A Defense of Celebrating Christmas Early

(Originally published in Gilbert Magazine)

Most mistakes made by the human race are an attempt to fix some other mistake. Celebrating Christmas during Advent (and ordinary time, and one increasingly fears, Easter) is undoubtedly a mistake, but like most mistakes, to fix it we must find out what it is balancing. And when we ask ourselves what is being balanced, I think we will discover that on the other side of the scales from so great a holiday are several sins.

The first and most obvious reason for celebrating Christmas early is simply the extensive preparations which the secular celebration of Christmas has come to demand. That this preparation is a miserable experience scarcely needs defending. Indeed, when some months ago one of my atheist friends was complaining about all of the bother associated with Christmas, I suggested that the secular holiday should be moved to Black Friday, with the minor modification that people should buy presents for themselves instead of each other. If nothing else, under this scheme people would not have to worry that their gifts will be unappreciated. It is a sufficient sign of the times that he thought this transformation unachievable, but said nothing about it being inadvisable.

Whatever might reduce this stress, the stress still exists, and preparation would not, in itself, require the early celebration of Christmas. Women spend nine months preparing a child for birth, and do not ordinarily comfort themselves during that work by throwing the child birthday or graduation parties. When the connection between the difficulty of a job and the results of a job are well understood, it can be endured without aid. Where that connection is not apparent, unpleasant labor can still be undertaken as a penitential exercise. In the case of Christmas, however, modern culture has made it so unpleasant that nine people out of ten can’t conceive of their sins being that bad. Lacking any concept of vicarious atonement, the solution, to keep a weary race pulling its plow, is to borrow the enjoyment of the holiday to get people through its preparation.

The second reason to celebrate Christmas early is our culture’s slavehood to the calendar. Once December 26th hits, some are simply tired of Christmas celebrations, but for many it’s a yet lower idea: that one must always be up to date. It is acceptable to the chronological snobbery, by which people have flattered themselves for the last century and a half, to be in advance of the calendar but never to be behind it, for the devil will take the hindmost. Christmas is too great to confine its celebration to a mere twenty four hours, and the chronological snob can extend the celebration in only one direction which will keep him up to date.

The third reason is more subtle than the first two, but I think it is the most significant. Christmas, though it be no more than secular christmas, vigorously opposes the general nihilism of our time. Even watered down, Christmas still has flavor. Saint Nicholas, even when he is merely Santa Claus, still stands against Arianism. In the same manner that Arianism attempted to divorce the Son from the Father, modern culture tries to divorce happiness from goodness. This is not possible, and even bad christmas songs remind us it isn’t possible. The most theologically suspect lyrics about Santa Claus spying on people, with unspecified and probably magical technology, connects good behavior with happiness. It is true that it often connects it in a mercenary way, but it nevertheless connects it in an unbreakable way. It is also true that the proponents of unconditional affirmation — an absurd attempt to ape the generous love of God — will complain that this is an awful message. And yet not a single one of them has made a Christmas movie in which a bully gets a present from Santa Claus as the bully finishes beating up a smaller child for his lunch money.

It is a theological point, but it is the incarnation which makes this connection unbreakable. Arianism, which was a milder form of Gnosticism, held that spirit could not marry matter, or in more Thomistic terms, that the unconditional could not truly know the conditional. It is a recurring suspicion of the human race that the infinite can have no regard for the finite, and against all this, the incarnation proves that omnipotence loves weakness. But God’s love is a generous love. It turns weakness into strength. And that is why happiness cannot be separated from goodness: they have the same source. Gnosticism claimed that you could have happiness apart from goodness because the material world and the spiritual world had different fathers. Arianism had God adopt the material world; the incarnation proved its true parentage. It was, after a fashion, the first paternity test. The modern world denies this paternity, since it denies God, but every winter Santa Clause declares that the goodness of children, no matter how unenlightened or materialistic, is loveable.

These three reasons, between them, compel our culture to celebrate Christmas early. Until we explain to people why they prepare, that the calendar is a good servant but a poor master, and that God loves them and not merely the idea of them, we shall have Christmas during Advent. We can take comfort that at least it’s not Advent during Christmas.

Happy Father’s Day

I submitted this to my parish’s bulletin as a potential father’s day message:

In one of the many instances of audacity which marks Christianity out as a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles, we call the unimaginable uncreated creator of all that is, our Father. Let us celebrate, then, all those men who have entered into the recklessly humble Christian spirit of emptying themselves to become the image of God’s fatherliness. Happy Father’s Day!

Since this blog is a more general venue than a parish bulletin, let me add that I mean this for all fathers, including those who don’t know this was what they did. 🙂

On Its Own, the Golden Rule is Fool’s Gold

There is a very strange error which many atheists make when debating theists: they think that the word morality means no more than, “how you make decisions”. They will then propose some means by which they make decisions and say that this shows that atheists can be moral too. These rules never mandate nor forbid anything, of course, and always seem suspiciously like what somebody raised with a real moral code would find comfortable, supposing that they’re reasonably well-to-do and live in a peaceful place with little crime.

I recently saw an example where somebody proposed the golden rule, which he claimed required no God. Of course there is absolutely no reason given why one should obey it, but for the moment, let’s ignore that. Suppose that the following were true:

If I were rich and owned a bank, I would really like it if people tried to rob my bank at gunpoint so I could have the fun of patrolling the branches to heroically stop the robbery should I arrive at the right time.

The conclusion, then, would be that a man who felt this way should go and rob banks at gunpoint. No God required.

For the moment, let’s leave voluntarism out of account since anyone who believes in voluntarism has explicitly rejected reason anyway and so can’t be reasoned with (voluntarism is the idea that morality flows from God’s will rather than his intellect, so God could command rape and murder and forbid kindness and mercy). The only way to get an actual morality which both has both positive and negative commands and actually works is for it to be grounded in the nature of things to which the moral rules apply. I’ll give a fuller description of this later, but the short version is that all sin is a diminishment of being. God is love, which means that God is generosity, and in his generosity he has given it to us to be his generosity to the world. He could give my children food directly, but instead has given it to me to be his gift of food to my children. He could have created them directly, but gave it to my wife and I to be his act of creating them. To those of us who pass hungry beggars on the street, he gives it to us to be his gift of food to them. To those of us with tongues he gives it to us to be his speaking of the truth to those with ears to hear it. And so it goes for all moral rules: it is our nature to be God’s act of generous creation to the world, in ways big and small. To tell someone the truth is to create in them knowledge. And so it goes with all things we do that are good.

To sin is to refuse to do this work of creation we were given to do. Being is good, so to refuse to do this work is to diminish being, and is therefore evil because there is less good. (Evil is a negative, not a positive, thing, and has no existence on its own. Evil exists only in the manner of a shadow, which “exists” only where the light does not hit.)

All actually grounded moralities must have this in common as their ground. It is of course possible to take a morality on faith, without understanding its grounding, but it must of necessity come back to some ultimate source for our existence. Atheists will never succeed in grounding a real morality because they do not believe in a reality capable of grounding a morality. Blind matter mechanically acting so arbitrary rules has no further being than merely existing. We might think particular configurations of it interesting, or like them, but this is merely to be entertained by illusions. To have a real morality, you need a real reality.

The Anti-Teleology of Materialism

Most Christians tend to assume, for historical reasons, that matters of natural law can be discussed with atheists. As the historical reasons become less relevant this becomes less and less the case. The problem comes in that in the modern age most atheists are Materialists (that is, they believe that nothing exists besides matter and forces on it, or to put it another way all fields of study are just applied physics). And the problem is that Materialists do not hold that nature is good.

Actually, it is even worse than this, because if they ever think about it, Materialists must hold that nature is evil. That’s not true of Materialism in all possible worlds, but it is true of Materialism in this world. In our world, a Materialist believes that we exist purely as an accident of evolution. Evolution cares about nothing, but in a metaphorical sense it only cares about maximizing our descendants. In no sense does it care whether we’re happy. So all happiness, according to a Materialist, must be something which happened to maximize the number of descendants our ancestors had, and therefore only serves, in us, to (probably) maximize the number of descendants we have. All pleasure is a carrot dangled in front of us to keep us going.

Of course this means that pleasure must be, if not strictly speaking minimized, at least kept relatively small. This is why the Romans would starve and thirst baboons before letting them loose in an arena to kill prisoners for sport. A contented baboon usually won’t see the point in ripping a man limb from limb. Contentment is the enemy of effort, and in the great battle of all against all that is nature, quite a bit of effort is needed. Evolution must ensure that happiness won’t last.

The Materialist is, therefore, in the position of needing to cheat his creator in order to be as happy as possible. Nature is not the source of man’s happiness, it is a limit to be overcome and an enemy to be fought.

Of course it is not really possible to beat one’s creator forever. In the end, the creature will always lose. This is why the right to suicide is so often of great important to the Materialist. When you can no longer cheat life, the only thing left to do is to cheat death.

What is Knowledge?

Eve explains the answer to the question “what is knowledge” and looks at the consequences of the answer to the atheism-theism debate.

Last Eden

At least since Plato’s Theaetetus, philosophers have had a standard definition and understanding of knowledge (although there are a wealth of specifics to argue about within this understanding).

What is knowledge?

Knowledge is truebelief plus a third quality called warrant or justification, or for short “warranted true belief” or “justified true belief.”

Let’s look at these:

1.  Knowledge is always of something true. If P is not true, then I cannot know that P. I can believe that P, because a belief can be either true or false.  If I falsely believe a man is 45 years old, when he is really 47 years old, I do not and cannot know he is 45.

2. Knowledge, subjectively, involves belief, that is, mental affirmation of the truth of something.  It is senseless to say “I know that P … but I don’t believe it!”

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People only Read What is Published

(In a sense this post is a generalization of the fundamental principle of science, but it’s worth looking at that generalization in detail.) It is obviously true that people cannot read what hasn’t been published because if it was not published, it would not be available to read. From this utterly trivial point we can predict several non-trivial things which in a fallen world will reliably be true about many of the people who create for publication.

Actually, there is a second fact which we need, but it is only slightly more controversial than the first: people do not re-read material often. If we put these two together, for a creator to be read as often as possible, they will need to publish a lot of work. There are exceptions, of course—I’ve re-read Pride & Prejudice around twenty times now—but in general this holds true and is especially true of anyone who wants to make an ongoing living from their creative work. (It’s also true of anyone who simply wants ongoing attention even if they don’t make any money from it.)

In order to publish frequently, a person must have many things to say, and this is the crux of the problem. There several ways to have a lot to say, and—outside of explicit fiction—only one of them is good. The good way is to study the world and talk to the wise so that one becomes wise oneself. This is a long, hard road, and it will be inevitable that there will be things which come up in popular discussion which might be well-read if one could write them, but one simply doesn’t know enough to write about them well. Many people take this long, difficult path, and it is good idea to not lose track of them when you can find them.

There are much easier ways to have a lot to say, though. Making stuff up is the easiest, but also the most dangerous way, as a number of disgraced reporters and academics have proven. Outright lying is very hard to defend and also very offensive to readers. Several orders of magnitude safer is explicit speculation. You can see this in articles that have a question mark in their title. “Did [Famous Politician] Buy And Eat Sudanese Sex Slaves?” is an article that can be based on as little as a trip to the Sudan—or a neighboring country if necessary—and the politician being the sort of person who would do that sort of thing. It’s not hard to make things seem plausible, especially if one picks things that aren’t as extreme as this silly example. There are many variants of this approach, too. One can speculate about the implications of what it would mean if someone in a position of authority were to say something. One can also speculate on why a politician won’t say something at a particular time. Since a politician can’t say everything in every speech, there will always be a wasted opportunity to talk about. If the important people aren’t sufficiently obliging, one can also talk about what other people are saying about what was—or wasn’t—said.

Speculation on its own is not very interesting, however. One wants not only to publish material, but to have people read it. For that the writing must seem important as well as new. Now, it is possible to write about important things through hard work coupled with the patience to wait for important subjects to come along. But once again there is a much easier way to do this: throw perspective out the window. There are variants, of course, but they at their heart they all consist of some sort of skewed perspective. Probably the most popular is to take whatever topic one is writing about and imply that it spells the end of civilization as we know it, or if it isn’t utterly trivial even the death of any possibility of happiness in this world. Extrapolation is a very useful tool for this.

When exaggerating, the easiest approach is to assume that the world is static and project all trends out to infinity with no reactions to the trends or changes in behavior. Now, human beings have many flaws, and chief among them is that most of us do very little by principle. This is why so many people profess terrible principles—what’s the point in considering the truth of something one has no intention of living by anyway? But there is an upside to this, and it is that extrapolating out from people’s bad principles to their actions is usually quite misleading. The more principles have terrible results, the more people ignore the principles—sometimes even going so far as to reinterpret them to mean the opposite of what they originally meant. Whether this speaks well of the people or not, it is simply unreasonable to pretend that they will stick to their principles as things get worse and worse. Civilizations do die off, but at vastly lower frequencies than publishing cycles demand.

There is also the flip side of this coin—science reporting always has to include some section about how the discovery will cure a disease, make people thinner, make phones thinner, finally bring about the electric car, or at least significantly impact half the population’s life within the next few years. The overwhelming majority of them won’t, of course, but on the plus side this provides some grist for the worry mill because [political bad guys] will prevent the good things from happening. And don’t forget that every change hurts someone. Interestingly, this constant stream of good things coming in the future, rather than being here in the present, may also help to raise people’s ideas of what can be expected about life now—it really sucks in comparison to how good it will be ten years from now—so even without spin this works synergistically with the world-is-ending articles. Focusing people’s attention on what they don’t have is a great way to make them discontent and in need of an explanation for that unhappiness.

I should probably also point out that since really interesting new facts come along fairly infrequently, if a person is sloppy with their facts and doesn’t check into whether the things they have heard as facts are actually true, this will make them far more likely to come across “facts” which seem important. (Scientific studies with small sample sizes and no pre-registered hypothesis are a goldmine for this.)

The point, of course, is not nearly so much that all of this is a temptation to disciplined writers, but that it is a selective pressure which greatly rewards undisciplined writers and punishes disciplined writers. When considering the big picture, it doesn’t much matter whether disciplined writers resist temptation because the undisciplined writers will succeed and do very well regardless. And writing is not a zero-sum game. Undisciplined writers who trick people into reading material of exaggerated importance will increase the amount of reading that goes on. (Which editors who come up with headlines have known for as long as there have been headlines.)

But more more reading is not always better than less reading; reading which unbalances the mind through doomsday predictions breathlessly uttered makes people less able to understand truth spoken calmly. People also have finite and often small amounts of time and mental energy for reading, so consuming large amounts of exaggerated fluff can squeeze out real reading, even where it doesn’t habituate a person out of being able to do it.

(And everything I’ve said here applies to things that are watched or listened to just as much as for reading. As the saying goes, it’s not the medium, it’s the message.)

The takeaway is very simple: be very careful in how much news and news commentary you consume, and remember how big a selective pressure there is on the people who are giving you the news to exaggerate and distort it.

Control is the Worst But Most Certain Proof

The things we know, we know according to different levels of certainty. To illustrate the spectrum with its extremes: everyone knows with complete certainty that they themselves exist, and they know with virtually no certainty at all the things half-remembered that they heard from a known liar who thinks he heard it from his cousin one time. Most things, obviously, are somewhere in between those extremes. And in all but the most certain cases, is only indirect, which requires us to trust the use of our own reason to know the truth from the evidence.

Consider the case of a woman who asks the question, “does my boyfriend really love me?” It is not possible to measure love, and it is always possible to respond to a direct question with a lie. Perhaps he doesn’t love her but is even more afraid of being alone while he waits for someone better to come along. Even worse for her certainty in his love, he could be mistaken. Perhaps he loves an ideal of her which he will someday discover is not the real her?

Worse, doubt can lead to imagining all of the possible ways he could not love her but still do the things he did which seemed like love. Considering one’s imagination can be confused with looking at the world, which will further fuel her doubts. If she gives into this, turning her attention away from the evidence of his love towards the counter-evidence of her doubts and suspicious imaginings, she could work herself into a state where all of the true things in real life which should make her convinced of her boyfriend’s love leave her empty and uncertain. What can she do?

This is where many people go wrong, because they know that control is powerful proof. If you can make something do what you want, it is very convincing evidence that you really know the thing. (This is why repeatable experiments are so critical to the scientific method.) If she can make him do things he would do only if he loved her, then this should finally assuage her doubt. But there is a problem: whatever she asks he might have wanted to do  anyway. This adds the temptation for the demands to become unreasonable or even anti-reasonable. The more self-destructive and unreasonable the demands, the more clearly the only reason he is complying is because he loves her so much.

Of course, this is bound for disappointment. In practice we can never fully control another person, and if she keeps this up for very long the boyfriend will almost certainly stop loving the woman. People dislike being manipulated and distrusted. And even if he doesn’t leave her, she’ll then know she’s with a man so desperate he’ll put up with being treated terribly. This makes his love worth very little since it’s really an indication of how desperate he is, not how lovable she is. In fact, there is literally no way that this attempt to prove his love through control will end well. Alas, to paraphrase Jane Austen, insecure people are not always wise.

A very similar problem can be seen among a certain sort of atheist. When they reject the evidence given (here’s a summary of what’s often offered)  and are asked what sort of evidence they would accept, it’s rarely specific. It varies all over the place, but tends to have in common that it is something simply counterfactual to the world as we find it. But unlike when a Christian might say that the evidence he would accept that God does not exist is that nothing at all existed, this counterfactual isn’t related to the nature of God in a direct way at all. Creation not being created is evidence against the creator in a direct and sensible way. There being more of something or less of something is not directly related to the creator being our creator; it’s just something picked at random. And a moment’s thought shows that it is the counterfactual nature of the evidence that is important and not its being related to the creator. That is, this lack of relationship to what the evidence is supposed to prove is no accident. If the message “I exist. –God” burned forever in the sky in five hundred foot tall letters, atheists would just say that it was an unexplained natural phenomena which influenced primitive people to come up with the myth of God to explain it. Also that it influenced our language so that these letters were meaningful to us. And some day we’d definitely have a natural explanation for it.

What people want is not just any sort of evidence, but specifically the evidence of control. It is not really different from people in Jesus’ time who wanted a sign, which is to say, a miracle done on command. They did not then and do not now want to have to discover what the world is. They want to know it by having it conform to their desires.

But the psychology of this is interesting, because I don’t think that it’s selfishness. More specifically, I mean that it isn’t pride. It isn’t the desire to be God, to be the lord of all. Rather, control is powerful evidence because it seems to make the thing controlled an extension of the self, which as Descartes noted is certain even if we doubt everything else. It is not, at its core, a desire to dominate. It’s a fear of trusting. It is the insecurity of a timid creature which will not venture out of the burrow of certainty to see what actually exists in the larger world where it is possible to doubt.