For the feastday

I st-anselm2thought I’d observe the feast of St. Anselm today by pointing readers to a truly remarkable little essay by Brandon Watson on Anselm’s argument for God’s existence in Chapter 2 of the Proslogion. Though written three years ago, and garnering zero comment, it’s well worth discussing. I’d like to initiate discussion of it here.

To that end, I’ll just post the heart of it; but I caution those interested to read it all before commenting.

….the Fool either understands what he says does not exist, in which case he contradicts himself, or he does not contradict himself because he does not understand what he is saying does not exist. As Anselm says, “Even though he may say those words in his heart he will give them some other meaning or no meaning at all.” So what is to be made of this?

I myself take Klima’s view that the argument is sound. However, most of what I will say here does not require agreeing with me on this point. All it requires is that we ask, “Even supposing it is sound, what then?”

A sound argument is one that is logically valid and has true premises. But not all sound arguments are particularly helpful for coming to a conclusion. For instance, it is fairly easy to create arguments that are sound but that beg the question — that is, arguments that are logically valid and have true premises, but whose premises can only be known to be true if we already accept the conclusion. When our interest is persuasion, the discovery of the truth, or anything else that relies on going from the unknown to the known or from the not-believed to the believed, we need something more than soundness. Klima argues, and I think that he’s right, that the problem Anselm’s argument faces is precisely at this level. Despite the fact that it is a sound argument, and shows that the atheist (the one who denies there is a God because that than which no greater can be thought does not exist) would be contradicting himself if he were seriously to reflect on that than which no greater can be thought, nonetheless it’s possible to rationally reject the argument. As Anselm himself recognizes, understanding the words “that than which no greater can be thought” is not the same as having that than which no greater can be thought as an object of the understanding.

Cross-posted @ Sacramentum Vitae


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No such animal…

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

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

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

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

The most important thing…

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

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

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

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

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

As Paul Tillich said, “Accept that you are accepted.”

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

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

Not hurting anyone, that I could see…

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

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

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

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

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

Foregone forgiveness and guaranteed gifts…

AXIOM: If everything is necessary, nothing is gratuitous.

POSTULATE: Forgiveness and gift-giving are intrinsically gratuitous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free to be determined…

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