Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Reasons, Explanations, Orders

An explanation consists of a set of reasons, but not all sets of reasons amount to an explanation. This fact was brought home to me yesterday by a discussion of a recent statement by Pope Francis in which he re-iterated the Church's claim that it has no authority to admit women to Holy Orders. The discussion took place on the Internet, so of course it was both pointless and virtually interminable, but that doesn't mean that there's nothing to be gained from looking more closely at the question.

On his flight back to Rome, Pope Francis was asked, by Maria Sagrarios Ruiz de Apodaca, "will we one day see women priests in the Catholic church", to which Pope Francis replied:
...on women priests, that cannot be done. Pope St. John Paul II after long, long intense discussions, long reflection said so clearly. Not because women don't have the capacity. Look, in the Church women are more important than men, because the Church is a woman. It is "la" church, not "il" church. The Church is the bride of Jesus Christ. And the Madonna is more important than popes and bishops and priests. I must admit we are a bit late in the elaboration of a theology of women. We have to move ahead with that theology. Yes, that's true.
Here Pope Francis is referring to the apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, issued by Pope St. John Paul II in 1994 and further explicated by the Responsum of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger of 1995, in which it is declared with absolute finality that the Church lacks the authority to admit women to Holy Orders. Here is the specific wording of OS (§4):
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.
Note that nothing is said here about women per se that would indicate the reason why they could not, even in principle, be admitted to Holy Orders should the requisite authority exist in the Church to confer Ordination on whomever the Church should please to confer it. Earlier in the same letter JPII mentions the teaching of Paul VI, who said virtually the same thing and grounded his position on the Tradition of the Magisterium. JPII also mentions, without quoting any of them, "other theological reasons which illustrate the appropriateness [my emphasis] of the divine provision".

Ultimately, then, the reason given for the continuing (and unalterable) ban on admitting women to Holy Orders is an ecclesiological one: the Church lacks the authority to act otherwise. This may appear to be a minor point, but that would be merely an appearance: in fact it is quite important, and you're about to find out why.

The alternative would be to give an ontological reason, to say what it is about being a female that bars one from being admitted to Holy Orders. Some theologians have, indeed, speculated about such ontological reasons, but all such speculation is not only speculative, it is also dangerously misguided. To argue that there is something about being a female that is essentially different from being a male is to move dangerously towards maintaining that there is some specific difference between the two sexes. But the Church has never taught de fide that there is any such difference, and that's a good thing because such a teaching would fly in the face of what the Church says about the essence of humankind more generally. God created man (hominem) in his own image; male and female he created them. There is one kind of thing (homo) existing in two sexes, not two kinds of things. There cannot be any specific difference between male and female—the differences that distinguish them are material, not formal, and material differences, however great, do not add up to essential differences.

To make the ecclesiological claim is not to make any particular ontological claim about women, but some have claimed that it does either entail or else "suggest" ontological claims about women. This is incorrect, and it is important to see why. The ecclesiological claim, as stated in OS, is an instance of the via negativa: it is a declaration of what is not possible, rather than a positive declaration of something that is the case. Theologically this is a much safer position to take, since it avoids possible empirical refutations of what one might claim to be the case were one to take the positive declaration route.

However, suppose someone were to suggest "Even though the Church lacks the authority to ordain women now, it might be given the authority to ordain women later." This, after all, would appear to be consistent with the claim that the teaching is ecclesiological rather than ontological, that it is about the nature of the Church rather than about the nature of women. But again this would be a mere appearance, for this possibility is excluded by the fact that Revelation is closed: it is an unchangeable matter of de fide doctrine that everything that was to be revealed about the Sacraments was already revealed in the life of Christ. So if the Church lacks such authority today, it will always lack such authority. Nice try, heretics.

As I mentioned above, the fact that the teaching is essentially ecclesiological has not stopped some pundits from finding ontological claims in the, shall we say, penumbra, of the teaching. John Zuhlsdorf, for  example, a rather flamboyant blogger, began his post on this matter with the claim "women don't have the capacity to receive the sacrament of holy orders because they lack maleness". Now, I didn't actually laugh out loud at that when I read it, but only because I wasn't altogether sure whether he saw himself as offering an explanation or a reason, and in this case his intentions would make a difference to how laughable the statement is. If we focus on the word "because" it begins to appear that he sees himself as offering at least a reason, if not an explanation. It can't be an explanation, because of course all he is really saying is that women cannot be ordained because they are not men, and that cannot be an explanation because to offer it up in that capacity would be to beg the question. "Women cannot be ordained to the priesthood." "Why not?" "Because they're not men." "But why can men be ordained to the priesthood?" "Because they're men." That's obviously not going anywhere explanatorily, but could it at least count as a reason?

If "not being a man" were an actual property, it might go some ways towards counting as a reason, but "not being a man" is not an actual property, it is a linguistic model for the privation of a specific property. Lots of things fit that description: women are non-men; pieces of chalk are non-men; the oak tree outside my office window is a non-man, etc. Some might object that this is to confuse contraries and contradictories. Being female is not the same thing as the general contradictory "not being a man", it is in fact a specific contrary property—being female, which is opposed to "being a man" as a contrary. But this cannot be either a reason or an explanation, for the reasons given above: if it is to count as a difference maker in this case, it would have to be a marker of a specific difference, something formal rather than material.

So to say "women don't have the capacity to receive the sacrament of holy orders because they lack maleness" is at best to utter a tautology. It is neither controversial nor, in this case, informative, which is to say it is neither a reason nor an explanation, it is simply a statement of the principle under discussion. So he should have left out the word "because": "women don't have the capacity to receive the sacrament of holy orders, only men have that capacity." But that wouldn't be nearly as flamboyant, nor would it satisfy the person who wants to know why women don't have the capacity to receive the sacrament of holy orders. If someone asks you, "Why doesn't this medicine make my headache go away?" it would not be much of an explanation to say "Because it doesn't". Saying "Because it can't" isn't a lot better, but it's a step in the right direction; for whatever reason Zuhlsdorf prefers the first to the second, the vapid to the tepid.

Ed Peters is not at all flamboyant, but he is a lawyer, which tempts him to say things like
Ordinatio sacerdotalis, AS IT IS PHRASED in the operative no. 4, is not a statement about women, it is not a statement about sacraments, it is, by the PLAIN TEXT OF THE DOCUMENT, a statement about ecclesiology. [CAPS in the original--maybe he's more flamboyant than I give him credit for!]
So we have a kind of legal version of sola Scriptura, if you will, a claim that the "plain text of the document" ought to settle all disputes among reasonable people. Good luck with that, my friend. As we have seen, the putative plainness of the text belies the difficulty of its interpretation. He's right, of course, that the statement is an ecclesiological one and that, perhaps, is all that a lawyer really cares about—what do I need to prove my case? But as a hermeneutical principle the solus textus approach can lead one into troubled waters. In particular, when Peters goes on to say "OS does not exclude ontological reasons, or sacramental ones; indeed it seems to suggest both in places" he makes the very mistake I have drawn attention to above, looking for the ontological in all the wrong places, possibly for all the wrong reasons.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

New Head of Vatican Observatory A Welcome Sign

Pope Francis has named Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno to be the new director of the Vatican Observatory (CNS story here). This is important because Brother Consolmagno has been outspoken in his support for "authentic science", science that is neither contrary to religious faith nor beholden to any particular political interests. It can be difficult to find either one of these properties in a lot of current scientific talk, especially in the popular scientific media, though in point of actual practice it can be equally difficult to find fault with the work of any one particular scientist regarding these points. The difficulty, in my opinion, lies rather in science reporting and in the trash-talk, for lack of a better term, that comes from certain quarters of the blogosphere (on both sides of the issue).

The dialogue between science and religion has not always been helped by dialogue, either from scientists who are religious or from religious writers who admire science, because it can be difficult to play both sides of this street in today's overwrought ideological climate--this is a climate one can fervently hope will change very drastically in the near future, but so far there's not much hope for that, since this climate and its potential for change are very much matters of anthropogenesis. In most cases there is never any genuine need "to play both sides of the street", but in many cases no matter what one says, there will be some audience or other somewhere accusing you of playing just one side of the street, namely the Wrong Side, the politically motivated side or the ignorant side.

I think a great deal of the blame for this situation lies at the feet of science education, though not necessarily science educators. That might seem an extraordinary thing to say: isn't it the job of the science educator, after all, to see to it that students of science are properly educated? In one sense yes, of course, but in another sense no. Every student has an obligation to learn from those who have greater expertise, but not all students approach education with this frame of mind. Many have been taught already to ignore what seems foreign to them or appears to them to contradict their deeply help shibboleths. Thus it is that we find high school and college age students already taking positions with respect to scientific controversies with social implications, even when they have virtually no education or background in the necessary science.

I'm not sure what the solution is to this problem--by the time I see students in college many of them have become rather set in their ways. The appointment of an advocate like Brother Consolmagno, however, can only be seen as a positive move forward.

Friday, September 18, 2015

A Tale of Two Linguists

The Second Vatican Council declared the Latin language to be one of the treasures of the Western Church, and decreed that it would remain the official language of the Church's liturgies, even while permitting local Ordinaries to permit the use of vernacular languages. My regular readers will remember that I am myself something of a fan of the Latin language, but my own view is that aesthetic preferences about languages should not be--indeed, cannot be--normative for everyone.

The truth of this was brought into higher relief for me this past week, when I had occasion to hear from two different amateur linguists regarding the use of Latin by the Western Church. One of them, a professor of Old Testament at the Pontifical College Josephinum and something of an all-around genius, told me that he thinks there is no future for the Latin language in the Church's liturgy and that, at least since the time of St. John Paul II, it has been declining as the de facto language in other official Church circles as well. His opinion was that this is a good thing, and he is frustrated that there are still some young students at the Josephinum who continue to cling to hopes that it will enjoy a renaissance along with the Extraordinary Form.

The other is a professor of canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminar in Detroit, who recently wrote the following in connection with Pope Francis' recent Motu proprio, Mitis iudex:
I can't help noticing, with regret, that both sides [in the discussion of the import of Mitis iudex] are debating points being made (or not?) in an English translation (accurately rendered?) of an Italian original (is it 'the original'?). And I wonder, since when has Italian become the international language of Catholic doctrine? 
It is one thing to accept the practical necessity of Italian for running the Vatican bureaucracy (or not running it, as the case may be). But it is quite another to have Italian serve as the vehicle for proposals officially expressing Catholic doctrine, doctrines that are, by their very nature, not national or ethnic but Catholic and therefore, to recall the etymology of the very word "Catholic", universal. If the relationship between conscience and moral norms really ranks near the top of topics to be taught correctly in and by and to the Church, then should debates about the written expressions of such a topic turn on appreciating the Italian way of phrasing such teachings? I trust the answer to that question is self-evident. 
Without getting into whether Latin is the "official language" of the Church..., Latin is unquestionably the primary language of the Catholic Church and, for well over a millennium, it has been the international language of formal Church teaching. The doctrinal clarity and ecclesiastical stability that comes with the use of Latin must never be surrendered. Fundamental assertions about fundamental aspects of Church teaching should be made solely in the one language that is fundamental to the Catholic Church, Latin, on which assertions, I say, let vernacular debates blossom with fruitful abandon.
I think both of these amateur linguists are wrong, but each for different reasons. The Old Testament scholar has confused an aesthetic preference for a normative one, while the canonist has confused, well, a lot of things, but mostly he is confused about the Latin language's ability to do the job he wants it to do. So here are my thoughts on these issues and, even though I am actually a professional and not an amateur, I'm not going to pretend that my opinions on matters of language have any real normative force beyond the confines of my own Weltanschauung.

To start with the Old Testament scholar: I agree with him that the demand for Latin in the liturgy has been on the decline among the faithful, and I also agree with him that affection for the Extraordinary Form is also in the decline. I suspect, though we did not discuss this, that he and I would also agree that such affection is misplaced. However, there are some parishes (St. Agnes in St. Paul MN comes to mind) where very effective use of Latin in the Ordinary Form makes for some magnificently beautiful liturgical experiences. My own view is that this is a great thing, but mainly for those who happen to have aesthetic preferences leaning in that direction. I don't really see any compelling reason to make it the norm for all parishes everywhere, since it is simply a fact (sadly) that Latin is not understood by very many people--including many priests--and if the proponents of the Extraordinary Form did not like it when the Ordinary Form was imposed on them everywhere then they should have no reason to think that they ought to impose anything on anyone either. So my own view is, and has long been, that making Latin liturgies available is better than making them mandatory, whether in the Extraordinary or the Ordinary Form. They should at least be available where sufficient numbers of people desire them, because this is an aesthetic preference just like the desire for hymnody at Mass (something not mandated by the GIRM).

That issue, then, is a strictly aesthetic one, as far as I'm concerned. But the issue of Latin as the language of canon law or doctrinal teaching is not a strictly aesthetic one, and there is more philosophical bite to this problem.

I agree that the Church has no "official language" in the contemporary sense of that expression, but having said that there is no mistaking the fact that Latin has long been, and will continue to be, the most important of the languages in which the Church chooses to express herself, if only for reasons of historical continuity, a methodological principle that clearly guides many of the Church's policy-making decisions. Canon law is almost always promulgated in Latin, but not because Latin is the official language of the church nor because Latin has any special claim to superiority in the expression of legal norms. Our canonist suggests that there are two principle reasons why Latin should, nevertheless, continue to be used "to make fundamental assertions about fundamental aspects of church teaching": (1) Latin [preserves] "doctrinal clarity"; (2) Latin [preserves] "ecclesiastical stability". I put "preserves" in square brackets because our canonist does not use that term, instead he says that "with Latin comes" these things, which is ambiguous between the idea that Latin brings these things along with it (where they might not have existed) and the slightly different idea that Latin keeps these things in place (where they have always been). I think "preserves" will work well enough for both, though it is also somewhat unclear.

With regard to "doctrinal clarity", one must immediately point out the paucity of the Latin vocabulary when it comes to matters of doctrine. It was, for example, the lack of a well-worked out vocabulary of procession in Latin that caused the controversy over the Filioque. The Greeks had at least four different words conveying different shades of meaning that Latin tried to compress into the single verb procedere. The resulting schism was undoubtedly grounded in many other issues, mostly political, but there is no denying that the theological differences between East and West that had been accumulating over the centuries were at least in part due to the inability of Latin to provide the "doctrinal clarity" that was already present in Greek. As a matter of fact, what most admirers of the Latin language seem to be most drawn to is not its clarity, but its ambiguity--this is what makes Vergil the greatest poet in the Western canon, according to many of his interpreters: his ability to express a wide variety of ideas in a very small number of words.

The Filioque is only the tip of the iceberg in this regard, but the notorious ambiguity of Latin, combined with its meagre philosophical and theological vocabulary, is only half the problem with our canonist's (1). The flip-side of this question is the simple fact that, if what one wants is "doctrinal clarity" there is no reason why Latin in particular ought to be the default language, because once you decide that there is to be a "default language" then any language will do, especially a language like English, which continues to evolve in a natural way via the use of native speakers who are able to deliver whatever clarity is required simply by explaining, in their native tongue, what they mean by a given expression. There are no native speakers of Latin, so there is no one who has the sort of linguistic authority to say "this is how I am using the term because this is how it is used in the course of natural usage"--all that can be said is "this is how I think previous users of the term meant to use it, and so that is how I am going to use it." But that does not deliver any kind of special "doctrinal clarity" that is proprietary to the Latin language per se. There remains, however, the idea that keeping things in Latin will mean that, at the very least, we're all still talking about the same terms that were being used in the previous centuries and, hopefully, the same concepts as well, concepts that we don't want to mess up by trying to translated them into our modes of expression.

This may be what our canonist was hoping to get at with his (2). This issue of "ecclesiastical stability" is rather interesting, because it can be taken in either an aesthetic or a doctrinal sense. Certainly the use of Latin throughout the Latin rite would make for some stability with respect to liturgical practice, but that is an aesthetic issue and not one that our canonist is trying to address. Rather I think he has in mind the sort of doctrinal stability that is alleged to come along with clarity and the continuity that I was just discussing. There are a number of objections that could be raised to this point. On the one hand, if we are talking about church polity, it is not clear that either clarity of language or continuity of use will be guaranteed by Latin any more than by any other language, since I have already suggested that Latin is not sui generis in the clarity department and even when there is great clarity of meaning people in general still find ways to get into disputes about normative matters. This disagreement will not be eliminated by continuing the use of Latin, since our canonist himself has already complained about the fact that discussing issues at two or three removes from the original is a dangerous way to proceed, and all discussions about the meaning of Latin terms are by their very nature already at a remove from the original, since there are no native Latin speakers. Everyone, even the fluent Latin scholar, has a different language template in place through which his understanding of Latin is filtered.

Our canonist softens his view, somewhat, at the end, by suggesting that his proposal is really only that, since Latin is the historically most important language of the Latin church, it should remain so, and debates can be in any language you like. This reduces Latin to a kind of antiquarian curiosity, and seems to me to vitiate any claims about its inherent clarity and ability to create stability, but I'm happy to agree that it's nice to still be able to buy books written in Latin, if that's what one likes to read, and I do. So if our canonist is admitting that, after all, it's really an aesthetic question, then perhaps we aren't so far apart after all, and de gustibus non disputandum est.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Oh, It's A Heap, All Right

I recently came across a discussion essay in the International Journal of Philosophical Studies called "Hyperheaps" (15.1 [2007] pp. 121-123), in which the author, W. D. Hart, argues that "There is a least heap," by which he means there is an argument that can prove that there is a minimum number of elements that can compose the smallest possible heap of elements. His argument shows that the least heap is a heap of four spherical elements.

So let's put a stop to all this foolishness about philosophy being a waste of time.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Pararationality: Climate Science Edition

"Pararationality" is a term I coined for use in a new course that focuses on arguments that appear to be rational in some sense but that are in fact unsound at best or, what is more typical, invalid at worst. Typically the sorts of arguments that I have in mind have to do with the public reception of scientific work (for example, unreasonable skepticism regarding either the explanatory power of or even scientific status of evolutionary theory, or equally unreasonable attempts to argue for a causal connection between vaccinations and childhood autism), though this is not a necessary condition on the sort of reasoning I have in mind (for example, uninformed views about the nature of probability often lie behind acceptance of certain hypotheses even outside the domain of the sciences). Pararationality is, in some ways, just fallacious reasoning, but with it I intend to pick out those instances of fallacious reasoning that are particularly embedded in our culture in ways that have become remarkable as a social phenomenon.

Lately I've been thinking about the sorts of cases to look at closely in the course, and Facebook, unsurprisingly, has offered some striking examples. Climate science is in the news a lot as well as in Facebook threads not because the research is of poor quality but because the suggestions of some climate scientists regarding public policy have been found unsavory in various political quarters. What is interesting about the case of climate science, however, is the vehemence with which these political sectors have denied that their objections are political. Indeed, almost to a man, they insist that it is not they who are being political about the science, but the researchers, and they go on to argue that the science is flawed and that climate scientists defend their work for political rather than scientific reasons.

I have found a couple of examples of this phenomenon from my own Facebook feed and an examination of them is instructive. Now, Aristotle once remarked (Nicomachean Ethics I.6 1096a14-16) that it is better, indeed our duty, for the sake of maintaining the truth even to destroy what touches us closely, for, while both are dear, piety requires us to honor truth above our friends. With that sentiment in view, therefore, I will not identify the authors of these remarks even while showing the ways in which they stand as illustrative examples of pararationality.

The first example is a remark whose author was so proud of it that he copied it and posted it in more than one place on Facebook, each time in reply to a posting of a graph showing 2014 to be the warmest year on record:
And yet not nearly as warm as it was between the years 1000 and 1300, a period during which human population and prosperity boomed. This was then followed by the Little Ice Age, during which temperatures plummeted, major rivers froze over for months at a time, crops failed, famine raged, and the Black Death killed off a third of the world's population. The Little Ice Age ended only in the middle of the 19th century, so one might say not that we face catastrophic warming, but that we are just getting back to where we ought to be.

Because, morons, climate changes--sometimes quite drastically in a short timespan. It has ALWAYS done this, and it has NOTHING to do with us. We do not cause it, neither can we stop it.

You're puny, humans! Get over yourselves.

The person who wrote this, while not uneducated, is basically an autodidact and, while I admire autodidacticism in general, in this particular instance it highlights the dangers of trying to educate oneself in the absence of anything analogous to peer review. So if we put aside, for a moment, the question of the advisability of referring to genuine experts as "morons" when one has only an undergraduate degree in public policy on which to ground one's own views, there is still plenty here to examine closely.

Let us begin where our author begins, with the claim that it was warmer between the years 1000 and 1300 than in 2014. The first thing to note about this claim is that, to the extent that there is any evidence for it at all, the evidence shows it to be false. By the year 2004 the average global temperature was already much higher than in the 1000-1300 period, and by 2014 the average global temperature was higher still.

As interesting as the mistake about the empirical data is, however, what is even more interesting is the assumption that lies behind the assertion. In order to make comparative claims of the sort that our author wants to make, one would need data collected in relevantly similar ways. But in fact there are no reliable temperature data from the period 1000-1300: what we have instead are estimates based on indirect evidence such as ice cores, tree ring data, and subjective personal reports, none of which are very well documented nor, in the case of the ice cores or the tree ring data, are they collected from analogously relevant locations from around the globe.

Now, it is true that cooling of average temperatures in Europe during the period from roughly 1350 to 1850 has been called the "Little Ice Age", but these effects were not as pronounced around the globe. However, it is fair to say that the evidence for global cooling patterns either during this same time period or shortly thereafter is not nil, so suppose we grant that the temperatures cooled globally during this period. While it is tempting to point out that even today rivers still freeze over for months at a time and crops continue to disappoint, that would be fun but beside the point, since there is a more important claim on the table here. Notice the inference our author wishes to draw from the temperature differential from 1000-1850:
climate changes--sometimes drastically in a short timespan. It has ALWAYS done this, and it has NOTHING to do with us.
This is where the reasoning becomes very bad indeed: our author is asserting the following argument:
In the past, phenomenon X was caused by non-human activity. Therefore, any appearance of phenomenon X will also be caused by non-human activity.
Or, to put it another way, if we were to ask our author, "How do you know that today's changing climate is not due to human activity," his answer would appear to be nothing stronger than "Well, in the past it wasn't due to human activity, so it's not due to human activity now." This is obviously invalid, as Hume famously showed, but it is not even a strong induction. It is worth noting that we actually do have some very good candidates for causal mechanisms involved in both the warm period of 1000-1300 and in the so-called "Little Ice Age", just as we have some very good candidates for the causal mechanisms involved in our own contemporary warming trend. What our author is doing, with something like the appearance of rationality, is suggesting that because climate change in the past was clearly not caused by human activity, we have no rational reason to think that the present climate changes are due to human activity. This ignores the evidence of the causal mechanisms involved in the various climate changes being discussed, and simply assumes that they must always be similar.

Pointing out that it is not a good argument to claim that different causal mechanisms cannot bring about similar effects may seem like shooting fish in a bucket, but this argument is not at all rare, and one finds all sorts of variations on the theme of "the climate has always been changing, it was never due to human activity before, therefore it isn't due to human activity now". To the extent that the proponents of this view bother to address the empirical data regarding causation at all, they do so incompetently, because, of course, they are not experts in climate science themselves, they are simply annoyed at those climate scientists who are trying to tell us what to do about this situation.

A slightly different approach is taken by those who, knowing they are not experts in climate science, nevertheless see themselves as experts in history and, thus, qualified to make assertions about science on the basis of their interpretation of the history of it. This leads to a different sort of pararationality. The following quotation comes from someone who is responding to a story from New York Magazine in which Jonathan Chait, in something of a snit, argued that "climate science denialism" ought to exclude someone from holding pubic office. Putting aside, for a moment, the foot-shooting aspects of that suggestion, let's take a look at what my friend said about it:
So whenever there is a scientific consensus on issues like eugenics (or say abortion where the medical community assures us that the fetus in no way merits protection) then that should just trump democracy? Why even hold elections at all ... just have examinations that scan for right thinking?Oh - and the scientific consensus in psychology used to be that homosexuality was a sickness (and might one day be that religious belief is also a kind of illness).... One of the things I found fascinating when doing research on eugenics was the degree to which so many people were so absolutely certain of the scientific consensus that they did all sorts of horrible things AND labeled as dogmatic religiously inspired sentimentality any opposition to their policies.
The author of this bit is not directly challenging the claims of climate science in this particular quotation, but I use it as an example for two reasons. First, it is a good example of pararationality. Second, the very same author has, on numerous occasions, expressed deep skepticism about the claims of climate science, so perhaps our author makes these comments partly for personal reasons in reaction to Chait's ridiculous suggestion.

The principle argument here has to do with the notion of a "scientific consensus", which our author contrasts with democratic ideals regarding social policy. There are two principle flaws with this, both of which bear examining. One is the mistaken notion of science involved in comparing the present state of climate science with that of eugenics in the early 20th century, the other is the attempt to suggest an inference based on an analogical comparison of the scientific community and the democratic polity.

First, regarding the scientific question. While it is often tempting to point out the arrogance of scientists who think they know everything and are happy to tell you so, one must avoid conflating this feature of the scientific community with the actual work they do. So while it is true that some contemporary climate scientists are, indeed, just as big assholes as early 20th century eugenicists, this is irrelevant to the question of the comparable worth of the work being done by contemporary climate scientists and early 20th century eugenicists. For one thing, in the 1920s and 1930s genetics in general was still in its infancy, but climate science is well established and is not at all controversial among scientists generally, which is not something that could be said about eugenics as an offshoot of genetics. There was never any consensus about causal connections between genetics and human worth or behavior, but there is a consensus about a very well understood set of causal mechanisms regarding climate change, so comparison of the two cases is at best a false analogy but at worst, and sadly more likely, a kind of ignoratio elenchi.

One might add that, while there are certainly plenty of medical professionals who do not oppose abortion, the claim that "the medical community assures us that the fetus in no way merits protection" is simply false, and indeed is something of an insult to the many medical professionals who oppose abortion in the strongest possible terms. To treat the "medical community" as something monolithic and easily described in a slogan or two is not even pararational, it is simply ad hominem and fallacious.

Second, when one accepts democratic ideals as the best sort of social polity one is making a very different sort of normative move than one makes when one accepts a scientific consensus about a scientific problem. In a democracy, everyone is treated as though capable of governing, whether or not they are so in reality. But in science, not everyone is endowed with the same expertise regarding scientific questions. While it is true that, in a democracy, we cannot force the general public to act in any specific way on a particular finding of the scientific community, it does not follow from this that the general public is in any position to reject those findings as "not good science". Granted, our present author does not say precisely that in this particular quote, I only mention it because he has made similar suggestions elsewhere, and indeed it is not an uncommon version of this very same argument to point out that as long as there are one or two people who work in scientific areas who do not accept the general consensus, then there isn't really any consensus at all. The desire seems to be to excuse one's refusal for taking a particular course of action not by saying that one does not wish to act in that way but rather by accusing the scientific community of trying to put one over on us and force us to act in a way contrary to what we desire. It almost seems that, in arguing this way, the proponents of this view are admitting that, if the science is right, we really ought to do something. So let's pretend that the people who are doing the science don't know what they're doing, or are politically biased, or are morons.

I once had an argument with a very well-educated woman about evolutionary theory. Her education, however, was in English literature, not biology, so I was perplexed when, to my query as to why she rejected it, her answer was "I just don't buy it." In short, she didn't have anything to propose in its place, nor did she have any particular argument against it--she just didn't "buy it", as though scientific evidence is some sort of commodity that we may either buy or leave on the shelf for some other poor sap to fall for and take home. While I don't agree with Chait's proposal, I do think there is a problem with scientific literacy in our country, and that is unfortunate.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Those Pinheads Still Tantalize

Most of my close friends know that I'm pretty good at making mountains out of molehills, but I'm beginning to think that I'm something of an amateur in that department when compared to some. When I was a history major in college (yes, they did have colleges as long ago as all that, though we had to write our notes in the sand with sticks) my medieval history professor was fond of saying that most medieval theological speculation amounted to disputations about "how many angels could dance on the head of a pin". Although I'm not going to ask my alma mater for a refund of my tuition money, I found out later that the question was not about pin heads but about needle points, nor was it a genuine medieval debating point at all but a lampoon of such debates invented by Isaac D'Israeli in the 19th century (though based, no doubt, on the genuine question, posed by Saint Thomas Aquinas, whether several angels could occupy the same space at once). This is not to deny that some medieval scholars worried about some rather bizarre things. Whether Christ was a hermaphrodite, for example, or whether there be excrement in paradise, were both genuine "talking points" among medieval theologians. I am not a medieval theologian (though some who deny that I am a theologian might not be so quick to deny that I am certainly close to being medieval) but I have certainly wondered about some extremely finial details in my own line of work. In spite of some small training in languages, however, I find that grammatical questions have lost some of their luster for me. This lackluster state was brought into higher relief for me recently when I read the following comment on a friend's blog:
In Luke 18:14 we read, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” (From the parable of the publican and the pharisee.) Now what has happened here? Is the “justification” of the publican—a type for all sinners—a definitive act, or has he only entered into a process which is less than complete? If it is the latter, how do you account for the perfect tense of the participle “justified,” and indeed, what would be the point of the parable?
The question seems to be about justification: does it happen all at once, or is it a process? That is indeed an interesting question, in my opinion. Does the text from Luke, however, really support the assumption that one or the other possibility can be ruled out by means of an appeal to the grammar of the sentence used in the story? The author of Luke is a slightly better stylist than the authors of the other Gospels, but his attention to grammatical detail has never struck me as something to make a Really Big Fuss about. This question seems to make a rather bold claim about what the author of Luke might mean by employing a perfect tense rather than the imperfect. I'm not sure whether an aorist would have made things any clearer (in the sense of making the question less pressing, since the aorist would be pretty ambiguous by comparison, but see below), but the whole thing seems rather like claiming that an undergraduate is intentionally exploring new depths of existential angst by purposely employing both present and past tenses in a five page essay on the writings of Swift.

Well, OK, that was a dumb comparison, because the person who wrote the question is not an undergraduate and is indeed asking a good question. I'm just not convinced that the written Gospel narratives, which are arguably drawn from an oral tradition, make their theological claims in such delicate, if not cryptic, ways. Funky parables are bad enough--why complicate things with subtle points of grammar as well? Is there meant to be some kind of gnosis here that I'm missing?

The same Inquisitor posted another question to the same blog, along the same lines, about a passage drawn from Saint Paul:
In Romans 5:1-2, we read “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand…” The Greek participle is not perfect but only aorist, I admit; but the results are clearly perfect: we have peace, we have obtained access, we stand. How do you interpret this verse?
I certainly do not dispute the fact that "How do you interpret this verse" could be an interesting question, but to make the point of the question hang upon this kind of point (get it? Point? Pin point? Come on, it's funny!) of grammar is, well, pointless--though it has helped untold numbers of academics earn their tenure in departments of religious studies I suppose, and that's no infinitesimal point these days.

These sorts of questions, to me, sound like sola scriptura on steroids--we must make careful sense out of every jot and tittle in the text, the question seems to say, else we utterly fail to make the case for our interpretation. My own experience with the Scriptures has been rather different. It seems to me that doing justice to the text must always move forward in the context of the tradition and the magisterial authority of the Church. This does not mean that we cannot pay close attention to textual questions, of course, but it does mean that sola grammatica is not a good interpretive principle. If it really is one: I don't want to attack a straw man here, and questions on blogs are not necessarily reflective of entire hermeneutic communities. But they might help to explain how at least some people approach their questions about things other than religion, and that could prove rather unfortunate, it seems to me.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Grumpy Conservative or Progressive Feminist--You Make the Call!

My daughter has been given an assignment in her physical education class (7th grade) that involves working out something called a "jump routine" with three other girls. A jump routine seems to be something like a cheerleading routine for people who don't like the connotations associated with the word "cheerleading". There is a very complicated set of scoring criteria. I can't remember how many categories of 1-10 point grades are to be awarded for this two minute drill, but they filled an entire page and gave me the impression that visitors from the Olympic Selection Committee will be secreted away in the audience somewhere. The girls must choose some music and work out the choreography of the routine as a group, and they will perform it in front of their class and their teacher.

"Choose some music". Seems benign enough, you say to yourself. I will be the first to admit that I have been a lazy, though not, I think, negligent, father in this case, because I did not know anything about this assignment until my daughter asked me to burn a CD for her with her group's dance music on it. That was when I first discovered that the tune to which they would be jumping around and giggling is Jason Derulo's "Talk Dirty to Me". Although the title did not inspire much confidence in me, I have already downloaded enough music for her on iTunes to know that titles often--if not usually, these days--bear little or no relation to the actual content of the song. If it can really be said that songs these days have any content. But some spark of Divine Illumination prompted me to check out the lyrics to this song before burning the CD. So I went to the website A-Z Lyrics, and after reading through the words to the song it was not surprising to me when I finally noticed that the way they were laid out on the screen made them look like a large erect phallus, because the song is mostly about phalluses. Erect phalluses. Erect phalluses being used in a variety of different ways, but mostly ways that are not really appropriate for 12 and 13 year old girls to be dancing to. Here is a sample of some of the lyrics:
Dos Cadenas, closed the genius
Sold out arenas, you can suck my penis
Gilbert Arenas, guns on deck
Chest to chest, tongue on neck
International oral sex
Every picture I take, I pose a threat
Boat or jet, what do you expect?
Her pussy so good I bought her a pet
Anyway, every day I'm trying to get to it
Got her saved in my phone under "Big Booty"
And so on, and so forth. When I asked my daughter what she liked about this song, she said "It's catchy, and I like the chorus." I wasn't really sure what the "chorus" of this song was supposed to be--there is a section where he says "Talk dirty to me" over and over again (hence the title, I suppose), but it didn't really stand out very much, and even if it did, well there's a song called "Hey Jude", but not one called "Nah nah nah nah nah nah nah".

So to make this short story even longer, I told my daughter that she could not use this song, and she complained that it is a group project and the choice is not up to her. "And besides", she pointed out, "The teacher approved it already."


The teacher approved it?

I confess that my visage betrayed, somewhat, my skeptical attitude.

"Don't lie to me with that mouth," I said.

"She did, and anyway we have to do it on Thursday. It's all decided!"

I found it inconceivable that any teacher would approve this song for use in the classroom, so I decided to write to the teacher myself and let her know how I felt about the piece. In my email to her I pointed out that my daughter had told me that the song had been approved by a teacher, and that I thought this could only mean that the teacher had not noticed the lyrics, so I reproduced for her the ones you can read above. I then ranted for a while about the image this presents of women and young girls serving as mere instruments of male pleasure and that I did not think it salutary to have the public schools turn a blind eye to the degradation and objectification of women. The teacher wrote back to me, and I reproduce for you here the full text of her reply, completely unexpurgated:

Please just have her change it.

That's it. No "Dear Mr. Scrutator", no "Hi,", no name signed at the bottom. Just that one line exactly as you see it above. In response to my 603 word email (which I will happily make available to any interested party) explaining why I found it important that she intervene in this situation. (Well I'm Mr. Scrutator not Mr. Pithy.)

Now I'm sure gym teachers are very busy and can't be bothered with minor administrative decisions like keeping pornography out of their classrooms, so I wrote back and pointed out that my daughter had expressed the opinion that she didn't really need my approval because the teacher had already said it was OK. Kids can be so charming when they are in the grip of adolescent hormones. I also took the liberty of pointing out that, at least in my own opinion, it was hard to see why a teacher would approve of this song. I speculated a little: the teacher might not have known the lyrics and omitted to vet them, which is not very good oversight, but at least it's not as bad as knowing about the lyrics and not giving a shit, either because you don't think they're pornographic or you don't care that they are. That's much more worrisome, and I said so. Which prompted her to write to me and say:

Those are some serious accusations please feel free to come in anytime.

So I guess I'm supposed to chaperone my daughter's gym class if I want some reassurance that they're not dancing around to pornographic music. I guess the teacher's job ends once the lesson plan is finished.

In the end my daughter's group picked a different song. She could not remember either the name of the song or any of its lyrics, interestingly, but she did say that it was something by Justin Timberlake. I suppose there's some small consolation in that--his songs are disgusting too but for different reasons.

So here I am wondering whether I overreacted. For what it's worth, my wife did not think that I overreacted, and she even likes Robin Thick's "Blurred Lines" INCLUDING the video. But it's difficult for me to escape the worry that I'm just being an old conservative fuddy-duddy. I took up the matter with one of my colleagues who is both a woman and a progressive, and she also thought I was fully within bounds to react the way I did. But I'm still wondering about this.

When I was 12 (in MY day...) I was listening to music by such groups as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, and the like. The Stones are probably the edgiest of the three, but they're arguably not very edgy. But they were certainly edgier than, say, Elvis Presley. When I compare
Wise men say
Only fools rush in
But I can't help
Falling in love with you
I met a gin-soaked bar room queen in Memphis
She tried to take me upstairs for a ride
She had to heave me right across her shoulder
Cause I just can't seem to drink you off my mind
I'm left with a feeling that, although things had "moved on", as it were, they were still arguably in the same ball park. But I can't help thinking that some sort of line has been crossed, that we're not only not in the same ball park any more, we're not even playing the same kind of game. I've been looking around at lyrics for a while now and "Talk Dirty To Me" is just the tip of a very disgusting and vile iceberg, an iceberg in which women and young girls are treated as literally nothing more than blowjob machines for young men who want lots of money and lots of visceral pleasure in their nether regions or they won't be satisfied. (They can't get no satisfaction, it seems.) And their lyrics attest to their attitude that this is what women "really want" anyway, so why not make them do it when they pretend otherwise. This is the world that my daughter wants to aurally immerse herself in, and I find it rather disturbing.

There are rumors about our middle school--rumors that are believed by students, parents, and teachers--to the effect that oral sex is also just the tip of the iceberg there. There is a lot of sex of other kinds, and lots of experimentation with drugs. This middle school is not one in which deprivation has driven kids to find bizarre forms of escape, it is one in which the students are mostly suffering from affluenza. So I'm putting my foot down and I'm not letting her listen to this kind of stuff. I am a grumpy conservative, but I'm also enough of a progressive feminist to think that young girls can do better things with their minds than listen to this crap. And there's certainly no point in putting money into the pockets of vile, self-styled artists who promote a worldview in which women are not persons but tools and whose contribution to culture is not merely negligible but downright negative.