Confidence Theists, Confidence Atheists, and Bayes’ Rule

As an agnostic, I think that both theists and atheists have reasons, some of them good, for believing what they do. It’s not just thoughtlessness or blind faith that causes someone to declare for theism or atheism.

My issue is with what I would call confidence theism and confidence atheism.

If you are a confidence theist or confidence atheist, you too often focus on confirmation bias (counting the hits and ignoring the misses surrounding your pet theory), and take an excess of pleasure in huddling with your favored community. You may also demonstrate commitment to your group by desecrating the beliefs of others. You might do this by blasphemy, argument, or even iconoclasm (disrespecting or destroying the sacred icons or objects of an outside group, as when the atheist PZ Myers desecrated a Catholic host). In other words, you might declare, not just great confidence in your own side’s dogmas, but enormous contempt for alternative views–and the people who hold them.

So a confidence theist or a confidence atheist reads mostly the books of his or her own tribe, will posture as 100% certain that he’s right, and will be derisive of outsiders.

It’s human nature to behave this way, but the following Bayes’ Rule inspired questions cut through a lot of this static. Bayes’ Rule mathematically formalizes, in terms of probability, these five put-up-or-shut-up questions:

  • What probability do you assign to claim x actually being true? In other words, on a grayscale of 1-100 (100 being that you’re completely certain), where do you rate your claim?
  • Why do you give this claim that level of confidence?
  • Why do you think it’s the best claim among the options?
  • Is there an alternative claim that you take to be at least somewhat competitive with your own claim? Which one?
  • What sorts of new data points, appearing in the future, might cause you to have less confidence in your claim, or even to adopt one of the alternative claims?

These five questions tamp down unwarranted posturing and confidence–this impulse to act as if you’re 100% certain about a matter–and 100% certain that another person is wrong.

Bayes, in my view, is healthy for everyone to practice (theist, agnostic, and atheist). It tones down the hostile energy (or ought to). It makes the conversation more honest and measured.

And it historicizes claims. It reminds us all that we’re limited, evolved, and contingent creatures reasoning in space and time, and that space and time might therefore bring us to surprises.

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Jesus, Original Sin, the Sufficient Reason for Suffering, and Thomas Aquinas

Jesus came and was crucified two thousand years ago. Wasn’t that supposed to quell God’s wrath against humanity? Jesus was supposed to have gone up to heaven in a cloud with the intention of being back quickly. He’s still not back. What’s going on here? The original sin thesis for ongoing natural evils, aging, corruption, and death (if taken seriously) begs questions surrounding the principle of sufficient reason. None of the reasons offered (so far as I can tell) get anywhere near to being sufficient to explaining the horror and magnitude of suffering in the world, and now I read in Thomas Aquinas himself that God is directly and actively withholding his protection from human beings because of Adam and Eve’s departure from First Reason. Here’s Thomas Aquinas in Summa Contra Gentiles, Book IV, ch. 52:

[We Christians] affirm that man was, from the beginning, so fashioned that as long as his reason was subject to God, not only would his lower powers serve him without hindrance; but there would be nothing in his body to lessen its subjection; since whatever was lacking in nature to bring this about God by His grace would supply.

In other words, Aquinas is saying that the covenant (deal, bargain) God made with Adam and Eve was this: if they subjected their reason and will to God, then God would, by his grace, prevent their composite bodies (bodies consisting of parts) from disintegrating into corruption and death.

But Adam and Eve didn’t keep their side of the bargain, so God withdrew his grace. He let them age, corrupt, dissolve, die.

Put another way, the human body tends toward falling apart. Dissolution is the result of its potential as something composite reaching its actualization. In Thomism, this is called “potency” and “act”: all composite things posses potencies that are only sometimes actualized. Wood, for example, can become fire. It’s one of its potencies.

Likewise, if Adam and Eve had never sinned; if they had submitted their reason and will to God, then their bodies’ potential for corruption, by God’s grace, would never have manifested.

This means that if a lion had tried to eat Adam and Eve, or a storm to batter them, they would have gone on living by God’s ongoing miraculous protection and grace, but that was withdrawn after they stopped submitting their reason and will to God, and so their “potency” for corruption and death became their “actuality” (they really and truly aged and died). This withdrawal of God’s grace from them as composite beings has continued down to this day, to their descendants. We, Adam and Eve’s descendants, are being punished for our distant parents’ sin.

This is the doctrine of original sin.

This isn’t God wishing it were different. This is God actively letting the battering torment of composite potency turned to actuality go on and on for no apparently sane reason (Adam and Eve disobeyed orders they barely comprehended in the first place, and now their descendants go through excruciating decomposition, unprotected by God, to this day).

What am I missing in the original sin thesis that makes it plausible? And why would one ever give oneself over to the worship of such an inscrutable deity?

Is it fear of additional punishment and hell? What other reason could it be?

Here are some more questions: Is original sin really a sufficient reason for tsunamis wiping out 100,000 people at a time? Has God justly withheld his (her?) protection from Adam and Eve’s descendants? What’s the sophisticated explanation here that I’m missing? What’s the higher good that this ongoing and active withdrawal of God’s protection from Adam and Eve (and their descendants) producing? Why is God prolonging this withdrawal of protection?

I simply don’t understand. Explanations?

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Human Nature vs. Human Institutions: Camille Paglia on Sex and Rape on Campus

Since abandoning her monthly Salon gig a few years back, Camille Paglia hasn’t had much of an Internet presence, but when, beyond her book writing, she does surface, she writes thought provoking things. Here’s a bit of what Paglia recently wrote for the website concerning sex, rape, and the college student:

Colleges should stick to academics and stop their infantilizing supervision of students’ dating lives, an authoritarian intrusion that borders on violation of civil liberties. Real crimes should be reported to the police, not to haphazard and ill-trained campus grievance committees.

Too many young middle class women, raised far from the urban streets, seem to expect adult life to be an extension of their comfortable, overprotected homes. But the world remains a wilderness. The price of women’s modern freedoms is personal responsibility for vigilance and self-defense. […]

The basic Leftist premise, descending from Marxism, is that all problems in human life stem from an unjust society and that corrections and fine-tunings of that social mechanism will eventually bring utopia. […]

But the real problem resides in human nature, which religion as well as great art sees as eternally torn by a war between the forces of darkness and light.

In other words, Paglia is arguing that changes in institutional structures are not going to change male nature–which is a Jacob-wrestle between its better and worse angels–and that young women need to be savvy navigators of that nature, and so she writes this:

[E]xtreme sex crimes like rape-murder emanate from a primitive level that even practical psychology no longer has a language for. Psychopathology, as in Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s grisly Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), was a central field in early psychoanalysis.

She also links up aesthetics, hunting, and scapegoating in an insightful–and disturbing–manner:

There is a ritualistic symbolism at work in sex crime that most women do not grasp and therefore cannot arm themselves against. It is well-established that the visual faculties play a bigger role in male sexuality, which accounts for the greater male interest in pornography. The sexual stalker, who is often an alienated loser consumed with his own failures, is motivated by an atavistic hunting reflex. He is called a predator precisely because he turns his victims into prey. […]

A random young woman becomes the scapegoat for a regressive rage against female sexual power: “You made me do this.” Academic clichés about the “commodification” of women under capitalism make little sense here: It is women’s superior biological status as magical life-creator that is profaned and annihilated by the barbarism of sex crime.

I’m not sure her broad-sketch analysis of sex and rape wholly works, especially that last sentence. Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims, after all, were males. And institutional and cultural signals obviously can and do influence many men–though obviously not so much the behavior of psychopaths.

In a way, Camille Paglia has set up a straw man of blank slate-believing Lefties to knock down. Still, Paglia’s analysis is interesting. Teaching young women, through art and literature, about the Apollonian-Dionysian tensions in the human breast might make for sharper navigating of the male psyche. And yet structural analyses of human behavior–“no man is an island”–are valuable to teach as well. It’s not a zero sum game.

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Who Thinks Your Thoughts, Weird Kangaroo?

Who are you, really? Neuroscientists tell us our gut microbiome consists of 100 trillion organism with different DNA from what we inherited from our parents, and that those microbes are connected to our brains via the vagus nerve.

Thus those gut microbes are a part of the mix of signals driving each person’s thought and behavior. Some of them send (for example) signals to the brain triggering food cravings.

So when you have a craving for, say, oatmeal, who is having the craving? You or specific organisms with their own evolutionary agenda in your gut microbiome?

Put another way, I’m hungry, and suddenly it occurs to me to go to a restaurant for oatmeal and coffee. Who thought it, and who wants it?

Hijacked? Fat people and skinny people have very different gut microbiomes driving different food choice impulses. So we appear to be hijacked creatures.

And we’re hijacked in other ways as well. Some of us are part Homo sapien and part Neanderthal (thus bearing a convergence of two species’ genetic agendas). Some of us have had our behavior hijacked by a virus endemic to our cats. Still others of us externalize our memories to our iPhones, which then take on a life of their own.

The human boundary of the hybrid self. So where’s the boundary of this hybrid self? Would you still be a Homo sapien if you were 3% Neanderthal, 40% machine, and 5% gut microbiome? Would it still make sense to call you fully human if you were created in a test tube where all your key genetic traits were selected for by your parents, the government, or a super intelligent computer (for eye color, temperament, math ability, etc.)?

Hybrid kangaroos. Emily Dickinson spoke of herself as a “kangaroo among the beauty.” In other words, she embraced her unconventional nature.

But really, everything in the cosmos is unconventional. Everything has the contingent quality of kangarooness. If looked at in a poetic way, each thing, though mutually interdependent and interconnected, nevertheless manifests its own sui generis uniqueness; its own kangarooness among the beauty.

So in 2115, a hundred years from now, will parents bemoan the hybrid freaks born of genetic tinkering and the mixture of humans with robotics, or will they celebrate and incorporate their sui generis beauty and diversity into love? Perhaps our best hope is to imagine a future in which parents talk like this: “How beautiful are the satyrs these days!” and “Cyborgs in love and married to old-school Homo sapiens? Y.E.S.”

After gay marriage, cyborg rights. My take is that we should orient to love, and try to work out a path for making the eugenic/cyborg/hybrid future a humane future (as opposed to a future where biological tinkering and the deliberate creation of hybrid things are simply forbidden). We should embrace our kangaroos among the beauty if they are oriented to love–for we are all kangaroos among the beauty.

Walt Whitman called the lessons of Nature “variety and freedom.” This accords with both evolution and democracy–though not without tension. Whose variety and whose freedom, exactly, are we talking about here? Are we speaking as Jeffersonians or Nietzscheans?

Tacking toward variety and freedom is a good goal so long as Whitman-like inclusion and love, not raw, Nietzschean power, functions as our North Star.

It’s a nervy world, isn’t it?

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What’s God’s Sufficient Reason for the Evil in the World? And If You Can’t Think of Any, Should You Still Believe in God?

The principle of sufficient reason (PSR). God must have a sufficient reason for withdrawing and withholding his protection from the descendants of Adam for so tortuously long; for allowing them to encounter the full force of a psychopath’s or nature’s violence when it comes their way; for letting their bodies age, falter, and lapse from mere potency into the actuality of death; for casting the majority of unbelieving humanity into hell to be tortured for eternity after the anguish of this life.

All these have a sufficient reason, and it can’t just be that God has anger issues. If God is good and omnipotent, there must be some sane explanation (you would think) for God withdrawing and withholding his protection from us so utterly. And if, 2000 years ago, Jesus paid the debt in God’s ledger incurred by Adam and Eve’s sin, what on Earth is God waiting for to set things right?

For individual belief? It wasn’t enough for Jesus to die. The claim is that each individual has to believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead as well (and that, absent evidence).

The whole Christian narrative just seems contrived and wildly implausible when you closely look at it. But Jesus did say to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen, but believed.”

Confirmation bias (counting the hits, but not the misses). If God’s ways are simply off the table in terms of human explanation, then obviously the religious believer is not really defending his or her beliefs with reason, but with selective rationalizations. In other words, when you say that you have other good reasons for believing in God that override an otherwise significant objection (the problem of evil), you’re telling me that you’re not really weighing contrary lines of evidence and argument, and reaching a plausible conclusion, but indulging in confirmation bias to arrive at a confident conclusion. You’re counting your theory’s hits, but bracketing the misses.

But were I a religious believer, the pervasiveness of natural and human-caused evils in the world is like what rabbits in the Cambrian would be for an evolutionist: a big red flag that something’s wrong with my thesis.

One rethinks a theory if one is left dumbfounded for an explanation to a significant objection. At least that seems like a good rule of thumb to me. At minimum, one doesn’t double down on certainty.

Jack Miles uses the argument from scientific ignorance to defend the leap of faith. In an essay titled “Why God Will Not Die” at The Atlantic, Jack Miles recently put it this way: “However we cope with our ignorance, we cannot, by definition, call the coping knowledge.” This means, on Miles rendering, that both atheists and theists leap to faith-based conclusions. Miles also quotes Isaiah 55:8-9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord, for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” This is the standard appeal to ignorance and incomprehension that keeps the God thesis afloat.

But faith has a way of turning from ignorance into 100% certainty, as in “I know that my redeemer lives.”

Of the Isaiah passage, Miles writes this: “So much, it would seem, for empirical confirmation. But rather than construe such language as vicarious boasting, one may take it, counterintuitively, as Isaiah’s way of reckoning with the limitations of his own mind.” Miles also writes this: “Science keeps revealing how much we don’t, perhaps can’t, know. Yet humans seek closure, which should make religious pluralists of us all.”

In other words, Miles is recommending here any availability heuristic of your choosing–theist or atheist. Whatever works to quell your anxiety surrounding not knowing.

But here’s where I think Miles’ analysis is problematic. Noticing that science reveals just how much we don’t know–our vast ignorance–shouldn’t give succor (for instance) to a thesis saddled with the problem of evil. If you can’t provide God’s sufficient reason for allowing the Holocaust (for a mind-focusing example), you shouldn’t equate this difficulty with what science hasn’t yet figured out. It’s just not the right analogy.

100% certainty vs. probability. God died at Auschwitz–at least to reason, to speech. Quoting the Isaiah passage doesn’t change that. Whatever Isaiah’s original intention 2500 years ago in saying what he did, after Auschwitz, the quoting of Isaiah 55:8-9 doesn’t function as an appeal to humility, but to business as usual. It’s a power play most naturally deployed by theologians, fundamentalists, and other religious confidence men to shut up people who notice the foolishness of this or that religious claim. It’s indecent to cite it after Auschwitz; a determination to go on doing dogmatic theology after dogmatic theology ought to have been struck dumb by history.

Auschwitz taught us (among other things) the danger of closure transformed to certainty. Science teaches us to think probabilistically, rather than with certainty, and to keep (metaphorically) Galileo’s telescope always pointing to the sky for fresh data. We should never rush to epistemic closure.

So rather than secular liberals nodding approvingly at the revived dance of competing religious tribalists and confidence men (religious and irreligious) in the 21st century, we ought to be saying that Auschwitz and science should make cautious probabilists of us all.

We need probability teach-ins; probability happenings. Our convictions should be tempered by grayscale reasoning. Against the confidence men “full of passionate intensity,” the grayscale ought to hold. Quoting Yeats’ “The Second Coming” (1919) in full seems apt here:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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Foxy Sex vs. Hedgehog Sex: Free Will, Edward Feser, and Evolution

Thomist philosopher Edward Feser has a curious way of defining free will and what it’s for, writing in a recent blog post the following: “[O]n the conception of free will as ‘freedom for excellence,’ which is endorsed by Aquinas, the will is inherently directed toward the good in the sense that pursuit of the good is its final cause.”

In other words, God hasn’t given you freedom to do what you want to do, but to do the most excellent thing–what God want you to do. You’ve been given free will by God to direct your actions toward God’s will, the pursuit of the good, which must be the “final cause” of all your actions.

But this is where Thomistic reasoning about sex clearly goes off the rails. The Thomist’s frowning on masturbation and oral sex (for example) becomes akin to the Leninist’s frowning on comrade Kandinsky for spending too much time painting and not enough time organizing for the Workers’ Party.

Put another way, Feser and Aquinas advance an ideological notion of what the human being is, harnessing the will to a singular focus that doesn’t take proper account of individual contingency, pleasure, whimsy, and private goals. It’s too cookie-cutter.

All serious business and no masturbation, sexual exploration, imagination, play, or art, makes Jack a dull and neurotic boy.

So if you’re going to forbid to humans something central to them (joy in sexual novelty), and reject gay marriage and gender equality (female priests), the reasons need to be very, very good ones. Simply saying, using pre-Darwinian reasoning, that God meant sex organs to be harnessed solely to reproduction and the ultimate good will not do when evolution has informed us repeatedly that the human being is not a unitary animal, but an evolved conglomeration of contingent and often open-ended purposes. A human being’s needs are multiple; her evolutionary strategy is re-purposing and variety; her focus is not most naturally on God as a universal singularity. Emily Dickinson nailed it with the following lines:

God is indeed a jealous God —
He cannot bear to see
That we had rather not with Him
But with each other play.

Compromise among the competing and layered parts of ourselves is thus more likely to make for human flourishing than blanket sexual repressions (no homosexuality, no crossing gender lines, no masturbation, no contraception, no sexual fantasizing, no porn, etc). Reasoning in the 21st century about human nature and sex while taking little account of evolution is barely reasoning at all.

“The fox knows many things, the hedgehog one big thing.” Evolution and Emily Dickinson are foxes, Feser and Aquinas hedgehogs.

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Arguing about Gay Marriage with Thomists: Love vs. Reproduction

The premises underlying Thomistic arguments against gay marriage are four:

  • sex’s goal should be directed ultimately to reproduction;
  • marriage is for the rearing of children and the union of man and woman;
  • marriage is naturally a social institution for promoting the growth of families. It is not not naturally a private arrangement between two persons and God; and
  • masturbation, anal and oral sex, contraception, abortion, and upending traditional gender roles cannot further marriage’s ends, which are reproduction, rearing children, bonding man to woman, and promoting the growth of families.

These are the premises from which Thomists shut down gay marriage. They believe that the above generalizations should never give ground to particular desires or circumstances. To do so is immoral.

But from my point of view, the big brain that God (if God exists) gave humans calls all bets off in terms of the sorts of generalizations one can make about how human beings ought to arrange themselves into a greater circle of love and orientation toward God.

It’s not gay orientation that’s the problem, but Thomistic orientation (which is focused on reproduction instead of love).

And Thomism doesn’t take into proper account evolution. Evolution is about what Walt Whitman called “freedom and variety.” It’s experimental; it’s about making it new. Experimenting with new arrangements is how evolution proceeds. The Thomistic definition of marriage is therefore just one more culturally conditioned way of being among many, not essential to the nature of human beings qua human beings. Thomistic essentialism could (if it wanted to) shift the definition of marriage to incorporate a broader range of possibilities for the institution, placing the focus on love, not reproduction.

But anywhere one starts reasoning on such matters–love vs. reproduction–entails question begging. It can’t be avoided. Arguing about metaphysics, essentialism, sex, and gender is not akin to doing math, and the axioms we start our reasoning with are not written anywhere in stone.

From my historicist perspective, Thomists have always made up their positions on sex and gender as they’ve gone along, favoring conservative and authoritarian values temperamentally, rationalizing them, and not acknowledging this fact. Aquinas did it, and contemporary Thomists do it. And when I’m countering the arguments, I’m making it up as I go along as well, for I have no ultimate ground (traditional or otherwise) for my reasoning to proceed either.

So it’s a competition of languages: the language of love and equality vs. the language of reproduction and religious authority. In a secular democracy with secular judges, it’s pretty obvious why arguments for gay marriage are working in the courts, and arguments based in Thomistic notions of “natural law” and tradition are falling flat.

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What’s a Penis, and What’s It for? Thomas Aquinas vs. Ludwig Wittgenstein

What’s better: to see a thing as having both essential and accidental features, and placing it in a genus-species hierarchy (Thomas Aquinas’ view), or to drop hierarchy and essentialism in definition altogether, and just see a thing as sharing “family resemblances” with other things (Ludwig Wittgenstein’s view)?

Take the penis, for example. Is it essentially an organ that God gave men for sexual reproduction in accordance with God’s law–and therefore only incidentally an organ for pleasure; or is there no hierarchy to be placed on what the penis is for–you can use it for pleasure or reproduction (the penis has no essence)?

I’m with Wittgenstein against Aquinas here for five reasons:

  • Wittgenstein fits nicely with evolution and the lesson that Walt Whitman took from nature (“freedom and variety”). In other words, evolution makes use of things in creative ways; it’s not fixated on prior essences, but novelty. Evolution is about making it new.
  • Thomas was simply too medieval in his understanding to think clearly about what it means for a large brained primate to have a penis (to stick with the penis example). When you combine a big brain with hands and sex organs in an animal, you get uses that are far more creative than a small brained animal with the same sorts of sex organs, but no hands. Context is important. Chimps masturbate, for example, but I presume that cats don’t even try (or think of trying), even by rubbing themselves against surfaces, etc.
  • Thomism has reactionary political implications. Drop, for example, traditional natural law essentialism, and you arrive at two social goods: feminism and gay marriage.
  • Jean Paul Sartre inverted Thomism with his famous slogan, “Existence precedes essence,” and this makes room for the greater exercise of human freedom.
  • Nietzsche spoke of truth as “a mobile army of metaphors,” an insight that goes much more naturally with Wittgenstein’s language games and family resemblances than with Aquinas’ essences and hierarchy.

So even if Aquinas was right that there are real essences to things, they may be much more subtle in their proper uses (the penis in a big brained primate may be used for love, bonding, pleasure, etc.) than medieval scholasticism, uninformed by evolution, assumed.

The same goes for gender or any other essentialized trait. Having a big brain changes the equation of what the proper use of an organ is for.

In short, Thomism basically overlays fake essences onto what evolution teaches us are the real essences of things (change and variety). Wittgenstein, Whitman, Sartre, and Nietzsche all saw this, and I’m with them.

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Potency, Act, and the Withdrawal of Grace: Thomas Aquinas on Original Sin

Here’s Thomas Aquinas in Summa Contra Gentiles, Book IV, ch. 52:

“[We Christians] affirm that man was, from the beginning, so fashioned that as long as his reason was subject to God, not only would his lower powers serve him without hindrance; but there would be nothing in his body to lessen its subjection; since whatever was lacking in nature to bring this about God by His grace would supply.”

In other words, Aquinas is saying that the covenant (deal, bargain) God made with Adam and Eve was this: if they subjected their reason and will to God, then God would, by his grace, prevent their composite bodies (bodies consisting of parts) from disintegrating into corruption and death.

But Adam and Eve didn’t keep their side of the bargain, so God withdrew his grace. He let them age, corrupt, dissolve, die.

Put another way, the human body tends toward falling apart. Dissolution is the result of its potential as something composite reaching its actualization. In Thomism, this is called “potency” and “act”: all composite things posses potencies that are only sometimes actualized. Wood, for example, can become fire. It’s one of its potencies.

Likewise, if Adam and Eve had never sinned; if they had submitted their reason and will to God, then their bodies’ potential for corruption, by God’s grace, would never have manifested.

This means that if a lion had tried to eat Adam and Eve, or a storm to batter them, they would have gone on living by God’s ongoing miraculous protection and grace, but that was withdrawn after they stopped submitting their reason and will to God, and so their “potency” for corruption and death became their “actuality” (they really and truly aged and died). This withdrawal of God’s grace from them as composite beings has continued down to this day, to their descendants. We, Adam and Eve’s descendants, are being punished for our distant parents’ sin.

This is the doctrine of original sin.

Put another way, God used to miraculously hold off the body’s corruption and exposure to natural evil in Adam and Eve, even though that potential was there in them. God’s active grace was functioning in each moment of Adam and Eve’s existence. But after they sinned, that miraculous protection was withdrawn, and now we, their descendants, are left in the cosmos bereft to encounter the violence of the cosmos without God shielding us from it. We’re like Earth would be without its magnetic field deflecting the solar wind; we’re like the gray face of the moon, being worn down by time.

Yes, Thomas Aquinas was that crass; that medieval. We suffer, fall apart, and die because God withholds his grace from us. He could treat us better right now, in this very moment, but he is angry at the first parents, and his wrath is upon their descendants. We are children of wrath. Adam and Eve’s failure to submit their reason to God is why he now lets our composite bodies tend toward their potency into actuality. Through Adam and Eve, death entered the world, and we are suffering the consequences.

But what plausible higher good comes from this withdrawal of God’s protection? Does this sound like a sensible Higher Being providing a sufficient reason for why, for example, tsunamis have the power to kill hundreds of thousands of people at a single go? What’s the higher good coming from God’s ongoing grudge at the first couple’s sin?

Is God really so monstrous?

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The Aztec Sun God and Jesus the Son of God Bled for You. Feel Guilty? Ready to Sacrifice Your Life to Them? Then the Stories Worked!

The Aztec worship of their sun god was rather barbaric because humans were sacrificed to the god. The rationale for this sacrifice had to do with Aztec myth, which held that the sun god sacrificed his very own blood to create the Earth and generate the life that is upon it. This meant that everyone–absolutely everyone–owed an enormous debt to this god, and only human sacrifice–the most dear fruits of ourselves–could ever do as a gesture of gratitude and repayment. So Aztec religion functioned on a guilt trip. The sun god did something really big for you, and you ought to do something really big for him. It was all about expressing gratitude in a highly theatrical and traumatic way, so as to receive the god’s notice and ongoing blessing and approval.

Then I thought of the Christian narrative, and how it functions in much the same manner. In other words, I thought, “How like Aztec religion is Christianity!”

As with the Aztec god, in Christianity, Jesus sacrificed for your life (“Jesus had a really bad weekend for your sin”). Now you are expected to sacrifice your life to Jesus. You are in Jesus’ debt, and to express your gratitude, you may not be called upon to die on a literal altar in the next moment, but you are to present yourself to Jesus as a sacrifice in each moment. You are to hijack your own purposes to his purposes, which amounts to a kind of death in life. You might even be expected to act as a martyr for him, literally going to death on his behalf should such a circumstance present itself.

Maybe this is part of the reason that passion plays (and Mel Gibson’s infamous film) have such a powerful effect. People are reminded to feel guilty over what Jesus did for them. To watch Jesus die so traumatically for you is to impress upon the mind and heart gratitude and thanksgiving, which you can now reciprocate.

And this psychological frame of mind can then get tied up with politics, and seized upon by Machiavellian rulers, as happened in the Aztec theocratic state. Religion got put into the service of power. And as with the Aztec state, so with (for example) medieval papal states. The state benefits when its subjects renew their commitment to sacrifice themselves to the collective culture’s god, for it puts them in mind to also sacrifice to the deity’s representatives on Earth, which are clergymen and politicians. It means the sacrifice of the subjects to god and state; the god wed to the state–which means its subjects are meat for the state.

Clever. As in chiming with meat cleaver.

So it puts a different spin on Thanksgiving, doesn’t it? The pardoning of a turkey by the American President, the collective prayer, and the whole Thanksgiving cultural ritual generally seem designed to pluck ever so softly on the sorts of gratitude strings in people that religions and theocratic states (historically) have plucked much more dramatically. With the sacrifice of 40 million or so birds in a single week–a symbol of God’s sacrifice for us and his bounty brought to us–it sets up the state to get in on the act by “pardoning” one bird from its fate (the other birds died that we and that single bird might go on living).

And it makes some of the remarks that Abraham Lincoln made, on the initiation of Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, sound all the more like those which might have been spoken by an Aztec priest:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity,… [p]opulation has [nevertheless] steadily increased, […] No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

No human sacrifices now, but touching upon the same family of human psychological impulses and superstitions. All those poor turkeys.

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David Berlinski defends God’s role in the Holocaust: “God did not protect his chosen people…[but] did…smite their enemies, with generations to come in mourning or obsessed by shame.”

Here’s David Berlinski defending God’s role in the Holocaust (from page 31 of his book, The Devil’s Delusion): “[T]he thousand year Reich…lies buried in the rubble of German cities smashed to smithereens,…[I]f God did not protect his chosen people precisely as [atheist Sam] Harris might have wished, He did, in an access of his old accustomed vigor, smite their enemies, with generations to come in mourning or obsessed by shame.”

In other words, David Berlinski is saying in defense of God that though God did not protect the Jewish people from the Holocaust, he nevertheless empowered the Allies to destroy the Jews’ enemies (the Nazis) after the fact, and to set those enemies into eternal infamy among men and women.

But here’s the problem with David Berlinski’s justification of God’s behavior surrounding the Holocaust. If God can smite (David Berlinski’s word) the enemies of the Jews after the fact, it means God could have simply prevented the murderous behavior in the first place.

By analogy, you don’t praise a police chief for tracking down, arresting, and smiting a murderer after the murder has occurred if you also know that the police chief could see the murder coming, had the power to stop the murder, and didn’t stop it. The obvious question for the police chief is: “Why didn’t you just prevent the murder? If you can smite, you can prevent, right?”

And the free will defense does no good here. In deciding between competing goods, it could be argued (absurdly) that God preferred the free will of Hitler and the Nazis to the suffering of six million Jews, and so had to let the Nazis slaughter the Jews. God, being all rational and good, presumably chooses the greatest degree of rationality and goodness to prevail in the cosmos, and that includes the risks entailed in the exercise of human free will. But David Berlinski says God empowered smiting, and smiting restricts the freedom of the will of the murderers as surely as preventing the will of the murderers in advance. It takes the murderers off the playing field of existence permanently. No free will there.

So any explanation of the Holocaust on theism quickly runs into serious problems of coherence. The Berlinski quote highlights this.

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Charles Darwin vs. Thomas Aquinas: What Follows from Our Nature?

At his blog recently, Thomist philosopher Edward Feser wrote the following: “For Aquinas, what is good for us is necessarily good for us because it follows from our nature. As such, even God couldn’t change it, any more than he could make two and two equal to five.”

Yet what is “our nature,” and what is “good for us”? Here’s what Aquinas never knew: evolution.

But Walt Whitman knew it, and here’s what he wrote: “As the greatest lessons of Nature through the universe are perhaps the lessons of variety and freedom, the same present the greatest lessons also in New World politics and progress.” That’s the first sentence of Whitman’s “Democratic Vistas” (1867), written eight years after Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species (1859).

In other words, before there are Thomistic essences to be taken account of (“penises are for vaginas”; “women’s bodies are for reproduction”; “breasts are for infant feeding”), evolution tells us that, for the human animal, there is hijacking of purposes; cleverness; a variety of gambits; vistas reached where humans can see beyond Nature’s courses and inertias, and bypass them. Whitman’s “variety and freedom” translates in contemporary culture to things such as contraception, gender equality, and gay marriage.

Aquinas couldn’t have reasoned in a contemporary manner about these things because he didn’t know Darwin. That means Aquinas didn’t know what sort of animal he was even writing about. He knew none of our evolutionary history. He could no more talk sensibly about gender or homosexuality than he could about the nature of the stars. He was that far in the dark.

Something Aquinas didn’t know (for example) is that the large and modular human brain is often in conflict with itself; it doesn’t hold together in a single vision, or to one purpose. The reason for this is that different parts of the brain evolved in different contexts for different purposes. The brain has been generated by contingent history. If God exists, then God, through evolution, didn’t make the components of the human brain for pulling all in the same direction. There is competition within. So God made us impulse players; imaginative exploiters of the contingent moment; gamblers into the future, not just respecters of the past. We are nomads as well as settlers. We are evolution accelerators. If we have a central nature, that’s it. The hawk’s superpower is its eye; the human’s superpower is her clever hijacking of essences in the service of a larger vision; a grander evolutionary survival strategy. We see moves along the competitive chessboard of life that no other animal can even imagine, and we can choose.

So for Edward Feser to reason about human nature without taking full account of what we’ve learned about the brain after Darwin is problematic. To speak of essences in medieval terms, prior to submitting to the full deliverances of evolution and science as to what we are (and it’s a complicated picture) is folly. At one point in Edward Feser’s blog post, for instance, he speaks of the popes, scripture, and tradition as reasons for not budging on key issues surrounding sex and gender. But arguments from authority should not be the starting places for intellectual reasoning. In the 21st century, evolution should be that starting point. Evolution is, as the philosopher Daniel Dennett so aptly puts it, “a universal acid.” The Thomistic tradition Edward Feser appeals to, therefore, came into existence long before Darwin, and for it to retain any serious attention from the educated, it ought to be re-imagined in the light of Darwin. Real essences should be sought, not fake or outdated essences, and our real essence is the power to hijack other essences–other “givens” in Nature–to fresh purposes.

In final pushback to the Thomistic notion of what human nature is (the animal that rationally submits its will to God and the prior essences that God has established), I’d like to point to Sartre’s famous counter-slogan to the classical ontological-theological tradition: “existence precedes essence.” I’d also like to point to a quote from Matthew Arnold (1822-1888). Arnold’s quote comes from his “The Study of Poetry” (1888): “Our religion has materialized itself in the fact, and now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, or divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry.”

Arnold’s quote most obviously suggests that religion needs to attend to the deliverances of science, and not be so literalist in its reading of ancient texts. It’s okay for Adam and Eve and Jesus, for instance, not to have existed. As with the story of the Buddha,  the biblical stories are powerful spurs to thought whether they really happened or not.

But Arnold’s quote is also rich with a larger implication: There is an alternative to obeying the Book and discovering what religious tradition takes to be Nature’s “essences.” Once we’ve unshackled our minds from authority, we can re-conceptualize ourselves as the poetic animal. Our imaginations and ideas can be less illusory than the rest of the world. Here’s Arnold again: “[F]or poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, or divine illusion.” In other words, we can hijack the world to our purposes. We can be less concerned with the classical reality vs. appearance distinction, and focus more on playing with appearances; on fashioning imaginative tools for working with appearances. We can make reality into a hippie happening, for our evolutionary superpower is to transform what is into things interesting, strange, novel, surprising, different.

If that’s a nervy prospect, one can always tip-toe back into the shadows where religion and superstition pitch their tents in essentialist terms, providing ready-made answers for frightened and sleepy travellers. But I prefer Darwin, Whitman, and Man Ray to Aquinas, fundamentalism, and Feser.

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If God is Rational, Whence the Holocaust and Competing Goods (Such as the Pursuit of Beauty over Ethics)?

Thomist philosopher Edward Feser prefers intellectualism (reason leading the will) to voluntarism (the will leading reason). He thinks that neither desire nor imagination should lead our wills, and claims that God, as the supremely rational being, ought to be our example: “[W]hat God wills and does is always rational or intelligible through and through,” whereas “an extreme voluntarist conception of God would regard him primarily as a Supreme Will,…On this sort of view, what God wills and does is not ultimately intelligible even in itself, for he is in no sense bound by rationality. He simply wills what he wills, arbitrarily or whimsically, and there is ultimately no sense to be made of it.”

But if God is as Edward Feser supposes–supremely rational and intelligible–then my questions become three:

  • Does the Holocaust fit best under intellectualism or voluntarism? In other words, in deciding between competing goods, was God being rational to prefer Hitler’s free will to the suffering of six million Jews?
  • Does God have the right answer for Antigone and Creon in terms of prioritizing and choosing between their competing goods? (For Antigone, it was to bury her brother vs. the State’s command that she not do so; for King Creon, as Head of State, it was to punish Antigone for insolence vs. give her mercy.)
  • If one devotes oneself to masturbation or art (private pleasures), rather than helping, say, gays and lesbians organize for equality and justice, is one being irrational?

It just seems to me that, clearly, if God exists, she is not Hegel, providing a direction to history through its Sturm und Drang. Instead, she appears to have set up the cosmos for whimsy and chaos; for the play of multiplicity, contingency, and competing goods, not for the business of working out a winner-take-all competition between the obviously good vs. the obviously evil.

The rational response then, would look to be to take our cue from God and be multiple ourselves; to not try to hold the impulses of our evolved brains and bodies in a single vision, but to be nomadic, unsettled, ironic and humorous (ala Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”). By all appearances, life really is “absurd, and death’s the final word,” and God thinks more like Proust (a novelist) than Aquinas (a theologian).

So it seems that God made the cosmos for whimsy, and has strewn the evidence for Her whimsy everywhere. Look, for instance, into the night sky. Astronomers tell us the moon itself is the ancient debris of a cataclysmic collision between two planets, Earth and Theia (in Greek myth, Theia is the mother of Selene, goddess of the moon). God, it appears, is speaking loud and clear, pointing at the moon like Dogen. Are we listening and looking?

If you think God is supremely rational, behold the Holocaust, behold the moon.


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Whatever Works: Pierce’s Abduction, Darwin’s Evolution, Entropy, Bayes’ Rule, and Rorty’s Pragmatism

I’ve recently been struck by the similarity between Charles Sanders Pierce’s notion of abduction (reasoning to the best hypothesis; “may the best hypothesis win”), Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution (survival of the fittest; “may the best organism win”), entropy (what time turns to shit; “may the most probable arrangement win”), Bayes’ Rule (what’s probable; “may the most probable theory win”); and Richard Rorty’s pragmatism (in this contingent moment, what’s useful; “may the best tool win”).

When reasoning, we often ignore abduction, evolution, entropy, probability, and contingency. Instead, we tend to practice confirmation bias. We look at the hits in favor of our beliefs, and ignore the misses. We imagine that our way of thinking is best, and ought to be universal, without really considering the competing alternatives or the history that brought us to our conclusions in the first place. We don’t think in terms of probabilities, but certainties, and we don’t historicize. We try to reason as if we are taking a “view from nowhere” (Thomas Nagel); as if we’re out of history.

We’re also not ironic about what we believe, but passionate.

Not so evolution. Evolution is about history. It is content to dice diversity and is indifferent to what wins or loses. We are earnest while evolution is ironic. Thus, my way of thinking and being (“My way works!”) is always going to come into competition with evolution’s other ways of thinking and being (“Whatever works!”). If your way is not the very, very best at what it claims to do, evolution, like entropy, will, impartially and slowly, but surely, undo it and put something else in its place.

I thus see evolution as history and nature’s way of doing Pierce’s abduction, arriving at the best working “hypotheses” for each contingent environment. It is oddly democratic; justice with a blindfold. The votes get counted. All of them. It is the entropy that wears down systems that are no longer useful, and it replaces them with more robust systems. Evolution swarms monomania, breaking it up. “The fox knows many things, the hedgehog one big thing.” Evolution is the fox of all foxes. Natural selection reveals the things that have the chops for survival; for what works best in any given ecosystem (biological, cultural, or intellectual).

So ask yourself: do my ideas and practices rise to the top in the 21st century?

Pretend you’re a Thomist, for example. With regard to Thomism, your answer is obviously no. In an open and competitive (as opposed to a protectionist) philosophical environment, Thomism fares poorly. Few professional philosophers today buy it, and for the past 400 years no genius philosopher has championed it. It’s why Thomism has gone from being the Google of the 15th century to a penny stock today. It still has a niche among intellectuals, but a narrow one.

So in the 21st century ecosystem of ideas and practices, where are yours? How do they fare as tools in the light of abduction, evolution, entropy, probability, and contingency?

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What Does It Mean To Be An Agnostic?

I’m an agnostic, which for me means the following: I take it that there is only one way the cosmos actually is, and I don’t know what that one way is. There are a gazillion logically possible ways it could be, but that one needle in the haystack eludes me. I therefore can work with appearances and probabilities, and say a multitude of interesting things about both, but I cannot lay claims to certainty.

Catholicism down to its last detail, for example, has a tiny probability of being true, and I can notice things and make observations about it without saying, “I’ve got the final word on this subject.” Or perhaps we live in a multiverse, or the simulation of a computer. It may be that mind and matter came into existence simultaneously. I don’t know.

What I actually can know are two things. First, I can interact with appearances and make observations, noticing relations and guessing at probabilities. Second, I can appreciate that it takes variety to make an interesting world, and not just work with my confirmation biases. I can talk to diverse groups of people to keep me on my toes.

So thank goodness there are Thomists, hedonists, leftists, materialists, Randians, and Hindus in the world. Things would be less interesting, not more so, without them. Each has a niche and notices different things about existence, and somebody has to be committed to perspectives different from my own–and long for the promises that accompany them. Without variety in belief, there would be threads of existence that would never get explored. It’s part of the gambit of evolution to give people different temperaments, proclivities (to be selfish or cooperative), interests, and beliefs (which are always related to actions).

Evolution is ironic, but with regard to our individual beliefs, we rarely are. And that makes for a lively world. And the Internet connects us in unprecedented ways, so we can talk to one another.

But as an agnostic, when someone comes under the spell of a belief, most especially a metaphysical belief, and says, “I now see the one reality behind the appearances,” I’m inclined to hear occultism and wishful thinking. How did that person get the spiritual or intellectual Horton ears denied to me, and then manage to pull out the one genuine signal from all the cosmic noise, attaining the ultimate truth? How did they get utterly beneath the appearance of things to arrive at the spookiest and most wondrous place of all, the absolute Ground of Being? Why do they think they’ve achieved so stupendous a feat? Hmm.

So to me it’s occultism. I doubt that the true believers have Horton ears, nor do I think it at all likely that they have the final truth, but I still want to hear what they have to say. There’s something true out there, but I don’t think anybody knows what that one truth is, and if they do know, well, how do they think they know? In all likelihood, if they’ve got it, they’ve stumbled on the needle-in-the-haystack truth, but might lose or diminish it in the next sentence that expresses their thoughts.

And yet they might be expressing something useful and interesting. And until the truth comes along, that will do.

So better, I think, to acknowledge our existential situation (we’re limited beings in a vast and ancient cosmos), and work with that as best we can. We should maintain some humility in assertion, and keep Galileo’s telescope pointing into the sky, hoping for more clues. That seems to me the best we can do when we’re not possessed by the fever and urgency to be certain.

And yet, paradoxically, if you’re not certain, or you never feel the urgency to arrive at certainty, you might not have the energy to work out lines of thought, and the life paths that accompany them, to their logical conclusions. If you’re agnostic and ironic about everything, you might not discover the value of a path that might have held up admirably under pressure, and actually been quite useful (if not completely corresponding to the absolute truth).

So I don’t know if it’s a good thing to be an agnostic all the time. But that’s the sort of person I mostly am. I’m happy to tell others to pursue “whatever works,” but most everything on offer looks like a dead end to me (“nothing works”). And the more a person expresses certitude–atheist or theist, left or right–the more I think, “Confidence game.”

There is a scene from the horror flick, Jacob’s Ladder (1990), that has long haunted me. A man is fleeing his demons, and he has tried every means of warding them off that he can think of. He wears crosses around his neck, garlic, Shivas, etc, and as he continues to be chased he finally stops running and says, “Nothing works.”

That, I think, is what it means to be an agnostic. It’s a way of putting an end to the running. It’s having a deep and abiding suspicion that, whatever one does to quell the suffering, emptiness, and anxiety that accompanies human existence, nothing on offer really works all that well. It’s being content to let others try their experiments, and you’re interested in observing their outcomes, but as for you, you keep your own options open and your bullshit detector set pretty high.

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Thomas Aquinas on Exterminating Heretics

In the Summa, Thomas Aquinas says that you can reason with someone who holds a different doctrine from yours so long as that person is open and searching. On the other hand, if the person persists in his view, and does not come around to the Orthodox position, it becomes a sin of willfulness on his part, and Aquinas is quite clear what is to happen in that instance (SMT SS Q[11] A[3] Body Para. 1/2):

I answer that, With regard to heretics two points must be observed: one, on their own side; the other, on the side of the Church. On their own side there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death. For it is a much graver matter to corrupt the faith which quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life. Wherefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death. On the part of the Church, however, there is mercy which looks to the conversion of the wanderer, wherefore she condemns not at once, but “after the first and second admonition,” as the Apostle directs: after that, if he is yet stubborn, the Church no longer hoping for his conversion, looks to the salvation of others, by excommunicating him and separating him from the Church, and furthermore delivers him to the secular tribunal to be exterminated thereby from the world by death.

Aquinas’s use of the word “exterminated” here is particularly chilly. Thank goodness we live in a secular age with the separation of Church and State.

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The Principle of Sufficient Reason and the Holocaust

Here’s the problem concerning the principle of sufficient reason. If one posits that God has a good and sufficient reason for having allowed the Holocaust, the follow-up question obviously becomes, “Well, what is it?” Any particular answer proves woefully inadequate, ludicrous to contemplate, or even just plain morally abominable. Sometimes it even leads to a reductio ad absurdum. And when this is pointed out, the response simply shifts to something else, which on inspection is equally inadequate or grotesque.

So talking about God’s morally sufficient reason for allowing the Holocaust is akin to speaking to the ontological mystery (the mystery of being) itself. It’s incomprehensible. You can’t reach it. But with regard to the Holocaust, maybe you can’t reach this sufficient reason because it doesn’t actually exist. And if there is no morally sufficient reason for God permitting the Holocaust to happen, and the Holocaust nevertheless happened, then the theistic project itself collapses, for God is supposed to be all good and powerful.

That’s why it’s important to ask, “What was God’s morally sufficient reason for the Holocaust?” If you can’t think of any, what’s left of theism? Silence perhaps, like Thomas Aquinas adopted at the end of his life, or simple fideism? Belief in God after the Holocaust, it appears, requires a leap of faith that deliberately runs contrary to human reason.

Is there really any other theistic alternative? A command theory of God (whatever is, is right, so stop asking questions)? I don’t think so.

So if you’re a theist, where do you go intellectually after the Shoah? After WWII and the Holocaust, Albert Camus thought the first question of philosophy was whether or not to commit suicide. For the religious believer, I think the first question has to be, “What can one believe about God after the Holocaust?”

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Who Is William Blake, Really?

William Blake is a poet, not a metaphysician. When someone writes with aphorism, irony, and wild and flamboyant system building (as Blake and Nietzsche did), they are mocking essentialism; they’re showing that language is infinite; that there are a gazillion ways to describe the world, and they’ve just created a new way to talk about it.

Blake is human evolution “LIVE!” and in action; the infinite imagination on the move. Blake puts on display as provocation and reminder the evolutionary superpower we have been given for redescribing things. We have, as individuals, the power to ignore what outside authorities take to be the essence of things, and to notice something else. Like Adam, we ourselves have the power to name the animals. It is human therefore to reach for the “disordered” and “abnormal”; to gamble in the direction of overgoing what is.

There’s no final language for this process, there’s only Blake (and people like Blake). There’s no pointing to a final essence with a final vocabulary, so to stop at a language like, say, Catholic Thomism is to lack sui generis individuality and imagination. It’s to stop growing.

Catholic Thomism started as a new language; a giddy incorporation of Aristotle into Christianity. What an adventure. But now it has solidified into the cranky rejection of women’s equality for the priesthood and no gay marriage. What a come down. How obviously it has veered into a ditch.

But there is only art. Blake’s Jesus is an artist, not an essentialist. Blake’s Jesus points to the moon, not to essences. The moon is always accompanied by an elipsis, like Walt Whitman’s grass. “What is the grass? The grass is x… and now it’s this, and now it’s that, and now it’s the flag of my disposition, and now it’s the uncut hair of graves, and now it’s…” There are no essences, only descriptions. If you tighten the noose of essences around Blake and Whitman, you lose Blake and Whitman (and tame poetry in general, and the danger that poetry represents to all systems, which are themselves tropes for essences).

This is why Plato didn’t want poets in his Republic. They were dangerous. They didn’t mirror the one truth that Plato thought he had grasped. They didn’t tell the TRUTH; they didn’t fit into the societal structure oriented to the TRUTH.

Poets have always reminded people that talking differently is possible; that the ontological mystery–the mystery of being itself–can’t be grasped in a final vocabulary; that when a poet points and speaks to the ontological mystery, that it must necessarily fail because the ontological mystery cannot be pinned down. (I’m using the Catholic existentialist Gabriel Marcel’s phrase, “ontological mystery,” in case you’re wondering where that phrase is from.)

In any case, this inability to pin down the ontological mystery is like human nature itself. As Sartre said, we are existence before essence. It’s the superpower evolution has given us, to be an open platform. It’s our evolutionary strategy, to not act on instinct, but to creatively re-purpose nature and culture.

All poets thus remind us of the possibilities of the open platform–and hence of the problem with essentialist metaphysics and cultural inertia. Blake and all poets are the children of evolution and revolution.

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What are Sex Organs “For”? Thomism vs. Evolution

We know that evolution high-jacks organs all the time to different purposes depending on context. The first tongue may have had the singular purpose of tasting, then it got used by the cat for cleaning the pelt, then by humans for speech and sex, etc.

So nothing evolution evolves is “settled” in the sense that the way one generation uses an organ is the way the next generation ought to use an organ (think of the penguin’s wing, which started as a tool for flying, then got hijacked by evolutionary imperatives as a tool for swimming).

And now evolution has evolved the human big brain. The human big brain accelerates old-school biological evolution by creatively hi-jacking everything around it. That seems to be what a human brain is: a clever over-comer of natural states and functions by putting them to ends other than those they came into existence for.

So if God says, “I made pain in child-bearing a curse for original sin,” God also seems to say, “I made humans with big brains for figuring out how to get around this issue by injecting epidurals into the spine.”

And if God says, “I made the penis for ejaculating semen into the vagina,” God also seems to be saying, “And I made big brains for figuring out how to bypass traditional reproduction completely, and make use of sex primarily for pleasure, joy, love, and bonding.”

Thomistic ethical premises are grounded in a too-simplified notion of what can be read off of a fact of nature. Evolution doesn’t limit its options in the use of an organ, and so it’s question begging as to why we should either. One can’t appeal to nature and at the same time not notice how evolutionary nature actually works.

I realize this ungrounds ethics from objectivity of the sort we can bring to things like particle physics. But God has not given us a map for this territory (unfortunately). We don’t discover ethics “out there” like we discover electrons “out there.”

It’s why ethics should keep going back to love, not Thomistic essences. If the motive for actions can be linked to the better angels of our nature (love, curiosity, kindness, joy, etc.), that should transcend any claim as to what organs are “for.”

Thus gay marriage would seem to be an obvious example of how the Thomist strains out a gnat (how the sex organs function in reproduction) and swallows the camel (how big brain humans hijack evolution; it’s central to their nature to do so).

But if you’re moving toward love, you’re moving toward God (if God exists). To try to ground moral choices in nature’s nature, as opposed to God’s nature (love), is to run into problems with evolutionary hijacking. If you know evolution hijacks, then you can’t say what an organ is “for” in a universal context.

Let love rule.

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What Love Is (A Definition)

What is love?

I’d basically put it among the very broad family of “the better angels of our nature,” and in the genus of “seeking connection, harmony, and cooperation in a non-zero sum way.” As to the species of this genus, I’d call love “an emotion that draws us into a larger circle of inclusion over exclusion; a willingness to take risks of inclusion, even at risk to ourselves.”

Life, from the first cell to us, always asks as its first question, “What’s in, what’s out?” Every living thing has a border, a skin. It’s a bit like Thomas Aquinas’ essentialism: “What’s this like, what’s this not like? What makes this unique from everything else in the cosmos?”

The positive emotions and joys of the distinguishing intellect prompts the Thomistic will, but then love prompts us back towards bringing what we’ve established as “out,” in (or back in).

So once we have gotten very precise, and made our fine distinctions, and put up our walls of who (and what) is in and out, what then can we reintegrate into the circle of good, beauty, inclusion, kindness, and joy?

Ram Das used to keep a photo of Caspar Weinberger (Reagan’s defense secretary) on his puja table alongside Christ, Krishna, and Buddha. Each morning he would light a candle to all of them. It was a reminder of the spiritual work he still needed to do. It’s easy to love the lovable, but those you find hard to love, that’s the work. Putting an image of your enemy on a puja table is an imaginative attempt at reorienting to love; of risking incorporation.

It’s the evolutionary strategy of the hippie bonobo, not the go-it-alone shark.

That’s what love is.

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