Monday, December 26, 2011

In which I break my long silence about free will

Is there anything practical at all about free will? Perhaps I shouldn't worry about practicality; since the entire question is rather esoteric, its discussion is an exercise in theory. Yet, we all agree, no matter our philosophic prejudices and tastes, that the psychological phenomenon of choice exists and plays an important role in our experience of existence. We feel as though we choose - moreover, we really do choose. Our choices are valid and real, and are no less or more authentic if determinism is true than if it is false. Few - if any - have, while wrestling over a particularly difficult choice, ever solved the problem by appealing to free will or admitting determinism, The resolution of such quandaries never rests in our philosophical framework of choice. On the contrary, such a tangent in our deliberation would represent a paralysis, a fruitless meta-thinking or meta-deliberation that, even if it "answers" the age old question, "are my choices predetermined by my history, and thus beyond my ultimate control" will nevertheless bring one no closer to answering the question, "which college should I attend?" What, then, is the practical value, if any, of the question of free will?

I have stumbled across this question in my own quest to defend free will from its detractors. I have since been brought to a standstill, forced by the difficulties of the entire undertaking to remain mute. Perhaps the best defense, maybe the only defense, which free will still has is the retreat into mystery. I do not want to treat that defense lightly, although I recognize the skepticism that the word "mystery" might provoke. Mystery can be many things, including a charlatan's cloak, a puff of smoke to distract and obfuscate the awful emptiness of a concept. Perhaps it might even be said that the strength of the mystery is inversely proportional to the doubtfulness of the concept: the more empty and absent the god, the more that absence must be veiled, covered, and hidden in ritual- the more, in the end, it must be spoken about. We speak least about what is most evident, and words must fill in the gaps of uncertainties. Yet there can be something genuine and sincere about mystery, especially in doubtful matters; in a real sense, such matters do remain secret to us, at least as dignified unknowns at which it would be unwise to scoff without the most powerful of evidence.

Yet this defense - mystery - serves only to undermine the great difficulty of the position. At last, free will seems to be only a great, reverenced, venerable idea - a great idea, to be sure, and one that has animated much that is good in the human race - but little more. For an idea to be venerable is not for it to be true, and if it is treated as true only for respectfulness sake, it is perhaps time to reevaluate its place. And since practical matters are often easier to judge than the ethereal definitions and syllogisms of theory, perhaps it is best to look at the question of free will's practical place.

Most of our choices are made without any real deliberation; we act and react quite often in an automatic, unreflective way. It may be the case that these are often the healthiest choices. But those choices about which we deliberate, worry, and generally wring our hands, and about which the outcome of our deliberation is uncertain, are precisely those in which the psychological phenomenon of choice is most evident. At these times, it seems very possible that any of a number of futures are available, that we are really in command of a fate over which our will is a free master, that at the very least our part in the story is yet to be written and is awaiting our final "fiat." Of course, this is only the most hopeful and positive psychology of choice. We may just as well be paralyzed by the burden of choice; like Hamlet, our thoughts may lose the name of action. The uncertainty can puzzle the will. But in either of these cases, the practical psychology still affirms that we have freedom in the choice, even if that freedom is paradoxically the source of our inaction. Hamlet is not paralyzed by a lack of possible choices, but from the multiplicity of variables he must weigh: the veracity of the ghost, his mother's culpability, the eternal penalty of suicide.

In any case, this psychology of free will is quite simple, even if it gives birth circumstantially to quite complicated situations and decisions: we can act in any number of ways, the way we act is determined primarily by our self, and we could really have chosen to act other than we did. We often feel this way, although it further complicates the matter that we often feel otherwise: as when we feel pushed by outside forces, and so forth. And, as a matter of practice, we make these choices in isolation from our philosophical theories of the will.

It is precisely this isolation of our practical choices and the psychological phenomenon of free will from our philosophical theories of the will that brings to light the practical irrelevance of our theories. We do not need them to choose; we use them to explain choice within a broader philosophical system. I am certainly not arguing that these theories have no further implication beyond themselves, and probably the most obvious are moral and theological in nature. But as far as choice-making itself, it is a stretch to imagine how these theories could ever be relevant to our deliberations.

This lack of relevance means that, for the purposes of practical deliberation, the psychological phenomena of will and choice are of primary importance: that is, these phenomena actually do impact our deliberation. The feeling of being in control, of being able to make a choice, is far more important to our making a choice than whether that choice is determined or free. It is itself an important variable, so much so that it could be called part of our faculty of being able to choose. We have a consciousness, and whatever its constituents (be it reducible to purely material components, or to some spiritual or incorporeal force or soul, or to some synthesis of both) that consciousness will more than likely come up against some existential problem or question that demands its deliberation, choice, and action. Moreover, to do this, it will often engage in a number of activities associated with choosing: cost-benefit analysis, appeal to philosophical or religious principles, weighing duties, identifying rewards, and so forth. All these phenomena take on significance within a practical assumption that as an agent I can choose to act one way or another. This assumption is different in content and kind from the theoretical assumption that I can indeed choose different outcomes from the same causal history, because it makes no claims regarding the nature of choice itself beyond my ability to make them. Furthermore, this assumption brings with it only a validation of the psychological phenomena of choice, which is necessary for choice itself and says nothing about any metaphysical realities or truths. It is affirming the appearances for appearances' sake, in the end perhaps constituting nothing more than the statement "I can choose."

But this lack of relevance has an even more important implication: without a practical tie to our actual deliberations (whatever those mechanisms might be), the theories also are unfalsifiable. The primary difference between determinism and free will hinges on the question of whether an identical causal history can given birth to different results, all at the behest of the will. But to test this would require the impossible: it would require the same will to somehow inhabit the same causal history twice to see if a different outcome were possible.

So, what role can an unfalsifiable theory with no practical application play in choice? Clearly, none, except in the accidental sense that one may choose to beat someone up over their view of free will or determinism (or that theological determinism, predestination). Why, then, have we come to believe so strongly in the importance of these doctrines?

I have reached a certain point of agnosticism over this question, and certainly over the grand question of free will itself. My present hypothesis is simply this: for some reason or conglomerate of reasons, we have come to convince ourselves that the validity or authenticity of our choices is dependent upon their status as "free" choices, where "free" is very specifically defined as "having been able to be otherwise even under the same causal history." There is perhaps something a little Kantian about this, for sure: the notion that freedom is synonymous with a kind of autonomy. But even Kantian autonomy aside, free will advocates have always had to search for some space, some breathing room in causality, in which the will may play its special role. There is always some analogue to the Lucretian "swerve," the seemingly ad hoc explanation that atoms merely move of their own accord at times, in any free will interpretation of reality; in some cases, only an appeal to God Himself is sufficient to procure this breathing room.

Another hypothesis (or perhaps a correspondent hypothesis to the above) is that the psychological phenomena came to be enshrined; that, through whatever process, the feeling of choice evolved into an assumption of control, even absolute control, interpreted as the ability to really make one's future. Undoubtedly this would be possible in the above scenario: the need for absolute control (and absolute authority) led us to assume a metaphysical depth to a psychological phenomenon.

Yet both these exaggerations seem in my mind to underrate the real role of the psychology of choice. They are searches for something far behind the choice, some metaphysical "I" laying beyond the choosing and which controls the choice. This "I" must have absolute control and be to some real degree unhindered by all the material and physiological concerns that make up the apparent "me," my body, mind - even, perhaps, my soul, for if a soul exists it too would be subject to its own spiritual history, however that may be imagined. But this extra "I" is a phantom, an unnecessary hypothesis that fails to recognize the identity of the "I" with my body, mind, and soul. There is a great degree to which I am my appearances; it is only the myth of dualism that seeks to separate my apparent self from some real "I." If this myth is abandoned, it becomes clear that the psychological phenomena of choice has its own authenticity apart from some theoretical free agent behind my choosing, because that phenomena is itself inseparable from me. In other words, the psychological phenomenon of choice stands on its own as a guarantee of the validity and authenticity of my choices; I am myself, embodied, a body even if I believe in a soul, and I exist in a particular environment with a history that is essential - not accidental - to who I am. I cannot reject that history. That history is part of my choices.

I should be careful to note that this is neither a wholesale rejection of what has been called "the theory of freewill" nor at all a wholesale embracing of everything called "determinism," though I will be the first to say that it has far more in common with the latter than the former. I suppose in a way it is an attempt to see beyond what I have come to see as an increasingly irrelevant dichotomy that has become quite puzzling to me. As far as theory goes, I am quite content - for the moment - to accept to mystery of the metaphysical groundwork of our choices, meaning by "mystery" to signify the ultimate hidden "truth" behind whether my choices might have been different. What I need for now is a working theory, and accepting the psychological feeling and phenomena of choice at face value - that is, to accept it both as real and as what it is, a feeling and a phenomena that may or may not betoken grander metaphysical truths - seems to fit the bill for now.

Friday, September 30, 2011

A Defense of Free Will, Part 3

Causation and determination are closely related but distinct concepts. I will not pretend that defining these concepts is not itself problematic and even controversial. Nevertheless, causality is relational in nature: the relation of cause to effect involves the cause being in some way prior to the effect and either partially or wholly responsible for the effect. Determination is generally less focused upon the relation of cause and effect as entities as much as it is focused on the relation of particular qualities of the cause and dependent qualities of the effect. Or, in other words, X causes Y tells me that X is prior to Y and is either partially or wholly responsible for Y; thus, also, Y is contingent upon X, either in whole or in part. If X is a necessary cause of Y, I can state unambiguously that if Y were not, X would not be. If I said, on the other hand, X determines Y, I would be stating that some set of Y's qualities are "fixed" by X; or, again, that Y by virtue of its causal relationship to X also has a similar but derivative causal relationship to X's qualities. I would argue that this distinction is uncontroversial, although I understand if some of my readers would argue that it is nevertheless completely artificial.

Yet another way to discuss "determination" is to link it to the concept of predictability. by predictability, I mean that before X's causal interaction with Y, it is possible to accurately know how all the relevant qualities of Y will be changed before the interaction takes place. An interaction with an unpredictable outcome would not be a determining interaction, because some of the qualities of Y after the interaction cannot be ascertained from a consideration of X. Now an interaction can be unpredictable in three ways: accidentally, partially, or arbitrarily. An accidentally unpredictable interaction is one that is not unpredictable in itself but is rendered unpredictable either due to the impossibility of ascertaining all relevant information needed to make a prediction or because the laws by which the interaction occurs are unknown. It is needless to say that free will cannot be established on the ground of accidental unpredictability. Nor can it be ascertained on the grounds of arbitrary unpredictability, meaning that there is no connection whatsoever between the initial conditions and the conditions after the interaction. Because I have defined free will as requiring an element of control, I cannot be satisfied by simply saying that the will arbitrarily acts, as this means there is actually randomization rather than responsible control. However, an event may be partially unpredictable if there are intelligible connections between the circumstances prior to the causal interaction and the effect of the interaction that are simply only observable after the event; that is, if when agent Q in situation R decides to perform action X, the relationship between R and X is intelligible but could not have been conclusively predicted before the action actually took place.

In order to bring these distinctions into what I hope might be a more sympathetic light, I would ask that one consider for a moment what a faculty like free will, if it could exist, would be. Clearly, it is considered a faculty of choice with regards to action: that is, my free will would have the power to determine myself with respect to some action or inaction. I would strongly disagree, however, with any attempt to separate my "self" from my "will" in an artificial way that makes the real "me" into some agent operating behind my will. Clearly, such a model would degenerate into an infinite regress of choosing. The real "me" would have to have some faculty of choice by which I choose what I would will, and so forth. My will is part of my self. Another important distinction I would like to make is to point out that my will does not operate in autonomous seclusion from the rest of me, including my intellect.

In any case, this faculty would clearly not be uncaused; whatever forces are responsible for my formation as a mature rational agent are also responsible for the formation and development of my free will as a faculty. But I would argue that because one of the requisite qualities for a free will is that it be able to determine myself with respect to some action or inaction, it is not necessary to believe that my free will is determined by its causes with respect to making that determination or choice. The free will would have to have this power in order to operate as it does. It would have to be the case that my will developed as precisely the sort of thing that has the power to determine itself with respect to actions and inaction.

There are three models I would put forward for discussing free will in the way I have outlined above. These are not three different models but rather three views of the same model, through which I hope to clearly describe the features of a free will which makes partially predictable choices. Underlying all of them is the concept that the will is incorporated into our rationality in such a way that it is not determined by its causal history, though it is limited by that history in certain ways which are actually necessary for free choice.

The first model is the causal gate model, in which the will is understood as being presented with a multiplicity of potential causal histories for its future actions. In short, as rational beings we are presented with the possibility of acting in response to different aspects of our own causal history and present circumstances.

The second model is the teleological model, in which the will is provided with the possibility of choosing among different proximate ends.

The third model is the indeterminism of thought model, in which the will's reciprocal control over our intellectual processes provides for the possibility of partially unpredictable, non-arbitrary judgment with regards to future action.

In the next part, I hope to discuss the first of these models: free will as the causal gate.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Defense of Free Will, Part 2

So what are we left with by which to defend freedom from the taciturn determinist's powerful argument? First, we need to look at how the argument works.

Let us assume some moral agent, Q. We want to say that Q is free if Q can cause some action X in a way determined either solely or primarily due to Q, and if Q could have willed to act otherwise. Q is not its own cause; it cannot be. Nothing is the cause of itself. So, Q was caused by some cause or set of causes, which we will can label P. P caused Q; and now Q exists in some determinate way because of P, a way which makes P the sort of thing that would do X rather than not X. Now Q performs some action, X. It is certainly true that Q causes X, but because Q's nature is determined by P, it is also true that action X proceeds from a state of reality which Q did not create nor bears any responsibility for. It cannot, then, be the case that Q causing X is due primarily to Q's will; Q may genuinely will X, but Q genuinely wills X because P caused and determined Q to be such an such a thing that would do X rather than not X. Furthermore, because Q is such a thing that would do X rather than not X, it is also not the case that Q is really free to have acted otherwise.

I contend that the entirety of the argument rests on the notion of causal determination, or the idea that causation always determines the nature of the thing caused. Because P caused Q, P also determined Q with respect to all its properties, including whether it is the sort of thing that would do X rather than not X. Now, practically speaking, it seems like a no brainer to state that whatever causes a thing will also determine all of that thing's relevant qualities; for example, if one cue ball strikes another and causes it to go off in some direction, it also determines the direction that other ball will go. This is true universally, it seems, and in such a way that the argument above basically takes it for granted that P not only caused but also determined Q, and furthermore that this determination includes P's being the sort of thing that would do X rather than not X. But the entire point of free will is that causation does not always mean determination - that is, that some faculty called free will involved with Q choosing X is not determined by P, but is rather self-determined (which is something distinct from being self-caused). In other words, the argument sidesteps the traditional understanding of free will by positing that because P caused Q, it also determined that Q would do X. Because this is precisely what free will theory posits, namely, that P does not necessarily determine that Q will do X, there seems that free will has a line of response: putting forward a sensible theory explaining how a faculty can be self-determining.

Free will theory must assume (as it traditionally has) that the will is self-determining, which is different from it being its own cause. It is true that the will is not its own cause: like the rest of the human person, it is the product of a vast number of different causal factors. But even though these causes might provide limitations to the will (we cannot will literally whatever we want, which is something I will discuss later), I do not think it is necessary to say that these causes determine the will.

But how can this be, especially considering our common experience of determining causality? It may be helpful to note that my example of determining causation involves physical mechanics: one something bouncing off another. In a strictly materialist world, all interactions and entities whatsoever are ultimately reducible to similar events, in which there can be no intelligible doubt that causation also means determination. I think it is clear that a determinist will win the an argument as long as materialism is a unquestioned assumption. But I will not allow it to go unquestioned: why must we believe that all the relevant entities or qualities by which Q choose to do X are strictly material? There is a rich philosophical, not even to mention theological, intellectual history for the non-materiality of some aspects of the human person. For the rest of my argument, then, I will make a counter-assumption to materialism: Q possesses a faculty, namely, free will, which is incorporeal in nature.

In discussing the assumption that we have some incorporeal component to our nature, I would like to strongly resist what I believe are easy fallacies. First, I am not proposing that my "real" self is something incorporeal, and that my body is therefore merely a shell or empty framework in which the real me dwells and which is under my control. If someone were to kick my leg, they would be kicking me, not merely my apparent outer form. I also want to resist the idea that the will, or any aspect, needs to be "entirely incorporeal." These two ideas both present dualities, in which incorporeal and corporeal are separate or even opposed realities. Rather, I mean to say that I am a union of incorporeal and corporeal realities; one can effect the other, they are intertwined and even, to some degree, inseparable. At the very least, to attempt to talk of the "soul" or "mind" without reference to the body is to distort the human person.

From the idea that the will has an incorporeal nature I will make an argument that Q's free will is caused by P but not determined by P. I will discuss this argument further in the next part.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Defense of Free Will, Part 1

"No man can pull himself up by his bootstraps."

With this declaration, a particularly taciturn determinist might colloquially sum up one of the challenges to free will: at the end of the day, the cause of one's choice lies in pre-existing states over which we had no control. We were born in such a way; raised in such a way; grew in such a way; almost all without our input. By the time we are even making choices that we think are free, our initial condition has developed without our control. And if we want to preserve causation, we must believe that effects follow from their causes. I am such and such a way, most of which is and has been beyond my control. I choose what I choose because of who I am. My choices are beyond my control, except in a very limited experiential way in which it can be said that I psychologically "feel" in control when I make the choice.

If our taciturn friend wanted, he could even go farther, and laud this subjective feeling. Of course, it is psychologically important to feel like one is in control. We wrestle with decisions, boldly or timidly making our wills into reality, reacting with all the confidence or temerity of a conscious, sentient agent. This is all well; we need this. These feelings, he might go on, are just another part of our nature, another aspect of our existence over which we have little to no responsibility and which nevertheless subsequently comes to rule our thoughts and actions.

Before I go on to discuss a reply to this argument, let me only point out that it is a bold philosophical, and only philosophical, claim. Empirical science cannot come to the rescue; it can only be an aide, bringing us some bits and pieces about a mind whose secrets still are shrouded in mystery. It is a question beyond the competency of its methodology; quite frankly, it is an unfalsifiable story. I could never reply to my determinist friend, as he could never reply to me, that if only we set up the right experiment we could clear the whole issue up. The question lying at the heart of the matter is really, given any situation in which a sufficiently aware rational creature did one thing, was it really and truly a possibility that he could have not done it? No experiment can ever bring back a past moment and make it present. I cannot bring back this evening's dinner to see if I really could have chosen not to put dressing on my salad, and no amount of controlled experiments regarding tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow's dinners will bring me any closer to a conclusion on the matter.

Nor can sentiment be our guide. Clearly, we do experience moments of subjective freedom just as we experience moments of subjective encagement. It is just as likely that I might feel that I have a hundred choices as that I might feel I cannot do anything differently. And either feeling may be experienced as positive: it is, in fact, often more relieving to experience the continuity and safety of routine and habit, engrained qualities which can render action into something nearly mechanical. Sometimes the very feeling of choice can be painful, as though the specter of moral responsibility has raised itself to weigh us down with concepts like duty, guilt, good, and evil. We can feel enslaved by choice, paralyzed in our ability to act by the sheer number of apparent possibilities, like the man who starved to death because the menu had too many excellent dishes.

There is a little that can be said for the concept of moral responsibility on the whole, but not enough to constitute an argument for either side: clearly, a society with some concept of justice, duty, and morality would want to preserve some notion of subjective moral freedom and a corresponding responsibility. Perhaps the determinist is right, and Harry sawed off Harriet's arm because of a conglomeration of pre-existing causes over which he had no control. It's not his "fault" in a deep moral sense. It's only his fault in the sense that he did it, not in the sense that he had any other choice he could truly have made. And yet - and here is the rub - we do, in fact, want to maintain that he chose to do it, is responsible for it, and ought to have some form of justice applied to remedy the situation. Here, I think it is safe to say that our ingrained tendency towards freedom is made most manifest: we really do want to maintain a sense that one should and can choose the right thing. We really hope that our neighbor chooses to not murder us in our sleep, as we really do expect that fellow drivers choose to obey traffic laws. "You shouldn't have done that" has the subtext "You could have not done that." We hope to rehabilitate the guilty, to aid them through therapeutic or other means so that they will make better choices in the future. All of this must maintain the vocabulary and concepts of freedom even if the overarching theory of human freedom were eliminated.

I do want to be somewhat clear about what I mean when I say "free will" or "freely chosen act," or anything of the sort. I think that I would be satisfied with a definition of freedom which simply states that I am either the sole or primary determining factor in a free act, and I could have acted otherwise. I do not think it is necessary or even wise to assert that I must be the sole determiner of my actions. I think it safe to acknowledge that even in a free act there are forces other than my will at work. But I do think it is necessary that I am the primary or ultimate determiner of my actions, in the sense that I act that way only because I willed to act that way and I would not have acted that way if I had not willed to act that way. If, on the other hand, I acted in some way but didn't really will it (as if, for example, someone grabbed my hand and used it to slap my wife, or if I was so drunk or drugged that I was unaware of my own actions) or if I acted in some way that I did will but not because I willed it (as if, for example, I wanted to ask a girl out, didn't have the courage to, got drunk, then in my stupor asked her out), I wouldn't call those acts "free." Similarly, especially to the latter case, if I willed to act in some way, X, and did in fact act that way, but the reason I acted was not because I will to act in that way but rather was because forces beyond my control determined that I should act in that way, I would not be free. Moreover, if I never had any real ability to will something other than I did, then I really would not be free. The crux of free will, then, is twofold: primacy of control, in the sense that I act the way I will because I will it, and the possibility of contrary action, in the sense that I really could have willed to act otherwise, and would in that case have acted otherwise because I willed to act otherwise.

I present this as merely a prologue; in my next part, I will more closely examine the argument against free will.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Perception and Three Ways of Seeing

There is something suspicious about the way the word "viewpoint" is used these days. It has become something of an ace in the hole, a final redoubt unassailable by common sense or evidence. When someone in a conversation retreats to the phrase, "from my point of view," they more often than not are evacuating the intellectual battlefield in favor of their own private sanctum. From the privileged, unique, and irreducibly private vantage of his point of view, a particularly determined interlocutor can withstand any reason, for he has abandoned "reason" as something common to all men. The man whose beliefs are most safe from change is often the madman.

This is particularly distressing because, like most errors, it is the exaggeration of a truth. In the dedicatory letter of Machiavelli's The Prince, he writes,

"For just as those who sketch landscapes place themselves down in the plain to consider the nature of mountains and high places to consider the nature of low places place themselves high atop mountains, similarly, to know well the nature of peoples one needs to be a prince, and to know well the nature of princes one needs to be of the people."

We may raise an eyebrow about Machiavelli's motives in this observation and question if he might not be eyeing the princes with more than an artist's interest, but the analogy rings quite true: different persons are often possessed with different perspectives on the world. There is a genuine notion of "viewpoint," or, to distance myself a little from a loaded word, of "a way of seeing," that does not abandon the need for intersubjectivity and a belief in some shared, common, objective reality. Rather, it is a way of discussing perception, which is a participatory act in which the perceiver's unique subjectivity contacts with the reality of the thing perceived in order to form a phenomenon.

First allow me to discuss a participatory theory of perception, because my three ways of seeing depend on it. It draws heavily from a work by Owen Barfield called Saving the Appearances, as well as a number of other sources. Barfield writes:

"Participation is the extra-sensory relation between man and the phenomena."

Perception is not simply the physical interaction of my biological senses with the outside world, because this raw sensory information does not constitute a world of distinct intelligible phenomena. I will not say "objects" here, although the two words are related, because by "phenomenon" I simply mean an intelligible representation, while "object" implies an actual external entity. It is well known that the process of developing a sense of perceiving distinct and unique phenomena requires time, even for a mature mind. There are accounts of individuals blind from birth or quite young ages receiving sight through various visual prosthetics, who even when presented with sensory information took long periods of time to develop a sense of seeing distinct phenomena. Rather than mere sense data, perception involves more or less complex interpretations of visual data, seeing trees rather than mere swaths of green and umber, identifying people and places. As such, it is always at least partially active, requiring the mind to use its past experience and knowledge to aid (usually quite unconsciously) in deciphering the received sensation. This act is participation, as it involves the mind bringing itself into contact with the outside world as perceived through the senses and thus encountering the phenomena.

It is thus, as Barfield noted, that participation is extra-sensory. Thus it is also the case that it can never be purely objective, in the sense of without reference to the physical and mental state of the subject. This does not mean it is arbitrary: on the whole, we have good reason to believe that our senses do accurately report information about reality. This is primarily due not only to the continuity of our experiences, since we are usually able to tell when something is wrong with our perception if it involves a distinct discontinuity with previous perceptions, and more poignantly due to intersubjectivity. We are not solitary creatures, and our interaction with other perceivers provides us with a community against which to evaluate the validity of our own perceptions. If I am the only man in a room of twenty who sees pink elephants flying about, I not only should recognize this as in distinct discord with all I know about elephants, but I should also take note that no one else sees them and attribute it not to external reality but rather to the gin and tonics I have been downing. Whether I am capable of doing this analysis at the time is another story altogether.

On the whole, we also tend to recognize phenomena as objects, distinct entities inhabiting a world external to ourselves about which we can gain at least partial knowledge. It is important, however, not to engage in what Barfield calls idolatry: that is, mindlessly assigning this objective status to the phenomena themselves. This is perhaps one of the most tempting fallacies that has followed in the footsteps of the scientific revolution. Science has made a methodology of the senses, systematically setting mathematical and logical rules about how to interpret our sense data in a way that maximizes our ability to verify or discredit our notions about the objects in the universe. Because of its accuracy, it is easy to forget that the phenomena are still participatory: we very easily forget that it is still an act of interpretation. This can be somewhat ameliorated by simply considering a hypothetical life form with a vastly different set of sensory organs. Imagine that such a being, instead of our senses, was equipped with a type of auditory sonar, similar to a bat, and an organ that could detect X-rays. The phenomena which would populate that creature's perceived world would be quite different from the phenomena of our own perceived world, even though the underlying objects behind the representations were identical. Phenomena must be understood as representation and icon.

We commonly look at the world in a myriad of different ways, according to the needs or whims of the moment, and the phenomena in which we participate can take on vastly different meanings or even be interpreted in different ways. I would distinguish three primary ways of seeing, which I hope you will accept not as set in stone, but as a tentative sketch of the different ways we commonly perceive the world. It is important to remember how complex we are, in such a way that even stubborn, single minded people are usually not so because they are simple. It is often the most complicated of people who become singularly obsessed. Also, I am not pretending that at any given time we are simply and only engaging in one or another of these three ways, or that the three ways are dichotomous, but it does seem equally true that we form habits, and that these intellectual habits can fixate us in one of these ways of seeing.

Another important caveat: I will use the phrase "gives meaning" or something similar to this several times. It is important to realize that the mind is both passive and active. In the great debate over the growing constructivist epistemology, in which all meaning is a creation of an active mind, against the belief that meaning is a fundamental given which is received passively, it is forgotten that the truth can be a mean between two extremes. Participation is passive and active. It is not only the passive reception of sense data through various physical media, but the active interpretation or resolution of that data into representative phenomena.

The first I call "the way of private mythology." It is perhaps the most closely associated with the word "viewpoint" as I first described it. One's private mythology is comprised of a complicated and heavily colored amalgam of experiences, creativity, thoughts, whims, vices, virtues, hopes, aspirations, and dreams. However, it tends to distill these complicated emotions, thoughts, and relationships into relatively simple narratives. It can encompass some forms of belief. Our private mythology is both the summation of our experiences viewed almost existentially, as well as individual moment, events, and thoughts that are highly meaningful to ourselves but only tangentially or accidentally meaningful to others. This way of seeing is behind the modern concept of "experience," which is a more or less contrived attempt of actively forming or reforming one's private mythology.

A few explanations. By "private," I do not mean that the contents of this mythology and the way in which it colors or fills the world of phenomena with meaning are completely opaque to others. Its content can be communicated, and it often is. For example, Plato's Republic occupies a peculiar and special place in my personal mythology, because I believe it, specifically the allegory of the cave, was the reason I abandoned my initial plans to become a screenwriter and instead pursued philosophy. Now private mythology always contains a bit of what postmodernists call "constructivist" epistemology. It's not exactly true that Plato's Republic was the reason, even though I often find myself attributing almost everything to it as a kind of simple and powerful way of summing up why I switched to philosophy. If someone were to ask me why I chose philosophy (and someone has), I would simply use this narrative: I changed because of the allegory of the cave. There is a way in which it encompasses a much longer, more complicated, and more boring narrative. Private mythology is life with the boring parts cut out, and in that way it shares much with art as it is currently understood.

There is a danger to private mythology. It can tend toward the megalomaniacal and the delusional. It is prone to error and exaggeration. A private representation may be the result of a simple mistake: everyone else sees a man running across the beach, but I turn and in that moment I believe it is a motorboat speeding past in the water. I may or may not be corrected, but if I am to be corrected I must always be open to the corrective influence of my community.

If you really want to get a feel for what I mean by private mythology at its best, watch Big Fish.

Which brings me to the second way, "the way of faith." By faith here I do not necessarily mean religious faith, but rather simply believing or trusting in another's understanding or account of the world. While our private mythology can be, in the worst of times, insular and even delusional, the way of faith opens us to community and the correction of intersubjectivity. There are countless narratives which we accept from others and participate in, and these narratives inform a common set of phenomena which we share with others. It is very passive, focusing on received truth and meaning. It is not, for that reason, in any way inferior, because it is only through this way of faith that we can be assured of the validity of our own perceptions.

This does not mean that the way of faith is necessarily always accurate. Communities can be wrong, and a shared delusion does not become less delusional because it is shared. But it does mean that the stories and meanings which we receive from others cannot be discarded for the simple reason that it is received.

In other words, the way of faith is a way of trust, of accepting and receiving meaning from others on the basis of their authority rather than on the basis of demonstrable evidence. Much has been said on this matter, not all of it flattering. But I think it is only fair to say that this is the primary way in which most of us see the world. We must, by practical necessity, go about our day accepting and believing a great many things about the world for which we do not possess a great deal or any demonstrable evidence. This is not credulity unless it is taken to an extreme; that is, if the way of faith becomes the sole mode of perception. But the greatest champions of religious faith have been the ones who proclaim that faith seeks understanding: that faith is not content with mere opinion but struggles to perceive the world anew and find evidence for the community's narrative.

As for Faith proper, in the Catholic sense, this is clearly the passing on of a narrative, or, as we believe, the Narrative. It is a gift received from God, guarded by a community, and to which we can appeal as a corrective to our own perceptions. There are, of course, many who do not share this narrative. I do not intend in this note to defend the Catholic faith, so I will simply add that the fact that a story cannot be demonstrably proven is not, in itself, a reason to discount it as invalid, as this would reduce almost the entirety of human history to rubbish, not to mention the news and stories that your grandpa told you. As I mentioned before, we are actually rather prone to believing stories, and rightfully so, because a political animal relies on trust to form the glue that holds society together. That we moderns have developed an immediate mistrust of any narrative that involves something not readily demonstrable by science is both a mixed blessing at best, and is usually offset by our ironic propensity to embrace our own personal myths as "authentic." It is, at worst, simply a prejudice to assume that what is not "scientific" in the modern sense is invalid.

The "way of science" is not only modern methodological science, although this is its contemporary and most rigorous form. It is a form of perceiving the world that is concerned with categorizing phenomena, studying them, and systematically understanding their relations. It has a closer tie to the notion of scientia, a systematic knowledge. Methodological science, as the contemporary incarnation of man's attempts to rationally and circumspectively understanding himself and the universe, is particularly adept at coming to accurate conclusions about physical interactions. It does this primarily by attempting, inasmuch as possible, to remove interpretation from the process by which it discovers and predicts facts about reality. However, as I noted before, there is always a degree to which it is inescapably tied to the other ways of seeing.

For one, the way of science does not exist in a vacuum. The practice of science always occurs within the context of a community, which pursues scientific goals for the sake of extra-scientific reasons usually rooted in the common, shared narrative of the community. Secondly, although the operation of scientific methodology is relatively free of interpretation, the broader meaning and implications of its findings about phenomena and the objects that underlie them are still matters which are open to both the way of private mythology and the way of faith; that is, the stories which science tells are quite accurate but also somewhat limited. They can tell us how to do some or another physical act, but not why or whether we should do it. But it also can operate as a powerful corrective to both private mythology and faith. Let us take the example of a literalist interpretation of Genesis, which maintains that the earth was created some ten thousand or so years ago in a period of six, successive, twenty-four hour periods. Although I received this narrative in my youth, I have since encountered plenty of scientific evidence that this is not the case.

But this brings up another point about science, which is that to a degree it involves storytelling as well. The grand theories of science are often broad and arching stories about the way the universe is structured and interacts that are often not easily subject to immediate proof, must be proven piecemeal over a period of time and only with great labor, or still remain only the best hypothesis that fits the data (but which is not necessarily for that case true). In this way, even scientists sometimes engage in storytelling by which they interpret the meaning of the phenomena around them - although, again, even this storytelling is in a profoundly different mode, as it focuses on telling stories that best fit all available data.

These three ways of seeing must remain balanced, and they offer certain sorts of correctives to each other. They bleed into each other to some extent. Perhaps wisdom is a harmony between these three ways, so that they mutually support and balance each other. An excess of any can result in a very imbalanced mind: private mythology can lead to delusion, the way of faith can lead to credulity and superstition, and the way of science can lead to self-deceptive phenomenological idolatry and detachment from the sources of shared meaning, ethics, and so forth.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Errors Come in Pairs: Fideism and Scientism

Consider the following two propositions:

1) We know from the faith that the earth is the immobile center of the universe, unmoved, about which the universe rotates.

2) We know from science that God is an unnecessary entity; we can account for the formation of the universe and all physical phenomena without positing his existence.

As polarized as these two statements are, they represent the mirror image of fideism and scientism.

Scientism has been discussed quite well in a recent article titled "Scientism, Knowledge, and Truth," and there is not much for me to add. Suffice to say that scientism, which I have discussed on this blog before, is a peculiar habit by which some scientists and other personalities affirm the methodology and findings of modern natural science as a self-contained, universal philosophy. Science is seen, at least to some degree if not in its totality, as its own context and justification, bounded only by whatever moral and ethical concerns can be put forward by the secular state in which it is operating. The descriptions and explanations of physical phenomena put forward are posited as "cold, hard facts," indisputable statements which are meant to form the foundation of a constructivist attempt at formulating meaning, guiding politics, and informing individual lives. It is not necessarily that a proponent of scientism rejects anything not "scientific," but rather that science becomes the predominant, if not only, tool by which ideas and propositions can be validated.

The problems with this view are manifold. The most immediately apparent is that it deforms the methodology of science and ignores one of the most important aspects of that methodology: modern science can only speak on hypotheses regarding observable physical phenomena which are falsifiable either through experimentation or through the observation of a theorem's predictions. Science performs this task admirably, so much so that the beginnings of modern science shook the established order so thoroughly that one of its early proponents, Galileo, was placed on trial by the Inquisition to challenge his novel idea that the earth orbited the sun. But its power comes from the relatively narrow scope of its methodology. Science may be able to prove whether two objects of different mass fall at the same speed in a vacuum. It cannot tell us what Shakespeare meant to teach us - if anything - in "Measure for Measure." Though science can provide an indispensable service to various arts and other areas of human endeavor, it cannot take over their roles, because a great deal of meaningful human existence consists of propositions, stories, and narratives that are not falsifiable through experimentation.

Science requires a context of meaning, and that context will always consist to some degree of extra-scientific assumptions drawn from culture. Scientism, by rejecting this principle, not only obscures the role of science, but it also becomes a self-deceiving project which must work constantly to obscure the extra-scientific assumptions at its core.

But if scientism is the distorting of science into an all-encompassing philosophy, fideism is a mirror image error which distorts faith into something equally malformed. Fideism is the error by which the proponents of a faith (in my case, I will assume Catholicism) construe that faith (at least, faith as they understand it) is an all-encompassing and complete, incorrigible body of knowledge that supersedes all findings of reason. The temptation to fideism and the temptation towards scientism are both ultimately a desire for a complete, circumscriptive comprehension of all reality under a single unimpeachable system.

Fideism is dangerous to true faith because, as Catholics understand, our understanding of the faith is always subject to growth. While the core and fundamentals of faith have been universally present throughout the history of the Church, it is of no doubt that our understanding of those fundamentals have undergone a kind of evolution, in which principles once obscure or uncertain are gradually brought to more and more certain light. In some cases, especially in the case most relevant to this particular point, the inquisition of Galileo, the touchstone for a re-examination of a then contemporary interpretation of the faith - an interpretation that required a painfully literalist hermeneutic - was actually the findings of science. While it is clear that science and faith have separate "zones of competency," it is also the case that both sides have at times stepped beyond their own competency. Faith, the body of revealed truth given by Christ and handed down under the teaching authority of the Church, represents the knowledge of God, man, and creation necessary for salvation. It does not, then, necessary to believe that it means to teach us about the physical structure of the cosmos or the presence of some preferred frame of reference.

What is needed, then, is a complementary view of faith and science which understands their unique competencies as mutually correcting. Faith, as an integral part of the culture in which science operates, is also an indispensable part of the context for the findings of science. While it is certainly true that science can operate without theistic or other religious assumptions - and, in fact, there is a real sense in which it must operate without these assumptions in order to fulfill the requirements of its own methodology - it is also true that the meaning of these conclusions are not self-evident from the empirical method but must be interpreted with the guide of culture and extra-scientific narratives. Similarly, science's power to teach us about the physical structure and history of the cosmos offers faith a correction to overly literalist interpretations of scriptures, as well as providing insight into the human person as a body. These insights are necessarily of interest to the faith, which should always be watchful lest we condemn the next Galileo without first considering the possibility that we have misunderstood the gift which Christ has given us.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Rawls, Augustine, and Liberal Democracy

For many years I have been an armchair critic of liberal democracy, the sort of ironic figure who mused in conversation and internet forums about the benefits of a Platonic aristocracy or a wistful longing for a romanticized version of Christendom. Rawls was a public enemy; and even though his Theory of Justice is only a single, albeit well-known, formulation of a political philosophy of justice in a liberal democratic society, I took it and still take it as representative of the larger body of thought on the subject. I still remember a doodle I made during one of Dr. Robert Baird's philosophy lectures. Satan, suspended halfway in the ice of frozen Cocytus, chewed on my own personal unholy trinity, including Rawls.

Why would I have sentenced Rawls to such a fate? At the time, the faults and errors in his philosophy seemed overwhelmingly obvious. He seemed to think that one could come up with a theory of what's right without considering what's good; or rather, and more damningly, that one could run a state without any conception of the highest good whatsoever. Moreover, what he describes as the original position has always seemed to me an odd condition for determining anything, much less a system of justice. The veil of ignorance is a bit like the curtain hiding the Wizard of Oz; except instead of a somewhat good-natured Nebraska con-artist handing out fake diplomas and phony medals, the man behind the curtain is Rawls himself, handing out a very select set of facts for his amnesiac quorum and subsequently telling them what they should make of those facts. In the end, Rawls seems to be pulling the wool over the reader's eyes.

There is little question in my mind that these criticisms remain more or less valid. But most importantly, the ahistorical character of his treatment of liberal democracy is in many ways the source of the other errors, and an examination of history really does provide a framework for understanding liberal democracy not as a substanceless, empty procedural shell, but as a philosophy drawn from a substantial heritage. There is more to liberal democracy than once appeared, and it may be that it was Rawls' own veil of ignorance that had blinded me.

Liberal democracy, even in its purely secular and even atheistic forms, has its origins in Christian thought. In fact, liberal democracy is an elegant attempt to solve the problem of government put forward by Augustine:

“But a household of human beings whose life is not based on faith is in pursuit of an earthly peace based on the things belonging to this temporal life, and on its advantages...So also the earthly city, whose life is not based on faith, aims at an earthly peace, and it limits the harmonious agreement of citizens concerning the giving and obeying of orders the the establishment of a kind of compromise between human wills about the things relevant to mortal life.” - City of God XIX:XVII

He goes on to discuss the irrelevance of what system is used within the temporal government to achieve this earthly peace, as long as the laws and customs of that system do not interfere with the just and proper worship of God. This passage in general is a foundation for the separation of Church and state that constitutes a marked departure from the pagan systems before it. In Rome, sacrifice to the gods was not merely a religious observance, but a civic duty. The Pontifex Maximus was a prime political and religious position, because the rise and fall of the state was seen as directly tied to the Roman religious system. Christianity cleaved in two this partnership; but like every divorce, this was a messy break, and for centuries we have seen Church and state clawing for each other's possessions. Christendom was not a unified kingdom of God on earth, but really more of a bitter fracas in which prince and pope struggled for control of the remnants of what was once a united politico-religious empire. It was through the hard lessons of these violent years, sealed by the Wars of Religion that were the birthing pains of a modern political era, that formed the impetus towards liberal democracy.

Like any attempt to paint a picture of fifteen hundred years of political development in the space of a paragraph, this is a caricature, but I believe that the generalization has a great deal of truth to it. Liberal democracy is one formulation of the post-Augustinian division of religion from polis. I would now like to turn to one particular expression of the broader notions of liberal democracy: the near-creedal statement present in our nation's own Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these rights are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Much complaint has come from certain Catholic circles about the problems with the language of rights. Yet in this statement I believe we can find both a defensible foundation for liberal democracy that avoids the charges normally leveled against Rawls' formulation while preserving the division between Church and State. By accepting a near-creedal assumption regarding unalienable human rights, the state has a set of operating principles which give its procedural justice a substantial philosophical basis without resulting in an oppressive or dominating state philosophy or cult. It may seem of small importance, but I believe the fact that the statement is “we hold” rather than “we believe” highlights the subtle difference between a government which has an operative philosophy of the highest good, and thus believes certain assertions about that good, and a government which merely holds that certain principles regarding its citizens must not be violated. In the latter case, a procedural justice, such as both Augustine and Rawls describe, is possible which allows all manners of practical political philosophy without requiring citizens and politicians to subscribe to some particular vision of the highest good.

Yet the inviolable principle of rights is necessary, and in my opinion still provides a point of frailty vis a vis liberal democracy: as long as the state is willing to hold that principle as an unqueried starting point, the system can operate more or less effectively; when this principle is absent or is subjected to state query, the system immediately begins to crumble. This is not only because such querying will almost certainly issue in a state philosophy, but because subjecting rights to state scrutiny immediately abnegates the notion that such rights are unalienable and instead suggest that they are really defined, created, and/or granted by the state. This was, of course, the source of some objection to the United States Bill of Rights. Once the routine issuance of explicit declarations of rights becomes programmatic to a liberal democracy, that government's stance on rights seems to have clearly shifted from the concept of rights as unalienable to a concept of rights defined.

Another source of contention between liberal democracies and the Church is that in attempting to maintain an earthly peace under the principle of universal unalienable rights a government may enact legislation which allows or protects certain acts which are repugnant to the laws of the Church. However, a civil law may be repugnant in several ways: it may allow someone to do something which the law of the Church forbids, or it may require someone to do something which the law of the Church forbids. I would like to briefly examine a few examples and make only preliminary comments on the way in which I believe a liberal democracy and the Church should view the example. I will start with what I hope is the least controversial.

(1): A law in which all citizens must worship the state gods. Clearly, in this example, the state has not only developed its own substantial religious philosophy, but it violates the premise of the unalienable rights of its citizens, who should be free, insofar as they do not violate earthly peace, to pursue their understanding of the highest good. The Church would be forced to disobey this law, and Christians would by conscience be forced to protest unto martyrdom. However, the Christian would not be justified in breaking other laws which do not violate their universal rights (I wrote on this topic in my note On Civil and Ecclesiastical Disobedience).

(2): A law in which a Church must turn over information to the state. This can be a grey area; insofar as the Church is an institution operating within a state's boundaries, the Church is beholden to provide certain sorts of information to the state regarding its economic activities. Since the privacy of this information is not generally a tenant of their faith, it is unnecessary and unjust to withold it. However, information given under the seal of confession is protected by the faith and the oath of the priest, and it is unjust for a state to require it. A Christian would have to protest unto death, and martyrdom for the seal of confession has happened.

(3): A law allowing homosexuals to marry. It is important to remember there is a difference between ecclesiastical marriage and civil marriage. In truth, I believe that in a liberal democracy the state in order to maintain earthly peace must understand marriage according to its citizenship; and thus it is possible that such a state would consider homosexual marriage valid according to universal rights. This cannot effect the Church; if the state attempted to force an ecclesiastical body or authority to recognize or perform such a marriage, it would be crossing the lines and interfering with its citizens' pursuit of the highest good. A Christian may and should vote his or her conscience regarding the issue, but the state's recognition of homosexual marriage should not spark civil disobedience.

In this third example, the compromise which is made by liberal democracy may be at odds with the beliefs of the Church, but it does not directly require the Church or its members to do something which is against their belief or forbid them from doing something which their beliefs require. In many ways, it shows the flexibility of liberal democracy to accommodate a diverse population in peace. And it is precisely this flexibility towards earthly peace in the world of practical politics that has of late made me look more approvingly on the philosophy of Rawls.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Ramble at the Intersection of Religion and Science

Permit me to begin with a rather odd and admittedly speculative thought that I hope is illustrative of a larger problem: what does Einstein have to say about the Second Coming of Jesus?

I have recently been making a valiant attempt to read Einstein's The Meaning of Relativity. I had heard of relativity, and believed it as the second-hand passing on of some great scientific mind. But reading the work and digesting its contents has taxed my mathematical understanding far past its breaking point and has left me wondering why I did not take more math courses in college. That notwithstanding, I believe I have grasped, in my own layman's way, the major points of departure that Einstein's theory makes from previous physics. Furthermore, the impressive nature of this portentous break struck me as being of utmost importance to Christian theology, yet strangely and probably owing to my own ignorance I have not encountered a theologian discussing the implications.

Time is by no means a Christian invention, but I believe it is safe to say that the Christian narrative revolutionized the way the western world understood time. Christianity's concept of universal history book-ended the events of space and time with definite boundaries of beginning, middle, and end. While many philosophies and religions of various mythological origin posited an eternal universe, or at least an eternal underlying prime matter, Christianity proclaimed creation ex nihilo. The predominant creation myth of the old world was that of a god forming or imposing order on an eternal chaos of warring elements; even the Genesis account has God "hovering over the face of the waters," an image of God moving on seemingly already present matter or chaos. However, Christian philosophy and theology departs from the old myth and declares that God creates something from nothing. At God's command, the universe existed, not the remaking or reforming of prior stuff but rather a completely new and strictly superfluous collection of beings. Furthermore, God punctured time, entering into it as an agent not only through miracle but most poignantly through incarnation. Finally, according to the narrative, time will end in judgment, terminating the history of the cosmos as it is presently understood.

The universe, it would seem, has an expiration date, a moment at which it will cease to be as it is. The era of time stops at judgment and is "succeeded" only by eternal endurance, a separate epoch, and an entirely new order of creation, the new heavens and the new earth. Yet while this notion of the moment of judgment and an end of the universe makes sense within a universe or Cartesian space ruled by Newtonian physics, it is somewhat more problematic within a universe governed by relativity. In order to explain allow me, complete novice in relativity, to briefly explain the difference between pre-relativity and post-relativity understandings of time (I encourage those far more advanced in this field to correct any blunders on my part).

Basically, pre-relativity, distances in space are absolute and time is an omnipresent invariable. One could imagine space like a grid or cube of evenly marked "units" of any arbitrary size. Omnipresent within the cube, perhaps even floating above it, is a clock. Anywhere in the cube, it is the time indicated on the clock. Two individuals in the cube will both understand it to be the time on this clock, even if one is trillions of trillions of miles from the other. Within the three dimensions of height, width, and breadth, one can move about in any direction, and the distance one travels will always be simply the rate of travel (measured against some arbitrary frame of reference, like the earth's crust, or theoretically the cube itself it its dimensions were known) multiplied by the time one travels. This works out fine for almost all of our activities. When we set a meeting, we reasonably expect others to arrive at the set time, and the ubiquitous nature of the modern clock doubly reinforces the intuitive belief that everyone goes through life experiencing identical intervals of time proceeding at a uniform pace. Both the pace of the clock and the dimensions of the cube of space are absolute and unvarying, which given most of our experiences seems quite right.

However, things are not so clear cut when one takes into account an experimentally verified quality of light. Let us say that I throw a ball at you while you are standing still. I manage to get the ball up to 90 mph, and as it narrowly misses your head you manage to clock it with a radar gun at 90 mph. If you chose to flee in terror at 10 mph away from me as I threw the ball at you, your radar gun would clock the ball at only 80 mph, and likewise if you ran at the same speed towards me, hoping perhaps to knock me cold, you would clock the ball at 100 mph. We expect that if one thing's frame of reference is moving relative to another, the perceived speed of the objects involved will be modified by each others' motions. Light does not do this. Regardless of the motion of an observer or frame of reference, light in a vacuum will always be observed to travel at the same speed: C, around 3 x 10^8 m/s.

Skipping over the mathematics, which I am hardly in a position to explain, the discovery of this phenomenon means the Christian must rethink his claims about events in time and space. While pre-relativity physics envisioned time and space as separate, independent, and absolute concepts, relativity merges time and space into a single inseparable entity - spacetime - and renders discussions of time meaningless without references to space and velocity. Furthermore, time can only be meaningfully discussed in reference to specific frames of references at specific velocities, and then the time relations discovered are only valid for that frame of reference. It is impossible to absolutely determine the simultaneity of two events that are separated in space, only the relative simultaneity of events given a specific frame of reference.

Because of this, a spacetime event may only propagate at the speed of light. For example, if I shine a light at Omicron Persei, it will take somewhere around one thousand years for that event to propagate to that location. The effects of my action will not be simultaneous to an observer on that planet; it will take time, from my frame of reference, for my light to reach that place.

If the second coming is a literal spacetime event, it too would propagate in this fashion. Rather than a single universal and simultaneous moment, such an event could only be understood as a conglomeration of individual moments relative to individual observers. Furthermore, the "moment" of judgment would be completely subjective, by which I mean the velocity and position of each individual's own frame of reference would determine when the second coming had occurred, a moment which would not necessarily be identical across different individuals. This would be especially compounded if man's programs of space exploration has brought him to colonize other planets, as their experience of judgment would lag behind those on earth.

This brings into question the notion that the second coming and subsequent interruption of the universe can be understood in a literal spacetime fashion; we are already, in general, prepared to admit that the Scriptural account of the beginning of the universe is mythological in nature, a narrative whose truth is not related to a literal account of actual material events in spacetime but rather to its revelation of the relationship between creatures and Creator. Is it possible, then, that the notion of the "second coming," at least as it has been popularly imagined, is also an over-literal application of scriptural narratives?

Which brings me to the real point of this note. The faith has had a somewhat spotty track record regarding science. On the one hand, it is true that science has its origins in the bosom of two of the monotheistic religions, Islam and Christianity; in fact, its origins are somewhat more Muslim than Christian, as the origins of alchemy can be traced back to Muslim natural philosophers. Christianity, though, played its part in fomenting a culture of curiosity, especially in its scholastic days during the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. As intellectuals sought more and more systematic accounts of the relations of all things, God, man, and the universe, they gradually grew more and more scientific, in the modern sense of the word. Especially in these early days, there seemed to be a consensus that all could be synthesized, a consensus fueled by a belief in a fundamental wisdom which under-girded all things theological, philosophical, and physical.

But at some point, it was perhaps inevitable that the faith and reason should come into tension. This was because certain individuals had made claims, based apparently on the contents of the Christian faith, about the structure and interactions of the physical cosmos, interactions which were becoming increasingly scrutinized by means of the nascent modern sciences. Galileo is perhaps the most sensationalized conflict between faith and science, and much has been over-exaggerated or overstated by both sides of the conflict. Those who "take sides" with the Church are often quick to point out that the Church was not so interested in squelching the theory of heliocentrism as to stop Galileo from proclaiming its absolute truth, sometimes even going so far as to claim that relativity actually justifies the Church's condemnations (of course, the same individuals who condemned Galileo's assertion that it was an absolute truth that the earth orbited the sun had no qualms arguing from Scripture the absolute truth that the sun clearly orbited the earth). Those who "side with" Galileo are quick to note the Church officials' incorrigibility in the face of demonstrable evidence, going so far as to point to the incident as one of many that demonstrate the Church's growing irrelevancy in a period of increasingly detailed and accurate models of the universe provided by the scientific method.

In these matters, I have found myself increasingly without a "team," unable to "take sides" in what has become something of a partisan brawl. Intelligent design and atheistic evolutionists, Dembski and Dawkins, and all the other antithetical movements and personalities have created a culture of polarization in this and a host of other battlegrounds in the "culture wars."

What has happened? What has driven a wedge between the claims of religion and the claims of science, and is this division absolute?

I believe the origin of the division has actually been the tendency of both sides to deny the different but complementary roles of theology, philosophy, and natural science, as well as a corresponding rejection of traditional causal categories. For a certain type of educated Christian, especially one steeped in the ancient and medieval tradition, the formal division of the natural sciences from philosophy and theology has artificial, in the pejorative sense, written all over it. Theology is the "Queen of the sciences," and while they would admit the different methodologies of theology and science they have no qualms in giving theology an authoritative position over natural science. It may be an exaggeration to say that this sort of Christian looks down his nose at the entire project of modern science and can make only a derisive snort, but there is no doubt an attitude that science has brought about only confusion, a shattering of ancient and cherished truths, and even idolatry. This is most clearly illustrated by those moments in Christian history in which a religious figure has used arguments from theology to "disprove" a hypothesis about the formation, structure, or history of the natural world.

For example, Humani Generis. In this encyclical, Pope Pius XII writes:

"When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own."

Here we have the Pope arguing, ostensibly from the doctrines of the Church, that we cannot believe in polygenism. But it further claims that we must believe that there literally was one man from whom all living men descended, and further that this man was part of a unique and solitary first couple. Some of these claims are at least contested, if not outright contradicted, by genetic evidence, which although supporting the notion of common ancestors does not support the existence of a primal, solitary couple of humans. Like the Galileo incident, this is a case in which theology and religion has assumed for itself the peculiar authority and ability to make judgments about empirically verifiable matters without reference to empirical methodology. That the Pope worded his announcement in such definitive language only exacerbates the situation for a Christian, who is now put into the position of either ignoring all contradicting scientific evidence or dissenting from a Papal Encyclical (of course, the authority of such encyclicals is itself a matter of debate, though Pius XII claims in the very same work that Catholics cannot dissent from a statement in an encyclical).

Likewise, we are familiar with the brand of atheistic scientism put forward by the likes of Hitchens and Dawkins, and the sorts of statements with Stephen Hawking has recently made. They amount to something like this: because we are rapidly approaching a point at which we may be able to explain and predict all physical events in the universe by means of a single, encompassing scientific knowledge, we may dispense entirely with the now outdated and unneeded concept of God. These sorts of philosophies make a habit of ignoring or reducing phenomena which do not fit easily within a purely materialistic framework. They are also guilty of a misuse of science, which is competent only in material-efficient causality and cannot conclude on other forms of causality. Of course, these same scientists will typically dismiss other forms of causality, either claiming them to be reducible to material-efficient causality of denying their status as causes altogether.

So it is that both sides have their own peculiar difficulties. Each has become very good at pointing out the flaws of the other; neither seems particularly aware of its own. For Christians, admission that science has demonstrated that certain things once held as a matter of faith (even if not matters of dogmatic faith) were really incorrect seems at the very least to be the beginning of a slippery slope, a form of rebellion, if not outright heresy and rejection of God. Likewise, admission that religion and faith still have access to relevant, eternal, and critically important truth unavailable to natural reason seems intellectually suspect to the agnostic or atheist, if not superstition.

What is necessary, then, is both meditation and mediation, governed by a spirit of synthesis analogous, if not necessary identical, to the spirit which permeated the best of medieval scholasticism. This requires a genuine interest in the truth of things unconcerned with saving face. Christians possess a narrative of salvation, a story whence comes all its doctrines and truths and which spans time, space, and eternity. It is thus the case that Christianity can never be unconcerned with the study of space and time by natural means, including the methodology of science. We must be willing to give way when science has adequately demonstrated that something or other is really the case when it comes to the physical structure and interactions of the universe. But, likewise, scientists must be aware of the grave limitations of their art. It is a powerful method, but its power lies in its being focused like a laser on one aspect of existence. In practice, we know that there is far more to human knowledge than what can be scientifically demonstrated. History is a field of human study which, though aided by science, is nevertheless ultimately a field of storytelling, the careful weaving together of documents, artifacts, and oral tradition into a compelling narrative that makes sense of our past. Mysteries of intelligibility and intelligence, judgments of moral and ethical issues, the rational unraveling of the invisible and incorporeal realities of mathematics and logic, and the question of why there is existence rather than non-existence all remain beyond the competence of science in itself.

So it is with the Second Coming. We know and must believe from the faith that Christ will come again "to judge the living and the dead." But we must also be careful with that belief. There are obviously absurd versions of this belief, in particular the man who this year predicted a literal space-time rapture and subsequent second coming; in fact, it was thinking about the absurdity of his predictions from a physical standpoint that sparked this entire meditation. I still do not know what is meant by the mystery that Christ will come to judge us. Will it be a literal spacetime judgment? If so, how will this be possible? Will there be a suspension of all law and order, with the sky rolling up and the foundations of the earth dissolved in fire? Or is this a mythological rendering of a more profoundly spiritual judgment? I do not claim to know such matters. I do know that I will not do what one recent interlocutor of mine did, a Monsignor at that, who recently told me that since the creed tells us that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead we can rightfully conclude that it is impossible for the human race to go extinct, since there would then be no living humans extant for a spacetime judgment. From all appearances, as far as we know from reason, the universe will exist for an immeasurable time after the human race is likely to go extinct - far after any form of life familiar to us is rendered impossible.

But the list of beliefs that must be synthesized with our scientific knowledge does not end there, although some are more speculative than others. It was once believed, for instance, that the earth was fully unique and special, being the setting for the drama of salvation that constituted the purpose for creation itself. Even after physical geocentrism was discarded, this theological geocentrism remains fully intact. Yet as the last hundred years has blown open the universe and revealed to us millions of galaxies each likely hosting millions of planets, this geocentrism becomes more and more strained. The existence of other forms of life in the universe is unproven but seems more and more likely, even if we might have little to no hope of ever contacting such beings. The possibility that other rational beings inhabits the universe is at the very least a hurdle for Christianity, leading to a tendency towards ignoring, if not downright deriding, those who ponder the possibilities and theological implications.

Perhaps the most controversial and complicated matter is the relationship between body and soul, and the nature of the human mind and will. As science slowly reveals the structure of the brain and the relationship between mental phenomena and physical realities, it becomes necessary to understand what the soul is. Is the soul a free independent spiritual form somehow separable from the body? Is it, rather, an inseparable part of the body, an incorporeal and intelligible entity that can only arise out of some physical arrangement of tissues, just as a piece of music is an incorporeal intelligible entity that can only arise out of some physical arrangement of vibrations?

While I stand no chance of answering such questions, which are far beyond my capacity, it will not stop me from attempting to understand what is at stake. We Christians claim that the Logos became flesh: we believe that Truth is a person as much as an idea. But we can sometimes miss the way the Logos is behind every reality and truth, not in the same way as the full incarnation, but nevertheless incarnate as the wisdom behind all truth, even those truths discoverable through science. It falls on such a believer, then, to accept the discoveries of natural science as revelations of Christ, and to understand that whatever science discovers must be compatible with the truth of the faith - not by denying, distorting, or ignoring the discovery to fit our preconceived notion of the truth, but to fully accept the discovery as part of a larger, still mysterious, and veiled wisdom.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Aquinas, Natural Law, and Homosexual Marriage

Legalizing homosexual marriage has roused deep-seated angers, fears, and passions on all sides of the debate. For those who support the traditional view of marriage, the legalization of marriage represents a rejection of a self-evident truth, while for those who support such legislation marriage is a union of fellowship which only prejudice denies to a particular segment of the population. At stake beyond the surface is the relationship of politics, religion, and natural law, and the perception that legalizing homosexual marriage is a wholesale rejection of a traditional moral, religious, and political concept that is both a symptom and a cause of a much broader cultural deterioration. Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed “progressives” view homosexual marriage as merely another step away from the stifling religious superstition of a tyrannical and corrupt edifice and towards an egalitarian paradise. In both cases, the legislation is seen as a monumental step (forwards or backwards) and a portentous breach from the past.

But amidst the clamoring, caterwauling, and occasionally self-aggrandizing antics of both sides of the debate, is it possible to find a saner via media solidly grounded within Catholic tradition? Can an understanding of natural law lead to a less reactionary view of the legislation of homosexual marriage?

A complete explanation of natural law is far beyond the scope of a blog entry. A brief passage from the Summa Theologica will suffice to make clear the pertinent implications of the theory.

“…the precepts of the natural law are related to practical reason as the first principles of scientific demonstrations are related to theoretical reason…Therefore, the first precept of the natural law is that we should do and seek good, and shun evil. And all the other precepts of the natural law are based on that precept, namely, that all the things that practical reason by nature understands to be human goods or evils belong to precepts of the natural law as things to be done or shunned.” ST I-II, 94, 2

Natural law is understood as a principle of action, and its precepts are divided into primary and secondary precepts. The primary precept is nearly tautological in form, but nevertheless asserts an indelible connection between the rational moral agent and the good; although we may question the extent of the helpfulness of this connection in forming specific moral guidelines, it is nevertheless presented and accepted as a self-evident truth that the will seeks the good. Aquinas later presents it as analogous to the principle of non-contradiction; it is certainly the case that on its own the principle of non-contradiction will not serve in itself to present a complete scientific knowledge of the universe, but it is nevertheless absolutely necessary to the work of science. Similarly, natural law suggests that moral principles of action are impossible without the understanding that the will is linked to the good. There are, then, secondary precepts - and possibly tertiary precepts, and so forth - that are ultimately derived from this primary precept and are implicitly but not explicitly contained in it.

It is important for the topic at hand that natural law theory asserts that this principles are principles of reason, not faith, and that as such they do not in themselves require the assent to revealed truth in order to be binding. Furthermore, the primary precept is indelible in any rational moral agent (although he leaves open the possibility that the mentally malformed may not have access to this precept because of his undeveloped rationality). Natural law’s primary advantage is that it grants that all humanity have access to a common first principle of moral action, which theoretically allows for rational, non-coercive, and corrective dialogue regarding moral precepts. However, a somewhat nebulous passage has always given me some concern about the usefulness of natural law in this regard.

“Therefore, regarding the general principles, the natural law in general can in no way be excised from the hearts of human beings. But the natural law is wiped out regarding particular actions insofar as desires or other emotions prevent reason from applying the general principles to particular actions, as I have said before. And the natural law can be excised from the hearts of human beings regarding the other, secondary precepts, either because of wicked opinions, just as errors in theoretical matters happen regarding necessary conclusions or because of evil customs or corrupt habits. For example, some did not think robbery a sin, or even sins against nature to be sinful, as the Apostle also says in Rom. 1:24-28.” ST I-II 94, 6

It is thus revealed that secondary precepts can be lost, not only from an individual but, as he mentions in another article, from within an entire nation. This is troubling because the possibility that secondary precepts can be lost undermines the potential for natural law to be used as a non-coercive form of moral persuasion. Furthermore, I have remarked to various individuals that if natural law theorists want to take this notion seriously, they would recognize that the study of natural law must be empirical and anthropological in nature. If general precepts of the natural law are defined by their indelibility, while secondary precepts are subject to loss through various causes, then determining what precepts are general and what precepts are secondary is entirely a matter of empirically searching for common moral precepts across time and culture. But this is merely an aside; the more pertinent issue is that because these secondary precepts can be lost, legislation regarding moral commands and prohibitions related to these secondary precepts becomes a much more complicated matter.

It is not the role of human law to prohibit everything which is potentially prohibited by natural law. As Aquinas puts it:

“…laws are established as certain rules or measures of human actions, as I have already said. But measures should be homogeneous with what they measure, as the Metaphysics says, since different kinds of things are measured by different kinds of measures. And so laws need also to be imposed on human beings according to their condition, since laws ought to be ‘possible regarding both nature and a country’s customs,’ as Isidore says.” ST I-II, 96, 2

Because laws are just insofar as they tend towards the common good of those ruled, the extent and nature of laws depend greatly on the customs and condition of a nation’s citizens. At the time Aquinas wrote, the citizens of most Christian nations were so homogeneous in belief that it seemed reasonable to issue civil legislation forbidding and even punishing the homosexual act (whether this really was prudent or even just is another question). But even a cursory glance at the United States’ citizenship reveals widespread heterogeneity. There is clearly a great deal of disagreement about many secondary precepts, and clearly there is disagreement regarding the moral implications of homosexuality. But according to Aquinas’ own account, this disagreement is indicative that it may not be just to enact laws forbidding homosexual relations.

But, of course, the issue is not merely homosexual relations, but the legalization of homosexual marriage. Many Catholics and other Christians have laid the blame for this occurrence squarely on the homosexual community, some even going so far as to characterize the wave of legislation as a deliberate attack on traditional marriage. I cannot and will not comment on the possible range and variety of motives that drive homosexuals, but I will say that they have become a scapegoat. Principles regarding marriage are clearly secondary precepts of the natural law, insofar as there has not been consensus across time and culture as to what constitutes marriage, the present debate not being the least sign of disunity. But the current departure from the natural law understanding of marriage is not the fault of the homosexuals. According to natural law, marriage is inextricably linked to family and the fertility of the marital act, and as such homosexual relations are barred from the possibility of marriage. But with the rise of widely accepted and effective birth control, among other social innovations, the prevailing understanding of marriage among heterosexuals shifted to a union of mutually loving individuals who seek a more or less lasting commitment. As family and children became an accidental rather than essential component of marriage, the natural law rationale behind the prohibition against homosexual marriage lost ground. Insofar as that secondary precept of the natural law was excised from the mainstream cultural conscience, the prohibition against homosexual marriage took on the character of arbitrary discrimination and mere distaste.

Now, governments must govern according to the character of their people. In the words of Augustine,

“It seems to me that laws written for the people’s governance rightly permit such things, and that God’s providence punishes them.” On Free Choice 1, 5, n. 13.

It is permissible and even in a limited sense just for permission to be granted for certain actions considered immoral by natural law, insofar as those governed no longer have access to those relevant precepts of natural law. Legislation allowing homosexual civil marriage then becomes an issue of prudence with respect to the people governed, and the democratic or representative process of government is one structure that attempts to prudently determine the fittingness of prohibiting or permitting homosexual marriage. Some states have rejected homosexual marriages, while others have accepted it, assumedly on the basis of the constitution and understandings of their respective citizens. In this, the government is acting correctly, and even in accordance with the tradition of politics as treated by Aquinas and Augustine.

This does not mean that Catholics need mindlessly or joyously accept the legalization of homosexual marriage. Insofar as it is permissible or right for a government to legalize homosexual marriage, the secondary precepts of the natural law must have been excised from the consciences of the nation. It is thus meet to grieve, not the legislation, but the widespread loss of these moral precepts. Even if a Catholic is perfectly right to vote against such, the passage of these acts of legislation need not be viewed as a monumental point of no return; nor, even, must we believe that the legislation is itself evil, because it is merely the act of a government attempting to maintain earthly peace. To assume it to be anything more is actually to make the government the guardian or magisterium of eternal truth, which I believe is a dangerous move. If action is to be taken, it must be towards the restoration of these precepts of natural law - provided, as I have mentioned before, we can even be sure of them ourselves. As recipients of the faith, we can rely on the revealed moral law as our guide, but outside of a sinful presumption of grace there is no short cut to the Truth. We can certainly not expect arguments from faith to be always persuasive to those who have not assented to the faith, although we should continue to pray that grace reveals the beauty of the faith and the truth of Christ not only to those around us but also to ourselves. This is not a campaign against homosexuals, who in any case are probably not the originators of our current cultural confusion regarding marriage and are instead to some degree the victims of an unhealthy and incorrect view of marriage which originated among heterosexuals. We should continue to search for compelling reasons for the natural law precepts regarding marriage that draw from the entire armament of the mind, including the physical sciences, in an effort to inasmuch as possible restore an awareness of these lost precepts. In doing so, we should be aware that our own understanding of the natural law is also always subject to improvements, correction, and perfection, and therefore that it is possible that imperfections or misunderstandings in the always unfolding tradition may have led in part to the current loss of the precepts of natural law. Most importantly we must not be the Pharisee who points back at the wretched sinner in an attitude of self-assured holiness.