Thursday, April 24, 2008

Re: Response to me

Thanks again for your response. You offered some good information; but truthfully, I'm having a bit of trouble understanding parts of it. I'll do my best to respond. I don't wish you to dumb down your information by any means, but it might bear mentioning that my knowledge of philosophy is quite limited, and—almost—all of it has been required autodidactically. Thus, while I have heard of Hegel, and know a bit about his dialectic—I think—that is about the extent of my Hegelian knowledge

All people regardless of their religious beliefs have good reasons to love their family, friends, and neighbors; to improve their local communities; and to take an active interest in long-term national and global politics.

Agreed. But this isn't morality. This is only cold utilitarianism—cleverly disguised I'll warrant. Nothing here can't be found amongst the animals. Well, except in regards politics, but I consider that rather a point in favor of the lesser species.

What is your basis for morality, and why is it binding?

Under what conditions are you willing to describe an action as moral? I'm wondering, here, if you might be operating with an artificially restrictive notion of morality.

I'll quote the Catechism (1749): Freedom makes man a moral subject... Human acts, that is, acts that are freely chosen in consequence of a judgment of conscience, can be morally evaluated. They are either evil or good.

Now, according to Catholic theology, God is the Good at which all men's acts should be aimed. All other goods are derived therefrom. Now, all rational agents can act in ways both good and evil, but only God who is Goodness can determine the goodness of an act. An atheist morality would be, at best, a grasping at the Goodness only God can offer fully. Moreover, in a distinctly Christian climate, the atheist is seldom—if ever—building on his own system of morality; inevitably he borrows from the Christian framework. For instance, while most would agree that slavery is wrong, it is difficult to say why this is so, especially since no one seemed to notice until well after Christ had been born, and that those who finally did condemn slavery did so while working out of a Christian moral framework.

Further, from Veritas Splendor (no: 32): As is immediately evident, the crisis of truth is not unconnected with this development. Once the idea of a universal truth about the good, knowable by human reason, is lost, inevitably the notion of conscience also changes. Conscience is no longer considered in its primordial reality as an act of a person's intelligence, the function of which is to apply the universal knowledge of the good in a specific situation and thus to express a judgment about the right conduct to be chosen here and now. Instead, there is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly. Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others. Taken to its extreme consequences, this individualism leads to a denial of the very idea of human nature.

Their success (for which I take your word) is admirable, but hardly miraculous.

I think such appalling consistency has to be considered an aberration. Recent Popes might realize that consistency is now one of the strong points of Catholicism, but this was hardly clear during the tumultuous stages of the early Church.

History is dearer to me than philosophy, so I would beg your patience as I cite an example. The victory of Athanasius, for instance, seems logical and natural only in retrospect. At the time, nothing could have been more unexpected. The Arians themselves were fully convinced that Pope Liberius would sign the Second Formulary of Sirmium, making the Arian victory complete. Yet despite the fact that he had signed the loosely worded First Formulary, the Pope stood strong. As historian Warren Carroll puts it, "At the final step, at the eleventh hour, the Arians were balked. As was to happen again to their like on several similar occasions later in the history of the Papacy, they simply could not understand how and why and by Whom they had been frustrated. For a full year they held Liberius at Sirmium, doubtless confident that any day the final break would come. It never did." (The Building of Christendom, p.33) Keep in mind that this was during the fourth century, well before the doctrine of papal infallibility had been formally promulgated.

All I can say -- and this isn't very much -- is that Catholicism emerged out of a felt need of a people, gained popularity as an means for affirming some kind of otherwise unexpressed dimension human freedom, and gradually built up its present institutional existence.

There's nothing wrong with this interpretation, but it's worth pointing out that all sects—or cults—emerge for this reason. They then fade because they have failed to meet the need for which they came into existence. Only a sect which satisfies a need—or successfully forbids apostasy—remains.

I hope, though, that you'll agree that there are many possible explanations for the rise of Christianity/Catholicism... Institutional success, in short, is meager evidence for the truth of a theology.

There are a plethora of possibilities. That which strikes me as most reasonable is to believe what the written accounts had to say on the matter.

If you believe that people will generally cling to whatever faith ancestry has handed them—witness the remarkably stagnancy in beliefs in Egypt, at least from what we can gather, and excepting the enigmatic Akhenaton—then explaining why the Romans forsake their pantheon of gods to worship Jesus Christ proves difficult. If, on the other hand, you believe people are generally fickle, always rebelling against their ancestors, then explaining why Catholicism has endured becomes equally problematic. Moreover, it endures, not as a relic, but as a great force. Our last remaining tie to the Empire of Rome is the Catholic Church. But it is not a mere dead thread, a relic, shortly to be discarded in a trash bin. No. It is very much alive.

Our mutual friend Pepin has also provided me with this, courtesy of the 19th century protestant historian Thomas Babington Macaulay. Pardon the length.

"There is not, and there never was on this earth, a work of human policy so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church. The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour. The Catholic Church is still sending forth to the farthest ends of the world missionaries as zealous as those who landed in Kent with Augustin, and still confronting hostile kings with the same spirit with which she confronted Attila. The number of her children is greater than in any former age. Her acquisitions in the New World have more than compensated for what she has lost in the Old. Her spiritual ascendency extends over the vast countries which lie between the plains of the Missouri and Cape Horn, countries which a century hence, may not improbably contain a population as large as that which now inhabits Europe. The members of her communion are certainly not fewer than a hundred and fifty millions; and it will be difficult to show that all other Christian sects united amount to a hundred and twenty millions. Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's."

Good to see you enjoy Joyce!

Joyce is wonderful. I'm trying to summon the courage to take up Ulysses, but if I do it now, it'll be too much battle and too little pleasure.

As a further literary aside, I understand you are a fan of William James. You'll be pleased to note that I picked up a copy of his The Varieties of Religious Experience. My reading list is long, but I'll try to remember to give you my thoughts on the matter once I get around to it.

With its strong Scholastic roots, Catholicism may well be more logically coherent than Protestantism, but there are plenty of other religions in the world, not to mention the route Joyce took himself.

The more I study, the more I become convinced that no one in all of human history was like Jesus of Nazareth. Pope Benedict makes some insightful comments in his recent book of that title, and Chesterton captures this brilliantly in the second half of The Everlasting Man. All of history turns upon the hinges of a strange prophet, who preached for three years in the backwaters of the Roman Republic. This important fact is worthy of our attention.

You'll say that I'm distorting your claim here; but, if this isn't what you mean to imply, I can't figure out why you're insisting upon the non-rational, receptive component of experience, which strikes me as quite out-of-place in this discussion.

I'm not sure if you're distorting my view or not, because I'm not exactly sure what you're saying. Also, I may be bringing something out-of-place into this discussion, but if I am, it's because it's somehow connected somewhere in my head.

I was recently reading Thomas Wood's How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. On page 81, Woods quotes Nietzsche, of all people, concerning the validity of science without faith. I've read a bit of Nietzsche, but the text from which he quotes, The Genealogy of Morals (III, 24) is unfamiliar to me. In any event, here it is:

"Strictly speaking, there is no science 'without presuppositions'... a philosophy, a 'faith' must always be there first, so that science acquire from it a direction, a limit, a meaning, a method, a right to exist. It is still a metaphysical faith that underlies our faith in science.”

I'm curious, in fact, about what kind of evidence could falsify the Resurrection to your satisfaction. As far as I know, the only claim that professional historians are comfortable endorsing is that someone named Jesus existed, had some kind of a popular following, and was put to death by Pontius Pilate.

Disproving the Resurrection at the present juncture would be very difficult to do. But it was not at all difficult during the time shortly thereafter the event allegedly took place. Or anyway, it shouldn't have been.

The historical accounts tell us that Christ's body was laid in a tomb, and that Roman guards were stationed there to prevent the disciples of Jesus from stealing the body and claiming that He had risen. Now, the Jewish and Roman authorities verified that the body was no longer in the tomb; they corroborated on this essential fact. Nonetheless, they insisted that that guards had fallen asleep and that the body must have been stolen in the mean time.

The problem with this theory is that it renders Christianity pointless. This doesn't mean that the Resurrection couldn't have happened, but it is emphatically true that no one could believe in Christianity with this realization in place. Without Christ being raised from the dead, the whole religion is void.

One could attempt to wax conspiratorially here, but we must remember that aside from Judas, who hanged himself, all of the disciples remained fervent devotees of Jesus Christ, indeed, more fervent than they had been while Christ was alive. Further, John excepted, all gave their lives in defense of the Gospel.

Again, I don't insist that the Resurrection happened—though I believe strongly that it did. I merely note men are not in the habit of dying for that which they know to be a lie. But if the disciples, the closest friends and followers of Jesus, did not steal the body, than who did? Unless one operates from a strictly materialist paradigm, the Resurrection can be taken as highly plausible, and perhaps even likely. One would be forced to concoct a wildly ridiculous theory to account for the facts surrounding the early Christian Church without deigning to accept that a miracle did indeed occur.

No one believes in the Resurrection because of the awesome historical record.

I think you're wrong here. If memory serves, Cardinal Newman once defended his belief in Catholicism, not as based on a logical proof, but as a series of closely corroborated facts and hints which led him in that direction. So while no one, save the disciples and those contemporary with Christ, may believe in the Resurrection strictly because of the historical account, many may include that in their list of things that demonstrate Catholicism to be true. I know, but because it's in my own list.

The central thesis of the first Critique is that (to quote the commentator P.F. Strawson) "there can be no legitimate, or even meaningful, employment of ideas or concepts which does not relate them to empirical or experiential conditions of their application." It's not clear to me that the concepts of God, Christ, or Holy Spirit have such conditions of application; they seem, rather, to be employed at the discretionary will of the devout.

I see two flaws here. First, you claim that anything that can't be related to “empirical or experimental conditions” cannot be deemed legitimate. But on what grounds? That claim itself can be dismissed unless you cite "empirical or experimental conditions" which favor it.

Further, if God exists, I don't see why He's required to bend to the whims of humanity who insist upon evidence. Whether or not a transcendent immaterial deity deigns to condescend to man's demands has no bearing on the existence of the deity.

It's interesting to note, too, that Christ insisted that it was an evil generation that demanded a sign (Luke 11:29). Similarly, in the parable of Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), the rich man begs Abraham to let him return to his brothers to warn them off the Hell that awaits them. Abraham insists that if they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not believe even if a man should rise from dead.

Second, when God works a miracle, as at Fatima, or at Lourdes, people still insist that this isn't enough, or doesn't count, and so on and so forth. When paralytics are made to walk and when the blind are made to see; when the mute speak and the dead are raised, I know that something is happening which science can never explain away.

But if I'm wrong about any of this, I might take a look at the passage you refer to.

Regarding Aquinas, Pepin suggests you check out De Ente Et Essentia, which he claims is his fundamental work on metaphysics, and which he says you simply must read. It can be found in its entirety here, though he will give extra credit for this one.

I'll get to the rest of your response in a couple of days.

1 comment:

PJ said...

I think I need to clarify my view on our ethical situation. My position is not utilitarian. To be utilitarian, a theory must advance a single, comprehensive, conception of the good -- in terms of utility -- and then it must stipulate that the moral worth of an action is determined by the extent to which it maximizes that good. I, on the contrary, believe that there are a plurality of real goods and that we have to give priority to ourselves and the people close to us (although I won't directly defend the latter part of this claim, unless you're especially interested). The satisfactions of helping someone solve a difficult problem, of listening to a symphony, and of enjoying a glass of fine wine, for instance, are qualitatively distinct in such a way as to preclude quantitative comparisons. You can't mechanically assess the pleasure of athletic competition against the pleasure of intellectual debate; they are different kinds of goods, providing different kinds of satisfaction. There are other problems with utilitarianism, of course, but this one is the most important for our purposes. I think that when you accuse me of utilitarianism, what you mean is that I assess the value of actions according to essentially human standards of satisfaction and well-being, and this amounts to no more than an egotistic hedonism. The first part of this description is correct, but I hope to persuade you that the second is not.

To help explain my position, let me introduce a distinction, which I have not hitherto employed, between the ethical and the moral. Let the ethical be concerned with pursuit and achievement of goods, and let the moral be concerned with the categorical restrictions or obligations incumbent upon us as we live our lives in pursuit of these goods. First of all, notice that, with a sufficiently robust conception of human goods, pursuit of the same is no mere hedonism. Pleasure is only one kind of good -- and by no means the highest, however one might rank them.

I suspect there are at least two points of disagreement between us. The first is the scope of the moral. I believe that its domain is quite limited. We live most of our lives at the ethical level, where we enjoy considerable discretion about which goods to pursue. There are no ethical laws to which I might appeal when I'm deciding whether to go into academia or law, whether to raise a family or join the clergy, whether to devote my reading time to Aquinas or Hegel, etc. This isn't to say that all decisions are equally good or that it doesn't matter what one does with one's life, only that the relevant standards must be supplied by the individual's conception of "the good life," her sense of who she is and who she wants to become. One will live out a more or less fulfilling life according to how true she is to how penetrating of a self-conception (among other things, no doubt). Society cannot legitimately indict her for spending her evenings at the bar with friends, let's say, rather than at the soup kitchen with the poor. You might persuade her to elect for the latter -- if you can compellingly link her individual conception of the good life with this larger community good -- but you cannot condemn her for pursuing what she perceives as valuable and important, however narrow that perception may seem to you.

Notice, now, that working toward the good life requires a minimal kind of self-consciousness: it is not just a matter of activating pleasure-centers in the brain, but of achieving describable goals -- however these may shift about in the course of a life. It is, in other words, a matter of *self*-actualization. What counts for me as achieving a good life depends upon who I am. Furthermore, since selfhood (I claim) has to be cashed out in terms of irreducibly social commitments and identifications, the good life is necessarily situated in larger social framework. Furthermore, it is up for social negotiation whether my deeds fall under the act-description I invoke and whether I live up to the identity I claim for myself.

For example, there is no intelligible sense in which someone might "really" be a good professor in spite of his inability to capture the attention and imagination of his students and colleagues. If students don't learn anything under his tutelage, he is a bad teacher; and, if he thinks otherwise, he is deluded. It is only in being recognized as being a good teacher that he can be assured that he is, in fact, the teacher that he takes himself to be. To be clear, what is important is not that there always be another person physically there affirming your success to you, but only that the standards by which you assess yourself are essentially social standards.

This claim for the centrality of recognition in any account of the ethical brings us to a second point of disagreement, nearer to the surface than the first, concerning the origin and content of the moral. How is it possible that some actions are categorically wrong, whatever I might think of them, and what kinds of actions qualify?

We can answer this question by turning from the ethical to its condition of possibility. What we need to see is that our ethical success is crucially dependent upon the composition of our recognitional networks. Without shared social practices, standards, and ideals, human life would be reduced to a pathological hedonism. We have an obligation, therefore, to maintain the most fundamental of these networks -- the conditions of lawfulness itself -- by respecting the dignity of the self-conscious agents in which these networks subsist. This is the motivation you requested for our commitment to the Kantian categorical imperative (albeit a categorical imperative interpreted and qualified in a rather controversial, Hegelian way).

Anyhow, there's more I want to say -- I haven't addressed everything I want to in your last post -- but I'm going to leave it at this for now.