Wednesday, March 04, 2015

On Facebook

I recently made the decision to delete my Facebook account.  Deactivate, I should say, because the company keeps one's records should one decide to reactivate one's account--or should it decide to sell the information about their users to advertisers. 

When deactivating one's account, they ask for the reason.  I told them Facebook is inimical to civilization.  Although this explanation does have about it a whiff of the hyperbolic, it's not far from the truth.

As G. K. Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy:

For Western religion has always felt keenly the idea "it is not well for man to be alone." The social instinct asserted itself everywhere as when the Eastern idea of hermits was practically expelled by the Western idea of monks. So even asceticism became brotherly; and the Trappists were sociable even when they were silent.

The brilliance of Facebook is in the way it taps into this basic human need while simultaneously leaving that need unsatisfied.  We don't feel more connected with someone after viewing a picture on his wall or reading a post of his, even while Facebook pretends to grant this wish.  And since we remain unfulfilled, we eagerly look for another picture or post.  Ad infinitum, ad nauseum. 

There is another way in which Facebook is devilish, though in this respect its far from unique: it feeds our drive for novelty.  Our age is obsessed with what is new, and our media reflect this obsession.  Listen to people discuss their favorite things.  Whether the topic is movies or television shows, restaurants or beers, the bulk of the conversation will be devoted to the newest thing.  And the praise of that thing will involve little more than a confirmation of its newness.

The Internet is powered by novelty, and Facebook is no exception.  The news feed carries with it endless streams of triviality.  The very term news feed reveals its purpose: we return to find out what else is new.  Even if the last few stories have been dull, that which has yet to appear will be novel and could be of interest.  No matter how many times we have been disappointed, we scroll or click to see that next new thing.

There is nothing wrong with novelty, so long as it properly proportioned.  But our age worships this false idol and forgets that upon which our, indeed all, civilization is based: what T.S. Eliot--and Russell Kirk--called the permanent things: "the inherited principles, mores, customs, and traditions that sustain humane thinking and preserve civilized existence for future generations". 

Understand that here Facebook is not the villain.  Nor, for that matter, is the Internet.  There is nothing to prevent people from posting worthy things on the Internet--like chapters from Orthodoxy for instance.  People may even link to these sorts of things from Facebook.  But given the relationship between our age and novelty, it is imprudent to hope that the technology will work against the Zeitgeist.  Rather the opposite, as the thirst for novelty can never really be quenched. 

If we wish to keep what is left of our civilization, we must set aside the novel and rekindle our affection for the permanent things.  Though not salvific, they are indispensable. 

They're also more rewarding.  Reading one of Plato's dialogues and discussing it with a close friend is far more satisfying than shouting at an Internet companion over his position regarding something some fool politician said.  Anyway, it's worth a try.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Nihilism all the way down

Philosopher Justin McBrayer has an illuminating piece over in The New York Times with the somewhat lengthy, but revealing title: Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts

He open his essay with a provocative question: "What would you say if you found out that our public schools were teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests?"

He points out that "philosophy professors with whom I have spoken suggest that the overwhelming majority of college freshman in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture."

It is a clear indication of our decadence that those students who are deemed fit for college enter with less moral education than the dimmest barbarian.  This is not by accident: it is the deliberate policy of the schools:

"When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:

Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes."

McBrayer notes the fallacy:

First, the definition of a fact waffles between truth and proof — two obviously different features. Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it. Conversely, many of the things we once “proved” turned out to be false. For example, many people once thought that the earth was flat. It’s a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives). Furthermore, if proof is required for facts, then facts become person-relative. Something might be a fact for me if I can prove it but not a fact for you if you can’t. In that case, E=MC2 is a fact for a physicist but not for me.

But second, and worse, students are taught that claims are
either facts or opinions. They are given quizzes in which they must sort claims into one camp or the other but not both. But if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both.

This is the "dictatorship of relativism" of which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke in his last homily before becoming Pope Benedict XVI.

I offer three observations about this sorry state of affairs.

First, although it seems as if all moral claims will be treated equally--that is, as mere opinions--it is not so.  Every society needs some moral code.  Ours is provided by our elites and their puppets in the media.  They will ostracize our beliefs as mere opinion.  But they will present their worldview as accepted fact.

Consider: is it really questionable whether the child in a womb is a living, breathing human being?  Is it actually a matter of opinion that only a man and a woman are capable of being joined in marriage, and that this union--and only this sort of union--may produce a child?  But these questions are never asked.  The media has no interest in such questions.  And neither do the graduates of our universities, bereft as they are of any moral sense.

Second, such people are incapable of receiving the Good News.  They do not even know that there is goodness!  Our primary objective is to convince them of this.  Before we can make Christians, first we must have pagans.  Only then may they be evangelized.  We should not despair of conversion, but we should recognize the enormity of our task--and pray accordingly.

Third, Christian parents must do everything in their power to remove their children from the schools.  A Christian teacher, if his faith is strong, may be able to withstand the nihilism of the schools and prove a useful bulwark against it.  But no student is that strong.  To hand a child over to be told day in and day out that moral truths do not exist, and yet ask him to maintain that is does, is foolish in the extreme. The children of the light shall have no part with darkness.

Monday, February 09, 2015

World War T

With the Supreme Court poised to sanction the incoherence known as gay marriage, the left has begun to wage what Steve Sailer calls World War T

In light of that development, here is a cogent take on the latest absurdity:

Our mental faculties, like our physical ones, are ordered toward various ends. Among these ends is the attainment of truth. To this extent, it is perfective of our mental faculties to recognize how we truly are (and thus apprehend a truth). It is for this reason that we can make sense of mental disorders such as anorexia nervosa as disorders: they involve persons' having persistent, false beliefs about their identity or how they really are. In the case of the anorexic, someone who is dangerously underweight believes falsely (but tenaciously) that he is really overweight. It would be a proper procedure of medicine, then, for a therapist to help an anorexic individual to do away with his anorexia, restoring the individual’s mental faculties to their properly functioning state.

Well put.  The entire premise of mental illness presupposes an objective good that exists outside of the patient's subjective frame of reference.  If my uncle insists that he is King Henry VIII that does not make him so.  Nor would we be doing him any favors if we went along with the conceit.  If he is otherwise a well-functioning member of society, we may not press the point too hard, but that would not mean we had granted the argument.

The analogy with anorexia is a helpful one because those who fight against us in World War T positively loathe the Henry VIII argument.  To sane individuals, they are seen as analogous, but they only get so far as the comparison with one who is mentally ill before erupting into a paroxysm of rage. 

No wonder they have such trouble thinking clearly.  All those emotions are always getting in the way. 

To continue:

But what are we to make of this “gender reassignment” surgery? Insofar as such a surgical procedure involves the intentional damaging and mutilating of otherwise perfectly functioning bodily faculties by twisting them to an end toward which they are not ordered, such a thing cannot, in principle, possibly be considered a medical procedure. And because love compels us to seek the good for another, it is thus a grave evil to condone such surgical procedures.

This is also well articulated, and dovetails nicely with what I posted about previously.  As Chesterton once put it, "There are some desires that are not desirable." 

Read the rest of the piece.  It's all quite good.

Anyway, this war for the transgendered is only going to accelerate.  If these coherent arguments aren't liable to be taken seriously in our degenerate times, it nonetheless profits us to be familiar with them, both for our own edification, and on the off chance we meet someone who has yet to be taken in by what passes for the left's system of thought.

Teleology

In my civilian life, I'm a software developer.  Those who lack proficiency with computers assume that I'm something of a wizard.  Alas, I do not possess any magical powers. 

When you distil it down, I am paid to solve problems.  I do so in a very specific way: by translating the requirements of the business into pieces of code that can be repeatedly executed by a computer. 

It might seem obvious that to solve a problem, one must first define it.  The business is really good at creating a wish list: they desire an application with such-and-such a set of features.  But, in the midst of all of the excitement about features, they often lose sight of the problem they are trying to solve.  We may end up creating an application with all the bells and whistles which nonetheless fails to meet the needs of the users.

So we find, curiously enough, that the end is a very good place to start.  It is the same with ethics.  Before we can determine whether something is good or evil, we must know the end to which man ought to be directed.

As obvious as this seems, that's not the way we speak about ethics.  We speak not of ends, but means.  If we wish to engage in a particular act, we will insist that this behavior doesn't affect anyone else.  If we desire to sanction a particular act, we will appeal to some nebulous moral majority.  One wouldn't want to be caught on the wrong side of history.

For our purposes, it is not essential that I posit an entire teleology.  It is enough to insist that the good of man requires that he be alive.  Said otherwise, his life is a good.  In our decadent times, such a modest proposal might be considered controversial, but it will have to do for now.

It follows from this end that there are behaviours that are not conducive to the good of man, most obviously, suicide.  Some would insist that suicide "doesn't affect anyone else."  In most cases, this is a lie, but even if it were true, this behavior would still be a moral evil since it acts against the good of man.

This is the manner in which we ought to think about ethics, but it is not the way in which we do so.  As a result, our discussions fail to go anywhere.

Just as it is with ethics, so too with medicine.  We can only know if a pill is good if we know that it will work towards the good of man.  We can only recommend a procedure if we know that it too works towards that end.  Reducing fever is conducive to the end of man; terminating a pregnancy is not.

Now, there are procedures that go wrong, just as there are medicine that fail to work.  This is a separate point.  If the fever fails to come down, we must seek a more effective means to this end.

If we keep the necessity of the end in mind, we will improve our ability to minimize our confusion, be it in business, ethics, or medicine. 

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Romney out

It appears that the Stupid Party will not be re-running the unelectable loser Mitt Romney in 2016:

On a ski lift high above the powdery slopes of Deer Valley, Utah, Mitt Romney made it clear: His quest for the White House, which had dominated nearly a decade of his life, was coming to a close.

The selling point for Romney was that he was "electable" in a way that his opponents were not.  This is the manner of things: the rich who bankroll the party coalesce behind a boring figure of no significant threat to the status quo.  Objections from the party rank and file are then brushed aside, for while the other candidates may have stronger credentials, they are, alas, not electable.

Romney could not run again because he had proven this argument false.  His only appeal was that he was thought to be a winner.  But he was not, so the Stupid Party has turned on to duller and more depressing things:

People were much more excited about Jeb [Bush] than Mitt,” said Ron Gidwitz, a Chicago financier who helped raise millions for Mr. Romney and allied groups in 2012. “Mitt ran twice before unsuccessfully. He’s a great guy. But winning is everything in this business.”

The elites are uniting behind another Bush. Heaven help us all. 

On the one hand, Jeb is not his brother's keeper, and so can not be held accountable for the fact that George W. was such a disastrous president.  (And to the holdouts who insist he was a good president, the current president is the best proof to the contrary.  George W. Bush was so bad the country elected Barack Obama--twice!--rather than endure another Republican president.)

On the other hand, I've had enough of the Bushes for my lifetime.  And enough Clintons for that matter.  What does it say about our democratic republic that, since 1988, only eight years will have seen someone other than Bush or Clinton in the white house?

In a well functioning organization, the most important positions are filled by the most impressive members of that organization.  Applying this theory to the present topic, three possible conclusions present themselves.

1) The most well-qualified people in our republic of over three hundred million people just happen to come from one of two families (three, if we count the Obama's);

2) The Presidency is not all that important, and so can be handled by mediocrities with little harm;

3) Our republic is highly dysfunctional.

I leave the answer as an exercise for the reader.

Friday, January 02, 2015

2014 book breakdown

It seems that getting engaged, planning a wedding, getting married, travelling to half a dozen other weddings, and dutifully supporting one's wife through the sickness which accompanies pregnancy reduces the number of books one reads.  But joy is more than ample recompense for books not read.

I read a scant forty-five books this year.  If I remain on the right edge of the bell curve for our mostly illiterate nation, still, this is less than impressive for me.  Actually, it's truer to say that this is a harbinger of things to come.  I am informed that one does not read serious literature to infants, though perhaps exceptionally precocious toddlers will pine for that pleasure.

Now, onto the recommendations:

An Anxious Age - Joseph Bottum: I reviewed it here.  His book helps us to understand that which is rotten in America.  Hint to the secular sociologists: the matter is a spiritual one.

The Quest for Community - Robert Nisbet: something of a conservative classic, Nisbet notes that human beings long for community while the State undermines this desire.  We have come a long way from the country Tocqueville observed.

The Guns of August - Barbara Tuchman: beautiful book.  I read a lot of history, so much that I forget that historians aren't always very good at writing.  Her prose is gorgeous and her theme is well-chosen.  The Great War was human drama par excellence before it devolved into years of futile trench warfare.

The Ballad of the White Horse - G. K. Chesterton: wonderful poem.  We read too little poetry.  We read even less of the epic sort.  Such is life in the age of Twitter.  Taken in parts, even a computer programmer should be able to appreciate this type of greatness.

2015 Reading List

Currently Reading
Capital in the Twenty-First Century - Thomas Piketty
Essays (Vol. II of III) - Michel de Montaigne
The Interior Castle - St. Teresa of Avila

Read
Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives - Pope Benedict XVI
Front Porch Tales - Philip Gulley
That Hideous Strength - C. S. Lewis
Essays (Vol. I of III) - Michel de Montaigne
The Culture We Deserve - Jacques Barzun
The Restoration of Christian Culture - John Senior
All Roads - Dale Ahlquist

* Denotes reread

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Thoughts on the torture report

One of the biggest news stories from this week was the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on CIA torture.  Since the entire 6,000 page report is classified, reporting has focused on the 525 portion of the executive summary.  For a good overview see the Wiki or Andrew Sullivan.

Two quick points before we get to the heart of the matter.

1) One of the objections to the report has been that none of the participants were interviewed.  Given the cost--$40 million--and the time involved--5 years--this is an oversight, though not one which invalidates the report's findings.  The documented evidence is damning enough.

2) The committee ought to have tried to placate Republican concerns to so as to ensure that the report was bipartisan.  Failure to do so has allowed this to become yet another partisan issue.

Now, onto the report itself.  When Osama Bin Laden was finally found and killed, we were told that the only reason we were able to discover his whereabouts was because of torture--or, rather, enhanced interrogation, that Orwellian neologism preferred by proponents of the procedure.  This turned out to be a lie.

In addition to correcting various falsehoods of the Bush Administration, the CIA and many media pawns, the report considers the efficacy of torture: "The CIA's use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees."

This should be rather obvious.  As I pointed out in my reflection on the death of OBL: "The problem--from a practical point of view, and setting aside the moral trepidation we should feel toward the procedure--is that there is no way to distinguish between good and bad information when it is extracted via torture."  This was confirmed by the report.

But while the efficacy of torture is important, it's troubling that so little attention is being paid to the ethical aspect.  This is representative of the manner in which we discuss most moral issues; lacking a coherent moral framework, we are reduced to consequentialism.  So torture is bad, not because it is a violation of the human dignity of the person, but because it is not useful. 

As the Catechism puts it: "Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity. Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity."

Terrorism and torture are condemned in the same point because they stem from the same immorality: failing to see people as worthy of respect in and of themselves, seeing them only as means to an end.  The people in the World Trade Center were only pawns to be sacrificed to achieve the end goal: embroiling the United States in a war until it became bankrupt.  The "terrorists" are a source of information, nothing more; anything we can do to them so as to extract knowledge is valid.  I use quotes not to scare, but for precision: as the report notes, we killed a man only to later conclude that he was not who we thought he was.

The report makes harrowing reading, specifically the examples of torture and abuse of prisoners. I can only compare it to the Gulag Archipelago, chronicled by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  To be clear, the Soviet torture regime was much more extensive than our own system, and to conflate the two would be an injustice.  Still, reading examples from the report, one realizes that similar ones could have been furnished from Solzhenitsyn's books.

There is a distinct difference between a good nation and a self-righteous one.  The former is so concerned with the good that is clings to it, even when the consequences might bring it harm.  The latter is so convinced of its own goodness that it readily justifies any action it wishes to take.

The report's revelations of injustice are deeply disturbing.  Perhaps more disturbing still is that these justices are being passionately defended.  The rebuttal seems to be: we didn't torture, but if we did, the terrorists deserved it--and we saved lives. 

We are a deeply self-righteous nation. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

A particular agenda

"Whenever there is an adjective added to an important value-based noun, there's an agenda." - Dennis Prager

Social justice is to justice as gay marriage is to marriage.  In normal speech, the adjective only modifies the noun; in these instances, it obliterates it. 

Aristotle defines justice as giving someone his proper due.  It is just to hold a door for a stranger who is trying to escape the rain.  But it is also just to punish a robber for his crimes.  Social justice, on the other hand, is only a levelling. 

The possessions of the rich are an injustice, not because he accumulated wealth in an unjust manner, but simply because he possesses it.  He may have made his fortune selling his cure for cancer; he may have made it by being bailed out by taxpayers as the head of an investment bank.  To the social justice warrior, the means are unimportant, only the end matters. 

Which is to say, justice is unimportant, only equality of wealth matters.  Even here, it is unlikely that the social justice warrior will sell his belongings and give them to a less fortunate denizen of the third world.  His ire is directed ever upward, never inward. 

The matter is similar with gay marriage.  Now, marriage has a plain definition: a man and a woman, pledge to be faithful to one another until death parts them.  They are, moreover, to care for any children with which they are blessed. 

Gay marriage is nothing of the kind.  The two men or the two women pretend to take on the role of the husband and wife, but it is a sham display because no children can ever come of such a union.  They can only pretend to be married; they can only have children that are not their own.  

And, of course, there is simply nothing to prevent other marginalized groups from concocting their own peculiar arrangements which, with the help of an adjective, they can call a marriage.  There may be little appetite for three people getting married, but there is nothing illogical about it, once grant gays their definition.  And so the affair becomes one uniting any number of people based on mere feelings of affection. 

There is some good news: just as the promotion of social justice cannot remove the idea of justice, so the promotion of gay marriage cannot remove the idea of marriage.  These ideals exist even if society succeeds in marginalizing them.  But it would certainly be better if the State did not work against justice and against marriage.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

On the synod

Three months ago, I got married.  While still engaged, my then fiancee and I found ourselves explaining our living arrangements to curious parties.  No, we were not living together.  No, we were not planning on living together before we were married.  In fact, with my fiancee's lease up two weeks before our wedding, she was going to move in, while I would be kicked out to live with a friend.

The reactions to such an explanation were revealing.  Conservative Christians, both Catholic and non-Catholic alike, seemed to understand implicitly.  But those who did not share our philosophy about sex and marriage seemed befuddled. 

It's important to note here that living together before marriage is not, absolutely speaking, sinful.  Fornication is sinful; living together is a good example of a near occasion of sin since, though fornication need not take place, it increases the likelihood that it will. 

There is another reason living together is imprudent.  It gives rise to scandal.  Here we refer, not to the tabloid sense of the word, but to its Catholic meaning: an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.  If a younger sibling sees an older sibling living with his fiancee, he will see this as morally acceptable. 

In point of fact, by youngest brother assumed that we would be living together before marriage.  He thought that this "premarital preparation" was a necessary step in the process, a matter which was swiftly corrected.  Even the young are skilled in neologism.

I bring all this up in light of the 2014 Synod of Bishops which is presently taking place in Rome.  The subject matter is marriage and the family.  Reports on the synod have diverged wildly.  Rather than seek to reconcile the reports, I want to clarify a matter of some confusion.

There is a notion that every Church pronouncement is a matter of doctrine.  So if a Pope gives a speech about how the welfare state must respect the dignity of the poor, this is seen as proof that Catholics must accept the welfare state, and in whatever forms it may take. This is to conflate doctrine, which does not change, and policy, which, because it seeks to work out the good in the midst of human frailty, can.  In this case, there are any number of arrangements which respect the human dignity of the poor, and a great many more that do not.  There is no one Catholic way to address this issue.

The synod concerns itself with policy.  Speculation that the Church will drop Her opposition to homosexual relations can be easily dismissed.  This doctrine cannot and will not be altered, neither in this synod, nor in any subsequent council.  However, the Church can make alterations to policy recommendations for pastors who must deal with laity who do not have the same sense of sin as that taught by the Catechism.

If a couple comes to a priest for instruction prior to marriage, it would be easy for him to dismiss them for cohabiting.  But this would mean he would miss an opportunity for catechesis.  If the couple is obdurate, and intends to remain in sin, I do not see how the priest can marry them, but if they are receptive to reconciliation and reform, he has a chance to prepare them for a sacrament of much grace, grace that will be indispensable throughout their married lives.

Other cases are trickier.  What does the Church do with homosexual couples who are "married"?  What about those who are divorced and have not obtained annulments?  Like the cohabiting couple, we can simply exclude them, but the Church should seek to bring these lost sheep back into the fold.  These are important questions in the west, where the divorce rate hovers around fifty percent and gay marriage is increasingly accepted by the secular legal system. 

One last point: it is very easy for those of us who live in the west to forget that these aspects of marriage and family life, though important, are not the be all and end all of the matter.  The Church is catholic, and thus must concern itself with the laity everywhere.  The family is as important in Europe and North America as it is in Africa, or Asia, or South America.  Hopefully, the synod will reflect that reality when it issues its report.