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.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Pragmatic Truth

I recently heard a lecture by a renowned philosopher of science on pragmatic approaches to truth, and it raised some interesting questions for me. On his account, which is grounded in his reading of Peirce, James, and Dewey, "truth" as a predicate has different meanings depending upon the "domain of discourse" in which it is applied. He takes as basic what he calls the "scientific" or "factual" domain, in which "truth" basically means correspondence in Tarski's sense.

But he identifies three other domains in which that sort of correspondence conception of "truth" will not work. For example, we can say that it is "true" that Sherlock Holmes lives at 221B Baker Street even though it is not a fact in Tarski's sense. This is dubbed "literary truth", and we are told that it is the overall literary context that determines which sentences are "true" or "false" in this sense.

So the literary domain is one area in which we need a different notion of truth from "scientific" or "factual" correspondence. This seems fair enough to me, though I would add that it seems as if one might be able to find another route for defending the acceptability of sentences like "Sherlock Holmes lives at 221B Baker Street" without actually proposing a model of truth in which the sentence is regarded as "true" in a technical sense. But literary truth is not the domain that I found most interesting.

The other two domains, ethics and religion, caught my attention to a much higher degree. In ethics, he suggested that "truth" be understood in a progressive sense. "Weak ethical truth" he ascribes to those propositions that are universally, or nearly universally, accepted by all human communities, with the proviso that these be propositions that have to do with the enhancement of human involvement with social projects regarded as fundamental. I will add that the talk that I heard was just a popularized presentation of a much more sophisticated argument made in a book-length treatment of the matter, and that is why this definition of "ethical truth" seems so thin and cartoonish. A fuller case is made for it in the book.

In addition to "weakly ethically true", however, propositions can be "strongly ethically true" if they lead to a progressive enhancement of the body of propositions that are successful and enhancing human involvement in fundamental social projects. One can imagine any number of objections to this notion of strong ethical truth, starting with what it is even supposed to mean. But although I was interested in the ethical domain more than in the so-called "fictional" domain, I confess that it was really the fourth domain that I found most interesting.

The religious domain has its own conception of truth drawn from the sociology of religion, in which the stories told by religious movements are described not as propositions that can be either true or false but as "myths", stories that have some underlying message or instruction or exhortation. I am not an expert in the sociology of religion, but my own (limited) familiarity with the literature suggests to me that "myth" is an invented category devised precisely in order to give some account of why religious sentiment is as widespread as it is given the implausibility of the literal truth of its claims. In short, my impression has been that saying something like "Myths are neither true nor false in the literal sense" is simply shorthand for saying "The claims of religion are obviously not factually true, but they guide the lives of millions of people and communicate deeply held values and foster important practices, so we may regard propositions within the religious community as not open to factual dispute in any important sense." Whether this view is adopted for paternalistic or diplomatic reasons seems hardly relevant: the important thing, it seems to me, is that the factual claims of religions are never taken seriously as factual claims, because those who study the sociology of religion are, usually, not theists themselves and so take it for granted that any claim about a deity that presents itself as a factual claim will necessarily be false.

But along comes the pragmatist, who says that we should go farther than calling the claims of religions "myths", we should define a domain of discourse within which the claims of religion are actually true, though "true" in the technical sense that is specific to this particular domain of religious discourse. So the pragmatist proposes a definition of "religious truth" that runs parallel to the definition of "ethical truth" sketched above, but that is clearly intended to be quite distinct from the correspondence version of truth found in the "scientific" or "factual" domain. On the pragmatist conception of truth, a proposition P is "weakly religiously true" just in case there is a community with a religious practice R and an extension of that practice, R*, such that R* involves the affirmation of P and the transition from R to R* would be religiously progressive. A proposition P is "strongly religiously true" just in case P is weakly religiously true and the practice of affirming P would be retained in any indefinite sequence of of religiously progressive modifications of R*. Although this project may sound anti-realist in its orientation, the pragmatist argues that it is really a realist view of truth and one is prepared to believe it in this case because, frankly, the "scientific" or "factual" domain is explicitly treated as fundamental. That's where "real" truth lies.

So as I think about this proposal I have, on the one hand, great admiration for the adroitness on display, not just in the talk but in the book version of the argument. Indeed, the book version makes for fascinating and compelling reading, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone interested in contemporary pragmatism. I think that this particular pragmatist has done about as good a job as could reasonably be expected of anyone trying to defend this point of view. On the other hand, I also found myself wondering about the precise motivation for this conceptual scheme, given the pride of place given to the so-called "factual" domain. I wondered, for example, why it wouldn't just be a lot simpler to say "Look, Jesus did not literally rise from the dead. That proposition is literally false. The people who believe it have false beliefs, and false beliefs cannot count as knowledge. Nor does it help matters to say 'The Resurrection is a metaphor for sacrifice, redemption, and kenotic love, and it is successful primarily because it is such a very powerful and motivating metaphor, so we ought to keep the image in our religious culture', because that is tantamount to saying that false belief and ignorance are useful tools for the common involvement of humans in their social projects. Instead, we should just abandon these propositions--indeed, we ought to abandon religion altogether and replace it with something else."

Come to find out--as the expression around here goes--our present pragmatist actually does make that very recommendation, in a sense. He does not endorse the elimination of religion in the sense that Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris do. He thinks that religion does play a valuable role in society, a role not unlike the roll played by beautiful art and literature. It expresses humanity's deepest longings in a metaphorical and artistic way, and that is a function worth retaining. The rub is that he thinks that, in an ideal world, that function will be gradually taken over by institutions other than religion. Institutions such as art and literature, for example. And he thinks that religion is "progressive" just in case it makes clear to its adherents that its claims are not to be taken literally and are to be used only for humanistic unitive purposes. Presumably that sort of thing could indeed be accomplished by plenty of institutions other than religion, and our present pragmatist thinks that, if all goes well, religion will indeed not so much disappear after the manner of extinction called for by Dawkins but will, rather, evolve in a Darwinian way into something really quite different from religion as we know it today. And that will be a Good Thing.

For the theist, I suppose, all of this will seem somewhat paternalistic. The Christian believes in the literal truth of the Resurrection, not some metaphorical kind of analogous truth. Indeed, St. Paul famously argued in defense of the literal truth of the Resurrection, claiming that if it were not literally true Christians would be the most wretched people on earth. So clearly the theists themselves take these propositions to be literally true, and importantly so. What good does it do to pat them on the head and say "There there, your beliefs are 'true', don't worry" when what you really mean is "Your belief is false, but we're going to let you hang on to it for a while because it makes you useful to society, docile, and pleasant to be around, but as soon as I can find a way to make you useful, docile, and pleasant without you committing yourself to falsehoods we're going to go that way instead"? Having dealt with the problem myself I can imagine being a little nervous about "literalism" in religion, especially when the context is something like creationism, so I'm not saying that I don't sympathize with someone who wants to find a way to parse the propositional content of religions into what ought, and what ought not, to be taken as literally true. But I would stop short of claiming that none of the propositions can be taken as literally true, if only because that would open me up, quite rightly, to the charges of question begging and special pleading.

So my puzzlement consists in a picture of truth in which everybody knows that "factual" truth is fundamental, and that the pragmatic model of "truth" in these other domains--fiction, ethics, and religion--is not really what anybody really means by "true" but we're supposed to hang on to this model anyway rather than coming right out and saying that the claims of religion are false or that ethical judgments are relative to the cultures that make them or something along those lines. In short, I'm not sure what the philosophical payoff is supposed to be in seeing truth in this way, short of finding some way of not coming off looking as obnoxious as Dawkins or as uninformed as Harris when talking about religion. The model is an elegant one, but its central component--the retention of the word "true" as the predicate for consistency, usefulness, or success within a domain--strikes me as useless. I've been wrong about this sort of thing before, though, so I stand ready to be corrected.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Present Pope

Thirty years ago, when I first entered the Catholic Church, I frequently had conversations with folks who liked to characterize themselves as "progressive Catholics". As a convert who had chosen to enter the Church precisely because I found her teachings attractive, I was sometimes mystified at their willingness to remain connected to an institution with which they seemed (to me, at least) to have so little in common, especially when one considers the fact that there are over 30,000 Protestant sects in the United States alone, and surely some one of them (or perhaps some combination of them--in some cases it may not require an exclusive membership) could have met their needs better. John Paul II had been elected Pope prior to my conversion (indeed, I was not even a Christian in 1978, let alone a Catholic one), but I found him and his style very congenial, so I was also a little mystified when these same folks would insist on referring to him only as "the present pope", never as "the pope" or "the Holy Father" or what have you. Based on the context and contents of these conversations it was very clear to me that by "present pope" they intended to suggest that, as far as they were concerned, this rather conservative little fellow from Eastern Europe was just an anomaly, a bump on the otherwise smooth road from Vatican II to a more liberal and progressive Catholic church that would meet all of their needs, hence their willingness to stick it out and remain in the Church.

John Paul II's lengthy and serene reign as Supreme Pontiff managed to cool their jets somewhat over the years, and in spite of feeling intense sympathy for his sufferings I couldn't help but rejoice in his longevity. When his successor proved to be the very person whom I myself would have nominated to take his place, I couldn't help but feel just a tiny bit of Schadenfreude, though I no longer knew anyone who used the expression "the present pope" by that time--it seemed they had just given up on that.

Well. Today, the Jesuit magazine America published an interview with the present pope that has caused something of a stir among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, even though Francis said nothing extraordinary or unusual in the interview, at least with respect to what the Catholic Church teaches. This fact may come as a surprise to anyone who relies for their information about the interview on such sources as CBS News, the New York Times, or the editor of the Jesuit magazine America, all portraying the content of this interview as "unprecedented" and "revolutionary".

To cut to the chase, the part of the interview that is supposed to be so extraordinary is the pope's declaration that the Church has, in recent years, been "obsessed" with certain "technical" and "minor" issues and has thereby missed out on certain opportunities to be more welcoming, compassionate, and forgiving. These minor technical issues are, at least to judge from what CBS News and the New York Times have to say about it, such things as abortion, homosexuality, and contraception. I did not catch any reference to the whole pedophilia thing, so I don't know whether that sort of sexual peccadillo is going to count, from now on, as just minor and technical, or whether it's still something we should worry about. Apparently, the Church is not really able to walk and chew gum at the same time, because somehow, in preaching against abortion, we are neglecting to be compassionate and welcoming, so this is a Big Problem. Indeed, the whole of the Church's moral authority is in danger of falling like a "house of cards", because there is no way that we can continue to obsess over these minor technical issues and still preach love, forgiveness, and compassion. To say that we can do both of these things is like saying that a quarterback has to be able to run and pass the ball, and we all know that you can't really be good at doing both of those things. Certainly any quarterback who chooses to pass the ball when he needs to is basically showing the whole world that he's not interested in running with it. Ever.

Now, let's be perfectly clear about what Francis is not saying. Everyone, including the otherwise Catholic-blind New York Times, is reporting that Francis is not changing any of the Church's teachings, that he is a "son of the Church" (which, for you progressives out there, means that he actually accepts those teachings about abortion, homosexuality, and contraception). So, even the New York Times is willing to admit (probably with some reluctance) that these teachings are not going to change; they may even understand (though I doubt it) that they are not going to change because they cannot be changed. But we should certainly see this as a "change of emphasis", a kind of "new direction"--after the Dark Ages of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, we are finally in the time of the New Enlightenment. Those other popes are dead (one of them literally, the other metaphorically), long live the pope!

So since the Church is not going to be ordaining women, marrying homosexuals, or sending money to Planned Parenthood just what, precisely, is this "change of emphasis" supposed to consist in that is so different from what Those Other Gloomy Popes were up to with all of their reactionary skulduggery? Benedict XVI, in particular, has said precisely the same things about welcoming homosexuals that Francis is now being praised for, so there is no change of emphasis there. John Paul II, rather famously, said precisely the same sorts of things about having a preferential option for the poor that Francis is now being praised for saying, so there is no change of emphasis there either. And the world itself --in the form of scientific studies--has said precisely the same sorts of things about HIV, contraception, and other such issues, as Benedict XVI has said, so if there is change of emphasis here it is in a direction away from both the traditional teaching and modern science, so congratulations: if it is a change of emphasis, it's a stupid one.

But is it really even a change of emphasis? This, unfortunately, is a question that has two aspects. On the one hand, there is the question of whether it is, in fact, a change of emphasis; on the other hand, there is the question of whether Francis believes that it is a change of emphasis. I say this double aspect is "unfortunate" because the fact of the matter is clear: it is not. Which means that if Francis really believes that it is, he is mistaken. But that's OK--although popes are protected from error in faith and morals, nobody said their methodological orientations were always spot-on. So Francis thinks this is all new--well, welcome aboard, Holy Father, but we've been on this train for quite some time already; glad you could join us.

Hold on there, Carson, you're thinking. Why is everyone saying that this is a new emphasis if it isn't? Why aren't you the one who is mistaken in saying that it is not a new emphasis? What do you know that the pope himself doesn't even know?

Fortunately, my assessment of the situation doesn't depend upon any secret or arcane knowledge that only I have access to. In fact, never having been to Argentina, I have no idea what it's like there. For all I know, abortion is not a problem at all in that country, and homosexuals are not pressing for marriage rights there, and contraception isn't being forced on Catholic health care providers there. So from the point of view of your average Argentinian, it may well seem mysterious to discover that there are elements in the Church that are concerned with these issues because they are really important issues in other places. Like here, for example. Are these issues more important than being compassionate, welcoming and forgiving? Duh. Have you stopped beating your wife yet?

In the increasingly secular world of Europe and North America, we have witnessed incredible social changes in the last fifty years, and many of these social changes revolve around the minor, technical issues of sexual morality. Just to take one of these minor technical issues as an example, abortion is fully legal almost everywhere in these areas, and if we bear in mind that abortion is the unjustifiable killing of an innocent human being it might be a little easier to regard it as somewhat less minor and technical than, say, whether kids should be allowed to purchase cigarettes. One way to help reduce the number of abortions, of course, is to provide lots of helpful resources to women who are tempted to have them, and that means exercising--you guessed it--compassion, forgiveness, and charitable acceptance. In fact, I don't see how it would even be possible to preach against abortion without making it very clear that the Church is the place to turn to when you are tempted to have one, precisely because the Church is the place that welcomes you with compassion and forgiveness. The problem is not that the Church in American neglects to be compassionate, welcoming, and forgiving--the problem is that in America people would rather turn to the government for help than to the Church, and the government says there's nothing wrong with killing your own child in the womb. A similar story can be told, of course, tying the Church's teachings on homosexual marriage, contraception, and women's ordination to the need for welcoming, compassionate forgiveness, but that story gets drowned out in media accounts that are one sided because the folks who write those accounts are already predisposed to see the Church's teachings on these sexual issues as misguided if not outright wrong. So when someone comes along talking about the flip side of that same coin they see it as revolutionary, as though the coin really only has one side and the Church has finally discovered it after looking too long for the non-existent other side.

The present pope has blundered. He did not blunder by saying something false, he blundered by not saying what is true: that the Church has always emphasized the Gospel of love, and that the teachings on abortion and the rest flow from that very Gospel. It is simply a mistake to interpret the preaching of the last 30 years in any other way. This is not to say that a pope ought not to call for even more compassion, forgiveness, and welcoming. To make that kind of call would be salutary. But the right way to call for that is to say something like "The Church should always reach out to the dispossessed, to the poor, to the oppressed, to the suffering, to the excluded, to the other: the Church should welcome all with love and compassion." If you say something like that, you are saying pretty much what every pope has always said, including Francis, and you are not implying that the Church has ever acted otherwise. But Francis prefaced it by saying that the Church has also been obsessed with minor technical issues, and then he specifically mentioned several issues that are neither minor nor merely technical, and so of course anyone listening to him is going to think that he sees these things as standing in some sort of contrast, some sort of tension, rather than as two things that flow logically from each other.

This blunder is a purely rhetorical one. He did not say anything that will bring about any actual changes in what the Church does or teaches, but he opened a real can of worms in terms of what some people are going to start looking forward to and expecting from the Church. In this sense he has invited misunderstanding and misinterpretation, which may not cause much harm in the long run but it certainly cannot bring about any good. Francis said that the Church should not be reduced to a tiny core of True Believers, and many are contrasting this with Benedict XVI's famous remark that a smaller Church would not necessarily be a poorer Church. It seems to me, however, that one can agree with Francis that the Church ought to welcome all while not agreeing with his implication that the Church does not already welcome all with open arms. The sad fact of the matter is that people are not turning away from the Church because the Church is not welcoming them, they are turning away from the Church because they don't agree with what the Church teaches and expects of them. As any true Son of the Church knows very well, accepting the Church's teachings is not simply a matter of mere rule-following, it is an inner conversion of one's very self, a turning away from one's own needs and desires toward absolute self-negation as the only authentic form of genuine love. Self-negation entails very many things that the secular West cannot abide, and that the secular West always interprets as Mean Old Rules That Make Life Less Fun. To act as though this characterization of self-negation is correct or fair, even if only for rhetorical purposes, is to do a real disservice to the Church.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

The Road to Damascus

Last night I began my Aspirancy program with an overnight retreat at the St. Teresa Retreat Center in Columbus. The Aspirancy program is the first step in the (rather long) road to the Permanent Deaconate. The Aspirancy year is spent in formation and discernment, with monthly meetings like the one I had this weekend, in which one listens to talks about prayer and discernment, gets to know one's fellow Aspirants and their wives, and begins the hard work of introspection and prayer that one hopes will lead to spiritual growth.

I didn't have any trouble getting to the general neighborhood of the Retreat Center, because I had been to that area several times last year for follow-ups to two surgeries for a torn and detached retina in my left eye. My familiarity with the area didn't keep me from turning into the wrong parking lot when I got there, however. The place seemed right to me: it was a large, churchy-looking building, with cars in the lot and people milling around and going in. So imagine my surprise when I got to the door and a friendly woman greeted me with "Happy Shabbat!" Temple Israel, it seems, is right next door to St. Teresa's.

I might not have made that mistake if the lot had been better lighted, but since my surgeries I just can't read signs in the dark as well as I used to, so even though there was a large sign right at the entrance to the lot, I couldn't make out what it said. I suppose I convinced myself, mentally, that there was enough writing on it to say St. Teresa's Retreat Center, or something. This is something that I will have to get used to, and it was bound to happen whether or not I had a torn retina: old people simply cannot see all that well at night. Aging is hard, kiddies, so don't get cocky while you're still young: be humble and help out old geezers like me when they get lost, like the nice lady at Temple Israel did when I remarked, in response to her greeting, "I think I'm in the wrong place." She smiled. "Yes," she said, "I thought you had that look."

It is definitely a little difficult not to be grumpy about the gradual decay of my eyesight, but there is one aspect of it that I try to keep in view (get it?) on the days when things look particularly blurry. When I was getting prepped for my first surgery I was was literally terrified. I remember thinking to myself, "This is what it is like to be really scared." I thought I had been scared of other things, of course: I was nervous about the birth of my first child and the implications it might have for my life; I was nervous about getting tenure; one is almost always nervous, these days, about money. But being nervous is not really the same thing as being scared, even though at the time those things did seem kind of scary in their own way. Now that I have experienced real fear, however, I know that they were not really scary at all. I'm not saying that what I went through last year was anything like the kinds of really terrifying things that many people have to go through every day: military personel, ghetto kids, cancer patients, people in Syria--these people have it far worse than I ever have or will have it. But, for what it's worth, getting prepped for eye surgery was the scariest thing I've been through in my life. What made it bearable was the presence of competent and reassuring people. The nurses, the anesthesiologist, my surgeon: they were all very professional, soothing, and in several instances they did their job best simply by being there. When you're signing forms explaining that you acknowledge that you might die, the presence of a calm woman with obvious expertise and compassion is a remarkable balm for the soul. My surgeon, too, although he constantly put off my compliments with remarks about "just doing my job", was such a remarkable combination of care and technical excellence that I was sure that I would come through everything OK. And indeed, I did.

What has been most remarkable to me about the whole experience is not just the fact that it seems like just about anything can be fixed these days, but also the extent to which we need each other. Not just for technical reasons (such as, I can't operate on my own eye): we need each other just to be there, to care and make manifest the bond of humanity that ties us all together. The growing awareness in me of this deep and essential connectedness to others, a sense of community that increased as I underwent my recovery, was what motivated me to make my application to the Permanent Deaconate Program. This is my chance to be there for others who need someone, anyone, to be living signs of God's love for them. I had considered applying four years ago, when the first Deaconate class began, but I missed the deadline. That turns out not to have been a bad thing: for various reasons, four years ago was not the best time for me to embark upon this journey. For one thing, both of my children were much younger. Now they are in very different places, and so am I.

I am in a very new and, I believe, very good place, because of my surgeries. The concept of God's providence was always one that mystified me in the past, though I thought I understood it intellectually. Now I think I understand it experientially as well as intellectually, and that makes a big difference. Indeed, for me, it has made all the difference: something very good can, indeed, come about as the result of something very bad.

I am very grateful that I did not have to go through what St. Paul went through on the road to Damascus: I am not going to go blind, thanks to some wonderful doctors and nurses in Columbus. But I had my own little Damascus journey last year, and if God is willing, I hope to follow a path not unlike the one followed by St. Paul, at least in the sense of finding a way to see with great clarity even though my eyes are not what they once were.