F*** that.” graced the combox. I’d like to write it off as just a handful of offensive internet commenters. But it’s not just a few people….

What I’m talking about is widespread and accepted discrimination against children. Blanket statements such as “I don’t like children” as if the millions of kids all over the world are all exactly the same and simply not to your taste…. It baffles me.

Kids are just people and people are inconvenient. The lady with the shrieking laughter at the quiet restaurant. The man taking up the whole grocery aisle with his wheelchair. The teenager with Tourettes who keeps interrupting the church service. The waitress with an irritating voice. Wouldn’t it be nice if everywhere we went, we could avoid being inconvenienced or annoyed? Unfortunately, humans are inconvenient. But it doesn’t make them any less worthwhile.

Should we ban irritating laughers from public places? Of course not. Should we ban wheelchairs in grocery stores because they make shopping trips more difficult? Obviously, that would be ridiculous. Can we request that the teenager with Tourettes not attend church with us because it’s distracting? No, that would be awful. Can people with irritating voices be removed from the food industry? C’mon. Every human soul deserves respect and dignity.

(source: “I’m Not Prejudiced, I Just Don’t Like 25% of Humanity”)

Language and Law

The stimulating conversation continues in the comments over at Hang Together (“Freedom must mean more than freedom to mention coercion”). From my latest:

Stop thinking about laws for a moment, and just think about the attempt to tell truth, in speaking or in writing. When the listeners differ about the meaning of the text, their natural and correct recourse is to the author. When the listeners differ about the truth of the text, they will have to appeal beyond the author to something that both the author and they find intelligible–to an understanding that is communicable, in principle and therefore (even if only partially) also in practice. If we deny that communicable understanding of reality is intelligible and binding on the conscience, then we destroy the principle of authority and the utility of language.

The cohesiveness of a society, the realization of the formal principle of any society, whether a nation-state or a bridge club, requires that such a denial not take place–and *specifically* that particular positive assertions of the formal principle of that society be made on the understanding that some intelligible reality is implicated in those assertions. You can make a game about a fantasy, but you can’t make a game in which the rules are a fantasy.

And because Creation itself is a text, and ontology an allegory of the Creator, and our study of it is an apprehension of revelation, it is inconceivable that we should separate the recourse to the Author from the history of the text or the resolution and understanding at the End. No, there is no endless deferral; just repeated evasions of a constantly repeated, constantly unfolding, singular Truth.

And if we insist on treading down the intergenerational communication of what we have understood of an intelligible reality, either recklessly (as unthinking moderns so often do) or in principle (as Satanists, anarchists, and their Progressive/Romantic stooges incessantly do)–if we reject tradition–then we put ourselves in the camp of those Paul says the servant of the Lord must correct patiently:

23 Have nothing to do with stupid, senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to every one, an apt teacher, forbearing, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, 26 and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

(source: 2 Timothy 2:23-26 RSV-CE)

I’m not saying that rhetorical appeal to tradition, especially not a merely authoritarian appeal, is useful when you’re dealing with those who do not share the tradition or do not recognize the author-ity/jurisdiction of the author/legislator. What I am saying is that you cannot have a functioning society that does not find those things–so if we actually believe we are irremediably divided on these issues, it behooves us to figure out how to have multiple societies that overlap as little as possible. And in the meantime, we will have to fight rearguard based on current understandings, without regard for consistency, because we have taken it for granted that consistency is meaningless or impossible.

You can argue that a meaningful consensus–a reality-based, authorized, communicable understanding of an intelligible reality–exists to undergird meaningful authority in society (to legitimate government), or you can argue that we need to restructure society while fighting a rearguard action, but there is no possibility that you will convince me, or succeed in fact, by asserting the possibility of subscribing to a society in which meaningful authority is not possible and rearguard action is to be endlessly deferred in hopes of a bright terrestrial, secular future. Not going to happen. Never has, never will. It is not a possibility for human creatures.

Happy Feast of St. Stephen!

Even as sun sets and many have already moved into the liturgical day of the Holy Family, a meditation on the juxtaposition of Christmas with St. Stephen’s day:

Merry, indeed, is the notion that our deliverance is at hand; that the defeat of Death itself could ever have been accomplished. Happy, and blessed, must be that occasion, in no small way. Triumphant, necessarily, is that call: even in the cry of Stephen, whose Victory is at hand.

(source: The Day After – The Catholic Thing)

Do You Know What You’re Looking For?

A meditation on some perennial truths of Christian living, with an eye to the last moments of Advent preparation for our Lord’s coming:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life

(source: John 3:16-21 RSVCE)

Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword

(source: Matthew 10:26-42 RSVCE)

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

(source: John 10:7-18 RSVCE)

In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.

(source: John 16:31-33 RSVCE)

convince some, who doubt; save some, by snatching them out of the fire; on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.

(source: Jude 17-23 RSVCE)

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.

(source: 1 John 2:15-17 RSVCE)

Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God.

(source: 1 John 4:7-12 RSVCE)

We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one….Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

(source: 1 John 5:10-21 RSVCE)

What We Need to Know

as Thomas Aquinas helps us to see, there is a distinction between creation understood philosophically and creation understood theologically. Thomas thinks that it is the discipline of metaphysics that asks questions about the ultimate cause of existence of things, and, as he says, “not only does faith hold that there is creation, reason also demonstrates it” (In II Sent., dist. 1, q. 1, a. 2). The demonstration he offers involves a recognition of the distinction between essence and existence in all creatures, between what things are and that they are, and their identity in the Creator.

…the doctrine of creation, in its philosophical foundations, is not challenged by any discovery in the natural sciences. To do justice to Thomas’s account we would need to examine the metaphysical principles he employs and, especially today, argue for the very existence of metaphysics itself. We ought not to identify a rational account of the world exclusively with what the natural sciences describe. There is an enlarged sense of reason that includes metaphysics.

…the theological sense, in the Christian tradition at least, embraces all that metaphysics discloses and adds a great deal more: not only the temporal finitude of the world, but also the Trinitarian character of the creative act, and the fact that creation is a manifestation of divine love.

(source: Modern Cosmology and Creation)

Timely, in view of this recent post.

Unto Us

The difference between the prophet and the writer of horror fictions is twofold:  first, of course, the prophet speaks truth, not fiction; but second, and more pertinently, the horror fiction evokes our dread of an unnamed sublimity that fascinates us but wrests control of our lives away from us, shattering our mundane delusions, while the prophet knows the name of God, receives His instructions, and tells us what hope lies beyond the destruction of our sins, our follies, our embrace of wickedness and delusion.  As also Randall Smith notes:

‘Tis the season of hope. Not if you’ve been listening to the daily news, of course, but it is if you’ve been going to Mass and listening to the readings. We’ve been showered daily with hope-filled readings from the prophets — mostly Jeremiah, Isaiah, or Zechariah. There’s been a lot of the “wolf being a guest of the lamb” sort of thing; promises of “rich food and choice wines” (indeed, “juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines”); the deaf will hear and the blind will see; God will wipe away tears from every face.

With these, we’ve heard about making the lofty mountains low and filling in the valleys; promises about making the parched land exult and the steppe rejoice and bloom with abundant flowers; about turning the desert into marshland and the dry ground into springs of water; and a whole lot about people singing and shouting for joy, being glad and exulting. These are the readings we get every year at about this time. It’s Advent, and the Church thinks it is a good time to remind us that we’re to be a people “looking forward” to something – something very good.

A colleague reminded me recently, however, that all these very hopeful exclamations were made by men with good reason to view their times as not at all hopeful – whose historical situation was, to put it mildly, less than optimal. Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Zechariah all foresaw or experienced the utter defeat of Judah at the hands of her enemies and the exile of her people to an alien land.

(source: The Catholic Thing)

Have a Heart

With little comment, some juxtapositions of language and image that, I believe, are clear enough for anyone with human blood still circulating through a human heart:

Richard Weaver once wrote that “every man participating in a culture has three levels of conscious reflection: his specific ideas about things, his general beliefs or convictions, and his metaphysical dream of the world.” At the level of specific ideas and general convictions, our age has settled into a number of pragmatic prohibitions and exhortations. No smoking! Count your calories! Build your résumé! Save for retirement! Safe sex! Locally sourced food! All this and more testifies to the ongoing and powerful role of behavior-shaping norms.

Yet, underneath all this we find an antinomian sensibility. We are trained to be suspicious of longstanding moral traditions; we are told to adopt a critical attitude toward inherited norms. That’s not just an academic habit of mind. It serves a moral conviction, widespread though often tacit: that human beings flourish to the degree that they’re free to satisfy their personal desires. The same conviction underwrites our therapeutic vocabulary of empowerment, the pedagogy of multiculturalism, and our paradoxical moral code of nonjudgmentalism. What makes for happiness and fulfillment—and here we enter into the metaphysical dream that defines our era—is an Empire of Desire. We affirm countless little disciplines to ensure health, productivity, success, and social harmony. But we push these social mores, disciplines, and restraints to the margins of our souls, creating space for bespoke lives tailored to our desires.

(source: Empire of Desire by R. R. Reno)

There isn’t always something big without sacrifices…but sacrifices of children? Well you can’t judge something so old! Their civilization flourished so many years ago and what they considered good or bad it can only be judged by the ethics of their past and not the present’s! One thing is certain that these mummies reveal a lot about the past!

(source: This Mummy Reveals A Cruel Past…Unbelievable!)

Science is Knowing, not Ignoring Most Knowledge

A friend recently responded to this bit of nearly clever nonsense from a source that is, in other cases, often actually witty:

I thought it would be possible to improve on this, and explain a thing or two along the way.

  1. Science is finding any way you can to describe a room, a cat, a flashlight, eyesight, or a lightswitch usefully and accurately.
  2. Philosophy is waking up in the dark and trying to decide whether you need to find a lightswitch or remove a blindfold.
  3. Metaphysics is waking up in the dark and trying to describe what you would need in order to invent a flashlight.
  4. Theology is waking up in the dark and trying to find out who gave you this really handy flashlight kit, so you can ask why it came “some assembly required.”
  5. Quackery is throwing away the flashlight kit and then using trial-and-error to see which bits and bobs from the room might strike sparks.

Also, folks:  Nobody @#$%&*! Loves Science

when Katie Couric (B.A., English) asks Sarah Palin (B.A., communications) about her views on evolution, whatever is transpiring between the two of them is not a scientific discussion. Likewise, when Bill Nye the Science Guy — who is actually Bill Nye the engineering guy (B.S., mechanical engineering) — debates Mr. Ham (B.S., environmental biology), neither the debaters nor the scientifically illiterate popular audience sitting in judgment of them are engaged in anything that comes close to meriting description as scientific discourse — they are not equipped for it. What they are engaged in is simply the flashing of cultural and political gang signs.

(source: National Review Online)

Intention and Action, Cutting Edge and Ancient

I had a really interesting conversation with a friend recently about some studies in the past decade which have tended to suggest that motor response precedes judgment in the brain—when moving in response to a prompt, the motor response is primed before the centers believed to handle decision-making have fired. In the popular press, this stoked the perennial speculation about whether human freedom was basically an illusion; sometimes this speculation proves corrosive to faith. Because I ended up writing quite a lot, I thought I’d post some of the material again, here. In what follows, I’ve edited together my side of the conversation, doing my best to elide the original context.

My first response, with the “defensive” moves:

  1. the actual studies only indicate that my interior verbalization of my intention is slower than my body’s preparation to act on that intention; that does not actually affect even a standard modern psychological account (much less a Platonic, Aristotelian, Augustinian, or Buddhist account) of the relationship between my essential being and my reflective self.
  2. indication that my whole body is together involved in my “thinking” does not actually move the needle very much from when some parts of my brain were involved in my thinking. We’re still embodied creatures, and our action-intention cycles always have been more complicated than the incorrect imagination that we are inactive/neutral, see options, evaluate them according to deontological ethical standards, then choose, from which action follows deterministically. In other words, I am no more or less concerned with determinism when I expand the “loop” from my frontal lobe to include some motor neurons.

So much for the “defensive” moves. Let me poke around for some articles to ground the next few moves, because I actually mention these studies to my students as evidences that modern neuroscience tends to confirm the realist (Aristotelian/Thomistic) model of humanity over against the radical voluntarism of pretty much everything from Descartes forward.

Later:

All right. First, to unconfuse a term I often confuse with this material: “Proprioception” strictly refers to what Aquinas would have meant by “the common sense,” that is, our total situational awareness—sense of body and senses as integrated, in modern usage specifically our positional awareness such that we can reach for a thing without monitoring the distance attentively (for example). [see http://brainblogger.com/2009/06/09/what-is-proprioception/ ] “Proprioception” research overlaps these motor-center sequence studies; but it’s not the same question, though I frequently confuse them.

Anyway, here is a study which makes the case for “motor centers fire before judgment centers,” from 2005; and here is a later, and somewhat different, discussion that gathers up the state of knowledge in that area by about 2009.

What those two make fairly evident is that the naive neutrality-reflection-intention-movement-feedback sequence is really far less complex than the actual sequence in the brain. What really happens seems to be more like this: something situational triggers both an expected action and an awareness that some decision is called for; the body primes for action and, if the action is simple or common enough, begins execution while the judgment centers are deciding on whether to inhibit the action; and once the action begins, other centers in the brain are continuously monitoring its effects and intensities (“did I squeeze the tomato too hard?”) and signalling adjustments, most of which only filter through peripherally as conscious or requiring judgment–again depending on how simple or common the action is. Hence “riding a bike” does not continue to be a constant series of conscious adjustments that rapidly overload our ability and cause us to fall and experience frustration, though it starts out that way for most of us.

In other words, I have a habit of drinking coffee, so my hand may reach for my coffee cup while I’m thinking hard about something else and diverting only enough attention to my coffee-drinking to have the internal dialogue equivalent, of “Oh, don’t mind if I do!” for thoughts. This does not mean that “I” am not “drinking coffee,” however, and if I had a similar habit of gunning down people who looked at me cross-eyed, it would still be my habit and would still involve my conscious decision-making (but if that habit had been drilled into me by a brainwashing expert, making me some sort of Manchurian Candidate, that would mitigate my guilt).

All my explanations are very approximate, of course, as I quickly get lost in the details of the scientific notation in these fields.

And all this is actually not only in keeping with traditional philosophical anthropology and moral theology, it actually argues that the much pooh-poohed metaphysical realism that dominated thought before the Enlightenment is precisely more realistic in its descriptions and prescriptions. What is vital is to leave behind the notion that moral agency requires, or can even be conceived as, a neutral position of choosing between options according to a deontological ethic. Rather, moral agency consists in the cultivation of a positive character that actualizes (fructifies) the potential of the sort of being whose habitual acts are subject to its conscious determinations. All of our acts depend upon habits, and actions build habits; therefore what acts we inhibit or promote consciously, what capacity we build for inhibiting prepared acts voluntarily (self-control), both builds and expresses a total character. This sort of thing cannot be done by reflection alone; it requires a dynamic balance of speculative and practical reason, of contemplation and action. All of which is classical, medieval, and totally in keeping with the latest neuroscience.

I make students read the IEP article on Aristotle’s Ethics regularly, because Joe Sachs does such a wonderfully lucid job of excavating “habit” from our depressing 20C addiction-speak and 18-19C vitalistic vs. mechanistic claptrap.

With that in mind, the Angelic Doctor’s discussion of habit and act, gleaned directly from his application of Aristotle to the arguments in moral theology raised in a primarily Augustinian (through Lombard, with Boethius) history, suddenly appears to be thinking through precisely the same evidence we’re trying to incorporate into our thinking, here:

In the appetitive powers, however, no habit is natural in its beginning, on the part of the soul itself, as to the substance of the habit; …because the inclination to its proper objects, which seems to be the beginning of a habit, does not belong to the habit, but rather to the very nature of the powers.

But on the part of the body, in respect of the individual nature, there are some appetitive habits by way of natural beginnings. For some are disposed from their own bodily temperament to chastity or meekness or such like.

In other words, the reasonable character of a habit–its adaptation to some final end that is a cooperation of the Creator’s intention and the creature’s will–is not already “natural” at the beginning, because it is of the character of such habits to become what they are [finally] intended to be. What is already “natural” to hunger is to be directed toward “stuff I can eat”; what eventually becomes “second nature” is eating “things which are both pleasing and good for me and pleasant to share” or some such complex reality which it takes practical experience, refined through reflection and experiment, to realize.

Now, with those things in place, we can sit down and try to parse this less helpful discussion of moral theology in Thomas.

This reading does not sufficiently include the Creator’s intention as making the “final end” to be already a personal, interpersonal, and reasonable “what and why” for a human creature; thus it misses much of the import of each individual’s becoming a participant in that intention not only with regard to that creature but to the whole of Creation as the “final cause” of all human action insofar as human action does not turn out to be irrational and dysfunctional (i.e., sinful). Thus this reader imagines Aquinas to be postulating something like Kant’s “synthetic a priori” as an end of moral reflection (a regulative concept). But while it may be true that efforts to pronounce a deontological ethic require us to make such a movement–and even that such efforts may be worthwhile, at least as exercises in moral reflection–they cannot be essential to human intention and action as such, or we would all be sociopaths and paralytics until we were properly programmed with Kant-stuff. Imagine the world full of Asimov and Philip K. Dick robots, and you have imagined the world if we were actually the creatures that Enlightenment moral reasoning predicts (hence the appeal of these irrational thinkbots).

OK, with that in view, I think we can begin to conceive of human intention/action more robustly. The simple image is that of riding a bicycle: I must habitually balance a variety of forces I do not control, and must respond to as much as exert, in an increasingly unconscious practice. I do so in order to grow to the point where the pleasure of moving, the increasing perfection of continuous movement, the capacity to stop or change direction rapidly, the utility of being able to move rapidly or steadily for longer and longer in any direction, knowledge of routes, even capacity to react well to catastrophic failure, have become thoroughly incorporated under the intention “ride my bicycle.”

And here we rejoin the dance of language, because it is when I am capable of being mostly unconscious of the habitual act “ride my bicycle” that I am most likely to be blessed/afflicted with the immortal Queen lyrics on the subject:

Love Among Slaves

But [to be able to practice “justice, mercy, and love of neighbor”] “in some measure” is not sufficient because of the indefinite quantifier. Just as for the regime’s assertion of authority to be lawful and not tyrannical, there must be some just–and publicly, defensibly just–principle of limitation of the power it assumes, so there must also be some definition of the minimum scope to which the power of other societies and institutions that must coexist with the regime can be contracted.

I object to “in some measure” when it really means “in any measure, no matter how trivial or abstract,” because “I can choose to love my neighbor internally even when it makes no measurable difference in our lives” is meaningless bosh. If my love makes no real difference in our conditions, it is the love of a slave; and while that is not nothing to the slave, its existence is an indictment of a society, a pathology, not a legitimate aim of public discourse.

(source: Perverse Vindication is Vindication Still)

A good discussion, continuing to circle a basic set of disconnects between two different hybrids of a Lockean perspective with a Christian one (Greg’s defense of Locke’s consensus as a high point of Christian reflection on cultural and political practice, and my conception of Locke as a defensive position always necessarily turning toward a more definitely Christian or a more totalitarian and secularizing positive politics).  I would like to especially invite comments on the last sentence, there.  What do you think?

Freedom must mean more than freedom to mention coercion

The Court’s reasoning was absurd, rejecting the schools’ expressive association argument in part because the school was “free” (for now, anyway) to explain that hiring Barrett was merely “involuntary compliance with civil law.”

(source: Court Rules Christian School Has to Hire Gay Married Man)

This is the sort of lawless violence masquerading as “reasoning” that anybody not already a slave really can only respond to in the words of this old Virgina seal:

What He Said

“A policy which would legitimize gender identity issues, particularly according to the interpretation put forward by employees of the Department of Education, would, first of all, abdicate the responsibility of the college community as a whole to act in accord with its fundamental identity as a community which publicly identifies itself as in communion with the Catholic Church,” Abbot Placid Solari, O.S.B., chancellor of the College, told the Newman Society.

He added that, based upon the “essential characteristics” of a Catholic college outlined in the Apostolic Constitution on Catholic universities Ex corde Ecclesiae, such a policy “would abdicate the college’s responsibility as an educational and intellectual community to contribute the insights of Catholic faith and reflection to the public discussion on the issues of gender identity … would contradict fidelity to the Christian message as it comes through the Church” and “would abdicate responsibility to serve the transcendent goal of life by advocating practices which, according to the Church’s teaching, are spiritually harmful.”

“The teaching of the Scriptures as it comes through the Church is clear on the creation of human beings as male and female, which is intrinsically connected in Genesis with being in the image and likeness of God,” said Abbot Placid. “Furthermore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear on the intrinsic relation between body and soul and the complementarity of male and female in God’s creation.”

Abbot Placid told the Newman Society that “gender identity issues do have the potential to harm students” because of the intrinsic relationship of body and soul. “There is already a psychological disconnect between body and psyche in questions of gender identity. … Because human beings are a unity, psychological and physical issues inevitably impact one’s spiritual life,” he said. “To foster identities which are essentially untrue will inevitably cause spiritual harm.

“Furthermore, the contemporary culture, which detaches sexual activity and expression from fruitful intimate communion, and objectifies the body, and thus the person, can lead to physical harm and danger,” he added.

(source: Belmont Abbey College on Title IX)

No Need to Look for Mass Murderers Abroad

I’m not sure I concur that “ISIS is…a civilization” at all, as it seems to simply be barbarism through and through. Anyway, Flynn has a point:

We should all pray that the systematic killing of children might evoke a reaction strong enough to hasten our military response.

But we should also pray that this story might lead to more conversation about the treatment of children with Down syndrome in the West. With few exceptions, disabled children don’t suffer infanticide in the West, but they do suffer abortion, at staggering rates. Some sociologists suggest that nearly 90% of European children prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted, and that American figures are not much better. The veneer of civility does precious little to protect disabled children from extermination at the hands of Western medicine.

ISIS is obviously a civilization in which the strong assert violent supremacy over the weak. That problem exists in the West as well, in the forms of abortion, euthanasia, the dismantling of the family, and the “new orthodoxy” of statist control over religious perspectives and activity. Pope St. John Paul II wrote that the “war of the powerful against the weak” runs through each of our hearts, and “goes far beyond, to the point of damaging and distorting, at the international level, relations between peoples and States.“

The “war of the powerful against the weak” is waged under the veneer of religious purity in the Middle East. In our own civilization, it is waged under the idolatrous adulation of efficiency, profitability, independence, and technological advancement.

(source: systematic killing of children with Down Syndrome)

All or Nothing

In the end, of course, you cannot be free to lie, or free to commit any sin that separates you from the Creator, the source of all Life and Light. This is not a possibility of existence. You can be free because the Truth has set you free, or you can be in bondage to your lies and lusts. These are your real possibilities; all else is delusion.

(source: In the end, of course, you cannot be free to… – Peter Gordon Epps)