On the Anti-Religious Pursuit of Truth

I commend Pope Benedict for acknowledging that agnostics may be “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace” who pursue truth and provide a voice of challenge and critique to both atheists and theists.  But let’s not stop there.  Militant atheists and people antagonistic towards religion may be on the same journey.  The rejection of religion is no more a sign of truth’s abandonment than the embrace of God is a visible mark of truth’s pursuit.  Intellectually rigorous minds that are passionately hungry for true knowledge consider the evidence and the arguments and conclude that God doesn’t exist.  Pious souls devoted to true faith subconsciously cherish the idea of a loving God as an illusory consolation for a deep-seated and unrecognized dread of death.   The false arrival of truth’s pursuit is not theism, agnosticism, or atheism, but a false certainty that brings the movement of the mind to a grinding halt and transforms the humble pursuit into a smug possessiveness. (VN)


"Just as people know or feel that advertisements and political platforms must not be necessarily true or right, and yet hear and read them and even let themselves be guided by them, so they accept the traditional values and make them part of their mental equipment.  If mass communications blend together harmoniously, and often unnoticeably, art, politics, religion, and philosophy with commercials, they bring these realms of culture to their common denominatorthe commodity form.  The music of the souls is also the music of salesmanship. Exchange value, not truth value counts.  On it centers the rationality of the status quo, and all alien rationality is bent to it."

- From One-Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse

Golly, Catholics! Think for Yourselves for a Change

I can only assume that outsiders scratch their scalps in bewilderment whenever, out of morbid curiosity, they pay a little attention to debates among Catholics about how authoritative some controversial idea is.  The tiny insignificant squabbles concerning the merits of the idea often seem to clear the road and make way for the really important procession: a long royal train of arguments over whether or not an idea proposed by some self-defined religious authority binds the assent of all faithful Catholics.

To the outsider, it probably looks like Catholics approach the truth of an idea by 1) debating whether or not they need to get in line and 2) getting in line.  This perspective glosses over a lot of nuance and skips over why Catholics recognize the authority of their religious leaders in the first place, but I can’t help but think there’s something to it. 

A lot of the inside baseball discussions I’ve had with my fellow Catholics about morality, politics, and so forth have focused on arguments over the authoritativeness of a teaching or on demonstrating that a Catholic cannot hold some position or another without opposing the Church.  These are not fruitless discussions to have, but if they comprise the bulk of our debates, then perhaps we're getting sidetracked from matters of more consequence, such as the merits, rational-grounding, and truth of an idea. (VN)

Why Do I Fear a World Political Authority?

I share my co-blogger Mark Gordon's apprehension toward the prospect of a global political and economic authority, but that shouldn't come as a surprise given my deep-seated anti-authoritarian personality and ever-suspicious eye for consolidated power.  Mark reasonably figures that "such a body" would "be put at the service of the multinationals and their retainers in national governments."  If given the right amount of power, this body would sit in dominion over the nations of the world, at least over select national affairs.  Who watches the Watchmen wouldn't be an uncalled for question.

Reflecting upon my concern about the idea of a world authority, I am led to wonder if the prospects expressed above are coupled with an inability on my part to imagine the world otherwise than as a sphere of separate nation-states and different people.  My Church, which has been promoting a global political authority for some time now, sees the peoples of the world as a singular body, as one.  Of course, it recognizes nation-states and other entities of sovereignty, but it doesn't see any one of them in particular as essential to the human being.  The Church has a global perspective and then some.  Do I?  Am I able to see humankind as one and apart from divisions of country, race, ethnicity, tribe, corporation, and family?  I'm not sure, not as sure as I want to be.

Anyhow, despite my misgivings, I'm not ready to wave the banner of opposition to a world authority.  Perhaps for such an experiment to work in favor of the common good, the political structure of the world would have to change.  Perhaps we would first have to shed our national skins and molt into a global people.  At present, I cannot conceive how a global authority wouldn't primarily serve the interests of those who already wield too much power, but then cannot I dismiss the prospect as always and everywhere imprudent.  Perhaps, at present, the idea best serves as a challenge to humanity to welcome a world politically and economically otherwise than our own, a world in which the common good is pursued in common. (VN)

Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, and One-Dimensional Thought

Herbert Marcuse
Herbert Marcuse’s book One-Dimensional Man, a critique of modern industrial society first published in 1964, remains an important analysis of social control and the ways in which liberty can be used as an instrument of domination.  Marcuse understood that control and domination do not necessitate the threat of force.   Equally if not more effective are forms of control and domination that hide what’s being done and manipulate people into thinking that they’re perfectly free, doing and thinking for themselves, when in reality they cannot but think, feel, believe, value, and aspire in ways validated by the prevailing rationality.  Such thinking Marcuse calls one-dimensional. 

Individuals may believe they have freedom because each day presents them with a wide range of choices, but “the range of choice open to the individual is not the decisive factor in determining the degree of human freedom, but what can be chosen and what is chosen by the individual.”  One may have a free choice among a wide variety of goods and services, but this free choice “does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear—that is, if they sustain alienation.”  People become alienated from themselves and their true needs when they recognize themselves and find their unique, personally-identifying meaning in the latest smart-phone, kitchen arrangement, television show, home theater system, or political ideology.   Each individual may pursue the American dream or its counterpart in a variety of ways and unique choices, but if the pursuit defines the individual and represses dissent and critique of the pursuit itself and the sought after prize, then the individual has only the illusion of freedom and is dominated by those who dictate the terms of the dream. 

This domination is recognizable in the established universe of discourse, which, Marcuse says, “bears throughout the marks of the specific modes of domination, organization, and manipulation to which the members of society are subjected.”  People depend for their living on others, from politicians to neighbors, who make them speak and mean as they do.  “Under these circumstances, the spoken phrase is an expression of the individual who speaks it, and of those who make him speak as he does, and of whatever tension or contradiction may interrelate them.  In speaking their own language, people also speak the language of their masters, benefactors, advertisers.  Thus they do not express themselves, their knowledge, feelings, and aspirations, but also something other than themselves.”  They heavily use without reflection the terms of movies, news media, advertisements, politicians, best sellers and celebrities to describe their loves and hates, their dreams and ambitions, their fears and beliefs.  An important political leader coins a word of phrase, almost immediately that expression receives perpetual repetition by the leaders in the media, and soon it is on the lips of those attuned to the established chains of communication, repeated without a second thought as the rational way to speak.  Don’t call them “rich”— call them “job creators.”

In publically dissenting from and critiquing the prevailing power and economic structures, protest groups such as Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party have the potential to guide society beyond one-dimensional thought and behavior.  To serve in this capacity, they must not themselves become sources of domination, repression, and alienation—a danger lurking in any social relationship or group, however loosely tied together or however ideal its aims.  Instead, they must remain at their core critical responses to the political and economic establishments and critical promoters of the human person’s true freedom and true needs.  As soon as Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party or any other dissident group establishes a replacement “rational” way of thinking, feeling, believing, valuing, and aspiring, it loses sight of its critical function and becomes instead just another ready-to-use instrument of domination, social control, and alienation.  If, instead, they refuse to play this game of uncritical consumerism and, in their own ways, champion real liberation from the disguised forms of domination that fuel our political and economic systems and structures of power, they’ll have done good service. 

Not that I’m holding my breath. (VN)

Fantastic Health!

I'm just dying to know how this happened:

Walt Disney's Sin City

Alyssa Rosenberg is right: "it's Friday and this is pretty much the best thing ever":

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl Trope

Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency has produced an enlightening series of videos analyzing various tropes in film and television that reduce women to something less than persons.  Her exploration of the Straw Feminist trope is especially good.

The first video in the series examines the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope.  Sarkeesian defines this trope as "a supporting character used to further the storyline of the male hero."  According to her, the Manic Pixie "really has no life of her own, she has no family or interests or much of job that we ever see.  She is as the AVclub describes, 'On hand to lift a gloomy male protagonist out of the doldrums,  not to pursue her own happiness.' All of these male characters find a Manic Pixie to help them out of their depressed, uptight and doom and gloom state so that they can be happy functioning members of society again."

The male characters highlighted in the video include among others the protagonists of 500 Days of Summer, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Garden State, three films told from a less-than-grown-up, yearning-for-love adult male perspective.  I can see something of the manic pixie personality in the films' lead female characters, but they don't exemplify the trope as Anita Sarkeesian describes it. 

Summer Finn in 500 Days of Summer has her own life and long-term interests apart from Tom, and her desire to be herself is precisely the conflict that propels the drama.  She doesn't help Tom become a happy functioning member of society; his attempts to make her into someone she isn't cause him seemingly no end of angst and sadness.  He longs for love; she doesn't believe in it. 

Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is certainly manic, but she too rebels against the men in her life treating her as a comforting thing. "Too many guys think I'm a concept, or I complete them, or I'm gonna make them alive. But I'm just a fucked-up girl who's lookin' for my own peace of mind; don't assign me yours," she tells Joel, the male lead. 

I can maybe kinda-sorta see the Manic Pixie in Natalie Portman's character Sam in Garden State, and yet she, the quintessential Manic Pixie according to Anita Sarkeesian, is given a family and history and interests beyond guiding the "angsty, emo Andrew Largeman" out of his depression. 

Anyhow, there is, to be sure, such a trope as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but these three fictional women don't serve as examples.  I haven't seen Elizabethtown or the other films the video highlights, so I can't speak to those. (VN)

The Drones Aren't Going to Get Me

Conor Friedersdorf admonishes us U.S. citizens for our failure to speak out against or even care about the C.I.A.'s secretive drone program:
It reflects poorly on Congress and the citizenry itself that we permit the executive branch to kill people, including innocents, sans the safeguards necessary to prevent illegal and immoral acts from being perpetrated in our names, or even demanding that we know what is being done. Our inattention is partly due to gross civic negligence -- we're okay punishing innocent civilians in other countries for the behavior of the authoritarian regimes they live under, but don't trouble ourselves to insist on knowing what exactly our government is doing -- and partly to cowardice, a feeling that we'll be safer if we continue to operate on what Dick Cheney called "the dark side," even if we aren't willing to fully confront what it means. In fact, America ought to affirm its ideals and its constitutional safeguards even if it makes us marginally more vulnerable to a terrorist attack, but it is far from clear that our present course does make us safer.


How pretty it would be if we could escape the necessity of making moral judgments by pretending that, so long as they occur under the designation "top secret," we aren't ultimately responsible. But ours is a government by the people. As just war theory affirms, killing innocents is in rare circumstances morally defensible, the lesser of moral evils, but America is going much farther than that; and justified or not, the blood is on all of our hands.
Conor's not wrong about our moral responsibility, but I'm afraid to say that he hopes for more from us than what we're currently capable of giving.  We're so wrapped up in our daily routines, our ideologies, and our fixation on consuming the latest technologies that we don't expect or desire ourselves, one another, or even presidential candidates to have a minimally basic knowledge of what our foreign policy means in terms of tears and blood.  But even if we all did know the full human cost of our war on terror, would we care?  More likely we'd ignore it or justify it.  When atrocities happen to us, we never forget.  When they happen to others, even in our name...well, there's a World Series on TV.  And we are safe in our homes.(VN)

Fixing the Economy—In the Direction of a Moral Approach

“Self-disciple, a sense of justice, honesty, fairness, chivalry, moderation, public spirit, respect for human dignity, firm ethical norms—all of these are things which people must possess before they go to market and compete with each other.”

             -          Wilhelm Röpke, A Humane Economy
To hear the loudest voices playing the proverbial blame game of thrones tell it, the people most wrecking havoc on our economy are the greedy super rich hording wealth with no care for the social consequences or the envious lazy poor seeking handouts with no thought to their personal responsibility.  These accusations of vice simplify the cause of the crisis far too much—though I dare say one group has an itsy-bitsy shred more influence on the economy than the other—but the accusers on both sides of the debate are not altogether wrong about what ails us.  Vice thrives in our economic system.  More to the point, we collectively encourage vicious behavior from both the haves and the have-nots.  

For the free market to work justly, it must reward and encourage virtue, and it must be situated in a higher moral framework.  Our approach to the market doesn’t often offer such rewards and encouragements, and as a rule, we don’t give thirty nickels for social justice.  Aside from our widespread devotion to materialism and consumerism, we as a society largely define success as the maximum attainment of profits by any legal means necessary.  We incentivize not the production of quality products for the betterment of all, but rather the pursuit of wealth at any cost.  We too little prize social responsibility, respect for the dignity of workers, or the preservation of the environment.  As a matter of principle and course, we forget the universal destination of goods in our mad chase after the golden apple.  Put simply: our economic behavior is morally disordered.  This disorder is the fault of us all, though I dare say some bear a teenie-weenie bit more responsibility for it than others. 

Among other reforms for getting our economy back on track, those responsible for structuring and ordering the economy have to 1) find effective ways to incentivize virtue and discourage vice, but also 2) establish safeguards to function at the point where these incentives and discouragements reach their limit of efficaciousness.  Encouraging benevolence and charity shouldn’t mean that people’s livelihood is at the mercy of chance benevolence and charity.   No amount of social engineering can make people virtuous, but while we can and should encourage virtue as a matter of design, justice demands that we provide for our needs and the needs of one another together as an organized social whole, and not simply in a way that relies on the affluent among us who have a care for the common good.  A virtue-centered approach to the economy has its rewards, but on its own it is insufficient for achieving social justice. (VN)

Shall We Say Pistols at Dawn? Said the Slippery Slope

Arguably among the web's sharpest and most disciplined minds, Brandon of the blog Siris suggests that slippery slope arguments are a kind of challenge:
Unlike Berkeley's challenge, which is inquisitive, asking the interlocutor to perform an inquiry to answer a particular question, slippery slope arguments are admonitive, asking the interlocutor to show that a likely bad result can be avoided. I think this is true even of the causal version: the emphasis of the argument is not on "This may well lead to that" but on "Show me that this won't lead to that given that it looks like it might". The whole point of a slippery slope argument is to raise a warning flag. This flag can be raised with varying degrees of confidence; but it's a warning of something bad that seems to be reason to object to a position, and the arguer is insisting on the need to address it. And the possible responses are to argue (1) that the warning flag is misguided, i.e., that the apparently bad outcome is not bad at all; or (2) that there is a genuinely significant difference between this case and that case. Which, of course, are the kinds of responses reasonable people undertake when responding to slippery slope arguments.

Our Shallow Beliefs and Opinions

This video of an interview with a pitiably clueless Occupy Wall Street protester has been making the rounds as a judgment upon the protesters’ lack of thought and comprehension of politics and the economy, but it really speaks more to the usual basis of most everyone’s beliefs and opinions.

Most people form beliefs and opinions about complex matters not after countless hours of precise study and careful argumentation, but rather because they’ve heard someone they trust promote the idea, or because they’ve been told they should hold the idea as a member of a community, or because the idea sounds true or feels right.

Engage a random Catholic about the meaning of dogma, or a random abortion rights advocate about the content of Roe v. Wade, or a random American about the Constitution, and chances are you’ll get an incoherent and unsupported answer.  Ideally, yes, we should thoroughly understand the beliefs and opinions we repeat, but no one has the time to do the research in support of every held belief and opinion.  Even the young John Connor couldn’t explain to the Terminator why it was wrong to kill people.  “You just can’t” was all the answer he could muster.

Now, having said all that, if you’re going to promote your ideas in a public forum, you really should have at least some stock arguments at your disposal.  Otherwise, you look like an idiot and help your cause lose credibility. (VN)

Political Satire Done Brilliantly

The most impressive political satire, in my estimation, is that which appeals to people across the political spectrum.  The video below exemplifies this rare feat.  I've shown it to friends who both support and despise Elizabeth Warren's social philosophy, and they all laughed with equal mirth and appreciation.  Enjoy!

Hermeneutics and the Baby Whisperer

My wife kindly asked me to read Secrets of the Baby Whisperer so that I would better understand and be able to help with some new sleeping routines for our infant daughter that she wanted to try.  Being the respectful and obedient husband that I am, I didn't ask why, just complied, and dutifully started reading the Baby Whisperer's advice to parents--in between my dips into other tomes I'm currently working through. 

Secrets of the Baby Whisperer is by no stretch of meaning a book of academic philosophy, but its author, Tracy Hogg, focused as she is on the practical how of interpreting the coos, gestures, and cries of babies, speaks profoundly about the process of interpretation generally.  I was particularly fascinated by her discovery that instituting a simply routine of activity that both parent and baby understand and expect establishes a framework for interpreting what the baby is trying to say.  A parent begins to discern the difference between cries that mean "I'm tired" from cries that mean "I'm hungry" or "I'm overstimulated" because the baby learns to communicate within the context of the routine.  The baby forms habits of expression, varying the noises based on the need, and the parent learns how to differentiate between baby expressions that sound almost alike but convey very different significance. 

There's a "hermeneutic" lesson here: the construction and institution of an artificial framework--in this case a routine of eating, activity, and sleep--make possible the communication and interpretation of meaning.

Those Who Benefit from Corporations Should Still Criticize Them

If you spend much time in these here interweb parts, you’ve probably come across this photograph of Occupy Wall Street protesters that’s been cleverly illustrated to highlight their supposed hypocrisy in speaking out against the very corporations that make their protestations possible.    Hey, look, that one’s talking on a cell phone made by Samsung!  And that other one—why now, he’s wearing a shirt he got at Gap!  These silly protesters—don’t they realize all the benefits and necessities brought to them by evil, greedy corporations?

I’m willing to bet my Samsung flip-phone they do.  More to the point, there’s nothing hypocritical about directing ire towards corporations while also benefiting from those corporations.  Simple reason, really.  Our economic landscape has a predominantly corporatist makeup and power structure.  For better and for worse, we cannot meet our vital needs and wants without corporations.  Corporations provide us with food, clothing, shelter, transportation, communication, healthcare, tools of education, etc. Unless the Occupy Wall Street folks can as individuals produce clothing fabric and make their own shirts, shoes, pants, and underwear, they’d have to show up on the streets in their birthday suits (and without having cleaned and groomed themselves) if they were to protest corporations while not simultaneously benefiting from them.  Sure, they’d get more coverage on Fox News for such displays, but exposing themselves to the elements wouldn’t much benefit their cause. 

Because corporations provide us with our needs and wants, and because we pretty much have no choice but to rely on them, they have power over us, and when that power is exercised with minute or egregious injustice, we suffer no hypocrisy for criticizing them as particular entities or as a whole. (VN)

That Secret Death Panel

By now, dear readers, I dearly hope you have heard news of this report from Reuters about a secret panel of government officials and its power to compose, keep, and act upon a kill or capture list.  Mark Hosenball writes: “There is no public record of the operations or decisions of the panel, which is a subset of the White House's National Security Council, several current and former officials said. Neither is there any law establishing its existence or setting out the rules by which it is supposed to operate.”  Apparently the recently assassinated al-Awlaki was the first American put on this list, and, related to this, “one of the reasons for making senior officials principally responsible for nominating Americans for the target list was to ‘protect’ the president.”

I am grateful that news about this panel and its alleged operations has come out now, before it solidifies into permanent standard procedure that we all just accept, with cognitive dissonance dripping out of our ears, as the price to pay for living in a free society in the time of terror.   If we continue down this road, if we give President Obama (and others) a pass because we think him less frightening overall than his soon-to-be-decided challenger, and if we don’t insist on some clear time-tested standards of liberty, transparency, and accountability, then we will someday lose even minimal control over this grand experiment we call the United States. 

Today a secret panel decides if an alleged terrorist merits an extra-judicial death sentence; tomorrow…who knows how this power will expand?  Government powers have a way of being applied beyond the scope for which they were originally established.  News of this panel isn’t time for “yeah, but” resignations; it’s time for speaking out and exercising what political power we possess.  (VN)

Teaching Kant

Brandon Watson explains some of the difficulties:
An intelligent student can always ask questions that I can't answer without going back to the full text of Kant and working through the problem step by step. And it takes only a survey of lectures notes on the web to realize that on even an elementary pedagogical issue like how the categorical imperative relates to the Golden Rule (which everyone already recognizes), students are repeatedly told incorrect things. Occasionally, they are told that the categorical imperative essentially is the Golden Rule. That's wrong. Sometimes they are told that Kant criticizes the Golden Rule, and rejects it entirely as an ethical principle. That's even more wrong. (What he actually does is look very briefly at a principle proposed by Thomasius as covering the duties of justice, which looks very like a Silver Rule formulation, and simply says that it can't be a categorical imperative in Kant's sense, which ends up being a pretty obvious point given that, as Kant notes, there are duties to which it doesn't apply.) What makes it even more wrong is that it shows a complete failure to understand Kant's mind to think that he would ever contradict Jesus so baldly. Kant, the ultimate mix of Enlightenment and Lutheran pietism, is a very pro-Jesus philosopher; he just thinks that Jesus should be interpreted in such a way as to be a Kantian. Reading him as explicitly contradicting Jesus -- and there are plenty that do -- is not just wrong, it is incompetent. But, again, it's not as if Kant makes himself easy to teach. The real issue is not that there's so much misinformation, because that's hardly avoidable with Kant at the introductory level; the surprise is when anyone manages to convey anything at all.

Is Human Life Really Inviolable?

Moral philosophers and theologians sometimes speak of the inviolability of human life, by which they mean that human life has such a high value that to act against it in a way that harms it or destroys it constitutes a violation.  Whether this violation always qualifies as unlawful or unjust has been a matter of much debate.  Massive amounts of ink have been spilt to demarcate the line between lawful and unlawful killing, and the line has often been drawn between the killing of the innocent or righteous and the killing of the guilty.  You won’t find many people who would call murder just, and absolute pacifists are as rare as socialist conventions in Lubbock. 

Peacenik that I am, I cannot bring myself to condemn every taking of human life.  On the other hand, I cannot escape the nagging thought that the violation resulting from the act of killing must always be an evil.  If a just response to life means giving life what it is due, and if human life is inviolably due promotion, support, respect, and nourishment, then to violate life by taking it, for whatever reason, is to act contrary to what is due to human life and therefore to act unjustly. 

St. Thomas Aquinas disagreed, arguing that man can be considered both in himself and in relation to the common good.  While considering man in himself leads to the conclusion that killing any man is unlawful, considering man in relation to the common good reveals that killing can become lawful if it’s done in relation to the common good.  In one sense, I understand this analysis.  Different standpoints of considering the same object will often lead to different conclusions about that object.  Nevertheless, I don’t see how bringing the common good into the total consideration removes the obligation of respect due to the inviolability of human life.  Killing a human being for the sake of the common good is still killing a human being whose life is inviolable.  The life doesn’t lose the property of inviolability just because one has good reason to take the life.  In this analysis, it would appear that human life, valuable though it may be, is not really inviolable, at least not in a way of much significance.  A weak inviolability, maybe?

The violability of human life is further illustrated by the demarcation between the killing of the innocent or righteous and the killing of the guilty.  If the killing of the former is always wrong and the killing of the latter may be right, then it would seem that inviolability is not a property of human life itself, but rather a property  of contingent aspects or qualities of human life—innocence and righteousness.  No violation necessarily results from executing a serial killer or taking out a terrorist because these human beings are not worthy of the lives they live.  Their lives are not inviolable.  If this is the case, then human life isn’t really inviolable, not in itself, at least not in a very meaningful way. 

I tend toward the view that human life itself is inviolable, and that while taking someone’s life may be justified, there remains an element of evil in every act of killing.    Killing is always wrong, even when it’s right.  This is an odd thing for me to say.  Perhaps my thinking here is mistaken, confused, or fallacious.  Or perhaps moral thought itself cannot make coherent sense of killing. (VN)

The Development of Doctrine in a Nutshell

"I am unaware of the Church ever retracting documents. We don’t retract. We hermeneuticize!"

- Brett Salkeld

If the Magisterium needed a motto, this would serve.  It would also make for a very funny SNL or Monty Python skit.