Who Shapes and Defines the Clay, and Who Cuts the Deck of Definition? Hylomorphism, Aquinas, Sartre, and Evolution

What is hylomorphism? Hylomorphism is a term out of classical philosophy (first used by Aristotle, later picked up by Aquinas) where a designer takes raw material and uses her mind and hands to impose purpose and form on it, as when St. Paul writes, “Shall the clay say to the potter, why have you made me thus?”

A blog post, for example, is a hylomorphic project, where the matter of words is ordered by the author into a very definite form. As is a poem. Or a building. The soul of a thing–its essence–is its matter and form combined with the intention of its author.

This, at any rate, is what a hylomorphist believes. Hylomorphists, such as contemporary Thomist philosophers, claim that you can look at the matter and form of a thing and infer its essential purpose–the purpose the designer shaped it for. For the Thomistic hylomorphist, all things created by God have essential purposes, and we can discern them. The form of the penis, for instance, tells you that its essential usage is for the vagina. That’s what God made it for. You aren’t to use it in the ass or mouth–and no jerking off! These are its “accidental” (non-essential) usages. The Designer’s obvious purpose for the penis is for reproduction, not pleasure.

Thus if your cum isn’t being used to make babies, you aren’t using it in accord with the Designer’s purpose. So straighten up! (But not in that way.)

Existence precedes essence. Jean Paul Sartre’s famous three-word retort to this sort of theological reductio ad absurdum–reasoning to an absurd conclusion–was the following: “Existence precedes essence.” In other words, human imagination, cunning, openness, variety, and freedom precede any essentialist definition that one might impose upon a thing in advance. Sartre says we can work freely with a thing–if we wish–and make what the original designer might have considered marginal about it, central (or make the central marginal).

Fashioning and definition can be democratized.

So if we’re free–if our existence as free beings precedes essences–we can use the penis for pleasure. We needn’t let the inertia of a thing’s supposed essence foreclose in advance our options. You can use a thing differently. In each moment, you can make something new. That’s Sartre. That’s existentialism. That’s post-World War II pushback against hylomorphic and authoritarian essentialism. Once God has gone silent, or died, or given the clay its freedom, asking “What’s the clay for?” loses its force. Humans become the measure of all things. Our existence precedes essence. We decide what to make important about a thing; what we will call a thing. Like Adam in the Garden, we assert our prerogative to name the animals.

Evolution. Sartre nicely accords with evolution, whereas Aquinas is in a decidedly awkward relation to it. Evolution doesn’t recognize essential species categories; it works with variety along a continuum, making things new. What, for example, is an individual human from the vantage of evolution, but a variation cast into the next round of dicing selection? Time waits for no definition of man–not even Aquinas’s.

Evolutionary lineage is akin to a tall deck of cards. Richard Dawkins, in his book, The Magic of Reality, likens our evolutionary lineage to a deck of picture cards stacked up. At the very bottom is the first card, the first cell. We the living are the most recent cards to have been added to the evolutionary deck. We’re on a continuum. So it’s arbitrary–and therefore up to us–where we put our family and species boundaries in relation to our own lineage. Who, for example, was the last Homo erectus and the first Homo sapien? Being provocative and counter-intuitive, Dawkins quips, “There was no first human.”

In other words, when we impose a species boundary on our lineage–“Here is the first human, here is the second, etc., and you are the last human to date in the series, and this species boundary tells you essential things about you as an individual that you mustn’t attempt to change”–the question that begs to be asked is this: why have you imposed that form on this matter? Why did you begin there, exactly?

Why has the card dealer cut the deck thus?

Overthrowing God. So in our evolutionary lineage, what there is is matter and change, which we can visualize as snapshots in time; a deck of picture cards that reaches to the moon, that, if it could be flipped through, would reveal how we got from the first cell to where we are today. But when we chop that deck up, we’re in the role of God, imposing a model of meaning on the deck exactly as a potter imposes form upon the clay, or a narrator form upon a sequence of events. Once you see that the deck can be cut in any number of ways, you realize that there’s nothing essential about the definitional species boundary without your input; without your design; without your narration.

You’re playing God; you’re making the meaning; you’re telling the story. Without you, the deck of cards is just a deck of cards. If there’s anything essential about it, it’s anchored by your declaration alone. Hume said, “Nature doesn’t speak, we speak.” That’s also true of God. God doesn’t speak, we speak.

Who cuts the deck, makes the rules. Defining a thing, or declaring something essential, is a power play. Our arguments about God’s relation to justification, purpose, and ethics enact a power game. Without someone from the outside to impose order on the card decks of justification, purpose, and ethics, we can chop them up any way we want. We become God. Nothing is essential except what we declare to be so.

If we want to call gay marriage, marriage, it is so. Let there be light.

But this is true only if God does not exist. If God exists and possesses purposes for creation, then there really and truly are essential aspects to things that we cannot change. God’s narrative and definitions trump human narratives and definitions. If God exists, God has the power to declare. And yet here’s the irony: even if God exists, God is utterly silent as to how (S)he cuts the decks of definition and tells the cosmic story to Herself. So if we think God exists, we still have to guess what God is up to. But how do finite minds know what an infinite mind might be up to?

Going back to the penis example, if God is love and wants humans to delight in pleasure, and is primarily concerned with that, then God cuts the deck one way. (Imagine God shouting merrily in an Olde English voice: “Use thy penis, squire, for thy pleasure!”) But if God is concerned with procreation and the use of sex organs in a certain way, then God cuts the deck of definition quite differently from a ribald Elizabethan. (Imagine God as Lenin, frowning, and saying, “Serve the Party–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! No masturbation! No gay coupling! Use the penis for the Party; for reproducing members that will serve the Party!”)

The matter, in other words, receives its form and definition from the one doing the narrative molding and definitional chopping. And since ultimate justification can only come from God, everything else is question begging (St. Paul’s, “Why have you made me thus?”–or the definitional question, “Why did you chop there?”).

So God has to exist to ground and essentialize any molding or chopping. Or God has to be a determinist, not giving humans free will. Otherwise, we wear the daddy pants. We do the chopping.

Kangaroos among the beauty. So if we want, we can see each individual of our species as unique, not essentially bound by what came before. Each of us can be defined as Emily Dickinson defined herself: “a kangaroo among the beauty” (a contingent oddball). We can emphasize the individual over the inertia of the group or of history. Each person can be seen as a unique “card” in our human lineage; as someone sui generis (one of a kind). The deck of lineage cards can be cut any way you want if you have the authority of the deck-cutter, including designating each card its own species.

And if individuals want to assert their right to define themselves, that’s an assertion of their power.

Who assumes the power of meaning maker? So if God exists, you can argue that God should cut the deck of meaning, purpose, narrative, and definition. But if God doesn’t exist or isn’t talking, we cut the deck. Whoever has the authority to cut the deck (or shape the clay, or name the animals) is in the role of the designer, the fashioner, the definer. Matter, to have meaning, must be given form by a meaning-maker. And if the ultimate meaning-maker, God, doesn’t exist, then we make our own forms, and define what’s important about them.

Our existence precedes our essence. That’s Sartre over Aquinas. Which side are you on?

__________

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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53 Responses to Who Shapes and Defines the Clay, and Who Cuts the Deck of Definition? Hylomorphism, Aquinas, Sartre, and Evolution

  1. I think humans cannot shape or define the clay, but we are part of it. We are not in control of things like time, our existence and our nature. Thus, it is God who shapes and defines.
    In regards to God’s ‘silence’, (whatever the reason is, as I doubt it will ever be known), the silence enables us, the clay, to form our own judgements coming from our selves. ‘Tis in ourselves we are thus or thus’- Shakespeare. This way, the human, after experience, can gain a knowledge of why this is right and this is wrong. In other words, the human will obey God’s organisation of cards not by force but by free will.
    In my opinion, it should hint the presence of merciful God.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I like the “merciful God” part of your comment. Maybe God, if God exists, made the world for freedom, variation, and play.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Do you mean that I get to decide what my essence is?
    If I decide that my essence is a real kangaroo, then it is so?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Anon:

      If you’re speaking poetically, sure. (Maybe you regard what’s most important about you to be your facility with language; to hop about–to kangaroo–in the field of words. You see yourself as the essence of kangarooness.)

      But if you’re speaking the language of science, no. What language game concerning the kangaroo are you in, and to what purpose? What work is that language doing? What makes you highlight one feature of the kangaroo, and not another (or of yourself, and not another)?

      There’s no essence of kangaroo (or you), only the language games (plural) of kangaroo (and you).

      My argument is that, if God is dead or not speaking, and we are free, then there is no single language or single vision that holds all the aspects of the kangaroo together, corresponding to the essential truth and value of the kangaroo.

      Like Walt Whitman, the kangaroo is large, it contains multitudes.

      And so I’m with Theodor Adorno on the problems that accompany the reifying of identity and essentialism, and the marginalizing of features, which Brian O’Connor, in a new and excellent book on Adorno, characterizes this way: “When a system declares some feature of reality to be inessential or irrelevant it is an act of violence against that feature: it is an attempt to exclude it from reality by excluding it from significance. As we shall see, the image of Auschwitz–the encapsulation of the human cost of the violence of system and identity–pervades Adorno’s post-war writings” (Adorno, Routledge, 2013, p. 12).

      Essentialist narratives driven against out-groups, such as gays or women, are a form of violence. That’s one of the lessons Adorno took from the Holocaust. Asserting one’s own prerogative of definition, taking it back from external authorities, is an act of empowerment.

      After the Holocaust, and now in the 21st century, in what languages will you kangaroo?

  3. Anonymous says:

    What if I’m looking through Galileo’s telescope? Will I see a kangaroo?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Not at all. The raw material of reality and history are not subject to reversal once the milk has spilled. That’s what Sartre calls being-in-itself. It’s one’s existential situation. The facts on the ground from which each person chooses.

      But once we choose to narrate the story of how the milk spilled, or the significance of the milk that spilled, then we’re in the realm of being-for-itself (the realm of human freedom and interpretation).

      Dawkins, in the card deck example in the above post, doesn’t shuffle the deck. The deck’s evolutionary sequence is its sequence. Instead, Dawkins cuts the deck definitionally and narrates the deck, making some things important to his narrative, and other things marginal.

      We do this with our own lives. We take the raw material of our lives and choose the narrative we tell others and ourselves about the significance of the sequence of events. The existentialist philosopher Hazel Barnes, the first translator of Sartre into English, called her autobiography (for example) “The Story I Tell Myself.” I love that title. It’s perfect.

      So if God is dead or not speaking, the raw facticity of existence (being-in-itself) is definitionally chopped, given significance, and narrated by the creative imagination of free individuals ATTENTIVE TO CHANGE.

      I emphasize the last part of the above sentence because it highlights ongoing reality testing (keeping Galileo’s telescope pointing). Think of Hegel’s dialectic (thesis, antithesis, synthesis). For the Thomist who seeks to escape history, then reason from the privileged vantage of timeless metaphysics, there is the subject who manipulates (the man who possesses a penis, for example), the manipulated thing (how the penis gets used), and the declaration of what’s natural (only for vaginas). This functions as an arrested Hegelian triangle taken out of history and experiment in which “the natural” stops the synthesis: the interaction of subject (thesis) with object (the penis antithesis). These are already defined. What’s essential and marginal is posited in advance of any future encounters.

      By contrast, the existentialist is in history, narrating a dynamic (as opposed to an arrested) Hegelian encounter through time: subject/thesis, object/antithesis, synthesis/the redescription that comes out of that encounter.

      In other words, for the existentialist, your narrative (your thesis) always encounters objects that push back against it; that don’t fit it comfortably. What then do you do? You stay open to the dialectic; you decide what sort of redescription you’ll derive from new encounters. You don’t freeze time; you don’t ignore or marginalize the “inessential” elements in the objects you encounter a priori. You work with the margins, with the aporias. You don’t say in advance of your encounter with history, “Gay marriage is off the table because the penis is made for the vagina. The idea of the penis cannot be reimagined. And women can never be priests. That would violate their essence. And slaves cannot be other than slaves. It is their natural condition. And no definition of German can ever incorporate the Jew.”

      Merely abstract and a priori essentialism is a way of being dead; of making oneself unresponsive to reality; of seeing only what you expect to see (and to have already concluded what must be seen). It was the Thomistically indoctrinated and trained priests that infamously declined to look into Galileo’s telescope.

  4. Santi Tafarella says:

    I like the recent responsiveness to history of the Church of England with regard to appointing its first woman bishop. When will Thomistic Catholicism make such moves?

  5. Alan says:

    God is not silent but speaks through nature. Thomas got it wrong, to no great surprise. The disappointing thing is the reluctance on the part of the church to wake up to that. Fertilization is the crucial link to procreation for a Black Widow, who consumes her mate for lunch, lays thousands of fertilized eggs and goes off to catch flies. Humans who must spend years raising each progeny must limit fertilization. To that end, human females limit their fertility and hide their fertility status. Among humans, sex serves a family bonding, social bonding function far more than a fertilization function. Diversity also is a necessary natural feature of a robust species. A strong, productive society is crucial for human flourishing, and marriage gives couples, regardless of gender, a greater sense of belonging and inclusion. Marriage is a powerful contributor to a robust society. I suspect the new pope, at some level at least, recognizes this but faces strong opposition from some.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Alan,
      Great point about gay marriage. And your spider contrast with human families is an excellent observation. I agree with you 100% on that.

    • Staffan says:

      “Among humans, sex serves a family bonding, social bonding function far more than a fertilization function.”

      And yet almost all sex is between unrelated people of opposite sex. As if it was about fertilization. Other types of sex are usually taboo.

      • Alan says:

        Yes, and taboo appears an essential function of religion far beyond what is demonstrably good or bad for people. Sorting out useful vs. destructive taboo is but one challenge to religion going forward. I’ll throw in a vote for keeping the Hindu diet restrictions.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Since in existentialism each individual gets to decide their own values and narrative, then it follows that one should accept other’s values and narratives…right?

    So if one rejected existentialism and embraced Thomism, then that should be supported by the existentialist shouldn’t it. To judge non-existentialists one would have to abandon the philosophy.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Let a thousand flowers bloom. I don’t think the world would be better if NO ONE spoke the language of Thomism. If it’s a private language, and you adopt it with others who freely accept it, go for it. What I’m sharing is why I choose not to speak it; where I think it functions as mystification; and where I think it objectively leads to bad outcomes in the 21st century (justifying women’s inequality, gay inequality, etc.).

      So whenever I see (for example) Edward Feser put scare quotes around the terms “gay marriage” or “remarriage,” as if these are metaphysically incoherent ideas that can’t even get off the ground within a Thomistic framework, I’m going to apply an existential analysis to that, and call such moves “bad faith” (part of the analytical terminology in one of my preferred languages). To me, it’s hearing the voice of the dead when Feser appeals to the natural, to metaphysics, or to essences so as to arrest human dignity and equality in its tracks. It’s zombie talk.

      I think, in the 21st century, the languages of liberalism, existentialism, pragmatism, and empiricism are better languages to speak than, say, Thomism, Randism, or Leninism, and I’m using my favored languages to analyze the contemporary scene.

      But so long as people are free to choose their languages, Thomism will remain a vital and stimulating (if marginal) language that not many speak. It obviously meets the emotional and intellectual needs of some of the subset of temperamentally conservative people in the world. Others prefer Fox News. I find both Thomism and Fox News too insular, and any 21st languages that cannot speak gay, and see the beauty and justice of gay culture coming out of the shadows of history in our generation–and not be happy about that–is not a language for me.

  7. Anonymous says:

    It’s strange that you celebrate other’s values, by castigating those values.
    You judge Thomism to bring about “objectively bad outcomes”, is done in “bad faith”, leads to the arrest of human dignity and equality.
    How do you square this judgemental language on the one hand with the assertion that all values should be treated equally.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      One way to advance women’s equality and gay equality is to critique the languages that oppose them.

      And why should I be denied moral passions and the right to appraise languages that I don’t speak? Languages are in competition in a democracy. If you don’t like my moral vocabulary on gay and women’s equality, counter it and critique it from the vantage of the language that you speak.

      I share Camus’ view that values derive from rebellion against the absurd (from God and Nature’s moral indifference), and therefore I value things that Nature and God don’t appear to value (such as women and gay people). I think secular liberal languages (existentialism, pragmatism, empiricism), as rebel languages, possess a far better and more effective vocabulary for advancing women and gay rights, and liberating people generally and advancing justice, than do religious languages like Thomism.

      Therefore, let freedom and justice ring (even if these passions can’t be justified by an external warrant if God does not exist). God may not exist, but sensitive people still do, and I can care about them and myself. Whether we got here contingently or by a divine purpose, here we are (sensitive beings subject to pain and death).

      So just because I can’t ground my values in God (as you might be able to), that doesn’t mean I can’t ground them in myself, and treat my experiences of compassion and solidarity as justification sufficient for me to be passionate about them. If I find myself outraged at the treatment of women or gays, and you think I don’t have justification for my passion because I don’t have an external source for ultimate value, I’d say you’re simply not paying sufficient attention to the implication of Camus’ rebellion. It is precisely out of the desire to do better by humanity than God or Nature that makes it a rebellion. It is the rejection of God and Nature’s invitations to nihilism and suicide.

      Rebellion is a passion that starts with noticing the irony and pointlessness of existence, then surpasses it into valuing, compassion, and solidarity. It’s responding passionately to an outrageous situation. However we got here, the world should be different from how it is. That’s my appraisal of the situation. If I were God, I’d have done it differently. And so even if my projects, long-term, are futile, my passion for pursuing them remains. I pursue them in the full light of being a “being toward death,” and I share the planet with others in the same existential situation. We are all brothers and sisters evolved from a common ancestor and lost in space. That seems like as good a social glue as any religious narrative.

      And because I feel my passion in the face of the absurd, and experience joy in some of my present projects, I think Camus was right when he wrote, “We must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

  8. Staffan says:

    “Yes, and taboo appears an essential function of religion far beyond what is demonstrably good or bad for people. Sorting out useful vs. destructive taboo is but one challenge to religion going forward. I’ll throw in a vote for keeping the Hindu diet restrictions.”

    Yes, but the main point is that most sex takes place between people of opposite sex who are unrelated (first cousins seems to be where most cultures draw the line). The idea as you put it, “sex serves a family bonding, social bonding function far more than a fertilization function” doesn’t accord with that reality. In reality, it looks to be more about reproduction.

    • Alan says:

      Clearly, sex is required for fertilization, and those taboo are in place to minimize if not eliminate inbreeding. Fertilization, however, is not at all sufficient for human survival. Babies need years of dedicated support, preferably from two parents. And parents definitely function more effectively in a stable community. Sex makes for stable pair bonding, stable bonded pairs support a stable community. The black widow as a queen bee or ant, may have sex once in her lifetime. A human female may have one to three hundred rounds per child. That is less than one percent for fertilization, over 99 percent for bonding.

      • Staffan says:

        Yes, bonding as a way to ensure successful reproduction – making sure offspring is fed and protected. That is still very clearly in the service of reproduction.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Again, an interesting point contrasting spiders with people in relation to sex, but why just the pragmatic evolutionary benefit of a lot of pair bonding? What about art? In other words, once the human brain reaches a certain size, and sees clever ways of making use of things contrary to their usual function, might it subvert the biological function to the service of an aesthetic function (painting a nude, doing every position in the Kama Sutra just to see what it’s like, etc.)? And gay and lesbian culture and sex is another thing that happens when Nature makes a social species evolutionary strategy “freedom and variety.”

      • Alan says:

        @ Staffan: ‘… making sure offspring is fed and protected. That is still very clearly in the service of reproduction.’ Absolutely my point, but not simply in the service of reproduction. It represents a very significant change in reproductive strategy that led to the possibility of humans evolving. You need to separate in your thinking fertilization from successful reproductive strategy to avoid the pit the Catholic Church has found itself in regarding Gay Rights and birth control.

        @ Santi: ‘…once the human brain reaches a certain size, and sees clever ways of making use of things contrary to their usual function, might it subvert the biological function to the service of an aesthetic function (painting a nude, doing every position in the Kama Sutra just to see what it’s like, etc.)? And gay and lesbian culture and sex is another thing that happens when Nature makes a social species evolutionary strategy “freedom and variety.”
        One colleague of mine would call that ‘Loosey-goosey thinking’. That is not an argument that has any weight. It is special pleading and hand waving. ‘…but why just the pragmatic evolutionary benefit of …’? Because that is the only thing that makes a difference in a real world. The aesthetic is appropriate when practicing art, but to understand why art in the first place, you need to understand the pragmatic evolutionary benefit. Art is used as a tool for training and record keeping along with elevating one’s social status. It is difficult if not impossible to overstate the importance of status in human society.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Alan,

        But I’m thinking of spandrals (Stephen Gould’s term, as used in biology, if you’ve never heard of it). Evolution makes spandrals, not just functional things. Once the brain reaches a certain size, art and gay culture might be spandrals that go with the edifice.

        I believe there’s a Wikipedia article on spandrals in relation to biology.

      • Alan says:

        No, I really don’t believe in evolutionary spandrels. It was a clever idea and I’m sure they’re possible, but of little consequence. There is also a really simple test that will weed out most suspects: cost and persistence. Any feature that has a net cost will be selected against. Any feature that is persistent is probably being selected for. I do not see art, culture or homosexuality passing such a test. They are not spandrels.

  9. Anonymous says:

    “And why should I be denied moral passions and the right to appraise languages that I don’t speak?”

    It is a hypocritical philosophy that is based on the proposition that all values are equal and then allows attacks on values that practitioners disagree with. It is also dishonest to claim that you honor all values and condemn them in the same breath.

    If one subscribes to and practices hypocrisy and dishonesty, then one lacks credibility. Are you fairly characterizing alternative philosophies? On a Bayesian scale one would have to rate the believability at zero.

    “Which side are you on?”

    Sorry, can’t be on the side of the con men.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Anonymous:

      Where did I say that I honor all values? In a democracy, I certainly tolerate all values (so long as they don’t force the conscience of others or harm minors). Let a thousand flowers bloom in that sense. But the Inquisitors in Spain possessed values, and I would have resisted them. I don’t believe that all values are equal. Why? Because I am the measure of my values (as is every individual). I am a contingent being in the cosmos with my own contingent passions and values. I salivate to some projects and not others. I salivate to some language games and not others. I’m in solidarity with those who share my contingent values.

      I notice (correctly) that no values can be grounded externally without question begging. And since neither God nor Nature speak, I speak, and ground my languages by my own contingent and historically situated compass. I don’t need God or Nature to warrant what I think or value. I actually don’t give a shit what God or Nature values because it’s quite evident that they value nothing. The Holocaust demonstrates that; the 2004 Christmas tsunami demonstrates that.

      Thomism imagines itself to be justifying the ways of God to man, but it’s simply using God to justify its language game as “natural” and in accord with “reason.” I don’t think that Thomism is a good language game to master if it uses God or Nature to undermine the equality of women and gays.

      So in your scattered ad hominem criticism of me, there lurks a double bind. I have to believe in the external grounding of values or give up on having values at all. If I have values, I’m a hypocrite. You’re not letting me have a value system discordant with Nature and God’s silence. You’re basically saying that nobody gets to be an atheist or agnostic and speak passionately concerning the issues of the day. One has to believe in an external ground for values, even absent evidence, or you can’t proclaim to have values at all. Only theists get to speak because only theists can speak from the vantage of what they believe God is and wants. So you’re rigging the game.

      If somebody were to say, “The Emperor has no clothes,” I can imagine you responding with indignation, “One doesn’t get to participate in the discussion of what’s good in fashion without believing that the Emperor is wearing SOMETHING! Your opinion concerning clothes must be guided by the Lord and Monarch of fashion, the King. If you can’t see the clothes, you have to at least surmise what the King would prefer. Your opinion must have a higher external standard of justification. It can’t just come from you liking something.”

  10. Anonymous says:

    “I don’t believe that all values are equal. Why? Because I am the measure of my values (as is every individual). I am a contingent being in the cosmos with my own contingent passions and values.”

    Doesn’t everyone get to have their own values also? Or is it only you? This is where I see hypocrisy.

    “I have to believe in the external grounding of values or give up on having values at all.”

    Now I have to ask where I said this?
    One could retain one’s own values and not judge others. But once someone starts to judge another’s values, then one is in fact imposing an “external grounding” on that person’s values.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      In your last paragraph above, you make a good point, but I think “not judging others” (respecting their contingency) depends entirely on where the other person claims to ground their own values. If they ground them externally, and seek to make them compulsory upon society as a whole, then they open themselves to an external critique.

      It’s when a person says of their values that they are God’s values or Nature’s values (justifying the ways of God or Nature to man), and that those values impose a universal standard on others, that invites the sorts of critiques that I’m bringing about variety and freedom in evolution, Camus’ rebellion, question begging in relation to grounding values, God and Nature’s apparent indifference to human suffering, contingency, Bayes’ Rule, evolutionary strategy, objective harm to gays and women, the way language games function, the authoritarian power play that adheres to monopolizing the right of definition, etc.

      If one is gay, agnostic about God’s existence, and belated (comes late to history), and another person claims that Thomas Aquinas has already figured out, 700 hundred years in advance of your arrival, what your penis is for, and that it should be put to God’s created purpose for it (reproduction), and it’s irrational to question this, then I think it is completely within the rights of that gay and belated agnostic to say, “No, I matter in this equation. The conversation is not settled. My contingent facticity matters. I am not going to be shamed into treating my sexual orientation as marginal to my identity. I’m going to critique the power play that is Thomism, and the historical contexts in which Thomas reasoned about sex. I’m not going to let this conversation proceed in a metaphysical vacuum, as if we’re reasoning outside of history, absent motive, and the issue of who and what I am has been settled without need of further dialogue. I might reserve the right of self definition. Either way, I’m not going to give away my power.”

  11. Anonymous says:

    So you allow people to freely choose their values as long as they fit into parameters that you prefer. You forbid them to come to certain conclusions.

    “the authoritarian power play that adheres to monopolizing the right of definition, etc.”
    Isn’t this exactly what you are doing by defining out of acceptability, certain values?

    I am only judging this philosophy (or maybe it’s just your interpretation of it) from it’s own standards. I am not making any critiques about it from any competing philosophy. If it claims to allow freedom of values to everyone, but then forbids certain values then it is hypocritical.

    If it actually claims that everyone gets to have their values, but then you judge bad consequences come about as a result of that, then you should reject the philosophy and move on.

    You speak a lot about power and who gets to impose it.
    Is this really what’s going on in Existentialism….the will to power? I thought that was nihilism.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I don’t have the power to forbid, but to critique. Yes, I reserve the right in a democracy to critique religion. And religionists have the right to critique irreligion.

      But no religious or irreligious compulsion on matters of language choice. Social hope is not the same as religious hope. That’s the great secular innovation (separation of state and church). The only sort of hope that an irreligionist can reasonably have is social hope, not hope of immortality or heavenly bliss.

      Where religion attempts to leave the private realm and interfere with the advance of social hope (such as the aspiration of gays for marriage equality), it opens itself up to a full-on critique of its premises for doing so.

      One of the chief achievements of the Enlightenment was driving religion into the private realm. It cleared a secular space for social hope and social democracy. Fundamentalists, cultists, and the Orthodox do not enter the public square as VIPs, laying down the law from God, but equals, exposing themselves to critique and justification (exactly like everyone else).

      Part of the political realm (the biggest part?) entails image, slogan, rhetoric, propaganda, tribalism, ridicule, mockery, irony, and rendering motives suspicious. I would love to see democracy function on a more elevated level. But religion is not being persecuted if it enters this realm and sees that there are people in it viscerally contemptuous of religious languages, claims, and supports.

  12. Santi Tafarella says:

    Anonymous:

    You wrote: “Is this really what’s going on in Existentialism….the will to power? I thought that was nihilism.”

    At one level, any time you want something, it’s a will directed to power. You’re either content with things exactly as they are, and you never try to change them, or you seek to make the world match your vision of how it should be.

    Nature and God are nihilistic. They don’t appear to care if the Holocaust occurs or not; if people get swallowed up in tsunamis or not. They don’t care. We care. The invitation to nihilism and despair is what’s coming from God and Nature, but we don’t have to accept that invitation. We can reasonably have (for example) social hope.

    One bit of evidence that religion is made in man’s image, and not God’s, is that it almost always makes God into a caring and benevolent non-nihilist that has preferences and loves (at least some) individual human beings. This is so obviously not the case that it creates a whole genre of literature: books on the problem of evil and God’s silence. These are books that try to explain away God’s nihilism. They’re the courtiers trying to pretend that God, when he parades about in public, possesses clothes when he clearly does not. And when someone states the obvious, “The emperor has no clothes (the emperor is a nihilist),” everybody freaks out. You can’t start your reasoning with such appearances! There must be an explanation! It’s impossible to go on living if that were so!

    So if anything, nihilism would be giving up power (you don’t want anything; you don’t want to influence anything; you don’t care about anything–exactly like God). Existentialists are not nihilists insofar as they reject the invitation of suicide from God and Nature. And that means they have a will to power (a will to go on living and making the world match their vision of the way things ought to be).

    But any vision of how the world ought to be, if it gets achieved, is haunted by ghosts. If Catholicism became universal, gays and women would haunt the Church. If gay marriage became universal, the Christian cake maker in Colorado who doesn’t want to make cakes for gay marriages haunts secularism. Can the law accommodate his conscience? (I say yes.)

    Derrida in his book, “Spectres of Marx” (if I’m recalling the title correctly), meditates on the endless ghosts that haunt utopian aspirations precisely because utopias cannot contain in a single vision all of justice for everybody all the time. Every utopia would necessarily inspire a protest movement from this or that marginalized group, a group treated as non-essential and marginal by the dominant ideology. They would haunt and mock the utopia at its core.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I wonder why each of your responses is directed at something outside of the philosophy you are promoting. Please forget about theism vs atheism. Let’s just say we’re all atheists here.

    My passion may be the betterment of the human race. We all know from science that intelligence is hereditary. Therefore it should be mankind’s duty to make sure that we maximize intelligence and minimize the deficient in the population. Taking care of the deficient uses time and resources that could better be used for the betterment of the human race. We can get rid of them in a painless way and/or prevent them from breeding…all in a compassionate way, so its a win-win situation. After all we are in a lifeboat adrift in an endless ocean…resources must be preserved….decisions must be made. Let’s base those decisions on sound scientific fact.

    I’m not letting God or Nature impose values on me. I’m also certainly not willing to allow the deficient to impose their values on me. If you want to argue against science, well then I guess we know which side of the intelligent/deficient divide you fall on.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      The reasoning you present here is always a danger, I agree. Perhaps a superintelligent computer that far surpasses general human intelligence will coldly calculate in this manner 100 years from now, and simply eliminate humans altogether. Smart people worry about this.

      I just don’t see how religion helps us avoid this danger. The Bible has genocide in it, for example. We’ve always been acting without a net. We just don’t acknowledge it. We “make believe” there’s a net.

      If one is inclined to reason like a shark rather than like a bonobo, I guess the only solution is for the bonobos to restrain the human sharks for the sake of what the human bonobos value. It’s a will to power either way. It’s never really been different.

      The danger for humanism in the future is not religion, but Nietzschean nihilism. The sharks on Wall Street, and alpha male dictators, may monopolize power in such a way that Camus-like humanists and Niebuhr-like theists can’t really resist them effectively.

      • Anonymous says:

        “The reasoning you present here is always a danger”

        The fact that you consider this a danger is the basis of my critique. If you truly believed that there are no universal values and each person gets to choose their own values (as long as it’s not based on theism), then your philosophy permits this. The fact that you think this is evil undermines the basic premise of the philosophy (and also shows me that you are a good man at heart). I would expect true believers and practitioners of this philosophy to merely shrug their shoulders.

        BTW, you may not have noticed that the example I used was not from the far future, but the relatively recent past. You can look up the Wikipedia article on Nazi eugenics if you’re interested.

        I’d say that you actually are using an external standard to judge other’s values. The question then is why this standard rather than another.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Regarding power.

    “I don’t have the power to forbid, but to critique.”

    “Part of the political realm (the biggest part?) entails image, slogan, rhetoric, propaganda, tribalism, ridicule, mockery, irony, and rendering motives suspicious.”

    This is where I’m questioning your honesty. You claim that you have no power to forbid others their values in the first quote, but in the second you concede that by employing rhetoric against a position you are doing everything in your power to forbid those values.

    If you want to advocate for some particular set of values and against others, then fine. But don’t obfuscate with the claim that everyone is entitled to their values when you clearly don’t believe that.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I’m not endorsing the methods of rhetorical manipulation most commonly deployed in democracies. So much of it is ugly and idiotic. I wish things were kept on a more rational level. But words and images, however cutting, are not physical weapons of force. However ugly the rhetorical back and forth, it’s not persecution or exclusion. It’s the rough and tumble of how people win majorities in a democracy. I’ve had people gang up on me many, many times when I’ve expressed minority views. As an agnostic, I have gotten rhetorical wrath coming at me from atheists and theists. I don’t like the rhetoric or ad hominem directed at me, but I don’t think of it as persecution or exclusion.

      Even in the workplace, when something controversial gets proposed, very, very personal and cutting verbal knives get deployed. It’s so much easier to personalize, or to attack motives, than to debate the substance of an issue. You’ve got to be tough, and not let people intimidate you out of the public square. When you speak things, you’re also likely to get an earful from people who don’t like what you have to say.

      I like these lines from Emily Dickinson:

      “An ear can break a human heart
      As quickly as a spear.
      We wish the ear had not a heart
      So dangerously near.

  15. Anonymous says:

    The point I am trying to make is not regarding the methods one employs to suppress other’s values. Whatever the means used, other’s values are being suppressed.

    If one believes there are no superior values, then why should one set of values be suppressed at the expense of others? Indeed, why should one even have an opinion of someone else’s values?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Hmm. I like this quote from Leon Wieseltier, the former literary editor of The New Republic, responding to those struck by Ebola. He was meditating on how the existence of God is difficult to maintain in the midst of such random suffering and death, and concluded with this startling, Camus-like, observation: “If the discovery of their suffering is a reason for desolation, it is also a reason for kindness.” I think we can have a moral response to events even if God, by apparent nonexistence or silence, does not endorse or ground that response. The Nazis’ values and behavior also gave people a good reason for thinking God did not exist, and also clarified the values and behaviors they preferred in place of them.

      If you think values must be grounded in God, one is driven to ask why God does not implement his own values (he lets Nazis commit their crimes, Ebola devastate communities, etc.). If God wants to save the world, then why isn’t God saving it? You put the agnostic and atheist in a double-bind if you insist that they should believe in a God who endorses certain values, but doesn’t actually enact them himself. If you ask us to ignore the implications of the appearance of desolation (that God is dead) so as to have a God-grounded response to the desolation, the obvious question is: why? To have values, why do we have to imagine that God is better than we see? Why can’t we have better values than God?

      Demographers tell us that over the past 100,000 years, approximately 100 billion human beings have lived on this earth, half of whom died before the age of five. Half. Why would God do that? You worry about what values human might generate unmoored from God, but what evidence is there that God cares about what happens to human beings? Isn’t what we imagine God to be just a projection of the better angels of our own nature?

  16. Anonymous says:

    “If the discovery of their suffering is a reason for desolation, it is also a reason for kindness.”

    Of course Camus was a fan of St, Augustine and this is a para-phase of his famous answer to the problem of suffering. Men would not need the virtue of compassion without suffering. Perhaps that is why it sounds Camus-like.

    A better question regarding the Nazis is why did humanists and their organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation help found and fund the program that trained Josef Mengele in his craft?
    The values and behaviors of the Nazis were (are) the values and behaviors of humanists.
    For humanists to blame Christianity is rather like a rapist blaming the victim for not carrying enough mace or shouting loud enough.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Leon Wieseltier is no fan of Christianity or religion’s rationalizations for suffering and evil in the world, so I’m reasonably sure he’s not thinking Augustine in his observation, but if you have the specific Augustine quote, I’m happy to see what you’re referring to.

      And I’ll concede that humanism is schizophrenic. On the one hand, it is shadowed by Christianity (humanism as Christianity without God). On the other, it is shadowed by Nietzsche, eugenics, the cyborg, and enthusiasm for machine superintelligence.

      But this is just another way of saying that humanism inhabits one of the cusps on which our existential situation has always been experienced (Prometheus Bound goes back 2500 years to Aeschylus: recall that Prometheus steals fire from Zeus out of compassion for humanity, and that both pagan religion and Christian apologists historically interpreted the play as Prometheus as villain, not hero). Whether one embraces Western religion, Eastern religion, humanism, Nietzscheanism, or transhumanism, the others shadow the one you choose.

      For example, the passivity in Buddha’s emptiness necessarily is shadowed by Nietzsche’s empty activity–which may be focused on the aesthetic instead of Buddhist ideals like compassion.

      For another example: Christian messianic longing is shadowed by the longing for the powerful father (the superman) who will make things right. Think of the Opus Dei cult of personality, with the Spanish saint’s picture always looming large. Utopian social hope becomes a mutation of Christian millennial hope. And Christian belief in hell for those who resist the millennial triumph of the will of God is mirrored in state torture and the Holocaust. The psyche has no escape from its dilemma. Every embrace of one thing entails sublimations that protest against the lack of attention to other things, and these mutate into all sorts of forms. The flies change, but the shit is the same.

      Much of this has to do with the contingencies of our evolution and the dilemmas of competing goods. Much as we wish it were different, the world does not appear to hold together in a harmonious way. The lover shits (for example). Perhaps you know Swift’s great poem on Celia shitting? Maybe I’ll do a separate post on that.

  17. Anonymous says:

    “But evils are so thoroughly overcome by good, that though they are permitted to exist, for the sake of demonstrating how the most righteous foresight of God can make a good use even of them” City of God” Book 14, Chapter 11.

    I didn’t say that Wieseltier had read Augustine, but that Camus had and you mentioned that the quote sounded Camus-like. I assume you concur that Camus studied Augustine.

    The law of non-contradiction holds that one cannot hold 2 contradictory things to be true at the same time and in the same respect and still be rational. If you try to contradict it, you are affirming it. What is your position?

    You acknowledge that humanists were responsible for the Holocaust, and 3 paragraphs later, you claim it was Christians. I hope you understand why I trying to decide if you are dishonest or irrational.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Children do not die so that we can be given an opportunity to show courage in response.

      Camus actually parodied Augustinian rationalizations of evil in his novel The Plague, putting the standard “all is for the best” platitudes and callousness in the mouth of Father Paneloux, whose comfy and self-assured theology (he thinks the plague is a sign of God’s displeasure with the town) is undone by the end of the novel via his direct experience of a child’s death.

      And I notice that you never responded to the statistic that I offered: demographers tell us that half of all human beings that have ever lived on this earth died before the age of five. Half. What sort of rational or moral deity makes a cosmos where this level of suffering and absurdity is the norm–and for so long? It’s only recently that it hasn’t been the norm.

      And would that reasoning was always so simple as following a yes/no syllogism in a linear way. There were many things that contributed to the Holocaust. In that sense, it’s overdetermined. Martin Luther, an antisemite, played a role. Herder played an intellectual role, Christian antisemitism played a role. See here the lingering antisemitism in the Catholic Church, for an obvious and recent example of Christian antisemitism: https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2009/01/26/i-do-not-wish-to-belong-to-the-same-church-as-williamson-at-the-telegraphcouk-a-catholic-forcefully-responds-to-pope-benedicts-embrace-of-a-holocaust-denier-bishop-richard-williamson/

      Hitler also clearly gave a command that got the ball rolling on the Holocaust. Here are some more factors that contributed to the Holocaust: Utopianism played a role; Nietzsche played a role (though he hated antisemitic nationalists); eugenic optimism grounded in the theory of evolution played a role; the emergence of bureaucratic structure functioning impervious to outside influences played a role. (The sociologist Zigmund Bauman is, in my view, is best on this latter issue–see the following link for my summary of Bauman: https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2012/12/13/could-the-holocaust-happen-again/

      There are lots of contingencies that came together that resulted in 6 million Jews dying in Nazi Germany.

  18. Anonymous says:

    The values and behavior of the Nazis were the values and behavior of humanist philosophy. Humanists were (are) not just passive. They planned, funded, organized and executed the Holocaust not as renegades, but faithful followers of their own philosophy. You know the saying, if it walks like a duck and all that.

    It is unsurprising for the guilty to try shifting blame or change the subject.

    I wonder if your family bloodline was on the index cards at the Carnegie Institution on Long Island.
    http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/article/Eugenics-and-the-Nazis-the-California-2549771.php

    As Camus fan, you may be interested in this article from Huffington Post:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-carlson/albert-camus-old-antheism_b_4234255.html

  19. Anonymous says:

    Since you like Camus, you might find this from the Huffington Post interesting:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-carlson/albert-camus-old-antheism_b_4234255.html
    I think Camus rather liked Augustine.

    I wonder if your family pedigree was recorded at the Carnegie Institute on Long Island. Humanists rated Southern Europeans rather low on the desirable scale.
    http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/article/Eugenics-and-the-Nazis-the-California-2549771.php

    Let me repeat. The values and behaviors of the Nazis were (are) the values and behaviors of humanists. These were not renegade Humanists who discussed, planned, organized, funded and executed the Holocaust. They were (are) faithfully following the humanist philosophy.

    “And I’ll concede that humanism is schizophrenic.”
    I apologize. My remark regarding non-contradiction should have been directed at this statement rather than your accusation of Christians being responsible for the Holocaust.

    But I do think it is dishonest or irrational to blame those who opposed eugenics for the Holocaust. And it wasn’t just 6 million Jews that suffered from the humanistic philosophy. It started by gassing disabled people, which enabled the training and technology to do it on a greater scale. Thousands of Homosexuals, thousands of Romani, and thousands of Jehovah Witnesses perished just because of who they were or what they believed. Thousands of Catholic clergy perished because they resisted…..the humanist philosophy.

    Oh, and in case you lost track, let me re-post something I said up there:
    “I wonder why each of your responses is directed at something outside of the philosophy you are promoting. Please forget about theism vs atheism. Let’s just say we’re all atheists here.”

    I am critiquing your philosophy according to the values you claim it promotes. I am not judging your philosophy in relationship to that of any other belief system, so it is irrelevant what other belief systems hold in the context of this discussion. If a philosophy is inherently incoherent and you realize it, then that seems to be an irrational act to me. It seems to me that your answer is that “I choose schizophrenia, and so do I”🙂

  20. Anonymous says:

    Sorry for the double post. I thought the first post had been lost.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      No worries. Whenever there are two links in a post, it automatically gets delayed for approval by the blog administrator.

      As for your view of humanism, I disagree with you that the values and beliefs of Nazis are shared by humanists. I don’t see the link between Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Christopher Hitchens, Albert Camus, and Adolf Hitler.

      Zeev Sternhell, a Jewish historian of the Enlightenment, traces the evolution of Nazism through Herder, not Thomas Jefferson (see his book “The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition,” published by Yale).

      Here’s a link that briefly summarizes Sternhell’s views:

      https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2012/06/14/zeev-sternhells-question-what-is-to-be-done-about-the-anglo-french-enlightenment/

      Still, I won’t downplay your concern. Once a culture, or the elite subset of a culture (its wealthy and its intellectuals), breaks the spell of universal religion and humanism, what restrains it?

      Absent regulation by force, I say nothing. You see this already in the behavior of Wall Street elites. You see it in China’s blatant eugenic pursuits.

      Religionists and humanists are really in the same boat. We fight amongst ourselves, but we’re all (in the West, anyway) democratic bonobos decidedly uninterested in forcing people. We substantially respect reason, equality, freedom, and individual liberty of conscience (though these are often in tension as competing goods).

      But there are sharks beyond us that don’t care.

      Most humanists, like most religionists, don’t want large governments controlling them. But without a large government run by people who have religious or humanist sensibilities (valuing liberty, equality, fraternity), how does one restrain large governments, corporations, or international bankers who function as Machiavellian sharks?

      Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Churchill have to restrain the Hitlers when they emerge.

      But the fact that God is dead or hidden, and that both religion and humanism struggle for justification absent pragmatism, is only one reason for concern. The logic of evolution (survival of the fittest) makes the human predicament, going forward, very precarious with or without metaphysical arguments grounding morality.

      A century from now, were you and I to see it, I think we would exclaim, like Miranda in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “O brave new world that has such men in it!”

      I think we’re headed for a cyborg future. The debate over gay marriage is, at bottom (pun intended, I suppose), the debate over hybridity. It’s the debate over mixing and matching in novel ways. But this is always a two-edged sword. Matt Ridley-style techno-optimism and belief in markets, democracy, and freedom can lapse into oligarchy and machine superintelligence that eliminates the weak.

      This isn’t humanism’s fault. This is God’s fault. God set up life in such a way that it runs amorally, via principles of evolution. The race is not to the just (as the author of Ecclesiastes lamented long ago). And cultural/technological evolution is now moving so fast that the argument between humanist and religionist appears almost quaint. It’s what religionists and humanists do while waiting for machine superintelligence to wipe us out: argue with each other.

      But what stops the logic of the machine (The Beast, to put it in religious language)? The Second Coming? Who can believe that God will ever actually intervene? (Think of Yeats’ famous poem.)

      A century from now, natural humans may be the new Neanderthals, our habitat relentlessly being eaten by a new, more lithe and clever cyborg species born of the crown jewel of Enlightenment humanism: science.

      At that point, Enlightenment humanism will be no more able to save us from this Frankenstein–either philosophically or pragmatically–than, say, intellectual Neanderthals could have saved their species by an assertion of Neanderthalism (the universal brotherhood and rationality of Neanderthals).

      In this sense, Tea Party suburbanites, urban progressives, evangelicals, conservative Muslims, environmentalists, and humanists are all in the same boat: they’re fighting, from different vantages and for different reasons, the blind Moloch that is, in ever more accelerating fashion, eating the human world and usurping the direction of history.

      We’ve been in serious intellectual trouble from the day that Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859. Fundamentalist religionists don’t articulate it well, but their unsettled intuition about evolution is correct. In discovering that species possess no fixity or essence, Darwin discovered that the human species has no fixity or essence; that it can be changed. And over the next century, scientists with different tribal loyalties will race to change it. And religion and humanism will be impotent to stop this new eugenics race.

      Nietzsche, in my view, saw all of this coming. He drew the right conclusions about the consequences of Darwin’s discovery and absorbed it intellectually.

      But isn’t it curious how few contemporary Western atheists and humanists speak of, or debate, Nietzsche? They debate a humanist like Dawkins, and enthuse about science, but are generally silent about Nietzsche. Why? Because Nietzsche is in contemporary atheism’s blind spot (even as he is the elephant in the room).

      But like Darwin, Nietzsche is inescapable. He saw the chess board and where the checkmate for humanism was at (where contingency, evolution, and the justification for human action intersect). You’ve articulated that in your debate here with me. You’re saying I don’t have ground for morality. And I’m pointing lamely to Camus. It’s my best answer. Or, to put it another way, Nietzsche saw that, with God dead or silent, the shadow that great body casts is humanism. Humanism as Christianity without God.

      Beyond that shadow lurks emptiness and Moloch.

  21. Santi Tafarella says:

    I looked at the Camus article you linked to, and also the California article. Thanks for those. Both make good points. I wouldn’t quarrel with either of them all that much. I don’t think it’s bad for religion and atheism to clash rhetorically, though. I think Camus was a little too polite. It’s good for both religionists and atheists to debate vigorously. It helps both refine their arguments. If Muslims would chill out, they could have the same sorts of debates about Islam that, over the past 300 years, has placed Christianity on a stronger intellectual footing.

    Everybody has to learn how to be in the presence of one another’s irony and cynicism and still talk (keep the dialogue going). Each person has things toward which they are serious, and things toward which they are ironic. And the things we hold serious, we don’t like to see others hold ironically. But that’s what it means to be an adult in a diverse and democratic society. Can you be present with people who aren’t serious about what you’re serious about? And can you express your cynicism to those who hold something dear?

    As a college teacher, I face this issue in the classroom all the time: modeling being present in the midst of divergent views. Can the student learn to speak–to assert themselves against the crowd–say what they really think–while at the same time hearing the skepticism and cynicism that might come back at them from those who don’t hold dear and serious what they hold dear and serious? It’s the practice of living in a democracy. It takes courage, openness, and patience to stay in the arena; to say, “Here’s what I really think,” and to hear what others really think. Most often, people will retreat to their comforting tribes, or try to run off the dissenter by making it about that person and their motives. They don’t want the discomfort of honest dialogue. Especially difficult is to see arguments that work on them, and that they salivate to, fall flat on somebody else.

  22. Anonymous says:

    “You’re saying I don’t have ground for morality. And I’m pointing lamely to Camus. It’s my best answer. Or, to put it another way, Nietzsche saw that, with God dead or silent, the shadow that great body casts is humanism. Humanism as Christianity without God.”

    Actually, what I’m arguing is that humanism as you portray it is irrational. It could only be internally coherent if everyone gets their own values and no one judges others, because you know, there are no outside rules and my choice is no more “right” than anyone else’s. Nietzsche promoted certain values over others, they just happened to be ancient Pagan values. So his philosophy is no different than your’s in reality. Both fail at living up to the founding principles.

    I have to conclude that neither your’s nor Nietzsche’s philosophy can be true since it cannot even pass the basic internal logical coherency test.

    The link between Hitler and the other folks you mentioned is that they shared the basic belief system that permitted eugenics in principle. Russell was in favor of eliminating the “feeble-minded”, but even if he had opposed it, he would have been an outlier as a humanist in the 1920s.

    “Religionists and humanists are really in the same boat.”
    “But there are sharks beyond us that don’t care.”

    I don’t think this line of reasoning makes sense. I guess you call other humanists who don’t share your particular set of values sharks and the ones that do bonobos. The values they happened to stumble upon don’t include the value of universal justice precisely because that (religionist’s proposition) would destroy their philosophy and freedom. I think they would see themselves as the bonobo’s protecting themselves from an insane shark attack from you. I think religionists would agree the group you call sharks are sharks but would see you as a confused shark.

    BTW, I think you can sleep peacefully tonight wrt cyborgs. A computer is just a souped-up abacus.

  23. Anonymous says:

    How can you tell you are not now in a computer simulation? Or are actually a cyborg yourself in a simulation?

  24. Anonymous says:

    Oh and Happy New Year. I celebrated with my family had some beef stew my sister made.
    How about you?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Happy New Year to you as well. I only just saw your comments. I like beef stew (though I usually try to eat mostly vegetarian).

      As for my New Year’s celebration, I stood over the toilet with my wife and two children, and at midnight we flushed 2014 away together. “Bye, bye, 2014!” It was my wife’s idea. She’s British and has always had a wicked sort of Monty Python sense of humor and irony.

      On Friday, we then had our Buddhist monk friend over (he’s from Sri Lanka and has been a monk for 30 years), and he led a meditation hour in our living room with a bunch of college professor friends/colleagues who came over. We’ve been doing this on the first and third Friday of every month for a couple of months now. (What can I say, we’re in California.)

      The past week I’ve neglected my blog a bit.

      I did just post a piece on Aquinas. If you have the energy to comment on any errors I made, feel free. If not, I understand. No worries.

      I reread Feser’s book on Aquinas over the weekend, and thought the metaphysics chapter was so excellent that I wanted to reflect on it (and by writing about it, get a surer handle on the Thomistic terminology).

      He basically persuades me that substantial form combined with matter leads to real inclinations (ends)–whether we’re talking about the substantial form of a horse or an atom–and that this is part of what science is up to (isolating essences and inclinations by eliminating confounding variables).

      If I made any glaring errors that should be fixed, please tell me.

      https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2015/01/06/thomas-aquinas-for-beginners/

  25. Anonymous says:

    I read the post. I didn’t see any major departure from what I understand about the A-T philosophy, but I’m not really an expert.

    I do have a question though, that I’ll post there.

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