The New Pope’s Liberalism vs. Thomas Aquinas’s Leninism

Thomas Aquinas was the Leninist of his day; he was a Party man. For Aquinas, nothing should be done without reference to The Party. All focus should be on The Party.

The Party is the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). Aquinas was perfectly willing to hijack his own organism into the service of The Party, and he did all of his reasoning from there.

And evolution, of course, has made hijackers of us all, not just Aquinas. Using our clever brains, we can disrupt the normal course of things to our purposes. Imagination before essence. That’s our evolutionary strategy; our superpower (just as the eagle’s superpower is strong wings, claws, and vision).

Aquinas’s hijacking of the imagination was directed toward orienting life to the Trinity. Aquinas, like Lenin, was a hedgehog, not a fox. (“The fox knows many things, the hedgehog one big thing.”)

The hedgehog, ideological impulse characteristic of Thomism and Leninism is to deploy hijacking in a very particular way. It pretends to make of a singular hijacking strategy a universal law: everyone ought to hijack their purposes to the Trinity, or the Communist Party, or whatever. Single vision and universalist hijacking subsumes a diversity of human evolutionary functions to one overriding goal that everyone should strive toward. “You ought to be a Communist,” or “You ought to orient to the God of Christianity.” The flies change, but the Big Shit is the same. The Big Shit is taken to be the highest good. Those who don’t orient to this Bigger Shit, however imagined, are deviant.

It makes for a difficult atmosphere for eccentric joys and interests, dissent, imagination, play, art, and science (as Michelangelo discovered in relation to Savonarola, Galileo in relation to the Inquisition, and Trotsky in relation to Stalin).

So ideological thinking is not ecological thinking; it’s not the way of Walt Whitman’s “variety and freedom” (the democratic insights he drew from Nature and evolution).

Absolutist ideologies of the Thomistic and Leninist varieties are very unstable absent harshness, powerful carrots and sticks, violence. Absent force, you need a lot of powerful psychological techniques to make people stay put ideologically. If you can’t force people, you’ve got to spell-cast them with words, not swords–otherwise diversity will assert itself again. That’s why ideology gets subverted by time, ecology, and evolution. Ecology and evolution accord with entropy and the diverse productions of time.

And it’s why there’s such turbulence within the Catholic Church today over masturbation, women priests, contraceptive technologies, gay marriage, divorce, remarriage, dogs going to heaven (!), and the new Pope’s liberalism. We’re multiple, and Thomistic ideology, resisting Nature, is singular.

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Seven Reasons I’m an Antitheist

I’m an antitheist. I don’t think, on balance, that religion functions as a force for good in the 21st century. Seven reasons:

  • Religion perpetuates women’s inequality. One element of religion that is quite bad, and that makes me an antitheist, not merely an agnostic or atheist, is the male gender bias that tends to adhere to it. Most religions are patriarchal: they conceive of God as male, do not let women into the center of their governing and theorizing structures, and condition members–female and male–to idealize, and submit their wills to, male authoritarians.
  • Religion discourages independent thought and values. Religions encourage the outsourcing of thoughts and values to authorities. In other words, another good reason to be an antitheist is to avoid getting sucked into a dynamic in which you’re made to feel that your thoughts and values need religious sanction. By conceding this to a religious institution–by outsourcing your thoughts and values–your life gets hijacked to that institution and its agendas.
  • Religion promotes homophobia. Don’t even get me started on this one.
  • Religion sets one up for hypocrisy. Wherever a religion’s demands are high (such as with Jesus telling his followers to sell all they have and give it to the poor), believers are drawn into hypocrisy. They can’t live up to it. And where one can’t live up to something conceded to be “good,” one ends up looking for forgiveness; of being put into the role of the guilty petitioner seeking pardon from a “superior.” Not a good dynamic to get into with others. Not even with God.
  • Religion sets one up to be shadowed by doubt. Wherever beliefs are absurd, as with Protestant fundamentalists who believe in young Earth creationism, intelligent believers are driven into cycles of doubt where they try to counter them by talking themselves into believing implausible and ridiculous things. This is done through practicing such bad habits as confirmation bias (counting the hits, but not the misses, in one’s pet theory), epistemic closure (not reading books written by those outside the faith, etc.), and cognitive dissonance (bracketing off beliefs from each other in such a way that they don’t cohere–and you don’t care or notice that they don’t cohere). Such practices corrupt the critical faculties. What is needed is not boosterism (“Get with the program, stay with the program, don’t doubt the program!”), but unfettered inquiry–and religion too frequently discourages or subverts unfettered inquiry.
  • Religion sets one up for submission and servility. The failure to live up to the dogmas and the highest “ideals” of the institution, draws congregants into a psychological cycle of subservience, abjectly asking forgiveness of God for not valuing what God values, and taking cues from religious leaders as to how much hypocrisy one can get away with and still call oneself a “Buddhist,” a “Christian,” a “Muslim”–or whatever. And there are always a few people within a religious group who are especially “good” (they practice the religion with a high degree of consistency and believe without the least doubt even the most absurd of its doctrines). Their “good” example gives them power within the group, and sets the majority up for cycles of guilt and idealization in relation to this minority. But holding saintly subservience and childlike faith (stupidity) up as an ideal for emulation is not a good idea. It can open one up to manipulation by confidence men and hucksters (religious or political), and it discourages the questioning of authority. What the world needs in the 21st century are more critical thinkers and whistle-blowers, not head-covered saints, eyes directed at the ground.
  • Religion motivates with a combination of love and threat. Religions can be highly, highly manipulative, motivating with powerful carrots and sticks. They love bomb new members, for example, then entwine them into a community (those are the carrots), even as they threaten shunning and hell for any who might give up on the community and cease to believe at some later date (those are the sticks). Such a system of rewards and punishments amounts to institutionalizing The Stockholm Syndrome, where love and threat are coming from the same source.

Better, I think, is to get to a place in life where you value what you value, and think what you think, and you don’t care what Jesus values or thinks, or God values or thinks, or your co-workers value or think, or the majority in this or that religion values or thinks. That is, you derive your values and thoughts from engagement with your own inner resources.

As an alternative to theistic seriousness, I like Emily Dickinson’s irony, play, independence, and blasphemy in the poem below. It nicely represents the emotional place one can get to where it’s okay to talk about religion in a non-cowed manner (call her an anti-theist if you like as well):

God is indeed a jealous God

He cannot bear to see

That we had rather not with Him

But with each other play.

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One Shall Be Taken

Two horses–look again–

Winged, like cherubim–

Watering at a marble trough,

Ivy in riot about them.

Reality? Silence, bones

Saline, a coffin–not a trough–

And a tale in the main that

Had been uneven, rough, harsh.

I’d have done it differently.

This cemetery makes me hard.

I want to know the Lord who

Stalls, and kill Him. I want

To ride His horse to heaven.

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A Bit of Advice for People Who Think They Ought to Have Others’ Approval–or God’s Approval–for What They Value

If you look around you and find that you’re the only person who values a particular thing, you need to have the self esteem to say, “It still has value for me.” And if you don’t value what others value–or what God supposedly values–fine. Let them value it. If it has value for them, it needn’t have value for you.

Bandwagon appeals–“Everybody’s doing it!”–externalize values. They’re manipulative of our desire to belong, outsourcing values to other people. They work most effectively on those lacking in inner confidence.

And the contention between values is typically a war over who will be in the subject, and who in the object, position. (Or, to put it in Hegelian terms, who will be Master and who slave–the Master-slave dichotomy.)

Drop this dynamic with people altogether–and even with God. You don’t have to submit your values to others for their approval, and they don’t need your approval either. You don’t need to be a Hegelian tool fit to some other person’s purposes–or even to God’s purposes. Let people and God take care of themselves.

Two supports for this view. The first is Albert Camus. Camus surmised that neither God nor Nature answer to our human longings, and therefore existence is absurd. We can respond to the absurdity with suicide, but we needn’t do that. Instead, if neither God nor Nature will value us, we can do it. We can value ourselves. We can be a rebel for meaning and value against suicide and the absurd (the lacking in care for us of God and Nature). Add people’s disapproval, cruelty, and indifference to us, and we can use Camus’ idea of rebellion against the absurd on them as well. Just as we refuse suicide in the teeth of God’s and Nature’s indifference, so we refuse to internalize the indifference of others. God, Nature, and others might not affirm or save us, but we can affirm and save ourselves. From the absurd, Camus took his rebellion, freedom, passion, and solidarity. Nothing and no one else needed to authorize his values, but himself.

Following Camus, this means we don’t need God, Nature, or others to authorize our values or to give us hope for the future. We don’t need to treat this trinity as our patrons (as being in the caring and rescuing business on our behalf). Instead, we can deal with reality exactly as it appears, and see ourselves for what we are: beings toward death (Heidegger). We can replace future hope with passion for our present projects (which may include art or compassionate solidarity with other people in the same bad existential situation that we are in–two of Camus’ examples). Put another way, we can align ourselves with people who need and want to align themselves with us, and we can take care of ourselves, and choose what we value. We can be adults at play. (Taking up values needn’t always be a serious affair.)

The second support for locating the warrant for what you value in yourself alone is evolution. Walt Whitman, writing after Darwin and long experience meditating upon Nature, wrote in the first sentence of his essay, “Democratic Vistas” (1871), that Nature’s lessons are two: “variety and freedom.” To put it in Darwinian language, there are lots and lots of ways that an organism can be in the world, and lots and lots of evolutionary strategies for surviving (from strategies of cooperation to selfishness; of displaying to hiding). Values, from the vantage of Nature, are an open field with lots of diversity. In fact, that’s how things change. Through dicing diversity. Whatever works.

So if you value a thing, it doesn’t need to diminish in value for you because others don’t value it. And when you say, “You ought to value what I value,” or “I ought to value what someone else (or God) values,” try to recall, when you say such things, that you’ve lapsed into a power play of subject-object, Master-slave.

Then try this instead. With Emily Dickinson (and in the light of Camus, Whitman, Darwin, and evolution), say, “I am ‘a kangaroo among the beauty’!–a contingently evolved oddity with contingent values that belong to me–and perhaps only to me.”

That might free you up a bit to be what you want–and to value what you want.

If you like a particular subject in school, or a particular political cause, go for it. If you like art, get into art. Be free. You are free.

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Camus in a Nutshell: God is Not Good, Nature is Not Good, and We are More Moral Than God or Nature

God didn’t prevent the Holocaust, but we would have. And God didn’t prevent the 2004 Christmas tsunami that killed over 100,000 people, but we would have. And Nature doesn’t care if death is the engine of evolution, but we do.

So we’re much, much better–more kind, purposeful, and sensitive–than either God or Nature, and our relationship to these larger entities is therefore absurd. They do not answer to our kindness, purposefulness, desires, or sensitivities.

Here’s Albert Camus from The Myth of Sisyphus (1942): “I derive from the absurd three consequences: my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the sheer activity of consciousness, I transform in a rule of life what was an invitation to death—and I refuse suicide.”

In other words, Camus is saying that an unblinkered encounter with the universe–its indifference toward us, its apparent lack of purpose, and the suffering and death in it–leads us to the conclusion that we are in an absurd situation (neither God nor our environment answers to our longings). Yet this needn’t be an invitation to suicide. In such a situation, we can still lead a vital and moral life. It is our refusal of the absurd–and our outrage against it–that can affirm and energize a human existence: one of rebellion, freedom, passionate caring about our projects, and solidarity with others.

These are the qualities lacking in God and Nature, but present to us in experience.

So once you confront your fate directly–that you are a being toward death (Heidegger) in a cosmos that doesn’t care; that Nature is not ultimately holistic and purposeful in any meaningful sense; that God is dead, hiding, indifferent, or evil–and pass through the nihilism and dark night of the soul that accompanies this confrontation, then there is still the possibility for you to make a meaningful life. It can be private or public; it can be focused on aesthetic projects or others, but it can have value. It is possible.

How so? Look in the mirror. The meaning that you’ve been searching for can be found right there in front of you. You’re it. Meaning needn’t reside in religion or imagining yourself as one with the cosmos, but in you, in me, in other people. That meaning can be present because you can imagine it as present; because you are present.

So in our collective outrage at suffering being met with indifference by God and Nature, we can meet suffering with a compassionate imagination. Since nobody else—and nothing else—will value us, we can value each other and ourselves. If God and Nature will not speak, we will speak. The value of human life can come exclusively from us, and we can feel empathy for those who are in the same bad situation that we are in (again, as a being unto death). In Camus’ novel, The Plague, for instance, the heroic Dr. Rieux, though an atheist, doesn’t flee the plague city, or commit suicide in despair, but values the sick and distressed, and stays with them. That’s part of the rebellion of human consciousness against an indifferent universe: our affirmation of the value of others to us. Against a vast cosmos that doesn’t care and a God who is dead, we can care and live–and give.

As Camus wrote in “L’homme révolté”: “The solidarity of humanity is based on the revolt, and the justification of the revolt is man’s solidarity with others.” In other words, human connection and solidarity are justified by our revolt against the absurd. No one else, and nothing else, justifies it—or needs to justify it.

Camus’s atheism thus constitutes a robust and moral humanism grounded in outrage at the absurd nature of our private and collective experiences. We don’t need God or environmental holism for meaning, we need only the absurd existence we know; the existence of our evolved, contingent, and pitiful primate selves.

So we are (in Emily Dickinson’s phrase) kangaroos among the beauty—contingently evolved oddities—and in our contingent oddity, we can value ourselves individually and collectively, and extend to one another love, mutual understanding, and solidarity.

But our moral vision does not hold together in a single vision. That’s part of the absurdity of our situation, and a key to our rebellion. If God existed and was talking, or we could read our morals off of Nature (which David Hume told us is not really possible: no is makes an ought), then we would have an external hierarchy of values to point to as to what we should do (as Moses pointed the children of Israel to the Ten Commandments).

But we don’t have Moses’ luxury. In the 21st century, that’s not the way it is for us. God and Nature don’t speak, we speak. And yet we are constantly confronted with competing goods, not straightforward verdicts that we can draw between good and evil. No one can tell us what to do, or how, Solomon-like, we should split our “babies” (the things we value).

Human dilemmas of choice between competing goods are part of the absurdity of our existential situation, and are explored in tragic literature, such as in Sophocles’ Antigone. Antigone has to make difficult choices between her family and the demands of the state. Likewise (also in Antigone), King Creon has to make difficult choices between law and mercy.

The dilemmas of competing goods are also explored in the writings of philosophers like Isaiah Berlin and Richard Rorty.

So this is our human condition: to be sensitive beings in a world where God is not talking and the environment we’re embedded in is not meaningfully holistic. Nature really is red in tooth and claw, and things fall apart. The center does not hold because there is no center.

And this means we’re free. Free to choose from among competing human goods; free to cut the deck of definition and value exactly as we please. Free to decide what’s going to be important to us, and what’s not. A decidedly mixed blessing. And Camus in a nutshell.

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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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