No, Not All Are Welcome

I was recently reminded of a rather bad hymn that seems to be standard in american Catholic hymnals: All Are Welcome.

Let us build a house where love can dwell
and all can safely live,
a place where saints and children tell
how hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions,
rock of faith and vault of grace;
here the love of Christ shall end divisions.
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.

Granted it suffers from the problem that many hymns written in the post-war period suffer from: it’s really about man, not about God. However, that’s not why I despise it. I despise it because it’s a lie.

All are most certainly not welcome in the place that hymn is sung. The only place in the world of which that’s true is prison. Everywhere else has membership requirements. Whatever they sang, the hippy-dippy hippies who sang this with all of the enthusiasm they could muster would ask the chainsaw-wielding man covered in filth and screaming obscenity-laced death threats to come back some other time.

Some will object that they mean that the man is welcome once he puts away his chainsaw, takes a bath, and speaks politely. So what? It’s not a meaningful sort of inclusiveness to say that one will accept anyone who conforms to the group’s demands. What’s special about that? Everyone will accept those who make themselves acceptable.

Of course, the example I gave, while sufficient to prove the theoretical point, is not realistic. And it’s precisely the realistic extreme example which sheds a lot of light on the theme of that time and the very contrasting theme of our time.

The realistic example is the man in the sweater vest who is openly fornicating and openly saying blasphemies in a normal speaking voice. And the hippy-dippy hippies who sang All Are Welcome did, in fact, let him stay.

There is, of course, a parallel in secular culture. The flagrantly fornicating man who “flirted” with all of the women at the office was welcome too. Modern mythology holds that this was the norm throughout history until fifteen minutes ago but even a cursory familiarity with movies and television from the 1950s and before would tell one that a man who talked openly of sex in the workplace, not just in front of women, but to them, would never have been tolerated.

This is, after all, the repression which the 1970s loved to criticize. Today we call it sexual harassment rather than impropriety but apart from the language a man being fired for “being too free with the ladies” differs only in terminology. But in the 1970s all were welcome, even the sexual harassers.

Our society prefers to call “polite society” by the name “safe spaces” but the thing to which the name refers is the same. There are places and times when people must restrain their impulses and behave in a way that makes everyone comfortable. The idea that everyone should become comfortable with everything simply doesn’t work.

At the same time we see secular culture clawing its way back to propriety in public places we see religious culture clawing its way back to the idea of sacred spaces. Sacred means “set apart” and a thing is set apart not by having walls and doors but by what is and is not done in them. That first part is as important as the second; when it comes to the sacred sins of omission are the equals of sins of commission.

I do not yet know what it was that animated the spirit of the 1960s and 1970s—what it was that made the hippies so dippy that they thought that if they broke down all barriers everyone would somehow get along. (The obvious guess is the devastation of the first two world wars, especially in Europe, and those combined with the trauma of racism in the United States.)

It had the very curious property that it sounded Godly but was actually diabolic—I mean in the original sense of the Greek “diabolein”: to scatter. The diabolic scatters man from man and prevents unity. So surely getting everyone together should be the opposite?

But this is a fallen world and men will not all get along. If you try to force them to all that will happen is that you will break down true friendship and camaraderie. Those need safe spaces in which to grow.

If you let the heretics into church they will not worship God with you. They will only keep you from worshiping God. It is no accident that Christ said:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.

An even more apt quotation would be what the angels said at the birth of Christ. Curiously, the version most people are familiar with, which comes from the King James translation of the bible, is very badly translated:

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Bu when it is translated more accurately, you get something like (this one is from the Revised Standard Version):

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.

Just so you can see the main idea in the variety, here’s an alternative translation which is also faithful to the original text (The New Jerusalem Bible):

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace for those He favours.

Peace is the ordering of the world to the good. That is, it is a rational ordering of the world according to its nature. But a rational ordering must be in a mind and for it to be a property of the world and not merely imposed on the world it must be in the mind of the world’s maker.

Peace is the ordering of the world according to God’s will. Peace is only possible, therefore, among those who do his will. Those who do only their own will can never be at peace with God or each other. 

Which is why people must set themselves apart so that they can get along.

The age of universal peace is finally over. We can now get back to the business of getting along with each other.

Time Isn’t a Thief

Because I was watching a bunch of songs from Patty Gurdy YouTube recommended the song Mad as a Hatter by Larkin Poe. Larkin Poe is a pair of sisters, and Mad as a Hatter is about their grandfather’s mental illness. It’s not a great song, but it’s got catchy elements:

There’s a line in it which really cought my attention, though:

I know what time is
Time is a thief.
It’ll steal into bed
And rob you while you sleep.

Now, I should preface my remarks by saying that I know what’s meant—people’s powers, such as memory, eyesight, etc. tend to diminish with age, though gradually enough that one doesn’t notice, and in older age one is not able to do the things one was able to in one’s youth. And indeed, this is difficult to deal with. That’s not what I’m talking about when I say that time isn’t a thief. It is quite true that those of us who survive to old age will have weaker eyes and slower memories than we did when we were young. These changes can be attenuated, but cannot be prevented.

To quote Master Splinter in the movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, death comes for us all.

It’s just that death comes quickly for some and slowly for others.

But time is still not a thief.

The question is one of fundamental orientation, or, if you prefer, the fundamental question of what a human being is.

The idea that time is a thief comes from the idea that there’s a “true” us which we grow into and then eventually lose. It conceives of human beings as self-sufficient beings which merely inhabit the world for a time. Thus the limits which come from being in the world are limits imposed upon the independent creature and frustrate the fullness of its being. The prime of one’s life—when experience and youthful vigor are at their mutual maximum—is thus the time when the human being is least limited by the world.

This is, of course, exactly backwards. It places human beings in the position of being little Gods and makes completely unintelligible why they’re born or die. People don’t bother themselves much with the problems of being born since it’s too convenient, though this is one of the things which a bit of navel gazing would actually help with. They’re very troubled, however, by how growing old and dying makes no sense.

By contrast, if a human being is a creature who did not make himself, every moment of his life is, therefore, a gift. To be born is a gift, to grow stronger and quicker of wit throughout childhood is a gift, and to still be around dispensing wisdom and doing what one can do in old age is a gift. It is true that time gives far more in one kind during a person’s youth and gives those gifts of strength and memory far less during old age. But they are still far more than nothing, which is the right thing to compare them to.

This is where the older wisdom of the idea of the seasons of one’s life comes in. We are given youthful vigor in our youth but not in our old age; it is right, therefore, to make good use of youthful vigor in our youth, and then as we age to turn to making use of the wisdom and knowledge we’re given in our old age. The young and the old complement each other. Wisdom without vigor cannot do anything, while vigor without wisdom cannot do anything worthwhile.

Our modern rejection of the seasons of life and strict separation of people by age has resulted in old people being warehoused until they die while the young are busy wasting their youth. And in both cases people who are not Gods are miserable because real life can’t help but constantly point this out to them. (Which is why Sartre said that hell is other people—encountering other people proves to us that we didn’t create ourselves.)

So while growing old is not easy, time is not a thief. Time is a giver. It just gives us different things at different times.

The alternative is hell.

Quite literally.

Failing The Wrong Way

A lot of people love gmail because it filters out all of their spam. “I never see any spam!” they say, proudly. But the problem is that gmail achieves this by being way too aggressive about classifying things as spam, and the result is that it loses a lot of legitimate emails, too.

So the user is left with one of three options:

  1. Have things go wrong when they miss important emails.
  2. Check their spam folder once a day or so to make sure they don’t miss any important email.
  3. Don’t use email for anything important.

Option #1 is terrible and option #3 is just another way of saying that gmail is a bad email client. But the funny thing about option #2 is that the user is actually reading more spam than I am with my spam filter configuration that allows all of the important email through and only a few spams. I never have to check my spam folder, which means seeing 0-4 spams a day in my regular inbox is reading through way less spam than if I had to check my spam folder.

This relates to the concept in engineering of “which way do you want to fail?” It’s almost never the case that one can do something perfectly—getting absolutely every classification of email right. And every system is going to have a bias—would you rather when it fails your spam filter tends to mis-classify legit email as spam or spam as legit email?

The problem with focusing too much on getting the system perfect is that one can too easily forget that it won’t be perfect anyway, and then one won’t think about how it will fail when it does. A better engineered system puts some thought into figuring out the systemic biases and tweaking them to do the least harm, while also trying to get as close to perfect as is practical without changing the general target of how failure will happen.

Because failing in the wrong direction can be worse than useless. It can be actively harmful.

(The same principle applies to social engineering, by the way.)

Natural Theology and God’s Essence

I received an email with an interesting question:

The classical theistic tradition makes it well known that any knowledge of God’s essence is impossible, and even advances several argument as to why this is the case. However, if this is correct, I can’t really understand how the arguments from natural theology can give us any knowledge of his existence: isn’t the point of those arguments to show that God just is his existence itself, that is, that in God essence and existence are one and the same? Wouldn’t this mean that knowledge of his existence is also knowledge of his essence? And the latter being impossible, aren’t we left with a contradiction?

There are two answers to this. They depend on how one answers the question of whether we can predicate anything of God by analogy or whether we can only negatively predicate things of God.

I fall into the former camp and hold that one can predicate things of God by analogy. Thus when we say that God exists, we mean something which is analogous to our own existence but not something which is known in its entirety to us. To make a poor analogy but one that points in the right direction, when we say that a flower is white, we are describing an aspect of its color but we’re not saying anything about what it looks like in spectra that we can’t see. (It is the case that most white flowers look different in the UV spectrum which some insects can see.)

To say what God is, completely, is beyond our ability. But it is not accurate to say that we can’t know anything about God.

Part of why I fall into this camp is that it doesn’t make sense for creation to not even be like its creator; if we do not reflect any of God, then from where do we draw our qualities?

However, it is possible to go the other way and to say that we can only negatively predicate things of God. (These are not, in general, the people who do natural philosophy.) In which case, you get this result:

it is wrong to say that God exists

(“It is wrong to say that God exists. It is wrong to say that God does not exist. But it is more wrong to say that God does not exist. –Saint Dionysius the Areopagite)

Jordan Peterson, Falsehoods and Consequences

A friend of mine (rather incautiously, given how little provocation it takes to get me to write a blog post) said,

[T]here’s a part in the trailer for this movie where Peterson says “Falsehoods have consequences. That’s what makes them false.” If you discern any meaning in that statement, please tell me.

I’m now going to explain what Peterson means. (Or what I think he means—I haven’t been given the gift of reading souls.) First, I think that we can rephrase this less poetically but more clearly as:

[Falsehoods have negative consequences. That’s intrinsic to them being false.]

To break this down, we need to start with what a “falsehood” is. It’s not merely something that’s not true, but it’s an idea of something that’s not true. An idea points to something. What a false idea points to is something that’s simply not there. That is, the falsity is a relationship between the idea and reality.

Take a really simple example from classic bugs bunny cartoons: someone walks off a cliff but doesn’t look down so he keeps walking as if the ground is there. He only falls when he notices. This is funny because it’s the opposite of how reality works—in real life if you believe the cliff is a flat plain and walk off the cliff, you fall immediately. Believing the cliff to be a prairie is the falsity. Falling when you try to stand on what’s not there is the consequence.

What Peterson is trying to point out is that this relationship is inherent because truth and falsity are not properties of the idea but of the relationship of the idea to reality. We live in such a pluralistic culture and want so badly to get along with each other that we try to pretend that truth and falsity are private things—that they only apply to the idea itself. If we can believe this, we can then not care about what awful beliefs someone else has because we can pretend it doesn’t really matter.

But ideas do matter—precisely because they either correspond to reality or don’t. If you treat reality as if it’s something else, very bad things will happen because what you’re actually doing is contrary to reality. That’s the primary meaning.

However, this quote also works the other way—you can use consequences as a test for truth. This is, basically, the entire approach of science. It’s got some major problems if you take it too seriously, but if it’s only one tool in your tool belt, pragmatic truth can be a useful tool. To continue our original analogy—suppose instead of thinking that the cliff is a cliff you think it’s a canyon but the opposite side of the canyon is too far away to see. There’s a pragmatic sense in which this isn’t false—to put it in a more scientific way, your model corresponds to reality as far as you are able to measure.

A more practical example of this would be the “white lie”. Suppose your wife asks you if she looks good in a particular dress and suppose further that it’s really one of the least flattering dresses she owns. But suppose further that the question at hand—whether she knows it or not—is really, “should I be embarrassed to show my face while I wear this dress—will I be risking social ostracism by wearing it?”

If you give the answer, “yes, it looks good on you”, what is the difference between that and the strictly more accurate, “It doesn’t look very good on you but is still well within the range in which no one’s opinion of you is going to change because they love you, they will still think you put effort into your appearance for their sake, and realistically you would need to be wearing a rotting corpse or something equally extreme to change our friends’ opinion of you and hence your social standing, so by all means wear it if your favorite dress is in the wash and this is way more comfortable than the other dress which looks better on you and is clean”?

Assuming for the sake of the example the obviously unrealistic idea that your wife could accept such a robot-like answer at face value, neither of them has any sort of negative consequence to living—in both cases your wife will wear the dress, feel that she didn’t quite make the maximal effort she could have, and not worry more than she would regardless of what she was wearing. So in a practical sense, neither of these statements is false—that is, neither of them corresponds to reality so badly that you’re going to walk off a metaphorical cliff by acting according to it.

When you put these two things together, you have the meaning of the original quote:

Falsehoods have consequences. That’s what makes them false.

Models vs. Reality

A little-known change in the attempt to learn about nature happened, in a sense, several hundred years ago. People replaced Natural Philosophy with mathematical Science, in which the attempt to know what nature is was replaced with mathematical models of nature which can predict measurable aspects of nature.

The difference between these two things is that a model may, possibly, tell you about what the underlying reality is. On the other hand, it may not. Models can be accurate entirely by accident.

Trivial examples are always easier, so consider the following model of how often Richard Dawkins is eaten by an alligator, where f is the number of times he’s been eaten by an alligator and t is the time (in the sense of precise date):

f(t) = 0

This model is accurate to more than 200 decimal places. If you conclude from this model that Richard Dawkins is alligator-proof and throw him in an alligator pit to enjoy the spectacle of frustrated alligators, you will be very sadly mistaken. But it’s so accurate!

This is of course a silly example; no one would ever confuse this model or its accuracy for a full description of reality. However, there’s a very interesting story from astronomy where people did exactly that.

I’m speaking, in particular, of the long-running Ptolemaic model of the planets and its eventual overthrow of the Copernican model. The Ptolemaic model was the one where the earth was at the center of the solar system and the planets traveled in cycles and epicycles around it. The thing about this model is that it was actually extremely accurate in its predictions.

(If you’re wondering how it could be so accurate while being so wrong, the thing you have to realize is that Special Relativity actually means that it’s just fine for the earth to be taken as the center of the coordinate. The math just gets harder for some calculations; this is basically what happened. The Ptolemaic model was, basically, a close approximation of that more complicated math.)

However, there is a yet simpler example of incorrect models producing correct results: just consider, for two minutes, that for most of history everyone believed that the Sun orbited the earth and yet they still had highly accurate calendars. Despite not thinking of a year as the time the earth takes to orbit the Sun they nevertheless recorded the years and predicted the solstices with great precision.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in a full history of the shift from the Earth being the center of the solar system to the Sun being at the center, be sure to read the extraordinarily good series of articles by TOF, The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown (originally published in Analog magazine). It is very well worth your time.

Accuracy vs. Charity

A curious experience I have from time to time is when discussing some sort of sin or other moral error, when I identify the lesser good aimed at, I’m told that I’m very charitable. This confuses me somewhat because my goal is not to be charitable, but merely to be accurate.

All sin is the seeking after of some lesser good in place of a higher good. The clearest and easiest example is idolatry—this is worshiping some created good as if it were the Creator. But that means that the idolater is seeking God in a creature. It’s not particularly charitable to note this; it’s simply accurate.

To take a slightly less obvious example, when a person is wrathful—i.e. indulging in excessive anger—they are placing the rectification of some wrong above the good of the injured party and the culprit. In true justice, a wrong done is rectified and a balance restored between aggressor and victim, so that they can return to their proper relationship of friends. When one is wrathful one seeks only to redress the wrong done to the victim, but not to restore the relationship between creatures. By giving an infinite weight to the good of which the victim was deprived, the wrathful person is never satisfied at the restitution and therefore ignores the greater good (once proper restitution has been made) of restoration of the proper relationship between sinner and victim. But saying that the wrathful person goes wrong by over-valuing the victim (or the good of which the victim was deprived which constitutes the injury to the victim) is not—in any way that I can see, at least—being charitable to the wrathful person. It’s just being accurate.

I suppose it’s possible that this is taken for charity because commonly people ascribe sin to the desire to do evil, but this is not actually possible. It’s simply a point of metaphysics that the will can only move towards some good, though it can move toward a lessor good in place of a greater good. As such, whenever a person goes wrong, you know with iron certainty that they were seeking some good, however minor. This doesn’t lessen their sin since it’s inherent in their sin being sin that they are seeking some (lesser) good.

Perhaps people think I mean that the one whose sin I’m explaining must therefore have sinned by accident, or been misled through no fault of their own? That certainly does not follow; we know from the fact that sin is voluntary that one can knowingly choose a lesser good over a greater good.

Oh well. Perhaps some day I’ll understand this.

Pride Vs Stupidity

Over on his blog, Mr. John C. Wright asks the question:

Why is the proud man angry or peeved with the stupidity (real or imagined) of his fellows? I ask because one would think a saint would be very patient with someone who was stupid, if it were honest stupidity, and not merely laziness in thinking. Whereas the devil (or Lex Luthor) is always in a state of haughtiest annoyance, because he is brighter than those around him. Their stupidity proves his superiority – yet it irks him. Why?

To answer this question we have to first answer the question, “what is pride?” (I’m taking the distinction between pride and vanity as a given.) A generally workable description of pride is an inflated sense of the worth of the self. This is, however—when properly considered—a symptom rather than a cause.

The cause of pride is a mistake about the nature of the self. This is inescapable because the value placed on something is inherently a description of its nature. (I should probably clarify that pride is an inflation of the inherent worth of the self—it’s not a utilitarian measure of the worth of the self to someone else’s purposes, as a means to their end. That’s actually a form of vanity.)

There are two possible mistakes to make about the nature of the self which aggrandize it:

  1. That one is a higher creature than one is, but still subordinate to God
  2. That one is God

While #1 is possible, I suspect it’s not the common mode of pride since it’s too subject to correctives. A human being who thinks that he’s an angel, for example, will have a hard time not noticing that he has a physical body and is, therefore, actually a human being. If he still thinks himself subordinate to God, he will in humility accept this recognition. It is, therefore, hard to see how #1 can be a long-lived error. Even Gulliver couldn’t think himself a Houyhnhnm for long at a stretch.

This leaves #2 as the common form of pride, and it is this form of pride in which stupidity angers the proud man. It angers him because it is proof that he is not God. The proud man wills that the people around him are not stupid and yet they are. This proves his limitations and therefore disproves his opinion of his own power. The larger the difference between what he wills reality to be and what it is, the greater the proof that he is not God, and therefore the greater is his anger.

Most of Life is Unknown

We live so awash in stories and news that we get a very skewed perspective on how much of real life is know to more than a few people and God. What got me thinking about this was watching the following song:

It was the theme song used by a sketch comedy group at the university I went to for my undergraduate degree. They were called Friday Night Live (as an homage to the TV show of similar name) and would put on a show about three times a semester. They had apparently been hugely popular when they started, which was at least a few years before I attended. I was in the rival sketch comedy group, Pirate Theater. At the beginning of my freshman year the attendance at our shows was lower than that of Friday Night Live, but by the end of my senior year the positions had reversed. Our audiences were 3-4 times larger and theirs were smaller even than our audiences had been in my freshman year.

A few years ago I ran into someone who was currently a student at the university and I asked about the shows. He said that Pirate Theater was still reasonably popular but Friday Night Live no longer existed. In fact, he had never even heard of it.

There had been a reasonably friendly rivalry between the two shows, and it turned out that our efforts brought success, in a sense. I don’t think that any of us pirates wanted to kill of Friday Night Live, and ultimately I suspect that it was the quality of their writing which did them in. For whatever reason (I never wrote sketches for FNL, so I couldn’t say what it was like to do so), Pirate Theater managed to attract far more of the skilled writers on campus. It also didn’t help that FNL insisted on having an intermission and hiring a local band to play in it. I think in all the time I was there—and I didn’t miss an FNL show all four years—they had one band that I didn’t leave the auditorium to get away from. Really, really cheap bands tend to be so inexpensive for a reason.

As you might imagine, I was never alone outside the doors when the band was playing. And they were always ear-hurtingly loud, too. Adding injury to insult, I suppose.

Towards the end of my senior year, there were probably less than a hundred people attending the Friday Night Live shows. The total number of people who saw their trajectory for those four years I watched it was not very large; the number who remember it now is probably much smaller. And yet the actors did work on their sketches, however little humor was in them. The “turrets family” where the “joke” was that there was a lot of yelling and cussing may not have been entertaining to watch, but it’s no easier to memorize unfunny lines, or to say them at the right time when you’re live on stage. (There was at approximately one of those per show, for all four years, by the way.)

One of the actors was limber and would do physical comedy with a folding chair, getting stuck in it. It wasn’t brilliant physical comedy, and (due to the lack of skilled writing) never really fit into the sketches it was in; one could see it coming a mile away as the sketches it was used in were basically an excuse to do the wacky chair antics. But someone did write the sketch, and people memorized it, and the actor did twist himself through a chair on stage which is not an easy thing to do. And I do have to say that the final time he did it—which was the last FNL show I attended since he graduated the same year I did—was actually kind of funny because it was actually a protracted goodbye dance with the chair, complete with sad music and longing glances.

 

This was all very real; people put real work, went through real happiness and sadness, and now it is mostly forgotten. That is ultimately the fate of (almost) all human endeavors. This was captured quite well, I think by Percy Blythe Shelley in his poem Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Most things fade from memory far faster, of course. How many people now remember more than a few fragments of Friday Night Live’s sketches? I don’t think I remember more than a few fragments of the Pirate Theater sketches which I wrote, let alone those I merely performed in. I do have a DVD with a collection of the video sketches we did (many of which I’m in), but it’s been quite some time since I watched it.

It may well be longer until I watch it again. In the intervening decade and a half, I’ve gotten a profession, married, bought a house, had three children, published three novels, made a YouTube channel with over 1,973 subscribers, and a whole lot more. As much a I value my memories of my college days, I don’t want to go back in the way that video takes one back.

But the thing is, that’s not a strength. I just don’t have the time and energy for it. But all the things I’ve done since which so occupy me now will also fade in time. Eventually I will die; eventually this house will fall down or be demolished; eventually my children will die. Nothing has any permanence within time.

So the only hope we have is for permanence outside of time. There’s a great metaphor, which Saint Augustine uses in his Confessions, of God, at the end of time, gathering up the shattered moments of our lives and putting them together as a unified whole. And that’s really the only hope we have for any of our lives to be real.

You Can’t Get an Ought From an Is In Hell

One of the questions which comes up in discussions of morality is whether you can get an “ought” from an “is”. This is relevant primarily to discussions of atheism, since to the atheist everything is a brute fact, i.e. an “is” which is not directed towards anything, and therefore an atheist cannot get any “oughts” out of their description of what is. Or in simpler language, if God is dead then all things are permitted. (Note for the unpoetic: by “God is dead” we mean “there is no God”.)

There are two reasons why if God is dead all things are permitted:

  1. If God is dead, who is there to forbid anything?
  2. If God is dead, then there is no ultimate good because all is change and therefore nothing has any lasting reality.

If you argue this sort of stuff with atheists long enough, somewhere along the line while you’re explaining natural ends (telos) and natural morality, you may come by accident to a very interesting point which the atheist will bring up without realizing it. It often goes something like this:

OK, suppose that what God says is actually the only way to be eternally happy. Why should you be eternally happy? Why shouldn’t you do what you want even though it makes you unhappy?

This question sheds some very interesting light on hell, and consequently on what we mean by morality. Our understanding of morality tends to be like what Saint Augustine said of our understanding of time:

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.

Somehow or other atheists tend to assume that ought means something that you have to do, regardless of what you want to do. It’s very tempting to assume that this is a holdover from childhood where ought meant that their parents would make them do it whether or not they wanted to. It’s tempting because it’s probably the case and because that’s not an adult understanding of ought. And it’s not because ultimately we can’t be forced to be good. (Or if this raises your hackles because I’m “placing limits on God”, then just take it as meaning that in any event we won’t be forced to be good.)

Hell is a real possibility. Or in other words, it is possible to see two options and knowingly pick the worse option.

What we actually mean by saying that we ought to do something is that the thing is directed towards the good. And we can clarify this if we bring in a bit of Thomistic moral philosophy: being is what is good. Or as the scholastic phrase goes, good is convertible with being. But being, within creation, is largely a composite entity. A statue is not just one thing, but many things (atoms, molecules, etc.) which, in being ordered toward the same end, are also one thing which is greater than their parts.

And you can see a symphony of ordering to a greater being, in a human being. Atoms are ordered into proteins (and many other things like lipids, etc), which are ordered into cells, which are ordered into organs, which are ordered into human beings. But human beings are not at the top of the hierarchy of being, for we are also ordered into community with other created things. (Please note: being part of a greater whole does not rob the individual of his inherent dignity; the infinite goodness of God means that creation is not a competition. Also note that God so exceeds all of creation that He is not in the hierarchy of being, but merely pointed to by it.)

And so we come to the real meaning of ought. To say that we ought to do something is to say that the thing is ordered towards the maximum being which is given to us. But we need not choose being; we can instead choose non-being. The great lie which the modern project (and, perhaps not coincidentally, Satan) tells us is that there is some other being available to us besides what was given to us by God. That we can make ourselves; that we can give ourselves what we haven’t got. And, not at all coincidentally, are the things which we ought not to do—that is, those things are not ordered toward being. They’re just what the atheist says that all of life is—stimulating nerve endings to fool ourselves that we’ve accomplished something.

And yet atheists complain when one says that, according to them, they’re in hell.

God, at least, has a sense of humor.

Superman’s Secret Identity

I had a conversation with my friend Andrew Stratelates recently about the question of why no one figures out that Clark Kent is actually Superman. And I figured something out about it when he pointed out that mannerisms can be very suggestive to people, but it would be very difficult to fool facial recognition software: trying to figure out Superman’s secret identity presupposes that he has a secret identity. And why on earth would anyone think that?

Superman doesn’t wear a mask, and is even clean shaven. Since one can plainly see his face, which he makes no effort to hide, there’s absolutely no reason to think that he has some sort of alternate persona he’s hiding. Moreover, if you think about it for a moment, it’s actually really quite strange that Superman does have an alternate persona. It serves no practical purpose. In most tellings, superman is not a vigilante who is wanted by the police and in any event he has a fortress of solitude which is a reasonable commute away, so it’s not like he has to pay rent to avoid capture. And if Superman did want money, he could take advantage of his super powers to earn hugely more than he could pretending to be an ordinary man. There are much more lucrative things he could do, but since he can travel at super-sonic speeds while carrying multiple tons of material, he could make a fortune as a high speed courier. The list of better ways to make money than working an office job would be quite long, and moreover, obviously quite long to everyone.

Further, there’s the fact that superman is basically an olympian god compared to ordinary men. Why would he choose to do the drudgery the rest of us are forced to do? It’s an imperfect analogy, but consider the following hypothetical:

Suppose you work for a company which makes inkjet printers, and suppose you have a co-worker in your office named Fred who looks like Donald Trump, except that he is polite, self-effacing, drives a 6-year-old Nissan Sentra, and wears glasses. And suppose another co-worker one day whispered to you, “You know what, I think that Fred is Donald Trump’s secret identity!”

Would you:

(A) Say, “You know what, if you take away the glasses he does look exactly like Donald Trump. You must be right!”

(B) Ask, “Why on earth would Donald Trump have a secret identity working a mediocre job in our printer company?”

(If Donald Trump is too polarizing a figure, you could easily substitute Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, or the Duke of Cambridge (Prince William), and the point will remain unchanged.)

Superman’s having a secret identity makes about as much sense has his wearing his underwear on the outside of his clothing—it’s interesting, it’s very historically contingent, and it’s plausible only in the sense that life has a lot of quirks to it that we’d never expect. That it is plausible in the sense that life is stranger than fiction does actually lend people not discovering Superman’s secret identity some plausibility. And I think the wild implausibility of Superman having a secret identity is the best defense he has, since it would be trivial to detect superman otherwise, even if he wore an astonishingly realistic face mask. Just use an x-ray scanner and find the guy who’s completely solid. Alternatively, look for people the right height and build and poke them with a very thin, sharp pin until you find the guy where the pin breaks instead of going into his skin. And if you’re a villain, just do it like they did in the movie Pumaman and throw likely candidates out of high windows until you find someone who survives.

Over the Hills and Far Away

I recently discovered the singer/hury gurdist Patty Gurdy. Originally part of the band Storm Seeker, she seems to be striking out on her own. I’ve really been enjoying her songs on YouTube, and I’m particularly fond of her cover of a Storm Seeker song called The Longing:

However, the song I want to talk about is Over the Hills and Far Away:

It’s extremely reminiscent in theme of the Johnny Cash song The Long Black Veil, though I don’t know that there’s any influence:

Either way, it’s very interesting to compare the two songs. And despite the similarity of subject matter, the biggest difference is what kind of song they are: Over the Hills and Far Away is a (sort-of) love song, while The Long Black Veil is a tragedy.

This is of course facilitated by the different penalties for the different crimes. In The Long Black Veil, the man is accused of murder and his refusal to provide an alibi results in his execution, while in Over the Hills and Far Away he refuses to provide an alibi for a robbery and consequently is sentenced to 10 years in prison. This enables the latter to have the theme of eventual return, and it’s this theme which turns the song into a love song.

Which is unfortunate because the man should not return to the arms of his best friend’s wife. He should stay out of the arms of any man’s wife but even more so those of his best friend’s wife. In the song where the adulterer died, it becomes possible to take it as a simple tragedy where he was not directly punished for his adultery, but none the less was being punished indirectly because his adultery prevented him from proving his innocence. He got what he deserved, if indirectly, sort of like the plot of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Unfortunately that sort of interpretation isn’t possible for a man who doesn’t understand what he did to be wrong (only socially unacceptable). But I find it interesting that the woman sings a song about adultery as a love song and the man sings it as a tragedy. This touches on a theme I’ve noticed in stories written by women: a man is so captivated by a woman’s beauty that he’s willing to destroy himself (and often her) because of it. This isn’t a universal theme, nor anything like that, but I’ve noticed that this is a common theme in material that I didn’t usually read until recently.

There’s a lot to say about the theme of a man so entranced by a woman’s beauty that he becomes a monster, which alas I don’t have time for now, but it is an interesting question to ponder how much the becoming a monster is intrinsic to the fantasy or whether it’s a way of defending against the accusations of wish-fulfillment which the story would be accused of if the woman’s beauty captivated the man and helped him to overcome his vices and become a saint. That latter one would be a very good story, though.

Without Midwits, Geniuses Would be Useless

Over at Amatopia, Alex wrote an interesting post called, The Curse of the Midwit:

One of the worst things to be is a midwit. And I am one. Let me explain what I mean by “midwit.” I have seen the term used many ways, and they boil down to these six points: Someone who is not as smart as the truly intelligent, but is of above-average intelligence, Who wants other […]

As usual, it’s a post worth reading, but Alex only tells half the story. He talks about the dangers of midwits but every danger is just the flip side of a virtue. (Of a natural virtue, specifically. The natural virtues are things like intelligence, strength, physical beauty, health, and so on; they are distinct from the moral virtues like courage, self control, etc.; which are again distinct from the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.)

In short, Alex leaves out the virtue unique to midwits. Now, in what follows I’m going to paint with a very broad brush because I don’t have time to give a full description of the hierarchy of being, so I ask you to use your imagination to fill in all that I’m going to leave vague.

As I’ve said before, God’s fundamental theme within creation is delegation (technically, secondary causation). He doesn’t give to each creature everything he gives to them directly, but instead gives some of his gift to other creatures to give to their fellow creatures on his behalf. Through this He incorporates us into his love of creation and into His creative action. But within creation, this theme of delegation echoes. Instead of one intermediary, God orders the world so that there are several intermediaries. He spreads the love around, as it were.

The part of that which we’re presently concerned with is that it is not (usually) given to geniuses to be able to give their knowledge to the great mass of humanity directly. And since it is (usually) not given to them, they generally can’t do it. When a genius speaks to a common man, he’s usually quite unintelligible. If the common man knows the genius to be a genius by reputation, he’ll assume the man is saying something too genius for him to understand, rather than to be raving nonsense, but he will typically get about as much from it as if the genius was raving nonsense. This is where the midwits come in.

A midwit can understand a genius, but he can also speak in ways that common men can understand. Thus God’s knowledge is given to the common man not directly, but first to the genius, who gives it to the midwit, who then gives it to the common man. Geniuses need midwits at least as much as midwits need geniuses. In truth, all of creation needs the rest of creation since we were created to be together.

Of course the distinction of men into three tiers—genius, midwit, and common—is a drastic oversimplification. In reality there are levels of midwits and levels of geniuses, each of which tends to receive knowledge from the level above it and pass knowledge down to the level below it. For example, Aristotle would have had the merest fraction of the effect he has had were it not for an army of teachers, down through the millenia, who have explained what he taught to those who couldn’t grasp it directly.

Of course in this fallen world every aspect of this can and often does go wrong in a whole myriad of ways. And Alex is quite right that midwits can be very dangerous when they consider themselves geniuses—or really, any time that they’re wrong—because the sacred burden of teaching the great mass of common men has been given to them. Midwits have the power to do tremendous good, which means that they have the power to do tremendous harm.  But the tremendous good which midwits were given to do should never be forgotten just because many of them don’t do it.

The Evolution of Scientism

There’s a curious thing which happens to those who believe that the only real knowledge comes from science: they start to believe that nearly everything—except what they want to reject—is science. Ultimately this should not be shocking, since people who live with a philosophy will invariably change it—gradually—until it is livable.

The people who become Scientismists generally start out extremely impressed with the clear and convincing nature of the proofs offered in the physical sciences. It would be more accurate to say, with the few best proofs in the physical sciences which are offered to them in school—but the distinction isn’t of great import. In practice, most of the impressive results tend to be in the field of Chemistry. It doesn’t hurt that Chemistry is a bit akin to magic, with the astonishing substances it allows people to make, but what it’s really best at is interesting, counter-intuitive predictions. Physics, at least as presented in school, generally allows you to predict simple things like where a thrown object will land or how far a hockey puck will skid on the ice. These aren’t very practical, and the results tend to be intuitive. Chemistry, by contrast, involves the mixing of strange chemicals with the results ranging from anything to nearly nothing to things which glow to explosions to enormously strong plastics.

And Chemistry does this with astonishing accuracy. If you start with clean reagents and mix them in the appropriate steps, you actually do end up with close to the right amount of what you’re supposed to end up with. If you try to run a physics experiment, you’ll probably be nowhere close to correct simply because the experiments are so darn finicky. I still remember when my high school honors physics class broke into groups to run an experiment to calculate acceleration due to gravity at the earth’s surface. The results were scattered between 2.3m/s and 7.3m/s (the correct answer is 9.8m/s).

The problem for our budding Scientismist  is that virtually nothing outside of chemistry and (some of) physics is nearly as susceptible to repeatable experiment on demand. Even biology tends to be far less accommodating (though molecular biology is much closer to chemistry in this regard than the rest of biology is). Once you get beyond biology, things get much worse for the Scientismist; by the time you’re at things like morality, economics, crime & punishment, public decency, parenting and so forth, there aren’t any repeatable controlled experiments which you can (ethically) perform. And even if you were willing to perform unethical controlled experiments, the system involved is so complex that the very act of controlling the experiment (say, by raising a child inside of a box) affects the experiment. So what is the Scientismist to do?

What he should do, of course, is realize that Scientism is folly and give it up. The second best thing to do is to realize that (according to his theory) human beings live in near-complete ignorance and so he has nothing to say on any subject other than the hard sciences. What he actually does is to then declare all sorts of obviously non-scientific things to be science, and then accepts them as knowledge. Which is to say, he makes Scientism livable. It’s neither rational nor honest, but it is inevitable. In this great clash of reality with his ideas, something has to give—and the least painful thing to give up is a rigorous criteria for what is and is not science.

Telling Reality From a Dream

“What if real life is actually a dream?”  is a favorite question of Modern philosophers and teenagers who want to sound deep. It’s a curious thought experiment, but in reality—that is, when we’re awake—we can all easily tell the difference between reality and a dream. But how? The answer is, I think, very simple, but also telling.

Thought experiments aside, we can tell reality from a dream because—to put it a little abstractly—reality contains so much more information than a dream does. Anything we care to focus on contains a wealth of detail which is immediately apparent to us. Whether it’s the threads in a blanket or the dust in the corner of the room or just the bumps in the paint on the drywall, reality has an inexhaustible amount of complexity and detail to it. And what’s more, it has this even in the parts we’re not focusing on. Our eyes take in a truly enormous amount of information that we don’t exactly notice and yet are aware of.

Dreams, by contrast, are very simple things. They do feel real while we are in them, but I think this comes from two primary causes. One is that we’re so caught up in the plot of our dream that we’re not paying enough attention to ask ourselves the simple question, “is this a dream?”

And I think that this is because dreams are natural to us. We often lose sight of this fact because dreams are involuntary and strange. But many things we do are involuntary, in the sense of sub-conscious; our breathing is most involuntary and our heartbeat always is. Our stomachs go on without our concentrating on them and our intestines wind our food through them whatever our conscious thoughts may be. Merely being involuntary does not make a thing unnatural. And since it is natural to us to dream, it is natural that we do not ordinarily try to escape our dreams. As with our other bodily functions, we ordinarily do what we’re supposed to do.

The other reason that dreams feel real to us is because our attention is so focused in a dream that we never consider the irrelevant details. If you ever try to call a dream back in your memory, though, you’ll notice that you can recall almost no detail in them—detail which was irrelevant at the time, I mean. The things in dreams only have properties where one is paying attention. The enormous amount of information we can see without paying attention to it is missing. This is also why they have a “dreamlike” quality to them—if we turn away then come back, they may not be the same because they stopped existing while we weren’t looking at them.

Dreams lack this stable, consistent, overwhelming amount of information in them precisely because they are our creations. We can’t create an amount of information so large that we can’t take it in.

And here we come to the fitting part: the difference in richness between reality and dreams shows what inadequate Gods we are. Our creations are insubstantial, inconsistent wisps. We can tell reality from a dream at a glance between it only takes one glance at reality to know that we couldn’t have created what we’re looking at.

(Note: This is a heavily revised version of a previous post, Discerning Reality From a Dream.)

Discerning Reality From a Dream

“What if real life is actually a dream?”  is a favorite question of Modern philosophers and teenagers who want to sound deep. It’s a curious thought experiment, but in reality we can all easily tell the difference between reality and a dream. But how? The answer is, I think, very simple, but also telling.

Thought experiments aside, we can tell reality from a dream because—to put it a little abstractly—reality contains so much more information than a dream does. Anything we care to focus on contains a wealth of detail which is immediately apparent to us. Whether it’s the threads in a blanket or the dust in the corner of the room or just the bumps in the paint on the drywall, reality has an inexhaustible amount of complexity and detail to it.

Dreams, by contrast, are very simple things. They feel real only because we’re so caught up in the plot of our dream that we’re not paying enough attention to ask ourselves the simple question, “is this a dream?” But if you pay attention, dreams have almost no detail in them; the things in the dream only have properties where one is paying attention. This is also why they have a “dreamlike” quality to them—if we turn away then come back, they may not be the same because they stopped existing while we weren’t looking at them.

And here we come to the fitting part: the difference in richness between reality and dreams shows what inadequate Gods we are. Our creations are insubstantial, inconsistent wisps. We can tell reality from a dream at a glance between it only takes one glance at reality to know that we couldn’t have created what we’re looking at.

UPDATE: I’ve rewritten and expanded this post in a way that makes its point clearer: Telling Reality From a Dream