Sunday, September 30, 2007

When It Rains, It Pours

You'll notice two new posts below this one, neither of them argued with particular care. I've decided that I just need to get the ideas out there, in any form, and start to digest them further (with your help). Waiting until I'm happy with what I write has bought me two weeks of silence.

So, yes, this is the "rough draft" defense of my new and contentious ideas. I freely acknowledge this.

To Err (In A Manner of Speaking) Is Human

As stated before, I've been doing some rethinking, not simply of ethical and political conclusions, but of the very way in which I approach the questions.

It is, I suppose, characteristic of many mathematicians that we seek only answers of a certain form, even to entirely nonmathematical questions. To earn even my respect, an ethical or political theory had to derive from explicit first principles and valid laws of deduction. But as I've reflected, I find something very wrong with most axiomatized ethics, something which is handled quite better by the old illogical traditions.

In a mathematical proof, one begins with a set of assumptions, each of which ought to appear in the proof (explicitly or via an intermediate result). If you haven't used one of your assumptions at all, then the theorem is more generally applicable than it was stated, or (as is more often the case) the proof is mistaken.

What does this have to do with anything?

There are many ethical and political theories, for example Kant's categorical imperative or Locke's Second Treatise on Government, whose philosophies stand in respect to psychology and sociology as Laplace's cosmology stood in respect to God: they have no place for such hypotheses, they would give the same answers regardless of how human beings are actually constituted to think and act. And this, I think, disqualifies these theories from constituting either a complete way of life or a viable government, if adhered to completely. We are not Kant's universal rational agents, we are not simple economic beings maximizing some concrete utility, and a system that treats us as such will be without answer to a vast range of human behavior.

For example: it has been shown that people will forgo something to their own advantage if they feel that it also benefits someone else (even a stranger) unfairly (see the ultimatum game), and it is well-known that we make competitions out of things that give us little advantage (such as who passes whom on the highway, when the real difference in travel time is often negligible). The best explanations for these and other phenomena are ultimately sociological in nature: not much has changed in human nature from the tribal days, when allowing oneself to be beaten or taken advantage of even once would be known by others and lead to further trouble.

And before we criticize these departures from rationally calculated standards as something in all cases to be overcome, let us reflect on Kant's proclamation that not a single lie could ever be justified, not even (to use the canonical example) denying to the Nazis the presence of a Jewish family in one's attic. We generally find this conclusion to be wrong, and so those of us who want to make a similar generalization about lying are forced to invent sloppy arguments that would justify these "good lies" within a system that prohibits all lies. For example, "mental reservation" is a terrible attempt to escape this problem, because it could be applied as well to the ordinary situations where we prohibit lying:

Wife: "Are you sleeping with your secretary?"
Husband: "No, of course I'm not" (at this instant, that is.)

I'm not interested in the case of lying so much as the general fact that all simple philosophies tend to have their "hard cases", and they either have to bite the bullet on unpalatable conclusions, or construct ad hoc arguments that escape them. The ones that do the latter are generally less dangerous.

Moreover, we have a certain level of acceptance of social roles that goes well beyond any rational estimation of expertise or power; the police officer's social (and often moral) authority is as vital to his effectiveness as his official authority. The situation is even clearer with, say, priests. And a society that would be built without any social roles at all (the perfect envisioned society of some libertarians I know) is disarming itself of the most necessary of all tools for maintaining itself.

The old traditions of morality and statecraft, with all their contradictions, their ad hoc attachments, their messiness, have proven vastly better adapted to survival than their neatly reasoned descendants. Every other generation since the Enlightenment has prematurely written the obituary of the Catholic Church, and been amazed to see it outlast the appointed successor in the realm of ideas. And this, I have come to think, is due to the way that the aged faiths and systems contain implicitly so many things that resonate with actual human nature- not often by design, but by the necessities of survival in the hearts and minds of men. The Marian doctrines have long been criticized by those who would rationalize the Faith, but their real significance lies in the resonance of a loving Mother in the cosmos. And it has borne fruit for generations in inspiring great devotion, both among those who identify with Mary (the old ladies praying novena after novena for their children and grandchildren) and those who seek her (Pope John Paul II, who lost his own mother at a very early age, made Marian devotion a keystone of his sermons, his proclamations, and even his motto: "Totus Tuus").

But if a vast, messy tradition is usually superior to an oversimplified theory, what would be better yet is something fully true. And when it comes to finding such a thing, there are two principles I've come to think are relatively sound:

1. While our thinking about ethical and political theories should be as consistent as we can make it, it is not necessarily a flaw of one of these theories that it fails to be consistent.

2. Because we are, in fact, a particularly constituted sort of being, the principles on which a sound ethical or political theory is constructed should involve the input of the "narrative disciplines"- history, psychology, and sociology.

Yes, I've changed in regard to sociology. I'd once characterized it as completely unscientific, totally fabricated, and useless to the rest of the world. Well, I've now cleared the prisoner on the latter two charges, and pardoned it on the first. I still don't place too much trust in the way that the study of sociology is currently conducted, but I now think that it is an absolutely essential enterprise to the understanding of human life.

Doubt and Surrender (Rough Draft)

The psychological resonances of religion are often more complicated than many atheists acknowledge, in particular where doubt is concerned. Yes, there is in many religious people a sense of doubt as a sin (and a corresponding urge to denial of doubt), but in the brightest and most devout, there sometimes is an integration of their very doubts into their faith.

What the secular press missed in the case of Mother Theresa is the same lesson one finds in Therese of Liseux's Story of a Soul, a pattern that has been recognized among professed religious for centuries. One's very doubts of God's existence become an occasion for deeper surrender in faith; just as the religious would offer up their physical suffering as a gift to the Lord, Therese would cast herself as a little child, offering to her Father all that she had- her doubts and failures. Mother Theresa, likewise, threw herself into the business of love with greater abandon the more she was overwhelmed with doubt, and one hardly has to point out the epic results of this self-offering.

Those times when I myself followed this path were indeed the best of my Catholic life, the times when charity and beauty were very real things; and the times when I could not look at my doubts in a forgiving light led either to a self-absorbed despair or a vehement denial of those doubts. Or, at last, to apostasy.

Looking back, I cannot say that the offering up of doubts is any reliable means to the truth; and yet it is a means to much human good. Even atheists face a similar conundrum, when one comes to it: how can we behave as idealists in a world of brutal fact, or act incrementally for the good when one knows it won't cause all others to do the same, or sit in awe of beauty while aware that beauty exists only in the human mind? The oft-discussed "cheerful nihilism" can only exist, or so it seems, by a similar act of internal surrender, setting aside one's best awareness for the sake of what is good.

Pardon all of the above for being rhetorical, unsupported, and deeply flawed. I think that there is something very important within it, nonetheless.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


I'm sorry for waiting so long to follow up- especially as I've left so much completely unclear. I haven't been able to organize my thoughts that well, so pardon the format of what follows.

For a man so obsessed with logical consistency, my self-portrait is rather a mess of contradictions.

I am a rationalist Romantic, a secular contemplative, an apostate who still loves his Church.

And I do still love the Catholic Church, even though I cannot believe Her about everything. A child's First Communion, the combination of reverence and everyday ease with which a boy or girl accepts what they take to be God Himself (insofar as they understand what is happening), that is still a sublime moment. The chanted "Adoro Te Devote" is still the most perfect artistic expression of purity of heart that I can conceive of. The darkness of Mother Theresa's prayers may not signify to me all that it once would have, but it still contains within it the whole of human heroism in the face of darkness.

So I am still going to Mass- in fact, I'm still in the chant choir. The parishioners at St. Margaret Mary's have been exceptionally good to me, even now; mostly converts themselves, they know what it is like to be on the other side and what it is like to undergo such turmoil. They think of me as a young fool, of course, but I have no proof that I'm not one.

I make no promises about what I'm going to believe in another few years, except that I'll strive for intellectual honesty all along the way.

It seems that the man on the street has no one belief system, but rather a tangle of different ones (usually incompatible) from which he picks and chooses his ideas. Philosophers from Socrates on down have been aghast at this muddle: how could one hope to find any truth starting from a medley of fictions?

Of course, the philosophers have been known to go mad at a higher rate than the man on the street.

I'm beginning to suspect that beliefs simply play a different role in most lives than they do in mine- that they are most often used to give context to one's life, meaning to one's actions, reassurance of one's fears. If those are to be preserved, perhaps it's unwise to peer too closely- just as, if one wants to be happy eating bratwurst, one shouldn't look inside a sausage factory. Double standards and contradictions, so often pointed out as signs of insincerity or hypocrisy, may be just what is necessary to get by.

And yet here I am, the radical. I can't refrain from asking "But is it true?", no matter the consequences, no matter how dim the prospects of reaching a satisfactory answer.

In agreement with MacIntyre's After Virtue, I have given up on certain aspects of the Enlightenment project- in particular, Kant's attempt to deduce morality from a picture of human beings as abstract moral agents. It all seems a mess of question-begging generalizations, and you can count me as a disappointed ex-Platonist, if anything.

The two moral philosophies that tend to make sense to me at present are some updated version of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and some less nationalistic rendition of Nietzsche's corpus. The verdict is still out, even provisionally, at least until I finish a few more books.

In the meantime, I'll be keeping to my old morality until I have sufficient reason to conclude the truth is otherwise. I hope that's sensible.

I had turned prosaic out of skepticism, but it's not good to stay that way. One doesn't need to be a Platonist to respond to this world with wonder every now and then.