Monday, April 21, 2008

Continuing Lefevbrists

If Anglicans who sign the CCC are struggling to find a way to remain distinctively Anglican, one can only imagine the difficulties the Society of Saint Pius X will have maintaining anything like an identity worth maintaining. According to a story at, members of the schismatic group are not satisfied with BXVI's motu proprio allowing wider use of the so-called "Tridentine Rite" form of the Mass, because the guy "still supports the reforms of the Second Vatican Council".

So, before any kind of "reunification" can occur, apparently, VCII will have to be scrapped. In short, reunification is formally impossible, as far as these guys are concerned. If VCII were "scrapped" in the way required by SSPX, that would signal the end of the teaching authority of Ecumenical Councils and, hence, the Catholic Church as it has existed since the Council of Jerusalem. So either VCII is retained, in which case SSPX stays out; or VCII is scrapped, in which case SSPX is still out, because they will have reunified themselves with something other than the Roman Catholic Church.

So long, SSPX! Enjoy the bizarre world of Catholic Protestantism.

Continuing Anglicans

There's some interesting stuff going on at The Continuum. There has been some discussion there the past few days of what it would mean for someone claiming to be within the Anglican Communion (of their specifically "continuing" variety) to endorse the CCC in its entirety, which, apparently, some Anglicans claim to do. There is a post discussing the Society of Saint Michael (one of said groups), a post discussing the question whether some Anglican bishops formally signed a copy of the CCC at a public Mass in Rome; and a post rehearsing the contents of the CCC teachings on Papal primacy (880-887). For your added delectations, there is a comment in the discussion section of that first one in which Fr. Robert Hart (a frequent contributor to First Things!) disses yours truly in a delightfully snotty fashion. (But then, I deserved it.)

The question of whether, and if so, to what extent, an Anglican may comfortably subscribe to the teachings of the CCC came up at this blog recently, in my discussion with Tobias Haller (see the comments section of this post). Clearly, Papal primacy is the major sticking point (to quote Hart: "the teaching in the CCC about the papacy is one of only a very few places where Anglicans cannot agree with the content"), but given the way most Roman Catholics understand the nature of Papal Primacy--especially in the developed West--it is not clear that there is really all that much at stake. If one is willing to accept most of what is in the CCC--including, I suppose, such things as the content of the teachings on, say, the Immaculate Conception, the Church's indefectibility, etc., then the teachings about Papal Primacy simply disappear in the mix. If, by contrast, one were to say that one accepted all of the teachings in the CCC except those on Papal Primacy and all other teachings that could reasonably be traced to an inordinate amount of influence on the part of the Papacy, then one would have a uniquely non-Roman point of view; but then one would not, in such a case, be able to say that "the teaching in the CCC about the papacy is one of only a very few places where Anglicans cannot agree with the content".

The long and the short of it is simple: the Papacy, whether or not one regards its influence over the various parts of the Roman communion as overweaning, has not exercised anything like the degree of influence in terms of de fide doctrine that some folks have imagined, if it is possible to agree with most of the CCC except for 880-887. If this is right, then the real dispute is not over Papal Primacy, but about Church polity, and this is something that Roman Catholics themselves are constantly bickering about, and indeed, have done for centuries, even prior to the rather sudden invention of the Anglican communion (as an entity distinct from the Roman communion).

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Ehrman and Wright

Fr. Al Kimel has drawn my attention to an exchange at Blogalogue between N. T. Wright and Bart Ehrman on the so-called "problem of evil". Regular readers will remember that I, along with Dr. Michael Liccione of Sacramentum Vitae, have blogged frequently on the issues involved in theodicy, but having had a look at this most recent exchange I have to say that it continues to astound me how simplistic and thoughtless the popular treatment of the problem has become. To read Ehrman's piece is to hear a litany of the typical complaints one hears from a materialistic world: there is too much pain and suffering in the world, and, well, sorry folks, there's no way you're going to convince me that there's a caring God out there when I get tears in my eyes watching CNN. It's as if generations of sophisticated and complex theological and philosophical argument amount to nothing when compared to the emotional attitudes of a single individual living in a highly particularized time and place.

This, indeed, seems to be at least partly the point of Wright's reply, when he writes:
I want to ask: were you not aware, earlier, of the scale of evil in the world – the Holocaust, the dying babies, the inexplicable ‘natural’ disasters, and so on? You’re not implying, are you, that people (like me, for instance) who still hold to Christian faith are somehow failing to notice these horrors, or to reflect soberly and deeply on them? And if, as you say, your book (and your blog posting) do not actually constitute an argument against Christian faith (‘If you reflect on these issues you’ll see that the Christian claim is incredible’), might it not seem that the shift in your own position which you have described is a shift which came about, not because of logical argument, but because of other (unspecified) factors, with the problem of suffering providing a kind of intellectual backdrop to a journey whose main energy was supplied from elsewhere?
I think this is a rather important insight, and its importance is not diminished by its obviousness. Just as atheists and agnostics are often--perhaps way too often--tempted to assume that believers only believe for emotional or psychological reasons, so too, it seems rather obvious to me, every non-believer almost certainly has emotional and psychological reasons for not believing that will trump any and every legitimate argument posed against them. This is not to say, of course, that non-believers don't also subscribe to certain philosophical arguments that they think are in their favor, it is merely to note that the absence of such arguments would not deter many of them from continuing to believe what they believer.

The other elements of Wright's analysis are deployed more specifically against Ehrman's particular argument, which, it seems to me, is grounded not so much in deep theological introspection but in the fatuousness of his original religious foundation.
The second large, general point concerns your handling, and description, of the Bible and Christian faith. I want to take issue with your analysis of the biblical material. This is where I must refer to my own treatment of the same problem in Evil and the Justice of God, which forms part of the groundwork for my new book Surprised by Hope. I don’t know if you’ve read either of them, but in the former I give a very different account from you of the Old Testament material, seeing the call of Abraham not (as on your p. 66) as God simply calling Abraham ‘to be in a special relationship with him’ but as the moment when God launches the long-range plan to rescue the world from its misery. In other words, I read the story of Israel as a whole (not merely in its individual parts, which by themselves, taken out of that context, might be reduced to ‘Israel sinned; God punished them’, etc.,) as the story of theodicy-in-practice: ‘this is the narrative through whose outworking the creator God will eventually put all things to rights.’ Hence the promises of Isaiah 11 and so forth.
As Wright notes, Ehrman, like other Christians from his tradition, has (or, I suppose "had" is the better word) the tendency to spot-check individual parts of the Scriptures as though they are stand-alone commodities that can be tested independently of the multitude of variables that give them their substance and their meaning to actual believers (as opposed to casual readers, for whom they are merely texts).

Wright concludes with a simple, straightforward, and yet absolutely essential point:
In particular, of course, the resurrection of Jesus is absolutely central for me. Like many people ancient and modern, you don’t find it credible. If I didn’t believe it I wouldn’t have the beliefs I do about other things.
I don't suppose that any genuine Christian could disagree with these words. To me, the difficulty of making sense out of the Resurrection is far greater than the alleged difficulty of making sense out of suffering in the world. Indeed, to make sense out of the former just is to make sense out of the latter, and yet the former involves far greater empirical difficulties than the latter, which is relatively simple by comparison. Belief in the literal Resurrection of Jesus is a necessary condition on the truth of everything in the Gospel, and there is literally no reason to believe in it at all beyond one's capacity to take the word of Scripture at face value. The capacity to do that requires an act of supernatural grace, a further feature of our faith that takes it beyond the realm of the empirical. Ehrman has, of course, written about these issues, too, but his puzzlement about the problem of evil is far more mysterious than the problem of evil itself.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Contra naturam

There is an interesting little argument on offer over at In a Godward Direction that demonstrates rather nicely how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. The author of the essay in question, Tobias Haller, is concerned to show that "nature", as he appears to understand it, cannot underwrite moral principles and, hence, cannot be appealed to in moral arguments against, well, same-sex relations. Although he claims to be addressing his argument to something he calls "the Natural Law tradition", it becomes evident rather early on that his real interest is in the alleged "is-ought" gap made so infamous by David Hume.

Haller addresses three varieties of arguments against same-sex relations, and appears to regard all of them as variations on the theme of Natural Law arguments. Of the three he describes, only the second one even comes close to being anything like a genuine Natural Law argument, but even that one falls far short of what a proper argument from the Natural Law would amount to. Now, of course, we're all just writing blogs here, so one must adopt Aristotle's adage from the Nicomachean Ethics and remember that "the same exactness must not be expected in all departments of philosophy alike" (I.3 1094b12). On the other hand, if one is going to be shooting fish in a barrel one had better make sure they are not red herrings. It simply will not do to trump up three ridiculous arguments against same-sex relations, label them "Natural Law" arguments, and then proudly proclaim that one has shown "Natural Law" arguments against same-sex relations to fail.

I will pass over in silence the first and third "arguments" that Haller addresses, as they are evidently straw men. But as I remarked above, the second argument does bear some slight resemblance to an actual argument from the Natural Law, so I want to say a few things about it. Here's the "argument", along with Haller's proposed reply:
Now, of course, my interlocutor will then advance to the second form of natural law and say, “By ‘unnatural’ I mean ‘not in concert with the ends for which sex is intended.’” This natural law position falls prey to the fallacy of begging the question, in that it rests on two prior premises, neither of which is self-evidently true: “Moral value is to be found in the use of things in advancement of the end for which they are intended” and further, “Sex is intended for procreation.” I have already demonstrated the falsehood of the latter premise, in that while sex may often result in procreation, there is ample evidence that it serves other purposes or ends having nothing to do with procreation. This is, in fact, the position of The Episcopal Church, as enunciated in the preface to the matrimonial rite, where procreation ranks third among the ends of marriage, “when it is God’s will.” It is also the reason marriage, and sexual activity within marriage, are not forbidden to infertile couples, and birth control is permitted.
Although there are some appeals to Natural Law that are similar to this one in certain details, no genuine such argument is precisely like this one. The principle difficulty is, perhaps, due to the informal nature of blogging, because the argument is summed up as "By 'unnatural' I mean 'not in concert with the ends for which sex is intended," and no natural law theorist would put it quite like that. First, the expression "in concert with" is hopelessly vague; second, the notion of "end" being appealed to here is undefined; and finally, "intended" suggests a principle of design that is simply absent in genuine natural law accounts. I think, however, for the purposes of analysis, we may assume that what Haller has in mind is some sort of appeal to the necessity of final causation, where precisely defined ends are related to functionality in one way or another.

If we make such an assumption, we are left with plenty to say about Haller's proposed reply. First, there is his claim that such an argument presupposes that "moral value is to be found in the use of things in advancement of the end for which they are intended". I would be willing to bet money that he thinks this is presupposed because of the use of the word "unnatural", and yet to use such a word implies nothing at all about "moral value". To say that something is "unnatural" is simply to say that, in general, things tend to work differently in natural settings. We all know that water tends to freeze at 32 degrees Fahrenheit when the pressure is one atmosphere, and we also know that altering the pressure or the composition of the water can alter the temperature at which it freezes. If we know that the water's composition has not been altered, and that the pressure is one atmosphere, it would, in this sense, be "unnatural" if water were not to freeze at the specified temperature. But that is not to say that it is logically impossible for it to do so, or that it would be anything like a moral outrage if it should occur.

Then there is the claim that another suppressed premise in the argument is "Sex is intended for procreation". Here Haller appeals to that notion of "intention" that he left so conveniently undefined earlier. In the present context it is entirely unclear what it means to say that sex is "intended" for anything. What sort of "intention" are we appealing to here? Is it the "intention" of some intelligence, that is, some agent acting with purpose? If not that, then what? Mere adaptedness, the byproduct, perhaps, of natural selection? It simply isn't clear in what sense we are to take it or how, taking it one way rather than another, the desired normative implicature would result. The sense, however, that is usually behind a Natural Law argument is that of final causation. That is, rather than saying that "sex is intended for procreation", the natural law theorist will say that procreation is the final cause of the sexual act. This does not entail that procreation is "intended" as a consequence of every sexual act, but rather serves to explain the function, or role, of the sexual act in a larger ecology.

This sort of claim may not satisfy everyone, of course. It is notoriously difficult to specify these sorts of final causes without appealing to evolutionary just-so stories or else material tautologies. By a "material tautology" I mean something like the following. Consider the question: What is the heart "for"? Suppose someone were to posit "The heart is 'for' the circulation of the blood" and someone else were to object "That's arbitrary--the heart does other things, too: it makes a rhythmic sound, it helps with oxygenation, it contributes to the overall body temperature." The objection seems strange: all of the posited alternatives--making a sound, oxygenation, temperature regulation--are materially identical to the function of circulating the blood, that is, they are present simply as an artifact of the blood being circulated by rhythmic contractions of the heart muscle. It seems clear that circulation is really the only thing that the heart is really "for", if it is "for" anything at all. But this sort of analysis will not do in other kinds of cases. What is the human mouth "for"? Is it for articulation? Mastication? Defensive biting? Sexual stimulation of another? These alternatives are not materially identical to each other, they are quite distinct, and they are all things that people have, from time to time, used their mouths for. So here one might appeal to evolutionary biology and try to pinpoint the selection pressures that gave rise to the mouth as it is presently structured. But this sort of exercise is plainly speculative and can bear no normative weight, since such hypotheses are always open to revision. The principle difficulty in a case like this is the fact that the mouth, quite simply, has many uses, and none of them stands out as definitive, rather, we might just as well say that what the mouth is "for" is the whole suite of them.

Is this the case with sexual activity and the sex organs? What is the sexual act "for"? Procreation? Mere pleasure? The unification of individuals? To communicate love? Haller, like many others, wants to claim that sex is really for all of these things, and not at all for any single one of them in a normative sense. In a strange irony, Haller alludes to a science that is morally neutral in defense of his thesis that one cannot infer an "ought" from an "is", and yet if we accept the truth of this--as we should--then science itself offers a rather straightforward refutation of his view that sex "serves other purposes or ends having nothing to do with procreation". The "other purposes" that he has in mind are, apparently, things such as were just described, and yet all of these things seem rather obviously materially identical to the act of procreation. From an evolutionary point of view, that is, the fact that people who have sex with each other sometimes also fall in love with each other means only that there is differential reproductive success attached to the emotion of love. Love is nothing more than an instrument of reproduction on an evolutionary account. Haller appeals to the fact that sex sometimes fails to produce offspring as evidence that procreation is not what it is for, but that is tantamount to saying that the fact that some batters strike out is proof that going up to bat is not for hitting the ball, so I think we may pass on that one. The point is that, biologically speaking, everything involved in sexual activity is directed towards reproduction, especially if the theory of evolution is true. On this sort of a reductive, materialist scientific account, same-sex relations are the ones that serve no purpose--indeed, they are virtually deleterious and are, hence, selected against.

Haller is right about one thing: the expression contra naturam does not, in and of itself, entail "morally vicious." To move from the claim that same-sex relations are contra naturam to the inference that they are thereby morally wrong does require some set of reasons for thinking that it is better for ends to be achieved than not. I won't bother to give that argument here, since Aristotle does it himself much more thoroughly than I ever could in his Nicomachean Ethics. The key lies in seeing sexual relations not in the isolated way in which Haller foists upon his alleged "natural law" theorist, but in the integrative, holistic way in which the virtue ethicist understands the final cause of the human being. This is the way in which the Church has traditionally deployed arguments from the natural law, and it is rather surprising that Haller would not even bother to address this form of the argument, given that he describes himself as a member of a (Christian) religious order. One begins almost to suspect him of special pleading.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Personally, I'm In It For the Groupies

DarwinCatholic has posted an amusing little follow-up to my piece on the NYTimes article about the value of a philosophy major in the marketplace. Included in Darwin's essay is a bar-graph from a Wall Street Journal article that compares college-graduate starting salaries by major. At the bottom: philosophy.

One feature of the chart that intrigued me was the fact that, whereas the average first-job salary for a philosophy major was listed as roughly 28k, the average salary for the history major is given as 34k. The history major. If someone had asked me to name a college major even more useless, in a jobby sorty of way, than philosophy, I'm not sure what else I could have come up with other than history. I think two things tell against the poor philosophy major in this situation. One is the fact that, while history is often taught in the schools, philosophy rarely is and, contrary to what is usually claimed by teachers' unions, starting salaries for public school teachers are actually quite good. So probably some of that 34k is due to the fact that a lot of history majors can get jobs as teachers, while very few philosophy majors can, unless they decide to get certified teaching something other than philosophy, something much easier, say, such as history. (I'll pass over in silence the question of whether a history major could get himself certified to teach philosophy.) The other factor that comes to mind is the possibility that a lot of philosophy majors tend to have interests in public service sorts of jobs, and they may very well take very low paying positions in charitable operations that don't pay much to anybody, let alone the philosophers. History majors, by contrast, are well known mercenaries who will do anything for a buck.

In the final analysis, of course, the philosopher isn't supposed to do philosophy for money anyway, so if the average salary of philosophers had been any higher, it would have served as proof that we're all a bunch of hypocrites. As it is, it simply goes to show you all how noble and professional the real philosophers are.

But I'm not trying to be snooty when I say that: As for me, I can't wait until I'm making 28k! But then, I wasn't a philosophy major. I majored in...history (and classics).

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Fr. Kimel on Sacramentality

In my view what sets Christianity apart from all other religions is its unique understanding of Sacramentality. I have blogged on this topic myself a few times, but this recent post by Fr. Al Kimel of Pontifications sums things up quite nicely for me.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The End of Individual Responsibility?

I guess speed is of the essence in journalism: I mentioned yesterday that a student reporter for the Ohio University student newspaper was working on a story about the "updated" list of mortal sins proposed by Msgr. Gianfranco Girotti, regent of the Vatican Penitentiary, but the New York Times beat her to it, publishing an OpEd piece on the proposal even while she was canvassing my colleagues in Classics and World Religions for their take on the matter.

According to Eduardo Porter, author of the Times piece, the theme in this is a movement away from individualistic sorts of sins of the kind that might typify an agrarian society to more, shall we say, "corporate" sins of the sort that are often claimed to afflict the society of the 21st century. Now, the famous list of mortal sins (pride, envy, lust, etc.) could easily be cashed out in such a way that so-called "corporate" sins fall under their various rubrics (indeed, that sort of categorization is the very stuff of medieval moral theorizing), but I got the distinct impression that there was more to this movement than mere taxonomy:
Norms encoded hundreds of years ago to guide human behavior in a small-scale agrarian society could not account for a globalized postindustrial information economy. Polluting the environment, drug trafficking, performing genetic manipulations or causing social inequities, new sinful behaviors mentioned by Msgr. Gianfranco Girotti, regent of the Vatican Penitentiary, are arguably more relevant to many contemporary Catholics than contraception.
Ah, yes, of course, contraception. What a surprise to find that the sin of contraception is so very old fashioned as to be no longer relevant to modern Catholics. I don't suppose the prevalence of, say, lust, in contemporary culture could have anything to do with the contemporary Catholic (and, well, let's face it, everyone else's, too) attitude towards the teaching on contraception. It also comes as no surprise that the "new" mortal sins amount to a typical listing of leftist Shibboleths (which is not to deny that some of them probably really are sins, at least when engaged in by individuals).

The rest of Porter's analysis is, on the one hand, certainly correct (religions are like "clubs" in which membership is defined by adherence to certain "rules" of membership; the Vatican is particularly strict in its definition and interpretation of the "rules", etc.) but, on the other hand, hopelessly banal. To be informed that "it could be tricky to update sins in a way that could de-emphasize individual trespasses and shift the focus to social crimes bearing a collective guilt" adds nothing to what everybody already knows and, if anything, is an understatement. Some might go so far as to say that it is literally impossible to shift the focus away from the individual when it comes to determining the nature of sin.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Fit to Print?

I just got a heads-up about a student reporter for the Ohio University student newspaper, The Post, who is doing a story about "the new mortal sins as released by the Vatican". The reporter, one Ashley Lutz, sent an inquiry to the faculty members of the Department of Classics and World Religions here at Ohio University asking them for comments on these "new mortal sins" because she "was hoping to get some general comments from someone in the department about how this demonstrates flexibility on the church's part and how often sins are added."

One shudders to contemplate how a student reporter might think the phrase "flexibility on the church's part" ought to be parsed, but just as worrisome is the fact that the inquiry was addressed to the faculty in a department where there is only one practicing Catholic and several faculty who are openly hostile not only to Catholicism but to Christianity in general. (This is not to suggest that she would have fared any better had she addressed her inquiry to the faculty in the philosophy department!)

For the real scoop on this issue, there was an interesting story on NPR's Day to Day about a month ago. You can listen to it here.

Skills to be Successful!

Why major in philosophy? One of the things one sometimes hears coming from the folks at the orientation tables on some college campuses is something along the lines of the following: "With a philosophy major you learn to think and write clearly and critically, and you grow into a thoughtful, mature person of the sort that any business, corporation, or government office would be happy to hire." In short, the message seems to be, you should major in philosophy because those jokes about being the most articulate person in the unemployment line are all wrong--you will too be able to get a good job with this major! A recent story in the New York Times showed some evidence of similar thinking:
Ms. Onejeme, now a senior applying to law school, ended up changing her major to philosophy, which she thinks has armed her with the skills to be successful. “My mother was like, what are you going to do with that?” said Ms. Onejeme, 22. “She wanted me to be a pharmacy major, but I persuaded her with my argumentative skills.”
In this particular case, the "skills to be successful" turned out to be skills to get an argumentative relative off one's back--a skill that I myself found useful when my family tried to convince me that I should get a job as a computer programmer back in the days when that sort of job actually seemed alluring to some people (mostly, folks who did not have to work in cubicles themselves).

The difficulty with seeing philosophy this way is that it really masks what philosophy genuinely is. Another passage from the NYT story has this to say:
Once scoffed at as a luxury major, philosophy is being embraced at Rutgers and other universities by a new generation of college students who are drawing modern-day lessons from the age-old discipline as they try to make sense of their world, from the morality of the war in Iraq to the latest political scandal. The economic downturn has done little, if anything, to dampen this enthusiasm among students, who say that what they learn in class can translate into practical skills and careers. On many campuses, debate over modern issues like war and technology is emphasized over the study of classic ancient texts.
While I am certainly all in favor of the study of classic ancient texts, I would want to point out that the emphasis on "modern issues like war and technology" is already a misrepresentation of what philosophy is. Granted, there is such a discipline as "applied ethics" within philosophy, but too often this sub-field gets turned into The Field in philosophy, and courses in it wind up being massively useless bull-sessions in which poorly trained students are asked to present "arguments" in favor and against all sorts of contemporary issues, and these arguments are then moderated by only marginally better trained graduate assistants.

I'm not saying that philosophy courses should make more of a point to get at metaphysical and epistemological issues, or even that Plato and Aristotle need to be mentioned when discussing justice or moral virtue. I will say, however, that any good philosophy student needs to have the intellectual curiosity to find these sorts of things of interest whether or not they impinge upon any "modern issues like war and technology." If you're just not interested in the core elements of philosophy, then you are not a particularly good philosopher, no matter how passionate you are about peace, freedom, and a clean environment.

Sadly, in today's educational environment, a subject like philosophy has to be "sold" in order to attract any students at all, and the selling that gets done usually has to do with explaining why studying philosophy will be a good background training for doing something other than philosophy. I am certainly not claiming that every philosophy major should go on to become a professional philosopher. But it's just plain silly to say that a person who wants to work in business, or law, or the government, should major in philosophy, unless that person genuinely loves wisdom for its own sake. If she does love wisdom for its own sake, then philosophy is a fine major provided it does not hamper the person's chances in the career he really desires. (Note the evidence, in that last sentence, that I am myself a professional philosopher: I used both the masculine and the feminine relative pronouns in referring to a single, abstract person. You can't say I wasted my time at the university!)
Barry Loewer, the department chairman, said that Rutgers started building its philosophy program in the late 1980s, when the field was branching into new research areas like cognitive science and becoming more interdisciplinary. He said that many students have double-majored in philosophy and, say, psychology or economics, in recent years, and go on to become doctors, lawyers, writers, investment bankers and even commodities traders.
As long as they don't go on to become philosopher who think that the sort of philosophy that gets done at Rutgers is the heart of the profession. Don't get me wrong: I'm fascinated by neurophilosophy, and have done some work in that area myself. However, the skills required to excel in that particular sub-field of philosophy often require a student to sacrifice other areas of the discipline. There are exceptions, of course, but many of the students who focus on such cutting-edge aspects of the discipline wind up having to cut corners in other areas. That's bad enough in itself, but what's worse is the fact that many of them don't mind cutting those corners, because they don't really see the relevance or interest in those other areas.

I had a friend like that in, of all places, classics grad school. You'd think that classicists, of all people, would be the paradigm cases of the Renaissance Scholar, with wide, interdisciplinary interests. But this friend of mine did Roman history, and just about literally nothing else. His interests were so narrowly restricted that his knowledge of Greek was poor enough that he had trouble passing his qualifying exams in that language. He was an excellent historian, of course, but it is hard to see in what sense he was a "classicist", if that term is meant to pick out something as interdisciplinary as classical philology. Philosophy is very similar, in many respects, to classical philology, because the best philosophers are all-arounders, who know enough about a wide variety of sub-fields to have something intelligent and interesting to say in just about any of them. Most importantly, however, the best philosophers work in philosophy, not in some other field. Not everyone has the luxury to do that, of course, so the next best thing is someone who majors in philosophy because of an innate sense of intellectual curiosity, not out of some utilitarian quest to get the ultimate job offer after graduation.

Nothing wrong with job offers, of course, especially "ultimate" ones. But for the philosopher, they are merely icing on the cake. I am sometimes asked if I regret having done an advanced degree in classics, seeing as how I wound up in philosophy (in order to get the two PhD degrees I spent 14 years in graduate school, while working and starting a family). Quite frankly, I don't regret it at all, and if I were required to go look for a job tomorrow at someplace like Borders or Starbucks I still would not regret it, even though I might be able to get a better job somewhere else if I had majored in engineering or chemistry, because I really believe that the unexamined life isn't worth living. If, indeed, that is what one ought to call "living" at all. Of course engineers and chemists can live examined lives, too, but for anyone in any sort of job it will be easier to examine one's life if one has that spark of intellectual curiosity that lies behind an authentic desire to major in philosophy:
That [philosophy] is not a science of production is clear even from the history of the earliest philosophers. For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters....a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant...therefore since they philosophized in order to escape from ignorance, evidently they were pursuing science in order to know, and not for any utilitarian end.

Aristotle, Metaphysics A.2 982b12-22

Against Determinism

Well, I was somewhat surprised that Alexander Pruss chose to simply blow me off in our "discussion" of incompatibilism over at his blog, but to see how a genuinely effective argument against determinism might go, I recommend having a look at the one I give here.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Save A Life

From the National Marrow Donor Program website:
On any given day, more than 6,000 men, women and children desperately search the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) Registry for a matching bone marrow donor or cord blood unit. These patients have leukemia, lymphoma and other life-threatening diseases that can be treated by a bone marrow or cord blood transplant.

Even with a Registry of millions, there are many patients waiting and hoping, unable to find a match. Donors with diverse racial or ethnic backgrounds are especially needed.
Donating does not necessarily involve surgery. Most often, what is taken is blood and not marrow, and the procedure is painless. Even when marrow is needed, the procedure is painless and the recovery period is quick and easy. No bone is removed from your body. The tissues that you donate could save someone's life. Admit it: if you were dying of leukemia, lymphoma, or some other life-threatening disease, you would hope against hope that someone would donate tissues for you. Here is a prime example of one way to fulfill a Kantian imperfect duty.

I strongly urge everyone who can to consider joining the Registry. The NMDP website has lots of information about the various procedures and risks involved, who is a good candidate and who isn't, and what you're getting yourself into. It's a good idea to discuss this issue with your physician before committing yourself, but please give it some thought.


Jonah Goldberg has an interesting essay in the online edition of the LA Times today, in which he puts the contemporary fad of Darwin Fish (the ignorant parodies of the 1st century Christian symbol that certain morons like to put on their car) into the context of the persecution of Christians in contemporary Islamic societies.

I see these Darwin Fish all over the place, but of course I see the regular Fish stickers, too. I'm not a fan of either, but the Darwin one is more irritating because it's both more puerile and more banal. Some of the people who put the regular Fish on their car may think that evolution is false, but, let's be real about this: a lot of Christians understand that evolution is one of the best confirmed scientific theories in history, but I doubt that any of the folks who put the Darwin Fish on their car have any idea that the truth of evolutionary theory is compatible with the truth of Christianity. These are people who are trying, in their own vapid way, to say something, and what, exactly, would be the point of that, in this particular context? There are two groups of people they could conceivably be targeting. One group would be the people who think as they do. I suppose it would be reasonable enough to expect people who think as they do to get their thoughts from the backs of cars, but I doubt that preaching to the choir in this way is really what they're after. It seems more likely to me that what they want to do is tweak the sensibilities of the regular Fish people.

So who is the bigger idiot: the person who believes that God created the world and who wonders at the same time whether any given scientific theory can really fully account for that, or the person who believes that having a high degree of confidence in a particular empirical hypothesis can give certainty (or even a very high degree of probability) about the falsity of a metaphysical thesis? Clearly the latter, and yet these ignoramuses think that by putting a Darwin Fish on their car they have made a really funny joke at some fundamentalist's expense.

While I agree that the fundamentalist view is silly and worth smiling at the way one might smile at a child's innocence, the other view is ridiculous for all the wrong reasons.

Suddenly the Good Friday Prayer Doesn't Seem So Bad

The New York Times online version has a story today about the ways in which the mass marketed opinions of Hamas, including videos aimed at children, target Jews (and sometimes Christians) in unmistakably violent and bigoted terms:
At Al Omari mosque, the imam cursed the Jews and the “Crusaders,” or Christians, and the Danes, for reprinting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. He referred to Jews as “the brothers of apes and pigs,” while the Hamas television station, Al Aksa, praises suicide bombing and holy war until Palestine is free of Jewish control.

Its videos praise fighters and rocket-launching teams; its broadcasts insult the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, for talking to Israel and the United States; its children’s programs praise “martyrdom,” teach what it calls the perfidy of the Jews and the need to end Israeli occupation over Palestinian land, meaning any part of the state of Israel.
And, just so as to leave no doubt:
For example, in a column in the weekly Al Risalah, Sheik Yunus al-Astal, a Hamas legislator and imam, discussed a Koranic verse suggesting that “suffering by fire is the Jews’ destiny in this world and the next.”

“The reason for the punishment of burning is that it is fitting retribution for what they have done,” Mr. Astal wrote on March 13. “But the urgent question is, is it possible that they will have the punishment of burning in this world, before the great punishment” of hell? Many religious leaders believe so, he said, adding, “Therefore we are sure that the holocaust is still to come upon the Jews.”
But what about the children? Are they really going to understand all of this complicated political discourse? Well, just in case they don't:
Another children’s program, “Tomorrow’s Pioneers,” has become infamous for its puppet characters — a kind of Mickey Mouse, a bee and a rabbit — who speak, like Assud the rabbit, of conquering the Jews to the young hostess, Saraa Barhoum, 11. “We will liberate Al Aksa mosque from the Zionists’ filth,” Assud said recently. “We will liberate Jaffa and Acre,” cities now in Israel proper. “We will liberate the whole homeland.”

The mouse, Farfour, was murdered by an Israeli interrogator and replaced by Nahoul, the bee, who died “a martyr’s death” from lack of health care because of Gaza’s closed borders. He has been supplanted by Assud, the rabbit, who vows “to get rid of the Jews, God willing, and I will eat them up, God willing.”

When Assud first made his appearance, he said to Saraa: “We are all martyrdom-seekers, are we not, Saraa?” She responded: “Of course we are. We are all ready to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of our homeland. We will sacrifice our souls and everything we own for the homeland.”
Ahh, good old fashioned family values there! Why can't Sesame Street do a better job of getting our children to martyr themselves for our homeland? I mean, after all, that way our imams won't have to do it themselves.

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 [...