Friday, April 24, 2009

S…O…_…C…O…O…L…

4 comment(s)
Look, Ma, no hands!

The interface consists, essentially, of a keyboard displayed on a computer screen. "The way this works is that all the letters come up, and each one of them flashes individually," says Williams. "And what your brain does is, if you're looking at the 'R' on the screen and all the other letters are flashing, nothing happens. But when the 'R' flashes, your brain says, 'Hey, wait a minute. Something's different about what I was just paying attention to.' And you see a momentary change in brain activity."

Something about this reminds me of Portal turret droids. Standing around all day with nothing to do but focus their attention on moving objects. Gotta love this HUH-larious riff on Portal. Ahh, Portal, how do I love thee? One of the few games I have ever played longer than an hour AND which I have won. That has to be some kind of big endorsement: even non-gamer nerds like it.

Hat tip to Mindful Hack… such a great blog.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Nature makes sense to whom?

2 comment(s)
"[T]he concept of a law of Nature cannot be made sense of without God. … Laws of Nature are prescriptive, not merely descriptive, and – even stronger – they are supposed to be responsible for what occurs in Nature. … Aristotleanism, can offer a stand-in for laws – natural powers – that satisfies the major requirements on laws without the need to call on God.4 For those who cannot abide powers, I think there are no options left. Without God there cannot be laws of Nature, nor anything else with their crucial characteristics."

This statement is made by a major philosopher of science, Nancy Cartwright. Cartwright prefers to replace the more abstract concept of "natural laws" with the more concrete concept of natural dispositions had by physical entities. Interestingly, she favors the dispositional account of natural order as an explicit return to Aristotelian metaphysics. Dispositions, or "powers" (as the late George Molnar called them), are but Aristotelian final causes warmed over.

Recently, Edward Feser (pronounced "fayzer") posted a description of Baruch Spinoza's rejection of final causes, and noted that natural teleology need not be wedded to theism, since Aristotle himself asserted the existence of natural finality without reference to God (or his "Unmoved Mover") as their explicit source. Nevertheless, admitting final causes back into exact science is a huge step forward in wisdom––ironically enough, by being a big step backwards in time.

The question that has been on my mind is this: To whom do the most fundamental properties of the cosmos make sense?

The goal, and boast, of modern exact science has been progressively to strip away layer after layer of "common sense" about nature in order to reach the most basic truths about the natural world. Its goal and boast have been continuously to reduce one level of phenomena to a more basic, and again more basic, level of physical order. The higher levels, thus, only make sense by virtue of being understood in terms of, and with relation to, the lower natural order. Let us imagine, for the sake of argument, that humans at some point reach the most basic natural order possible: we really hit pay dirt, our shovel strikes the foundation, and we see the pristine rudiments of nature, presumably all based on one simple natural process or system or dynamic. At that point, I wonder, how can we account for the most basic system being anything other than a law that controls all higher levels of being and change? If there is one fundamental law of nature from which all higher laws derive, to whom does it make sense? I am having trouble expressing my thought, I apologize, but this is because it is more of an intuition at present than a cogent argument.

Perhaps I should go for broke and say the point is simply this: Insofar as a most-basic law serves as an explanation of higher orders of nature only if it is 1) conceptually coherent as one formal truth and 2) if it illuminates the relation between itself and all subsequent, derivative structures in nature, then who or what has been doing the "coherence recognition" in 1) and the synthetic elaboration in 2)? Since the most basic law is a pristine predictor for all subsequent, derivative systems/events in nature, it would have to be grasped at once, intellectually, in conjunction with those chronologically later developments that just are the entailments of that law. Knowing the most basic law, in other words, just means knowing its exact entailments down the spacetime line. But what sort of mind could really do that, if not God Himself? The most-basic law that we will, ex hypothesi, discover had to have been "making sense" to someone prior to our knowledge of it, otherwise it would not be a prescriptive, law-like facet of nature. If extreme reductionism is determined to find a single most-basic law (or a small cluster of coordinate laws), reductionism seems bound to rediscover the Lawgiver.

Let me close with the reminder that I deny the cogency of my hypothesis about finding the most basic law(s) of nature, for two reasons: first, the nature of science would always render an alleged "final solution" a mere discovery away from falsifiability, and, second, Gödel's incompleteness theorems, as the late Stanley Jaki and Roger Penrose have argued in numerous places, vitiate the hopes of ever finding a formally deductive, and necessarily complete set of formalized laws. In other words, nature will never make sense to us with air-tight logical precision. We will always have to believe there is or are some most-basic law or laws of nature, without ever hoping to know it deductively, and then attribute its coherence to the vision of a higher mind, also known as God.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

You are not your brain…

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"…'You Are Your Brain!' … has become almost a mainstream notion now. But the subtitle of [Alva Noë's] book begins 'Why you are not your brain.' What's wrong with the 'You are your brain' view?

Noë: It's one thing to say you wouldn't be you if not for your brain, that your brain is critical to what you are. But I could say that about your upbringing and your culture, too. It's another thing entirely to say that you are your brain."

–– hat tip to Denyse O'Leary at Mindful Hack

It is heartening to see a leading philosopher of cognition (at UC Berkeley) resisting neuribilistic reductionism (Salon.com, Gordy Slack, 25.3.09). The rising tide of embodied cognition (à la H. Dreyfus, A. Clark, T. Rockwell, F. Varela, D. Melser, et al.) is the death knell for that archaic reductionism, since, gradually, we are (re)discovering that who we are just is who we are as substantial, historically situated beings. Year after year, brain identity theorists have been forced to expand their meaning of "brain", so that now the entire nervous system and our whole array of cognitive/perceptual "tools" (i.e., organs) is viewed as a coherent, integrated agent pursuing rational ends in a dynamic field of intelligible objects. But this concession is just to reintroduce hylomorphic dualism without knowing it (yet). And to do so is, in time, to welcome nature back to the table of our discourse, whereupon it is just a stone's throw from asking Nature herself Who brought her to us, and us out of her.

The ground of goodness in the roots of being...

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About a month and a half ago, in response to a thread at Just Thomism, I
wrote about
the Christological basis for humanity and moral worth.
Not much later, Ben, an atheist, wrote
a somewhat lengthy reply to me at his blog. I finally got around to reading and answering his reply. I post it (in truncated form) here, as always, for form's sake.

1) The point of Catholic Christology is ontological, not merely psychological. It is a revelation of the very ground of our psychological structure of goodness. It is not at all a matter of denying or affirming goodness being present in non-Christians. Rather, it is a claim about who is to be thanked and acknowledged for goodness as such, as humans concretely encounter it. The fecund joy of the Triune perichoresis is the grounding for the analogical human goods of family, social harmony, intersubjectivity, etc. This is hardly amoralism. It is a rejection of Platonism insofar as the Good is made concrete (as opposed to ideal and immaterial) in creation in the person of Jesus Christ, but not a rejection of Platonism insofar as the Good is adored as pervading and orchestrating all particular things. Goodness exists broadly in creation primarily because it was/is ontologically rooted in Christ's concrete life and death, and, secondarily, as it is mediated by humanity made in His likeness. Nature is not "good" without humans, ontologically speaking, and humanity is not good without Christ's paradigmatic humanity, ontologically speaking (not psychologially/ cognitively).

...

3) You also grossly mistake the nature of Christ's suffering as if it were about the quantitative nerve stimuli involved. The Passion is not about what kind of suffering Jesus endured, but about Who endured that suffering. The Fathers state on numerous occasions that Christ did not need to suffer in any way to redeem anyone, but that He did so as an even more dramatic sign of His love for the lost, the concrete way in which God says "I love you." It was only by uniting his divinity with our common, wounded humanity that Christ could offer us, as collectively-formed individuals, to the Father by the Holy Spirit. His suffering was a sign of God's love for us, not a contest for the greatest possible nerve aggravation. (I could lay a hot wire on a rat sciatic nerve until the thing died of exhaustion and shock, and that might involve "more" suffering than Jesus' Passion, but it would not involve a suffering that in any way elevates and heals our nature.) Further, Jesus did not "leave" anyone in hell. We go to hell of our own volition. He died to save us all, but evidently, some of us, perhaps many, choose to reject the light and love that pervades creation. We are each judged by the light we are given. Again, the very grounds for anyone having enough light to seek goodness and truth is rooted in Christ incarnate. He is the light every person knows, even if dimly, and even if a person does not know He is the light.

...

Notice how easily I myself slipped into the cosmological error I was ciritcizing in the thread at Just Thomism. It is an insidious confusion which Catholic theology, as Fr. Keefe argues at great length in Covenantal Theology (cited above), must constantly resist and reform. I said Christ assumed our humanity, but, again, the point is that "our humanity" itself is grounded in its wholeness in the very fact of Christ's Incarnation. "Our humanity" does not exist as some ideal form, waiting for Christ to don it like a cloak on a hook in the foyer to the real world. Rather, simply because the Logos deigned to unify creation to Himself in the person of Jesus Christ, thus our humanity was ratified and created. God's desire to manifest His glory and impart His being to His creatures was and is prior, ontologically, to the concrete forms by which creation enjoys the divine goodness. The Passion is but a second-order volition which the Logos accepted in union with His first-order will to unite creation with God. This is why the Incarnation did not necessarily entail the Passion, though the Passion, of course, required the Incarnation. Our humanity found a seat at the table of existence, in other words, beacuse God deemed it a suitable manner by which to express His goodness in an anthropic creation. Christ is to human nature what humanity is to nature itself.

"Science tells us…"?

3 comment(s)
Does Science itself as such exist?

Or are there only scientists?

And if only the latter, are they responsible to Science itself?

If the former, does Science itself control scientists in some mysterious super-empirical way?

I think I passed the meaning of life last night…

0 comment(s)
Meaning and transcendental value are just brain states. They are no less objective facts for being mere neurochemical omelets.

Fortunately, last night I had a bowel movement last night that put me at total peace with the world. It, too, was but a neurochemical state. But no less an objective fact therefore.

One man's turd is another man's meaning in life.

Enjoy the physicalism.

After I passed the meaning of life, I sat to watch a program about General Custer. I wondered if he or his nervous system cared more about the outcome of his battles. If he or his nerve endings reacted more strongly to the perfunctory bright lights and singing howl of mortar fire.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The necessity of idolatry?

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[In one of those mundanely complex blog-crawls I think we all know too well by now, I ended up on the blog of a fellow that goes by the moniker Volker the Fiddler. I think he is the closest thing to an "atheist me" that I have ever met. For instance, he studied German in college, is at times a fastidious weaver of prose, maintains traditional written etiquette even in email, tosses out random fables and parables, and has a synthetic "big picture" approach to (arcane) discussions. In any case, a post of his about the inherent idolatry of personal faith in God led me to ply him with a few questions, which in turn led Volker to answer me in a longer post, which has now, but of course, led me to reply with an even longer post. I am posting it here just for form's sake.]

Your first point, concerning the historicity of Jesus, is a dodge, unwitting I'm sure, since the issue is not strictly whether Catholicism has a sound historical basis for its treatment of the poor and its positive role in society, but whether the latter treatment and role exist in fact. Even if, deridicule, Jesus of Nazareth were non-existent and the records we have of his life are sheer fictions, we are, in this discussion, still only addressing the historical fallout, as it were, of that fiction.

Having said that, however, I should point out that I'm tempted (with despair) to end the discussion right now if you are actually a Jesus-myther. I mean, once you start your case with that kind of historical nonsense as your standard for sound history, why should I bother debating any other part of history with you? Why should I rehearse the guy debating the meaning of "I love you" with his girlfriend when she denies the existence of love per se? You shouldn't be so dismissive of someone like Jesus and then go on to make grandiose claims about "religion as such" based on a smattering of historical allusions. It's mighty lopsided of you.

In any case, I want to note that your first post and then your second one in reply to my comments, actually comprise two distinct arguments. Your first argument, about the inevitability of idolatry, is a stab at a deductive argument against theology on psychological and philosophical grounds. The claim driving your anti-theological quasi-deductive challenge is, I hope to show, not simply invalid but also unparsimoniously incoherent, and intellectually dangerous.

Your second claim is more of a stab at a "historicalesque" argument, but I also think it is unfounded and gratuitous. I will address it first, since it is more fun than the philosophical refutation.

In order to clear the air, let me say that one kind of argument you are not making is a biblical one, since, as I say, even if the Bible were a pure collage of myths, its constant emphasis on justice for the poor, detraction against the oppression of the rich, the moral equality of the faithful before God and, especially, in Christ, etc., need to be addressed as historical realities. You may be cynical about how the biblical witness to justice plays out in actual historical and sociological fact, but that gives you no reason to denounce that religious witness in principle. The abuse of truth, as St. Augustine often noted, is no argument against truth. This asymmetry harks back to what I meant about your antecedent Jesus-mythism: even if it were untrue, the pattern which the Gospels have endorsed is that of Christ, that of God's victory coming precisely in the weakness of the weakest, life giving itself to us in the ignominy of death itself, redemption in the spoliation of victory itself. The Cross of Christ, even if it were taken as a myth, radically challenges your cynical view that all religion is intrinsically victor-oriented.

In principle, that is enough to dismiss your cynicism, but, fear not, your anti-religious cynicism also disintegrates once it enters the light of concrete history. For every case of the victors deploying God as a cover for their decadence, there is a case (or more) of the losers rallying together in the name of the oppressors' God to overthrow them. Look at the exodus of the Jews from Egyptian enslavement. Look at the role of religion in keeping ancient Australian clans and Eskimo clans intact. Look at the victory of the Maccabees from under the heel of Titus Andronicus. Look at the perseverance of the Jews under Babylonian captivity. Look at the death of gladiatorial slavery in Rome via Christian populism. Look at the indigenizing, proto-solidarity movement among early medieval Saxons against the Franks by way of such lay spirituality as is found in the The Dream of the Rood and The Heliand. Look at the origin of private property, constitutionalism, international law, and global human rights at the hands of medieval theologians. Look at the origin of universities for public education from the rootbed of Islamic mullahs and Christian monks. Look at the birth of centralized public health care facilities from Europe's monasteries. Look at the immediate denunciations of New World slavery by Catholic popes ( http://veniaminov.blogspot.com/2008/10/captains-log.html ), and the Church's age-old defense of liberty in a once slave-driven market-world ( http://medicolegal.tripod.com/catholicsvslavery.htm ). Look at the destruction of global slave trade spearheaded by William Wilberforce. Look at Gandhi's Christ-inspired revolution in India, and, in conjunction, look at the vital role of Christian missionaries in the demolition of the Hindu caste system. Look at "Saint" Teresita Urrea's role in Mexico's democratization. Look at the role of missionaries and basically Christian foreigners in Nanjing during the Japanese massacre there in 1937. Look at the explicit denunciations of Nazism as pagan fascism by both the Catholic papacy and Lutheran ministers. Look at the role of Catholic Guadalupean lay spirituality in the social restructuring of early- and mid-C20 Mexico. Look at the explicitly religious nature of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA. Look at the vital role of Catholicism in Poland's Solidarinosc movement against Communism and Alexander Solzhenitsyn's prophetic role in awakening the world to the evils of Soviet Communism against human dignity. Look at Oscar Romero's role, and Jesuit theologians in general, in South America's ragged progress towards democracy.

In other words, look at the facts. A typical Nietzschean, you are trying to defy the facts of history with eloquent abstractions, the will to power scraping futilely as always against the quiet power of truth. (Nietzsche, we recall, once "explained" the religious "spirit" India by saying the diet there consisted more of rice than meat.) Your point fails even if you object that the above benefits of religion, and many others, were not exclusively Christian, since I am defending the fundamental legitimacy of religion as an intrinsic social good. (Nonetheless, the role of Hinduism as a repressive caste-force in India, and its subversion by Christian witness, as well as the centuries-old, and still current, role of Muslim societies in the global slave trade, and its eventual subversion by Christian witness, do show that not all religions are simply equal.) There has never been a non-religious society, and if there ever has been, it was a nation-sized, doomed lab rat while active, and a curious, or even horrifying, museum piece now that it's defunct. The astounding suicide, depression, drug addiction, and population attrition rates in most post-Soviet countries are one wing of the museum. The nightmare of Enlightenment France is another.

If you want some perspective from where I am writing, I urge you to read a few of Rodney Stark's books on the rise and impact of religion, and Christianity's role in cultural history; read Christopher Dawson on the role of religion and Christianity in the same arena; read Stanley Jaki's Science and Creation and The Road of Science; read Thomas Woods's How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.

It does no good to qualify your anti-religious "historical" objection by saying religion is fine and good when practiced by the lowly, deluded lay people, but a real danger when "manipulated" by "the priests." Using a definite article, however, implies you can state definitely who "the priests" are. Who are these priests of yore that rigged the system so that, wonder of wonders, every society in history has valued religion as the ordering and inspiring matrix for the rest of its energies? Who are the guilty parties exactly? Surely not the lowly faithful, since it is precisely they who are being deluded. I suspect you will reiterate your point that the benefits religion offers the poor and lowly are "not surprising" since religion is just about controlling them in the first place. But at that point the game is over: for if the very means by which countless people have, historically, found social order and personal dignity, despite poverty and social ignominy, are themselves dismissed as the tools of the oppressors, well, I'm not sure social good and evil have any meaning anymore. Odd tool of the oppressors, if it works in case after case to destabilize the oppressors. Indeed, it is precisely with the trundling secularization of Brazil that its fair-skinned elites have remounted the horse of supremacy they nearly lost hold of during those annoying Catholic centuries. (And by "the Catholic inquisition," I suspect you are mistakenly blending the massive, deadly inquisition led by the Spanish throne with the much tinier, much more humane ecclesiastical inquisition that ran, at times as an explicit form of asylum from the larger inquisition, for a small portion of the former's duration. http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/history/world/wh0026.html )

The more basic ideological problem is that you are unwittingly arguing against humanity in the name of humanism. Since it is undeniable that the human species is religious as far as back as archeology can peer, you must find some explanation for man's beguilement. The priests! The inherent stupidity of the masses! If we are to take seriously only what humans taker seriously, despite what the gods say, we should, paradoxically, take seriously humankind's obsession with what the gods say. Because priests helped societies and citizens "keep it all together," so to speak, therefore religion is false. That is an extremely odd argument, to put it politely. It is one thing to say that despite its falsity, religion nevertheless produces some good from time to time, and quite something else to say that precisely because religion produces ample, evident social benefits, it is therefore false. Are you honestly suggesting that the essence of religion as such is a mass-scale agreement in all societies to entrust their uncertainty to a hierarchy just so they can be told obvious untruths and, thus, keep their chin up long enough to contribute some good to their society? To denounce religion is to denounce a central dimension of human existence. To be a humanist, in other words, is to be anti-humanist.

That is, after all, the thrust of your obiter dictum that altruism is not, biologically speaking, unique to humans: there is nothing especially human about being humane. But again, if a traditional form of theological argumentation––namely, the analogy of being after the pattern of the Triune Creator––is invoked to dismiss the Triune Creator, I don't know what actually counts as a good argument in your book. It is a traditional claim that nature "images" various attributes of God on all levels, arranged in an analogically ascending way, and therefore man is responsible to God as the designer of nature at all levels. It would actually weigh more heavily against Catholic anthropology if only humans displayed altruistic behavior, since Catholic anthropology asserts that man has a social nature, and that nature itself depicts the social triunity of God Himself ( http://veniaminov.blogspot.com/2009/01/expansive-logic-of-love.html ). Natural law has long stressed the idea that altruism is a natural obligation for man––just look at the birds of the field and, for that matter, the beavers of the dam. Religion is, then, seen as a continuation, a perfection, of basic natural goods, like social harmony, a literal "re-tying" (re-ligio) of all of nature's natural goods to their One Good Source. If man truly were a detached moral free agent, he would have no nature to honor and perfect. But seeing as he is biologically continuous with nature itself, he does have a nature which he must perfect in as humble and tireless a fashion as beavers build their dams and birds build their nests. It just so happens that some of what man's nature entails, or imposes, for him, is the good of rational excellence (aka, truth) and the good cosmic harmony (aka, redemption).

I have written before about the role of theism in psychological health and anthropological integrity: http://veniaminov.blogspot.com/2008/08/center-of-circle.html and http://veniaminov.blogspot.com/2008/01/pagans-are-eminently-rational.html and http://veniaminov.blogspot.com/2009/04/in-age-of-godmaking.html .

Now, to address your philosophical point, which was the heart of your initial post about idolatry. I think you state your claim most precisely, thus:

"…I also argue that no man possesses in himself the same conception of god as his fellow…. This god who dwells in each individual's mind is of a necessity in idol, being, as it is, only a simulacrum of the attributes he believes his god possesses; man is, after all, incapable of fathoming infinities—infinity being a characteristic oft attributed to gods and in particular 'God', i.e. omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, etc."

Let me tackle the second point first, concerning infinity. You say humans cannot fathom what? Cannot fathom infinities? What are those? What is infinity? If I can't fathom such a thing, how can you fathom it? Moreover, if you cannot fathom it, how do you know I cannot? You are grossly confusing imaginability with conceivability. Just because we cannot visualize infinity does not mean we cannot conceive of it, grasp it intellectually. Presumably, you mean that, because there is no handy exhibit of "an infinity" lying on the ground, or growing on trees, in nature, humans cannot "fathom" infinity. But you might as well say the human mind cannot grasp zero, since there are no floating pure voids, no utter-lack fruit trees, in nature. Far from not fathoming zero and infinity, the human mind invented them as operational realities (which, even then, does not address the matter of their existence as formal entities). Denying that humans can fathom what they cannot imagine is the death not only of theology, but also of all modern advanced sciences, insofar as, e.g., quantum mechanics, holography, general relativity, chaos theory, etc. all involve unimaginable but actual realities.

Now, to tackle your first, and I would say, core claim: The only thing I can give it, is its bluntness. Normally people are much more subtle about making "the worst argument ever", but, to your credit, you come right out and say it (in the interests of time, no doubt). As you might ascertain from the link I just provided, the worst argument ever, according to David Stove, is of the same form as your stab at a deductive anti-theological argument, to wit:

"We can know things only as they are related to us, under our forms of perception and understanding, insofar as they fall under our conceptual schemes, etc. So, we cannot know things as they are in themselves."

You are saying the same, but replacing "things in themselves" with "God in Himself". Now let's try it with another form of the argument that Stove provides:

"We can eat oysters only insofar as they are brought under the physiological and chemical conditions which are the presuppositions of the possibility of being eaten. Therefore, we cannot eat oysters as they are in themselves."

Your argument, which I will call "the argument from noetic skepticism", is, I am afraid, of the same lamentable quality as Stove's example about oysters. Not only does the alleged "necessity" of theology's incoherence not follow from the fact that it is humans doing theology (which is what you assert), but your argument is unparsimoniously invalid. If you were a consistent noetic skeptic, I would take your argument more seriously. As it stands, however, you are employing a double standard against theology, meanwhile leaving your favorite other disciplines unscathed. If it is a necessity that each person is an idolator (i.e., his thoughts about God are necessarily idiosyncratic and inaccessible to others thinking about 'God'), then it is likewise a necessity that each person is a solipsist about science, language, love, and all the rest. If 'God' is meaningless, since it is but a strange word shattered in a billion human mouths, then so is every other word.

You are basically trying to mount a "gavagai argument" against theology, but, oddly enough, Quine still kept writing, even after he had "proved" words are naturally indeterminate. His argument, like yours, is performatively incoherent. In the very act of asserting all language is indeterminate and radically idiosyncratic, he was presuming enough linguistic determinacy and communal coherence to get that point across, and for it to mean something to his readers. In a similar way, you are asserting that 'God' is meaningless, but only after presuming 'God' is meaningful enough to be discussed and dismissed. If you are right, and every instance of 'God' is radically unique, then I literally have no idea what you are talking about (since, to follow your logic, I cannot have your thoughts for you). But then, why on earth should I heed your argument at all? As soon as I think you might be on to something important weighing against my faith in God, I can just shake my head vigorously, blink myself out of it, shrug my shoulders, and recall that you are talking about 'God' whereas I believe in 'God'. Like I said, if you denied the coherence of all language and intersubjective thought, I would be impressed: maybe as a complete worldview your view would defeat my theism. But as a single move in your atheistic waltz, it is clumsy and intellectually dishonest. Why does '2' mean the same thing to us, but 'God' cannot? Why does 'addition' mean the same thing in every case but 'God' cannot? I will know you are being consistent with your noetic skepticism if you don't reply to me; I'll take it as a signal that, since there is no common meaning of 'God' for us to debate, nor is there any common meaning of 'integrity' to respect. Suffice to say your attempts to argue against religion by identifying its essence is highly comical in conjunction with your denial of any hopy of knowing the essence of 'God'.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

It takes a life…

1 comment(s)
A jaded old detective, call him something authoritative and off-putting, like McMurphyman, shows up at a flashing, nighttime crime scene. He raises a leg over the crime scene tape and stalks into the mash of clues his eyes are so adept at finding. Time passes. He observes. He queries. Young beat cops scratch their foreheads, try to sound forensic. He grimaces, tries to sound interested. He rocks back and forth on tired, wise heels. Morning comes. He went home. Couldn't sleep. Suspects needs faces, names. Downtown. He slips wrinkled, knobby fingers in and out of scene reports. Old arrests. Outstanding warrants. Suspects take on faces. Doors are knocked on. Heads are shaken and nodded with annoying, plebeian believability. Time passes. Heels ache. Our detective narrows the noose. Follows two hot leads. They putter, die. Darkness. Can't sleep. He wakes to a knock on the door. Officers brooding outside his door. Summoned. Dresses. Downtown. Under the lamp. First is casts no shadow off him, but onto him. Dark on his shirt, like the confused grimaces that infiltrate his old, sagging face. So he did it after all. Who would have thought to look for yourself as lead suspect?

The crime scene is your life. Blaming others works only so long. Eventually, truth comes knocking and you open to it. You see the light right in the darkness. You did it. The tape on the asphalt looks just like you. The crime called "your life so far" looks just like you, so far. Hell, the ultimate case: big people made of air and carbon blaming Everything but their bigness for where they end up, and where they don't. The hardness of heart the only thing that makes divine light hot, makes heaven hell, the transparency of graced repentance the only thing that makes divine light bearable, makes the heaviness of sin the lightness of new being. That same light, mistaken for infernal, hitting a wall of reckless, self-righteous freedom, heating up like the sun on solar dishes at desert's midday; that same light, taken for eternal, hitting a window of unrighteous freedom in wrecked grace risen to new life, cooling all things therein in crystalline perfection like The Nutcracker at the midnight of a child's mind.

You were born alive. And born to live. You were not born to die. So who said you could stop growing? Stop being mature and start being alive. It's your birth right. Or, otherwise, it'll be your birth wrong. Here I stand, I can do no other. Thus, remember, spake Zarathustra, the loser with a billion faces. Over ten billion served up, pwned. "This is the life I like, now leave me alone." But the first draft of everything, spake the Prophet Hemingway, is shit.

It takes a life to live a life. It takes a whole life to live a whole life. It takes all you have to be all of who you are. And even then, it takes what you don't have to be all of who you should be. It takes a life to become what you will be. And it took a life to bring you this far, to promise you that much farther in the light that bakes or brightens, depending. It took a life, His. It takes a life, yours. Stop calling dying a living.

Chinese Take 'im Out!

0 comment(s)
ERNIUS: Gleaming the Cube. It's on Cineview at nine.
BERTUS: Ahh, Gleaming the Cube. Gay title from the 80-90s? Or gayest title? "Jobbing the rim" sounds no better or worse to me.
ERNIUS: Not a good title for sure. Especially since it was about skateboarding.
BERTUS [hoists a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon]: Here's not to skateboard tribute movies. How do you spell "full body shudder"?
ERNIUS [purses lips and hoists matching can]:
BERTUS: I saw Taken and wanted to write a dissertation in film studies about how Chinese take out boxes are deployed in modern films. Since they are the only prominent prop in the first shot we have of Liam Neeson.
ERNIUS [hoists his Pabst again]: Segue alert!
BERTUS: And now I wonder how "gleaming" has been used. Well… not really. It's the Pabst talking.
ERNIUS [hoists his Pabst a third time, drones]: Here's to using the gleam!
BERTUS: The former, really. What's the deal with Chinese take out boxes? Should I call the NAACP?
ERNIUS: An intriguing premise. [He looks down at his Pabst without moving his head. Sadness blooms across his face.]
BERTUS: "Chinese take out boxes are the quintessential 'pathetic bachelor about to face dramatic challenge' trope." Reactions? Examples? Rebuttals? Pabst?
ERNIUS: As is spoiled milk in the carton… that pours out lumpy. Haphazardly arranged in the fridge next to the take out box.
BERTUS: Ahh, wisdom. Primal imagery.
[They both raise empty cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, crossing arms at the elbow.]
BERTUS: One tired eye glaring at the alarm clock is also pretty good. The mighty morning hand slamming down on Old Man Time, futile, flaccid. Snooze!
ERNIUS: Here's to snoozing against fate! [Pabst finds its way heavenward.]
BERTUS: Wow, yeah, Chinese take out and curdled milk. A terrible duo of pitiful bachelorhood, but rife with potential for our pathetic hero!
ERNIUS: Potential disease, maybe.
BERTUS: I want a short film about a bachelor so effed up that he pours his milk and stale Chinese food tumbles out, then dejec–– de-jec-ted-ly goes to scoop his Chinese take out and comes up with curdles.
ERNIUS: YES.
BERTUS: And then he wakes up to a shrill alarm clock, the one eye glare, and he is someone else.
ERNIUS: Zing! Go on….
BERTUS: But he finds the dream so depressing and true to what he actually is, that he goes to buy a gun. Pulls out cash at the pawn shop. [He gulps at an empty can of Pabst.] And it is Monopoly money.
ERNIUS: You're a bastard. Let me get some Pabst.
BERTUS: Finally he purchases a gun. Takes it home. … Are you listening?
ERNIUS: Dude, I'm getting Pabst. I'm not deaf!
BERTUS: So our man fires his new, well, new used gun up into his head at his throat and…
ERNIUS: Aaand?
BERTUS: And it is just a "BANG!" gun.
ERNIUS: I repeat: You're a bastard in the skin of a man.
BERTUS: So he goes out to eat. Orders Chinese food.
ERNIUS: Take out?
BERTUS: Nope. Eats it in the store.
ERNIUS: His act of heroism?
BERTUS: He finds it actually palatable, really tasty, and decides his life is not bad after all.
ERNIUS: Here's to Pabst! And Chinese food, take out or not.
BERTUS [accepts a cold can of Pabst Blue Ribbon]: The awesome thing is that we could actually make that.
ERNIUS [swallows a mouthful of Pabst and juts out his tongue]: Chinese food?
BERTUS: No, I mean this short film. You or I could be his dream self.
ERNIUS: And I or you could be his waking self.
BERTUS: With the assist. [They tap their cans of Pabst together.] You know, Pabst won a blue ribbon.
ERNIUS: Yes, in 1892, I think.
BERTUS: Props to blue ribbons! [They tap their cans of Pabst together.]
ERNIUS: I think the ultimate absurdist comic ending would be that, as he walks out of Chinee Takee Outee, his dream self lingers behind him, a hired assassin become incarnate, and stalks behind him for the kill shot. Then, fade to black. Chinese Take 'im Out!
BERTUS: Now who's the bastard, you bastard? But it's brilliant!
ERNIUS: And for a final shot: his gravestone is a giant Chinese take out box.
BERTUS: A moment of silence. … And then more Pabst.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

"Facebook Him, Danno"

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• “Mr. Morbeck, I think you and I, and everyone in this room, know it’s just a matter of details from here on out.”
• “I’m innocent,” protested Morbeck. The hobbled wooden chair creaked under him as his hands flashed open for emphasis.
• “Let’s go from the beginning,” Detective Andresen droned. He dragged a small stack of printed documents to the center of the table.
• “Sometime in late August you added Ms. Chanser to your Facebook account,” Andresen explained.
• “Come on, I’ve told you already, I add lots of people. It’s Facebook,” countered Morbeck. “Do you think I really weigh every person I add to my friend list?” His eyebrows bobbed in time with his words.
• Andresen glanced up at Detective Felderfield standing behind Morbeck. He was spinning a rubber band thumb over thumb, gently shaking his head at Andresen.
• “Mr. Morbeck, we have reliable indications,” Andresen said, tapping the stack of papers glowing in the lamp light, “that Ms. Chanser had been in your friend request dock for weeks prior to you adding her.”
• “So?” snapped Morbeck. “And how would you know that? I already said that’s conjecture.”
• “We’ve accessed most of your friends’ pages,” Andresen explained, “and the ones that don’t have Ms. Chanser on their friend lists at least have her as someone they might know.”
• Morbeck inhaled sharply and spit a burst of contemptuous air. “Conjecture.”
• “You keep saying that word, Mr. Morbeck,” Felderfield spoke up, “but we’re the detectives. Let us decide, huh?” He stretched the rubber band between his thumbs as if to snap it but then kept rotating it slowly.
• “The point of this conjecture,” Andresen went on, “is that it looks mighty odd for you to all but know the victim, and for most of your friends to know her too, and then see you add her only a few days before her demise.”
• “I’ve got lots of people I still haven’t added,” protested Morbeck. “I get around to it when I get around to it.”
• “What took you so long with Ms. Chanser, though?” pried Andresen. “Why all of a sudden so buddy buddy with her, and then—”
• “And then the big kaboom,” inserted Felderfield. Morbeck looked back at him over his shoulder. Felderfield just twanged the rubber band a few times.
• “You have a very erratic history, Mr. Morbeck, of adding and dropping friends. You’ve gone from over 200 friends to under 100 and then back up to more than 300. Ms. Chanser was your 313th friend, in case you didn’t know.”
• “I,” stuttered Morbeck, “I get frustrated with having that many friends that are even really my friends. It’s like housecleaning. I just… delete people sometimes, if I see I don’t even keep in touch with them.”
• “Or if their constant updates annoy you, yeah?” suggested Felderfield.
• “Yeah, that’s right,” nodded Morbeck over his shoulder, glad to have a sympathetic ear for once.
• “So, you like to do away with people on a whim, Mr. Morbeck?” Andresen wondered out loud. “Does it give you a sense of power, of control, to, uh, ‘delete’ people, Mr. Morbeck?”
• “Hey! You’re putting words in my mouth,” Morbeck shouted.
• “Calm down, Morbeck, we’re just going over the details with you,” Felderfield crooned.
• Morbeck snapped his back over his shoulder to glare at Felderfield. His chair clattered with age.
• “Look, Mr. Morbeck,” continued Andresen, “you went from naming The Catcher in the Rye as your favorite book to naming Water for Elephants just before you added Ms. Chanser.”
• “So? How do you know that? Maybe I have two favorite books.”
• “So, Water for Elephants was Ms. Chanser’s favorite book for at least three weeks. We’ve got a stack of Twitter reports that give us a blow by blow look at your activity. Remember last March when Facebook merged with Twitter?”
• Morbeck’s eyes sank. He pursed his lips and rubbed the back of his jaw with both hands. “Well,” he began pleading, “I had heard good things about the book. I had bought a copy and was already a chapter in, so I made it my favorite book.”
• “Before you even read it?” queried Felderfield, stretching the rubber band diagonally back and forth between pinched fingers.
• “I needed some motivation to get through it,” Morbeck explained, “so I thought if I imagined it as my favorite book, I’d be that much more into it.”
“We’re getting away from the point, Mr. Morbeck,” interrupted Andresen. “What we have is a small list of suspects, and you’re on it. We have the sudden addition of Ms. Chanser onto your friend roll. We have the psychological profile from your Facebook history.”
• This was new. Felderfield and Andresen smiled at each other with their eyes. Felderfield flicked the frayed red rubber band at the back of Morbeck head. Morbeck wiped his hair where it hit and asked, “What do you mean?”
• “Oh, you don’t know about the new app Facebook added last month?” cooed Andresen. “I guess you wouldn’t, seeing as you’ve been in here,” he said, looking up and around at the city jail all around them outside the interrogation room.
• “What is it?” Morbeck asked.
• “Oh, you pay a small fee to a personality assessment firm in Rochester, and they process all the cached profile data of whatever Facebook friend you’re curious about. • Then they collate the data, run it by a psychiatrist— moonlighting, mostly— and then deliver a fairly detailed psychological profile of whoever it is by email.”
• “You’re making it up,” objected Morbeck. He started to laugh, from the heart, feeling for the first time like a real baddie catching the coppers at their old good cop, bad cop antics. Something, damn it all, held him back from calling "Bullshit!" on Andresen and Felderfield. Was there something such as good suspect, bad suspect?
• Andresen snapped to get Morbeck's wandering eyes back in alignment. Then he smirked for show and flipped through a few pages till came to a paper clipped bundle. He turned it towards Morbeck and placed it in before him like someone weighing fresh fruit on a scale. Morbeck’s eyes bugged then went cross-eyed for a second. A voucher was tucked in the paper clip over the first page of what looked like a professional personality report. He’d paid for some before for himself, but never for someone else.
• “Have a look at your collated comments about your educational background,” Andresen prodded. “How do you think that looks to us, you and Ms. Chanser being classmates in high school, I mean. Looks like you carried some hard feelings from those days.”
• “And it looks like Ms. Chanser got the worst of it,” added Felderfield.

… …

[This story is a comic noir tale of a guy suspected of murdering an old high school classmate. The comicality comes in by way of nearly all the facts against him being shavings from his Facebook account. As far as I can at this point, Morbeck is innocent, so it's a Kafkaesque bad dream. The ‘idea’ is that by making our most superficial selves our most accessible and official selves, we end up getting caught by that same superficiality.]

"The Shit People Buy"

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[This is the first draft of the first stab at a new story of mine, called "The Shit People Buy." The story ultimately hinges on the ambiguity in the word "buy" in English, as in, purchasing vs. believing. The protagonist is a sort of Travis Bickle meets Holden Caulfield meets Ignatius J. Reilly meets Patrick Bateman.

The one interesting aspect of this narrative is the fluid shifting I do between first person and third person. I'm not saying it's uniquely my own style, but I can't recall an author at the moment that writes like that. It is meant to accentuate the ambiguity between Derrick's running critique of society and his actual performance along, or not, those lines.

Anyway, see if you can tell where Derrick's actions are headed by the end of this excerpt. 2500+ words.]

¶ The shit people buy. I'm telling you. Looking at ads like they're going out of style, or, then again, just coming into style. Flip-flopping hot items in their hands at the checkout lines. Wondering where each one could fit in their bloated, hollow lives. Finally deciding to buy. Buying like there's no tomorrow, or, worse, like there is no yesterday. Like there is nothing other than this or that little something to define themselves. Silently demanding a refund on who they were up to that moment, that precious, defining moment of purchase. When all the past mistakes and future dreams dissolve in a wave of clever release. I got it while it's on sale! I can return it if I need to! That's why I avoid stores. Or any one place for too long, really. Just makes me more cynical, seeing people, all basically the same, ambling into the same monstrous nonsense.
¶ So I ride taxis. It keeps me out of a rut. Or at least gives me a rut that keeps me from getting into any other rut. I never see the same people twice. Their tired, streetside demeanors as vague and transient as the yellow of cab after cab.
¶ I have hailed cabs and only recognized them just as I was tumbling into the back seat. I have no compunction about tumbling right back out if not too much of me, don't ask me how much, has already tumbled in. If my knee or any part of my legs has touched the seat, of course, there's no way I leave the cab. I'm stuck by my own invisible ethics.
¶ "Where to, sir?" asked the cabbie. Derrick knew the face. A month before? A year? Could he really remember that far back? He could, but the cabbie probably couldn't. Would you remember the face of every fare that got in your taxi, honestly?
¶ "Harold's Hardware, please," answered Derrick, feigning interest in the smudges on the rear passenger window. Averting his gaze for form's sake.
¶ "Harold's Hardware? What street is that on?" asked the cabbie, glancing from window to window as sullen cars oozed around him in traffic. He hated being at a curb longer than ten seconds. He rubbed the back alley of his ear as if he were looking for a pencil that should be resting there.
¶ Had he spoken too quickly? He'd sat with this stubble-faced driver before, but felt confident he didn't remember him. Another fare, as unfelt and unremarked as the silent arching of his stubble away from his gritty skin. But did he remember Harold's Hardware? What are the odds he'd used the same destination twice for the same driver? Now he had to give the same street as before, or the odor of deja vu might curdle to an itchy inconsistency.
¶ "Street, oh, I know it's along Pemberton Drive," Derrick replied, buying for time and plying the cabbie for hints.
¶ "Pemberton! What isn't along Pemberton!" the cabbie snapped. His head was in constant motion now eyeing the cars oozing with disdain around this unmoving transport. For shame!
¶ "Well, yeah, that's what I mean," said Derrick, "I've never been there, but my friend swears it's got just what I need. Maybe I should check the phone book and go another day…."
¶ "What you need?" the cabbie asked, his head holding still just long enough to cock an eyebrow in the mirror. Forget begging off now. The tiniest root of rapport had wedged its way between him and the cabbie. Their Pemberton Problem was now a mutual destiny, a shared grief in their muffled, unmoving space by the curb.
¶ "Well, I mean, what my friend needs," Derrick replied, "for a project he's, we're working on."
¶ "Some kind of home design, yeah?" asked the cabbie.
¶ How could he not remember Harold's Hardware on Pemberton! It didn't exist, sure, but discovering that, or nearly discovering that, last time should have triggered something by now. Was he stupid or just implacably friendly? Time for a bucket pass out.
¶ He glanced at the dash. B. Clines.
¶ "Yeah, just some refurbishing before he gets married," mumbled Derrick.
¶ B. Clines grunted amicably. "You know, I'm sorry, but the meter is running. It's automatic," he said, shrugging apologetically.
¶ "Oh, by all means!" Derrick said, catching himself for sounding too starchy.
¶ "I got an idea," he suggested, softening his grammar to sound more simpatico. "Let's just head to another hardware store along the way, and then I can at least try to get what I need there."
¶ "Fine by me, sir," B. Clines answered, chopping at his left blinker and bulging into traffic like a foal out of its mother. He fought the urge to deploy one of his "just an average macho guy taking a taxi" lines with this B. Clines, but he decided he'd already drawn enough attention to himself this ride.
¶ "What's the B. stand for?" asked Derrick. He had to try covering his gaffe with chitchat. Sound like every other fare. I like my women like I like my coffee–– cheap and refillable. Ixnay! Ixnay!
¶ "You'll laugh," Clines answered. "You can call me Burt, but my mother named me Burton."
¶ "Burt, Burton. That's a fine– sounds like a good name to me," replied Derrick. He chuckled ineffectually. Simpatico. Anonymous. Distant without being enigmatic. The longer they drove, the deeper and hotter Harold's Hardware would burn into Burt's brain, thrashing about like hot coals rattling down a chimney, until it hit something tender and burst into flame. A memory. And Derrick would be pegged. So he roved the streets as dusk darkened over the day. Looking for any plausible detour.
¶ "You know, mister," mentioned Burt, "I have heard of Harold's Hardware before. I just couldn't place the name till now." Pegged.
¶ "Oh?" muttered Derrick.
¶ "A while back I had a guy looking for it too, on Pemberton, like you said," Burt continued. Was he playing with Derrick now? His cab, his turf. His turn?
¶ "Oh, really, well," mumbled Derrick, affecting a look of deep attention out the window. He must have sounded so ineffectual, like a drooping daisy. I like my women....
¶ "But I think it's closed," said Burt. "I mean, I couldn't find it last time, and if your friend didn't have an exact address, he might have just heard of it by, uh, hearsay. Who knows how long ago it might have been open, you know?"
¶ The cabbie was drowning the flame in the blind rain of his own kindness! What a break! Night fell and the traffic lights played their endless game of stop and go in full relief. Pretending to offer a way out just over the next hill, just past the next intersection, a way to green hope lit by green lights, a way to a warm red end lit by stop lights, but then showing up just over the next hill, after the next intersection, taunting the dreamer with a red to check his hope of green release, a panting green light to smother his longing for an end. Green light: no rest for you. Red light: no cookie for you. Yellow light: think about it but don't think so hard you don't keep playing.
¶ "You know, Burt," Derrick said in his warmest tone, "I think you have– got a good idea there." And then he saw it. Home Care Hardware.
¶ "That's it!" shouted Derrick, louder than he meant to. Burt jerked forward in his seat, yanking at the wheel with a start.
¶ "What, what?" he asked, suppressing a moment of unprofessional clumsiness like a lecturer edging in one step behind the podium after noticing his fly is down.
¶ "Home Care Hardware. Up on the right," Derrick directed, putting a virile tone of boredom into his voice. It sounded close enough to Harold's. A believable mistake. Harold's, Home Care. It's all hardware, right, Burt, right, Burty old baby?
¶ "Oooohhh," moaned Burt, gilding the sound with a crystal edge of mirth. "You mean Home Care, not Harold's. I could've told you that."
¶ "That's what you get when you take things by word from your friends, right…" Derrick said, losing the will to say Burt at the last minute. "Let me out here and I'll call my buddy."
¶ "You want me to wait?"
¶ "No, no, it's fine," Derrick insisted, "You've done enough already, too much, really. My mistake."
¶ Burt said nothing, but Derrick noticed he glanced over at the trembling red numbers on the meter. A little green bulbed flashed in the top left. The cab elbowed its way out of traffic to the curb and Derrick made a little show of reaching into his back pocket for his money, even he'd been holding a $20 bill since Cabbie Clines had started driving.
¶ "That'll be $13.65," Burt droned. He didn't want to rub it in Derrick's face.
¶ "There you go," Derrick replied, "Three dollars change, please." He couldn't tip too much or too little, otherwise he'd make that much more tinder in Burt's brain. He was already pretty sure Harold's Hardware was going to make the rounds in whatever little conversations Burt had with his fellow cabbies, at least for the next day or two. He took a clandestine comfort in the fact that it was just a matter of time before Derrick's peccadillo would get water logged in the sea of Burt's friendliness and dragged down to darkness like a fallen penny from the eyes of the dead crossing Lethe.
¶ So you can see what I mean about staying out of a rut. Something as seemingly simple–– sorry, as deceptively mundane–– no, something as humdrum and workaday as riding a taxi to a store that doesn't exist is rife with perilous missteps. What will I do if, per impossibile, I ever find myself tumbling into Burt's moist little cab? Who knows? That's just the point. No rut. No predictability. No patterns. No prison. Just me watching the shit people buy drag them down as soon as it lifts them up.
¶ Take two nights ago as an example. I was in the back seat of a taxi, pretending to copy important business contacts off of business cards. (They were just business cards and mini take-out menus I had palmed from restaurants I'd dropped in on the past few nights.) We hit a long red light near the city council, and so I hallowed the moment by leaning my head back onto my cushion. I find that little things like that–– say, fumbling without protest for something until the cabbie ever so kindly flips on the cab light, or dropping a few coins under the front passenger seat so the cabbie helps you dig around for them at the next stop light–– gives most cabbies a real sense of worth. Little things make your ride seem special makes most cabbies beam. Like seeing a fare make himself at home, almost comfortable and secure enough to sleep, on the well groomed head rest in the back seat at a long red light downtown.
¶ Anyway, there I was, living it up at the long red, when I saw a huge billboard across the street over a used car lot.
"Hair, hair, everywhere? Want a peachy body without the wolf man fuzz? Don't buzz that fuzz...
Try Foam-Alone Hair Removal! Guaranteed to remove unwanted hair without damaging skin. Available at all Cosmetic Bloom retailers."

¶ Strewn along the bottom were anime-style humanoids all displaying a unique hair problem: one grizzled old man with hairs bursting from his ears like TNT from a mine, a lumpy young lady frowning and staring at her mustached lip, a dazed rake-thin man whose arms and legs looked like redhead floor mats on a torso, a muscular dude with hair covering, I presume, his buff chest. And so on, right off the margins of the billboard.
¶ Shit people buy. People, that is, buy shit. How did Rudolph, Rudy the Booty, put it back in school? "People like dreck?" Good enough. Hat tip to Rudy, even if he didn't earn it. If it weren't for ads like that, there wouldn't be "unwanted hair." Small minds don't want the hair they have because they think they need to look like a billboard model. Everyone knows how fake ads are, and how companies just want your money, but they still go for products like Foam-Alone. Not even slaves to ads, since slaves at least know they are slaves. Worse: ants answering a call from a queen they don't even believe exists. The Market. Too abstract to fear, too abundant not to love. If Mommy Market told them their little whiskers had to go, their little whiskers just had to go. If Mommy Market stared at their soft bellies and pouted about six-pack abs, it was right on their backs to get rocked and pumped by an ab roller that seemed to cradle them at every grunting step towards six-packdom. I don't even want to imagine how expensive Foam-Alone is. At least addicts of other drugs get enjoyment with every fix. But these Market mummies just get a deeper sense of guilt every time they look up to the skies and see what they need next.
¶ The light turned green and Derrick's cab surged forward, trying to get around the thumping little Mazda that had gotten caught behind a pickup, warbling and growling like a dog in a cage. A few blocks ahead traffic was dispersed and only dull hum from the city. His cab turned right and dropped Derrick off at his apartment. As he got out Derrick offered the driver a very large tip without noticing it and Derrick was forced to take back almost $20. He walked up stairs, stuck his finger in his mailbox just for form's sake, and made his way upstairs as his shoes hissed on each splintery wooden step. He played with the change he'd gotten from the cabbie until he got to his door on the fourth floor, and then stuffed it into his breast pocket as his other hand reached for his keys. He entered and reached into the kitchen for a light switch. In the kitchen he leaned over the open door at the waist, one hand gripping the door jamb, the other arm sagging over the fridge door. He reached in for a bowl of soft mottled grapes. The money tumbled out of his pocket. He sighed, grunted, knelt down to collect it with his free hand, the bowl of grapes hovering in the dim light in his other hand.
¶ He stood up, closed the door, put the money down on the cutting board, and rested his hip against the counter as he slowly ate one grape after another. A mosquito buzzed by his ear. He reached up to swat it away, and then started rubbing his ear. He felt little hairs all over it. Tiny stiff probes jutting off the lip into his ear canal. Longer soft hairs perched on the upper rim of his ear, lost until now in the general hairiness of his head. A flimsy record needle sprouted from each of his earlobes; he could hear them scratching like drunken DJ's along the grooves of his studious finger tip.
[17.4.09, 367 words.]
¶ His one hand was becoming so transfixed by the stubbly wonder of his ear, in fact, that it seemed to jam the works in his other hand, that hapless other hand, which was, until now, blissfully occupied with the raising of grape after grape to silent, romping, maroon lips, but was now frozen with the transmuted anxiety of its partner hand. It was now caught in the glare of lips that no longer chewed so much as pantomimed the worry of the man's mind by slowly frisking a grape, long dead and nigh juiceless, the spoiled, split corpse of Hector around Troy, over and around his teeth in time with fingers at his ear as they frisked the hirsute impudence of the man's hormones, impudent for having covertly sprouted record-needle hairs on helpless earlobes, slender flags staked in the name of testosterone for studious fingers guided by an absent mind to find–– to find and to freeze that other hapless hand in midair as it raised a new grape to lips dedicated to thoughtless chewing.
¶ Now the feet heard the scratchy melody, too. The melody being broadcast from outside in from the earlobe to the fingertip, into the brain, down the sciatic nerve and into the soles of feet, cajoled the soles of those feet to scrape themselves from a grape-eating stance to a slow, pensive walk towards the bathroom. To the bathroom where one free hand, covered by another hand, full of assurance that the little hairs, like little foxes in a vineyard, would not get away this time, glided towards a bathroom mirror that, this whole time, this whole damned hair-sprouting time, had sightlessly reflected a pair of tweezers gleaming under neon lights. A gleaming pair of tweezers now poised in the free fingers of a free hand in the free air of a free man's bathroom, rising like the head of an adder, chrome tongue spit outward, chrome tines fused tweezerward, arching back in that no longer hapless hand, back, no longer blind and transfixed but silently fervent and guided towards an ear that played its scratchy little tune after all these weeks (days?) of growth under the relentless caress of an outraged finger.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

I'm sorry, madam, it seems you won't make quite good enough a mother…

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¶ How could a clinic in this day and age still be using linoleum? Linoleum! Even the word tasted like petrified wood. The same spattering of dull gray-gold dots on white. She stifled the urge to glance outwards, in jest, at the candid camera behind the plant, or up on the bookshelf to the right. For all that, though, she couldn't refrain from patting the table, then rubbing ever so gently, expecting unseen cracks to betray its age and––
¶ "Mrs. Wommel," asked the clinician, over his olive green glass frames, "is something the matter?"
¶ She retracted her hand into the anonymous security of her other, open palm, hoping it looked more like she had been stretching than fondling linoleum.
¶ "You seem... preoccupied," continued the clinician.
¶ "No, I," began Marylin Wommel, "I merely thought your desk had a tiny floral pattern on it." No! She had been stretching! How embarrassing!
¶ "I see," the clinician replied, leaning forward out of his beige swivel chair and wobbling his glasses on his nose as he inspected the tiny floral pattern that was not there. He seemed satisfied that there was no such pattern, or at least that he could not see it, and leaned back into his chair. His long, thin hand arced up and gently landed on a manila folder Mrs. Wommel had not seen behind the potted plant, and slid it across the linoleum. Mrs. Wommel leaned to her left so she could have a better look at the surprise folder, compelling her eyes not to dip down for a peek at the linoleum trembling with faux flora under her chin.
¶ "You are not comfortable in clinics, are you Mrs. Wommel?" inquired the clinician, as he covered the folder, like a man would on a bus if he had soiled himself.
¶ "Me? No, I'm fine. I'm fine," replied Mrs. Wommel, peering through the clinician's diffident hands at the possible words in the folder. When would her husband be here? She thought he'd said 3:30, but why had set the appointment for 4:00, then? Maybe he'd said 4:30.
¶ "Mrs. Wommel, it's nearly 4 o'clock, and Dr. Buser will be in in a few minutes," said the clinician, stumbling over two in's in a row, "Will your husband be here soon?"
¶ "Yes, he's on his way," she answered, glancing up at the bookshelf.
¶ As if on cue, as if watching from next door via the bookshelf's nonexistent camera, her husband, Mr. Aphan Wommel, knocked on the office door as he pushed it open.
¶ "Sorry I'm early," he chortled. He was a wit without pause.
¶ "Aphan, I knew you'd make it on time," Marylin chirped, glancing at the clinician before giving her husband a slow hug. His hands warbled over the folder when she glanced at him and he strained to look intent on the page while they hugged.
¶ The Wommels took their seats at the linoleum office desk, Aphan on the right, Marylin on the left.

… … …

¶ Dr. Buser thanked Perry for the glass of water and drank it in two steady, concerted nodding gulps. "Congratulations on wanting to be parents!" he said, his lips glistening with water, his eyes flushed from the effort of downing so much of it so fast.
¶ "It's what I was made to do," Aphan answered, laughing at his own wit. His wife tilted her head towards Aphan and laughed, as if to show Dr. Buser how it was done.
¶ "Well, yes," Dr. Buser proceeded, "if you mean biologically, you're right. But of course in our day and age––" Marylin eyed the linoleum "––there is so much to it than mere biology."
¶ "Wel, Doc, that's why we came to you, right, babe?" Apham said, rubbing his hand with vigorous affection around his wife's always erect back. "So how's it look, Doc?"
¶ "Well, that all depends, as you know, on just what we think is worth looking at," answered Dr. Buser. He secretly thought of himself as a poet, nay, a bard, trapped, nay, sequestered in a physician's body. That perspective had, he firmly averred, bestowed upon his otherwise menial clinical tasks, a psychic sensibility that other doctors lacked. To see in himself a sequestered muse enabled him to see in his patients prisoners of a different sort to their body's rebellious convulsions. Or should he say perturbations?
¶ "Well, Dr. Buser," interjected Marylin, "we are just interested in our child's best interests."
¶ Dr. Buser failed to mask his displeasure at hearing the Wommels' were "interested in" their child's best "interests." Ghastly prose.
¶ "I'm sure you are interested in your child's best interests," he replied, deciding to have a little fun, "and I find that very inspiring, but what we first need to investigate at this instant, is how well you two seem to be suited for investing in your child's interests in the long run."

… … … 

[It's late and I need to sleep, but the above belongs in a story in which science is so well developed that doctors can actually predict with great certainty how a couple's child(ren) will turn out. And with this prescience, they can counsel couples out of being fertilized with the sperm to make that child. Fertilization is, in this world, clinically administered. Each family has its own private sperm bank. If it is clear that the parents will fail, or abuse, etc. their child(ren), child services can step in to prevent some fertilizations. Less drastically, parents can be forewarned of the difficulties they will have in raising this or that child. Do they really want to have the guilt of stifling a great artist's native instinct for music, just so he can be a doctor? Etc. Parents are also expected to sign a contract of culpability for the future if some of the worst projections do occur in their child's life.

It is, I admit, an unabashed variation on Philip K. Dick's idea in The Minority Report, but I also think it affords enough comical gravitas to stand on its own legs. I'm still not sure where the crisis will arise, but I think it will be enough for us to see this society through the life of one couple, say, the Wommels. The 'idea' is that this society now allows children to, as it were, abort their parents. If a projected child is seen to bitterly resent having been born of certain parents, under certain conditions, he can prosecute them in the future and revoke his own (in the past, still merely potential) fertilization. The 'idea' is to ponder the logic of pro-choice rhetoric when turned inside out in favor of the fetuses. I suspect this is a long gestated, much milder version of a surrealist-expressionist tale I came up with years ago about a gigantic fetus that stalks the city like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, seeking either vengeance on or acceptance from the mother than tried to abort him.]

"The Secular Case Against Gay Marriage"

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"Some have compared the prohibition of homosexual marriage to the prohibition of interracial marriage. This analogy fails because fertility does not depend on race, making race irrelevant to the state’s interest in marriage. By contrast, homosexuality is highly relevant because it precludes procreation."

–– Adam Kolasinski

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Thank non-God for Science and thank Science for non-God!

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So, the claim is that modern physical science is the deliverance of our Stone Age brains from the cognitive myopia we evolved over eons, yes?

Science at last gives us the precise apparatus we need as a species to overcome the crude folk theories of ontology, physics, biology, and ethics which we have simply picked up and confected for survival value, yes?

Our natural, common sense assumptions about the world, while helping us survive and procreate, are woefully off-base about the actual workings of the physical cosmos, correct?

Natural selection, therefore, has given us a range of useful but misguided capacities just so we can pass our genes along, right? We are, in other words, naturally wrong about the world we inhabit (at least on a theoretical, if not perceptual, level)?

There is, then, no inherent need for us, as products of natural selection alone, to understand, say, quantum mechanics and electrodialysis, since, obviously, numerous species (and all our pre-scientific ancestors) passed along their genes just fine without such heavy-duty rational insight, yes?

Is it not, then, almost axiomatic that natural selection has no selective "interest" in how impressive or dull our theories are? As long as we can function well enough, at a perceptual and kinesthetic level, to survive early death and pass on our genes, what need is there for nature to select for advanced theoretical truth about the non-genetic world?

In light of the above considerations, what grounds do we have for saying natural selection has brought us to a true grasp of the world? Scientific knowledge is not a normative, predictable result of natural selection. If it were, we would have all evolved scientific instincts, but, again, we actually have crude, anthropocentric, small-range, large-scale myopia about the world. Therefore, we are at our most procreatively fit without any theoretical baggage confabulated by modern exact science. Therefore, the theory of natural selection alone lacks a cogent basis for the emergence of scientific theoretical knowledge. In which case, however, what grounds do we have for adhering to the theoretical confabulation called "natural selection"? Do we need to understand natural selection in order for our societies to function stably enough that our species can procreate? Clearly not.

Only if advanced scientific theories are construed as deductive elaborations of our brute sensory grasp of the world can we say that exact theoretical science naturally emerges from the process of natural selection. Unfortunately, it is harder to find a worse caricature than that of how exact science has actually developed and how it actually works.

Monday, April 13, 2009

No such animal…

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If there is no such thing as a straight line, there is no such thing as a crooked line.

Likewise, if there is no such thing as truth, there is no such thing as lying.

If no one is ever absolutely right, no one is ever absolutely wrong, and therefore no one is ever absolutely guilty of deceit.

If all truth claims can be “reappraised” from countless “possible” angles that undermine their status as “truly true,” then likewise any lie can be “reinterpreted” so as to be “true in some sense,” and therefore not truly deceitful.

Truth, unlike moons and meteors, is not subject to motion.

(I copied this post from a source I will not identify, via Google.

Or did I?)

The most important thing…

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What is the most important thing you did yesterday, or will do today?

What is the most important thing you did last year, or will do this year?

What is the most important thing you have done, or will do, in your whole life?

The answer in every case is: "Jesus Christ died for me."

The most important thing you have ever done, or may ever do, is accepting this truth: "Jesus Christ died for me so that I might know the Father in the Holy Spirit and grow to love those alongside me along the way."

As Paul Tillich said, "Accept that you are accepted."

Christian faith essentially means learning to love the truth that you are loved beyond all measure. This is no more a sheer mental act than learning to ride a bicycle. Because humans are essentially embodied rational beings, we naturally attain supernatural "soulful" maturity by way of "bodily" piety. This is why the sacraments are as concrete and repetitive as they are. The sacraments are the performatively necessary acts of faith that literally train our bodies to respond more and more readily and radically to the most important thing we can ever "do", namely, "Jesus Christ died for me that I might live for Him."

Thus we learn to appropriate the most important thing in the world––our life, and the death of death, in Christ's death––by performing the seemingly most unimportant things in the world: moving our hands before us in the shape of a cross, kneeling as we enter a chapel, folding our hands as we pray, bowing our heads as we pass an icon or a statue of sanctity, running our eyes over persistently inscrutable (or numbingly platitutidinous) words in a bible, entering a small room and rehashing our most awkward moments, and so on.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

In a world of guaranteed gifts and forced forgiveness…

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AXIOM: If everything is necessary, nothing is gratuitous.

POSTULATE: Forgiveness and gift-giving are intrinsically gratuitous.

SUB-POSTULATE 1: A non-gratuitous gift is a contradiction in terms, just as ineluctable forgiveness is morally incoherent.

EXAMPLE 1: If I force you to bring about a "forgiveness event" on John's behalf then I have simply forced you to act in such and such a manner without actually forgiving John.

SUB-POSTULATE 2: If a gift is a guaranteed outcome of prior conditions in a relationship, and if forgiveness is a forced result of conditions pertaining to the offense, then neither the gift-giving nor the act of forgiveness has any intrinsic merit or moral significance.

CONCLUSION: If everything is necessary, there is no such thing as forgiveness and gift-giving.

REJOINDERS: Even on a compatibilistic reading, in which strict determinism is compatible with an agent's own intrinsic actions, determinism still renders the forgiveness and gifting events necessary, whereby they are not truly acts of forgiveness and gifting. Even if a determinist can say that nothing "extrinsic to" the agent's (determined) nature, dispositions, knowledge, etc. "forced" him to forgive someone (or give a gift to someone), he still must acknowledge that the entire event qua the-agent's-forgiving-somebody (or the-agent's-giving-of-a-gift), were inevitable, absolutely necessary outcomes of prior conditions. Thus, while the agent may "feel" he himself is forgiving his offender, and while this feeling may be as fully compatible with his own (determined) nature as his (determined) sense of outrage at the offense is, yet, in the larger moral framework in which the event is actually recognized as an act of forgiveness, there is nothing gratuitous or magnanimous about the act of forgiveness itself. For, if determinism is true, the agent's magnanimity followed from the offender's wrongdoing as necessarily as did the agent's being upset. The same holds for the act of gift-giving. If it is a strict necessity that I will give a beggar some money for dinner, or that I will surprise my wife with a bouquet, then those acts are not in the least gratuitous. It may be true that nothing within the event-structure itself "forces" me, against my own (determined) nature, to be generous or romantic, yet the events themselves are necessary, and therefore lack anything of the gratuitous nature of acts of generosity, hospitality, forgiveness, sacrifice, etc.

MUSINGS: It seems that determinism's only criterion for good and evil is whether an act ends up being forgiven or ends up remaining unforgiven. If it is ineluctably determined that a man's murdering another man's wife will result in the husband's forgiveness of the murderer, then it seems there was, ultimately, nothing truly wrong with his act of murder. After all, it resulted in a virtuous act and was pardoned from the murderer's record (at least vis-à-vis the husband). Likewise, it seems that the only deterministic criterion for generosity is whether someone ends up being generous or not. If a man's deliberation to give a gift or not necessarily results in, say, generosity, then the act of deliberation itself is morally inseparable from the (necessarily eventual) virtue of actually being generous. Conversely, if some other man's deliberation over an act of generosity ultimately and necessarily results in his being miserly, then his act of deliberation is morally inseparable from his non-virtuous niggardliness. Therefore, if determinism is true, the moral worth of your deliberation to be virtuous or vicious is actually determined to be virtuous or vicious by whatever actually is already determined to come about.

Not hurting anyone, that I could see…

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In our day it is a common claim that morality is about enhancing other people's (as well as animals') pleasure, while wrongdoing consists in causing people needless pain. Let us call this principle hedonistic utilitarianism. It is the ethos often invoked to defend homosexuality and pornography. "Hey, you might not like them yourself," hedonistic utilitarians argue, "but gay sex between consenting adults and watching porn don't harm anybody. So there's nothing wrong with them. Plus, they make the people who do them happy. So it's actually good to allow people this kind of happiness. As long as what they do doesn't harm anyone else and helps them be content citizens, it is well within their rights to practice gay sex and lose themselves in porn."

If, however, the norm for morality vs. immorality and right vs. wrong is the impact (i.e., pleasant or harmful) our actions have on people in our so to speak causal ambit, then what makes spying on people immoral?

Insofar as a (skilled) peeping Tom, by definition, does no harm to the people he spies on, then there is nothing wrong with voyeurism. That is, of course, if wrongdoing consists in hurting, frightening, endangering, etc. people, as hedonistic utilitarianism claims. Indeed, we could even imagine a peeping Tom who sprayed a mild hallucinogenic (or whatever), free of harmful side effects, into the rooms of the women he spies on. Then those women would enjoy a few hours of careless bliss (thus, you see, letting their guard, if not their panties, down that much more easily). In which case, our peeping Tom's voyeurism would not only not be wrong, since it causes women no needless pain, but would also be virtuous, since it gives them gratuitous pleasure.

"Hey, you might not like it yourself," argues the peeping Tom, "but watching women undress, or just go about their ho-hum business at home, doesn't harm anybody. So there's nothing wrong with it. Plus, the drugs I administer makes them happier than would be without them. So peeping on them like I do is virtuous. As long as what I do doesn't harm anyone else and helps me be content a citizen, it is well within my rights to enjoy the lives of others."

Thus we see once more that the "philosophical" endorsement of "private" perversion is itself a form of social perversion.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Free to be determined…

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"It is a repressive, medieval myth that homosexuality is a perversion of human nature. There is no such thing as an 'essential human nature'. Homosexuals ought to be able to marry each other; to demand otherwise is a violation of their basic human rights. Homosexuality is as essential a part of human nature as heterosexuality is. Homosexuals are free to do whatever they like, sexually, since they are genetically determined to be gay. They are just trying to be who they are by nature."

Monday, April 6, 2009

My soul is not I…

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A regular here, unBeguiled, recently posted a quotation from Graham Oppy that included the following statements:

"…I take it that our 'mental' states are nothing other than certain kinds of [1] states of our brains. … the welter of information that we possess concerning neural deficits, and the nature of various kinds of physical impacts on our 'minds,' provides very strong reason for [2] denying that we are essentially nonphysical spooks who are only contingently wired up to our bodies."

I shall first reply to the second of two claims I have indicated:

(2) Good thing, too, since this is not what classical anthropology espouses. Aristotle and St. Thomas, i.a., are explicit that we are essentially embodied creatures, not contingently. That's all that "the soul" means: it is just the way in which we exist bodily. If there are no formally intelligible ways in which diverse beings exist, then there is no hope of science describing them intelligibly. Form just means "the way a thing predictably acts by nature." If there is no such thing as form––and form which orders a things parts to its proper function––then science has literally nothing to say about the world.

Sections 2 & 8 of Quaestiones Disputatae de Anima deserve a patient reading. But, in the interest of time, I will quote from the 15th section of St. Thomas' Commentary on I Corinthians, and then proceed to the first claim indicated in Oppy's quotation:

"For it is clear that the soul is naturally united to the body and is departed from it contrary to its nature and per accidens. Hence the soul devoid of its body is imperfect, as long as it is without the body. … In another way, because it is clear that man naturally desires his own salvation; but the soul, since it is part of man’s body, is not an entire man, and my soul is not I; hence, although the soul obtains salvation in another life, nevertheless, not I or any man. Furthermore, since man naturally desires salvation even of the body, a natural desire would be frustrated."

(1) What are our brain states but certain kinds of states of ourselves in action? Our neural structure takes on the synaptic weights, thresholds etc., that it does precisely by being informed by the numerous intelligible species we receive via sensation. As the old Scholastic saw has it, "Nothing is in the intellect but by way of the senses." Once it is "in us," however, the object's formal structure imposes itself on our proper matter. Thus the same form exists objectively under two (or more, depending on how many observers) material substances. Note that the same form does not exist in two supposita (that is, more or less, two 'individuals') by virtue of the same material construction (or, 'shape'). The tree we see in our lawn does not become perceived as a tree by making a little tree shape in our retina or occipital visual center. Rather, the same form is present in a way that 'fits' for the various kinds of matter involved. In the case of a tree, it will inform cellulose, chlorophyll, etc., into an actual tree, but in the case of our perception of the tree, it inform our synaptic response so that we can neurally 'possess' the form of a tree in a way that corresponds to our proper matter (i.e., flesh and blood). The same form can, of course, be present under a different matter, such as the pixels on your screen, or the electronic binary code that generates the computer image.

I am tickled to see unBeguiled did craft a pretty handsome restatement of this principle by saying, "An external phenomenon interacts with our sense organs which in turn causes our brain to produce a model of that phenomenon." But it's a one-hooray party, since not much later unBeguiled goes on to mangle the whole benefit of the Aristhomistic epistemological schema. Objecting to my entire usage of "form," as well as, fatally, my claim that a form "objectively exists" under the matter of both the percept and the perceiever, he complains:

I don't know why you are using the word 'form' here. First you used 'thing's formal structure', which I changed to 'phenomenon', so I will substitute again.

"Thus the same phenomenon exists under two material substances."

False. When I look at my dog, the model of the dog produced in my brain is not the same phenomenon as the dog.

In this light we can see why his restatement of the Scholastic wisdom was, alas, only skin-deep. For whereas the Scholastics invoked that principle in order to account for our objective, intimate immersion in and knowledge of the world, unBeguiled invocation of perceptual "modeling" sets the ship right into a Cartesian vortex of skepticism. By replacing an object's intelligible structure (i.e., form) with phenomenon, he has changed the whole nature of the game. Obviously, what happens in my brain versus what triggers it happening are distinct phenomena. But this is trivial: for an Aristhomist they have to be distinct, otherwise percepts exist wholly and ideally in our brains. For an Aristhomist, there must be a phenomenological difference between our perception of a thing and the thing's act of being (i.e., existence), otherwise we would either be perceiving our our perceptions (and so on ad infinitum) or there would never be any thing that we perceive. This is why I used the word "objectively;" it is not a trivial term. It conveys the idea, again, that we are not merely perceiving our own mental "representations" in some inner "theater" of consciousness (as Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, and Hegel all claimed, albeit each in his own way), but that we are actually, objectively informed with the exact same intelligible content that makes an X an X. A dog's proper matter (i.e., its body), the wood comprising a statue of a dog, the binary signals comprising a digitized dog, and our neural matter all have sufficiently similar potency (i.e., materiality) that they can all be informed by the same actuality (i.e., form). The stakes could not be higher: if a dog's actual form is not capable of "inhabiting" our perceptual potency, we have no way of really perceiving any dog, or any thing else besides. Hence, unless it is crucially qualified, unBeguiled's (perhaps more "scientific" sounding) use of "model" and "phenomenon" spells the doom of objective science as surely as Descartes did with his rationalistic skepticism (cf., to name only a few sources, E. A. Burtt's The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, chapter VI of The New Story of Science by Robert Augros & George Stanciu, chapter II of Wolfgang Smith's Cosmos & Transcendence, chapters I & II of his The Quantum Enigma, as well as his essay "The Plague of Scientistic Belief" [available from me upon request], for all, or most of, the gory details). Clearly, the "worldview-level" meta-problem that unBeguiled––and nearly every modern naturalist and materialist––has with form is no mere academic dispute. At stake is our very place in the world as natural knowers.

If this were not enough, however, unBeguiled also quibbles with the facticity of Scholastic adage by saying, "I think you are trying to say that all conscious brain states result from sensory input. But that's false. Dreams, hallucinations, illusions, neurosurgeons poking your brain etc." Nonetheless, the adage stands, because it only refers to the general contents of the mind, not the specific mental events that characterize, say, dreams and hallucinations. We are dependent, at a basic level, on the world, God's Creation, for our own inner world. Our cognition, our entire life as knowers and explorers, is constantly informed by our immersion in the Good Creation––we as creatures getting to know and love our fellow creature, the Universe. We know ourselves as knowers, as conscious rational beings, only by knowing Nature and our natural place in her nourishing womb. Her myriad natures inform our own nature, and our natures, in response, know nature in a way she cannot achieve without us: theoretically, formally, scientifically. "In knowing himself," says Étienne Gilson in From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, p. 4):

"man knows nature in a unique way, because in this unique case the nature that he knows, he is. In and through the knowledge which man has of himself nature knows herself directly; she becomes conscious of herself in him, self-conscious one might say, and there i strictly nothing else that man can hope to know in this way."

Moreover, even the specific mental events do have a sensory basis, insofar as dreams occur when (at least) one module of our brains (say, our limbic system and hormone modulation) responds to the activity of some (one or more) other brain module, say, our short term memory. Likewise, hallucinations have to have some kind of sensory content, otherwise we would not be hallucinating about anything. Even in the most austere sensory settings, a hallucinating mind will begin "feeding on itself," such as when our proprioception seems to swell or our breathing and pulse become a roaring sea, or even when memories––as perceived brain events––trigger hallucinations. None of this means that our knowledge is strictly limited to what we immediately perceive, since the whole point of the adage is that what comes to us via the sense takes on an abstract life of its own, as it were, in the intellect. If we were purely sensory beings, we would be utterly dependent on stimuli for our mental content. But insofar as we are endowed with an intellect, we can abstract the intelligible species from sensible objects and imaginatively (and rationally) manipulate those abstract contents to extrapolate about our course of action, consequences, etc.

And you don't have to take my word, or Aristotle's or St. Thomas' word for it; you can read the 600-page book (Basic Books, 1999) by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, to get the same fundamental claim based on the cutting edge of cognitive psychology and neuroscience. Consider:

"One might imagine a spiritual tradition [hey, let's call it Thomistic, just for kicks!] in which such a Soul is fundamentally embodied––shaped in important ways by the body, located forever as part of the body, and dependent for its ongoing existence on the body" (p. 563).

"Our corporeality is part of the corporeality of the world" (p. 565).

"The environment is not 'other' to us. It is not a collection of things that we encounter. Rather, it is part of our being" (p. 566).

I endorse their book, first, because it takes nature seriously, which is a sorely neglected preambula philosophiae in our age, and, second, because they strongly (and with a nice tip of the hat to Aristotle) deny the modern "sensory gap" that has plagued science since at least Descartes, if not Ockham. I must suspend my approbation, however, as soon as Lakoff and Johnson use (or, rather, sacrifice) their model of embodied cognition to a biological Kantianism, to wit,

"Conceptual categories of spatial relations [among other concepts] are created as a result of the structure of of our brains plus our experience of our bodies and how they function in space and how things are named in our language. … We take our spatial relations for granted because they work for us. But it is mistaken to think they are just objectively given features of the external world" (p. 575).

As I've stressed many times before, the brain must not be reified apart from its actual function in the larger wholeness of sentient organisms. Its proper function is but a function of its ordered role in the larger structure of our selves. Seeing as we are rational sentient animals, brain states can be the means by which we, as whole agents, effect rational decisions. But to say the brain states just are our rational contents is to make a mess of mental content and to impose a kind of idealism on the brain. The mental is unextended and, in many cases, highly abstract, whereas our brain states are, of course, extended and concrete.