Friday, May 18, 2007

Evolution, Philosophy, and All That Jazz

The past two days have been something of a whirlwind for me. Things began with the annual philosophy department Philosophy Forum, in which we bring in a noted philosopher for two days of dialog, debates, and dinners. In past years we've had such luminaries as Hilary Putnam, Arthur Fine, Alasdair MacIntyre, and even Daniel Dennett. This year it was Michael Williams, and it was not a disappointment, even though he talked a lot about David Hume, my favorite philosopher next to Daniel Dennett.

Then, in the afternoon, I ran off to see Vincent DiMartino, who was in town for a School of Music shindig that, I guess, was the equivalent of the Forum, since he was here for several days playing gigs and giving master classes. For those who don't know who he is, he is one of the best trumpet players on the planet, with virtuoso skill in classical as well as jazz. He teaches at Centre College in Kentucky. At the first afternoon concert he played some baroque, 19th century, and jazz, and I was amazed at the sounds that came out of his horn. I couldn't decide whether it was something to aspire to or run away from in despair, but I suppose that for now I'll just keep playing my scales and etudes and hope that something works out.

After the concert I rushed home to meet the Darwins of DarwinCatholic fame, who happened to be in town visiting friends. And now I hope Lisa and I are their friends too, so they will come visit is again, because they are wonderful people and a delight to talk to. They also have three of the cutest little girls on the planet.

Then it was a mad rush back to campus to hear Vince DiMartino again, this time playing with the Ohio University Jazz Ensemble. My own teacher, B. J. Britt, plays trumpet in the Ensemble, and the group played for nearly an hour and a half that flew by as though it were just a few moments. It was like a glimpse of how the eternity of heaven is experienced by temporal creatures such as ourselves: a lengthy span of time appears to take no time at all because each moment is filled with an ineffable pleasure.

This morning it was more philosophy with Michael Williams, and then off to a master class on jazz improvisation with DiMartino, and then finally my very own trumpet lesson with B. J. If only I had been able to fit a round of golf into all of that, I really would have been in heaven, rather than just outside the gates listening to the Gabriels within.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Saying What Needs to be Said

As our polity begins to whip itself into a frenzy over the upcoming 2008 elections, it is important for faithful Christians to stand firm in their convictions. This can be particularly difficult for Christians who, for whatever reason, find themselves supporting politicians whose political views fly in the face of what Christians know to be most important. In the 2004 election year there was a small amount of worry that Christians would begin to hold politicians accountable for their views on matters such as abortion, stem cell research, and other important issues, but those worries proved to be unfounded. That's why one may rejoice, in a limited way, that the Pope is willing to say what ought to be said: politicians who cooperate in abortion - - even if that means nothing more than voting for policies that make abortion a little easier - - by that very act excommunicate themselves. Mike Liccione of Sacramentum Vitae puts it particularly well:
The pope, the bishops, and even some among the lower clergy can say until they're blue in the face that people who formally cooperate in abortion are unworthy to receive the Eucharist; but many bishops and priests will give the Eucharist to such people all the same, citing as justification that they can't be sure, in individual cases, whether the communicant is unworthy at that moment. That is a tiresome, hypocritical, and highly destructive dodge. Most such politicians are utterly unrepentant and make no bones whatsoever about that fact; so until most bishops and priests actually withhold the Eucharist from such people, the Church's claim that such people are unworthy to receive the Eucharist will not be taken seriously, and they will be understood to be "excommunicated" only when decrees of EFS are actually issued to that effect. Thus the clash between the good news and the bad news generates a huge amount of confusion, for which the bishops have only themselves to blame.

The solution is simple: withhold the Eucharist from those who, by their public actions and statements, formally cooperate in abortion. A scattering of bishops, both in the U.S. and abroad, do just that. But spreading that solution is not easy because it requires a courage that is in relatively short supply. We witnessed the lack of such courage during the coverup of the sex-abuse scandal. When will they learn that, in matters spiritual, clarity requires integrity and credibility requires both?

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Direction of Historical Causation

Mike Liccione of Sacramentum Vitae has an interesting post up today in response to some questions raised by Carl Trueman (now there's a great name for you) about Francis Beckwith's recent return to full communion with the Catholic Church. (Side note: Beckwith discusses his reversion at Right Reason, an interesting blog resource for conservative philosophers.) Trueman is a thoughtful and intelligent person, and Mike rightly notes the tone of civility with which he raises his questions about Beckwith's return to Rome. I don't think that there's any need for me to rehearse the actual questions, since I think Mike has already done an excellent job of putting the Catholic response to such questions, not only in today's post, but on many other occasions. What caught my attention, though, and seemed to me worth a comment, was this quotation from Trueman:
I find myself in basic agreement with Heiko Oberman on the nature of the Reformation struggle over authority. He argued that the clash between Rome and Protestants was not a clash between tradition and Scripture alone, but a struggle over the nature of tradition.
This is a widely held view, and it is a view that is probably commonly taught in history courses of various stripes, but I think it is mistaken. It is the sort of revisionist view that often gets invented by intellectual historians who are looking for the common thematic trend that will help to unify their accounts into something interesting and memorable. It is true, of course, that intellectuals at the time of the Reformation did, indeed, argue about things that were related to the question of the nature of the tradition, but ultimately the real struggle at that time was motivated by concerns that had very little to do with religion. As more and more historians of the period are coming to argue (my favorite in this regard is Eamon Duffy, but there are others) the period was marked by plenty of non-religious struggles that were dressed up in religious clothing in order to inflame partisanship on both sides. The Reformation was driven not so much by intellectual struggles over how to interpret Scripture or where to vest the authority to make such interpretations, but by social, political, and economic clashes that were emerging out of the Medieval milieu and marking the beginning of the modern age, with its struggles between rich and poor, ruling and oppressed classes, democrats and aristocrats, etc.

These are the sorts of forces that usually shape history, not the debates taking place in academia. While it may be true that many made their political allegiances on the basis of this or that theological paradigm, it is certainly true that far more made their theological choices on the basis of their political and social allegiances already in place. To put that another way: the Reformation was not an intellectual struggle over authority in the Church, but potential secular authorities struggling over political power. This is particularly true in England but the same forces were at work on the Continent. This is why the present day differences between Protestantism and Catholicism are so distressing: they have their origins in political struggles that have long since been settled, yet they continue to keep faithful Christians apart who no longer (if they ever did) have any good reasons to be separated from one another. Nowadays, of course, when you get Catholics and Protestants in the same room, they act like they have real differences, but many of those differences were invented over time in order to justify the separation that had already taken place as a consequence of the outcomes of the political struggles. In some cases, such as Catholic and certain conservative Anglicans, it is slowly being discovered that the putative differences were not so communion-severing as was sometimes thought. In other cases, though, the bad feelings run too deep for any sort of quick healing. But with calm and thoughtful folks like Mike Liccione, Carl Trueman, and Francis Beckwith involved in the discussion, one may be permitted to hope for the best.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Freedom and Universalism

One of the best known features of Balthasar's populist theology, if only because it has become something of a lightning rod of late, is his dogged defense of universalism. For him, the possibility that all are saved is not something that we can know to be a fact but it is certainly something that we can hope for. This much seems both reasonable and true. Reasonable, on the one hand, because hope differs from mere desire in that we can desire literally anything, even things that are impossible, but it is rational to hope only for those things that are possible, and it does seem at least possible that all will be saved even if it is extremely unlikely. If it were literally impossible that all be saved, then the most we could do would be to desire that all be saved while regretting that all will not be saved. True, on the other hand, because the Church has always prayed for the salvation of all, and the Church has always believed that Christ's sacrifice was sufficient for the salvation of all. The Church also encourages such acts of popular piety as the so-called Fatima prayer that is sometimes added at the end of each decade of the Rosary ("O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls into heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy") actively interceding for a realization of our universalist hopes.

Balthasar famously noted that "the dogma of the Church is that hell exists, not that people are in it", and referred to those who rejected universalism as the "populators of hell". One of his favorite arguments in defense of universalism was that if even one person winds up in hell at the eschaton then God has lost the wager he made with himself at the beginning of creation when he made a kosmos in which free will was to be the mechanism by which his love would be propagated to his creatures. And yet it seems as if free will is itself the greatest obstacle to genuine universalism, a universalism that is universal in reality rather than merely in theory. Of course in theory it is possible that all be saved, yet if it is true in reality that all will be saved then Wittgenstein was right when he remarked that "if what we do now is to make no difference in the end, then all the seriousness of life is done away with."

In other words, suppose that universalism is more than just a hope, suppose that it is the case that, in the end, all will be saved. If that is a truth, if it is a fact about the created order, then we are free to do literally anything we like, for in the end we will be saved. And this is true regardless of the theory one happens to have about how that salvation will occur. Perhaps we will all freely, at the last day, truly repent of all our sins, turn lovingly towards Christ, inviting him into our hearts as our personal savior, and then drop dead and go straight to heaven. Those who would attempt to dissuade us from living our lives over the top may cite the words of St. Paul: if the Gospel message is not true then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die, and yet it turns out that even if the Gospel message is true we may eat and drink as much as we like, even if we're going to die tomorrow, because if universalism is a fact rather than merely a hope it won't matter what we do, because we know that we will repent on the last day, just in the nick of time.

This raises an interesting question. It seems that there is a big difference, in terms of how we actually live our lives, between universalism being a hope and universalism being a truth about how things are going to turn out. Yet Jesus preached as though it really matters how one lives one's life on a day-to-day basis. Maybe he thought that it would be more difficult to "truly" repent at the end of one's life if one were to live a debauched life for thirty or forty years, but it seems nearer to the truth of the Gospel to say that he thought that we should live virtuous lives in the here and now because that's what it takes to draw closer to God. Salvation, in short, is not an instantaneous event for most people, but a process that is lived out over a lifetime. If so, then what is it, exactly, that we are hoping for if we hope for universalism? Are we hoping that, in the end, everyone will repent of their sins and be with God, or are we hoping that, as a matter of fact, everyone does truly repent of their sins at the very least by the end of their life? There is a slight difference here. If we are hoping that everyone will repent in the end, we are at least open to the possibility that some people may not. If we are hoping that it is a fact that everyone does repent, we are hoping that the created order have a certain metaphysics true of it that it might not have. It is like the difference between hoping that your son hit a grand-slam home run in his baseball game, and hoping that the laws of physics temporarily be canceled out when your son comes up to bat.

Genuine freedom just means that it is a very real possibility that some people, in the end, will not be saved. We may hope against that possibility, for of course the contrary is also possible: it may be that, in the end, everyone will freely and truly repent of all their sins. But it seems to me that we have to be careful about what, exactly, it is that we think we are hoping for, for surely it would be presumptuous to hope that the created order be other than how God made it.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Whatever Possesses Some People To Believe What They Believe?

I don't believe in ghosts, even though I am not, strictly speaking, ontologically committed to the impossibility of the existence of ghosts. It's funny, isn't it, how we pick and choose our beliefs? Christians believe that God became man and performed miracles among us, and yet, in my opinion, the more intelligent Christians do not take seriously even for a second reports of the paranormal of the sort that one sees on, say, the Discovery Channel. I suppose that, in my case at least, it's a matter of residual skepticism left over from when I was basically an abject atheist materialist, but there are probably other, non-psychological reasons for turning a blind eye, so to speak, to the ghostly.

As a Thomistic Aristotelian I do believe in other weird kinds of things: essences, for example, and distinctions between substances and accidents. These are slightly more technical things than ghosts, but equally silly in the mind of the materialist and the empiricist. I happen to think that there are no non-arbitrary reasons to reject such things and plenty of non-arbitrary reasons to accept them, but these are subjects about which reasonable people can agree to disagree, at least in my opinion. But for some reason, when it comes to ghosts and the like, I have a tendency to think that there's no way a reasonable person is going to take the idea seriously even for a second.

Hence you can imagine my surprise to find that some people, including some people whom I generally admire in the intellect department, appear to be endorsing the idea that Cho Seung-Hui, the young man who murdered more than 30 people at Virginia Tech before killing himself, did what he did because he was possessed by a demon. There is an interesting blog item about it at Spirit and Life, written by a priest by the name of Thomas Euteneuer. Euteneuer accepts the very real possibility that Cho was indeed possessed when he acted as he did. In my view, this is utter nonsense. Indeed, it is not merely utter nonsense, it is literally nonsense, and it is not something that I think any intelligent person can reasonably endorse.

First, it is unscriptural. The cases of demon possession in the New Testament are exclusively cases in which a demon is tormenting a person internally, not driving a person to commit evil acts against his will.

Second, speaking of acting against one's will, the idea that demons can, by means of possession, drive people to commit evil acts, destroys the notion of free will and takes away individual autonomy and moral responsibility. On this point, Euteneuer writes:
Well, first let me say that, as a Catholic priest, I have seen and worked with my share of possessed and obsessed individuals. It’s entirely possible for someone to be at once responsible for his own acts and totally under the influence of the devil in committing them. In this case, Cho pulled the trigger, but the devil was the author of the deed. Does not Jesus call him “a murderer from the beginning”? The devil is the prime mover of all evil in the world, but human beings freely cooperate with him in their evil decisions. No one gets off the hook of responsibility by blaming the devil, but we can’t say that the devil is a detached observer to crimes like this.
Virtually every sentence in this quotation begs the question, but it will suffice to point out that it is just plain silly to say that "It's entirely possible for someone to be at once responsible for his own acts and totally under the influence of the devil in committing them." This is either an outright contradiction or it is just plain bad theology. One would like to know more about how such a thing is "entirely possible", but we get no explanation, only assertion.

Third, demon possession is explanatorily otiose in cases such as this. Cho's behavior can be fully explained in terms of perfectly ordinary human motivations, mental illness, and other mundane concepts. There is literally no need to invoke some further cause, namely a "demon", to make the explanation of what he did complete. If there were such a need, then there is no reason to think that every evil act is not caused by demon possession. Sure, this act seems to us particularly egregious, but line-drawing is a notoriously arbitrary affair. If he had killed, say, five fewer people, would that mean he was not demon possessed? How about 15 fewer? What if he had only killed three people? Or just one? How does one know such things? It cannot be merely some vague and subjective sense of the enormity of it all, since that is nothing more than a personal and subjective judgment, and every such killing spree is, after all, nothing other than a concatenation of individual killings. If a killing spree is caused by demon possession, so is every individual killing. Yet that seems, well, rather difficult to believe, if for no other reason than that it leads to a slippery slope in which every evil act is reducible to a demonic possession, and demonic possession becomes nothing more than a synonym for "evil act". And yet clearly we distinguish between genuine demonic possession and mere run-of-the-mill viciousness.

Fourth, invoking demon possession does not seem to differ from the sort of magical thinking that always looks for a hidden variable to explain what appears to be otherwise inexplicable. Take, for example, this little gem from Euteneuer:
a crime of this immensity cannot be accomplished without a person’s total emotional commitment. After reprogramming a person’s thought patterns, the demon excites his passions to do what he wants. Others have very credibly explained how Cho’s pathetic video images imitating the Korean flick, Old Boy, were evidence of his heightened emotions influenced by violent images. He even ranted in imitation of the Columbine killers Harris and Klebold in solidarity for the deed he was about to commit. In other words, it’s very difficult to sustain such an emotional intensity about the evil he planned and carried out without some direct force multiplier.
Euteneuer can't imagine an unaided human being being able to sustain "such an emotional intensity about the evil he planned and carried out", so he posits "some direct force multiplier" that is literally outside of the system. Talk about begging the question! And yet this is given as one of the necessary conditions for demon possession. And then there's this:
He plotted—like all demons from Satan to the perpetrators of the World Trade Center attacks. He bought guns and ammo, he planned the date and times and places of the murder, and he even went regularly at night to work out at the campus gym in order to look the part of a mass murderer. The devil must have been very happy to witness his prey blast his brains out after perpetrating the bloody murders of 32 innocents. That is the ultimate victory for the devil.
Planning ahead is also a necessary condition on demon possession, it seems. Now there's underdetermination for you. This guy has been taking his Screwtape Letters way too seriously.

Fifth, it is way too provincial to think of acts such as Cho's as somehow fitting into a kind of paradigm of demon-possessed evil. History is long and full of far worse things that what Cho did, and it begins to seem rather desperate to explain all such things away as nothing more than cases of demon possession. It reduces the human person to a kind of automaton, for one thing, and a peculiarly simplistic one at that.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not claiming that there is not now, nor has there ever been any such thing as demon possession. But I don't see any reason to think that demon possession is what we see in the case of a person like Cho, or Stalin, or Hitler, and any such folks. The stories of demon possession that we find in the New Testament may, of course, be correctly describing the ontological status of the persons being described, but (a) they are clearly quite different than what Euteneuer is talking about and (b) I'm not so much of a fundamentalist as to think that the stories of demon possession in the New Testament are open to only one interpretation.

Clearly we want explanations for things like what Cho did; even more pressing is the need for an explanation when there is no evident will involved in suffering, as when a tsunami kills nearly half a million people. But I don't think it's a good idea to just make up explanations that appeal to whatever nostrums happen to be stowed away in our own peculiar ideational backpacks. That's not what explanation is all about. Maybe you have to have a little something extra in your intellectual equipment to take such explanations seriously, but I'm pretty sure I don't have that equipment, because I can never take such explanations seriously even for a second. They are laughable, in my view, and reveal more about the person who posits them than about the person who is allegedly "possessed".

Monday, May 07, 2007

Scotus on the Unicity of God

In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle argues that there is but a single highest good for humans, namely eudaimonia, that state of flourishing that exists in persons whose practical wisdom is habituated in such a way that they always make choices in accordance with right reason. That eudaimonia is one such "highest good" is virtually trivially true, but must it be the only such good? Can there not be many things that are fully self-sufficient in the sense that we choose them strictly for their own sakes and not for the sake of anything else? Aristotle appears to assume that there cannot be more than one such good, but he offers no argument in defense of this assumption, and that has caused some folks to wonder. Either ethics, as a discipline, is not such as to offer arguments for such things (as Aristotle himself points out in the Nicomachean Ethics, one must not look for greater precision in a given discipline than is possible in that discipline), or the argument for the assumption is, in some sense, obvious.

Since Aristotle is happy to provide arguments for similar assumptions elsewhere in the Nicomachean Ethics, it seems that the argument for this particular assumption must, somehow, be staring us in the face. As it happens, the argument is rather obvious if one is familiar with Aristotle's doctrine of causal explanation, and I was reminded of it recently while perusing Blessed John Duns Scotus' discussion of the unicity of God in his Opus oxoniense (1, dist. 2, q. 3; Vatican ed. vol. II, 222-243). God is, if you will, a kind of "highest good", not just for humans but for everything; yet we assert that there is but one God. Why? Can there not be multiple Gods, all of whom serve as "highest goods" in some theological scheme? In short, why is polytheism impossible? I say "impossible" because, according to Scotus, it is not merely a matter of faith or dogma that there is only one God: it is a matter of logical necessity.

Scotus begins with the assumption that any will that is infinite wills things in the way that they should be willed. This he takes to imply a principle that we may call the principle of natural will: a correct will loves what is lovable to the extent that it is lovable and to the extent that the will is capable of loving, hence an infinite will will love whatever is lovable to the extent that it is lovable without exception. Suppose, then, that we posit two such infinite wills, that is, two Gods, calling one A and the other B. Both A and B, then, will love whatever is lovable to the extant that it is lovable and without exception; since both A and B are infinitely lovable, then each will love the other infinitely. Here Scotus introduces an assumption that must be unpacked. He says that everything loves its own being more than any other, just so long as it is neither a part nor an effect of this other. We may call this the principle of natural love: fundamentally it means that, given a particular nature (e.g., human, dog, divine), the conscious awareness and will of any being with that nature will be most intimately familiar with its own being rather than that of any other particular nature and, hence, most naturally able to will and to do what is best for that particular nature (here "to love" means something along the lines of "having what is best for X at heart and in one's will").

In the case of our two Gods, A and B, we find that each of them is infinitely lovable, hence B is to be infinitely loved by A. And yet A must naturally love itself more than anything else, including B. But if A loves itself more than it loves B, then it does not love B infinitely, even though B is deserving of infinite love from A. If A does not love B infinitely, A is not acting in accordance with its own nature and, hence, cannot be infinite. So either A loves B as much as it loves itself and, hence, violates the principle of nature love; or A loves B less than A loves itself and violates the principle of the natural will. Both are conceptual impossibilities, hence the actual existence of more than one God is conceptually impossible.

The principle of the natural will and of natural love are, I think, unfamiliar to us and yet perfectly acceptable. If they seem strange, though, Scotus offers an ancillary argument based on this one. He remarks that there are two ways in which A may love B. Either A may love B for its own sake, or it may simply use B. If it merely uses B, the love is inordinate. If it loves B for its own sake because of B's nature, then, having the same nature as B, A will love itself for its own sake as well. But this means that A is beatified by two distinct objects, both A and B, neither of which depends upon the other, for A is made happy by itself just as much as it is by B. But it is conceptually impossible to find perfect beatitude in two distinct objects, because either one may be destroyed without any loss of beatitude, hence complete beatitude is not dependent upon either object.

It seems to be something like this latter argument that Aristotle must have in mind in the Nicomachean Ethics: humans have only one final good because the very notion of a "final good" seems to entail that there could only be one such thing. Scotus' arguments, in other words, have that logical flavor that so characterizes Scholastic argument generally.

Homily for Requiem Mass of Michael Carson, 20 November 2021

  Readings OT: Wisdom 3:1-6, 9 [2, short form] Ps: 25 [2] NT: Romans 8:31b-35, 37-39 [6] Alleluia verse: John 6:39 [...