Sunday, June 29, 2008

Hearing it…

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The primary and universal vocation of all Christians is to be like Christ. This means, in other words, to suffer and forgive, suffer and forgive, suffer and suffer and forgive again. The fundamental reality of all Christians, meanwhile, is that of un-Christlikeness. This means, in others words, that we wound and must repent, wound and repent, damage and damage and seek to repair. This is the call we must hear. Hear your own collateral damage and hear the one who offers his own collateral restoration.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Wisdom from…

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JOHN SCOTUS ERIGENA (810–877): John the Baptist

The Lord's forerunner was a man, not a god; whereas the Lord whom he preceded was both man and God. The forerunner was a man destined to be divinised by God's grace, whereas the one he preceded was God by nature, who, through his desire to save and redeem us, lowered himself in order to assume our human nature.

A man was sent. By whom? By the divine Word, whose forerunner he was. To go before the Lord was his mission. Lifting up his voice, this man called out: The voice of one crying in the wilderness!

It was the herald preparing the way for the Lord's coming. John was his name; John to whom was given the grace to go ahead of the King of kings, to point out to the world the Word made flesh, to baptize him with that baptism in which the Spirit would manifest his divine Sonship, to give witness through his teaching and martyrdom to the eternal light.
(Hom. sur le Prologue de Jean, 15: SC 151, 277.)

John Scotus Erigena received his early education in Ireland, the country of his birth. He wrote the first medieval theological synthesis which shows a strong influence of the Greek theological tradition.

ST AUGUSTINE: Humility of John the Baptist

John the Baptist was regarded by some people as the Messiah but he told them: "I am not the one whom you think." He refused to accept the error of someone in order to derive glory from it. John admitted what he was, declared what he was not, and humbled himself. He clearly recognized where his salvation came from, for he understood that he was the lamp, and he feared being extinguished by pride.
-- Sermon 293, 4

Prayer. Thanks and praise to you, my God, who sound in my ears and who illuminate my heart. Keep me away from every temptation.
-- Confessions 10, 31


I have often wondered what was the greatest mortification practiced by the saints, and, after serious reflection, I discovered this: Saint John the Baptist went out into the desert when he was five years old, knowing that his Redeemer had been born and was living not far from him. God alone knows how the heart of Saint John loved his cousin, Jesus, and how much he would have enjoyed His company. All the same, he remained for twenty-five years in the desert without once coming out. Then, after he had left the desert, he settled down to preaching without going to see Jesus, but waited until the Lord came to him. Even after he had baptized Him, he carried on with his mission! He had his spirit entirely detached from everything so as to do God's will and to serve Him.
(Letters 234; O. XIII, pp. 366-367)



O WELL for him that loves the sun,
That sees the heaven-race ridden or run,
The splashing seas of sunset won,
And shouts for victory.

God made the sun to crown his head,
And when death's dart at last is sped,
At least it will not find him dead,
And pass the carrion by.

O ill for him that loves the sun;
Shall the sun stoop for anyone?
Shall the sun weep for hearts undone
Or heavy souls that pray?

Not less for us and everyone
Was that white web of splendour spun
O well for him who loves the sun
Although the sun should slay.
('Ballad of the Sun.')

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


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This is some of the worst Chinglish I have seen in a long time. Maybe I allow me release the sorrow with drinking fully a cup of Kaoliang, the human life of jade liquid….

Kinmen: The legend of the Kaoliang Wine at Kinmen County!

I wonder how far you can read, not skim, before your eyes give out. Leave a comment!

I'm one of the 55. Are You?

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fi yuo cna raed tihs, yuo hvae a sgtrane mnid too. Cna yuo raed tihs? Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can. i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in th e rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt ! if you can raed tihs forwrad it.


Catalysts of charity…

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A catalyst is a means to accelerating, or enhancing, an enzymatic reaction. Catalysts reduce the amount of energy needed to complete the reaction. Reactions can and do happen without catalysts, but they make chemical life easier.

I think human interactions, especially those guided by the fundamental Christian commitment to charity towards all people in all situations, can benefit from certain catalysts as well. The following are phrases that have accrued from my experience as "lubricants of grace" when dealing with others. If these are not the phrases that leave your mouth most often, that probably accounts for a great deal of heartache.

"I'm sorry."

"I don't know."

"I was wrong."

"I wasn't listening."

"What do you think?"

"Could you please repeat that?"

"I did it."

"It's mine."


"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

"Good job."

"You go first."

"How can I help?"

Just as free-floating catalysts will not produce a reaction, so these phrases on their own, divorced from a deeper commitment to charity, will not naturally make for a better, godlier life. The word sarcasm should come to mind. And because of sarcasm, so much for physicalism. Since the same phonemes can be said in exactly the same way, rippling through the same physical matter in the same way, in the same atomic milieu, that is, and yet strike various people differently, then that striking effect is a non-physical fact about the atomic physical situation. "Nice job", atomically, is the same; but nice job spoken by Steve to Rick in Sally's mind, versus in naive Wendy's mind, is an entirely different utterance, on a semantic level. Physical reality can never exhaustively fulfill the formal meaning of most sentences, let alone mathematical operations, which strikes a heavy semiotic blow against the alleged sufficiency of physical reality. Even 'I love you' can be offered as bitter fruit, if hatred and injustice are its root bed. How sweet, really, was the paternalistic affection of Southern slaveowners for their family's slaves?

So, while charity and Christlikeness are, for Christians, the first priority, the above phrases, and certain others I have missed––I'm sorry, I don't know––can reduce the amount of "spiritual energy" needed to affect reactions of love amongst our neighbors and enemies.

Perhaps you can suggest other such "spirit-saving" phrases.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Wisdom from…

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LUIS DE LEÓN, O.S.A. (1527–1591): Carrying Our Own Cross

In the gospel Christ commands us all to take up our cross. He does not tell us to take up another's, but bids us to carry our own. He does not wish a nun to neglect her duties as a religious and burden herself with the cares of a married woman; nor does it please him for a married woman to neglect her household duties and turn into a nun. The married man pleases God by being a good husband; the friar by being a good religious; the merchant by running his business properly. Even the soldier serves God by showing courage when circumstances demand it, and by being content with his pay, as Saint John says. And the cross which each of us has to bear, and by means of which we are to attain union with Christ, is the very duty and obligation imposed on each one of us by our state of life. Those who fulfill the duties of their condition do God's will and accomplish his purpose. They win an unblemished name and reputation and, as though by the labor of the cross, reach the rest they have merited. On the other hand, those who neglect their obligations, however hard they may labor to fulfill others which they have taken upon themselves, waste their efforts and forfeit their reward.
(La Perfecta Casada, 7-8.)

An Augustinian friar, Luis was also a poet, mystic, scriptural scholar, and theologian. Above all he was a holy man who suffered much for his beliefs. He was the editor of the works of Saint Teresa of Jesus of Avila.

A lesson I learned in my last couple years at university, but still keep having to learn and learn, is expressed in two metaphors: "tend your plot" and "play your zone". It is tempting, especially for A-Personality people like me, to dart hither and thither to "help" or "get involved in" the many "needs" and "problems" and "opportunities" that constantly fill our existential horizon. But I learned, partially from exhaustion and partially from reflection and prayer, that the human person just isn't made to function like that––or rather, is made to dysfunction by functioning like that. More and more I am, despite the wisdom of the management gurus, inclined to say multi-tasking is really non-tasking. A good farmer is one who humbly and faithfully, hopefully also lovingly, tends his little share of land. All too often a farmer who wants to tend more than that tends to become a sharecrop lord, the only sort of life in which one can share in name only while every one cropped beneath you is forced to share, and share, with you in fact. And just as a good basketball player learns to conserve his energy and force the ball by playing solid zone defense, so I have learned that I "play life" best when I just stick to my zone, and not run around the court like a wannabe MVP. Do you really think you can do more when what you do is already mediocre? Isn't not even enough enough? Memento mori: in a flash, in a twinkling of the stars, you will be ashes, ashes which can either be an eternal fragrant incense offering before God or a sooty trail of despair behind Him.

ST AUGUSTINE: The Eucharist Forgives Sins

Accordingly, eat the bread of heaven in a spiritual way. Come to it freed from sin. Even though your sins occur daily, at least see to it that they be not mortal. Moreover, before you approach the altar note well what you say: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." If you forgive others, God will forgive you.
-- Sermon on John 26, 11

Prayer. Forgive us, Lord, all these things in which we have been led astray. Help us to resist being led away.
-- Punishment and the Forgiveness of Sins 2, 4

Life, which is to say the spiritual life, since there is no life without spirit––much as 'society' is just a shorter way of saying 'religious society' since there has never been a secular society––is a treadmill. There is no such thing as a holding pattern in virtue and vice, the approach to God or the retreat. If you go back, you fly back. If you stand still, you recede. Only by walking, and perhaps even being lifted at times by your betters when the pace outdoes you, can you maintain your status and, in time, make progress. Or course, probably the key element in 'making progress' is to acknowledge humbly that you have to walk in the first place; for only a man not at his goal, not in his home, not on his throne, will need to walk in the first place.


Love of God does not consist either in consolations or displays of tender affection; otherwise, Our Lord would not have loved His Father when, sad even unto death, He cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" [Mk 15:34] Yet it was then that He exercised the greatest act of love that you could imagine! We want to have a spoonful of sugar in our spiritual food; namely, the experience of love and even more so of consolation. In the same way, we want to be free of all imperfections, but we have to put up with our human nature and not imagine that we have an angelic one.
(Letters 1402; O. XVIII, pp. 171-172)


ONLY the Christian Church can offer any rational objection to a complete confidence in the rich. For she has maintained from the beginning that the danger was not in man's environment, but in man. Further, she has maintained that if we come to talk of a dangerous environment, the most dangerous of all is the commodious environment. I know that the most modern manufacture has been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle. I know that the most recent biologists have been chiefly anxious to discover a very small camel. But if we diminish the camel to his smallest, or open the eye of the needle to its largest: if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this––that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Review of Derek Melser's The Act of Thinking

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As indicated by the quotations provided above and in the book's endorsement section, Derek Melser's _The Act of Thinking_ (AT) cannot be written off as easily as the reviewer, R. Jones, suggests with his mini-review. To call AT an update of the behaviorist paradigm is rather like calling Thomistic anthropology an update of Aristotelian anthropology. "Well, yes, I guess you could look at it that way, but, well...." Just as Thomistic anthropology "sublimates" various aspects on Aristotelian hylomorphism both out of its pantheistic, impersonal cosmology and into a Christian triune imagining of God in man-as-icon, so Melser's AT sublimates old school behaviorism out of its narrow operationism and into a holistic humanism of human action. To call Thomism or "Melserism" (if I may) updates of their general predecessors is to lose a whole lot in critical appraisal. My drawing a link between Thomism and Melserism is not completely irrelevant to further points I shall make in my review of AT.

The key difference between Melserism and behaviorism is that Melser insists action is a total-person reality, whereas behaviorism treats discrete actions as a series of impersonal stimulus-response data. (This hearkens back to Wittgenstein's objections to behaviorism as trying to force a 'physiological occasionalism', as it were, upon the seemingly autonomous order and timing of psychological operations.) Skinner need not have analyzed the personal role of action (as when he put his daughter in a glass cage for observation), since he is only interested in monitoring the discrete acts, or motions, that result from various stimuli. Behaviorists of yore were insistent that no matter how "lifelike" an action, or a series of responses, was, it gave no scientific justification for seeing in them anything really personal "behind" or "beneath" them. A "person" was just shorthand for what motions were under observation in a given time frame. Melser insists, in stark contrast, that we cannot work up to the personal level, but must begin, empathetically, with the person as the only proper locus of actions as such. This thesis leads him to some startling claims, for example, that humans are not even properly said to be biologically determined and that cognitive talk of modules, representation, neural powers, etc., are just as erroneous as Cartesian talk of a homunculus. There are only inner agents, or an inner agent, Melser says, because we allow our ingrained metaphorical speech patterns mislead us into reifying actions as such agents. Thinking is for Melser neither a "supernatural" power nor a natural ability (of the brain), but is simply something we, we persons, do. If we had not learned to perceive things as we perceive them, and if we had not learned to react to those percepts in the ways we do, and if we had not learned to signal responses as we signal them (usu. with words and gestures), we would not be conscious thinkers. Nor is thought a proper target of scientific scrutiny or explanation, since, Melser argues, recognizing, let alone understanding and explaining, action requires empathy, requires the action of being willing and able to "enter in to" the action being perceived. As soon as we zoom into the neural-synaptic-hormonal level of analysis we become not only overwhelmed in a welter of data, the sheer volume and minuteness of which do not lend themselves to synthetic comprehension, but also cease to study an action. We would only zoom in on various brain regions as we do because we already understand the larger actions which the neural analysis is supposed to explain. If we had to wait for brain scans to understand action, we would have never been cognizant of anything being there to explore neuroscientifically. Synapses are not actions, and thus a synaptic analysis gives us only that: an objective picture of synapses firing quietly to themselves. Melser's claim is that unless we add empathy, as person-agents, to the whole-action level of observation, presumably before the micro-level analysis, we can't say we have any scientific knowledge of the action. Indeed, Melser argues, it is impossible by definition to have scientific knowledge of actions. Science requires repeatable objectivity not influenced by human subjectivity, whereas as action-theory requires empathy and personal subjectivity. Is this really an update of behaviorism, or in fact its dialectical sublimation?

I admit that, given my middling familiarity with quantum mechanics and the old lure of positivism, I find Melser's discussion of empathy and objectivity a bit cursory (which is very much the tone of AT), but I still do strongly agree with his emphasis on the personal level as the proper mode of personal knowledge. Another author of the same mind is Mary Midgley; cf. esp. her _The Myths We Live By_. I also wrote a lengthy review of Midgley's book in "inFORM: A Catholic Review", which should be online in the near future at . Just an FYI for those interested in this line of thought.

One of the common criticisms against AT is that it is behind the times with respect to logical behaviorism and cognitive science. Didn't Austin, Wittgenstein, Ryle, et al., already say about thought--as a linguistic illusion--what Melser is trying to say? Doesn't neuroscience clearly prove thought is just a brain function? Knowing something about Melser's biography throws an interesting light on these complaints. He took an MA in the 1960s under G. E. Hughes, a former student of Wittgenstein, and then worked in the non-academic world until taking his PhD in 2001. This means that he got his MA in the heyday of logical behaviorism and then got his PhD in the thick of neuroscientific physicalism, which indicates he was not some entrenched curmudgeon, a barnacle on the ivory tower, who only gradually came to grips with this new-fangled brain science all the kids are talkin' about. Melser stands, was academically formed, in two worlds, having seen his foundational master's level thinking continuously and automatically challenged by the cognitive revolution of the 1990s--and yet he still sees greater merit in his personal action theory than in just-so brain science. Melser is hardly unaware of cognitive science; he simply thinks it misses the point, in a big way. As he states in his online journal (2007):

"...all the modern attempts at sciences of mind, language, and action will have to be abandoned. Psychology, cognitive science, linguistics qua science, evolutionary psychology, etc., and perhaps all the putative social sciences should go by the board. The problem is that, to the extent one adopts a truly objective, scientific attitude, to that extent the necessary empathic component is excluded."

The reason such "hard" sciences can and should go by the board, in Melser's opinion, is that because while they are designed to explore natural processes, thinking is not a natural process. It is not something our body does, and it is not even something we "use" our various organs to "do". It is simply how we imbibe, imitate, transmit, and alter culture as the entire ground of our consciousness. There is, for Melser, nothing natural about conscious, thinking, rational hominids. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, if rational consciousness is not natural, then it is supernatural, which leads me to my next, closing points.

Above I drew a connection between Melserism and Thomism, and in my title I mentioned not setting the clock far enough back. While it is true AT harks back to the mid-twentieth century in its logical behaviorist tendencies, I would say that what Melser is reaching for with his theory is in fact something more venerable--something quite like classical Thomistic hylomorphism (THM). This claim would almost certainly shock, and perhaps bemuse, Melser, but I want to make clear why I am right, if I read him correctly.[1] Melser is right to bring things like logical analysis and Reid's commonsense views to bear critically on neuroscience, but he should have kept regressing into the Middle Ages for an equally holistic view of human nature. To be clear: THM *does not* claim there is something immaterial "inside" the human body; Cartesianism claims that. Given its more fundamental commitment to a matter-form (or 'hardware-software') ontology, THM simply says that the way we account for humans' ability to rationally, freely, and uniquely act in the world, is by virtue of a rational principle called the 'soul'. Only because certain of humans' ends are immaterial (i.e., spiritual) can we say there is an integral immaterial principle of action which constitutes the human person. This principle cannot really be extracted from the concrete, embodied person, since it is just the formal and rational coherence of that very person. As Melser argues, we are not who we are from birth, but are born humans-becoming-persons. This aspect of human nature is not simply due to culture, since culture is itself informed by transcendent goods that need accounting outside 'mere' culture. We can transcend our natal biology because are by nature creatures that transcend biology. This is so by virtue of the soul. The soul is no more a ghost than the body is mere clump of atoms; both body and soul are simply the basic modes of human existence as demonstrated in substantial persons.

If he were transported back in time as I believe his theory urges upon him, the way Melser would have differentiated between natural (scientifically amenable) processes and personal, human actions, is to refer to the former as an actus hominis and the latter as an actus hominus (or 'human act' and 'act of a man'). The very fact, which Melser stresses in many places in AT, that humans have evolved cooperatively in accord with rational and supra-biological ends (i.e., culture) indicates that there is something ineradicably supra-biological about humans. Were there not already a power for acting rationally in light of transcendent cultural goods, or at least initially not some "field" of such ends dynamically ensconcing the evolution of humans, it is hard to explain how we became the sort of creatures we are. By analogy, unless there were a suitable atmosphere for winged flight, there would have been no way for flying animals to evolve the way they did/are. (Compliments to Fr. Edward Oakes for this point.) Indeed, as Melser argues in his introduction, since physical processes are not morally appraisable, nor subject to imperatives, they are clearly something different from human actions, which are morally qualified and subject to imperative commands (cf. Catholic Catechism §1749). As Grisez, Finnis, and Boyle (as well as Popper/Eccles) argue, strict determinism, which rules out free will and fully person-motivated choices, is inconsistent precisely by urging opponents to accept determinism, an injunction which only makes sense if there is "elbow room" for a free response. Physical determinism as a human theory of human action is self-refuting, since the very act of arguing for it assumes it can or 'ought' be accepted as true. (Is truth a "natural" category? Can natural states of affairs be false? Can they--whether as propositions riding air waves or ink on paper--be true?)

The lacuna in Melser's theory is that even when we 'concert' an action (i.e., do it in a visible, social way) or 'token' an action (i.e., in a 'private' incipient, aborted way), we don't KNOW what we are doing, since, for Melser, there is not only no faculty for non-behavioral, abstract knowledge, but also not even a 'field' of reality that corresponds to abstract ideas and truth. If all we have to go by is behavior, without an 'ambient' dimension of abstract truth, how do we 'know' Rodin's Le Penseur is not really thinking, but a person holding the exact same pose, indefinitely, is really thinking? To redress the lacuna in Melser's view, I would say that we know the content of our thought-acts because we function by virtue of a supra-behavioral principle for rational somatic order and action. Catching dualists and cognitive scientist by their metaphors is fine; but pretending (consciously or unwittingly) 'action' and 'person' or anything else is not equally metaphorical, as Melser does, is not at all fine.

The reason we cannot escape metaphors, as Melser argues at some great length, is not a shock to the Thomist, since for the Thomist, all creation is but an analogy. Our being is but a metaphor for God's being. Our somatic, concrete actions are but moving metaphors for the life of of the God whose image we bear. Reading AT, note how many times Melser flouts his own strictures on loose metaphors about thought (e.g., the mind boggles, we perform, we imagine, etc.). For instance, he sees in evolution (viz., the evolution of social cooperation) a 'mechanism', a word which he spends great time critiquing as but a metaphor. This 'mechanism' vis-à-vis humans 'involved' culture, which early humans 'used' to 'develop' social cognition. The reason all this terminology is inevitable and acceptable is because language is irreducibly metaphorical. (Indeed, look up the etymology of "metaphor" itself!) This is so because everything stands in rational relation to everything else, and it is the function of truth to articulate these constellations. Why are we able to orchestrate our bodily bits and motions into high-level metaphors if not because reality is irreducibly analogical? In Peircean terms, AT succeeds in going beyond the monadic reductionism of physicalism, but then fails by staying at the dyadic level of education and demonstration. What Melser should do to complete the impetus of AT is order the monadic physicality of, say, neuroscience and the dyadic relationality of concerted action according to the triadic mode of truth as rational relationality.

I highly recommend AT as a challenging, subtle, eloquent, plainspoken, amicable, contemporary discussion of the philosophy of mind.

Places I [strongly**] recommend a reader going after completing _The Act of Thinking_ are
James F. Ross's essays [**] "Immaterial Aspects of Thought", "Christians Get the Best of Evolution", and "The Fate of the Analysts";
David Braine's _The Human Person_;
Dennis Bonnette's _Origin of the Human Species_;
[**] Karol Wojtyla's _The Acting Person_;
[**] Adrian Reimers's _The Soul of the Person_.

[1] After reading my review, Dr. Melser wrote to me: "You see clearly aspects of the book's argument that no other reviewer sees. Generally, of course, I agree with the nice things you say about the book and disagree with the criticisms.... I must respectfully put off the mantle of Thomism, however."

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Death as ironic triumph...

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For some death is crippling, enervating, a mortal blow to the bubble of security which we weave from our bubble-like dreams and dreamlike baubles. This is manifest in a transient sensitivity towards morbid humor and perhaps even loud noises "at a time like this."

For others death is medicinal, ennobling, a blast of mountaintop air which further lacquers our shell of security as a "survivor" (unlike the recently departed) or "lucky" (unlike the deceased). This spirit manifests in a cavalier mention of death that might have been. Those who walked away from the crash, or those who did not succumb to the salmonella-ridden produce "made it." They "would have been dead by now" but are "still here." On a broader scale, death is trivialized, even idealized, and given a patina of scientific valor, by seeing in death a mindlessly wise "thinning of the herd" or a sort of Darwinian karma at work.

Precisely by having outlived someone else, by having looked down at him or her as pure passive object, prone, inert, the viewer gains in strength as that of one from on high, as pure, active, erect observer. This is all very Nietzschean, of course. Only the weak would be vulnerable to pity in the first place, so even the laxity of apathy reinforces one's übermenschliche Schlagktraft (superhuman vigor). As the last man standing, in one small scenario at least, one's manhood is subsumed into the faceless, deathless immortality of Man. Ein Mensch wird der Mensch (A human becomes Human).

The problem with this gleeful Nietzschean disdain for death, as with so much of Nietzschean anti-logic, is that it completely inverts the idea of death qua loss, sublimating it into a form of schadenfreudige Verstärkung (sorrow-loving strengthening). Death becomes a positive good. The dead are hallowed as feathers in one's own cap, as time markers for the length to which death has gone, but failed, to seize one. Only by combining a dread for death with a love for the person death consumes, as we find in Christ's crucifixion, do we master the herdlike fear of death and yet also overcome the Nietzschean irony of death as a relative good.

Don't talk to me...

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Don't talk to me of God's love apart from Christ. The cosmos and man's inner world are too much of a mess to salvage that unreconstructed faceless optimism. There is nothing natural in natural theology of that supernatural Gift.

Don't talk to me of God's love in Christ apart from the communion and authority of the Church. The religious landscape is too charred and the testimony of my own solo-wisdom is too myopic to salvage that ecumenical buzz. There is no baby apart from the womb.

Don't talk to me of the Church's fellowship and authority apart from the Mass celebrated in the chain of bishops, chained to a church in the person of a priest. Dogma is an abstraction that only finds flesh in the One True Flesh, Flesh offered up by human hands to human mouths.

Don't talk to me of the Mass apart from Christ's risen and undying offer of Self to Me in the very act of self-depossession, self-release, self-starvation that forms the heart of devout communion. Don't talk to me, that is, of the Eucharist apart from God's love.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A goodly, if not great, chain of being…

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Being is that which is only conceivable as existing.

Matter is that which exists––in discrete ways as material objects––in the displacement of one thing from another. Materiality, à la C.S. Peirce, is obstinate reactivity.

Form is that which integrates discrete materials into a larger whole. Form is the principle of operative order that distinguishes one material object from another on a conceptual level. It is not something imposed upon matter, but that which integrates matter to act in consistent ways, as exact science regards them. An electron is different from a positron formally, not materially. This is what we, unwittingly perhaps, say when we use the word "organism"; a thing is an organism by virtue of the fact that it is organized. Organization is something formally, not materially, constituted. My desk is no neater for having more objects it, if I don't apply a formal order to it, and thus organize according to an immaterial principle of matter.

Beauty is that which unifies at least two formal objects under one idea. An electron and a positron evince beauty in a way that an electron and a stalk of asparagus do not. The beauty of a neat desk is what I see when I find its many items arranged under one idea, even if this idea is not verbally expressible.

Good is that towards which form is ordered, appropriate to each entity's formal structure. Food is a good for the formal maintenance and growth of the body, as one highly integrated formal structure.

A better good is chosen from among multiple possible goods as that which more completely and consistently orders something towards its proper good. For example, eating a bowl of ice cream immediately, while starving, only to find it is poisoned and causes terrible stomach pains, is a lesser good than waiting even several more hours for a tiny portion of bland food that restores health. A quotidian example, I know, but perhaps my point is clear. I raise the issue, about relative goods, because perhaps to some readers (if I may presume) the idea of good is utterly subjective and not subject to rational ordering. Isn't good, as G.E. Moore argued in Principia Ethica, basically just as intuitive, and thus morally incontestable, as redness and sweetness? If we don't accuse a colorblind man of wrong for seeing red poorly, or not at all, why ought we assign blame to seeing good differently than others, much less seeing good in something most people see as bad? If good is just a natural property of experience, like sweetness, hardness, etc., then we can all feast alike––without moral recriminations. If good is merely a subjective "sense" of things in our perceptual ambit, how could we possibly order them on some larger––dare I say, supersensible––scale?

What I dislike about Moore's position is that it doesn't seem to take nature as seriously as ArisThomism does. I believe formal structure, as articulated by St. Thomas among other Scholastics, is a potent source of insight, not to be jettisoned despite four centuries of Cartesian "mechanicomania". Form is making a comeback in two, if I may, forms: software and vertical causality. As James F. Ross argues in his essay, "The Fate of the Analysts: Aristotle's Revenge",

[W]e can predict six features of philosophy--and of science too--: (1) reinstatement of a theory of inherent forms: that there are dynamic explanatory structures inherent in matter (but inseparable except in thought, from matter, though variously realizable in matter)[17]…; that (2) such dynamic structures explain, indeed ARE … the continuous regularity of behavior, say, of protons; (3) that the natures of things (the materialized structures) and the abstractable laws, are NOT simply the local aggregations of matter, the way a pile is resultant from the grains of sand[18] but that there are, as yet undiscovered, principles of emergence-- principles of what Aristotle called "eduction of forms for matter"…, by which stable, causally specialized structures (e.g. cell structures) develop from more general ones (.e.g. [sic], molecular ones); (4) that human intelligence is the active ability to discern and to recognize dynamic structures in nature (and their consequences, even hypothetical ones), irrespective of the indeterminacy of hypotheses or the undertermination of reference; and (5) that the objective of science is comprehension … --to be streetwise in the universe--and that scientific comprehension of physical reality has to be expressed, and aided, with mathematized abstractions, with formal models, and with technology.

Likewise, as Allan F. Randall claims in "Quantum Miracles and Immortality",

Strong AI adopts the Aristotelian-Thomistic view of the soul, as the 'form' of a conscious being. The form of a thing is, in modern terms, the in-form-ation required to completely describe (or simulate) the thing. The formalistic conception of the soul was the most widely accepted view of the soul in the Roman Catholic Church at the end of the Middle Ages. The Christian doctrine of resurrection of the body is based on it: God can resurrect you because he is omniscient and knows your form.

Reducing reality to undifferentiated raw matter, which is what materialism aims for, is a fine rationalist project––except for the small problem that it, like all forms of monism, cannot face the fact of the highly differentiated, formally discrete nature of reality. As Walther Ehrenfried Tschirnhausen [just cuz it's fun to type in full] pointed out to Spinoza, without ever getting a promised reply, by assuming all is One, insofar as all is God, we have no way to account for so many contingent small ones that constitute reality. If all we are is God Himself, how, frankly, do we come by Spinoza himself? If everything, likewise, is only atoms, how do we have so many superatomic structures which defy purely atomic description? As quantum mechanics indicates, atoms do not really exist unless "dematerialized" or "collapsed" by a larger whole, namely, an observed quantum reaction. Much the same holds for cells, structures that do not exist independently but only exist in a formal unity with the role they play in a larger tissue. Quantum functions and cells are what they are in virtue not of linear, mechanistic causation but by way of a larger "vertical causation" that cannot be accounted for in terms of those smaller entities themselves. I refer the reader(s) to Wolfgang Smith's writings on this idea in The Quantum Enigma and The Wisdom of Ancient Cosmology. I also hear Franklin Harold's The Way of the Cell is fascinating for the light it sheds on cellular reality as inherently co-ordered, that is, teleological.

I have taken this teleological detour to clarify why Moore's just-so account of Good is not so good. Good is as much a reality as the objects and things to which we apply the term. And because nature, as a congeries of dynamic formal structures, is real, so too are various ends real toward which real things are ordered by virtue of their own natures. This means not all 'goods' are really good, insofar as some 'goods' detract from a thing's actual formal end. Hence, while I may see 'goodness' in the precision crafting of a nail protruding from the floor, it is a lesser good to put that nail through my foot, because I have my own set of goods that contravene on the nail's humble goodness. Insofar as reality is dynamically discrete and organically operative, it is arranged, improved, or deformed in connection with intrinsic goods.

I have all this to express the following thought:

Insofar as one good is higher than another, there is a highest good that orders all other goods towards it in one beauteous formal act of benevolent regard. This highest good we call God. God is that which, that Whom, gives an orange its goodness for satisfying your hunger, and gives your newly consumed energy from the orange its goodness as ordered towards performing well in a violin recital, which in turn gives goodness to your family cohesion in celebration of your musical award, which in turn, etc. etc., which finally gives the entire cosmos its goodness as Created Gift in the act of prayer you perform thanking God for everything just as you drift of to sleep. It may be that for some the best argument for prayer is that it is the most efficient means of ordering the largest amount of reality to the highest good with the greatest beauty. It expends no canvas, no oils, no bandwidth, no federal grants, no troops' lives, not even much air, if done mentally. In one cascade of silent neurological work, the entire cosmos can be dematerialized and formally constituted as a work of great beauty and a canvas for boundless thanks.

Evangelio non crederem, nisi...

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"...est illud verbum Augustini in libro Contra epistolam Fundamenti: « Non crederem ... Evangelio, nisi quia Ecclesiae catholicae credo »."*


* (PL 42, 176; CSEL XXV pars I 197, 22-23): « Ego vero Evangelio non crederem, nisi me catholicae Ecclesiae commoneret [CSEL: commoveret] auctoritas ».

« But I would not believe the Gospel, except that the authority of the Catholic Church thoroughly warns [CSEL: thoroughly moves] me (to do so) ».


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