Writing the Story Is Left as an Excercise for the Reader

I came across one of the stupid things that replaced email forwards but doesn’t have a name yet which (erroneously) claimed Hemingway once bet people he could write a short story in six words, and wowed everyone with how moving and profound yadda yadda:

For sale, baby shoes, never worn.

We’re supposed to imagine the tragedy and the sorrow of the parents who lost their infant child, etc. And yes, there could indeed be a very sad story of loss and grief behind these words. Or there could be a story of someone with a healthy, happy baby who was given more baby shoes than they could actually use by friends and relatives. It could even be the story of someone who had baby shoes and realised that the things are utterly pointless because babies can’t walk and once the child actually arrived the practicality of real parenting set in and they set the stupid things aside. Maybe it’s a science fiction story in which an alien used a replicator to duplicate baby shoes. Maybe it’s a spy-thriller in which the baby shoes were used to hide secrets. It could be anything at all.

Now, I have heard people defend this sort of thing on the grounds that this provides a wide scope for the imagination. It does, but only because it doesn’t provide anything else. It provides as wide a scope for the imagination as a blank page, because it basically is a blank page. If the reader is willing to do all the work, this sort of thing is super easy. Here’s one:

“Bottoms up,” he said, and died.

That can be about someone in a suicide pact, or perhaps a man being executed who got a last drink before execution. Here’s one in five words, though I’ll grant it’s not original:

And then there were none.

That one is about a serial killer on an isolated island. Here’s one in four words:

I knew love once.

A person who fell in love while on military deployment but could never find her again when he went back. Three words:

Call me Ahab.

Modern retelling of Moby Dick from Ahab’s perspective, because I saw a poster for Wicked in the train station today. Or if that’s too derivative, how about this:

I died, once.

Story told by a ghost or sci-fi where medicine can bring the dead back to life? You decide! Two words:

Me: Tarzan.

A new Tarzan reboot by someone who can’t afford the rights to a superhero. One word:


You write the rest, I’m tired of this.

There are Four Vocations

In Star Trek: The Next Generation there is an episode where Captain Picard has been captured and is being tortured. In order to break his will, he is shown four bright lights, told that there are five lights, and severely punished every time he says the correct number. American culture sometimes feels like that with vocations, though instead of insisting that there are five it insists that there is only one: marriage.

One is an especially unfortunate number of vocations for our culture to have settled on since a single choice is no choice at all. Marriage thus becomes prescriptive and considering the very idea of vocation appears strange, if not outright mentally ill. Shoehorning all people into marriage also damages marriage, which might fairly be said to be splitting at the seams. The high rate of divorces generally and annulments within catholic culture testify to a great many people whose vocation was not marriage—or if it was, having thoroughly misunderstood what marriage was—going through the motions of marriage mostly because they thought that they were supposed to in order to be human. (Fornication carries so few consequences in American culture that going through the motions of marriage cannot be for gratification of sexual desires.)

There are four vocations—marriage, committed single, consecrated religious, and holy orders (priesthood/diaconate)—because people are not all the same. In America we tend to look at this backwards: the person first, then the vocation to fit the person, just like you pick a job based on whether you like horses more than bridges, or cooking food more than both, etc. A more accurate way to look at it is that the vocation is part of the person, and therefore their personality is suited to their vocation. (It is more accurate because the “being” in “human being” is really a verb, like “running” or “swimming”, though really the only distinction between verbs and nouns is that verbs are relatively short-lived actions and nouns are very long lived actions. God’s name is not “The Thing” but “I am”, and so far as we exist we are all made in the image of God.)

Trying to cram people into the wrong vocation will necessarily hurt the people thus crammed. The proper definition of sin is “privation of form”, or slightly more intelligibly to those not familiar with scholastic philosophy, “diminishment of being”. We can all see what is meant if you consider the loss to a pianist of having his hands mangled in an accident. He simply ceases to be a pianist at all. He might be or become many other good things, of course. He might become a great piano teacher. He might fall back on the degree he got in college of astrophysics and do excellent work examining the stars. He might concentrate on managing investments for family and friends which he had been doing in his spare time. He may become a much better man than ever he would have been as a pianist, but none the less he who once was a pianist is no longer; in that regard he is now less than he once was. His being has been diminished.

By analogy, sin diminishes a person too. Human beings were given language to enable us to tell the truth. To use language to tell a lie makes us less, because now we cannot be trusted and all our words convey less truth than they used to. So it goes with all sin; it is to make ourselves less than the fullness of what we are supposed to be. That God saves us means that this diminishment may not always be permanent, and it may not always be catastrophic, certainly it will not destroy us if we turn away from it and embrace God’s gift of salvation.

I think this analysis makes it obvious why a person being crammed into the wrong vocation diminishes them; it doesn’t destroy them and it certainly will provide many opportunities to practice the virtue of patience, but it will result in their life not being all that it could have been. But we must be clear that this does not mean that a person so crammed will grow new abilities and personality traits; they will have to make do as best they can with a personality which was adapted to something else. Swimming might here be a good analogy; the human body can swim, and some people can swim much better than others, but the human body is not made for swimming, and the fastest of us are slow compared to very average fish. A man who should have been a celibate priest might make a good husband and father, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have made a better priest. The reverse is of course true, too, but that mistake is well understood within our current culture.

To some degree I think that part of the problem in understanding this is the degree to which catholics have acculturated to the predominantly protestant culture of America. In the aftermath of JFK, catholics went from being distrusted and hated to being accepted, and this caused many of the problems which are always associated with comfort. Chief among those problems is laziness. Comfortable people become very reluctant to hold onto difficult truths, and that people are not all the same is a difficult truth to hold onto.

Now, it is easy to be misled because “tolerance” is a common catchword, and we’re asked to be tolerant of seemingly everything. But these are all superficial differences which are accepted, and they are accepted precisely because they are superficial. Pretending that everyone is basically the same is much easier than loving people who are different, which is why one of the immediate actions of “tolerance” is to angrily call all discussion of difference bigotry. It may possible be that much of the “tolerance” we see is the overcompensation of self-loathing bigots, but much of it is that this “toleration” consists primarily of pretending that there are no differences. To discuss real differences is to shatter this illusion, and since they have no metaphysical system in which (real) difference is not defect, this has no other interpretation to them.

There is another problem which our culture has that tends to deny any of the celibate vocations, and (unsurprisingly) it is derived from an essentially secular origin. The basic principle is that a person must have a committed sexual partner in order to be a full human being. It’s a crazy idea, and one might be tempted to think that it comes from watching far too many romantic comedies, but in fact I think it derives from the belief in an imminent soul made up of the accumulation of a person’s experiences, rather than a transcendent soul which pre-exists but changes with experiences. The former is the only real metaphysical possibility absent an intelligent creator, hence its prevalence in our largely secular culture. An imminent soul has no inherent value, however. It can only be valued if known, and it can only be known with a very great investment in time, and that very great investment in time will only be made if a person is loved, but they can’t be loved before they are known and so something must attract another person prior to knowledge and the only two candidates are desperation which would take anybody, and sexual attraction which is at least a little selective. Desperation is of no value because it is entirely focused on the self, not the other, which is why it will take anyone. Hence sexual attraction is the only option for a worthwhile life. And hence celibate vocations are a form of suicide, and why parents might discourage their children from throwing their lives away in that manner. In the best case, these might be noble sacrifices, like being an organ donor or the soldier who jumps on a grenade to save his fellows, but still, one hopes that the noble soul who sacrifices himself will be someone else’s child.

Accordingly, I think that the first thing we must do to help everyone get into their proper vocations is to attack the idea of homogeneity. Sex is nice and all, but massively overvalued, so to get it into its right proportion in human life, I think that we need to undermine the idea that sex is something which makes a human life whole. It’s a powerful and very animating idea, which is why I think relatively little headway will be made while it is still dominant. It’s not a very sensible idea of stated directly, however, so I think it is vulnerable to mockery. And I think that there is merit to Saint Thomas More’s saying that the devil, being a proud spirit, cannot endure to be mocked.

I think that this is also very important for recovering an authentic understanding of the vocation of marriage. Far too many people go into marriage looking to get something out of it, rather than looking at it as a way to pour themselves out like a libation. Marriage and raising children have their enjoyable parts, to be sure, but the idea that marriage is some sort of odd hybrid between entertainment and psychotherapy is very destructive to human happiness. Children are wonderful to watch and play with, but it is proper they will take a great deal from one that they will never give back, and they will in their youthful ignorance cause a great deal of suffering which will form a heavy cross to carry. Pretending that marriage is something which will help to carry crosses, rather than something which will fashion them and load them onto one’s back, is to set people up for disappointment and misery. It is true that husband and wife will help each other, but they will also be one of the biggest sources of the other one’s problems. This does not mean that husband and wife will inevitably quarrel—though so far I’ve never heard of husband and wife who haven’t—but that the two are signing up to do something very difficult together, and the magnitude of problems are always proportional to the magnitude of the undertaking from which they arise. Marriage is a thing which should be viewed like enlisting in the army during a war, not like booking a Caribbean vacation.

Though it should be noted that most soldiers survive going to war, whereas marriage has a 50% mortality rate.

The Terrible Effects of Sola Fide

I have called protestantism proto-atheism largely because the denial of reason which you find with people like Martin Luther (who famously said that reason was the devil’s whore) and John Calvin (whose doctrine of the total depravity of man makes reason at best unattainable for men) sets it on that course. However, I have recently realized that there is another way in which protestantism is proto-atheism, embedded in what the doctrine of Sola Fide often becomes. (I would like to emphasize that I am talking about protestantism and not protestants, many of whom share little in common with Martin Luther and have a healthy respect for reason.)

According to Peter Kreeft, there is a way in which the doctrine of Sola Fide is in fact compatible with orthodox Christianity (it’s towards the end of that video if you’re looking for it). I have grave doubts that this expansive and non-obvious meaning of Sola Fide was what Martin Luther meant but since he’s dead that’s purely a question between him and God. What is relevant to us, however, is that a great many evangelicals and fundamentalists (and some other protestants) are quite sure that this orthodox interpretation is wrong. They hold that all that is needed to get into heaven is for a person to believe that Jesus is the son of God and died for their sins. Often this takes the form of “accepting Jesus into your life” by saying a prayer where you formally accept Jesus as your personal lord and savior. Often (but not always) it involves some feeling of “knowing that you are saved”. To distinguish this from possible other versions of Faith Alone, I will refer to this version as Belief Alone.

One of the problems which immediately crops up with salvation by belief alone—if you think about it for more than a few seconds—is that after people die and come to meet God face-to-face on the day of judgment, everyone will believe. (As the saying goes, Satan believes.) It is, therefore, not possible that there is anything operative in belief that contributes to or makes up part of the substance of salvation. Worse, since most evangelicals and fundamentalists seem to conceive of heaven and hell as two alternative rooms, one with a party one with far too many sharp things in the hands of unpleasant creatures with odd senses of humor, and in no way think of salvation as any sort of improvement from an imperfect state to a perfect state, belief during life can only be a criteria like how having all six colors of pie piece allows you to attempt to win the game in Trivial Pursuit. It is a purely arbitrary rule.

The only possible purpose of this arbitrary rule—if entry into the infinite party room being only for people wearing the wristband of belief has any purpose at all—is to function as a test of obedience. But, the question must be asked: obedience to whom?

Now this is where the rejection of reason (more formally, fideism) comes up again. If evangelicals and fundamentalists (etc) believed in natural theology, i.e. reason’s ability to approach God, this test of obedience would be very harsh, but it would at least be a test of obedience to God, because a natural man unaided by divine revelation through miracle can still learn of God through reason and thus such belief could—by a great stretch of the imagination—be some sort of test of the individual’s worth. How it can be a meaningful concept for a fallen creature to merit salvation is still something that would need to be explained, but there would at least be some hope for how salvation through belief alone would not be completely self-contradictory (not to mention completely evil).

But when you add in fideism, it is not possible for one to use reason to arrive at the truth. The ticket into the party room thus consists of belief in something one has no reason to believe. Whatever the person proposing this idea may say about asking you to have faith in God, what he is really doing is asking you to have faith in him. Moreover, because—according to him—you cannot know who God is, it cannot be God in whom you believe. You cannot believe in what you cannot know. The end result is that this is nothing other than a demand that you obey the person who is making the demand of you.

As I understand it in the typical case the one making the demand is a person’s parent, but since the demand did not originate with them—they are just passing it on—this really ends up being a demand for absolute fealty to a person’s society. This leads to atheism in two ways.

The first is that this demand is so unreasonable that a reasonable person will utterly reject it. This is why so many of the people who come to the Catholic church from fundamentalism or evangelicalism do so by way of atheism. It is also why modern atheists so often seem like fundamentalists who have simply switched their holy book from the bible which they interpret in light of popular books about it to their high school biology textbook which they interpret in light of popular books about it. (I mean that last part metaphorically, not literally.)

The other way that salvation by belief alone leads to atheism is that it is a form of idolatry. Idolatry is worshiping a created thing in place of the creator, and in this case the created thing is the society. Idolatry is a matter of fealty, i.e. priority, but not necessarily of belief, so this is not simply atheism by name, if it often seems to look like it in practice. What leads it to become avowed atheism is the existence of a another society which the person wishes to be a part of. Sometimes it’s another sub-culture. Often it’s the larger culture of the society in which the fundamentalist/evangelical lives. Whatever it is, this sets up a conflict, and if the other culture wins, a strong rejection of the idol becomes necessary, because it is a jealous idol. Since its official belief in God is part of that idol, it will become rejected when the idol does. The attitude of total fealty to society may not, however, and I believe that this is where we get most of our evangelical atheists from. They have transferred their complete devotion from fundamentalist/evangelical society onto whatever new society they identify with, and will attack believing in God with the same ferocity that they used to attack not believing in God. And their theological knowledge will not have improved from the transition.

The Argument From Design

Until 150 years ago, or so, the argument for God’s existence from design was probably one of the more commonly understood arguments of natural theology. (Natural theology consists of the things we can say about God by the light of our own reason and nature, in contrast to revealed theology, which are the things God has told us about himself.) After the rise of NeoDarwinism (by which term I refer to the Dawkinsian creation myth and not the scientific theory of evolution), the argument from design is still intuitively understood by many people, but it has generally become misunderstood formally. If you were to ask an atheist on the level of Richard Dawkins—who is among the best of the worst atheists—what the argument from design was, if you lucked into a calm and concise one you’d get something like this:

If you look at the natural world, many things in it are very simple, like rocks, but many of the things in it are far more complex than can reasonably be supposed to be assembled by blind chance. Things like plants and especially animals are too complex to be an accident, and so they must have been created by an intelligence more complex than they are. Since we, too, are part of the natural world, there must be something more intelligent than us which made us, and that thing is God.

This is not at all the classical argument from design, such as you can find in the Summa Theologica, though I will grant you that you can find something like it from young-earth creationists. It is, fundamentally, a god of the gaps argument. God of the gaps arguments are more repugnant to orthodox Christians than to atheists because they are an insult to God: they claim to show that God exists because the natural world doesn’t work and needs to be constantly fixed. This is a relatively new idea; it really only makes sense in the context of modern mathematical physics. Before that attempt to fit the workings of the universe into the human head, no one ever supposed that the universe didn’t actually work.

(At least next to nobody. There is probably some ancient Greek philosopher who argued that, because for pretty much any argument there is an ancient Greek philosopher who argued it. And technically (original) Buddhism is based on the idea that the universe doesn’t work, but at a higher and qualitatively different level than what I’m talking about here. Also, Buddhism is fundamentally atheistic. Since it holds that everything is an illusion, it holds that its gods are not real, and it certainly denies any uncreated creator. It’s much more akin to the zero-energy hypothesis.)

The classical argument from design is not based on probabilities and certainly does not depend on the idea that natural things do not fit together. It in fact contradicts the idea that the unfolding of nature couldn’t have been according to a natural process precisely because it argues from the fact that natural processes actually work. A fundamentally broken world would undermine the classical argument from design. So, without further introduction, here is a version of the classic argument from design (my words):

If you look at the world, it exists imperfectly according to a rational hierarchy of being. Things at lower levels work together to the advantage of better things, and these better things in turn order and improve the lower things. Quarks work together to form protons and neutrons. Protons, neutrons and electrons work together to form atoms. Atoms work together to form molecules. Molecules work together to form bodies. These bodies include plants, which turn sunlight into food, and animals, which eat the food the plants make. Some animals keep the other animals from over-eating the plant food. Other animals spread the seeds of the plants, as well as nutrients which the plants need. There are also less clever and more clever animals, with a rational animal at the apex, who directs the lower animals as well as the plants toward a harmonious function.  In all of this there is a rational order where the parts fit into each other and work together to create a good whole. This rational design reflects and points to a rational mind which orders the natural world according to the good. Any such rational mind which is itself a part of nature, such as a super-intelligent space alien or a little-g god or extra-cosmic aliens in a universe that created our big bang, or whatever, would themselves be a higher step in this rational order, since they are a part of it by virtue of shared time and causality. There must, therefore, be some rational mind which is not part of it, which stands utterly apart from it, like how Shakespeare stands apart from Hamlet or the characters in The Mousetrap (the play within the play). This rational mind which is utterly apart from all of the rational creation with a shared causality is what all men call God.

(Where the natural world varies from the rational order, this constitutes is a rebellion of the rationally ordered creature against its creator, possibly very indirectly since things are supposed to receive their rational ordering according to the other things within their shared hierarchy. Thus we clearly live within a fallen world, but that means we live within a rationally ordered world that has partially broken, not within an irrational world that doesn’t work at all.)

To see the difference between this world and an irrational world, consider how any of the components could have gone wrong. Suppose up quarks weren’t compatible with down quarks: we’d have neither protons nor neutrons, and consequently neither atoms nor molecules nor bodies nor plants nor animals. All there would be is a vast sea of sub-atomic particles without any interesting organization. (And please bear in mind I’m only saying that world would be irrational; I’m not saying anything about how likely or unlikely it is—its probability is utterly irrelevant.) Or suppose electrons couldn’t orbit an atomic nucleus: the result would be an ever-dispersing gas of particles fleeing from each other since nothing held them together. And again, I don’t care whether that possible world is more or less likely than ours, I only care that it would be far less interesting, because that is just another way of saying it would not be rationally ordered. What interests us is intelligible order—no one is fascinated by noise.

The same can be seen if we look at evolution. Dawkinsian atheists love to talk about how order emerges from chaos because of simple rules, in this case the simple rule being natural selection. This is fair enough so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far because mere order is not the same thing as rational order. In science fiction one encounters stories of nan0bot catastrophes where self-replicating nanobots which can use their environment for raw materials get out of control and turn the entire world into unimaginably many copies of themselves. This is called the grey goo scenario. But we in fact already have self-replicating nanobots which can use their environment for raw materials. They’re called bacteria. So why isn’t there a bacteria-goo scenario, where some bacteria hit on the winning combination of genes/proteins and turned everything into a copy of itself? A single species that has smashed all others is very compatible with survival of the fittest. (Yes, I know that survival of the fittest is only an approximation of the biological theory of evolution, but the more proper theory doesn’t differ in this regard.) Perhaps domination might be bad for the bacteria, but that downside could only emerge once they’ve wiped everything else out, at which point there would be no other species left to balance things out again. This also applies to other layers in the hierarchy of being. Why aren’t all plants poisonous? It would not be hard for a plant to have eliminated the first herbivore, and to have made a herbivore-free world. If wolves ate every last prey animal, they would starve to death, but only after they ate the last one. Then there would be neither predator nor prey and just an animal-free world left. (And it’s no answer to say that the changes happen so gradually that balance is always maintained because we know that evolution often happens very quickly. The gradual accumulation of changes is more a just-so story for children than it is a description of how evolution has typically worked, and certainly is not a description of how it can work.)

Now once again, I’m not talking about what is more probable, but what is more rationally ordered. (That is why it’s irrelevant that one species could balance out against another’s recently gained advantage; that’s only a question of probability.) A world in which a super-bacteria ate everything else and so was the only thing left (and then died off if it wasn’t an autotroph) would be very orderly, but its extreme homogeneity would not be a rational hierarchy. It would be just as complex as the world we live in, since it would have just as many moving pieces, but it would be far less interesting. And as the way that every foreign animal introduced into Florida seems to kill off the native species shows, evolution does not of its nature tend to produce a more interesting world. It won’t for the same reason that the history of warfare shows weapons all converging on the same basic designs: optimizing for one thing rarely has more than one solution.

Now, the reason why probability does eventually enter the discussion is that for any configuration of matter, it is always possible that it got that way by sheer accident (“randomly”), and so a world organized according to a rational hierarchy of being must, of necessity, look like a possible accidental outcome of blind matter. (This is less true if one recognizes the existence of free will, but since people wish to entertain the notion that free will might actually be an illusion, the similarity is unavoidable.) Thus one must ask of a thing that is organized according to a rational hierarchy: how likely is this to really just be a pure accident rather than what it appears to be? But please note that this question is utterly different from a god-of-the-gaps argument. We are not asking whether this world could work without God. We’re asking whether this world that looks like it was made by God could in fact be an accidental similarity only. We’re asking whether the portrait of a man we’re looking at might have been the result of a canvas and some tubes of paint falling off of a table and the resulting mess just happened to look like a skillful portrait of the man. That could have happened; the right colors could have been on the table, and the dog might have carried the tubes of paint off back to its bed to chew on them. An excellent portrait of a man is not impossible without a painter. But between a skilled painter and a freak accident, my money is on the painter.

That being said, this is why the argument from contingency is much stronger than the argument from design: the argument from contingency shows that it is absolutely impossible that there is no God. This is also why Dawkinsian atheists value evolutionary anecdotes so much—vivid stories capture the imagination and make the whole thing seem more plausible. It’s also why Dawkins spends so much time angrily sneering. His alternative is to say, “Come on, guys, it’s not technically impossible!” and that would be poor salesmanship.

In closing, I would like to show the version of this argument which you can find in the Summa Theologica:

The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

There is a great difference of expression between my version of the argument and Saint Thomas’ version, but they mean roughly the same thing. Most of the differences arise from a very different standard education. We are not taught about goodness or what the relationship between different types of beings is, and very little about intelligence and less about rationality, so in a modern context such things must be explained at length, whereas in Saint Thomas’s time, anyone with even a tiny bit of education was familiar with those concepts. Our scientific knowledge, by contrast is far more advanced. Everyone has heard of protons and neutrons and electrons, and most people have heard of quarks.


There are two addenda which I should discuss briefly: the weak anthropic principle and the infinite multiverse.

The weak anthropic principle is, roughly, “if the universe weren’t configured in its present way, we wouldn’t be asking why it was configured this way.” Typically its phrasing is adapted to the needs of the moment, but it always means as little. Probably the strongest statement of it—and this isn’t saying much—it is technically possible that our evaluation of a thing is influenced by having grown up in a world where that thing having happened. Usually it’s said in a way to suggest that our evaluation most likely was so influenced, but this is pure showmanship, without any admixture of a reason to believe it’s true. “I believe it, so you should too if you want my respect,” intimates the Dawkinsian atheist, as if any self-respecting person wouldn’t question his life choices if a Dawkinsian atheist did respect him.

The infinite multiverse hypothesis family of hypothesis that claim, essentially, that every possible world exists in a parallel universe. Basically, take Occam’s Razor and reverse it: unnecessarily multiply entities. I think that this originated with the question of why our physical constants (the charge of basic particles, the gravitational constant, etc) were the way that they were, and so one answer proposed—presumably by someone who read too much science fiction—was that every possible world happened, and we’re just in one that turned out to produce life. How anyone gets past the instant destruction of science, I can’t imagine. If every possible world happens, then there are an infinite number of worlds where all scientific experiments came up with their results by accident. There are infinite number of worlds where some spiky demon-monster with amazing nano-technology to keep you alive whips you in a pit of fire until the heat-death of those universes for not believing in Jack T. Chick tracts. And so on. And there is precisely no way to tell which of these parallel universes you are in. Since there are infinitely many of the bad universes, there isn’t even a way to tell how likely any of these bad universes is. And all of this is relatively obvious with a few seconds of thinking about it, which should tell you how seriously any of the proponents of the infinite multiverse hypothesis actually take the idea.

Awful Authorities

I was reading an article by Richard Dawkins about why there is almost certainly no God. It’s impressive in how aggressively he misunderstands the subject matter, but it’s even more impressive how much he misunderstands what people have said about it. The way that he casually assumes he completely understands scholastic terminology—as if the scholastic philosophers like Aquinas were writing in conversational English—is a masterwork of arrogant stupidity, to be sure, but that’s not what I want to talk about. It would also be interesting to consider Dawkins as a Martin Luther Lite—Martin Luther was both supremely arrogant and not very bright—but at the moment I’m more interested in the people who accept Dawkins as an authority on religious matters. (I mean authority in the logical sense; to accept his characterization of an opponent’s arguments instead of reading those arguments in full in their original context is to accept Dawkins as an authority in this sense.)

To anyone capable of understanding brilliant thinkers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Nietzsche, or Heidegger, Richard Dawkins is notable only for how utterly average he is. To put it colloquially, as a philosopher, he’d probably make an OK—but not great—bricklayer. An intelligent atheist who has studied philosophy and religion would be embarrassed by Richard Dawkins. So why do so many people respect and follow him?

The answer lies, I think, in how varying intelligence levels relate to intelligibility. This is especially observable in how people of varying intelligence levels follow arguments. Logical arguments for non-trivial things are very rarely made with every step in the argument being stated explicitly. It would take far too long, and explicitly stating connections between statements which are obvious makes an explanation seem dull, plodding, and even insulting. But which connections are obvious and which need to be stated explicitly depends on both the intelligence and the knowledge of the person trying to follow the argument. (For brevity, I will concentrate on the intelligence side of that, though the reality is more complicated because of the knowledge dimension, but the generalization from intelligence to intelligence-and-knowledge is relatively straight-forward.)

While explaining steps in an argument which are obvious to the reader can make the argument ponderous and boring, omitting steps which the reader cannot supply will make the argument entirely unintelligible. People can’t explain something at a higher level of intelligence than what they possess and most people will naturally explain an argument at the level of detail which they don’t find ponderous.  Now, while I think that intelligence is distributed among the population more like a poisson distribution than a bell curve, even if it is a bell curve, the inability to read (by lack of mental capacity, not whether one has been taught) forms a lower-level cutoff even to a bell curve, so either way, there is a large fraction of the population which is towards the effective bottom of the intelligence scale.

Given all of this, the most natural thing in the world is for people popular among people of average intelligence to be very slightly above them in intelligence. The slight edge will give them things to explain, but being very close means that (without much effort) their explanations will be intelligible. It is of course possible for a more intelligent person to condescend (in the etymological sense of the world—to come down and be with) to his less intelligent brethren; G.K. Chesterton is a great example of this because he was both  brilliant and quite popular. Still, the gift to understand people unlike oneself is relatively rare, as is the gift of being a good writer, and these two together with the willingness to expend the energy to condescend are rarer still. Still, it does happen, and so popularity does not give us any ability to predict the intelligence of the popular person.

But this does make Richard Dawkins’ popularity intelligible. A person who is in no position to judge whether Dawkins is right about religion will get the pleasure of being presented an intelligible thing, which can be convincing if it is in no way thought about. The less intelligent a person is, the more effort it takes to think about whether new information is congruent with what else is known about the world, making it especially unlikely for a person of average intelligence to think about whether Dawkins’ explanation is not only self-consistent but also consistent with the rest of the world.

Thus what Dawkins is doing may be regarded as a sort of unintentional seduction. His poor understanding has some explanatory power which is made very intelligible by it having been assembled specifically to appeal to an average intellect (his). It is then explained in a very intelligible way because he explains it at the ideal pace for a person of average intellect to understand it (i.e. at the pace he would want to read it).

This suggests that the best way to counter it is by presenting arguments which are similarly maximally intelligible to people of average intelligence. This is quite distinct from the strongest arguments against Dawkins’ position, and this is why I am leary about relying too heavily on cosmological arguments. They are incredibly powerful, but they are not simple. They rely on things like understanding that there cannot be an actual infinite regress. I love the argument from contingency, and in fact when I teach The Catholic Moral System in RCIA that is my starting point precisely because we can learn so much about God from it. But if people don’t always perfectly follow it, still, when I speak about the conclusions like God existing outside of time and space, or that God is perfectly happy and doesn’t need us, or that God’s relationship to us is one of pure gift from Him to us with no reciprocity, it works for them to take my word for it that this is catholic dogma, or even to recognize the truths as true once stated as the verbal formulation of something already intuitively known. They wouldn’t be in the Rite of Catholic Initiation for Adults if they didn’t already believe the faith is true, or at least very strongly suspect it (people are welcome to use RCIA to learn more about the faith and drop out if they think it was a mistake).

When it comes to people who are skeptical about the faith, I think that they will generally need something which they can not only accept, but something which they can fully recognize as true. For that reason, I don’t think that the argument from contingency (or other cosmological arguments) are the ideal way to go in arguing with most atheists. A much more intuitive argument is the argument from design, but since one of the pillars of Dawkinsian atheism is a creation myth based on the scientific theory of evolution plus a little astronomy, the argument from design is much less effective than it should be.

(I should mention that I’m not talking about a god of the gaps argument like you find supported by people like Michael Behe in Darwin’s Black Box. Rather, I mean that if you look at the world, it is imperfect but in the main rationally ordered according to a hierarchy of being. A hierarchy implies that there is something at the top. More colloquially: the universe looks like a work of art, and art implies an artist.)

Since this very natural proof for God is no longer very effective, I think that a better approach would be to argue from morality. This is an argument which is not yet well developed. Atheists generally dismiss the version of it which runs, “why would you be good if you weren’t afraid of going to hell”, and indeed this is not a great argument, though the way that the atheists dismiss it is worse. “I don’t need God to be good,” Christopher Hitchens famously said, and it would have sounded better if it wasn’t coming from a drunkard who abandoned the mother of his children to take up with another woman. But in any event this misses the point, because no one ever asked atheists how they will do something moral if they happen to feel like doing it, but why they would do it even if they don’t feel like doing it. I’ve never yet heard an answer to that question, except a few indignant yet half-hearted attempts to prove that everyone feels like doing the right thing in all cases. (Except the mentally ill, who should be medically treated, of course.)

That being said, despite the weakness of the atheist answer to even a childish argument from morality, I think that a more adult form of it would be vastly better. In particular, the fact that we recognize morality at all means that the world matters. The existence of morality proves that the world is real and not reducible to the meaningless arrangement of sub-atomic particles that New Atheists would have us believe. The New Atheists have a number of just-so stories to explain away morality as post-hoc rationalizations for instinctual behavior, but that’s obviously not true, and in general I don’t think that these arguments could persuade even a child. Work is needed, to be sure, to explain how morality is necessarily tied to God, but I suspect if done well this line of argumentation is more likely to be persuasive to the sort of person who finds Dawkins credible on religion.

Consulting Detectives and the Police

(In this post I’m going to consider the relationship between a consulting detective and the police, from the perspective of writing about them. Nothing in this post is meant as literary criticism of any examples which are considered.)

In most murder mysteries, the police are investigating the murder, which presents the writer the problem of what the relationship between the police and the detective will be. Authors have chosen all over the spectrum, from the police seeking out the help of the consulting detective to the police actively trying to deter the consulting detective. (This has even been true of murder mysteries in which the main detective is the police! In that case it takes the form of his superiors respecting him to his superiors assigning him elsewhere and forbidding him from investigating.)

Authors will also change things up. In The Cadfael Chronicles stories, Sheriff Gilbert Prestcote is mildly antagonistic to Cadfael, whereas his successor Hugh Beringar is a good friend of Cadfael’s and though competent himself, values Cadfael’s opinion highly (it would probably be more accurate to say because he is competent himself). In Murder, She Wrote the different locations for the murder allowed them to try out the entire spectrum, though for some reason the Cabot Cove sheriffs tended to be more on the skeptical side. Perhaps the actors in question were just better at scowling than they were at smiling. Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot had excellent reputations and friends in high places which tended to make the police friendly for them. Dorothy L. Sayers solved this with Lord Peter Wimsey by making the police deferential to his title of nobility. Philo Vance was a long-time friend of the district attorney. That’s only a small sampling and it’s all over the place. Clearly anything will work, but it leaves the question of which is best?

Of course, to even ask the question that way is to highlight that the real question is what sort of stories do the points on the curve allow you to tell? It’s always easiest to start at the extremes. If the police are highly antagonistic to the detective—e.g. the detective is the prime suspect and there is an arrest warrant out for the detective—this tends to be more conducive to stories with a lot of action/suspense. In the examples I can think of (The Fugitive and Minority Report come to mind) most of the focus is on whether the detective will be caught before he can prove he didn’t do it. This also tends to raise the stakes by having an innocent person in danger of being punished for a crime they didn’t commit.

On the other end of the spectrum, the police enthusiastically ask for the detective’s help and will do anything the detectives tells them to. Some episodes of Murder, She Wrote come to mind. Some of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories come close to it as well. Come to think of it, so do a few of the Sherlock Holmes stories. The stakes tend to be lower—though not always; Lord Peter had police cooperation in Strong Poison but Harriet Vane was on trial for a crime she didn’t commit—and most of the action tends to be the actual investigation. This tends to open up more space for theorizing and collaboration. Unless it’s an ongoing murder story—where live characters keep turning into dead bodies—these stories are more likely to have a slower pace and focus more on dialog than action.

(It is of course possible to change locations on this spectrum throughout the story. A detective, once cleared, can be welcomed by the police. A detective who had full access can turn into a suspect (this is especially easy to do if there are ongoing murders). A story can start more in the middle and once the detective proves useful, they can become more welcome. Etc.)

I think that my own preference is for the friendlier side of the spectrum. I enjoy collaboration more than I do conflict. Conflict can certainly be interesting, and is often easier to make interesting than collaboration, but I think that collaboration done well has a greater potential for interest. Individuals are interesting, but people are more themselves in community. Of course, it must be a true community. False community obliterates the individual for the sake of the group, while real community brings each individual to the fullness of themselves, respecting each one’s unique virtues. (As a technical note, I mean their unique natural virtues. Moral virtues are—in an ideal world, at least—not distinct between people. All men should be perfectly honest, but each one’s identical perfect honesty will have a different natural content because they know different things.)

A friendly relationship between the police and a consulting detective is not easy to pull off, however, especially if one is striving for realism. There is something of a natural antagonism between a consulting detective and the police, and further there is a natural reticence the police will have in sharing information which is not public. Still, the police will certainly consult outside experts, and police departments have been known to consult psychics for help. In The Dean Died Over Winter Break the relationship was probably more neutral than welcoming, but the police were reasonably friendly. Still, the information mostly flowed from the detectives to the police, and not the other way around. In the circumstance, it seemed the most natural thing.

One of the more plausible ways of insinuating the consulting detective with the police involves the police being short on resources. Resource shortages have a number of effects on people, most of them tending to increase flexibility. People with too few resources tend to see the upsides of shortcuts and other sorts of flexibility more clearly than do people with enough resources to get everything done. They tend to be less worried about possible downsides, because the downsides compare to the downside of simply not getting their work done. Moreover, the people who are responsible for the short-staffing cannot credibly threaten to replace the overworked person with someone else. Finding people willing to be overworked is not easy, and in any event finding new people for a job is both difficult and expensive. Worse for the person responsible for the short-staffing, since overworked people often make mistakes and don’t get everything done, disciplinary issues will have come up before, and the overworked person will probably have gotten used to the toothlessness of any threats made. Thus by the time the consulting detective comes around, offering to take some of the work off of the overworked police detective’s shoulders, the upside will be all the more obvious while the downsides will already be known to be minimal. And since the worst case is that the overworked person finally stops being overworked, the downsides will seem especially minimal.

Also viable for making police collaboration with the consulting detective plausible is for the forensic evidence to be scant. Really it’s not just the forensic evidence, but all of the evidence in which the police are the best at obtaining: cell phone records, bank records, the sort of evidence for which warrants are generally attainable, etc. If the police don’t really know anything of value, they have very little to lose in a relationship with the consulting detective. The flip side of the fairly impressive powers to subpoena phone records, etc. is that they are bound by rules which private citizens are not. Moreover the police are bound to enforce all rules, though of course in practice they don’t always do so, but this makes the police scary since in the modern age virtually everyone is guilty of some crime or other. We have so many laws its impossible to know what they all are, and some of them run counter to common sense (especially copyright laws). Children and pets offer all sorts of judgement-based ways in which the police could make a person’s life miserable even if they haven’t technically broken any laws; a great many people are rightfully wary about anyone as powerful as the police. None of this applies to a consulting detective, who has no power and is therefore relatively safe. Further, with no superiors to whom a person can complain, a consulting detective is in a less vulnerable position if they take liberties with people who have valuable information (providing those liberties are within the law).

There are of course plenty of other ways for a consulting detective to get along with the police. Friends and relatives on the police force have been used innumerable times. If a consulting detective is likable a police detective might simply take a liking to them. Having a mutual friend and helping the consulting detective for the sake of the friend is certainly possible, as is there being someone in authority over the police who wants the consulting detective working on the case.  My memory might be deceiving me, but I think I’ve even seen it work for the consulting detective to—in effect—blackmail the police detective into sharing information. Since precedent is a powerful thing, I’ve also seen it done to bootstrap the consulting detective into a relationship with the police by some means which would only work once—a relative of the deceased having (politically expensive to use) power over the police, for example—which leaves the police eager to work with the detective again. I think that the choice of these techniques, if one wants to go this way, is going to depend on the detectives. In the case of my detectives—The Franciscan Brothers of Investigation—the choice varies with who it was that called the brothers in. In The Dean Died Over Winter Break, since it was the university president, this acted as something of a middle ground. The police were neutral, but they were not hostile, while the university president’s authority gave them full cooperation with the university staff, which was probably more valuable to them. In future mysteries, it’s likely to be different based on who is asking for help.

Review: The Benson Murder Case

Having become interested in American writers during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (primarily because of research into the phrase The Butler Did It), I came across S. S. Van Dine and his detective Philo Vance. Since Philo Vance had been described as one of the most popular American detectives of the 1920s and 1930s, I bought a copy of The Benson Murder Case. Though I thought that it was merely OK as a story, it was certainly historically interesting.

The first thing which struck me about Philo Vance was how very reminiscent of Lord Peter Wimsey he is (Whose Body was published three years before The Benson Murder Case). Vance was educated at Oxford, at around the same time as Lord Peter, and has many of the same mannerisms, such as ending a declarative sentence with the question, “what?” Vance also uses a monocle, though he doesn’t wear it constantly as Lord Peter does. He is fashionable, wealthy, travels in high society, and dresses extremely well, just like Lord Peter. Whereas Lord Peter is knowledgeable about art and his real passion is music, Vance is knowledgeable about music and his real passion is art. Both like to quote classic literature while investigating cases. If so far the main difference between them seems to be their name, that is misleading. There is a significant, though subtle, difference, and I think that it traces back to their authors.

Willard Huntington Wright (S.S. Van Dine was a pen name) was a Nietzsche scholar. Dorothy L. Sayers was a devout Anglican, and even published some theology. Both detectives seem to lack any belief in God, and Sayers even went so far as to say, in private correspondence, that she thought Lord Peter would think it an impertinence to believe that he had a soul. Yet there is something religious in the character of Lord Peter. He did not believe in God, but he did believe in beauty. He might have been a worldling, but he knew somewhere in the back of his mind that it wasn’t true that the world is enough, and it saddened him because the better thing which beauty hinted at seemed unattainable. By contrast, Philo Vance might have been a celebrated art critic and collector, but he gave no indication that he actually saw any beauty in the world. The proof of it was that there was no sadness in his character. Lord Peter had suffered; Lord Peter’s heart had been broken, not just serving in World War I, but in other parts of life, as well. Philo Vance, by contrast, seemed to have an intact but very small heart. He does not seem to have suffered anything besides boredom, and as Rabbi Abraham Heschel said, “The man who has not suffered, what can he possibly know, anyway?” Joy is a greater wisdom than sadness, but there is no wisdom at all in being bored. As Chesterton put it:

There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.

There is also the curious element in the story of how Philo Vance lectures his friend, the district attorney, on the nature of investigation. This was a common feature of early detective fiction, especially contrasting proper investigation with how the police went about investigating. It started with Poe’s explantion of C. Auguste Dupin’s ratiocination in Murders in the Rue Morgue,  was a common feature of Sherlock Holmes stories, and featured in a great many others of the time, too. So much so that Chesterton wrote a very interesting conversation about the very phenomenon in The Mirror of the Magistrate, published in The Secret of Father Brown:

“Ours is the only trade,” said Bagshaw, “in which the professional is always supposed to be wrong. After all, people don’t write stories in which hairdressers can’t cut hair and have to be helped by a customer; or in which a cabman can’t drive a cab until his fare explains to him the philosophy of cab-driving. For all that, I’d never deny that we often tend to get into a rut: or, in other words, have the disadvantages of going by a rule. Where the romancers are wrong is, that they don’t allow us even the advantages of going by a rule.”

“Surely,” said Underhill, “Sherlock Holmes would say that he went by a logical rule.”

“He may be right,” answered the other; “but I mean a collective rule. It’s like the staff work of an army. We pool our information.”

“And you don’t think detective stories allow for that?” asked his friend.

“Well, let’s take any imaginary case of Sherlock Holmes, and Lestrade, the official detective. Sherlock Holmes, let us say, can guess that a total stranger crossing the street is a foreigner, merely because he seems to look for the traffic to go to the right instead of the left. I’m quite ready to admit Holmes might guess that. I’m quite sure Lestrade wouldn’t guess anything of the kind. But what they leave out is the fact that the policeman, who couldn’t guess, might very probably know. Lestrade might know the man was a foreigner merely because his department has to keep an eye on all foreigners…”

Philo Vance takes it one step further than this, claiming that the police methods are not just ineffective, but counter-productive. It’s a theme which Vance hits upon so often as to come across as supercilious. Typical murders are not fiendishly cunning, and forensic evidence, though circumstantial, is actually useful. (I’m going to get into spoilers at this point, so if you want to read the novel for yourself without knowing who did it, I suggest you go read it now.)

Much of Vance’s point is made by the police being rather unbelievably thick-headed. Their first suspect is a woman whose handbag and gloves were found at the scene of the crime, and who chucked two cigarette buts into the fireplace. The victim, Benson, was known to have gone out with some woman the night he was killed (he was killed shortly past midnight), and that’s the sum total of evidence which the police have upon which they conclude she must have murdered him. That plus she got home at around 1am, might possibly have gotten the murder weapon from her fiancé, who presumably owned a military colt automatic pistol because he had been in the Great War.  Oh, and Benson was known to make inappropriate advances to women. Somehow this added up to her cold-bloodedly shooting him in the forehead from six feet away while he was seated. Had he been killed defensively, this might have been plausible, but why a woman who went to dinner with him would execute him in this fashion is never so much as broached.

There is also the evidence of who the real killer is, which is rather conclusive. Benson normally wore a toupee and was never seen without it; ditto his false front teeth. Both were on his nightstand, and he was wearing his comfortable slippers and an old smoking jacket on top of his evening clothes without a collar. (In clothing of the time, collars were separate items from the shirts, and would attach by a button. It was therefore possible to take the collar off, and in fact when someone was at leisure and didn’t need to be presentable, they would often do that very thing for comfort’s sake.) The housekeeper is positive that the door was locked, for it automatically locked, and moreover that the doorbell was never rung. The windows were barred against break-in. Despite all of this evidence that the victim was on intimate terms with his murderer—he let the murderer in himself while in a state of comparative undress, without bothering to put his toupee and false teeth back on and was sitting down and even reading a book when he was shot—the police never ask what any of this evidence means, even when Vance more-or-less points it out to them. No explanation for this incredible thickness on the part of the police is given, except when Vance mentions that there are height and weight requirements to joint the police force, but no intelligence requirement.

This also basically gives away who the murderer is. This goes doubly so because of the form of the fiction. Vance is a genius who is always right, and Vance declares he knows who the murderer is five minutes after looking at the crime scene. Granted, it is revealed later on that Vance knew the murderer for many years, and thus knew his personality—which I would normally call cheating—but the evidence which points to the murderer is so clear apart from odd psychological theories that this foreknowledge on the part of Vance is fairly irrelevant. As of chapter 2 or 3, I forget which, there is only one suspect, and all that remains for the rest of the book is to watch Vance disprove the red herrings for the district attorney. In general it would be possible for some other character to be introduced who also knew the victim on such intimate terms, but since Vance was always right, and Vance knew who the murderer was, that possibility was foreclosed.

It is especially interesting to consider this in light of Van Dine’s Twenty Rule for Writing Detective Stories, published in 1928 (two years after The Benson Murder Case). You can argue that he violated #3 (no love interest) because there was an affianced couple who would have not been able to marry had either of them been executed for the murder. He borders on violating #4 (none of the official investigators should be the culprit), since the old friend who asked the district attorney to personally investigate turned out to be the murderer. He violates #16 (no literary dallying with side-issues) a few times blathering on about his theories on art at such a length I skimmed the section. Also curious is that his adherence to rule #15 (the clever reader should be able to finger the culprit as soon as the detective does) made the book rather anti-climactic. In essence he took a short-story murder mystery and then inserted an entire book’s worth of padding in between the investigation and the revelation of the murderer.

As an addendum, as I was googling around to see whether anyone else talked about the similarity between Vance and Lord Peter, I found this blog post about S.S. Van Dine and his sleuth Philo Vance, which is a different take than mine, to be sure, and has some interesting historical information in it.

Reductio ad Absurdum Isn’t Straw

Reductio ab Absurdum is a criticism of a position which shows that it is false by demonstrating that absurd conclusions follow from it. A Straw Man is a fake position that sounds like someone’s real position which is constructed by an opponent because it’s easier to disprove than the person’s real position. (It is often the case that the straw man is accidentally constructed because the attacker has never understood his opponents real position.) These two are often confused for each other, which is a bit odd, and I think that a big part of the explanation for why is Kantian epistemology. (I wrote about Kant’s substitute for knowledge here, and this blog post won’t make much sense unless you read that first.)

The relevant part of Kantian epistemology is that each of the several contradictory universal theories held by a person are held only in the areas of life in which the person believes that they produce correct results. In all other aspects of life, the universal theory is ignored. To continue with the example of neck-down darwinism, survival of the fittest is not even considered in the realm of politics, and all men being created equal is not even considered in the realm of science. Each theory has its proper domain, not in the sense of the domain where it makes claims, but rather the domain where its claims are heeded. This is the key ingredient in reductio ad absurdum being called a straw man.

Suppose Fred and James are arguing, and James holds a Kantian epistemology while Fred does not. Fred points out that James’ materialism implies that no action is any more moral than another, because no human action creates or destroys matter. James says that this is a straw man, because he never said that. Yet Fred never claimed that James said that, he claimed that James would have to say that if he were being consistent with what he (James) did say. Why is James so convinced that his is a straw man?

It’s because morality is not someplace that James applies materialism. To James’ mind, showing that one of his universal theories has implications is not enough to prove that James believes those implications. Instead, it must be shown that James actually believes that the universal theory should be applied to that part of life. James sees Frank’s reductio argument as a straw man because James does not believe his universal theory (materialism) should be applied to this part of life (morality), and so its implications in that area of life are in no way his position.

It’s difficult to know what to make of James’ contention that this is a straw man of his position. In a sense he’s right, because that implication of materialism is not his position. But that’s because materialism is not his position, despite the fact that he has claimed it to be. It’s not his position because he does not actually have a position. His claim to believe that truth is unknowable and so the best we can do is refining our theories as we “test” them against evidence is basically a methodological form of blank skepticism. It makes no positive claims of any kind, other than the self-evidently true ones about what at the moment appears to be the memory of past experiences, and as such attributing any positive claim to it is mistaken. This is an utter failure of rational thinking, but that’s really the only criticism which can be leveled against it. By claiming no more knowledge of the world than is possessed by a worm, it cannot be proven wrong about anything. The real problem is that the people who claim to believe this are essentially committing the moral crime of stolen valor. Just as a deserter pretending to be a decorated war hero is reprehensible, so is a putative earthworm who still wants to be treated like a man. Such skeptics would be consistent enough if they didn’t complain about being treated like worms. In practice, they complain about it quite loudly. They rely on the fact that we don’t believe them to live a much better life than they are entitled to according to their philosophy of the world. In argument, they take advantage of good manners. If we were to take their words seriously, the only correct response amounts to, though it is possible to state it less bluntly, “shut your mouth among your betters, dog”.