Chemical Composition, or, Substance and Accidents

The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation means that in the Eucharist, when the priest speaks Christ’s words of consecration (“this is my body”, “this is my blood”) over the bread and wine on the alter, the power of Christ is invoked, by the authority he gave to his apostles and they delegated to their successors and they delegated to the priests whom they consecrate, and it changes the bread and wine on the alter to become the body and blood of Christ. (This is sometimes called the “real presence.”) Much difficulty arises over exactly what is meant because the bread doesn’t turn into muscle tissue and the wine doesn’t develop red blood cells.

The Eastern Orthodox basically just say “it’s a mystery” and leave it at that. (I liked the styling I saw someplace, “eeeet’sss aaaaa myyyysssterrrryyyyy”.) The Catholic Church says that it’s a mystery, but it gives a few helpful details. You can actually see this in the word “transubstantiation.”

“Transubstantiation” is derived from two words: “trans” and “substance”. “Trans” meaning “change” and “substance” being that part of being which is not the accidents. Accidents, in this case, not meaning “something unintended” but rather the properties a thing has which, if they were changed or removed, would not make the thing something else. A chair might be made out of wood, but if you made it out of plastic it would still be a chair. The ability to hold up someone sitting is the substance of a chair, the material it is made out of is an accident (again, not in the colloquial sense of accident but in a technical sense). You can also do the reverse. You can take the wood a chair is made out of and rearrange it into a collection of splintery spikes protruding up. It has the same accidents (the wood), but the substance has changed. “Transubstantiation” just means that the accidents (the gluten, starch, etc. in the bread and the water, sugar, alcohol, etc. in the wine) remain the same but the substance—what it is—is what has changed.

Or, to put this more simply: in the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ has the same chemical composition as bread and wine. Something to consider, when trying to understand this, is that a living human being has exactly the same chemical composition as a human corpse.

If Real Socialism Has Never Been Tried

One sometimes hears the claim that real socialism has never been tried. The many things that have claimed to be socialism—German National Socialism (Nazism), Italian Fascism, Soviet Communism, Chinese Communism, East German Communism, North Korean Communism, Vietnamese Communism, etc. etc. etc.—were not socialism, they were authoritarianism. I’m not, here, interested in debating the point, though I can’t help but note that defining socialism to be, roughly, “a system where people voluntarily share things rather than selling them” makes it not a political system but just a free market with impressively effective preachers of the gospel and extraordinarily receptive listeners to it (since it would be pretty much exactly how the early christian community operated in the pagan world, as described in the Acts of the Apostles, before the church expanded much outside of Jerusalem).

No, what I propose to do in this post is to just grant the proposition that no one has actually tried real socialism and see what follows from it. If we grant this premise, we come to some pretty strange conclusions. Well, perhaps not so strange.

The first question we must ask ourselves, if no one has ever tried real socialism, is: why did all of the people who set out to try real socialism fail to try it?

This is a very important question. We have had many people in many places throughout the last 100 or so years who have tried to set up socialism. People like Vladimir Lenin, Adoplh Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-Sung and Hồ Chí Minh, were not joking. They thought that capitalism was evil and that the government and the economy should exist to benefit the people, not a rich minority or the well-born or an elite of any kind. There are plenty of others who thought the same thing, too. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg formed the Communist Party of Germany, which merged with the Social Democratic Party of Germany (itself a merger of other, earlier parties) to form the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, which was the ruling communist party of East Germany. They weren’t kidding. Hugo Chavez formed the Movimiento V República, which went on to join with other socialist parties to become the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. He wasn’t kidding. Does anyone think that Fidel Castro was joking?

By hypothesis, all of these people—and others—failed to try real socialism. They tried to try real socialism but just couldn’t succeed enough to actually give it a try. So what is so difficult about trying socialism that, so far in human history, every single one of the many people who have tried to try it have all failed? And they didn’t just fail a little bit, either. They have generally produced the worst hell-holes that the world has ever seen. Some of that is, undoubtedly, owing to the more advanced state of technology in the world when all of these people tried to try socialism and failed to try it. Still, they didn’t try to try socialism and end up trying multi-party democracies with thriving free-market economies. A bit like trying to catch a bullet someone shot at you with your teeth or riding a unicycle over a rope stretched across the grand canyon, failure has a pretty high cost.

So we must ask the person suggesting that we give real socialism a try because it’s never been tried before—how does he know that he’ll actually be able to try it, unlike all of the other people who have tried to try it and plunged their nations into misery when they accidentally tried something else instead? Has the world simply been waiting around for someone as great as this kindly intentioned person, that finally the human race has produced the pinnacle of evolution, with all of the multitude of powers required to actually try real socialism?

Now, supposing that the answer is yes, a further question arises—and I don’t mean how can we find out if this lovely soul is correct that they can do what so many others failed to without giving them the power necessary to try to try real socialism—supposing this wonderful fellow is right and has that rare combination of qualities necessary to try real socialsm, what happens if trying real socialism doesn’t work? The human race has finally produced a member great enough to succeed at trying real socialism—what if he really tries it, but fails to achieve it? I can really try to throw a three-point shot in basketball, but most of the time this very real attempt fails to succeed in actually putting the ball in the net. What if really trying socialism and failing is even worse than trying to try real socialism and failing to try it?

Let us, however, assume that this greatest human being ever is sufficiently great not only to try real socialism, but even to succeed at real socialism. What if real socialism is awful? Remember that, by hypothesis, real socialism is completely untested. What happens to the millions of souls who would live under the result if it turns out that, say, real socialism is even worse in practice than fake socialism, or whatever you get when you try to try real socialism but fail? No one’s ever tried real socialism, so how on earth do we know what will happen if that attempt were to actually take place?

Another curious problem is introduced by the fact that it requires the pinnacle of human evolution to succeed in trying to try real socialism—in order for this attempt at an attempt to work, we’re going to have to put this most magnificent achievement of our species in charge. If they shared responsibility with anyone, they, being inferior, would drag them down, and then how would we possible succeed at trying to try real socialism? I suppose that the magnificent one could be so great that even as one among a large group of his inferiors he would lift them up to the heights required to succeed at trying to try real socialism. That seems like asking a lot of evolution, though. We so far haven’t produced one human who can bring about real socialism and all of a sudden we have one that can turn a group of people who can’t try real socialism into a group that can? How could that much incomparable magnificence possibly be achieved in just one generation?

There is a further problem, though, even if we just assume for some reason that real socialism, if attempted, will be good instead of even worse than fake socialism—and I, for one, would much rather drink fake poison than real poison—and that this pinnacle of evolution is so magnificent he doesn’t need to be a dictator but can, by his magnificence, make an entire parliament of people who cannot, on their own, succeed even at trying to try real socialism not only succeed at trying to try real socialism but actually achieve real socialism, too. If we assume all this, what happens when this pinnacle of evolution comes to die? It happens to all of the descendants of men, after all. How are we to replace the greatest human being the world has ever produced? And if we can’t, what will happen to this real socialism now that it is run by people who, left to themselves as they now are, could not succeed even in trying to try it? Are we to suppose that this thing which is so difficult that no one has hitherto succeeded even in trying to try it will go along merrily when run by ordinary people who, in the whole course of history, have never gotten anything right until now?

And, if so—if we are to suppose that real socialism is so difficult to get going that no one has yet succeeded in trying to try it but so easy to keep going that anyone can do it—can I interest the person claiming this in buying a bridge? It’s a real nice bridge. Very popular. Tons of people drive over it. I hate to part with it.

He doesn’t even need to keep the tolls for himself. He can use the money he’ll get from it in order to fund his local socialist party.

Determinism as a Fairy Tale for Philosophers

I was recently speaking with a friend of mine who’s a Franciscan friar and retired philosophy professor. During a discussion of Spinoza he mentioned that he tends to take determinism in philosophers not literally but as a metaphor for the limits of philosophical argumentation. This is a very interesting idea.

The basic problem with determinism (other than it being false) is that, if taken seriously, it would result in complete paralysis, or at least complete philosophical paralysis. If determinism is true, there is no purpose in telling anybody anything because there is nothing he can do with it. His thoughts are all predetermined. There isn’t even a point in telling him that there is no point, because even that cannot change what he will do—even to help him to make peace with being a slave. Of course, the same applies to the philosopher himself, so he can always say that he’s engaging in pointlessly telling people they are not free because he is predetermined to do so. Determinism means never having to say you’re sorry. Unless you have to.

Even so, determinist philosophers do not, as a rule, tend to acknowledge that everything that they write is pointless. Why is that? The utter pointlessness of telling a man that he has no more choice than does a rock is obvious. So obvious that we instinctively know it about rocks. Never yet has a man preached to the rocks that they cannot do other than what their nature and circumstances foreordain them to do. Not even to rocks which someone has carved ears into. Why, then, if one’s philosophy dictates that men are no more free than rocks will the philosopher preach this bad news to men?

(If it be objected that they do not preach to rocks because rocks cannot hear, I answer that this is irrelevant. There is no practical difference between something that cannot hear and something that, though it can hear, can do nothing with the words spoken to it. A man who speaks only Russian can still hear English, but we do not waste our time preaching to him in English. To object that he cannot understand changes nothing; we do not preach things a man cannot do even to men who understand. No one walks around in their native language telling men that it would be exhilarating to jump to the moon or very convenient if they were to grow thirty feet tall. It is the usefulness of the words which governs whether they leave our lips, not the intelligibility of them.)

So why on earth do determinist philosophers preach determinism? The answer, suggests my friend, and I suspect he’s right, is that they don’t mean it. What they actually mean is a metaphor for how little philosophical argumentation sways people, even the philosopher himself. As Saint Paul complained, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Determinism is, thus, a metaphor for the fallen state of humanity. And, in practice, it does seem to be a popular idea more with men who have difficulty restraining their passions. I can’t think of any extremely virtuous men who were determinists.

That said, this probably is more about how little philosophical argumentation sways the masses than about the philosopher himself. When the philosopher sees things clearly which seem to him momentous and the ordinary man shrugs his shoulders if he takes note at all—this requires some sort of explanation. There are better explanations than determinism but determinism does have a sort of superficial appeal. “Men do not care about the thoughts of the gods because they are mere beasts” is an explanation that does, to some degree, explain. That’s an important quality in an explanation—one that is missing in far more explanations than it should be.

Speaking of explanations which explain, I think that this idea makes sense of determinism, and especially why it is that its proponents never seem to take the idea seriously. They do take it seriously, just as a fairy tale to comfort them for why no one listens to them.

(I should note that I think this works synergistically with what has seemed to me to be the primary motivator of determinism: it simplifies the world. If one has to take into account many origins of causation, the world will not fit inside of one’s head. Determinism is appealing, then, because it eliminates a great deal of complexity. Even where the determinist is not an atheist, I think it functions as a sort of vicarious solipsism.)

Money: What Is It & Why Is It?

Money is an often misunderstood subject, especially because there are so many accidental things which grow up around it that are common and often mistaken for its substance. In this video I look at the history of how money develops as a medium for intermediating barter between people where only one person has something the other wants and how that develops into the sorts of monetary systems we have now. This also leads to what properties are essential to money and which are merely accidental, as well as what conditions are necessary for money to work and what conditions destroy money’s utility.

The Wages of Cynicism?

I’ve come to wonder about a trend I’ve seen in baby boomers that they tend to be very cynical but then have a streak of unbelievable credulity. It’s not all baby boomers, of course; no generation of people is homogeneous. This is merely a surprisingly large number of them, in my experience, and I’m wondering if it points to a more general human tendency (rather than merely being a strange product of the times in which it came to be). In particular, I’m wondering if, in general, being extremely cynical has a tendency to produce a sort of pressure-valve of credulity in some one thing.

The thing I most notice this in is the absurd credulity that many of the baby boomers in my life have towards news, especially newspapers. News, so they will tell me, is a bastion of the people and our one safeguard of liberty and all sorts of other nonsense, and all this in the face of things like newspaper articles which one can tell are lies simply by looking up the actual sources that the article references.

To give an example of what I mean, I read an article (sent to me by one of these boomers) which justified a claim of the Obama administration begging a heard-hearted republican congress for expanding PPE stockpiles by linking to an article which actually said that Obama’s refusal to compromise on the budget triggered automatic across-the-board 5% cuts to everything (a provision in the previous budget), that no one wanted. The most charitable interpretation of this event is that Obama wanted unlimited money and with it would have increased the budget for everything. This still gets nowhere near what the original article was trying to say, and if we limit ourselves to non-silly interpretations, Obama was clearly willing to take a 5% cut to the budget for medical stockpiles so that he wouldn’t have to compromise on things which were a higher priority to him. This is, literally, the opposite of what the source was invoked to claim. Unless one invokes the insanity defense, the article was, simply, lying. It didn’t matter, though. No matter how many lies an article tells, it is still the bullwark of the people, our sole preserver of liberty, etc.

(Oh, and the putatively supporting article also mentioned that even had the medical stockpiles seen a funding increase, they would have spent the money on rare drugs, which is their top priority, because (under normal circumstances) PPE is cheap and plentiful and easy to get more of on short notice. I did start to wonder if I was the only person who actually clicked through to verify the claims about the cited source. The degree to which it destroyed the article it was linked from was shocking, even to me.)

The more general human fault that I suspect this is an example of is the difficulty in living with ignorance. As human beings we necessarily do live in ignorance; we know very little about the very large world in which we live. The only real solution to this problem is to trust God, to whom the world is small and known. Since we are fallen creatures, however, this is hard. To be uniformly cynical to flawed sources of knowledge requires that we be able to repose in trust in God. This suggests that human credulity is, approximately, a fixed quantity; however much we fail to trust in God, that much will we be credulous. The only question is whether we will concentrate that credulity narrowly, trusting a few things far too much, or whether we will spread it out and trust many things a bit too much.

And to bring this back to the baby boomers with which this started (who are, by definition, American). I suspect that this is where history shaped the particular outcome. Having grown up during the civil rights era, the Vietnam era, and to a lesser extent the Watergate era, they learned to be cynical toward leaders and more generally the people that society normally trusts (priests, elders, etc). So they contracted their credulity towards a few sources like university professors and newsmen. Thus they were generally cynical, but with a few glaring gaps of credulity.

As I said, this is by no means all of the baby boomers, and my interest is at most only partially in the baby boomers I’m describing. Far more interesting is what general human weaknesses this is an expression of, and how to avoid them, even with different expression.

The Danger of Finding Your Meaning in Another Human Being

In this video I talk about the danger of finding one’s meaning in another human being.

(It has been pointed out, correctly, that this would constitute idolatry, but it’s a specific kind of idolatry which is somewhat easier to fall into because it doesn’t involve casting gold jewelry into statues, and bears some specific investigation.)

Why Do Moderns Write Morally Ambiguous Good Guys?

(Note: if you’re not familiar Modern spelled with a capital ‘M’, please read Why Moderns Always Modernize Stories.)

When Moderns tell a heroic story—or more often a story which is supposed to be heroic—they almost invariably write morally ambiguous good guys. Probably the most common form of this is placing the moral ambiguity in the allies who the hero protagonist trusts. It turns out that they did horrible things in the past, they’ve been lying to the protagonist (often by omission), and their motives are selfish now.

Typically this is revealed in an unresolved battle partway through the story, where the main villain has a chance to talk with the protagonist, and tells him about the awful things that the protagonist’s allies did, or are trying to do. Then the battle ends, and the protagonist confronts his allies with the allegations.

At this point two things can happen, but almost invariably the path taken is that the ally admits it, the hero gets angry and won’t let the ally explain, then eventually the ally gets a chance to explain (or someone else explains for him), and the protagonist concludes that the ally was justified.

In general this is deeply unsatisfying. So, why do Moderns do it so much?

It has its root in the modern predicament, of course. As you will recall, in the face of radical doubt, the only certainty left is will. To the Modern, therefore, good is that which is an extension of the will, and evil is the will being restricted. It’s not that he wants this; it’s that in his cramped philosophy, nothing else is possible. In general, Moderns tend to believe it but try hard to pretend that it’s not the case. Admitting it tends to make one go mad and grow one’s mustache very long:

(If you don’t recognize him, that’s Friedrich Nietzsche, who lamented the death of God—a poetic way of saying that people had come to stop believing in God—as the greatest tragedy to befall humanity. However, he concluded that since it happened, we must pick up the pieces as best we may, and that without God to give us meaning, the best we could do is to try to take his place, that is, to use our will to create values. Trying to be happy in the face of how awful life without God is drove him mad. That’s probably why atheists since him have rarely been even half as honest about what atheism means.)

The problem with good being the will and evil being the will denied is that there’s no interesting story to tell within that framework.

A Christian can tell the story of a man knowing what good is and doing the very hard work of trying to be good in spite of temptation, and this is an interesting story, because temptation is hard to overcome and so it’s interesting to see someone do it.

A Modern cannot tell the story of a man wanting something then doing it; that’s just not interesting because it happens all the time. I want a drink of water, so I pick up my cup and drink water. That’s as much an extension of my will as is anything a hero might do on a quest. In fact, it may easily be more of an extension of my will, because I’m probably more thirsty (in the moment) than I care about who, exactly, rules the kingdom. Certainly I achieve the drink more perfectly as an extension of my will than I am likely to change who rules the kingdom, since I might (if I have magical enough sword) pick the man, but I can’t pick what the man does. And what he does is an extension of his will, not mine. (This, btw, is why installing a democracy is so favored as a happy ending—it’s making the government a more direct extension of the will of the people.)

There’s actually a more technical problem which comes in because one can only will what is first perceived in the intellect. In truth, that encompasses nothing, since we do not fully know the consequence of any action in this world, but this is clearer the further into the future an action is and the more people it involves. As such, it is not really possible for the protagonist to really will a complex outcome like restoring the rightful king to the throne of the kingdom. Moderns don’t know this at a conscious level at all, but it is true and so does influence them a bit. Anyway, back to the main problem.

So what is the Modern to do, in order to tell an interesting story? He can’t tell an interesting story about doing good, since to him that’s just doing anything, and if he does something reader is not the protagonist, so it doesn’t do him any good. Granted, the reader might possible identify with the protagonist, but that’s really hard to pull off for large audiences. It requires the protagonist to have all but no characteristics. For whatever reason, this seems to be done successfully more often with female protagonists than with male protagonists, but it can never be done with complete success. The protagonist must have some response to a given stimulus, and this can’t be the same response that every reader will have.

The obvious solution, and for that reason the most common solution, is to tell the story of the protagonist not knowing what he wants. Once he knows what he wants, the only open question is whether he gets it or not, which is to say, is it a fantasy story or a tragedy? When he doesn’t know what he wants, the story can be anything, which means that there is something (potentially) interesting to the reader to find out.

Thus we have the twist, so predictable that I’m not sure it really counts as a twist, that the protagonist, who thought he knew what he wants—if you’re not sitting down for this, you may want to sit now so you don’t fall down from shock—finds out that maybe he doesn’t want what he thought he wanted!

That is, the good guys turn out to be morally ambiguous, and the hero has to figure out if he really wants to help them.

It’s not really that the Moderns think that there are no good guys. Well, OK, they do think that. Oddly, despite Modern philosophy only allowing good and evil to be imputed onto things by the projection of values, Moderns are also consequentialists, and consequentialists only see shades of grey. So, yes, Moderns think that there are no good guys.

But!

But.

Moderns are nothing if not inconsistent. It doesn’t take much talking to a Modern to note that he’s rigidly convinced that he’s a good guy. Heck, he’ll probably tell you that he’s a good person if you give him half a chance.

You’ll notice that in the formula I’ve described above, which we’re all far too familiar with, the protagonist never switches sides. Occasionally, if the show is badly written, he’ll give a speech in which he talks the two sides into compromising. If the show is particularly badly written, he will point out some way of compromising where both sides get what they want and no one has to give up anything that they care about, which neither side thought of because the writers think that the audience is dumb. However this goes, however, you almost never see the protagonist switching sides. (That’s not quite a universal, as you will occasionally see that in spy-thrillers, but there are structural reasons for that which are specific to that genre.) Why is that?

Because the Modern believes that he’s the good guy.

So one can introduce moral ambiguity to make things interesting, but it does need to be resolved so that the Modern, who identifies with the protagonist, can end up as the good guy.

The problem, of course, is that the modern is a consequentialist, so the resolution of the ambiguity almost never involves the ambiguity actually being resolved. The Modern thinks it suffices to make the consequences—or as often, curiously, the intended consequences—good, i.e. desirable to the protagonist. So this ends up ruining the story for those who believe in human nature and consequently natural law, but this really was an accident on the part of the Modern writing it. He was doing his best.

His best just wasn’t good enough.

The Scientific Method Isn’t Worth Much

It’s fairly common, at least in America, for kids to learn that there is a “scientific method” which tends to look something like:

  1. Observation
  2. Hypothesis
  3. Experiment
  4. Go back to 1.

It varies; there is often more detail. In general it’s part of the myth that there was a “scientific revolution” in which at some point people began to study the natural world in a radically different way than anyone had before. I believe (though am not certain) that this myth was propaganda during the Enlightenment, which was a philosophical movement primarily characterized by being a propagandistic movement. (Who do you think gave it the name “The Enlightenment”?)

In truth, people have been studying the natural world for thousands of years, and they’ve done it in much the same way all that time. There used to be less money in it, of course, but in broad strokes it hasn’t changed all that much.

So if that’s the case, why did Science suddenly get so much better in the last few hundred years, I hear people ask. Good question. It has a good answer, though.

Accurate measurement.

Suppose you want to measure how fast objects fall. Now suppose that the only time-keeping device you have is the rate at which a volume of sand (or water) falls through a restricted opening. (I.e. your best stopwatch is an hour glass). How accurately do you think that you’ll be able to write the formula for it? How accurately can you test that in experimentation?

To give you an idea, in physics class in high school we did an experiment where we had an electronic device that let long, thin paper go through it and it burned a mark onto the paper exactly ten times per second, with high precision. We then attached a weight to one end of the paper and dropped the weight. It was then very simple to calculate the acceleration due to gravity, since we just had to accurately measure the distance between the burn marks.

The groups in class got values between 2.8m/s and 7.4m/s (it’s been 25 years, so I might be a little off, but those are approximately correct). For reference, the correct answer, albeit in a vacuum while we were in air, is 9.8m/s.

The point being: until the invention of the mechanical watch, the high precision measurement of accurate time was not really possible. It took people a while to think of that.

It was a medieval invention, by the way. Well, not hyper-precise clocks, but the technology needed to do it. Clocks powered by falling weights were common during the high medieval time period, and the earliest existing spring driven clock was given to Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, in 1430.

Another incredibly important invention for accurate measurement was the telescope. These were first invented in 1608, and spread like wildfire because they were basically just variations of eyeglasses (the first inventer, Hans Lippershey, was an eyeglass maker). Eyeglasses were another medieval invention, by the way.

And if you trace the history of science in any detail, you will discover that its advances were mostly due not to the magical properties of a method of investigation, but to increasing precision in the ability to measure things and make observations of things we cannot normally observe (e.g. the microscope).

That’s not to say that literally nothing changed; there have been shifts in emphasis, as well as the creation of an entire type of career which gives an enormous number of people the leisure to make observations and the money with which to pay for the tools to make these observations. But that’s economics, not a method.

One could try to argue that mathematical physics was something of a revolution, but it wasn’t, really. Astronomers had mathematical models of things they didn’t actually know the nature of nor inquire into since the time of Ptolemy. It’s really increasingly accurate measurements which allow the mathematicization of physics.

The other thing to notice is that anywhere that taking accurate measurements of what we actually want to measure is prohibitively difficult or expensive, the science in those fields tends to be garbage. More specifically, it tends to be the sort of garbage science commonly called cargo cult science. People go through the motions of doing science without actually doing science. What that means, specifically, is that people take measurements of something and pretend it’s measurements of the things that they actually want to measure.

We want to know what eating a lot of red meat does to people’s health over the long term. Unfortunately, no one has the budget to put a large group of people into cages for 50 years and feed them controlled diets while keeping out confounding variables like stress, lifestyle, etc.—and you couldn’t get this past an ethics review board even if you had the budget for it. So what do nutrition researchers who want to measure this do? They give people surveys asking them what they ate over the last 20 years.

Hey, it looks like science.

If you don’t look to closely.

Why Moderns Always Modernize Stories

Some friends of mine were discussing why it is that modern tellings of old stories (like Robin Hood) are always disappointing. One put forward the theory it’s because they can’t just tell the story, they have to modernize it. He’s right, but I think it’s important to realize why it is that modern storytellers have to modernize everything.

It’s because they’re Modern.

Before you click away because you think I’m joking, notice the capital “M”. I mean that they subconsciously believe in Modern Philosophy, which is the name of a particular school of philosophy which was born with Descartes, died with Immanuel Kant, and has wandered the halls of academia ever since like a zombie—eating brains but never getting any smarter for it.

The short, short version of this rather long and complicated story is that Modern Philosophy started with Descartes’ work Discourse on Method, though it was put forward better in Meditations on First Philosophy. In those works, Descartes began by doubting literally everything and seeing if he could trust anything. Thus he started with the one thing he found impossible to doubt—his own existence. It is from this that we get the famous cogito ergo sumI think, therefore I am.

The problem is that Descartes had to bring in God in order to guarantee that our senses are not always being confused by a powerful demon. In modern parlance we’d say that we’re not in The Matrix. They mean the same thing—that everything we perceive outside of our own mind is not real but being projected to us by some self-interested power. Descartes showed that from his own existence he can know that God exists, and from God’s existence he can know that he is not being continually fooled in this way.

The problem is that Descartes was in some sense cheating—he was not doubting that his own reason worked correctly. The problem is that this is doubtable, and once doubted, completely irrefutable. All refutations of doubting one’s intellect necessarily rely on the intellect being able to work correctly to follow the refutations. If that is itself in doubt, no refutation is possible, and we are left with radical doubt.

And there is only one thing which is certain, in the context of radical doubt: oneself.

To keep this short, without the senses being considered at least minimally reliable there is no object for the intellect to feed on, but the will can operate perfectly well on phantasms. So all that can be relied upon is will.

After Descartes and through Kant, Modern Philosophers worked to avoid this conclusion, but progressively failed. Kant killed off the last attempts to resist this conclusion, though it is a quirk of history that he could not himself accept the conclusion and so basically said that we can will to pretend that reason works.

Nietzsche pointed out how silly willing to pretend that reason works is, and Modern Philosophy has, for the most part, given up that attempt ever since. (Technically, with Nietzsche, we come to what is called “post-modernism”, but post-modernism is just modernism taken seriously and thought out to its logical conclusions.)

Now, modern people who are Modern have not read Descartes, Kant, or Nietzsche, of course, but these thinkers are in the water and the air—one must reject them to not breathe and drink them in. Modern people have not done that, so they hold these beliefs but for the most part don’t realize it and can’t articulate them. As Chesterton observed, if a man won’t think for himself, someone else will think for him. Actually, let me give the real quote, since it’s so good:

…a man who refuses to have his own philosophy will not even have the advantages of a brute beast, and be left to his own instincts. He will only have the used-up scraps of somebody else’s philosophy…

(From The Revival of Philosophy)

In the context of the year of our Lord’s Incarnation 2019, what Christians like my friends mean by “classic stories” are mostly stories of heroism. (Robin Hood was given as an example.) So we need to ask what heroism is.

There are varied definitions of what hero is which are useful; for the moment I will define a hero as somebody who gives of himself (in the sense of self-sacrifice) that someone else may have life, or have it more abundantly. Of course, stated like this it includes trivial things. I think that there simply is a difference of degree but not of kind between trivial self-gift and heroism; heroism is to some degree merely extraordinary self-gift.

If you look at the classic “hero’s journey” according to people like Joseph Campbell, but less insipidly as interpreted by George Lucas, the hero is an unknown and insignificant person who is called to do something very hard, which he has no special obligation to do, but who answers this call and does something great, then after his accomplishment, returns to his humble life. In this you see the self-sacrifice, for the hero has to abandon his humble life in order to do something very hard. You further see it as he does the hard thing; it costs him trouble and pain and may well get the odd limb chopped off along the way. Then, critically, he returns to normal life.

You can see elements of this in pagan heroes like Achilles, or to a lesser degree in Odysseus (who is only arguably a hero, even in the ancient Greek sense). They are what C.S. Lewis would call echoes of the true myth which had not yet been fulfilled.

You really see this in fulfillment in Christian heroes, who answer the call out of generosity, not out of obligation or desire for glory. They endure hardships willingly, even unto death, because they follow a master who endured death on a cross for their sake. And they return to a humble life because they are humble.

Now let’s look at this through the lens of Modern Philosophy.

The hero receives a call. That is, someone tries to impose their will on him. He does something hard. That is, it’s a continuation of that imposition of will. Then he returns, i.e. finally goes back to doing what he wants.

This doesn’t really make any sense as a story, after receiving the call. It’s basically the story of a guy being a slave when he could choose not to be. It is the story of a sucker. It’s certainly not a good story; it’s not a story in which a characters actions flow out of his character.

This is why we get the modern version, which is basically a guy deciding on whether he’s going to be completely worthless or just mostly worthless. This is necessarily the case because, for the story to make sense through the modern lens, the story has to be adapted into something where he wills what he does. For that to happen, and for him not to just be a doormat, he has to be given self-interested motivations for his actions. This is why the most characteristic scene in a modern heroic movie is the hero telling the people he benefited not to thank him. Gratitude robs him of his actions being his own will.

A Christian who does a good deed for someone may hide it (“do not let your left hand know what your right is doing”) or he may not (“no one puts a light under a bushel basket”), but if the recipient of his good deed knows about it, the Christian does not refuse gratitude. He may well refuse obligation; he may say “do not thank me, thank God”, or he may say “I thank God that I was able to help you,” but he will not deny the recipient the pleasure of gratitude. The pleasure of gratitude is the recognition of being loved, and the Christian values both love and truth.

A Modern hero cannot love, since to love is to will the good of the other as other. The problem is that the other cannot have any good beside his own will, since there is nothing besides his own will. To do someone good requires that they have a nature which you act according to. The Modern cannot recognize any such thing; the closest he can come is the other being able to accomplish what he wills, but that is in direct competition with the hero’s will. The same action cannot at the same time be the result of two competing wills. In a zero-sum game, it is impossible for more than one person to win.

Thus the modern can only tell a pathetic simulacrum of a hero who does what he does because he wants to, without reference to anyone else. It’s the only way that the story is a triumph and not the tragedy of the hero being a victim. Thus instead of the hero being tested, and having the courage and fortitude to push through his hardship and do what he was asked to do, we get the hero deciding whether or not he wants to help, and finding inside himself some need that helping will fulfill.

And in the end, instead of the hero happily returning to his humble life out of humility, we have the hero filled with a sense of emptiness because the past no longer exists and all that matters now is what he wills now, which no longer has anything to do with the adventure.

The hero has learned nothing because there is nothing to learn; the hero has received nothing because there is nothing to receive. He must push on because there is nothing else to do.

This is why Modern tellings of old stories suck, and must suck.

It’s because they’re Modern.

Young Scientist, Old Scientist

There’s a very interesting Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal webcomic about a scientist as a young woman and an old woman:

This is remarkably correct, and one sees it all the time. Science is, by its nature, the examination of things which is productive to examine in the way that science examines things.

Speaking broadly, this means that science is the study of things which are easily classified, or can easily be experimented upon in controlled experiments, or the relationships between things which can be measured in standardized units. By limiting inquiry to these things, the scientist can use a set of tools which has been developed over the centuries to analyze such things.

I meant that metaphorically, but it’s actually as often true literally as metaphorically. Scientists frequently use tools which were developed for other scientists; accurate scales, measurements of distance, radio trackers, microscopes, telescopes, etc.—all these things the modern scientist buys ready-made. (This is an oft neglected aspect of how what has been studied before determines what is studied now, but that’s a subject for another day.)

This limitation of investigation to such subjects as lend themselves to such investigation is very narrowing; most interesting questions in life do not lend themselves to being studied in this way. Most answers that scientists come up with are not interesting to most people. In fact, outside of science, the almost only people who study real science with any rigor are engineers. Even the degree to which they study the results of science can be exaggerated; the good old 80/20 rule applies where 80% of utility comes from 20% of science. But, still, it’s very limiting.

This is part of why scientists are so often stereotyped as hyper-focused nerds uninterested and incompetent at the ordinary business of living. The stereotype is actually quite often not true, but this is in no small part because science has become an institutional career in which the science itself is only one part of a scientist’s day-to-day life.

That said, the stereotype exists for a reason: science is just not normal.

There are two ways of dealing with this fact. One of them is to engage in the hyper-focus of science during the day and then to hang up one’s lab coat and focus on being a full human being at night. This is not really any different than a carpenter or a plumber putting away his tools at the end of the day and focusing on all the things in life which are not carpenting or plumbing.

The other way of dealing with this is to shrink the world until one’s narrow focus encompasses it. This is what the comic I linked to at the start of this article captures so very well.

The cobbler should stick to his last as an authority, but it is a tragedy of he sticks to his last as a man.

Carrying One’s Cross

In the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, it says:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it. What, then, will anyone gain by winning the whole world and forfeiting his life? Or what can anyone offer in exchange for his life?”

Carrying one’s cross is a common expression, though it’s often treated as an atypical thing. People talk about something troublesome as “a cross they must bear”. But I think that there are two things to note about the above passage in this regard.

The first is that carrying one’s cross is a prerequisite of discipleship. That is, carrying one’s cross is normal. Or, in other words, suffering, in this fallen world, is normal.

There was a Twitter conversation I was in, recently, where an aquaintance who goes by the nom-de-plume of Brometheus was pointing out that a lot of people are afraid of having children because they’ve been taught that “having children is a miserable experience, a thankless martyrdom of bleak misery and self-denial.”

There is much that can be said about this arising from misguided attempts to get people to avoid fornication, such as by having to “care” for robot babies whose programming is to be a periodic nuisance, but I’ll leave that for another day.

Instead, I just want to point out that having child is actually a miserable experience, an occasionally-thanked martyrdom of joyful misery and self-denial. Or in other words, it’s good work.

All good work involves suffering and self-denial; it involves this because we are imperfect. We do the wrong thing, at the wrong time; quite often for the wrong reasons. And being a parent quite often involves having to do the right thing at the right time, and if at all possible, for the right reasons. To a creature with unhelpful inclinations, that involves suffering.

And that’s OK. Everything worthwhile involves suffering, because worthwhile things make the world better, and that hurts in a world that’s flawed. Or in other words, if you want to be Jesus’ disciple, you have to renounce yourself, take up your cross, and follow him.

The problem is not that people think that having children involves suffering and self denial. It’s that they think it’s bad that it involves suffering and self-denial. The problem is that they want to put down their cross and follow the path of least resistance.

The other thing to note about the passage above is that people often talk about it like life gets more comfortable when it’s finally time to put down your cross. Perhaps it’s because execution by crucifixion is no longer practiced in the western world.

Something to remember is that if it’s your cross that you’re carrying, when you finally get to put it down the next thing that happens is that the Romans nail you to it, then hoist you up to die.

It’s not the full story, but there’s a lot of wisdom to those lines, from the Dread Pirate Roberts to Princess Buttercup, in The Princess Bride:

Life is suffering, highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.

Thoughts From an Aging Sex Symbol

One of my better videos, now two years old, is Satanic Banality:

In it, I mention that celebrities can only sell the image of the bad life turning out well for a while, and when they wise up they lose their relevance. Which reminded me of this article by Raquel Welch, back in 2010. As the kids would say, here’s the nut graf:

Seriously, folks, if an aging sex symbol like me starts waving the red flag of caution over how low moral standards have plummeted, you know it’s gotta be pretty bad. In fact, it’s precisely because of the sexy image I’ve had that it’s important for me to speak up and say: Come on girls! Time to pull up our socks! We’re capable of so much better.

But in 2010, so far as I can tell, Raquel Welch no longer had any influence, so it didn’t matter. That’s the resilience of an engine which feeds on ignorance and spits out wiser people as spent fuel. When they were ignorant, the machine gave them their power. Once spit out, their knowledge is powerless.

(Except in individual cases; saving souls tends to be a personal business, not done over television screens.)

Why Consequentialists See Only Shades of Grey

There’s an infuriating thing which consequentialists do where they say that life is never black and white, it’s all shades of grey. For a long time I thought that this was just because they wanted to be evil without being caught, and were trying to disguise it. This may still be the case, but I realized that this is actually inherent in their position.

Consequentialism means judging an action as good or evil not by principles—i.e. not by what the action is—but only by the consequences of the action. To a consequentialist it doesn’t mean anything to say “it is impermissible to do evil that good may result” since, according to their moral theory, if good results, it wasn’t evil that you did. So rape, treason, murder, etc. are all to be judged on the basis of whatever good or evil comes out of them, not on whether they are intrinsically evil.

There is a problem with consequentialism, which is that one cannot foresee all the consequences to an action. In fact, one cannot foresee most of the consequences to an action. In fact, people often have trouble foreseeing even the very immediate consequences to their actions. This makes consequentialism impossible for a human being to actually evaluate, rendering it completely useless as a moral theory.

(As a side-note, consequentialism and principalism are identical in God, since he both knows all of the effects of all actions and created the world such that the consequences of principled actions are good. Consequentialism is completely un-evaluatable for anyone who is not God, however.)

But, while this is completely useless as a moral theory for making decisions, it can be applied somewhat better historically. Not actually well, of course, but at least better. And this is where the consequentialist sees everything as shades of grey. Every action has both good and bad consequences. This is intrinsic, because every action opens up some possibilities and forecloses others. To marry one woman is to not marry all of the others. To save a man’s life in the hospital is to take money from the undertaker. To save the life of a worm who crawled onto the pavement is to deprive the ants of food who would have ate its corpse. Every action disappoints someone. And this much, the consequentialist can see in hindsight.

And since, to a consequentialist, (naturally) good consequences are identical to an action being (morally) good, and (naturally) evil consequences are identical to an action being (morally) evil, an action having both naturally good and naturally evil consequences makes the action both morally good and morally evil. Since all actions, intrinsically, have both naturally good and naturally evil consequences, all actions must, to the consequentialist, be a mixture of moral good and moral evil.

This disguising the consequentialist’s own evil is just a side-benefit.

When Atheists Pray

In a video in which a former MMA fighter accepts a challenge from a self-defense coach to fight, the comment section was, as you might imagine, lapping up the drama like a man who just walked through the desert a lemonade stand. One comment stood out to me, though:

I’m an atheist, but please God, make this happen.

In his excellent video on prayer, Bishop Barron said that studies show that everyone prays—even atheists. And indeed, they do. But it’s curious to consider when they pray, since they’re not exactly known for regularly saying their bedtime prayers. (What follows is, of course, guesswork and painting with a broad brush.)

The second biggest time, I suspect, is in cases of danger. And of course there is the prayers asking to be spared from danger. But more interesting is a reason given by the blogger Richard Fernandez, who went by the pen name Wretchard the Cat at the time. He was explaining why there are no atheists in foxholes. It’s not because people are scared. It’s because they need forgiveness.

And indeed, forgiveness is one of the two great problems that atheists face which they cannot possibly solve. As a creature in time, they cannot change the past; this means that things done wrong cannot be put right. God, being outside of time, can apply a balancing payment at the very instant of a misdeed; people can only try to make amends and try to forget. But amends do not fix the original problem, since it remains what it ever was. Only God can change the problem in the moment of its existence, since only he was there and not causing the problem.

The other great unsolvable problem which atheists have relates to what is probably the more common type of atheist prayer: hope. An atheist has precisely no reason to hope. The only way to live life, other than in despair, is in hope. We are too finite—too weak and short-sighted—to live in any way other than despair and hope. But to live in despair will probably just end in suicide; though to quote Chesterton it might be suicide using the tools of pleasure, rather than the tools of pain.

The type of prayer that hope produces is generally that of asking for life to work out according to an intelligible rational plan, or as it is more commonly known, asking for stuff.

Which brings us back to the quote with which this started. Everyone knows, on some level, that for the world to be good it must be ordered according to a rational will. It’s curious how much of the time, in a rich society, one can not think about that fact.

America’s Sweethearts

One of my favorite movies to watch when I’m in the mood for something comfortable is a mostly forgotten film starring John Cusak, Catherine Zeta Jones, Julia Roberts, and Billy Crystal called America’s Sweethearts.

The premise is that Eddie Thomas (Cusak) and Gwen Harrison (Zeta Jones) were an incredibly popular hollywood couple until Gwen cheated on Eddie with another actor in a movie they were in, Hector. The movie, Time Over Time, during the filming of which those events happened is about to be released but the eccentric director, Hal Weidmann, won’t show anyone the movie until the press junket. So the publicist for the film (Crystal) must put together the press junket with the two stars of the movies not being on speaking terms and there being no film to show the press. Hilarity ensues.

And hilarity does ensue; it’s a very funny movie. It pokes a lot of fun at Hollywood and the selfishness and complete dishonesty that characterizes the movie industry. Which brings me to the modern difficulty in watching movies of knowing how awful the people who makes movies are.

I think this may be best summarized by sci-fi author Rob Kroese, a few years ago, in response to some idiocy out of Hollywood in the wake of some disaster or other:

Nice to see celebrities taking time off from raping each other to condemn prayer.

(As a side note, there seems to be law of human behavior that a person’s private virtue is inversely proportional to the number of public statements he makes condemning vice in others. Or, more briefly: virtue signaling is often camouflage.)

So, the question come up, unavoidably: does one go on watching movies in spite of their deeply flawed origins?

I think that the answer is yes, but it’s not a question which can simply be dismissed; people who simply say “who cares?” about this are just people who don’t know enough—they’ve never looked in the kitchen to see how the sausage is made.

(I should note that I’m talking about things which do not enrich Hollywood further or do so very minimally. I already own the DVD of America’s Sweethearts so watching it again puts no more money in the hands of the Hollywood. And even buying DVDs of older movies does little to support the current degeneracy of Hollywood, though strictly speaking more than zero. But for older movies, much of the money goes to people who are no longer working in the industry or their descendants because they’re dead. Life is more complicated when you’re talking about watching a new movie in a Theater.)

There are two reasons why the answer is yes—that we should still enjoy the movies made by the wretches of Hollywood. The first is practical (and probably more accessible), the second is philosophical (and more conclusive).

The practical reason is that this is a fallen world and everything is made by wretches. Some are worse than others, but even the best men will inevitably have their work tainted by their imperfections. Worse still, from a practical perspective, many men (rightly) keep their vices secret (so as not to encourage others in vice), and so one will not know what vices secretly infect their work. When it comes to the near-devil-worshippers of Hollywood, one is at least forewarned (and thus fore-armed) against their messages of lust, sloth, and pride. This does not remove the danger, and certainly doesn’t make their work preferable to people who aren’t consciously trying to promote evils, but it does put it in the realm of what can be done safely—or at least as safely as anything can be done in this fallen world.

The philosophical reason is more complicated, but at its heart is the philosophical insight that evil is a negative, not a positive, thing. Evil is the (partial) absence of being—it is a thing being only partially itself. This partial being warps and twists things, but it is impossible to be purely evil—a thing which is pure evil would completely not exist. There’s a sense in which Nothing (with a capital N) is pure evil, but that’s not really different from saying that nothing is pure evil.

This means that in all things which exist, there is good. Evil does not, properly speaking, taint the good in a thing. What it does do is disguise the good. This is not, however, an insurmountable problem. A tainted thing can be safely consumed, since the taint has a positive existence—you can’t drink a poisoned glass of wine and drink only the wine but not the poison. But a disguise can be seen through.

Seeing through disguised good is a skill and thus a person can be good or bad at it; this is highly contextual to the person, the good, and the disguise. What one person may watch safely another may be misled by; it requires wisdom to tell the difference.

And there is no substitute for wisdom.