Secular Irrationalism

I haven’t written a post in a long time, but a couple things have been gnawing at my mind as of late, and I really feel the need to express my thoughts on the matter.

It seems that contemporary man is very adept at spotting fallacies spoken by his religious debating partners. However, the various strands of irrationalism that exists in secular circles goes largely unnoticed. I believe this occurs because secularism and rationality are virtually conflated with each other, so as to be treated as co-extensive.

But of course, they are not co-extensive. Every belief (so it seems), including the beliefs dear to secularists, tag along with affective, emotive phenomena.

One of the common errors of irrational people is to attribute substantive and rational significance to what is purely affective. I want to suggest that secularists, far from being immune to this sort of difficulty, are perhaps especially prone to it. The reason for this, of course, is precisely because they are not on the watch out: the affective phenomena that arise in their minds when thinking in a secular way are treated as integral to secularism (and therefore, just as “rational”), no less than the thoughts themselves.

Allow me to clarify. Take a hypothetical secularists, “Joe.” Joe is studying astronomy, and in so doing he obtains an ever more profound grasp of his physically miniscule stature, relative to the universe. He is learning facts that are true and have been arrived at by highly reliable means. He is, in fact, engaging in a rational activity. However, certain feelings arise in him (quite distinct from any empirical facts he may be imbibing) in the meantime: first and foremost, there is the feeling that he, and the history of humanity itself, is ultimately insignificant; it makes no real difference what happens on earth.

Now, Joe may be fine at astronomy. But, being a typical pop-secularist, his philosophical training is nil, and he is not accustomed to sorting out such affective activity from his actual thoughts. His affectivity, in his own mind, receives the honorific badge of rationality. The feelings that arise during his study of astronomy are treated as just as worthy of our assent as are the empirical facts he learns. Anyone who disputes with him is irrational and a Pollyanna.

Now, how can we address Joe? I believe we could start by pointing out that any philosopher who gives a high place to human dignity (whether he or she is an Aristotelian, Kantian, Lockean, or whatever), does not do so on the basis of physical size, or physical size relative to anything else. The bases for human dignity that have been proposed include such things as: the capacity for contemplation, for happiness, for virtuous living, for possessing a good will, for enjoying eternal life, etc. At the moment, my point is not to defend any of these conceptions. My only point is that, regardless of philosophical tradition, any thinker who believes in human dignity would rightly regard the physical size of human beings as irrelevant to his thesis. Simply put, Joe has not provided a rebutting defeater for any actual thesis in favor of human dignity.

A more general point we could make is this: there is a simple test that all persons, secular and religious, can and should carry out if they are unsure whether a given sentiment is rational. First, simply take the affective phenomena and express it in propositional form. So, returning to Joe, he should formulate his feeling as a sentence that makes an assertion, such as “Human life is meaningless.” Second, make that proposition the conclusion of an argument. Third, take the observation or activity that prompted the feeling and express that in propositional form, such as “Human beings are physically miniscule in proportion to the universe.” Now, make that proposition one of the premises. So far, the argument looks like this:

1) Human beings are physically miniscule in proportion to the universe

2)

Therefore, human life is meaningless.

Now, how can we complete this syllogism to make a valid argument? The only way is to assert a correlation between physical size and meaning. The proposition would have to be something equivalent to: “The life of anything physically miniscule in proportion to the universe is meaningless.”

But why believe such a thing? Certainly, science itself (the exemplar of wisdom for the secularist) cannot provide an answer: there is no empirical test for worth or meaning. Also, the assertion strikes one as rather arbitrary. If the universe were cut down in size, perhaps by half, would the meaning of my life grow, perhaps by a smidgen? And why? Wouldn’t that be rather mysterious? And isn’t the whole point of the secular perspective to exorcise mystery?

I think it should be clear now, that the feelings which arise when engaged in a secular activity do not deserve extra points, and certainly do not deserve a free pass, compared to the feelings prompted by non-secular acts. We need to be vigilant in spotting affectivity and distinguishing it from actual thought, secular or religious.

There is another species of irrationalism I want to touch on: it occurs when a person places a disproportionate importance upon some belief or another, and thus, is committed to irrationally explaining away any evidence that seems contrary to it. Of course, this is a common error that we all commit, at least from time to time. In fact, it is an exaggerated form of a rational behavior: it is only rational to filter raw data through one’s current “working theory” and likewise to demand higher standards of evidence for giving up those beliefs that are closer to the core of one’s noetic structure (the sum of propositions that one believes in, and their relations to each other), and even to place some items beyond the possibility of being debunked (to give a non-controversial example, the laws of logic).

Scientists do this as a matter of course, particularly during periods of “normal science,” as Thomas Kuhn famously points out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Thus, when new astronomical phenomena are discovered, the data is not used to test the theory of gravity. Rather, it is interpreted in light of the theory of gravity- in effect, it is made to fit the theory. Likewise, new fossil discoveries do not prompt an attempt to disprove evolution. Instead, the fossils are given their place within the theory. There is nothing wrong with this. It is exactly how rational thought proceeds. Of course, if the new data creates intractable problems for the theory, and if an alternative presents itself, all of this tranquility is thrown out the window (a crisis, possibly prompting a revolution in the field, takes place eventually).

Now, it seems clear to me that secular thinkers are willing to pay very, very heavy prices in order to preserve secular theses: particularly the idea that there is no God, or at least not a personal one, and that there is no soul. Even beliefs which are highly intuitive and central to virtually any noetic structure may be bulldozed in the attempt to protect these materialist theses.

To provide just one example (though several come to mind), it has long been noted that whether there is free will in some traditional sense really depends upon the ontology of man: whether he has an immaterial component (that is, what is normally referred to as the soul). After all, if man is just atoms all the way down, then his decisions and acts are simply a function of prior physical conditions and relevant physical laws. Freedom would be an illusion. This is why most philosophers (who are materialists) either disbelieve in free will or redefine free will so that it does not include the possibility of initiating choice or choosing things other than one does (instead, free will becomes a function of whether one is physically restrained, as in a jail cell, for example. An unrestrained person is free, even though, according to them, he cannot step outside the physical causal chain and choose other than he does).

Does anyone doubt that more traditional, strong views of free will would be more commonplace, if only they did not impinge on the demands of materialism? Of course they would be. But this brings us to ask, is materialism- the thesis that everything is material (there is no spiritual or otherwise immaterial stuff)- really more obvious than the existence of free will in the strong, traditional sense? I fail to see how that is even possible.

To put it another way, each of us has a very strong perception of the personal origin and efficacy of our decisions. So much so, that belief in free will is clearly the default position among us. In fact, even those who disbelieve in free will immediately revert to believing in it, the moment they cease philosophizing.

It seems to me that this is powerful evidence in favor of free will: the sort of evidence that comes to us from ongoing, intractable intuition is just about the strongest we have in such intimate matters. But the materialist, at least typically, does not treat this as evidence to be explained, but rather, to be explained away. Nothing, not even incorrigible beliefs, may stand in the way of materialism.

I say, if free will and materialism are in conflict, then so much the worse for materialism.

What It Means To Be Aristotelian

 

When I describe myself as Aristotelian, the oddness of this description is sometimes very striking to me. After all, I regard most of Aristotle’s teachings as false. Much of it is outdated science. Some of it is self-contradictory or otherwise inadequate. What then, do I mean by calling myself an Aristotelian?

In the past, I have contented myself by saying that Aristotle possessed a way of seeing that transcends the particular content of his philosophy and remains perennially valid. Now, I want to flesh out what I mean by this and list some Aristotelian teachings. These are positions I find myself referencing or arguing in favor of frequently, which I have gleaned from Aristotle or from thinkers who have developed his core insights faithfully:

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Community is an intrinsic good, not a merely instrumental one.

Man is an inherently relational being. The glue that holds society together is not raw self-interest, but friendship.

There is no sense in speaking of a pre-political “state of nature.” Man is a political animal. For man, to live in a political society is the state of nature.

Community is prior to the individual. It is the matrix that permits the individual to live and even grow into a free, moral agent.

There are two great forms of dramatic art, each answering our aesthetic needs and revealing deep truths about our condition: tragedy and comedy.

There is “commutative justice,” which deals with exchange, as well as “general justice,” which regards distribution.

A mixed constitution is the best practicable form of government.

Politics ought to be determined by ethics. The political treatise is part of the ethical treatise, or at least subordinate to it.

Morality is not about social problem solving, utility, or even rights and duties, although none of these should be discounted. It is about becoming a good person: someone whose character is profoundly shaped by virtue.

Ethical thinking should focus, not on the question, “What ought I to do?” but rather, “How ought I to be?”

Morality is not merely a set of side constraints, such that we can choose our goals arbitrarily provided our behavior stays within certain parameters. Instead, to live morally is itself a way of life that requires active effort.

The fruition of virtue is happiness.

Moral truth is objective, but practicing it requires the virtue of phronesis (prudence), whereby one takes account of the complexities and particularities of real life.

We can know causal relations. It is possible to reason from effect to cause.

Composite being is hylomorphic: it is composed of an indeterminate substratum (matter) and a determinate, intelligible “part” (form).

Knowledge is a conformity between one’s mind and the reality one is contemplating. The object is made present to the mind, or to use the Scholastic phrase, “The intellect is determined by the object contemplated.”

Common names do not necessarily refer to merely conventional groupings. There are common natures.

Items in nature have teleological ends. Function and dysfunction are real.

Natural law is both descriptive and prescriptive. With the practical syllogism, one may move from a descriptive observation to a prescriptive conclusion; morality may be discerned from the real.

Metaphysics must be prior to epistemology. We should begin our philosophy with thoughts about things, not thoughts about thoughts.

All knowledge is ultimately rooted in experience. Nevertheless, our reason allows us to move beyond the confines of an austere empiricism, such as Hume’s.

There is a sharp distinction between thought, on one hand, and imagination on the other.

Essence is prior to operation: what a thing is is prior to what it does.

So Far, So Good

Thank you to everyone who has been visiting this blog- I hope you are enjoying the content and finding it interesting. So far, I’ve only managed to implement a small number of the improvements and promotions I set out to do, but the efforts are already bearing fruit. Last month, the site received 626 hits. This is still a modest number, but the previous average was 147.

Not bad for a nerdy, unattractive blog run by a non-authority like myself : )

The Three Phases of Liberal “Progress”

This post is pretty abstract, but I can start with a concrete fact: I’m a young guy, just twenty-six years old.

In my short life, I’ve seen the culture around me‒ including the political culture‒ change a lot. Previously unimaginable demands are now, in many quarters, accepted as common sense. How did this happen? Why does liberal “progress” march on so inexorably, with us poor conservatives left to fight rear-guard actions, just to slow things down?

My own thoughts on this question owe a lot to Philippe Bénéton and his book, Equality by Default.

Each liberal cause progresses in three distinct phases, which may overlap in time.

In the first phase, the liberal focuses on undermining dominant opinion. He may deny the existence of objective moral truths, or claim such truths are unknowable: in either case, moral norms are placed outside the realm of rational debate. Each of us, the liberal says, may express an opinion. But no opinion is worth more than another. Hence, the conservative should humble himself and realize his position is arbitrary. It certainly does not deserve to be enshrined in public policy.

Thus, the liberal creates uncertainty, which leads to an atmosphere of permissiveness ‒ opinions that previously would have been rejected out of hand, are now given a serious hearing.

At this point, the stage is set for the second phase to become predominant: the liberal now argues in the language of abstractions: Equality, Diversity, Fairness, etc. He uses this language, not in a way that sheds light on the concrete realities of the real world, but in a way that obscures those realities.

For instance, take the arguments in favor of “marriage equality.” In my experience, arguments for gay marriage are nearly always question-begging. Gay marriage is defended on the basis of equality. But in reality, no one opposes the principle of equality: “like cases should be treated alike.” The question is whether a same-sex relationship is relevantly like a heterosexual relationship with regards to whatever constitutes marriage.

Liberals are willing to exclude all sorts of relationships from the realm of marriage. Most everyone believes in “discriminating” on the basis of the number of participants, current marital status, closeness of blood, age, and ability to consent. In the marriage debate, the issue at stake is not whether a set of individuals share the equal dignity of all mankind‒ they surely do. The issue is simply: what is marriage? To be specific: is gender complementarity part of marriage?

Arguing for “marriage equality” skirts around this question without answering it. Everyone believes in marriage equality. This does not mean, ipso facto, that same-sex relationships can be regarded as marriages.

Other issues, to varying degrees, are plagued by similar arguments. Time and again, liberals equivocate in predictable ways: the distinction between a person and their actions, for example, is always broken down. When conservatives criticize a choice, we are accused of hating a person. Thus, calls for tougher immigration enforcement are met by the strange reply, “There are no illegal people.” Of course, it is true there are no illegal people. But there are millions of people who have broken our immigration laws.

An encyclopedia might be written (or a series of blog posts?) listing the equivocations of the Left. But let this do for now.

Once the momentum is clearly on the side of the Leftist cause, the third phase begins. The newly popular opinion is sealed as undeniable. This is most often achieved with historicist arguments, such as: “It’s the 21st century” and “You are on the wrong side of history.” Crude historical parallels, often with little or no basis in fact, might be used. The conservative may find himself compared to a 1960s racist, a 1920s sexist, or even a 16th century inquisitor. At this point, opposition to the new orthodoxy is, ipso facto racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and so on. From this point on, the liberal overcomes, not by debating, but by denouncing.

Suddenly, the liberal has a keen sense of right and wrong. Opinions are not equal, and his point of view (but not yours) may be imposed by force, at least sometimes. As conventions crumble, this “sometimes” expands ever further outward.

Thus, the litany of liberal truisms: a large and powerful welfare state is needed to create economic justice. The administrative state must be called upon to “rationalize” the economy and social life more and more. Every institution should be forced to treat same-sex unions the same as heterosexual ones, regardless of conscience concerns. Employers must be forced to cover “services” they hold to be immoral. And in the eyes of NARAL et al, taxpayers should be compelled to fund abortion, and health professionals should be forced to cooperate by giving referrals.

In looking over these phases of liberal “progress,” there are two features that stand out.

First, the whole thing looks pretty demented. In one moment, the liberal is a relativist and a skeptic. In another, he is a moral busybody. And each step of the way, the most influential arguments that drive the movement are fallacious.

Second of all: earlier phases of the movement lay crucial groundwork for later ones. Despite all the incoherence, there is a method to the madness. Arguments based on pure, abstract ideas cannot work until norms are broken down by relativism. Likewise, the liberal cannot hope to de-legitimize conservatism until he has captured all the most popular abstractions.

I don’t know how to stop this freight train, which runs on inertia more than anything else. But I do know one thing: it can’t hurt to expose the craziness and emptiness of it all, as forcefully and often as possible.

The Birth of Mary

Holy Virgin Mary, among all women born into the world, there is none like you.

-St. Francis of Assisi

This year, September 8th falls on a Sunday, so the liturgical celebration of Mary’s birth is replaced by that of the Lord’s resurrection. Still, I thought it would be good to reflect some on the birth of Mary.

birth_of_Mary4

The Angel Gabriel promised that many would rejoice at the birth of St. John the Baptist, the precursor of the Redeemer (Lk 1:14). There is far greater joy at the birth of Mary, the Mother of the Redeemer. How could we not ask, like St. Elizabeth, “Who am I, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43).

The birth of Mary is the first visible appearance of the new creation; the first immaculate ray of light.  In the words of St. Andrew of Crete, “The present Feast forms a link between the New and the Old Testament. It shows that Truth succeeds symbols and figures and that the New Covenant replaces the Old. Hence, all creation sings with joy, exults, and participates in the joy of this day….”

This Princess, as St. John Eudes says, was born to be the Daughter of God the Father, Mother of God the Son, and Spouse of the Holy Spirit. She was brought into this world to be Queen of Heaven and earth, and the Mother of all peoples. Hence, she is called “Cause of our joy.”

This Feast calls to mind one hymn in particular, “Mary the Dawn.” It illustrates well the significance of the birth of Our Lady:

Mary the Dawn, Christ the Perfect Day;

Mary the Gate, Christ the Heavenly Way!

Mary the Root, Christ the Mystic Vine;

Mary the Grape, Christ the Sacred Wine!

Mary the Wheat-sheaf, Christ the Living Bread;

Mary the Rose-Tree, Christ the Rose Blood-red!

Mary the Font, Christ the Cleansing Flood;

Mary the Chalice, Christ the Saving Blood!

Mary the Temple, Christ the Temple’s Lord;

Mary the Shrine, Christ the God adored!

Mary the Beacon, Christ the Haven’s Rest;

Mary the Mirror, Christ the Vision Blest!

Mary the Mother, Christ the Mother’s Son.

Both ever blest while endless ages run.

The Weird Absolutism of Relativists

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If there is one notable thing about graduate school (besides the vast amount of reading and writing demanded from us poor students), it is the in-class discussions. Debates between students can be pretty high quality.

Of course, can is a key word.

One problem that can throw a discussion off track is relativism, although this issue tends to vanish in higher level classes. We’ve all met the relativist. He says such things as, “What’s true for you may not be true for me” or “Everything is relative!” Of course, the trouble with relativism is that it ends conversation by making it pointless. Why debate a question if nothing is true or false? If relativism is true (whatever that would mean), there is nothing to debate about. You have your truth, I have mine, and neither of us are objectively right or wrong.

One thing I’ve noticed is that, in a lot of conversations (both in and out of school), people have the weird habit of making relativist statements in absolutist language. In fact, people’s assertiveness increases as the meaningfulness of their beliefs decreases.

By contrast, when someone makes a statement that actually says something, they tend to preface it with phrases like, “In my opinion…” or “I believe…” and so on. This is especially true of very important moral and political views. Sometimes, of course, this is perfectly fine. Perhaps you don’t feel certain about what is true, but you want to offer your best opinion. Or maybe you are just trying to show politeness or humility.

Here we get to the crux of the matter: for many people, all such humility goes out the window the moment they make the boldest, most aggressive (and most self-contradictory) claim of all: the claim that nobody is right or wrong. I have never, ever heard anyone say, “In my opinion, what’s true for you might not be true for me” or “I personally believe that everything is relative.”

Relativists are exhilarated by the thrill of seeming to say something, without having to face the dangers of actually saying anything.

Very peculiar.

Setting the Record Straight: Marco Rubio and the AFP Summit

As I mentioned in the previous post, I recently had the honor of attending the Americans for Prosperity summit. When I arrived at the hotel, I stepped into a large conference room where nearly 2,000 of my fellow activists were seated. Marco Rubio was speaking. I had the good fortune to arrive just as his address was beginning.

During the speech, Rubio touched on many of the themes one would expect at a summit for economic liberty: the need for fiscal responsibility, sane deregulation, and a culture of independence. Personal anecdotes and political philosophy were intermingled seamlessly together. The crowd around me was more than just attentive- there was a kind of electricity in the air. People responded to him. There were several standing ovations.

There were a few hecklers. To be perfectly honest, Rubio had to tolerate a somewhat greater number of hecklers than the other speakers. Still, the heckling did not strike me as newsworthy at all. I shrugged off the whole thing: just the shenanigans of a few infantile activists. In a room of about 2,000, it seemed that around a dozen persons, at most, had shouted at some point in the senator’s speech. Not a big deal.

Or so I thought.

Then I came across this gem of a piece by Warner Huston at Breitbart.com. I hesitate to criticize a news source that has done so much good for the conservative movement. Still, I believe that falsehoods in our public discourse need to be called out, even when they occur at Breitbart.

I want to go through excerpts of the article, to expose how ridiculous it is. At the end of this post I have inserted a video of Rubio’s full speech. Look at it yourself. You be the judge.

On Friday, August 30, Florida’s Republican Senator, Marco Rubio, spoke in his home state at the Defending the Dream Summit being held at the Universal Orlando theme park and while many [read: overwhelming majority] were respectful [in Huston's world, standing ovations are merely "respectful"], he was loudly booed and heckled during his speech by a strong [strong? in what sense?], passionate, contingent of grassroots activists [gag]

Heckling calls of “No amnesty” and “Secure the border” were heard around the room [in other words: heckles were heard from a small number of individuals sitting far away from each other] and throughout Rubio’s presentation [after everyone else had finished clapping and cheering]. In fact, calls of “traitor” were even heard in some corners of the audience. The catcalls proved that few were pleased with Rubio [actually, they only prove that a few were not pleased]

It seems to be no accident that the advocacy group chose the heart of Rubio’s home state in which to hold their summit [Bwahahaha]. It is the first time this summit has been held outside of Washington D.C. and not only does it end up in Rubio’s stomping grounds but he was also a featured, key note speaker [along with Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, David Koch, Ted Cruz, Rick Scott, Michelle Malkin, Greg Gutfield, and others]

As AFP works to support Rubio in his quest for comprehensive immigration reform [Actually, AFP has no stance whatsoever on the immigration issue. Not even close] Phillips [the President of AFP] may have gotten a louder example than he bargained of as one of those “sides” this weekend with the boisterous opposition Rubio experienced at AFP’s own event [sorry for Huston's poor writing].

As he wrapped up his remarks most of the crowd of 2,000 attendees gave him polite applause [Huston wants us to believe Rubio was sent away with a golf clap. Please, pass the sick bucket], yet still a cascade of boos were delivered as he left the podium [A "cascade"? Rubio left on an even more positive note than when he arrived. The last time I read a propaganda piece so brazen, I was looking at the Tehran Times]

It was plain that the young Senator still has many fences to mend with the conservative base. If this crowd was any indication, it may be that he will never make those amends.

Ah huh. Now take a look at Rubio’s speech yourself. I notice that Breitbart.com does not have an article featuring the actual speech.

All I am asking for is decency and fairness in reporting, not unanimity in policy debates.

Has Rubio’s stance on immigration harmed his popularity among many on the Right? Certainly. What I saw last Friday, however, leaves me no doubt that enthusiasm for Rubio is widespread and secure. Huston, under the guise of journalism, has written a fantasy tale designed to break the perception of Rubio’s popularity, in order to break the reality of that popularity.

Can conservative activists and journalists at least agree on this: let’s not bayonet our own troops?

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