Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Relativism and Truth

Quests are meaningless without goals, a distinct “somewhere” which must be reached. This is true even if that goal is ultimately unattainable, because even if ultimately impossible the goal still drives the energy of the knight-errant and gives his work direction. Without such a goal, human activities are reduced entirely to mere work, in the pejorative sense of sheer business. While countless such goals have come and gone throughout the course of human culture, one goal that seems to be nearly universal in its appeal is the goal of truthfulness - that is, of attaining some sort of harmony between oneself and reality. Truth at its simplest is nothing other than the correspondence between our beliefs (and, one might include, our subsequent actions) and reality.
Humans do not have an unmediated access to reality, however - except, perhaps, one’s access to one’s own inner “space,” the private sanctum of the self which is truly not shared by anyone else and which it is impossible to escape short of true madness or death. Even here, though, we must accept the possibility of self-deception, delusion, and ignorance which can distort or obscure our self-knowledge. Additionally, our inner dialogue is a dialogue mediated by symbols. As for the rest of reality, our experience is mitigated through a variety of representations or symbols that are both physiologically and socially determined. A representation is not unreal - that is, it is not that representations lack some sort of existence - but what distinguishes a representation from other objects in reality is that a representation conveys information about an object other than itself - as, for example, the phenomena of the color green might carry the information that there is a large bush only a few meters from where I am standing whose pigments reflect light of about 550 nm wavelength. Since I have spoken about representations in another note, I will simply sum up the fact that all of our perceptions - that is, the entirety of the world we encounter - is a collection of representations produced by the interaction between our physiology and the rest of reality. Furthermore, our forms of both representing and communicating about that reality with others all takes place in the form of symbols whose meaning is entirely dependent upon socio-cultural contexts and which are all ultimately human products.

These facts combined introduces an inescapable type of relativism: the relativism of representation. Insofar as we do not have a direct apprehension of objects as an object but rather only have an apprehension of objects through the representations provided by our senses, and further because our claims, apprehension, and communication about that object takes place only through the means of socio-culturally contingent symbols, no statement can simply stand as an uncontestable absolute - that is, as a statement which stands above our beyond the possibility of future revision or correction. Even a statement of seemingly necessary truth, such as the law of non-contradiction, is subject to this possibility. First, because the reality which it seeks to describe is fundamentally “larger” than the representations of it to which we have access, we are always in the position of possibly being in the dark about an important aspect of that reality. Second, because the combination of symbols we use to represent reality imposes upon its meaning the requirements of its own peculiar grammar and syntax, we cannot be certain that the symbols themselves introduce novelty or distortion into the aspect of reality which we seek to describe. Third, because these symbols are themselves not static and indeed introduce a variety of hermeneutic difficulties, the perceived (and, indeed, intended) meaning of an identical set of symbol can vary quite immensely even amongst similarly socialized peers. In short, the very nature of representations renders statements of absolute truth (including this one, it might be wryly noted) implausible.

What then? As I remarked, the end of the preceding paragraph may have evoked the obvious objection, “What about your own statements? If you do not believe that statement to be an absolute statement, it means it is open or subject to correction - which means, you must accept that that statement is potentially false.” I believe this objection, although quite popular, is misguided in a number of ways. In the first place, the recognition that a statement is possibly false is quite different that the belief that it is false. Nothing I have said necessarily points to an attitude of constant self-doubt that feels it necessary to mumble sadly at the end of every statement, “but I might be wrong.” Indeed, I have noted that despite the unavoidable shortcomings of the representations which constitute the world of our experiences, those representations do indeed represent reality. We are not cut off from reality - rather, these representations form the bridge and link with reality. We are not simply receiving the sensory impression that we are touching a flower - we are really touching it, and even if that touch is a representation of the flower rather than the flower itself it is still indeed representing information about that flower. From a strictly evolutionary standpoint, we developed the senses we did because the information those senses provide about reality give us an actual advantage over creatures that lack such senses. This advantage is simply that through these senses we are able to understand more about our reality and act in advantageous ways upon that information.

The access to this information about reality is what allows the evaluation of statements as true or false. Since truth is the harmonization of our beliefs with reality, we are able to use whatever information we have access to, and the best symbols and cultural representations we have access to, in order to fashion beliefs that harmonize with the given information as best we understand it. The flipside of saying that we might not have all the information is to say that the evaluation of our beliefs should proceed solely on the basis of the information we do have. Tomorrow, we may sprout organs that let us see things about reality which challenge beliefs currently assumed to be true, and in this case the representative relativism of our beliefs will be unveiled, but without such an event we must continue to assess the truth of things by comparing our beliefs with the reality as we know it through our currently available representations of it.

Indeed, the relationship between reality, our sensory representations of reality, and our cultural and social symbols for that reality is dialectic and dynamic and not reducible to a mere one way causal mechanism. Insofar as our senses portray information and subsequently allow us to craft symbols to represent that reality, those same crafted symbols allow reflection upon the entire process - reality’s relationship to our senses, our senses upon our symbols, and vice versa. The set of symbols is open to self-critique in the face of the information about reality which we gain through our senses and which we gain a better understanding of precisely through the manipulation of that information made possible through our cultural symbols. The symbols allow us to see relations between the pieces of information we garner through our sensory representations, relations which themselves can be represented and then used as a tool to revise or correct a growing body of knowledge. This is the dialectic of the human quest for knowledge.

In summary, then, it must be noted that the human quest does have a goal: truth. Reality is only partially subject to human manipulation, and even that manipulation assumedly must follow the “rules” of reality. But to say that reality is not relativistic - and that, therefore, the “standard” for truth is not relative, but is an external absolute - is very different from saying that our statements and beliefs about reality - and our subsequent truth evaluations of those claims - are not relative. We encounter reality through limited means and can express it only through limited means: in short, our claims and beliefs are always by their very nature tentative even if we express them to ourselves as absolute (indeed, the question of why we tend to think of our claims in absolute, rather than relativistic, terms is interesting in itself). This relativism is not a call to wholesale methodological doubt nor a reduction of all our knowledge to sense experience - after all, we gain insight not only through sense experience, but also through the construction and manipulation of symbols representing the reality we experience and providing the possibility of non-empirical or rational insights. It is, however, a call to what I would call fallibilism: the constant awareness of beliefs as possibly subject to revision or correction. Such fallibilism recognizes all human epistemological claims - whatever the methodological or ideological source and justification for those claims - as ultimately conditioned by human biology and artifice even if it is representative and derived in some way from a reality.

As a final note, I am again well aware that this theory is self-critiquing - that is, it presents in itself a reason to suspect that it might be subject to revision and correction. I would simply note that I would not wish it to be any other way.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Departure from Dogmatism Need Not Mean Irreligion

In "A World of Representations," I noted that the terms of our interaction with both social and non-social realities are dependent upon and consist of the manipulation of various physiological and socio-cultural symbols and representations. While the physiological symbols are results of our peculiar anatomies, and thus lay farther from though not entirely beyond the reach of direct or intentional manipulation, the socio-cultural symbols - language, our social institutions, the expressions of our creeds and so forth - are entirely human products. Their existence is entirely dependent on the ongoing participation of their members and their form and contents are also the result of historical processes. Religions tend to externalize themselves as eternal or cosmic structures, and so tend to deny that their content, rites, and symbols are indeed human products: the typical Catholic experiences the Mass not as a rite developed by humanity but rather as a dark mystery instituted by God and thus fundamentally beyond the invention of humanity, even if he acknowledges that certain particularities of its form are indeed historical products. A dogmatic religion believes that its symbolic representations of reality (its creeds, doctrines, rites, structures, and other symbols) are incontestable and perfect representations of the divine and which thus denies the possibility of genuine revision of those symbols (although elaboration or "development" of these symbols, as long as they do not constitute a repudiation or denial of a previous prototype, are cautiously permitted). This is generally achieved by a denial of the human origin of those symbols: that is, either a complete denial of their history or an interpretation of their origins within history as having been a moment of divine intervention or providence. As a divine, rather than human symbol, the religious dogma attains an unimpeachable status and is experienced and felt to be nothing other than the "hard truth" of reality, the questioning of which is a moral failing.For many, this is what religion is - regardless of whether they admire or reject the idea. The new atheist has as his primary adversary nothing other than dogmatic religion (and indeed he is a participant within a form of non-religious dogmatism which replaces a divine facticity with a natural or scientific facticity - that is, an interpretation of the symbolic representations used by secular science and philosophy as dogmatically the "hard truth or facts" of reality). Interestingly, new atheists share their rejection of the institutions of religion with fundamentalists who also recognize the "produced" status of religious institutions and thus reject them as not divine in origin. These latter individuals, who typically are responsible for the rather superficial assertions that they are spiritual but not religious and who speak much of relationships with Jesus and the dangers of "man's religions," although still fundamentally self-deceived in that even their "bare bones Bible-based" Christianity is still a socio-cultural human product, have come to the conclusion that a religion produced by human effort and upheld only by human participation cannot be divine in origin. Their own dogmatism, usually based on an unrecognized and parasitic dependence upon the very institutions and symbols which they decry, is typically believed to be upheld by more direct divine links, such as the near-divinization of the Bible, a belief in themselves as priest, and so forth.

In any case, dogmatism seems to be such a persistent feature of modern religion, and especially conservative Christianity, that it seems that rejection of such dogmatism must necessarily mean a rejection of religion. The focus of Christianity in combating heresy - that is, in suppressing and rejecting voiced from within its own fold which question the given meanings or otherwise reject or modify the dogma - reveals the centrality of dogma to historical Christianity and lends credence to this identification of Christianity with dogmatism. Christianity, it seems, does not merely propose a particular set of symbols which must be believed, it also demands a very specific sort of belief in order for the member to be considered in a right relationship with the institution and the divine reality which it represents and which is assumed to be its originator. The Christian must not simply believe the Resurrection, but must believe it dogmatically - that is, he must believe it to a degree in which the falsehood of that belief cannot be entertained as possible and in a way in which he would rather suffer pain, torment, and death rather than question or deny. This quality is present in the entirety of what might be called the dogmatic content of the Church's belief, down to, as it has become apparent, such a matter as whether a married couple may morally use a condom.

It is precisely this dogmatism that has made Christianity a target in a secularizing world (that the secularizing world might not have its own dogmas is a very important point that is worth an entire note in itself). Christianity no longer has enough control over the major institutions of society that its claims are perceived as an obvious, objective and external reality - that is, the cosmos in no longer in general perceived in a fundamentally Christian context that legitimates the Church's claims as to its own nature. Insofar as Christianity presents itself as a divine institution, and inasmuch as it is now perceived as a product - that is, an institution human in origin - there is the possibility of rejecting the religion simply on the grounds of its dogmatism. The dogma, no longer upheld by the simple "facts" of social reality, is subjected to the questioning and doubt of human persons no longer comfortable with the dogma as such but who demand a broader, more human justification for the beliefs. This questioning and doubt can lead to apostacy insofar as the individual is unsatisfied with the religion's proposed justification for its dogma.However, I would like to note the possibility that this situation is not the only possible outcome of recognizing the fully human socio-historic origins and development of religious symbols. In other words, rejecting the dogmatic quality of the institutions claims does not necessitate rejecting the religious structure as such - it does not necessitate the choice of irreligion. To say that a symbol is human in origin does not mean that it is without merit, and although this is obvious in nearly every other field of human endeavor it seems to be forgotten by both the defenders and detractors of our great religious structures. Science is, after all, nothing more than a secular, human, socio-culturally contingent system of symbols meant to represent reality - one that by its own methodology cannot be treated dogmatically, and yet is often portrayed as such. Its conclusions are fundamentally open to revision even while maintaining credibility as statements representative of some reality. Even though classical mechanics, for example, has been shown to be incomplete and flawed in various ways, it nevertheless maintains its usefulness and a contextualized degree of "truth" that are not rendered null by the recognition of their incomplete status or their status as human products.

What is needed, then, is a coherent account of religious development - that is, an account of the fully human history of religious structures - that validates the religious institution as a representation of reality without succumbing to dogmatism. That is, it is possible to admit fully that religious institutions are human products and that their beliefs and statements are potentially open to revision, chance, and development without concluding that religious institutions cannot also simultaneously really be representing - albeit, incompletely - a feature of reality, even a divine feature. Of course, such a justification would look quite different from current religious formulas, and the development and acceptance of such a justification from within the institution itself seems rather unlikely, as it would require an admission of error, if not necessarily in content then at least in form. Yet such a project opens itself as a possibility for the individual who cannot accept the dogmatism of religion and yet is still fascinated by the representative content of religion.

As I have done before, I would point to a work like Rodney Stark's Discovering God as a starting point for such an account of religious development. Discovering God produces an account of all of human religious development as a single history. The awareness of the universality of religion suggests that religion does indeed represent a reality, and not necessarily simply its own reality - which is to say that religion might not represent merely its own existence as a part of reality but may genuinely represent man's understanding of his own relationship with the foundations of reality. As such, its validity can be re-established not in the denial of its status as a human product but rather because it is a human product - although this would mean the repudiation of dogmatism and the embracing of a fallibility that recognizes one's religious symbols as part of an ongoing process whose perfection is uncertain.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Brief Reflection on Julian the Apostate

Once upon a time there was a man born in the relatively auspicious position of being the future emperor of a decaying but still glorious Roman empire. His name was Julian, and he was raised a Catholic. The Church had just been recently accepted in the empire, with the whims of Constantine having swept away the ancient privileges of the Roman deities and replaced them with a vacillating commitment first to one and then to another of the divided sects of Christianity. Julian was not really meant to take throne; jealousy had spirited him away to Athens, where he grew up in the academy among the ancient halls of the philosophers. While there, the young Christian had a conversion experience: he discovered the heritage of the empire, the old myths and rites of the ancient gods, and even while a lector in the new religion he began his initiation into the ranks of the old. When he was at last raised to the purple and granted the title Augustus, he had shed the Christian religion and became, variously, Emperor Julian the Defender of the Roman Religion or Emperor Julian the Apostate.

Julian would also be the last of the Roman emperors to worship the old gods, to wake each morning and sacrifice bulls to the sun or cast the incense zealously before the altar of Mars. His reign was short and memorable: he was an energetic young prince, very learned, relatively moderate even towards his enemies, productive, spartan, and bespoke the best virtues of the ancient pagan. He led the legions himself, would run with charges, and in the end he was killed in combat attempting to lead to safety his beleaguered army, which he had run too far into Persia with a series of impressive but profitless victories. Yet all this is obscured in the epithet he has earned within the place of a specifically Christian history: the Apostate. The most important thing about him, it seems, was his refusal to accept the new religion and his enduring devotion to the old.

Moments of religious and social transition - whether it be the conversion of an empire, the enforced cultures of a conqueror over the vanquished, or even the growth of doubt or conversion of an individual - all offer moments in which the apparent "objectivity" of a society or religion is temporarily broken. The Christians had won an impressive series of social victories after Constantine, to the point that they would soon be able to persecute the pagans in vengeance for the injuries to which they had submitted the Christians. The old religion - once considered the heart of the Roman state and household - was suddenly shaken. Jupiter ceased to be the acknowledged king of the gods; the wrath and potency of Mars was called into question. While it would be incorrect to say that the pagans were not already uncritical of their own religion (at least, the philosophers were), it is clear that the religion was considered as an objective quality of the world: the blessings of the gods were seen as really and objectively demonstrated by the success of the legions and the might, wealth, and success of the empire. The transition to Christianity shook this conviction, and it is noteworthy that while Christianity had suffered social opposition and persecution with growing resolve, the majority of pagans seemed to have fallen in line with the new religion. But in the case of Julian the Apostate, we have a counterexample: a man who had everything to lose and really nothing to gain from his advocacy of a dying, disfavored, philosophically untenable religion nevertheless directed his short imperial reign to the rekindling of its ancient flame.

His project was cut short in Persia by his death, and he had barely begun to revitalize the old religion. Soon, whatever small headway he had made was undone, and within decades the shrines which Julian had worshiped at had been locked, stripped, and razed. But what if they had not? What if he had survived Persia? What if the brief efforts of his youth had been dilated into the work of a lifetime? This is where the currents of history and society begin to unveil religion's social and historical character, where the sheer objectivity of religious belief - that is, the easy-going and dogmatic assumption that religion is unmediated, transcendent, and universal truth - faces its most difficult counterpoint: it is made by and contingent upon temporal events. Christianity's hard-won triumph never faced the difficulty of a pagan revival spurred by a learned and eloquent pagan emperor, and while the old religion lingered in the backwoods of the provinces for centuries the urban capitals became unquestionably (and perhaps only nominally, in some cases) Christian.

Christianity's eventual triumph secured its doctrine as an objective experience within reality: within the empire, or at least within its cities, one was born, lived, and died in a cosmos that grew successively more explicitly and more unquestionably Christian. The moment of crisis - that age of transition in which the future of Christianity was uncertain and it which the shrines of the pagans stood alongside the Christian altars like a social sign of a clash of deities in the heaven - passed, leaving in its wake only the certainty and self-referential dogmatism of the prevailing religion. Christianity had become true, in the political sense, by becoming the most powerful social force - by externalizing its beliefs into the social structures of reality. This is not to say that it might not also be true in that other, more obscure sense of harmonizing with reality. But it is certainly the case that the securing of its political triumph allowed it to control society in such a way that members would grow up without facing those socially dangerous moments of crisis in which doubt and conversion are possible - in which another Julian might arise with the zealousy of an opposed dogma.

It is true that Christianity still retains a powerful degree of social control, but that control is yearly waning in the secularized west and elsewhere. As its social control wanes, the breach of social crisis is once again reopened, and apostasy once again becomes a distinct possibility: people no longer grow up, in general, in a world in which the truth of Catholicism is externalized in a dogmatic social structure designed explicitly to prevent doubt. The new, secular social structures do not serve to reaffirm Christianity. Christians are painfully aware of this situation, which is explicitly framed in terms of crisis, decay, or imminent disaster (one has only to note that there exists an online magazine called "Crisis Magazine" that is quite popular among the conservative Catholics). Yet the roles have switched from the ancient crisis, and now Christianity is on the defensive: it is now the old social order, the old religion, trying desperately and with all the zeal of Julian the Apostate to reaffirm its relevance.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A World of Representations

The world you inhabit is first and foremost a collection of representations. The phenomena which both inhabit and constitute the space in which you consciously live, think, and act are physiologically derived symbols of the objects we assume populate the cosmos. Your biology provides both the grounds and the limitations of these phenomena, and it is fair to say that with a different physiology you very well could experience the world as a vastly different place.

Consider for a moment that the phenomena you encounter - that green, swaying, woody tree over there; the fluttering colors of the flag; the electric touch of another human being - are all derived primarily from the action of five senses. Each of these senses is anatomical in origin: you see because you possess eyes of a certain structure which reacts to photons, you smell because of the interaction of particles with your olfactory nerves, so forth and so on. Your brain is able to process the information from these senses and edit them into something coherent and unified. But these structures only serve to gather specific types of information; they do not give you the full picture. Even though it is quite easy without reflection to assume that this world of phenomena is identical with the reality outside yourself, you need only consider the very different phenomenal worlds which animals with different anatomies possess. Bees, for example, are capable of sensing ultraviolet wavelengths which are absent in your phenomenal world: the representations which they experience differ in terms of the information to which they have access. If you suddenly sprouted an organ that could detect X-rays, your world would appear radically different. The same reality which you naturally assume lies beyond yourself would give rise to a different set of representations given.

There is nothing wrong with this circumstance, of course - you are the product of evolution, a process which is in one sense quite blind of the possibilities open to it: you have developed these particular senses, and thus this particular set of representations, because of a long series of incremental developments each of which had to justify itself in terms of survival, no necessarily in terms of increased information. Another way of saying this is that you have senses which have developed to take advantage of information (but not necessarily all of the information) most relevant to your survival and reproduction. But evolution is not an optimizing process - that is, evolution will not always come up with an optimal structure. Your eye, for example, has the curious property of having a blind spot, because your optical nerve starts from the inside and most make its way out. This is clearly not an optimal design, and it can be contrasted with cephalapods who have developed an eye where the optical nerve is positioned in such a way that it does not have a blind spot. So, too, your anatomy as a whole gives you access to some information and not other information, so that, from the very start, every phenomena you encounter is already a highly specific representation of the reality beyond. In a word, your world has already been interpreted for you from the instant you perceive it.

With this in mind, it is clearly a mistake to idolize your perceptions - that is, to assume that your perceptions are actually the objects in reality rather than merely the representations of those objects. The scientific revolution has likely served to enhance your awareness that the objects in reality have a mind-independent existence, have intrinsic properties which are discoverable through observation, and so forth; but it is also possible that it has made you somewhat forgetful that all of your observations are already interpreted and biased by your anatomy. Scientists themselves are generally keenly aware of this fact and are especially aware of the limitations of our sensory inputs, and must use devices that transform the information that is not available to us through their anatomy into information that they can sense: they make devices that sense X-rays, for example, and then represent those X-rays in terms of visible light. Of course, in these circumstances there have already been two acts of interpretation the moment the scientist experiences the phenomena: one, the mechanical interpretation or representation, and secondly the representation of that representation by means of human physiology.

Nevertheless, this situation is only the most basic foundation or grounds for the world of phenomena you experience; it does not, in itself, constitute a full world. The representations which fill your world are not merely neutral or indifferent representations of sensory information: they are interpreted according to the social constructs in which you were raised and which you have appropriated through a variable blend of acceptance and rejection. You analyze and evaluate the representations by means of a dazzlingly complex set of social symbols - the most obvious of which is language. By means of language, you categorize the phenomena by names, and through the symbolism of names you are able to give meaning to the representations, understand their relationships, and even learn how to manipulate the reality they represent. You experience this process as a process of discovery - that is, when you are educated and socialized, you experience your particular society's social symbols and structures as a given indistinguishable from non-social reality. Here is a boulder: you cannot move it, it was there before you were born, it is part of reality. So too you experience grammar as something beyond your control, something out there, something fundamentally part of reality. You will discover, of course, if you are clever, that the two are not quite the same: your language is a product of society and culture. It does have reality, for sure: you cannot simply use whatever words or syntax you wish and expect to be understood. But its reality is the product of a very specific series of events within human society, and the language exists only so long as it is used - that is, it is dependent on human action for its reality. As such, it is also shaped by its use: they symbols you use to represent reality are themselves subject to flux.

This is not to say that you are "trapped" in a negative way within your culture - that would be like complaining that you are trapped in your body. Your body is the means by which you experience reality - its limitations are the flip-side of its abilities. So too the social symbols you use are the means by which you know reality. Your beliefs about reality - all of which are made in terms of these changing symbols - are not "false" simply because they are composed of symbols whose relevance and validity are historically and socially contingent any more than your visual experience of a tree is "false" simply because it is contingent on your specific physiology. Your visual representation of a tree is a representation, sure: but it is a representation of something, some object, and even if it is flawed in some way (as it is even when you are at your most healthy) it still is reporting information about reality, information that can be used to check and either confirm, refine, or discard the social symbols. It is true that there is no known way to escape the representations - that is, to experience reality in a way unfiltered by these physiological and social structures (not even, contrary to some who have read Huxley's Doors of Perceptions, mind-altering drugs: this only serves to distort and alter the representations into something unfamiliar that might be taken to be the "underlying truth of things," but which is really no more enlightening that viewing yourself in a fun-house mirror). But because the representations are based in reality, there is the possibility of correction - that is, the possibility that through the careful manipulation, comparison, study, and reflection upon your social and phenomenological symbols, you can refine those social symbols in a way that better represents the reality.

This has been the human quest. At its best, it is like a function approaching an asymptote: you get closer and closer to reality with each refinement, but the symbol will never be identical to reality. Practically speaking, things are far more bumpy - and this is not even taking into account the fact that reality is itself in flux along with society and yourself. But it is a good reason to be both optimistic that truth - understood as the conformity of your symbols with reality - is possible, even if the absolute remains out of reach. It is also a reason to be skeptical and reflective of the claim that a particular set of symbols is perfect: that is, that it identical with reality. This is dogmatism, and it is a form of conceptual idolatry that fails to recognize that the symbols it uses are contextualized both by human physiology and society - and that, for that reason, all systems of symbols necessarily fall short of describing reality perfectly. This imperfection suggests strongly that you should be a fallibilist: that is, you should view all your representations as potentially flawed in some way. "Flawed" does not necessarily mean "false." Geocentrism is clearly flawed, but it is not altogether "false," because it does model the phenomena of reality: the sun rising each morning, the procession and recession of planets, and so forth. There is much in it that is, indeed, true, and it is arguable that without that series of representations modern science might not have ever come about. But the fallibilist is willing to modify or even set aside such venerable symbols because he recognizes that they are, in the end, constructs: mental tools, whose usefulness may very well be contingent on a very specific set of circumstances.

I have only described phenomena, symbols, and representations in a very superficial way, and I must accept my own conclusion that my account is quite possibly flawed, but I hope that you will accept that there is much about it that is true. The implications for religion are most interesting to me right now, and I leave most of them for a later note. But I would like to simply say that these insights do not make religion invalid. Atheism can be as dogmatic as religion, and there is just as much conceptual idolization and self-deceit going on in the atheist who shouts that a wafer cannot become the body of Christ as there is in the soothsayer who interprets the movements of birds to be a sign of fate. In all these matters, the key insight is not a matter so much of truth or falsity, but a matter of context and absolutes, because even what counts as true and false is dependent upon the structure of our social symbols. The Incarnation in Christianity presents this for my closing meditation: let us say that God becomes a man and wishes to reveal something of Himself to us. He must use our symbols to communicate to our minds, and thus whatever He reveals will take on the limitations of the symbols He says it in. Even if somehow He were able to undo the limitations of human physiology and culture - if through some miraculous process He destroyed all the structures that we use for thought as we know it and replaced it with an unmediated experience of His reality - the moment we attempted to communicate it or act on it within a social, human context, we would be again forced to use symbols, and once again would be in the position of the human: the thinking, growing, changing, limited, mortal thing called man.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Nature and Contraception

In 1963, the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control was established to study the possibility of an alteration in the Church's teachings on contraception. By the time its work was done, 68 of the 72 members had drafted a report supporting an alteration in the Church's teachings. This report, titled "Responsible Parenthood," concluded that contraception could not be considered intrinsically evil, and that it was incoherent to accept the legitimacy of the rhythm method while excluding artificial contraception. This majority report in no way meant to strip away the connection between sexuality and procreation, but merely made the argument that within a productive and fertile life it should be perfectly acceptable to use artificial means to control the rate of birth, to space births out, and to ensure better provisions for offspring.

However, in writing Humanae Vitae, the Pope rejected the majority consensus of his Pontifical Commission, instead opting to enshrine the minority opinion - signed by only 4 of the commission's members - in his encyclical. While reaffirming the common and traditional natural law arguments against birth control, the primary concern of this minority report seems to be less theological or philosophical in nature and more a worry about the Church saving face - that is, the worry that the Pontiff may have to admit that his predecessors were in error. In the report, which is far more lengthy and pedantic than the majority report, the basic form of argument is that since the Church has consistently rejected the use of contraception as evil, the use of contraception must be evil; and, interestingly, the Church has consistently rejected the use of contraception as evil because the use of contraception is evil.

The circularity of this argument cannot be denied; however, I am less concerned about the circular rationale of the minority report as I am in a very interesting point made by the majority report:

" The tradition has always rejected seeking this separation with a contraceptive intention for motives spoiled by egoism and hedonism, and such seeking can never be admitted. The true opposition is not to be sought between some material conformity to the physiological processes of nature and some artificial intervention. For it is natural to man to use his skill in order to put under human control what is given by physical nature. The opposition is really to be sought between one way of acting which is contraceptive and opposed to a prudent and generous fruitfulness, and another way which is, in an ordered relationship to responsible fruitfulness and which has a concern for education and all the essential, human and Christian values."

The report calls into question the definition of "natural" used by the opponents of contraception. After all, the argument from natural law indicates that man's artificial control of his reproductive faculties is intrinsically evil, in the sense of being intrinsically unnatural. Yet this argument is found nowhere else in the tradition, and in no other situation is the artificial intervention of the works of the human intellect into natural or physiological processes considered intrinsically evil. Man can take medicine which halts or hampers his natural bodily processes, he can turn aside great rivers, manipulate genetic structures, govern the breeding of other animals, use artificial insemination to breed those animals, cross-breed them, dig up minerals from the bowels of the earth, purposely alter his own bodily chemistry for various therapeutic and non-therapeutic effects, so forth and so on - and in these cases, it is strictly the intentionality, not the means, of the act that governs the morality of the act. However, in the case of artificial contraception, it is argued that simply the artificiality of the act - that is, the means itself, understood as an intentional and artificial control over the reproductive organs - is evil, regardless of intention. A couple who has licit reasons for avoiding pregnancy under Church rules, and whose intentions are in line with these rules, would fall into a state of mortal sin or not depending upon whether they have sex with artificial contraception or using natural family planning - even if their intention is identical, namely, to have sexual relations without intending to procreate.

The majority opinion reveals the absurdity of this position, and questions why rhythm should be allowed but artificial contraception condemned. Nature should include the works of the human mind, and God's command to go forth and multiply is understood within the grand context of man using his intellect to become a master of nature - both his environment and himself. The report is firm in its reaffirmation of the intrinsic connection between sexuality and reproduction, but it shifts the moral gravity of contraception away from the intrinsic means of contraception to the intentionality of contraception. Clearly, the majority report would have us realize, it is possible for a couple to exercise a fruitful sexuality - that is, a sexuality that yields children - even if not every sexual act is itself fruitful. A couple who uses contraception to regulate rather than complete nullify this connection is indeed acting well within the boundaries of natural law under this view, and the commission still coherently rejects the use of contraception solely for the purposes of having a fruitless, hedonistic sexual life.

The Catholic Church needs to reevaluate (or rather, pay attention to the already extant reevaluation) its stance on birth control, leaving completely aside the rather pathetic concern that it may have to admit it was mistaken. However, interestingly enough, the majority report shows that it would be entirely plausible to alter the teaching and remain firmly within the tradition, since it is the tradition itself that recognizes the dignity of man and the natural goodness of his intellect's power to understand and manipulate himself and the world around him. It would be unnecessary to reject the Church's teaching that marriage, sexuality, and procreation all have an indelible link; one would merely have to affirm that the exercise of that sexuality, like the exercise of any other natural function, can rightfully be responsibly controlled by the art and knowledge of the human mind.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Three Points of Agreement in the Contraception Debate

Contraception has taken on a strange quality in Catholicism. It is a litmus test, and many treat it as an easy way to categorize your particular "brand" of Catholicism. Use contraception and think it is no deal? You are labeled a liberal Catholic, or maybe simply a "cafeteria Catholic" or an "American Catholic," where "American Catholic" is used as a pejorative. On the other hand, condemnation of contraception is seen as not only a sign of one's commitment to the Magisterium, but certainly one's membership in the ranks of the conservative Catholics - the self styled "traditionalists."

Certainly, the battle of words and ideas between these two forces within the Church is nothing new, but the use of this particular issue seems to have only heated up in the last fifty to sixty years - and, in some ways, the generations of Catholics in American growing up in the long shadows of the Second Vatican Council have inherited this litmus test as a given (well, at least any who give more than a passing moment's worth of thought to the matter).

As usual, the polarization has not only increased each side's zeal, but has decreased each side's ability to make compelling arguments. On the one hand, conservatives push two issues: the declarations of the Magisterium and their arguments from natural law. I have elsewhere discussed my critique of natural law, but the insistence that the immorality of contraception is a universally applicable (and, indeed, rationally demonstrable) ethical principle has only served to alienate the conservative Catholic voice; it may be that some set of arguments, carefully poised and hashed out with the right set of assumptions, could make a valid case against contraception, but more often these arguments consist of tired catch-phrases and begging the question (after all, if I begin with the assumption that it is immoral to separate the exercise of a bodily function from its natural purpose, I've already formed my conclusion that contraception is immoral - it is contained in the assumption).

Similarly, the "liberal Catholic" crowd seems to have attempted to move on from the debate entirely, no longer spending much time at all critically considering issues of contraception and its moral implications (except when those implications happen to coincide with certain left-leaning talking points, such as the environment - a liberal Catholic who would not even bother with you if you say contraception is a sin would probably become quite talkative if you mention that birth control pills might be permanently damaging the ecosystem).

Amidst all this, a more reasoned analysis of contraception seems improbable. But there are some common points that both sides tend to share, common assumptions that could form the basis of a more fruitful dialogue (and, perhaps, more fruitful compromises). Allow me to share what I believe to be the common concepts of both conservative and liberal Catholic appraisals of the contraception issue.

1. Contraceptive practices have grave social consequences.

Both sides accept the public, social nature of sexual practices. Though members of both sides (more likely, the liberal side) may plead the "private" character of what goes on in the bedroom, reproduction is a public issue. The creation of new citizens, who may potentially become either productive or parasitical and whose upbringing will be a strong determining factor in his future, bears with it a social responsibility. As such, there are grounds for the ethical treatment of contraception. Of course, this common belief is diverted by the question of in which direction social responsibility lies: are couples' primary duty to procreate (at a reasonable, but consistent, pace), thus providing society with new members and conforming with the natural function of sex, or is the primary duty to carefully withhold this procreative power in the light of increasing awareness of social and global problems related to population growth?

However, I claim that these two responsibilities are not ultimately contradictory, but are rather rendered so by the unnecessary dichotomizing of procreation and contraception. Pope John VI asks in the beginning of Humanae Vitae, "could it not be admitted that the intention of a less abundant but more rationalized fecundity might transform a materially sterilizing intervention into a licit and wise control of birth?" Of course, against the advice of the majority of his own commission on the subject, the Pontiff would go on to answer with a resounding "no." Yet the question seems to combine the concerns of both parties: a view of contraception as part of an overall fertile marriage, rather than a view of it as simply contrary to fertility. Perhaps revisiting this question could provide a source of common discussion on both sides, as long as conservatives are truly willing to consider that the use of contraception is not equivalent to a complete rejection of procreation and the liberals are willing to admit that a purely contraceptive sexual lifestyle may represent a kind of unsupportable turning against the functions of the body.

2. There are good reasons not to have children

While conservative Catholics often treat this part of Catholic teaching with a kind of begrudging acceptance, a corollary to the Church's condemnation of artificial contraception was the admission that there are indeed reasons why a couple could engage in sex without intending on procreation (that this admission is used as justification for natural birth control via natural family planning and not for artificial birth control seems to be, among other things, a failure in logic). This is actually a point of agreement with liberal Catholics: both groups recognize that the financial, emotional, and physical burdens of raising children are great, and that as such it is not to be taken lightly. The liberal Catholics perhaps have a far more extensive list of acceptable reasons, including concerns for the social aspect of procreation, its strain on global resources, and the impact on the environment (the very sorts of things Paul VI mentions in his introduction to the topic in Humanae Vitae).

Then, if there are valid reasons why a couple should wish to avoid having children, the conservative Catholic may wonder why he condones one means to this end and forbids another; what about the artificiality of contraceptive devices and pharmaceuticals makes them sinful in themselves? I will put to the side the issue of abortifacient contraceptives, concerns about which are of an entirely different nature. Simultaneously, cannot liberal Catholics (and, perhaps, liberals in general) approach the same question from a different angle, in order to concede that the responsibility of procreation (it is, indeed, an important duty of a species to reproduce, even if we have reason to moderate that activity) renders certain types of excuses invalid, and that couples with ample resources and time should seriously consider engaging in the same act without which they would not exist? After all, who hasn't seen the utter waste of a three-thousand plus square foot home, two middle class wage earners, two cars, children.

3. Teenage pregnancies, abortions, unwanted children, and STD's are all indicative of social ills that need to be addressed

Conservative Catholics often blame contraception and the Sexual Revolution for these social ills, pointing their finger squarely in the faces of the liberal Catholics as being the ones whose imprudent endorsement of birth control and feminism are responsible for what can generally be called the overall smuttiness of society today. Liberal Catholics point the finger right back, maintaining that it is actually the stuffy and outdated sexual morals of the conservative forces in America that have prevented a true response to these issues in the form of better sexual education, better access to contraception, and the liberation of women from their role as reproductive vessels.

Both see these issues as bad, either in themselves or as indicators that all is not right in the world. And, yet again, we see a mirror image in their accusations. But if the truth is in the middle, the acknowledgement of these social ills and studies as to their causes and relationship to contraception and other variables might be a good place to start a more productive dialogue, especially if liberal Catholics will acknowledge that the unpinning of sexuality from procreation and the laissez faire attitude towards casual sexuality may be just as responsible for these issues as are a general lack of a sense of social sexual responsibility in society. Conservative Catholics can acknowledge that part of taking responsibility might come in the form of birth control as well as abstinence - an admission that merely needs history, even Catholic history, to back up the truth that many people will have sex with each other no matter how persuasively you might point out its immorality.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Power of Names: A Critique of Realism

In Plato's Cratylus, Socrates rejects the notion that the names of things have a divine origin. Language, as sign, is inferior to the thing signified. This imperfection could be used to account for the variety of languages, the multiplicity of systems of signification used to talk about, assumedly, one reality. Yet such a position suggests that our names are derivative of things - or, to put it another way, that the singular reality which we experience, filled with a variety of phenomena which we ostensibly share with others, provides a kind of prototype from which language is drawn. There is, however, another theory about language and its connection with the things around us: that the language we use actually shapes our phenomenal world, and that the words we use have the power to alter our perception of reality. To some degree it may even be arguable that the use of a particular language - or even the use of a particular vocabulary or dialect within a language - can actually define the phenomenal contents of our world. I believe that the way in which language shapes, directs, and forms our thoughts and our perception of the world suggests that realism - which would attempt to tie our words and associated conceptions to universal, unchanging forms or essences - overestimates the universality of human concepts and underestimates the power of names to shape our reality.

Realism's variety and tradition is far too diverse and expansive to receive a full treatment. Indeed, there are many subtle varieties of realism that may avoid the criticism which I will present. For my purposes, however, I will define realism as consisting primarily in the belief that things are what they are because of their ontological relationship to an eternal, unchanging reality called an essence. This ontological relationship is described in many ways, but the main vocabulary I will use is participation. An entity - physical or non-physical - participates in a form, which is eternal and unchanging. When we perceive such an entity, our intellects are able to abstract this form from the particulars of the phenomena around us: we are able to see past certain accidental or non-essential qualities, such as the fact that the thing is sitting in water, is brown, is chewing on a fish, and so forth, and are able to abstract that the entity is, in essence, a duck.

Words, then, are conceived of as socially agreed upon utterances signifying these essential concepts. Whatever variety there is in language does not change the fundamental content of these universal concepts: a man speaking Mandarin Chinese would possess the knowledge of the same form, "duckness," as an English speaker, even if the utterances used to signify that concept differ.

Language, on the realist's account, is always primarily derivative, in the sense that the content of our mental concepts shapes our language rather than vice versa. This theory nicely fits with any philosophy that requires the universality of certain sorts of concept: for example, natural law, among others.

However, if language is not primarily derivative, and if instead the utterances we use actually alter the content of our mental concepts - that is, if language changes the way in which we perceive the world - then realism's claims that humans have access to universally uniform mental concepts in the form of essences is doubtful.

Indeed, research on this subject is emerging which reveals that language shapes the content of our mental concepts as well as our phenomenal world. Take, for example, the experiments conducted by Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University. Comparing the speakers of a language like Kuuk Thayorre, a language that insists so much on absolute frames of reference that it lacks concepts such as "left" and "right" and instead requires all statements to be made in terms of the cardinal directions, to speakers of a language like English, which tends to use more relative spatial terms, Boroditsky found that the language spoken by the individual had profound effects on his spatial and temporal perceptions. Kuuk Thayorre possess a nearly perfect sense of direction in any environment, even indoors, and tend to see temporality in terms of cardinal direction, especially east to west. When asked to arrange photographs in temporal order, Kuuk Thayorre speakers place the cards in line from east to west; English speakers, not surprisingly, will place the cards in order from left to right, while possessing none of the unique spacial perceptive abilities of the Kuuk Thayorre speakers.

Furthermore, her research revealed that the choice of conceptual metaphors and idioms - especially temporal idioms - alters a speaker's perception of the passing of time. English speakers, who tend to use idioms of length to speak about the passage of time, actually perceive the passage of time differently when thinking about distances than when not thinking about distances, while Spanish speakers, who tend to think of time in terms of quantity or size, perceive the passage of time as longer when thinking about quantity and size.

These differences in language - and the resulting differences in how we actually perceive the world - go on and on. Speakers of languages with a greater number and variety of words for color are actually better able to distinguish different shades of colors; the different genders of words in different languages results in differences in speakers' perceptions of those objects; the same object will be described by vastly different terms in different languages; and so forth. What is, in a sense, another important distinction is that these differences in perception will carry over even if a speaker is speaking in a different language: that is, a native Spanish speaker speaking English and a native German speaker speaking English will use an entirely different English vocabulary - and, sometimes, even contradictory vocabulary - to describe the same object based upon the gender biases of their native language.

These findings all serve to support the conclusion that language is not merely derivative in nature: that, rather than our utterances being simply socially determined representatives of otherwise uniform mental concepts, the particular characteristics of our language serves to inform and determine the content of our mental concepts. Of course, this does not mean that our concepts are wholly products of language - we know that animals without complex languages, such as monkeys, are able to perform tasks that demonstrate the use of mental concepts, including number. However, in studies of various people groups in South America who lack numeral language, researchers have discovered that the lack of numbers in their spoken language correlates to numerical imprecision: that is, when asked to do rudimentary numeric exercises such as identifying how many of something there were or in the performance of basic arithmetic, these people groups were consistently unable to provide exact numbers, even if their estimates demonstrated an ability to handle numerical concepts in a rough or ready way. This latter experiment suggests that even if language does not play the sole role in shaping our mental concepts, it does play a role in refining those concepts; when combined with the earlier experiments, I believe it is possible to see that the content and precision of our mental concepts is not indifferent to the utterances used to describe them.

If, then, the content and precision of mental concepts is partially derived from language, we have reason to at least refine the realist notion that utterances are merely social constructs depicting otherwise uniform, universal, or eternal concepts. It is noteworthy that nominalism would not suffer the same weakness from this finding: indeed, the nominalist account of utterances (or names) as sets of similar phenomena described under common words can very readily accept that the act of naming is itself a variable determining the content and precision of the mental concepts which we name. On a broader scope, this also suggests that attempts at formulating universal definitions or universal systems - that is, any attempt to describe a set of universal human concepts - must account for the linguistically (and, we might add, culturally, socially, and historically) conditioned nature of these concepts.