Truth: Seeking and Assenting

Agellius chides me for trying to maintain two positions at once:
I think you’re either in a position where you’re researching and truth-seeking; or you believe you’ve found truth and you’re assenting. You seem to want to be in both states at the same time, and I don’t think that’s valid or feasible. Once you have reverted to the “seeking” stage, you have withdrawn assent and are therefore in a state of dissent. Which means basically, you’ve lost faith.
Yes, I want to be in both states at the same time, but even if I didn’t want to be so, I couldn’t be otherwise and remain oriented towards truth. If truth is what I hope it is, then it’s something bigger than I am, grander than my cognition of it, something that overflows whatever conceptions I construct or receive to contain it, something that stretches immeasurably beyond the horizons of my world. Even if I can touch it, I cannot possess it or encapsulate it. Truth as I experience it is on the move, always ahead of me, always elusive of my attempts to pin it down. Yet while I cannot possess it, I can nevertheless perceive it, if imperfectly and from a distance; and because I can perceive it, I can assent to it. Assent, in my book, doesn’t mean standing still, holding truth in my hands: it means acknowledging the reality of that which I pursue.

My relation to truth, at least as I desire it to be, isn’t a halfway extension of the arm or a halfhearted one-leg-in semi-commitment. I’m on the run with a purpose, eyes fixated, ears attuned, moving towards what I hope to be reality, but always suspicious that my eyes and ears may be deceived. I strive to live in accordance with how I understand reality, but then I am also conscious that my understanding may not be what I think it is. There’s a tension here, obviously, but it’s a healthy tension. It’s a tension that concerns matters of life and death, temporality and eternity; but, personally, and probably due to my personality, it’s a tension I rather enjoy. Like a good story. Which, after all, it is. (VN)

Pixar's New Film, "Brave," Has a Female Lead

Alyssa Rosenberg explains why this is important:
More representation for strong girls and women in pop culture is always a good thing, but for Pixar, it’s particularly important. The company’s earned its outstanding track record by putting out movies that beautifully encapsulate universal human values and experience: loneliness, aging, love, ambition. And until now, the person who has always been the vehicle for those universal and powerful human conditions, for that powerful audience response, has been a man or a boy. It’s long overdue to have a woman take on that role. Having her embody courage makes up for that lag a little bit.
But will it pass the Bechdel Test?

If I Had Written the Summa Theologiae

Following Darwin’s lead, Brandon imagines the basic argument structure of the Summa Theologiae were yours truly to have written it:
Whether (insert Church doctrine here) is true
It seems not.
For (insert some arguments against here)
OK, that was interesting. Now on to the next question!
Funny. And I cannot really disagree. Stylistically, the Summa isn’t the kind of massive tome I’d write if I were to write a massive tome. I’m old friends and sincerely cordial with both questions and answers, but I prefer the company of the inquirer to the pontificator. I spend more time and energy on deconstruction than I do on reconstruction. I find more satisfaction from problem-posing than from problem-solving. Maybe I’m just intellectually lazy, but I’ll suggest an alternative explanation, just in case.

While I know diddly–squat about theology, I’m reasonably well catechized. I’ve cracked open the catechism before, sometimes even annually, and I think I’ve understood it. I figure I could hold my own against Stephen Colbert. However, I’m admittedly less than learned when it comes to some of the arguments for the positions laid out in the catechism, and I’m doubly curious about non-religious based arguments for those positions. So, for example, I’ve asked before whether or not the procreative and unitive meanings of the sexual intercourse can be defended without reference to revelation. Why do I ask such questions? Well, to learn, really. There are a lot of erudite browsers in the sphere, and I aim to take advantage of their knowledge. Some bloggers have much to give. I have much to gain.

True, I tend to move on to another question without settling on a definitive answer to the present inquiry. Sometimes I’m unsatisfied with the answers. Sometimes I’m reasonably sure the problem’s been solved, but I want more time to mull it over. Sometimes I’m lazy. And sometimes my attention’s been captured by some other question.

Also, my wife says I’m a sanguine. She’s a melancholic-choleric, so I drive her nuts. (VN)

Corpus Christi

"Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love upon earth: the Blessed Sacrament…..There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man's heart desires."

- J.R.R. Tolkien

That's What Bilbo Baggins Hates

Looking good, Martin.

Philosophy and the Suspension of Assent

Perhaps I’m overly critical, too suspicious and untrusting of authorities, too head-over-heals for uncertainty or too clouded by doubt. Maybe what I call my religious faith isn’t faith at all, but a comforting opiate, a graceless fall of mine into mythological group-think, or an ancient defense mechanism I use to deal with some suppressed trauma. Or maybe my faith is a little of all of these and yet also my response to a God who reveals. Whatever may be the truth, upon reflection I find myself all too eager to expose my faith and my beliefs to their other, to the possibility that they are not true. God may not be deconstructible, but my faith, coming to me as it does by way of human constructs, and possibly reducible to them, surely is.

My willingness to place my faith in doubt, to treat it as less than certain, has been met with criticism from a number of readers. A Sinner urges me against my “promiscuous” philosophical suspension of assent and towards the light of faith as a guide along the paths of reason. Chris C. tells me that good philosophy cannot undermine authoritative religious teaching. Thales draws my attention to the paralysis that occurs with the continual questioning of those premises that give rise to thought. Agellius warns me that I’m de-supernaturalizing the faith by bracketing the presupposition of its truth.

Am I wrong, then, in the course of philosophical inquiry and the production of a philosophical text, to suspend my assent to the truth claims of my religious faith? My answer is “No.” While not all philosophical thought needs to begin and progress with such a suspension, this suspension of assent is a perfectly legitimate philosophical act.

What do I mean here by the suspension of assent? Answering that may help. By the suspension of assent, I mean the calling into question of a truth claim to which one assents for purposes of investigating its veracity from a philosophical standpoint. It does not mean that one actually ceases to assent while doing the philosophical investigation. It does mean that the investigation does not presuppose the truth of X because one’s religious faith says X is true. The truth of X is precisely what is under investigation. If the investigation and any of its formulated arguments presuppose the truth of X, while the truth or falsehood of X is what’s in question, then the investigation is flawed and the arguments fallacious.

The obvious follow-up question is why. Why suspend assent in the first place? Why question that which one already believes? The short answer is that one could be wrong. One’s religious faith could conceivably be a false faith or not faith at all. Or faith itself may be a fiction. Moreover, the truth claims made by religions, mine included, reach our ears through the proclamations of self-described religious authorities. Questioning and analyzing their proclamations serves as a check against deception, manipulation, and authoritarianism.

Philosophical inquiry and investigation has a limited scope, of course. It can neither prove nor disprove much of what is called revealed truth. However, while the mysteries of faith may reside beyond the reach of philosophy, the formulas that supposedly give expression to these mysteries fall very much with philosophy’s field. The formulations of religious teaching rely on metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, logic, hermeneutics, and, obviously, language. Much religious teaching touches on other fields of human knowledge, such as history, biology, anthropology, sociology, and geography. In doing so, they open themselves up to investigation by these disciplines. The same is the case with philosophy. And while philosophy may not ascend to the heavens from where comes revealed truth, it can examine revelation itself. One can do a philosophy of religion and revelation.

What happens if my philosophical inquiry, after I’ve suspended assent, concludes in something otherwise than and contrary to what is proclaimed as true by my religion? I see two possibilities: 1) my philosophical investigation contains errors and/or falsehoods, in content and/or in method, or 2) the proclamation made by my religion is false, in part or in total. As a religious believer and a supremely humble guy, my inclination is to assume that my investigation is faulty, invalid or unsound. Indeed, one reason I philosophize for others to see is so that the errors in my thinking can be brought to the surface. However, if I’m willing to go where a sound philosophical investigation leads, and if it could conceivably lead to conclusions contrary to those made with religious authority, then I must be willing to dissent from authoritative religious proclamations. Is this dangerous? Sure, but I think no more so than uncritical trust in self-described religious authorities or self-defined divinely-inspired texts, and maybe much less. After all, people would not convert and assent to my religious faith if they were not first willing to dissent from their current beliefs. (VN)

On Being a Father to the Deceased and to the Living

Holding my almost three-month-old daughter brings the joy you’d expect a father to have, but I’d be lying if I said there weren’t moments when my looking into her big, smiling blue eyes and our laughter-infected back-and-forth babbling do not bring me bittersweet comfort. It wasn’t so long ago that I held her older sister in my arms as she, a mere fifteen hours after her birth, breathed her final gasping and gurgling breath. When Mirielle holds her head up high, looks about with wide-eyed wonder, and bounces about on my knees, I sometimes remember the way Vivian slowly and softly fell into death’s silent embrace, as if, while her body collapsed like a caress, her soul took flight like a feather into a light upward breeze.

I am father to them both, and to a rambunctious five-year-old boy, and so I am father to both the living and the dead. What it means to be a father to one who’s passed is a mystery I’m still trying to discern and, truth be told, to create. It’s a meaning I have difficulty putting into words and putting into practice. Fatherhood here is very different, both philosophically and practically, and yet I’m inclined to retain the word. The role is different, but, from what I gather, not altogether otherwise. As I helped give Vivian life, I continue to keep her alive through the memories we share as a family, through the telling of her story, through prayers and tears, and, most poignantly difficult, in the supernatural hope that we will, when all tears and shadows have passed, hold her again and hold her anew.

Why Do We Feel for Fictional Characters?

Brandon Watson has a helpful rundown of the most common theories.  I'd like to sketch another, which I might call narrative theory.  The paradox of fiction, as Brandon explains it, is that we feel for things we know don't exist.  Narrative theory, as I define it, posits 1) that fictional characters do exist, not as literally existing beings, but as narrative entities and 2) that real people like you and me are also narrative entities. We lovers of fiction and fictional characters have something in common: we're narrative beings.

I trust I don't need to explain why fictional characters are narrative entities, but why we are begs for explanation.  The answer isn't hard to find.  Whenever we tell ourselves or another who we are, we tell a story.  My identity is a narrative identity.  I tend to keep my metaphysics at a minimum, but I'm willing to say that we are by nature narrative.  Who we are isn't something separate from the story that we tell: there is no who, no identity, without story, without narrative. 

Our emotional responses and attachments occur within a narrative setting.  Sometimes the narrative setting is real; at other times it is fictional.  Either way, it's narrative and thus a "natural" and sensible setting for the emotions.  Whether I'm disappointed in my son's dodging admittance of wrongdoing or Kristin Lavransdatter's counsel to keep a sin secret, my disappointment is a response to something that happens, something that can be narrated.

What Causes Those Wait Times in Canada?

Aaron Carroll theorizes: their decision to hold down costs, in part by limiting supply.  He writes:
Canada isn’t some dictatorship. They aren’t oppressed. In 1966, the democratically elected government enacted their single-payer health care system (also known as Medicare). Since then, as a country, they have made a conscious decision to hold down costs. One of the ways they do that is by limiting supply, mostly for elective things, which can create wait times. Their outcomes are otherwise comparable to ours.

Please understand, the wait times could be overcome. They could spend more. They don’t want to. We can choose to dislike wait times in principle, but they are a byproduct of Canada’s choice to be fiscally conservative. They chose this. In a rational world, those who are concerned about health care costs and what they mean to the economy might respect that course of action. But instead, we attack.
His entire post, a summary of others he's done comparing U.S. healthcare to Canada's, is worth reading, if for no other reason than it offers a succinct statistically-backed response the typical anti-Canadian-system rhetoric. 

Here's the Invoice for Your Liberation. You're Welcome

An under-the-weather child sent me to the local market yesterday afternoon for medicine, juice, and beer (for me). Feeling mentally sick myself, I turned the radio on to the Sean Hannity show to see what string of talking points, buzzwords, and catchphrases he’d have for me on my two-minute drive home. To my surprise, Hannity launched into a rant I hadn’t heard him give before. Suffice it to say that I rarely listen to him, so this particular rundown may have been vintage Hannity.

He stated matter-of-factly and with his typical aura of confident righteousness that whenever the U.S. considers it in its geo-political interest to liberate another country, the U.S. should insist that the country we liberate (his term) by turning it into warzone (my term) should pay us back for our trouble and sacrifices. He explicitly contrasted himself from Donald Trump—who apparently said we should just take the oil of countries we’ve liberated—by precisely noting that we should insist that the liberated countries pay for our war efforts through their recourses, but that we shouldn’t just go in and take our fair share.

Basically, we should send an invoice with multiple payment options any time we decide it’s in our national interest to invade and conquer for the cause of freedom. Hannity made no mention of our paying reparations to people whose lives the U.S. ruins or otherwise harms. Rather, they should thank us, because there’s evil out there in the world, and the Great Emancipator has delivered them from it. And when they get a bill, they should feel appropriately obligated to pay it.

Oy. I’m glad I had St. Pauli Girl when I arrived at home. (VN)

Why the Obama Administration Allegedly Pressured Haiti to Lower Its Minimum Wage

Two years ago Haiti raised its minimum wage from 24 to 61 cents an hour, a significant but relatively meager increase, but it was too much apparently for Hanes and Levi Strauss, which, according to an embassy cable, went to the U.S. government for assistance and, with some intervening pressure from the U.S. ambassador, succeeded in seeing the minimum wage raised to only 31 cents.  Rufus is right: this is how the world works.  Our elected and appointed officials ain't servants of the public and certainly not servants of the poor.  But we'll keep pretending they are because we like our underwear and jeans.  

Update: Levi Strauss denies lobbying for a decrease of the minimum wage. (Thanks David Nickol for the link).

BSG: Neither Allegory Nor Polemic

I've watched Battlestar Galactica start to finish only once, so what I say here may square only with my faulty memory of the series.  Because the show's plot and thematic developments clearly paralleled real world events pertaining to the war on terror, it's to be expected that viewers will see the story as a commentary on those realities.  I didn't see the show in that way.  For the most part, the creators refrained from judging the controversial actions of their characters by imparting easy moral messages or through contrived plotting that resulted in preconceived, self-serving outcomes. Instead they typically allowed each individual character to respond and judge according to who each person is.  The writers didn't tell us whose side to take when Captain Adama and President Roslin faced off as enemies or when Billy could not in good conscience follow Roslin's attempted takeover of the fleet to its end.  Was Roslin right to outlaw abortion given the possible extinction of the human race or wrong to try to steal the election when facing the treacherous Gaius Baltar as an opponent?  We're not given definitive answers to those and the other morally messy situations the heroes and villains find themselves wallowing in.  Instead we're treated to the actual moral drama of people making choices and having to face the consequences, both material and spiritual.  It's a mistake in my opinion to approach the story as an allegory, like Jonah Goldberg does, or as a polemic, which is how Adam Serwer seems to view it.

On "Gotcha" Questions


I think it would be quite reasonable (and colorful) to refer to complex and loaded questions as “gotcha” questions. However, this view of “gotcha” questions is based on there being some sort of trap or unwarranted assumption in the question. That is, the “gotchaness” is a property of the question. This does not, in practice, seem to match how Palin uses the term. After all, in defending her mistakes regarding the ride of Paul Revere she claimed that the question “”What have you seen so far today and what are you going to take away from your visit?”” was a “gotcha” question. The question itself does not seem to have any tricks, traps, or unwarranted assumptions built into it. In fact, it seems like an easy and innocuous sort of question. As such, either she is wrong about it being a “gotcha” question or she means something else by the term.

If she is not in error, then the most plausible account of the “gotcha” question is that it is defined not by what is asked but by what Palin answers. To be specific, if she gives a rather bad answer to a question, then it is a “gotcha” question, regardless of the content of the actual question. 

Call Me Ms. Kyle

As happens occasionally at my day job, a caller yesterday addressed me as "ma'am" and even "Ms. Kyle" after I gave my name.  A couple years ago a caller had gotten my name and address and sent me mail addressed to Ms. Carol Kylecupp.  Where this person came up with Carol I'll never know.  Now, I have neither a high nor feminine sounding voice, either in person or over the phone, so it ain't my voice giving the impression that I'm a woman. Why does this happen? I figure it's because part of my job consists of activities and roles traditionally associated with women, so when a call is transferred to me, the person expects to speak to a woman and my baritone vocals don't indicate otherwise.  I'm not offended by this, and have yet to correct a caller.  Usually I find these occurrences amusing and revealing.  They show how a social construct such as a person's idea about gender roles can alter or determine what the person perceives. 

Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master"

Word has it the uber-talented Amy Adams has joined also uber-talented Philip Seymour Hoffman in the cast of the currently untitled P.T. Anderson project. The proposed film was formerly titled The Master and, word has it, will be about the rise of a religion-inventing figure similar to L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.

Color me thrilled. Anderson is among the finest of today’s filmmakers, and he has an insightful and critical eye for religiosity akin to Flannery O’Connor and Dante, although as far as I know he no longer practices the Catholic faith. If memory serves, in reviewing Magnolia, Terry Teachout mentioned that Anderson considered that film as a confession of sorts. Anyhow, as Teachout also mentioned, he’s a filmmaker concerned with matters of life and death. Magnolia dealt with atonement. Boogie Nights explored the meaning of family and forgiveness in the maniacally ego-driven porn industry. There Will Be Blood arguably gave a depiction of contrapasso on par with Dante’s Inferno.

If his early films are any indication, P.T. Anderson will tell a symbolically and dramatically heavy story, thematically layered with complex moral and religious meaning, about very flawed and very human characters. (VN)

A Cyclist Meets a Tarantula

Here in Texas a bicycle ride will bring one in contact with wildlife more colorful than what you'd find on chatroulette first thing in the morning.  Today on my way to work I met a feisty tarantula out for a morning promenade before the sun transitioned from unbearably scorching to temperatures that would burst Wormwood's thermometer.  It could have been a drunk pedestrian for all its meandering use of the city park's sidewalk.  I slowed, got off my bike, and took some pictures.  Then I gave the spider a Montgomery Burns strength prod with a stick, to which it positioned itself into that classic, defensive spider version of the don't-tread-on-me stance.  And then, suddenly, the big harry sucker charged me, full speed and mad as Scarface on a bad night.  I had to leap back to clear a safe distance.  I must have leaped out of range, because the tarantula turned and charged my parked bike instead.  I moved that too, and then the critter settled down against the grass. We're cool with one another now, having gone our separate ways.  Say "Hello" to my not-so-little friend.

A Pause to Listen: Katie Melua - The Flood

There's something monastic and Franciscan about this simple and profound song. I'm particularly moved by the lyrics "let go" and "free your prison," the first of which she utters with a shocking, sonorous whisper.

Learning to Debate on the Internet


Yesterday's Dilbert strip speaks to (and often really to) those of us opining online for all to see.  The Internet has brought to the field armies of fatuous arguments and inane gibberish that otherwise wouldn't get much of a hearing beyond a three-foot radius at a bar or dinner table.  However, on the other side of the binary, the Internet has given the floor to blindingly brilliant debaters who can obliterate the strongest arguments with a few wise words and phrases.  I can safely say that the interlocutors I've cross swords with have sharpened my mind and my technique.  Brandon Watson, for example, has such a logical and disciplined thought process, I'm left simmering in awe, envy, and the recognition that I really need to rethink how I got from A to B.  Maybe I'm an odd doll on the shelf, but I love it when a friend or random stranger demolishes my arguments and presuppositions.  Makes me a better thinker.   My thanks and appreciation to everyone who comes here and shows me the errors in my methods and messages.

H/T: Alex Massie

A Pause to Listen: Katie Melua - Nine Million Bicycles

Reach Out and Touch Reality

Here’s a neat trick: define religious faith as “an irrational attachment to a pre-existing idea regardless of any evidence that contradicts it” and then ask if religions that rely on faith are equally out of touch with reality. Well, yeah, if you define faith that way, as Greta Christina does, then by definition religions fundamentally rely on an irrational attachment to ideas about reality that evidence clearly indicates are false, and so they’re clearly not reaching out to touch reality. And they’re irrational, by definition. Case closed.

Christina’s on slightly more solid ground when stating that “any belief in a supernatural world that affects the natural one is equally implausible, equally the product of cognitive biases, equally unsupported by any good evidence.” Here she speaks of evidence not supporting, rather than contradicting, the religious idea. I’m assuming she knows the difference even though her writing seems to conflate the two. She asserts that “all of [religions] contort, ignore, or deny reality in order to maintain their attachment to their faith.” Her example of the Eucharist, however, which she charmingly calls a “magic cracker” that “literally becomes the body of their god when they eat it,” involves no contortion, ignorance, or denial. The doctrine presupposes a supernatural occurrence beyond the empirically verifiable or indicative—Christina’s limited standard of having touched reality—but nothing empirically verifiable can contradict it. Oh, and by the way, Christina’s use of the word “when” in describing the Eucharist betrays her fundamental ignorance of the religious idea. Come on! At least get the idea right before you dismiss it.

Religious faith presupposes an encounter with reality beyond the physical senses. Clearly some religions make claims about the material world that science and other disciplines have contradicted, but not every religion disrespects non-religious disciplines in such manner. Christina seems to take it as a fault that some particular religions have rethought their understandings of the world in light of new discoveries and new evidence, but this willingness to rethink speaks of religion’s respect for science and for reality. And do I have to point out the scientists have also rethought their fundamental ideas about reality when new evidence comes to light? I suppose when scientists reform their ideas, they’re not “presenting a plausible face and shoehorning their beliefs around reality.”

Science has given religious people cause to reconsider reality and their own religions, especially in cases where their religion speaks about the material world; but as science has developed, it has also given non-religious people cause to rethink reality and the ways they understand it. This shared reformation of the mind doesn’t really interest Christina, though, because from her perspective, any talk of a world beyond that which is perceivable by the senses is unequivocally crazy talk. (VN)

Authoritarian Ethics

“Because I said so” is an answer I occasionally give to my son when he asks why he has to do something I’ve instructed him to do.  It’s not a bad answer, although it begs for further explanation.  As a father, I’m a legitimate authority figure (whether I’m mature we’ll just put to the side), and my son has an obligation to obey me.  However, this obligation of obedience doesn’t arise from the orders I give; it comes more from the nature of our relationship.  I could conceivably order my son to do something immoral, like listen to Justin Bieber or wear a “Sarah Palin for President” pin; the legitimacy of my authority doesn’t make whatever I say morally right.  Were I to claim the authority to define right and wrong, I would cease to be authoritative and become authoritarian.

I previously made use of the term authoritarian ethics, and I’d like to explain a little more about what I mean by this category.  Authoritarian ethics places the origin of moral obligation in the command of the authority figure; it is the authority’s command itself that establishes the rightness or wrongness of an action.  Furthermore, authoritarian ethics permits no questioning of or moral disagreement with the command.  A community that accepts the legitimacy of the authority may debate the meaning of the command, but, if the community’s guiding ethics is authoritarian, the community has no basis on which to deliberate the rightness or wrongness of the command.  The command itself is the origin and basis of any rightness or wrongness, whether the authority commands arbitrarily or in keeping with some sense of good or evil.  Indeed, under the rule of authoritarian ethics, the authority has power over the ultimate meanings of good and evil.  If the authority commands an act that typically would be called evil, the fact that he commands it means that it is not evil, but is actually morally obligatory. 

“Because I said so” isn’t necessarily a statement of ethical authoritarianism, but it could be.  The question is what is meant by the word “because.”  If it means that I am the “cause” of rightness and wrongness, then we’re in the realm of authoritarian ethics, but the word can mean something else, of course.  In sum, if the ethical basis of an action can be explained only by an authority’s say so, then what we have before us is an authoritarian ethics. (VN)

Subsidiarity Explained

My co-blogger at Vox Nova Morning's Minion explains why the principle of subsidiarity does not mean individualism--why it is "about a social order centered on the person, not the individual"--and considers some practical implications of the principle given our contemporary social circumstances.

Marcotte and Dougherty on Religion, Sex, and Power

They agree on more than you'd think.