Saturday, October 18, 2014


I’m in sympathy with Spinoza. But I find the Ethics difficult to read. He takes Euclid’s Elements as his model, and each time I pick up the Ethics, I hope to find the rigor of the Elements’. (I do know the Elements isn’t flawless. Euclid makes non-trivial tacit assumptions. But the level of rigor is high.) But I always find myself disappointed. Spinoza’s proofs have a multitude of obvious gaps. What to do? The generous forgive Spinoza his oversights. The foolhardy attempt a rewrite of the Ethics. I am both.

Take a look.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Orthodoxy Changes

I think it obvious that what goes by the name of orthodoxy changes over time.

Three examples:
1. Protestantism sprang from Catholicism, and when it did orthodoxy split and thus changed for at least one group (if not the other).

2. Early in its history, the Christian church split and gave rise to the Catholic and Orthodox branches. This split was precipitated by a divergence in doctrine; and that divergence, since it followed what before had been unanimity, implied a change in orthodoxy (if not for both, then at least for one branch).

3. When one compares the doctrines of today's Southern Baptist church to those that they held before, one finds a significant shift. Perhaps it is enough if we consider only these two points of difference: the role of women in the church, and the Church's attitude to non-whites.

From my point of view, I find it absolutely unremarkable that orthodoxy changes. Indeed it's exactly what I would have expected. Scripture and tradition must be interpreted, and humans can never agree about how to get it right. Thus if you tell me that you that you and and your sect know just what God has said, I most certainly won't believe you that do. It's not that I'll believe that what you attribute to God isn't really what He said. As to that, I have no opinion.*  But I most certainly will not believe that you know God as you say you do. Why? Orthodoxy changes. Ergo, to humans the truth in these matters isn't clear. Ergo, to you the truth isn't clear.

*It's not quite right that I have opinion. The argument below seems to me to carry some weight:
If God speaks to us, he'd make sure that we hear what he has to say and that we get the message right.
But if he did that, there'd be no disagreements about what God says - at least not among those who sincerely and honestly seek the truth.
However, there are disagreements, even among the sincere and honest.
Thus God doesn't speak to us (at least not in the way that most folks seem to think).

Monday, February 20, 2012

To Those Who Claim that Scripture is Inerrant

Good people of deep faith differ in their interpretation of Scripture. When you speak to me of the truth of the Gospel, I know that you mean your interpretation; and I know that you differ in that interpretation from others who have just as much right to their view as you do to yours. I do not claim to know that your interpretation is wrong. I claim only to know that it is, like all the others, an interpretation, and as such is not immune from error. God cannot err (if in fact there is a God). But when He speaks to us (if in fact he does), we can misunderstand; and thus the impossibility that God err does not imply that we cannot err when we report what we believe God has said.

You are not glass; I can think of no reason to suppose that God's word passes through you unchanged. You interpret, as do we all; and when you do, you can introduce error.

God's word is infallible. But your knowledge of what that word is - that is far from infallible. You speak with your own voice, not God's.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Plural Reference

I once had a teacher who delighted in philosophical warfare. If he thought you his enemy, he'd barely let you get a word out before he began his attack.

Here's one of his favorite tactics. You'd say something like "Society wants . . .", he'd cut you off and tell you that there was no such thing as society. He'd do this with everyone, plain folk and philosophers alike. (You'll find a mitigated form of this at the Maverick Philosopher. See here. Vallicella is often a delight, but upon occasion he annoys me to no end.)

He loved the consternation that such a remark inevitably causes. It seems a bit like the claim that there's no such thing as, say, sheep. It seems insane.

Of course he didn't mean to make an insane claim. He meant only that a society is not some individual entity distinct from the people within it.

Though he meant only this, I was always annoyed by this tactic. It seemed (and seems still) a misdirection. When one begins a sentence with "society", one does not thereby assent to the existence of some bizarre, spatially disconnected entity whose parts are people. (Well, very few mean any such thing, and those who do are invariably deeply misguided philosophers. Plain folk never mean any such thing. Philosophers hardly ever mean such a thing. ) One uses "society" to refer plurally to, well, a plurality of people.

Compare our use of "orchestra". Imagine that our philosophical pugilist were to interrupt a sentence that began "The orchestra is in town for . . ." with the assertion that there is no such thing as an orchestra. Let me make the reply that I should have made those many years ago. (The pugilist did love to use "fuck" in philosophical debate, so I'll allow myself its use too.) Who in the fuck thinks that an orchestra is a single entity composed of its member musicians? Nobody, that's who! When we say "orchestra", we thereby refer plurally to those very musicians. Don't let yourself be misled by surface grammatical form. Yes, "orchestra" is singular. But it functions semantically just as does "cats" or "dogs". They're each semantically plural, and it betrays a kind of philosophical perversity to ignore this obvious fact.

One could of course rephrase sentences in which "society" occurs so that that singular term is eliminated in favor of some phrase that is grammatically plural. But there's no need. It was semantically plural all along.

Yes, in philosophy we should be held responsible for the literal import of our words. (For many students of philosophy, this is the primary obstacle to philosophical competence. Precision is a hard-won skill.) But we must take care about that literal import. We must not allow a narrow focus upon grammatical form blind us to certain obvious semantic facts.

Something Big

Our country needs a task. Something  big, something that we can all get behind. This is the sort of thing that I mean. This too.

At present, we're fractured and afraid. We blame others for our all-to-real problems, and we suspect that we've gone into decline.

Our children are given no goal other than narrow self-interest. They need something more than that. They must come to see themselves as integral parts of this great nation, and that nation must undertake some great task of tasks that will capture the imagination of its young people.

Want our children to excel in school? Want them to welcome the rigor of mathematics and the sciences? Give them a reason! A real reason, a reason that fires the heart. Don't insinuate that the only reason is wealth. That's a individual motive, a purely selfish motive. We need goals that extend past the boundaries of the self. We need goals that are at least national if not universal in scope.

What are we to tell our children? What goal do we given them? The details are of little importance. Tell that in 10 years we will have permanent colonies on Mars. Tell them that in 10 years we will have weaned ourselves off fossil fuels. But no matter what you tell them, tell them something big.

The only way for this to happen is for a leader to emerge who relentlessly pushes for something big. National purpose does not emerge bottom-up. From the bottom we only get a cacophony of voices, each of which advocates for its narrow self-interest alone. From the top, we have the potential for a single vision that can focus the energies of an entire people.

This is my hope, indeed my only hope. I hope that such a leader will emerge. If one does not, decline is I think inevitable.

(Cross-posted at A Teacher, A Text and a Culture.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cost of Life

If you could extend you life by three months for a cost of $500,000, would you do it? (It's not a purely hypothetical question. See here.)

Would you do it if you had the bear the cost? I wouldn't. The $500,000 should go to my family.

Would you do it if insurance would pay the cost? I wouldn't. The $500,000 should be spent elsewhere. If it's spent here, it can't be spent elsewhere; and elsewhere it could do much more good.

We have become a selfish people. We take for ourselves what ought to go to others. We have little sense of our social duties. We don't believe in the value of sacrifice. We take and take and think it right that we do. Let us begin once again to praise those who give, even at great cost to themselves.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Truth and Love

The truth about which I will speak is truth of importance to us. It is truth that matters to us. It is truth about us.

Think for a moment about all the many people you have known. Only a handful ever spoke the truth to you.

Truth is rare. It is not easy. Those who speak the truth are invaluable.

But who speaks the truth? From whom can we expect the truth?

We know from whom we cannot expect it. Those who would manipulate us for their own ends are not truth-tellers. The truth matters nothing to them. For them speech is control. By it they wish to make us act in a way that best suits them.

I am dismayed by how much of what is said is an attempt at control. It is ubiquitous. 

Where, then, are the truth-tellers? To whom should we go if we wish to hear the truth?

The truth-tellers are those who know us well. They know what we've done, they know of what we're capable. They know where we chronically fall short. (When we fall short, isn't that sin typical? We are creatures of habit. Sins are habitual.) They know our virtues (paltry though they are). 

But knowledge is not sufficient. Indeed one might use knowledge of another as a means of control. What then must be added?

Wisdom, of course. (By wisdom I mean moral knowledge. It is knowledge of how best to act.) We cannot expect truth from a person if that person lacks all moral discernment. Truth matters, I've said. It is important to us. But what matters? What is important? Achievement of the good. Thus we must look to those who know the good for truth. 

But we must add to wisdom something more. We must add the desire to do good for others, to benefit those to whom we speak. This desire is love. Indeed of the three - knowledge, wisdom and love - love seems the primary. If we love another, knowledge of the other comes quite easily. Love observes carefully; love listens quietly. If I love you, give me a bit of time with you and I will come to know you.

Love also begets wisdom. To love is to desire the good of another. Love then searches out the good and thus over time becomes wisdom. 

So I say this. If you wish to hear the truth, listen to those who love you. Indeed so strong is the link here that I would say this too: if from another you know that you do not hear the truth, that person does not love you.

(Don't complain that I over-simplify. I know that what my conclusion admits of degrees. Not all love is perfect. Some is better, some is worse. Love waxes and wanes. Through all this, the connection remains. A worse love is a love that has less regard for truth. A better love is a love from which flows more truth. When love waxes, truth increases; when it wanes, truth wanes.)

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Once I thought that I could sift . . .

Once I was a student of philosophy. Once I was confident of my ability to discover philosophical truth.

Once I thought that I could sift the words of others and find what truth, if any, was in them. This betrayed a boundless conceit, an unchecked belief in my own ability to divide the true from the false. The source of the utterance was irrelevant, I thought. Only the utterance itself was of importance. Ignore the source, attend to the claim. Thus I thought that I could build up in myself a store of truth.

(In retrospect, I wonder why I ever thought that the opinions of others were of any importance. If I had within myself the power to discover truth, what need had I of others? Perhaps only to point out certain avenues of inquiry that I had overlooked. But this is a small matter.)

I now doubt that I have any such ability as this. A man says to me that God does not exist. Can I weigh this statement on my own? Can I prove it? Refute it? Even so much as understand what is meant by "God"? I cannot. As I grow older, I find that I trust myself less and less. Reason in me is a little thing, an impotent thing. It can go wrong so very easily and for reasons that have nothing to do with reason itself. Reason is a capacity of a person; it is not cut off from the rest of personality. Thus a defect of personality can, and often does, infect reason. Reason is made a slave to that defect. It defends it. Protects it. Prop it up. Almost never does it turn on the defect and show it up for what it is.

Now I find that I do not first sift the words of others. Rather I sift them. If the person seems to me good, I give weight to their words. If them seem unkind or disingenuous, I disregard them. Only those who are good can attain wisdom. The wicked always fall into error. Since I have some confidence in my ability to recognize the good, I have some confidence on my ability to recognize those whose words I ought to heed.

I do not mean to say that the wicked are never right. They are quite often right about small matters, inconsequential matters. But about matters of importance - God, the good life, the fate of the soul, etc. - mistakes, deep and consequential mistakes, are inevitable. Plug your ears to the wicked! Heed the words of the virtuous!

Nor do I mean to say that the virtuous can never be wrong about any matter of importance. At times, the virtuous are wrong about the source of their virtue, about its importance and place. But for those who like me stumble about in the dark and must hope for a light to follow, there is nowhere we might look than to those who are good.

Plato told us that the Good is beyond even Being. That which exists, he held, does so because it is good for it to be. I would say too that the Good begets knowledge.  If left to ourselves, deep and consequential error is inevitable. We must look outside ourselves for whatever little bit of wisdom we can attain. But when we look out, the only light on which we can fix is the light of the Good. Only when it shines forth from others will we have a path to follow.