Thursday, July 31, 2008

Faith in Reason, Pt. 1

Once I had faith in reason. I though that it could unravel the riddles of life, that it could give certainty about life's purpose and God's existence (to name only two).

But that faith has slipped away over time. Reason, I now believe, is largely impotent if it works on its own. (At least it is impotent when it consider the great questions. About the lesser questions - What do I have for dinner? What's the chemical composition of table salt? - it seems adequate to its task.) Why believe this? My experience of the conclusions of the philosophers.

Here's what I mean. On any issue of any importance (life's purpose, God's existence, etc.), philosophers always, always come down on different sides. (I used to joke to my students that, about any philosophical issue at all, some philosophers say p, some say not-p, some say that we cannot know whether p or not-p, and some say that it was a pseudo-issue to begin.) But this isn't because some are better informed or more intelligent than the rest. Rather, philosophers who disagree are, as a rule, equally well-informed and equally intelligent.

Now, consider your own philosophical conclusions in this light. (I do mine.) Let us say that you have come to the conclusion (Descartes' and Plato's conclusion) that the mind is a non-physical substance. Some philosophers agree. Some disagree. But those that disagree are no less capable philosophers than are you. (This is an irrefutable empirical fact. I can be easily seen if you will but open your eyes.) Their view is just as well-informed, their arguments just as powerful.

Now, which of you is most likely to be right? Of course, since your views contradict, at most one of you is right. But which? It seems obvious to me that you are just as likely to be wrong as your opponent. Your and your opponent are equally likely to have made some subtle mistake that vitiates your argument. (We can say this at least about the philosophers - where they make mistakes, they make subtle ones.) But if this is so, it seems that one can have little faith in the cogency of one's own arguments. They might be good, they might not; and at present (and it would seem into the indefinite future as well) there is no way to know which it is.

Consider this too. Likely you have come to believe that some argument you once thought cogent really is not. I've done this a number of times. I once thought that mind was material, and thought that my arguments for this compelled assent. I now think precisely the opposite. Mind is immaterial, the arguments for its materiality are flawed, and the arguments for its immateriality are quite strong. Now, what is the probability that I'll do such an about-face in the future about this or some other issue? Surely it isn't negligible. Indeed I think it great enough that one must take the possibility of an about-face seriously. But if this is so, any claim to knowledge is vitiated. If once can be forced by reason to abandon a view that reason once led one to accept, one does not know.

My conclusion is this: the pervasiveness of philosophical dispute (and of change in philosophical opinion) makes philosophical knowledge impossible.

But what is the method of the philosophers? Reason unaided. No appeals to authority, just reason and reason alone. But then we must say that reason unaided is impotent to settle the issues that it sets itself.

If asked, this would be one of the many explanations I'd give of my conversion to Christianity. Reason can't answer the vital questions of my life. Christianity can, and does.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Evil's Source

No one that I know - certainly no one that I take at all seriously - believes that the world is now or ever has been as it should be. But though we all agree upon that - that the world always could have been better than in fact it was - we do no agree upon why this is so. When we wish to speak of those parts or aspects of the world that makes it less good than it might have been, let us use the word "evil". Something evil, then, is something that, in some way or other, is not optimal. It is something that falls short, something that might have been better. So then we all agree that the world does now, and has always, contained evil; but we do not agree upon evil's source. Let us focus upon the evil that we humans do. Call this "artifact evil" or AE for short. (A good word for this is "sin", but some might not agree to its use, for it is a religious term.) Examples of AE: rape, murder, hatred, jealousy, spite, neglect of those in our care, genocide, slavery, racism, sexism, etc. Each is human, and each is evil. There are, I believe, two sorts of explanation of the genesis of AE in the world. One makes individual AE primary, the other makes group AE primary. Let me explain.

Individual AE

Here the root cause of all AE is said to lie in the individual human heart. It is there that evil is first conceived, and it is there from which evil action springs. As Solzhenitsyn said, the line that divides good from evil runs through the human heart. The one who holds this view need not deny the existence of group AE. The racism inculclated in the youth of the South when I was young might be a example, for it seems that this racism was spread across an entire culture and that this culture perpetuated its racism in the education of its young. But though one who holds that the root cause of AE is individual need to deny the existence of group evil, she will insist that, if one traces backward to time to the source of this group evil, one will find the individual human heart, corrupted by its love of that which is evil. Christianity is, I take it, wedded to an individualistic account of the source of AE. There is much in the story of humanity's fall in Genesis that is not true if read literally. But there is a nugget of truth in the story that Christianity must embrace, and it is that first one individual, and then another (and after them all humanity) turned freely against God and thus brought evil into the world. AE, says Christianity, has its source in an individual decision and individual action. Thus did evil enter the world, and thus now does it infect all of humanity. Note a consequence of this for how we are to conceive of the individual. The individual is prior to any group of which she is part. Her identity - that which at bottom she is - is not formed by the societal relations that bind us to one another. Rather the individual exists first - first in thought, first in action- and from this societal relations spring.

Group AE

Here the root cause of all AE is said to lie in culture, class, race, gender - in general, in group identity. Here the line that divides good from evil is the very line that divides group from group. When in The Communist Manifesto Marx tells us that the history of every society heretofore has been the history of class struggle, he makes quite clear how we are to conceive of the individual and of AE. The identity of the individual is derivative from the class of which he is part. I am the man that I am because I am a man of this class. Class first, individual after. Because of this, AE must too have its root cause in group identity. At bottom, it is not this or that human who is evil. Rather at bottom this or that group is evil (and by this we are likely to mean that it oppresses or otherwise mistreats other groups over which it has power), and the evil done by the individuals within it derives from their group identity.


Since Individual AE and Group AE differ so fundamentally about the cause of AE, one should expect that they will differ about how to put things right; and they do. Individual AE calls for the transformation of the human heart. (As John Lennon so wisely said, "when you tell me that it's the institution, well you know you better free your mind instead.") Only then, it says, can societal justice be achieved. Group AE on the contrary calls for societal transformation first, and holds that this is the only way to achieve the good of the individual. Individual AE does not see societal upheaval as necessary to address AE (though it might think this helpful at times). Group AE does. For it, evil can be overcome only if society is reformed - if, for instance, the slave-owner is made to free the slave. Indeed it is common among those who hold to Group AE that revolution - the violent overthrow of oppressor groups - is necessary to the abolition of AE. I know where my allegiance lies. I am Christian and with Solzhenitsyn hold that evil has its source in the individual human heart. Transform the heart and justice will follow. Seek justice without a transformation of the human heart and revolution will come to naught (indeed it will likely breed more evil than existed before).

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Natural and the Good

I'm skeptical that the concept of the natural as commonly understood can lie at the foundation of ethics. For that common idea of the natural is that it is what at present occurs always or for the most part. But we live in a fallen world, and much that now seems quite natural because of its frequency cannot be as God intended. Examples:

1. Sin itself. It is now ubiquitous. But (needless to say) it is not for that reason natural. It is profoundly unnatural.

2. All the many specific types of sin. Anger is quite common, as are selfishness and pride. But as with all sin, they are unnatural.

3. All the many institutions created to bring a measure of order to a sinful world. Are jails natural? I'll grant that they are inevitable given the ruin wrougt by sin. But they are not for that reason natural. Rather they are a necessary means to mitigate with the dangers of sinful and thus unnatural humanity.

4. Death. Scripture and Tradition teach us that death is a result of sin. Thus it inherits the unnaturalness of sin.

Questions remain, of course. If to find what's natural we cannot simply examine the world about us, how are we to know what it is? If the natural is not what occurs always or for the most part, just what is it? I'll take up these questions in a later post.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


Solzhenitsyn says this in Vol. 2 of The Gulag Archipelago:
[T]he ways of the Lord are imponderable. [W]e ourselves never know what we want. [H]ow many times in my life [have] I passionately sought what I did not need and been despondent over failures which were successes. (501, "The Muses in Gulag")
Profound truth! We chase after goals that we have set for ourselves (or perhaps goals that wider society has set for us and we pretend to have set for ourselves) and count as success when we meet them and failure when we do not.

Our children are told again and again to follow their dreams, to passionately pursue that which they most desire.

But this assumes that we are good judges of what we ought to pursue, that we can rightly distinguish those desires which are worthy from those that are not. But we are not good judges of this. Much that we desire we ought not desire, and much that would be good for us if we had it we do not desire.

What is your goal? Wealth? Money is but a means to an end, and to set it up as the end of one's life is thus profoundly mistaken. Power? Power corrupts (or rather feeds the innate corruption that is our inheritance from Adam). Fame? The world is foolish, and only a fool seeks fame among fools.

Be careful what you pursue, and do not assume at present that you know what you ought to do.