Saturday, April 30, 2005

Links!

A Collection of link-ity goodness I read something the other day about how Microsoft is playing catch up to Google and has been for some time now, and how Google is now the cool place for young techies to work. The article then took a look at how one could work on a computer without using an MS product, excepting Windows itself. That is a big exception, and if you do office work you would likely need a software package of some sort (WordPerfect, perhaps). The interesting thing is that the article in question made me ask how I do in that regard. I surprised myself by realizing how little MS software I use other than Windows. I didn't plan it that way, it just kind of happened. My workhorse is Firefox, of course. I can't imagine trying to do one of my Links! posts without Firefox up with ten or fifteen tabs open. The thought of using IE to do that puts me in cold sweat and makes my trackball thumb get snarky. Yesterday I visited the Firefox site to check for anything that might be new and useful. Not surprisingly, I found stuff (I don't visit the site constantly). I now have Foxytunes at the bottom of my Firefox window calling on WinAmp to bring me TwangCity, American Roots Music, an internet radio station. I also have a local weather icon just to the left of it, showing me today's weather and tomorrow's forecast. Two fine additions to my Firefox tool set that'll make blogging more pleasurable. I also added a feature called Stumbleupon, which looks like it will be a lot of fun. It takes you to sites other people who share your interests enjoyed and gave the thumbs up to. It's simple and it works! I also added Magpie, a Ben Goodger product that is supposed to allow you to copy all of the media on a site to your computer for later perusal. Darn if I can figure out how to use it though. For writing my blog posts I have w.bloggar, which I am becoming fonder of by the day. I started using it when the risk of using Blogger's editing window were cruelly brought home to me. That's right, a post of middling length went into the void, never to be seen again (this was before Blogger created the recover lost post function). Now I can easily save my posts to my hard drive as I compose, or before dispatching them. w.bloggar also offers a good set of editing tools, better than the one's Blogger gives you. Aps I don't use a lot include e-mail, search and chat and of the three the only MS product I use is MSN Messenger, more out of indifference than anything else. OK, maybe not total indifference. I despise ICQ's cluttered interface so I dropped it ages ago. Thunderbird is overkill for the very little emailing I do, but is just fine. Rounding out my blogger's toolbox is an old standby - WS FTP, which I use for hosting some sorts of files, images mostly. The upside of all this is that I am able to be very happily productive on a computer that is nowhere near cutting edge. Please keep all comparisons to the author to yourself! I have little reason to use Office type programs and my computer gaming is darn close to zero. In short, I am probably not a typical user, but I am happily and almost by accident, MS Free.
I also have a lot of links to catch up on! First the serious, and then the silly. This LA Times writer is irritated at the Democrat's resistence to making voter fraud more difficult and muses about their first principles. He suggests that, practically speaking, "We're smart, you're dumb" seems to cover it:
We'll take care of you. Leave the thinking to us. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, minority leaders of the House and Senate, respectively, - kindly Mom and Pop to a nation of intellectually limited youngsters. (But thank goodness, they love us anyway.)
NRO's Stanley Kurz cites Harper's magazine to suggest that at least some Democrats don't have a lot of love or respect for Christians. This quote from the National Journal brought to my mind the Liberal Party of Canada, the "personal savior" of too many people who ought to know better:
This, of course, is the E.U.'s normal method of winning "consent" for its torrent of constitutional, political, and economic innovations. Each is presented to the Union's citizens not only as a done deal, but as the only deal that could possibly have been done, and as the only basis on which the E.U. can even stay in business, let alone flourish. Whenever Europe's governments deign to put their plans for the Union to a national vote, it is not to allow their citizens to exercise a choice over their future. It is to sanctify the choice that their government has already made for them -- no other option being thinkable.
It's beyond me, the appeal this sort of thing has to anyone. It brings to mind both George Orwell's comments about a waiter's self identification with those he serves and Paris Hilton telling the homeless or the working class how that she cares about them and can identify their needs and act in their interest. Who would be surprised to see such a project crash and burn? Why should the waiter (or anyone) find such a condescending appeal appealing? It's the paradox of the good news. The trouble conservatives have is that to a people with no faith in themselves and the worthiness of their working and family lives, conservatives will appear as relentlessly negative. As Jonah Goldberg points out in this fine, fine essay, "Conservatives are people who — ultimately — explain why many things shouldn’t be done." A lack of confidence weakens a community until it is no longer willing to bear the costs of the first principles that sustain it. As Christians we might call this 'bearing the cross.' In any case, a community that is unwell begins to move its eye from first principle to last things, "fruits, consequences, facts." In the short run this can go on for a long time but eventually a society with such a compromised moral immune system is bound to catch something nasty and be unable to fight it off:
as anyone who reads about what’s happening in Holland understands, systems based solely on platitudes of tolerance can crash into chaos when its platitudes are revealed to have little philosophical superstructure. And we know what happens to democracies when faith vanishes and human will reigns supreme. Fascism was impossible without the Enlightenment. Fascism was impossible without democracy. Fascism was, indeed, the product of both. Various movements found that “alien” or “outdated” notions of liberal democracy no longer served the aspirations of the nation or the volk.
When this happens, recovery can be long and slow, as the NYT's David Brooks tell us in his insightful examination of what he calls Post-Totalitarian Stress Syndrome:
the paradox of Russia is that as life has become miserable in many ways, the economy has grown at an impressive clip. We can look back on this and begin to see a pattern that might be called Post-Totalitarian Stress Syndrome. When totalitarian regimes take control of a country, they destroy the bonds of civic trust and the normal patterns of social cohesion. They rule by fear, and public life becomes brutish. They pervert private and public morality. When those totalitarian regimes fall, different parts of society recover at different rates. Some enterprising people take advantage of economic recovery, and the result of their efforts is economic growth. But private morality, the habits of self-control and the social fabric take a lot longer to recover. So you wind up with nations in which high growth rates and lingering military power mask profound social chaos. This is what we're seeing in Russia. It's probably what we would be seeing in Iraq even if the insurgency were under control. And most frighteningly, it could be what we will be seeing in China for decades to come.
The WSJ Peggy Noonan offers us an antidote, namely to "be mature, to believe as adults believe," and keep first principles first. "Take care of the pennies and the dollars take care of themselves" is another way to put it.
Albert Einstein shows that he gets it in this wonderful (and brief) essay:
How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people -- first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving... "I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves -- this critical basis I call the ideal of a pigsty. The ideals that have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth. Without the sense of kinship with men of like mind, without the occupation with the objective world, the eternally unattainable in the field of art and scientific endeavors, life would have seemed empty to me. The trite objects of human efforts -- possessions, outward success, luxury -- have always seemed to me contemptible.
Brandon shares some Chesterton with us. One can almost always learn something interesting at Sirius. Surprisingly, the Communinsts for Kerry website is still around, doing funny stuff like this coverage of a "mysterious" fire on the roof of the Vatican around the time the new Pope was chosen. This is messed up but good for a laugh. Ever wonder what your name would look like in binary code? Curious about those new CVT's (continuously variable transmissions)?

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Duck or rabbit?

Is it a duck, or a rabbit? Peter Van Inwagen's contribution to God and the Philosopher's, "Quam Dilecta", is impressive. I'm still mulling it over. The title means, roughly, "How lovely!" and is taken from Psalm 84. For now, here is a bit in which he describes a transitionary period in his life - a movement from Naturalism to Naturalism plus.
I shall try to describe three of these "episodes of thought." First, I can remember having a picture of the cosmos, the physical universe, as a self-subsistent thing, something that is just there and requires no explanation. When I say a "having a picture," I am trying to describe a state of mind that could be call ed up whenever I desired, and which centered round a certain mental image. This mental image--it somehow represented the whole world--was associated with a felt conviction that what the image represented was self-subsistent. I can still call the image to mind (I think it's the same image) and it still represents the whole world, but it is now associated with a felt conviction that what it represents is not self-subsistent, that it must depend on something else, something not represented by any feature of the image, and which must be, in some way that the experience leaves indeterminate, radically different in kind from what the image represents. Interestingly enough, there was a period of transition, a period during which I could move back and forth at will, in "duck-rabbit" fashion, between experiencing the image as representing the world as self subsistent and experiencing the image as representing the world as dependent. I am not sure what period in my life, as measured by the guideposts of external biography, this transition period coincided with. I know that it is now impossible for me to represent the world to myself as anything but dependent. The second memory has to do with the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Dead. I can remember this: trying to imagine myself as having undergone this resurrection, as having died and now being once more alive, as waking up after death. You might think it would be easy enough for the unbeliever to imagine this--no harder, say, than imagining the sun turning green or a tree talking. But--no doubt partly because the resurrection was something that was actually proposed for my belief, and no doubt partly because I as an unbeliever belonged to death's kingdom and had made a covenant with death--I encountered a kind of spiritual wall when I tried to imagine this. The whole weight of the material world, the world of the blind interaction of forces whose laws have no exceptions and in which an access of disorder can never be undone, would thrust itself into my mind with terrible force, as something almost tangible, and the effort of imagination would fail. I can remember episodes of this kind from outside. I can no longer recapture their character. I have nothing positive to put in their place, nothing that corresponds to seeing the world as dependent. But I can imagine the resurrection without hinderance (although my imaginings are no doubt almost entirely wrong), and assent, in my intellect, to a reality that corresponds to what I imagine. The two "episodes" I have described were recurrent. I shall now describe a particular experience that was not repeated and was not very similar to any other experience I have had. I had just read an account of the death of Handel, who, dying, had expressed an eagerness to die and to meet his dear Savior Jesus Christ face to face. My reaction to this was negative and extremely vehement, a little explosion of contempt, modified by pity. It might be put in these words: "You poor booby. You cheat." Handel had been taken in, I thought, and yet at the same time he was getting away with something. Although his greatest hope was an illusion, nothing could rob him of the comfort of this hope, for after his death he would not exist and there would be no one there to see how wrong he had been. I don't know whether I would have disillusioned him if I could have, but I certainly managed simultaneously to believe that he was "of all men the most miserable" and that he was getting a pretty good deal. Of course this reaction was mixed with my knowledge that the kind of experience I tried to describe in the preceding example would make Handel's anticipation of what was to happen after his death impossible for me. I suppose I regarded that experience as somehow veridical, and that I believed that Handel must have had such experiences, too, and must have been trained, or have trained himself, to ignore them.
If you're not doing anything important, the entire essay is available here. It's not a quickie, but it is very thoughful and I enjoyed the heck out of it. Duck-rabbit. That image of one of those psych pictures that alters betwen two views is a really good way of capturing how one's mind breaks free from Naturalism's grasp. Surprisingly too, Inwagen is right. It does become more difficult to recall the other view as one becomes comfortable with the new.

Can you hear me?

From Mixing Memory I came across this website that promises to evaluate your writing and tell you how your page or website rates according to three different measures. Here are the results for NWW:
  • Total sentences 704
  • Total words 8,653
  • Average words per Sentence 12.29
  • Words with 1 Syllable 5,813
  • Words with 2 Syllables 1,656
  • Words with 3 Syllables 787
  • Words with 4 or more Syllables 397
  • Percentage of word with three or more syllables 13.68%
  • Average Syllables per Word 1.51
  • Gunning Fog Index 10.39
  • Flesch Reading Ease 66.54
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade 7.03
What it all means... The Gunning Fog score of 10.39 means that NWW reads just slightly higher than Time or Newsweek but not as lofty as the Wall Street Journal. The Fleisch score of 66.54 means that NWW is pretty readable. 60-70 is a normal score. The Flesch-Kincaid score of 7.03 means somebody in grade seven could read NWW. This I find hard to believe. Although I'm sure a brainy kid could do it, I'd be surprised if the average kid would make great headway. All in all, I'm pleased with the results. While I read some technical stuff from time to time, I try to dress it down when it comes to the blog. For one thing, I'm not impressed by people who load uneeded jargon into their texts in an effort to dress it up and sound more impressive than it is. I really do try not to use a five dollar word when a buck will do. When I do use terms I suspect will trip up anyone who does not read philosophy a lot, I try to include an explanatory link (usually but not always to the Wikkipedia). I want to share my interest in my subjects and I look to readability as one of the keys to achieving my aims.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Reasonable faith

I've just finished reading an essay by C. Stephen Layman called Faith has it's Reasons and thought it would be fun to share some of it here. This may or may not have to do with me stumbling onto an ignorant hatefest on an atheist blog. I'm not saying all atheists are ignorant and that's an important point in this post. Layman rightly begins by pointing out that there are many instances in which we have to make decisions and we do not, and cannot, have access to all the evidence we would like to have. Still, we have to do something and no one could justifiably say that doing so can reasonably be called irrational. We rely on 1) the evidence we do have, 2) arguments about that evidence, and 3) testimony. The very first difficulty facing us is how much weight to give the different parts of the case before us. The other is how high a standard we will hold ourselves to. In civil law, for example, the evidentiary burden is set at "a preponderance of the evidence." In a criminal trial, the standard is higher - it is to be "beyond a reasonable doubt." One of the interesting little games that goes in in discussions of politics and religion is over which of these standards applies. We tend to claim that our side has passed the higher threshold, and our opponents only the lower, if we grant them even that. Defensive parties will claim the higher standard as a bulwark to protect themselves, as the Federal Liberals are doing now on the issue of whether there should be an election based on what justice Gomery has discovered so far. The attacking party, the Conservatives in this case, will seek the lower bar. The Conservatives point out that we know enough to know that the Liberals no longer have the moral authority to govern. Whether Liberal pack A or Liberal pack B bears the burden of the blame is properly a Liberal party problem and not one that Canadians as a whole should have to bear. For what it's worth, I find the second argument convincing. Arguments are funny things, however. Unless we are talking about simple things, they usually don't convince people - even intelligent people. Layman asks us to imagine ourselves giving an anti slavery speech to a group of slave owners and asks us if we think we will be able to persuade them when so many who took our view were unable to do so during the antebellum years. He suggests we would likely fail, and asks us to ponder why that should be so. They will allot different weights to different parts of our presentation than we do ourselves. Our opponents will likely hold us to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. They will also define the evidence differently. What is 'justice'? What is a 'right?' We saw this in the Terri Schaivo case as well. I thought the burden of proof was on Micheal Schaivo and that he didn't meet it. I also used definitions of 'right' and 'justice' that differed with those who took the opposing view. Testimony is also tricky. There is no air tight formula for determining who is more credible. Expert testimony only goes so far, and experts can complicate things by contradicting one another. Yet we act on testimony all the time. Are we "irrational" when our brother says that that basketball is on the roof and we believe him even though we can't see it? The use of problem solving Heuristics is commonplace in everyday life and in the sciences. Layman then turns to the subject of religion, and which case is more compelling - theism or naturalism. The first thing Layman does is to suggest we be careful not to look at the question in an unbalanced way. That is to say, the same standard of proof must apply to both. We can't ask "Is there enough evidence for God's existence?" because that puts the burden on that theory, in effect holding it to a criminal standard, while giving materialism the benefit of the doubt. Layman then lays out the following case, which I like.
Deontology (some things are morally right and some are morally wrong) is true. Materialism is not compatible with Deontology because it is not compatible with free will. Therefore, materialism is false.
Naturalists can attack either of these premises. They can claim that right and wrong are not absolute, but are based on consequences. This view is called (surprisingly) consequentialism. Utilitarianism, for example, is a form of consequentialism. This is probably the better attack, based as it is, on intuitive, religious, presupposition. How can one "prove" either side? My own view is that the consequentialist and utilitarian tracks are subsets of moral thinking, which is properly deontologist. I don't know how I'd prove it, however. There are also those who claim that materialism is compatible with free will. This is called compatiblism. I find this idea downright bizarre, and Layman makes my case here:
...the current trend among materialists is not to deny freedom and morality, but to claim that human freedom is compatible with causal determination. In other words, a given act may be both free and determined at the same time.. An act is free for a person if and only if he performs it because he wants to (all things considered). The phrase "all things considered" is an acknowledgement of the fact that a person may have conflicting desires. I may want to go to a party and to study for an exam. If I can't do both, I will presumably do what I want, "all things considered." Thus, for the compatabilists, 'free' contrasts with 'coerced.' When I am not coerced, but rather perform the act because I want to (all things considered), I act freely. But we must ask: What accounts for the fact that I want to perform a given act, all things considered? On the materialist account, every event is the result of prior states of the physical world together with the operation of natural laws. The way the world is today, right down to the last detail, is a result of the way the world was yesterday. Now, I do not have control of the past. Nor do I have control of which natural laws govern the physical world. It thus appears that I do not have control of my wantings if materialism is true. My wantings are entirely the result of factors over which I have no control.
Layman admits there are counterarguments, but he finds them unconvincing. The result as he sees it is that materialism has a "problem of evil" at least as bad as that of conventional theism because it struggles to even admit that it exits. If we are not free, then 'right' and 'wrong' are empty containers and virtually all of us act as contrary to that. Most of us would speak to it too. The point of all this is that the arguments for theism are at least as good as those for materialism, given that this is a case in which the standard is the "preponderance of the evidence" in a comparative case. Both sides ought to see they fall short of a more stringent and fulfilling standard. They can see and account for evidence given by the opposing view. Much, then, depends on the weightings and intuitions over deontology and on how one defines freedom. The fact that naturalism is commonly supposed as the objective, neutral view tells us more about our position in post enlightenment history than it does about true ontology.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Olympic symbols

Ilaanaq: Inukshuk or Inunnguaq? The selection of the logo for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics provides me with an opportunity to try and show some of the ideas I've been writing about this week in action. Officially, the logo is said to be an inukshuk who's name is Ilaanaq. The winning artist says she was inspired by a well known piece of artwork in Vancouver, left behind after Expo '86. Generally speaking, I like it. It's warm, simple and clear. It is likely to grab the interest of people around the world. One of the most common criticisms of the icon since it's unveiling a few days ago has been that it has little or nothing to do with Vancouver itself. The kind of rock sculpture it represents originates in native cultures much father north. I even read about some native elders voting on a council of some kind (annoyingly, I can't find the source) that they felt the icon misrepresented their culture and as a result, they felt insulted. The notch on the head for that cuddly smile probably didn't help. I would urge the elders and others taking this line of criticism to reconsider. The inukshuk is a sign intended to act as a friendly marker or reminder in a largely barren and desolate space - in this case, Canada's far north. It's true that the temporate rainforests of Vancouver are nothing like that. The logo is not an inukshuk, however. It is a symbol of one. It's presence will only be active in Vancouver proper for a short time as 2010 approaches. It's real activity - it's real environment- is in the mediascape. One does not need to be a cynical media junkie like me to see that is, in its own way, as a barren and desolate space as the Yukon Territory. I think the symbol can act as a friendly reminder in disparate locates around the world and will work in different sorts of media due to it's simplicity. Mr. Hallendy (quoted in the dead tree edition of the National Post, April 25th) of the Royal Canadian Geography Society has some interesting things to say about the logo, the most interesting of which is that Ilaanaq is not an inukshuk, he's an inunnguaq. Got that? Hallendy says that properly speaking, an inukshuk is a simple stand in for a person, like a traffic light is a stand in for a traffic policeman. It is blatantly a symbol and in the north it can be as simple as one large, upright stone. Ilaanaq is more complicated than that, which is why Hallendy says that he is an inunnguaq. The origins of the inunnguaq may be much more recent than that of the inukshuk and its meaning deeper. Hallendy notes it's resemblance to a cross and that a famous site of inunnguaq is Pelly Bay, where they may have been built under the direction of a local missionary priest. The inunnguaq, unlike the inukshuk, does not represent a generic human; it represents real people. It can act as a marker for a village or as a tombstone. All of this is interesting and the native elders would do well to use curiosity about the symbol as the starting point for teaching the world about the people and the culture from which Ilaanaq draws inspiration. Assuming Hallendy is correct in the distinction he makes between the two types of sculpture, the only mistake here is calling Ilaanaq an inukshuk. If he is in fact a inunnguaq, he functions in the mediasphere just as well. He represents real people hosting a real event, after all. The last question is if the inunnguaq should be considered a religious symbol. If it is, then of course it's use in advertising the Olympics would be very improper. Imagine using a Star of David or a Crucifix for such a purpose! Nothing I have read about this symbol suggests to me that the inunnguaq is a sign with a transcendent meaning. The other 'errors' - the mouth and the creative geography involved - can be overcome without much trouble if that last question has been answered correctly. The mouth is simply a playful appeal, especially to kids. The geography is even easier to deal with, as the Olympics will be shared with all Canadians (not to mention Federal tax money). The sign, in short, can survive this evolution without becoming incoherent. Religious symbols would not be as resistant and the fuss over them is proper.

Blogroll

The latest Red Ensign Roundup is at Canadian Comment (which, incidentially, was one the first blogs to link to NWW). Check it out. BTW, this thing is getting seriously long... Also on hand is the latest Catholic Carnival, which The Curt Jester is hosting. Jeff has a great sense of humour, so if you've never taken the time to visit his site before, go on and see what you're missing.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Reading, part three

Part one of this series is here, and part two here. Feeling that last night's post was probably as clear as mud for most readers, I decided to make a diagram of the kind of reader / text relationship that I was trying (futilely) to describe. You're invited to click on the image above for a larger copy that will probably be much easier to read. To start with, I see a text as an artifact created by an author, using any tools at his disposal - not just text, but also familiar words, phrases, ideas, values and taboos of his time and place. He may try to uphold them or invert them. He is not fully autonomous, but is shaped by his encounters with the natural world, which he will perceive through normal senses like sight, hearing and touch, and also through the mental imagery of his culture. Unlike the physical senses, culture can be engaged with. An author can simply use it or he can try to nudge it or shape in some way. Success in such an attempt is likely to be very difficult and done in small increments by many authors. The results may not take shape until long after the author has passed away. Attempts at shaping a culture cannot be too radical because doing so risks making the message unintelligible. Readers can and do aid one another in coming to grips with a text that proves difficult but an author would be unwise to assume too much of this. Technology, beginning with the book and leading up to the printing press and the internet, aids this process tremendously. As a text (or any work of art) ages, new readers will face difficulty in understanding it. The culture that the author likely took for granted in making his creation, if it still survives, may be changed so that the meaning of minor or major parts of it may become challenging. Commentary contemporary with the author will also be affected by this effect of time and human generations (ie. the movement from time one to time two and so on). It has to be noted that time has beneficial effects as well. With every generation of readers, the processing power focused on the text grows. Cultural erosion takes its toll, but probably the addition of new minds is a net gain as long as subsequent readers pay attention to the context in which the text was created. They cannot assume that the "plain meaning" of the text is what they think it is. They must consult the first readers - the ones most intimately familiar with the cultural assumptions the author was making and / or fighting. Unfortunately, the work of the author's contemporary readers is itself subject to erosion. All is not lost, however. By combining many texts, together with other sources of knowledge about the culture that created them, we can attempt to see which of readings are more likely than others. We also do this by comparing notes with readers contemporary with ourselves. The nail that sticks up is less likely to be true. I have assumed that there is such a thing as authorial intent and that it can be known (in part, at least). In fact I think the entire impetus for writing and art is to engage with others about the nature of the numinous. It is, in other words, an attempt to face the ultimate other, God himself. God is also an author, and not just of the Bible. God is also the ongoing author of the universe we inhabit and we can learn about him by reflecting on the material world we live in, including the very shape and functioning of our bodies themselves. I have not had much of a chance to read about JPII's 'theology of the body' but I have always assumed it was about something like this. To have any hope of learning about an author (or Author) we must admit his existence and then direct ourselves outward, towards him, relentlessly. The immensity of the task means that we cannot hope to succeed alone. We have to cooperate with those around us and beware of clues left by those who have gone before. We also need to be aware of the pervasiveness of sin, which reveals itself in the form of clouded thinking and the corruption of data through time and death. The most devastating effect of sin, however, is the temptation to avoid turning outward at all; to deny that there is an author and an authorial intend is fail before we begin. I agree with G.K. Chesterton when he says that pagan writers were (and are) not necessarily Godless. They may simply be said to have a childish and undeveloped theology. Enlightenment writers can pose a more serious problem, as they often assume we are more autonomous and clear of mind than the wisdom of past suggests. I think they forget that they stand on the shoulders of giants, and are not really "taller" than those who went before, even if we do have airplanes and x-ray machines. Science, after all, is based on the idea that the universe is orderly and knowable, and science does nothing to negate the beauty and the artistry of, say, The Book of Genesis. Knowing about biology and physics does not make the old text moot. Instead, it offers us new conceptual tools to use on the old artifact.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Philosophical musings

The subject of one my recent posts, prompted by some of Ratz's comments, has twigged my interest. As a result, I'm reading things on the net about hermeneutics. The point of view that I was critical of in that post seems to be what this introductory article assigns to Edmund Husserl, namely that:
[Husserl's] phenomenological hermeneutics also assumes that in order for the object to be fully interpreted, a proper context, or a mental frame is needed. But instead of considering the extraneous historical and cultural contexts, phenomenological hermeneutics argued that the text reflects its own mental frame. Husserl stated his dictum Zu den Sachen selbst! ("to the things themselves"), because he considered objects as complete in themselves. To interpret a text, therefore, means to methodically isolate it from all extraneous things including the subject's biases and allow it to communicate its meaning to the subject. The goal of phenomenological hermeneutics is to capture the truth of the text as it is.
Husserl proposes an objective, third person view that has never existed for a human. Martin Heidegger is better but still not right:
Heidegger constructed a new subject whose mind and being are totally immersed in the subject's life-world, such that understanding and interpretation would always proceed from the perspective of the subject's life-world. The Heideggerian subject is a subject that is formed by the biases and presuppositions of his/her life-world making him/her incapable of attaining full self-consciousness and objective knowledge. Thus, instead of hypocritically scrapping these biases and presuppositions, dialectical hermeneutics argued for a better use of these cognitive baggage by using them as premises in conversing with texts and objects. By assailing the Cartesian subject, Heidegger also assailed the metaphysics of realism that served as the cornerstone for the Cartesian, romanticist and phenomenological philosophies of the object. A new philosophy of the object is needed. For dialectical hermeneutics, an object, or text, can contain an infinity of meanings.
It's that last part that I reject as outright nonsense. Our selves are not self enclosed like this unless perhaps we are the inhabitants of the mental ward. There are times when I think the conjunction of mass production and a mass media that is advertising driven is pushing us in that direction. That is what I think of when I hear discussion of 'lifestyle choices' - self alienation on a mass scale. When I was an English Lit undergrad we did discuss hermeneutics some, but we never got into it formally, which is a shame. The result was an awful lot of tutorials filled with bafflegab and perplexed students. I mean, if you're going to discuss something as esoteric as this, for heaven's sake outline what it is first. Now I'm interested in various theories of Bible reading and I'm curious to know what school is closest to my own thinking. I want to find out what people are going to say is the weakness of that school, and I want to know if I'm holding any contradictions. My own outlook at this early stage I would describe as drawn to the Classic / Romanticist school of Schleiermacher. I would, however, water down the mental strength of the 'Cartesian' interpreter abilities some. At the moment I'm reading an interesting book edited by Thomas Morris, God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason and I've come across at least two essays that are worth some reflection. One by William J. Wainwright is of some interest here. In "Skepicism, Romanticism and Faith," Wainwright quotes John Calvin:
Mingled vanity and pride do appear in this, that when miserable men do seek after God, instead of ascending higher than themselves, as they ought to do, they measure him by their own carnal stupidity, and neglecting solid inquiry, fly off to indulge their curiosity in vain speculation. Hence, they do not conceive of him in the character in which he is manifested but imagine Him to be whatever their own rashness has devised... With such an idea of God, nothing which they may attempt to offer in the way of worship or obedience can have any value in his sight, because it is not Him they worship, but, instead of him, the dream and figment of their heart.
I have three things to say about this passage. The first is that, whatever the merits of the many Calvinist churches the survive today, John Calvin himself is a very difficult character to like. The second is that Calvin's observation is true, and the third is that this truth applies to Calvin as much as anybody. That third point is a large part of my recent interest in the hermeneutics. Before going on to water down what I take as his strong points, Wainwright says some good and interesting things about symbols:
What struck me initially, and still does, is the way in which Plato weaves together closely reasoned pieces of analysis and myth and symbol. He clearly believes that the latter are needed to express some truths, or some aspects of the truth, but he employs them only when the resources of argument have been exhausted. This seems to me to be the ideal way to do philosophy. I have always believed that the same is true of theology. I suspect that some religious truths- and perhaps some of the most important ones- can only be expressed in symbol and myth. Nevertheless, I also believe that there is a nonsymbolic core that is least inadequately expressed by classical theologists like Clarke and Edwards. A person who neglects this core is in danger of allowing his or her beliefs to degenerate into arbitrary fancies. There is also another danger. One can succumb to the belief that religious symbols are only poetic supplements of the "real" facts or new perspectives that on familiar realities. To think of symbols in this way emasculates them. Symbols adumbrate the object of our longings. What we yearn for, however, is bread, not a paper mache facsimile... Victories that are only symbolic aren't real victories... Furthermore, I believe that symbols like those depicting God's victory over the powers of darkness have material or concrete implications; if they are true, the course of empirical events is different from what it would otherwise be... whatever their inadequacies, and however faintly they shadow forth the truth, they cannot be replaced by language that is deeper and truer. They are as close to the truth as we are likely to get.
In my thinking we are not Cartesian subjects because we do not access the fullness of a text (or the world for that matter) unaided, ie. without Grace. Even then we will be puzzled and in doubt about what just happened unless we can really open ourselves up to the possibility of the miraculous; we can, instead, suspend judgement idefinitley and thereby stay unmoved. Neither are we Heidiggerean existential subjects who can paint any symbol with any meaning we wish. We have access, when reason is at a limit, to a world of myth and symbol. Those things have a real but mysterious meaning and one of the ways in which meaning is excavated is through a discussion with other seekers. God is a unity and by working together we can learn to discard what is only personal want or personal fear and begin to grasp our real situation as humans. When I say 'working together' I don't mean just talking to our neighbors (although that's good), and I don't just mean reading widely (although that's good too). I mean also coming to grips with past discoveries and that is a task that is more than likely too much for the average person, even if they had the ambition and the means. It's too big a job for any one person to know the history and literary genre and philosophical expectations that the author of an ancient text took for granted in his writing. Those things are not unknowable, but they are too much to reasonably ask of lone seekers. I see my church as fulfilling that role. I see it as a storehouse and protector of "archaeological " discoveries about our ontology, discoveries that come to us encoded in the myth and symbol of ancient texts. These gifts are sadly often overlooked by people pointing to their watches and contemptuous of the idea that truths could could be locked in symbol form and then unpacked in strange lands and stranger times. They have, it seems, other ideas about how the truth will appear (if they think it exists at all). From where I sit, it looks like they have God just where they want him, in a double bind that leaves them free to go about their business as they see fit. If there were not an element of mystery in our situation, we would be less free and more compelled. The critics could hardly tolerate having freedom but being compelled by clear and objective truth to use it in a narrowly defined way, and yet they are just as critical of a divine hiddeness that gives us a much wider scope for the action of self discovery.

Links!

Penitens has the text of B16's Inaugural Mass Homily. His discussion of the Pallium and the Fisherman's ring is interesting. What I personally expect to see from B16 in office? This report from Scotland sums it up:
The matters in question fall into four related areas: Church governance, theological speculation and instruction, priestly formation and religious practice. Who knows how long he may have for the task and what resistance he may meet, but Benedict XVI will aim to reform and renew the Church. Part of this involves purification. He feels deeply shamed and personally disgusted by the revelations of sexual abuse and the failure of bishops to deal with it. In some parts of the world national and regional conferences of bishops will be wondering, and worrying, about what may soon come their way from Rome (sackings are not inconceivable). In somewhat similar vein he will continue the challenge to those employed in Catholic institutions to teach in accord with the faith and morals of the Church. This is sometimes depicted as a desire to impose personal views but that is the opposite of the truth: he will demand loyalty to the teachings of the Church from those who would use the cover of its institutions to pursue their own opinions. Again I expect to see action on this front with consequent outrage, particularly in North America.
The Maverick Philosopher shares some wisdom about the use and abuse of words in the political arena. Dennis Mangan gives us an example from Spain. What did I think of Paul Martin's TV stunt last week? The Blue Maple Leaf hits the target. I love this picture. Kate's blog is superb too. Get Religion is also a stellar blog, and also also about media. This post deflates one of the many criticisms of Catholicism that seem to bounce around endlessly, with seemingly little to sustain them other than the fact that people seem desperately to want to believe them. The whole 'Aids in Africa is the Vatican's fault', heard so much since B16's election, is equally dubious.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Switching gears...


It's about that time, I suppose. Cartoon by Cox and Forkum.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Revelation is an act

Not an object Via this WSJ article on B16, I found a review of Raztinger's book, Milestones: Memoirs 1927–1977, by none other than Richard Neuhaus. It's interesting because it gives us a look at B16 the theologian and scholar, before he took on his role as a defender of doctrine under JPII. Example:
[Ratzinger] was most deeply engaged by biblical scholarship and writes that "exegesis has always remained the center of my theological work." His academic career was almost derailed when his Habilitation (the degree beyond the doctorate and necessary for teaching) was not accepted the first time around. He wrote on the concept of revelation in the High Middle Ages, and especially in Bonaventure, and offended a teacher who thought himself to be the expert on such questions. Much Catholic theology, he says, had fallen into the habit of referring to Scripture—or to Scripture and tradition—as "the revelation," as though it were a thing. From Bonaventure he learned that revelation is always an act. "The word ‘revelation’ refers to the act in which God shows himself, and not to the objectified result of this act. Part and parcel of the concept of revelation is the receiving subject. Where there is no one to perceive revelation, no re–vel–ation has occurred because no veil has been removed. By definition, revelation requires a someone who apprehends it." Later, as a peritus (theological expert) at the Council, he would come to see the importance of recognizing the Church as the apprehending subject in revelation. Theologians at the Council began to speak of the "material completeness" of the Bible, and Ratzinger suggests that this "catchword" resulted in a curious and mischievous version of sola scriptura. "This new theory, in fact, meant that exegesis now had to become the highest authority in the Church," he observes. Everything was to be subjected to the judgment of biblical scholarship, and biblical scholarship was understood in "scientific" historical–critical terms. The consequence is that "faith had to recede into the region of the indeterminate and constantly changing that is the very nature of historical or would–be historical hypotheses." Although the idea of the Bible’s "material completeness" was rejected by the Council, the after–life of the phrase has distorted the way in which the Council has often been understood. "The drama of the post–Conciliar era," Ratzinger writes, "has been largely determined by this catchword and its logical consequences."
Clearly, Ratz is no dummy. That's a sharp insight. Also no dummy is Francis Poretto, whose subject this morning is quite close to mine. On the subject of wisdom, he wrote:
Humility is the only virtue that makes it possible to absorb lessons from the knowledge and virtues of others. The imprudent man will not learn prudence until he recognizes his own folly and the losses he could avoid by recourse to prudence. The unjust man will not learn justice until he suffers under the lash of his own cruelty and recognizes the reflexive, recursive nature of the Confucian Rule. And so forth. But any such transformation of the mind must be preceded by an opening of the heart. The man who would learn from others must first accept that they and their histories have something to teach him -- that he is not capable of deducing all truths from his personal grain of sand. This is a hard lesson. The greater one's native intelligence, the harder it is to accept.
Bing-o! I'm not being anti intellectual when I say that we owe the brightest among us a great deal, but we do not owe them everything. Being really bright brings with it its own dangers, and refusing the insight of others looms large among them. If you're really bright there is a serious temptation to dismiss others who disagree with us as intellectually second rate, without really taking the time to understand what they've said. The danger only multiplies considerably when we consider the other voice to be of a lesser station than we. Ratzinger's insight is to say that this is true even when one's subject is the Bible. When we close the Bible off as if it were self contained object, our discussion closes off, almost immediately, everyone who is not of a literary-intellectual bent. Their criticisms suddenly become moot. The other, very Catholic point, is that one should not make the Bible an object. There exists no objective point of view from which a human reader can access the Bible. A human brings himself to it, along with his personal history, both of which are God given gifts. His readings are likely to contain things that are deeply personal. He has to recognize that other people and other readings contain similarly personal things. If revelation is an act, anyone can witness it and an intellectual can't steamroll others on the strength of his much vaunted intellect alone. A Godly encounter is not about muscling our way into an object like a book, it is about opening our hearts. This is not an invitation to chaos either, because we hold that God would not contradict himself through the messages we get from him. If there is a contradiction, then our God given reason needs to be put to work to find out where it is. This is not at all the same result as simply letting the brains go after the truth. This approach mediates the intellectuals through lifting and elevating the dignity of every Christian; it says that even the simple may have something of importance to share with us. The intellectual sorts and makes sense of the evidence presented to him; he can't pick and choose his sources in advance. This view also emphasizes the importance of the first person point of view over the third person. It doesn't dismiss objectivity, but it does remind us that true objectivity is always going to be elusive, something we loose sight of all too easily. A truly human culture needs to keep that in mind, lest objectivity be used as a mask for a private triumph of the will.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The enemy of many influential fashions

G.K. Chesterton I've been thinking about some of the negative reaction to the new Pope, B16. Not about what people who are not Catholic and know almost nothing about the church, but about those who are within the church and are feeling frustrated. I'm not sure what particular thing has set off Sinister Thoughts' Greg, who is not only a Catholic but a friendly left leaning reader of mine. I probably don't have a lot of those, so I'll try and reach a bit here. It's not really pleasant to hear about this kind of distress. It doesn't fill me with the urge to yell, Homer Simpson like, "in yer face!" In response to Greg's post, I understand that Hans Kung was taken down a peg, probably by Ratzinger (albeit perhaps at a distance), for teaching what was deemed to be too far beyond the pale of what is considered acceptable for a Catholic theologian. Kung is still a Catholic, however. He wasn't excommunicated. Under John Paul's "authoritarian" reign only one person was excommunicated, and it was not for being too creative. It was not for being too far left. It was Micheal Lefebvre, who founded the very, very traditionalist Society of Saint Pious X. Lefebvre was excommunicated for consecrating Bishops without the consent of Rome. The Society disputes it, but, in any case, one can see that if it was true, it is a very serious charge. Ratzinger, being close to JPII, was probably not too far off in his thinking on cases like these. Kung was perilously close, IMHO, to crossing the line. What Kung disputed was the authority of the Papacy itself. No small potatoes, that. If JPII and B16 really were as reactionary as people like Kung claim, why did SSPX get the boot while he (and others) did not? SSPX would be precisely the kind of order that a reactionary would love to have at his side. I suggest that in both cases the issue was respect for the Papacy and, more importantly, what it is there to protect. SSPX went further than Kung did, and actually did a very untraditional thing. Kung can still take communion and can still teach. He is still a Catholic priest. Why would a reactionary allow that? [Better question: why is Kung still so annoyed about it? He got off very lightly) What the Vatican is, and the Papacy in particular is, is a protector of the deposit of faith. By its very nature, it exists to keep a lid on certain kinds of "liberty." I use the scare quotes because as the church sees it, the things it protects against have nothing whatever to do with liberty. There is room for discussion and experimentation, but that room is not infinite. The church - and JPII and B16 - are not trying to drag us back to some forgotten age, like a reactionary would. They simply assert the existence of the deposit of faith, and attempt to carry it forward for the benefit of future generations. One of my favourite authors, G.K. Chesterton, puts it like this in short essay he wrote called "Why I am a Catholic":
in the modern world, the Catholic Church is in fact the enemy of many influential fashions; most of which still claim to be new, though many of them are beginning to be a little stale. In other words, in so far as he [a critic] meant that the Church often attacks what the world at any given moment supports, he was perfectly right. The Church does often set herself against the fashion of this world that passes away; and she has experience enough to know how very rapidly it does pass away. But to understand exactly what is involved, it is necessary to take a rather larger view and consider the ultimate nature of the ideas in question, to consider, so to speak, the idea of the idea. Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes. The Catholic Church has for one of her chief duties that of preventing people from making those old mistakes; from making them over and over again forever, as people always do if they are left to themselves. The truth about the Catholic attitude towards heresy, or as some would say, towards liberty, can best be expressed perhaps by the metaphor of a map. The Catholic Church carries a sort of map of the mind which looks like the map of a maze, but which is in fact a guide to the maze. It has been compiled from knowledge which, even considered as human knowledge, is quite without any human parallel. There is no other case of one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years. Its experience naturally covers nearly all experiences; and especially nearly all errors. The result is a map in which all the blind alleys and bad roads are clearly marked, all the ways that have been shown to be worthless by the best of all evidence: the evidence of those who have gone down them. On this map of the mind the errors are marked as exceptions. The greater part of it consists of playgrounds and happy hunting-fields, where the mind may have as much liberty as it likes; not to mention any number of intellectual battle-fields in which the battle is indefinitely open and undecided. But it does definitely take the responsibility of marking certain roads as leading nowhere or leading to destruction, to a blank wall, or a sheer precipice. By this means, it does prevent men from wasting their time or losing their lives upon paths that have been found futile or disastrous again and again in the past, but which might otherwise entrap travelers again and again in the future. The Church does make herself responsible for warning her people against these; and upon these the real issue of the case depends. She does dogmatically defend humanity from its worst foes, those hoary and horrible and devouring monsters of the old mistakes. Now all these false issues have a way of looking quite fresh, especially to a fresh generation.
I expect B16 will deal with weak teaching somewhat more forcefully than JPII. That isn't saying a lot, necessarily. JPII excommunicated one person / group in what? Twenty six years? B16 will want to make sure that the next generation gets the straight goods better than you or I got them. He'll want to continue to clarify Vatican II. He is one of the few remaining people who had a lot of input into that. He will want to heal the misunderstandings that still linger over that - interesting details here. In writing all this I don't want to appear as a wise and saintly know it all. That would be pretty far off the mark. I find some things difficult as well, but I have managed to reach a point where I'm prepared to say that when I clash with this 2,000 year old map, I would not be surprised to find out that I am the one who is wrong. I would say that even if I thought Apostolic succession was a bunch of baloney. If I felt there was something to it (and anyone who wants to be boldly Catholic in their heart probably should), I would know I was in the wrong. The only way that could not be, would be if Jesus Christ told me something he neglected to tell the Pope. I hope there might be something helpful in all of that. I know sin and heresy can be really convincing and attractive, but to make sense of this institution one has to look way downfield. Way, way downfield. And it isn't easy- it really isn't.

Dogwood


I am thinking of picking up one of these tomorrow. Don't tell Rebecca.  Posted by Hello

2nd Nationality

Your Inner European is Italian!
Passionate and colorful. You show the world what culture really is.
I took this last night and was surprised to find myself Irish. Nothing wrong with that - I love Irish culture, and beer, and lit. But there isn't a drop of Irish blood in my family. If I change the car in the quiz to a Saab, however, I get something closer to home... Italy. I think there is a wee bit o that floating around. And like Rue says, any excuse to post those boots will do too.

Note

For some strange reason, Blogger is acting up again. This is a new twist, however. I can't access NWW through Firefox anymore. I'm automatically redirected to the Blogger 'create a blog' page. Last night the 'new post' page was still available in Firefox, but today trying to access the 'new post' page gave me a really long error message:
java.lang.RuntimeException: can't load class com.google.blogger.base.User from database at com.google.blogger.dbreader.SqlServer.query(SqlServer.java:1639) at com.google.blogger.base.BaseUser.select(BaseUser.java:116) at com.google.blogger.base.BaseUser.selectByUsername(BaseUser.java:95) at com.google.blogger.base.User.load(User.java:146) [and on and on it goes]
The really odd thing is that I can still access the site and create posts in Explorer. I'm mystified. I added a post last night after the trouble began, just to be sure that IE wasn't simply showing me a cached page. Nope, the new post showed up. I briefly saw the same effect on Jay Jardine's site, but he looks to be OK now. anybody have any idea what's going on? I'm not really happy about working in IE. I miss my tabs! I'm prone to have oodles of them open at a time... Before I head out to the backyard again, I wanted to share a good story from the Times UK (they always have good stuff). I'll probably switch away from all the Papacy coverage I've been doing soon, so I'll get this one in while it's still currant. Why did the Cardinals thumb their noses at the chattering classes of the west? It's simple, really:
If you, as the papacy does, claim direct authority, through your 264 predecessors from the ministry of St Peter, who, the Gospels tell us was inaugurated into that ministry by the Son of God while he was present on earth, is it really possible to take anything other than a bit of a traditionalist view when it comes to doctrinal matters? Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting, at this sensitive moment, that God is a Tory. But the Church’s mission is to bear witness to the truth. The truth is not something that needs redefining each time a pope dies. And it’s not really evident that churches that have made the kind of accommodations with modernity that are urged on the Vatican have fared all that well. The Church of England is a mostly genial institution led, in Rowan Williams, by a good and holy man, but I don’t get the sense that the post hoc validation of modern social mores that the C of E has been practising for some time has led to a religious awakening among the British.
Finally, the author of the article is probably on to something when he makes a guess as to why Ratzinger chose the name 'Benedict' for his papal name:
The Cardinals think long and hard about the choice of a papal nomen. It is intended as a clear signal of their intent. Much attention has focused on the previous 15 popes called Benedict. But it is worth remembering that the first St Benedict was not a pope, but the founder of the monastic order that bears his name. Benedict is the patron saint of Europe. His principal legacy — the Benedictines — was critical in planting the roots of Christianity throughout Europe in the dark, post-Roman period of the 6th and subsequent centuries. Without Benedict, Europe may not have been the centre of Christianity in the Middle Ages that made it the birthplace of modern civilisation.
If this is correct it suggests another reason why Ratzinger may have been attractive to the Cardinals. They know they need to address Europe. I suspect this will be a long job, one that will take considerably longer than Ratzinger has. He will want to pass along what he has, and pass it along intact, to future generations of European Catholics. I'm thinking there may be a new emphasis on Catholic education and on vocations. Given his last job, cleaning up the schools might be a job Ratz is well suited for. He will also get little or no credit for it in the present. It's a job whose fruits lie in the future.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Linguistic Profile

I haven't done a quiz in a while...

Your Linguistic Profile:

65% General American English
15% Dixie
10% Yankee
5% Midwestern
5% Upper Midwestern
I've been told I speak a pretty quick sort of English english. In Carlifornia years ago someone told me he knew I wasn't from "around here." He thought I might have been English.

Missing Link

In my hasty link round up earlier, I somehow missed Blimpish's contribution. It's too good to ignore, so here it is. Click to enlarge. See his entry here and commentary here.

Links!

It's a beautiful day in the Fraser Valley today, so I spent most of it working in the garden. I don't mean I did easy stuff like planting and watering. No, I dug up some grass for a new plant bed and made a small retaining wall for a bed we made last year that was suffering some erosion. And now... now I'm pooped. Tomorrow I'll likely be doing more of the same. I love the work and I love the results even more but you end the day feeling it in your limbs, especially your hands. That's my explanation for the lack of any posts this morning, even though I am home this week. As things warm up around here I suspect there will be more days like this, days where it's too nice to be sitting inside, pecking away at the keyboard. That said, here are a few links to share... first, more papal reaction... I've had some fun watching how others have responded to the announcement of the new Pope yesterday. People like myself are pleased, obviously. Andrew Sullivan's mind is collapsing inwardly even as we speak (no surprise, although it is sad to behold). I am also heartened to see non Catholics who take considerably less offense than Sullivan and Co. (That has to be a record for the most links in one entry for me.) Mark Shea has posted a summary of negative reaction he calls 'the usual people saying the usual things.' It's good for a giggle. Sullivan says "[Ratzinger] even backs a pre-modern view of the conscience, which holds that you can only have a good conscience if you agree with him." That's very likely incorrect. I suspect what Sullivan's really clawing at is this. Especially the part that says "conscience needs to be formed by objective standards of moral conduct." Objective standards are from tradition, Andy. They're not from Ratzinger's so called fevered brain. Without them, "follow your conscience" means "Do what thou wilt." And I suspect that you know that. Shea also has a nice comeback to Maureen Dowd and Co. Paul Cella has a nice movie review up, containing this passage, which I hold out as a peace offering to those less pleased with the conclusion of the recent conclave. I'm hoping it might further understanding:
The critic cannot imagine that what he (or she) sees as a grand liberation may have rapidly led to a new, more subtle, enslavement; that the chains he (or she) so despised in ages past were really only protections or sentinels, erected hastily and shakily to be sure, but erected in good faith and searching human compassion, to protect the souls of men from greater demons. In short, the critic cannot really even see what has happened since the revolution was made, and the liberation achieved. He cannot conceive of himself as equally an object of criticism as his ancestors. He cannot imagine, perhaps, that one day he will be the ancestor, lonely and without weapons to defend himself against the criticism of his descendents. He sees sexual propriety, what used to be called chastity, as nothing but base oppression; and to him its clumsiness is not evidence of its humanness, but of its injustice. And the very farthest thing from his mind, the very last thing he would consider, is that, having been emancipated from his clumsy human thing, what we desperately need now is to be freed from the emancipation.

And now for things silly and amusing... Most amusing tabloid headline on Ratzinger's success. I never heard of Saint Malachy until I stumbled across his name last night. Apparently he made a prophesy about future Popes back in 1139, which some say has been very accurate. If he is accurate, we might all be in a lot more trouble than we think. According to Malachy, Benedict XVI (B16!) is the second last Pope. Ever. There are no shortage of kooky stories about the Papacy. Here are a few more. "New Men" are out. Gee, what a surprise. I find these kinds of stories incredibly annoying. Probably it has something to do with finding trends and the people who follow them incredibly annoying. Being able to spot a trend might be a useful skill (can you say marketing?), but what I really fail to understand is what one has to gain by following one. There have always been different sorts of people, interested in different thing and dressing in different ways. The only thing a trend reveals is that the marketing class has noticed you and thinks it can milk you for a few bucks. Then they'll move their roving eye onto a new target. Be yourself. Tell the marketing gurus to f*** themselves, the parasites. They trivialize everything they come in contact with.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Vineyards and Mustard seeds

Joseph Ratzinger in an older photo Posted by Hello
"The American soldiers photographed us, the young ones, most of all, in order to take home souvenirs of the defeated army and its desolate personnel."
I assume this quote is from Ratzinger's book, Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977. The fact that he has been in very low and very high places in his life (he spent time as a POW) has got to be a good thing in his new position as Pope. Deserting the Nazi army at eighteen is also heroic, especially when it meant risking death to do so. It suggests that he knows being right has nothing to do with being on the right 'side' or wearing the 'right' uniform. More from this article here, including some interesting quotes. There is a simple biography of the new Pope at the US Bishops' website. This Telegraph article also casts an interesting light on the man:
his favoured images are of survival, preservation of treasure, and of the regrowth of the Church from a tiny grain of mustard seed. He admires Englishmen such as Thomas More and Cardinal Newman - "a man who listens to his conscience and for whom the truth that he has recognized... is above approval and acceptance, is really an ideal and a model for me" ... he was not a man living in the past, but rather one tackling with a civilised and clear mind the new challenges of human thought. The third, surprising characteristic, was his openness: friendly, relaxed, almost chatty, always trying to answer any question put. The cardinal struck me as a man happy in himself, though sorrowful about the state of the world. He was hopeful, however. He takes inspiration from the chance that he was born on Easter Eve: "I find that a very good day, which... hints at my conception of history and my own situation; on the threshold of Easter but not yet through the door."
This article from the German magazine Spiegel is surprisingly friendly:
Germans can now hope that this pope will provide them with the same kind of encouragement and hope that Karol Wojtyla once gave the Poles. This pope, whose rivals didn't hesitate to point out, just in time for the conclave, that he was once a member of the Hitler Youth, underwent a cosmopolitan transformation in the 1970s, rising to become one of the Church's most prominent theologians. This pope is something of an apotheosis of the biography of a German.
Of course, not everyone is happy:
theologian Hans Küng, another Catholic critic forbidden by the Vatican from teaching and a former school colleague of Ratzinger called the choice a "huge disappointment" for all those focused on reform, though he said the new pope, 'like a US president" should be accorded 100 days to learn his new job.
In the same sour direction David's Mediencritik notes that:
Germany's conspiracy theorists are also likely to come up with an elaborate explanation of how Bush, the CIA and the neo-cons planned the entire election to create divisions within Germany and the "progressive-wing" of the Catholic Church. Antje Vollmer of the Green party is also certain to have an explanation for these latest developments as well.
Yes, and we're just dying to hear it. Do tell. Benedict XVI may need his courage in Germany and in western Europe most of all. It will take some doing to woo his countrymen. Should he succeed, we might be able to look forward to better Atlantic relations than we have at the moment. And Canada, with a very large and influential western European province at its heart, might benefit from success in this task as well.

We have a Pope!

Congratulations to Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. I'm not at all disappointed with this result but will admit to being surprised. I didn't think he would win it. My first thought is that he may be the man to do some housecleaning of the sort that it is said JPII refrained from doing. Here are some quotes from the former Cardinal. And here are some of Ratzinger's own words on a number of scholarly and church issues. I'm sure we will hear more in the future.

Four Square

Debates about Freedom are necessarily religious debates Edward Fesser is my kind of Libertarian. He started as a Libertarian but as he got older (and wiser) he began to question some Libertarians strands of thought, to the point that he concluded he had nothing to loose by admitting that he was, in fact, a conservative. A series of articles trace his thinking on this issue, which I find fascinating as it closely mirrors my own. In The Trouble with Libertarianism, Fesser begins by correctly diagnosing the claims Rawlsian liberalism makes for itself:
Libertarians have objected that the details of Rawls's theory so incorporate his social and economic egalitarianism into what he counts as "reasonable" that his claim to neutrality between actually existing worldviews is disingenuous; for Rawlsians are ultimately prepared to apply that honorific only to those comprehensive doctrines compatible with an extensive regime of anti-discrimination laws, forced income redistribution, and whatever other consequences are taken to follow from Rawls's famous "difference principle" (which holds that no inequalities can be permitted in a just society unless they benefit its least well-off members). The "comprehensive doctrines" of moral traditionalists and individualist free spirits alike, doctrines having millions of adherents, end up being effectively written off as "unreasonable" from the egalitarian liberal point of view. Libertarianism is truly neutral where Rawls and other liberals only pretend to be.
Fesser has just outlined my starting point, when I left university and first began to think about how humans interact in the world (politics, in other words). He then sketches out a few libertarian thinkers - Locke, Hayek, Nozick and Rand, to show how the basis of property rights - from which human rights historically derive - becomes thinner and less satisfactory as it moves away from Locke. Locke derived property rights in a way that would shock some libertarians today. It sounds remarkably like simple Burkean conservatism:
But what grounds the right of self-ownership itself? The answer, according to Locke, was that it derives from God. How? God, being the creator of everything that exists other than Himself - including us - is the ultimate owner of everything that exists - including us. Therefore, when a person harms another person by killing him, stealing from him, and so forth, he in effect violates the rights of God, because he damages what is God's property. To respect God's rights over us, therefore, we must recognize our duty not to kill, harm, or steal from each other, which entails treating each other as having certain rights relative to each other - the rights to life, liberty, and property. And these rights can usefully be summed up as rights of self-ownership. But ultimately, as it turns out, we don't really own ourselves: God does. Relative to Him, we are merely "leasing" ourselves, as it were, and are accountable to Him for how we use His property. Relative to other human beings, however, we are in effect self-owners; we must treat others as if they owned themselves, and not use them as if they were our property.
The other school of libertarian thought is 'contractarian.' This view suggests that our rights are not absolute and invoiable gifts from the creator, but are merely social convention:
since the libertarian social contract theorist typically denies that there is any robust conception of human nature which can plausibly determine the content of morality, and typically characterizes what he regards as a "rational" party to the social contract as refusing to agree to any rule that he does not personally see as in his self-interest (where his "self-interest" is typically defined in terms of whatever desires or preferences he actually happens to have), it is easy to see how conservative moral views are going to be ruled out as indefensible from a contractarian point of view: not all parties to the social contract will agree to them, and so they cannot be regarded as morally binding.
Contractarian thinking is often coupled with utilitarian ethics; this has a certain coherence since the contract itself is a very utilitarian way of looking at human relations. Finally, Fesser asks how it is that both of these quite different lines of thought have come together under one label. His answer, I think, gets it right; confusion about fundamentals:
The answer... I think, is that all these versions of libertarianism are often thought, erroneously, to be committed fundamentally to the value of "freedom": they are versions of libertarianism, after all, so liberty or freedom would seem to be their common core, and this might seem to include the freedom of every person to follow whatever moral or religious view he likes. But in fact none of these doctrines takes liberty or freedom to be fundamental. What is taken to be fundamental is rather natural rights, or tradition, or a social contract, or utility, or efficiency; "freedom" falls out only as a consequence of the libertarian's more basic commitment to one of these other values, and the content of that "freedom" differs radically depending on precisely which of these fundamental values he is committed to. For the Aristotelian-natural law theorist, freedom includes not only freedom from excessive state power, but also freedom from those moral vices which prevent the realization of our natural end; for the contractarian or utilitarian, however, freedom may well include freedom from the very concepts of moral vice and natural ends. Freedom would also entail for the latter the right to commit suicide, while for the Lockean, there can be no such right, since suicide would itself violate the rights of the God who created and owns us.
What I take from all of this is that while one can divide the political spectrum into four quadrants, two of them are almost nonsensical and two are mature and robust.
1) Traditional Conservative (economic minimalist and social conservative)2) Libertarian (economic minimalist and social liberal)
3) Religious Left (regulation in both spheres)4) Utilitarian Liberal (economic regulation and social liberal)
The reason I take this stand is that I think it is patently false that one can consider social issues separately from economic ones and still hold a coherent doctrine. The major differences between economic and personal transactions are depth and distance, which are not as significant a factor as they type and nature of the actor himself. Primarily, our ideas in both spheres are driven by how we situate humanity in the world. Positions two and three above are incoherent. The religious left does not understand the beauty of perfect intention. Ie. Things that are forced are of little to no religious value. In this it fails to see God (and the freedom he grants) in others. Number two is a mirage for all the reasons Fesser points out. Once we look at it in depth, we see that it forces us to make a choice about how we situate humans in the world and how their rights are grounded. Once we do that, we are forced to choose between boxes one and four. Box one means we see human rights and human dignity as absolutes. Fesser describes it like this: "Other human beings have an intrinsic dignity and moral value, and this entails a duty on my part not to use them as means to my own ends; I therefore have no right to the fruits of another man's labor." I think of this view as other centered, with the ultimate other being a very mysterious God. Box four has the virtue of coherence, ie. rights based on human rationalism, but I as I've written before, that idea has some deep philosophical problems. Quickly, I would describe it as self centered, something Fesser seems to agree with: "I can do whatever what I want to do, as long as I let everyone else do what they want to do too; there are no grounds for preventing any of us from doing, in general, what we want to do." Fesser describes the danger of box four as "a thin conception of human nature and a tendency toward moral minimalism or even moral skepticism." This willingness to continually reassess the rights and restraints we show to others is very dangerous and arrogant. It means a lone human can (must?) decide how much he owes others and it may even mean he is to decide on the basis of his own interest (utility). The most horrid political doctrines of the past hundred years were those that decided that the time had come to do away with restraint and respect towards those that opposed them. I strongly hold that such a move should be anathema to decent people everywhere. It's interesting, isn't it, that this boils down to an acceptance and mature understanding of God? I worked this out (deontology is the best basis for robust human rights) before I took any kind of a look at religion. Once I did, I was compelled to give it a chance.
In Fesser's second article on the subject, he responds to a critic who suggests that psychology and the social sciences could tell us what humans properly are:
... if Wilkinson really thinks that psychology and social science in general are free from "controversial philosophical assumptions," then he doesn't know much about either social science or philosophy. For another thing, even the harder sciences could surely do nothing to settle the deepest disagreements... At bottom, the dispute here is not scientific, but moral and metaphysical, and cannot be settled without addressing the underlying moral and metaphysical issues. The same thing is true of the debate over whether there is a right to same-sex marriage: what counts as "marriage," as a "right," and so forth, are issues that cannot even properly be understood, much less settled, outside the context of substantive moral theory. Social and natural science are in principle incapable of breaking the deadlock.
The critic is either attempting to define the problem away (like Rawls), or he is turning science into scientism.
Fesser comments on his work at Right Reason. See here and here. The last post contains a good example of why I think it is so important to get clear in our heads what we mean by liberty and freedom. The issues are not solely academic:
Now suppose you libertarianism is grounded instead in some sort of Aristotelian or natural law moral theory. Then our rights derive from the role they play in helping us to flourish as rational social animals, fulfill our natural end, or something of that sort. But in that case it is very hard to see how there could, strictly speaking, be a right to do what is contrary to moral virtue. If we grant, for example, that smoking crack is contrary to virtue, and that rights only exist insofar as they facilitate our ability to master the virtues, then there can be no such thing as a right to smoke crack. There may, of course, nevertheless be all sorts of prudential reasons why we might wonder whether it is a good idea to have government forbid or regulate drug use. But what we can’t say in this case is what libertarians usually want to say – that a government that forbade you to smoke crack would be violating your rights. And this is, indeed, why many libertarians don’t like Aristotelian and natural law approaches to arguing for rights – they fear that such attempts, if followed out consistently, will end up denying that we can really have a right to many things libertarians want to claim we have a right to.
Admittedly, it is easy enough to lose sight of the value of perfect intention in our zeal to help people like this. However, how much intentionality and rationality can seriously addicted people still be said to have? Can we help them, all the while ignoring their immediate objections? I am tempted to think that we do those with impulse control problems a disservice when we place them in a society that is too socially liberal. It isolates them too much, and it makes a category error in describing their addiction as a mere personal choice. It shouldn't be seen as illiberal to oppose choices that destroy the ability to make choices. That said, there is plenty of room to debate what is and is not considered a serious addiction.

Monday, April 18, 2005

What a beautiful vintage

"An engagement that I cannot move prevents me from being with you all" Andrew Coyne has been following an exciting day in Ottawa (oxymoron?). There's a letter from Paul Martin to Claude Boulay now making its way around the Canadian blogosphere. It sounds cozy. It's got a handwritten postscript. Then, there's more about WK's testimony... Personally, I love the fact that they (Matinites and Chretienites) have their guns pointed at each other and each side thinks it's doing something good for its own fortunes. Would I be showing too much of my true colours if I revealed my strong preference for somebody to take this sick donkey of a government out behind the barn and pull the trigger? Awww.... Now I feel dirty. Confused readers from outside Canada are invited to investigate the following link for a) background information or, b) a cure for insomnia.

Conclave musings

The Conclave had its first vote today and was not successful in picking a new Pope. Meanwhile, the rest of us can still ponder what might lie ahead. David Warren suggests that what we need is another Pope like Pius X. I don't known a whole lot about Pius X, although there are some things that are intriguing, like the 'syllabus of errors.' I am not sure that what the world needs right now is hectoring. A charismatic, telegenic and thoroughly orthodox example would my own preference. Mark Alexander explains why JPII saw a negative commonality between the communism he lived under in Poland and 'liberation theology,' a school of theology that was popular in South America until he gave it the cold shoulder. Alexander points out that there was no contradiction in the previous Pope's thinking on the issue:
The Polish Solidarity Movement, itself congealed by the Pope's historic visit to Communist Poland in 1979, was an anti-Marxist, pro-democratic movement aimed at dislodging Poland from the Soviet-controlled Eastern bloc. The Solidarity Movement embodied the concepts of individual liberty, free enterprise, and self improvement. Liberation theology, on the other hand, embraces collectivization, the subordination of the individual in favor of the group, and the forced redistribution of wealth and property without fair compensation.
Finally, Father Richard Neuhaus is blogging from Rome.

Qualifiers

Here's are a few of Paul Martin's responses to allegations he met with Claude Boulay to discuss advertising contracts:
"I have never had a lunch with Claude Boulay or anybody else to discuss the direction of contracts, directing contracts, intervening in contracts, that's just simply not my style of politics," he said, referring to the Montreal ad executive.
Asked if he had lunch with Boulay to discuss something else, Martin told reporters Thursday: "I can't recall having had lunch with him since we formed the government."
"I do not remember ever having any lunch with Mr. Boulay. But I did make his acquaintance at the beginning of the leadership in 1990, but it didn't last for long."
I'm no lawyer but I read all these qualifiers in Paul Martin's explanation of testimony at the Gomery Inquiry and what I come up with is this:
Paul Martin did meet with Mr. Boulay prior to forming the government. What they discussed is unknown at this point. Lunch was not served, but diner or snacks remains a possibility.
What troubles me is the care the he is taking in his phrasing. It smacks of a man with something to hide. Or, at least, a man who thinks he has to hide something. Paranoid decision maker that he is, perhaps he simply can't summon the courage to say, 'I met so and so before the last election, but we did not discuss contracts.' My own particular type of paranoia thinks Martin is putting a lot of negative emphasis on the first part of that proposition because it's the second that's the really dangerous part. Perhaps that's because they really did discuss contracts and Martin wants to avoid engaging Clinton-esque hair splitting as to what a 'contract' is. I don't actually think he has the balls to do that, but you never know. The other possibility is that they really didn't discuss contracts. So, if they didn't discuss contracts, what did they discuss? And why go to such lengths to distract attention from it? Martin doesn't do distraction very well either, if his pathetic response to Stephen Harper's questions in the house are any indication. When Harper asked the same questions the reporters in the linked story asked, Martin simply changed the question to one that he liked better. 'I have no hidden agenda, but Mr. Harper does. Let me ask him.... [useless idiotic blather follows, along with arm waving and Martin's prototypical crimson angry face].' He then proceeded to talk about a private think tank report in no way connected with the CPC or it's platform. That'll show 'em. Postscript: This article contains the exchange in the house that I'm referring to. PPS. Breaking news... Warren Kinsella is calling Martin a liar, claiming he has proof that Martin did take a hand in at least one contract. Too bad about the messenger...