Saturday, December 31, 2011

Maximus the Confessor on pleasure and pain

From Ad Thalassium 61:
When God created human nature, he did not create sensible pleasure and pain along with it; rather, he furnished it with a certain spiritual capacity for pleasure, a pleasure whereby human beings would be able to enjoy God ineffably. But at the instant he was created, the first man, by use of his senses, squandered this spiritual capacity--the natural desire of the mind for God--on sensible things. In this, his very first movement, he activated an unnatural pleasure through the medium of the senses. Being, in his providence, concerned for our salvation, God therefore affixed pain alongside this sensible pleasure as a kind of punitive faculty, whereby the law of death was wisely implanted in our corporeal nature to curb the foolish mind in its desire to incline unnaturally toward sensible things.
(I am here using a translation given by Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken from On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, from the Popular Patristics Series.)

This dualism between desire for God and desire for "unnatural pleasure through the medium of the senses" seems to play a strong role in Christian thought. I hear it in sermons all the time. It always goes something like this: you look for satisfaction in all the things of the world, from money to sex to popularity to comfort and ease, but none of these things will ultimately satisfy; only God will satisfy you.

My complaint against this notion is that it is empirically false. In the first place, I don't see the biblical justification in it. We read in Genesis 2 that God gave us all the plants in the garden to eat. How can one argue that this didn't involve "pleasure through the medium of the senses"? When Eve was tempted to eat of the forbidden tree, she saw that it was "good for food." How could she have seen this unless she knew what "good for food" meant?

I also wonder how Maximus and similar thinkers would deal with the entire book of Ecclesiastes, but I'll let that pass for now.

In the second place, I wonder how Christian thought can possibly maintain this dualism in light of a modern understanding of the mind and its "bottom-up" construction. Rather than a sharp division between rational and sensory functions of the mind, modern science shows rational thought to emerge out of the highly complex "lower functions" of a physical mind. In particular, there is not nearly so heavy a distinction between humans and other animals as classical thought would like to maintain.

Personally, I can't help but see this dualism as a form of nihilism. You can't find your ultimate pleasure in food, sex, comfort, or even friendship--no, ultimate pleasure is found in God, you see. Which makes God sound like nothing. For once you remove everything which gives us a direct experience of pleasure, all that remains is a vacuum.

This was always my critique of Anselm's ontological argument. The greatest possible being might simply be a phantom, a nothing, a vacuum. You continue to think of really good things, and continue to reject them, saying there must be something even greater. Until you have nothing left but the idea of something really really good.

Ironically, Maximus spends much of his time countering Origenism, which imagined that the "fall" involved incorporeal beings rejecting God and thus being condemned to bodily existence. Against this, Maximus insisted that we were, in fact, created with bodies (which is the only possible way you can read Genesis 1 and 2, anyway). I wish he had gone further than this.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Against Libertarianism

Whenever you happen to start finding yourself attracted to a particular philosophy, whether political or otherwise, it is important to attack it with all the intellectual might you can summon. Philosophies are powerful forces. They can shape a society for better or for ill. Just as each of us individually should think before he acts, so also society must have some means of contemplating various paths before it takes one. There is no other way for society to do that other than for individuals within it to do the thinking themselves, and engage in conversation with each other.
In that spirit, let me now enumerate my qualms with the philosophy generally called “libertarianism” in our day. Although the history of both that word at the philosophy with which I am dealing is a bit complicated, I will generally take for granted that anyone reading this is more or less familiar with the kinds of ideas I’m talking about. Libertarians believe in individual rights, including rights to life, liberty, and property. They believe in limited government (or, in the case of anarchocapitalists, no government at all) and they think that the mark of a good society is a minimal use of force and coercion. Libertarians believe in free markets and civil liberties: they don’t believe anyone should interfere with what we buy and sell, where we choose to live, who we choose to associate with, what we choose to say or believe, or how we choose to use our own property.
I find that there is much to appreciate about libertarianism, and politically I more or less identify as a libertarian because there is no broader category that defines my political beliefs. However, progress is never achieved by speaking only in generalities. Here I want to nail down some specific major objections (or at least qualms) I have concerning the ideas that usually fall under the label “libertarian.”
1.      Personal Autonomy
My first objection to libertarianism is philosophical in nature. Libertarians often make two claims about personal autonomy. The first is that people are autonomous, and the second is that they should be left to their autonomy. Let me take each of these claims in order.
The first claim: all people are autonomous individuals. This is plainly false. Indeed, there would be absolutely no reason for a market economy if this were true. There is simply no way the number of human beings currently living could actually live if not for the fact that they cooperate with one another. Libertarians who equate free market economics with the idea that everyone should be left alone to fend for himself are only helping the opposition, since everyone knows we can’t simply fend for ourselves and hope to survive.
No one acts independently of all other people. We all make decisions based on the morals, beliefs, and customs of other people around us. This is most obvious when we think of the obvious fact that we all come into this world as children. We learn the most basic skills which enable us to survive from our parents. Only gradually do we gain a greater degree of independence, and this independence is never absolute. Even the most independent among us will have to base his decisions on the decisions made by others.
This is more than an abstract philosophical point. Have you ever noticed how little libertarians have to say about the lives of children? Can a libertarian who supports the legalization of prostitution make a coherent argument against child prostitution? Why is a 17 year-old off limits when an 18 year-old has the right to do what she wants with her body? It is simply impossible to come up with a coherent position if we imagine that at some point people magically turn into autonomous adults.
Indeed, the idea of absolute personal autonomy is what leads to many of the major pitfalls of liberalism, which libertarians hate so much. If all people are simply autonomous individuals, then the only way to prevent them from destroying each other is through a powerful state. In the real world, liberty works precisely because we are not autonomous individuals. Rather, we rely on a highly complex set of institutions, many of which have no formal existence, and which arise through a process of cultural evolution, rather than human design.
The second claim: all people ought to be left alone to make their own decisions. If absolute personal autonomy does not exist, then insisting that society ought to protect it is nonsensical. If our goal is to defend liberty, then we need a definition of “liberty” which refers to something real. Perhaps in the near future, I will provide such a definition of my own. For now, I think it will do to refer to F. A. Hayek’s definition from The Constitution of Liberty, in which he defines a free society as one in which coercion is minimized. Defining “coercion” is complicated, of course, and I’ll simply ask the reader to read his book for some ideas.
2.      Morality
It is common for libertarians to claim that the government should not legislate morality. This is a piece of rhetoric which is also popular among liberals, and it is so pervasive that most people in our country have a hard time seeing just how silly it is. All law is legislated morality. If a law isn’t about right and wrong, it probably shouldn’t be a law!
The objection typically raised to all sorts of legislation is that we shouldn’t use legislation to impose our “personal morality” on others. For instance, Christians who might oppose homosexual practice should not use the law to forbid it. The principle underlying this claim is that all people should be allowed to make any choice they want about their own lives, so long as it does not hurt anyone. This is a worthy principle—don’t misunderstand me—but it is, indeed, a moral principle.
The question is not whether we are going to legislate morality. The question is, what moral principles should guide our legislation? We certainly cannot legislate all morality, as numerous examples will illustrate. For instance, most of us agree that it is wrong to insult other people and hurt their feelings. But no one would suggest that the government should pass a law banning such insults. Why not? Because most of us also realize that such things can easily be resolved without the use of government force, and it would be wrong to use force wherever it is unnecessary--not to mention the waste of resources involved in using such extraordinary means to solve such a trivial problem.
Libertarians have a long intellectual tradition with some good ideas about which morals should guide legislation. Such principles include equal rights for all individuals and the principle of non-aggression. These principles may be flawed or not, but they are certainly moral principles, and they should be compared to other moral principles, rather than treated as above or outside of morality. Essentially, I am not here criticizing the ideas of libertarians so much as their rhetoric.
3.      Property
I have on occasion heard libertarians complain that Thomas Jefferson should have kept the trio “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as “life, liberty, and property.” This fixation on property rights gives libertarianism a decidedly right-wing feel, at least in present-day America. In many ways I applaud libertarians for their emphasis on personal property, but I think it needs to be grounded in a proper moral framework.
In particular, I don’t think human beings are always entitled to use things in whatever way they desire. This is an especially important point to make in an age when we are most aware of the damage we have done to the earth. If libertarians are silent about environmental concerns, then the movement is either irrelevant or possibly even dangerous. Besides, it is hardly self-evident that human beings are entitled to own pieces of land and do with them what we please.
Ownership is not so much a matter of people have power over things as it is a way of establishing parameters for human cooperation. That is why some form of property rights is inevitable, radical left-wing claims notwithstanding. If we are going to have any interaction with the physical world whatsoever, we are eventually going to be faced with the question of how we share it. A political system with no property rights is implicitly a system of collectivist property rights, which inevitably means a powerful governing authority must take charge of setting guidelines for the use of valuable resources.
Libertarians are right to critique collectivist property rights, because such a system must rely on concentrated power and coercion. However, it is also the case the personal property rights depend on coercion. For instance, if a bank has the right to trade a loan for interest on that loan, then in the future it will have the right to coerce me based on a decision I make now. The question the libertarian should ask himself is whether the current system of property rights actually minimizes coercion. Too often libertarians are fixated on the economic question of efficiency and prosperity and not, ironically enough, on the question of liberty.
I happen to think that banks should be allowed to charge interest (yet certainly not without exception). Nevertheless, we ought to recognize that this rule depends on a common acceptance of property rights which have not always been deemed acceptable in the course of human civilization. There might be good reasons for that. Libertarians should not be mere defenders of the status quo, but should constantly be reassessing how well our current notion of property works in favor of liberty. Perhaps it is worth bringing up old controversies in the hopes of shedding new light on our present situation, especially as protestors call for debt forgiveness and tighter regulations on banks.
This concludes my critique of libertarianism, which is not to say I’ve covered every flaw. In future posts, I’ll try to offer something more constructive by suggesting ways in which libertarians could more clearly define a sound political philosophy. I would like to conclude by affirming that I do think liberty is the most valuable trait of our society, and that we ought to work to defend it. But if we don’t take the time to think about what we mean by this, we’ll find ourselves drifting in a direction none of us wanted.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas meditation

But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)
In the process of maturing in one's thoughts about the Christian faith, it is possible to go back and forth between Christmas and Easter trying to decide which is the most important day for the Church. For a child, of course, Christmas seems to have far more gravity; we get off school for it, and we get a ton of presents. This fact does make one think about the relationship between faith and culture. What would life be like if the year were shifted around, and Easter were the central celebration of the year?

A more mature Christian will say Easter is the most important day for the Church because that was the day Jesus rose from the dead and accomplished our salvation. His death on the cross could not have meant salvation for the human race if not for his resurrection. Christmas doesn't even appear in two out of the four gospels. Easter, however, is the main focus of all the gospels, and indeed the entire New Testament. Without Easter, there is no gospel, hence no Christian faith.

The pendulum can swing back after a bit of contemplation. Without Christmas, the crucifixion couldn't have happened, and the resurrection would be meaningless. More specifically, without the Incarnation, there is no Atonement, because there is no blood. And more than this, Christ taking on human flesh means that human flesh is redeemed and transformed into its former glory. All of the work that Christ has accomplished began on Christmas. You cannot have the end without the beginning.

But there is another reason why I am a big fan of Christmas this year, and that is because Christmas comes really not at the beginning of the story but rather in the middle of it. The New Testament begins with Christmas, but in the larger story of the Bible, Christmas comes rather late in the game. Or in a bigger sense, recognizing that the world has really had billions of years of history, Christmas really comes at such a small, seemingly insignificant moment. When Jesus was first born, it is hard to imagine anyone noticed. Matthew tells us of a few wise men and Luke tells us of some shepherds who saw angels in the sky. Did anyone even believe them? And what difference did it make to them even if they did?

I'm not a very good Christian, in the following sense. During Christmas services, I'm told to think back to the birth of Christ and realize what a great gift has been given to humankind, and then I'm told to think about how this was the beginning of all the Christ accomplished. In other words, I'm told to believe that everything is really finished, that Christ has already done everything for us, and that the appropriate response is to celebrate that with worship and with good deeds. I admit this feels like a strange plan to me. Has it all really been accomplished? Is this really what the world looks like after salvation has already come to earth?

Perhaps it's simply too painful to remember what the world is still like, even after the good news has been preached all over the world. It's painful to remember how fragile life is, the way hurricanes and tsunamis can destroy hundreds and thousands of human lives, the way famine and disease still afflict millions of people daily, the way millions and millions of children go to bed hungry each night, the way corrupt world leaders fail to defend the rights of the most helpless, the way even good people do terrible things to each other, the way even the Church has contributed to the great evil of the world...

There seems to be a certain comfort that comes from hearing that everything has been accomplished already. That means victory is assured, and whatever evil may get in our way, we will ultimately overcome. But sometimes, I admit, this comfort seems rather perverse. The more people talk about what has already been accomplished through Christ, the more it seems to sound like a myth, a fairy tale, a comforting thought to help a man sleep at night. Many times it does feel like such comforts are all we get in this broken world. If we can't successfully lie to ourselves, maybe there simply is no comfort in life and in death.

Mary gets a lot of attention this time of year, even from us Protestants. Songs like "Mary Did You Know?" reflect on the idea that Mary was in the middle of the story, and could not see how it all would end. I guess we are supposed to appreciate the fact that we do see how it ended and how it will end, and we are supposed to wonder what it would have been like for Mary. But I find myself actually understanding Mary right where she is in Luke 2. She treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. She had neither answers nor explanations. She simply pondered what these things could mean.

Most of the time I feel so lost in the middle of a big story that I just can't understand the words "all that Christ accomplished." It's that darn word "accomplished." What about, "is doing" or "has begun"? Maybe I can understand those a little better. And maybe that's why Christmas means so much to me right now. Because in a world that really is so full of darkness, it is the height of conceit to pretend we know where we are going. Those who say they do are deluded. I've seen where it is they're actually going, and it isn't pretty: divisions in the church, hatred toward the outside world, and the neglect and/or destruction of souls who long for real answers to these questions about what's going to happen to this world. If I'm being a bit vague, perhaps my vagueness is a good way to illustrate what the real world is really like.

This Christmas, I am personally recognizing my great lack of ability to actually believe that anything has been accomplished. I'm not saying this isn't a failing on my part. The Church has always insisted that there is a higher reality which we cannot see until our eyes are opened. Perhaps that's what I am missing. In any case, it's something I wrestle with, and it isn't something that beautiful candlelight services can fix.

But while part of it may be a failing, in another sense I am certain that I ought to feel the way I do, because the world really is dark and perplexing. While I may celebrate with my family with all the comforts and conveniences of modern life, I refuse to forget in my heart all of the great mysteries and tragedies of life. How is it that I can be blessed with so much while others suffer with so little? Or on the other hand, how is it that some can find happiness with relatively little, while incredibly wealthy people find only misery? Where is the justice in all of this confusion and conflict? When will there be peace and wholeness?

There is light in the midst of darkness, hope in the midst of sadness, mercy in the midst of oppression, life in the midst of death. Though millions of children go to sleep hungry, millions more are fed by the generosity of others. Though hurricanes and tsunamis and earthquakes rage, still millions of people are willing to give their money and in many cases their time and talents toward rebuilding. Though governments oppress their own people, still the voice of reason and justice lives on. Why does it never seem to win? "A sword will pierce your own soul, too"--this, it seems, is the story of all humanity.

This Christmas, I am pondering all these things in my heart. Like Mary, I have no answers or explanations. All I can do is watch. I have seen light in the midst of darkness--but oh, how great is that darkness! Sometimes it seems we are all lost. And that is just when the Christmas story is needed most.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Grace and Freedom

Peter Leithart's blog post today made me think to write some thoughts on a topic Christians rarely seem to sort out. On the one hand, we acknowledge that God is the source of everything we have, and that we can do nothing on our own. Fundamentally, everyone has to acknowledge this, including atheists: everything that we have to work with is in some sense inherited, whether biologically, culturally, or in some more abstract sense (e.g. all of us are composed of matter that came from stars billions of years ago). On the other hand, we work to earn a living in this world, to create things beautiful and/or useful, to discipline ourselves into moral people, to solve some great problem, or just to satisfy our own desires. Can we really claim credit for any of these accomplishments, given that everything we have to start with is a gift? If not, why do we bother?

This question could quickly become abstract theoretical, leading to a discussion about the famous free will problem in philosophy and theology. What we can't miss, however, is that this is an eminently political question. Many of today's biggest controversies are over the question of how a just society should distribute its resources among its members. In typical partisan terms that most people are familiar with, the "conservative" answer is that people should get to keep what they earn. The "liberal" answer is that the conservative answer is inadequate without some adjustments, because you can't deny that all of your success is built on things you didn't earn; so we should make some attempt to redistribute our wealth to make things a little more equitable.

To make my own position plain from the outset, I think both answers are wrong. I don't find them merely incomplete; I actually don't think either of them have any reasonable foundation on which to build a just society. So where to start?

Milton Friedman was not a Christian, nor was he a religious man at all. Yet I once heard him make a remarkably Christian statement. It was while he was addressing a question which someone asked him to the effect of, "Don't you think women deserve to make as much as men?" His response was, "It's not a question of desert. None of us deserve anything. Thank God we don't get what we deserve!"

Life is a gift: that is my starting point. Everything we have is also a gift. Many people will readily acknowledge this when it is pointed out to them. Where, then, do we get the concept of deserving, and why does it feature so prominently in our moral thinking?

In fact, the idea of deserving comes from situations in which there is a clear hierarchy of people, with one person in charge of deciding who gets what. For instance, if you work for a company and have a boss, you expect to get paid what you deserve--not in some ultimate sense but in the sense that there is some reasonable standard by which you can measure a given employee's performance and give out pay accordingly. In somewhat similar fashion, parents often set up a system of rewards and punishments to shape their children's behavior. Thus the idea of deserving mainly serves to form cooperative groups of people by forming clear behavioral expectations.

The reward/punishment system is very intuitive, and for that reason it is hard not to want it extended to the society at large. However, the system depends on having a leader to distribute rewards and punishments. As a consequence, the reward/punishment destroys both freedom and equality, since someone will have to be placed in authority over us (thus making society unequal) and this authority will have to be used to shape our behavior toward some preconceived ideal (thus destroying freedom).

I suppose any system could work if we had Jesus Christ himself in charge of all economic distribution. But as we read in the gospels, Jesus rejected that responsibility.

A just and free society cannot decide the question of economic distribution based on the concept of deserving. Instead, I suggest that society be built on the concept of grace, which is the radical notion that we  do not get anything from merit, but from the freedom of giving. As Jesus says in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, "Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?"

For the present I'm going to hedge the question of property rights and how they should be defined. Suffice it to say, without any concept of property (implicit or explicit), members of a society have no way to understand gift. If I cannot own anything, then I cannot give or receive anything. Ownership is not the ultimate value in a society, but it is a necessary feature.

(Note well that I have concentrated on gift and have not even mentioned exchange. Gift is always prior to exchange, since if we had never been given anything (at the very least our own lives) we would have nothing to exchange. About exchange free market economists have many things to say, but perhaps it bears repeating that a free society is based on more than economics!)

Once we accept this principle of grace, there remains a lot of work to be done concerning the nature of property rights and defining the limitations of government. However, my concern is that most people do not seem to accept this principle, because the principle of deserving is so much more intuitive. Surely no one deserves to have "so much money"--a hundred thousand dollars? a million dollars? a billion dollars?--and surely the poor deserve something from those who have more than they need. So might a liberal say. On the other hand, surely people deserve to keep the money they make, and surely lazy people don't deserve anything from those of us who work hard. So might a conservative say. I don't say either one of these things, because I know that none of us--not even the best of us--really deserve anything. I don't say that people shouldn't be praised for their accomplishments; but even this praise is a gift, freely given by those who rightly enjoy seeing good things accomplished in the world.

Yet in spite of our undeserving (or, more properly, in spite of the fact that "deserving" isn't the right category to be applied), we do have an abundance of good things. Should we reject them just because we do not deserve them? On the contrary, the best way to appreciate a good gift is to enjoy it, and to give to others as a response. But when you convince people that everything is a matter of deserving, it is remarkable how stingy they become. Or do you call it generosity when a man gives everything he has at gunpoint? Only a free society can foster true generosity.

On first examination, it looked as if grace and freedom were somehow opposed. It turns out quite the opposite: the one cannot exist without the other.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

So today, like the total nerd that I am, I actually read a couple of the articles which came out in the latest Notices of American Mathematical Society. One article that caught my attention was entitled, "A Perspective on Wigner's 'Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics,'" which refers to a famous essay by Eugene Wigner on the mysterious way in which mathematics actually seems to tell us true things about the physical world. (As opposed to merely the world of abstract ideas. It would be unsurprising of mathematics told us something about that.) In the article, Jason Nicholson appeals to the philosophy of one Robert Pirsig, who wrote what is claimed to be one of the most widely read books of philosophy ever written, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Nicholson seeks to bring Pirsig's "Metaphysics of Quality" into academic discussion, particularly among mathematicians interested in mathematical metaphysics.

Since I have never read Pirsig, let me just give a few excerpts from Nicholson's summary so that you get the main idea:
The Metaphysics of Quality is, in some limited sense, as follows. He had in his first book realized (and made the case) that Quality is an undefinable entity that is the precursor of subjects and objects; everyone knows what it is but no one can define it. He proceeds to understand that subjects and objects are only one dual pair of defined things into which the undefined Quality event gets split as it is “realized”—that is, made real through a necessarily incomplete attempt to define it. ...

In his second book, however, he is led to a different split into what he calls “static” and “dynamic” aspects of reality as the best split possible, the most useful. He actually terms them static quality (or value) and Dynamic Quality, and with them he builds his Metaphysics of Quality, a metaphysical framework that provides a different, and, he demonstrates, better way of understanding the world we live in. Dynamic Quality is the undefined Quality that was described in his first book, but now he introduces static patterns of quality alongside it to reflect the “realization” of that undefined Quality which makes up our world. They act like a ratchet: the Dynamic Quality is the constant stimulus to move to something “better”, to ratchet up, but the static quality is the latch of the ratchet itself, the making tangible of the motion up into something concrete which will prevent falling down into something “worse”. Dynamic Quality is the creative urge, whereas static quality, or patterns of static quality, is what is created in response.

In building his Metaphysics of Quality, Pirsig classifies patterns of static quality into four discrete yet interrelated levels: Inorganic, Biological, Social, and Intellectual. He describes the relationship between these levels as being analogous to the relationship of computer hardware to computer software—the software is run on the hardware, but has nothing, really, to do with it. The program that you run on your computer and write your article with has nothing to do with the computer hardware itself. Furthermore, the content of your article has nothing to do with the program you write it in. In this way the levels of static quality are related to each other: Biological is built on Inorganic, Social is built on Biological, and Intellectual is built on Social, but each level is independent of the other.

Using this idea, Pirsig makes the case that Darwinian evolution is just Dynamic Quality at work by understanding “survival of the fittest” as meaning the movement of static quality (survival) towards Dynamic Quality (fittest). Then the four levels of static quality are levels of evolution.
Nicholson then goes on to apply this metaphysics to the problem of "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics."
The key word in Wigner’s thesis is “unreasonable”; he actually hit on the solution to the problem in the title of his article. Since Dynamic Quality cannot be defined, it is by definition (so to speak) unreasonable. But that is the reason that any explanation of Wigner’s observation requires an expanded metaphysics. In our tacitly assumed subject-object metaphysics, as Pirsig makes clear, anything “unreasonable” is discarded, and so the effectiveness of mathematics in describing the natural world is an insoluble quandary. Once an “unreasonable” entity, Quality is seen as the root or precursor to all subjects and objects, the quandary fades. ...

The Metaphysics of Quality also easily solves another long-standing dilemma among mathematicians regarding the nature of their subject: the “is mathematics invented or discovered?” debate. The solution to this debate is reminiscent of the Metaphysics of Quality’s resolution of the “free will versus determinism” debate referred to above. Mathematics is invented insofar as it is a process of following Dynamic Quality—that is, insofar as it is “free”. It is discovered insofar as it is a process of fleshing out previously unknown consequences within the static patterns of quality that are mathematics as it stands. Most Ph.D. theses and much published mathematics are more of this latter type—original work, that is, new consequences of existing static patterns, but not in the sense of following only Dynamic Quality. In fact, one might say that any new development comes as a mixture of both types of originality; it lies on a continuum between purely static quality at one end and purely Dynamic Quality at the other. The most “creative” and “original” mathematics obviously sits toward the Dynamic Quality end of the spectrum.
As I understand this, it feels like simply an evolved, 20th century version of Platonism, with a dash of eastern religion added for flavor. And I'm entirely comfortable with that. The only thing I want to point out is how easily this Metaphysics of Quality fits into the idea of participation in the divine. Whereas the Platonist might say that concrete assertions in mathematics are reflections or shadows of a higher reality, Nicholson, drawing on Pirsig, is saying that mathematical ideas are "static patterns" emerging in response to Dynamic Quality. And whereas the Platonist might imagine this higher reality as unchanging while changeable things are merely shadows, Pirsig's philosophy flips that around and says that what is more real is changing, so that all of reality is cast in a Darwinian light.

Which leads me to the question: can we really escape the moral question about God's goodness? Whether God is the creator or simply the selector, whether he is the personal God of the Old Testament or the impersonal God of physics, it does seem like the process of discovery is tied up with this grand question: is it all worth it? In other words, if my intelligence is the result of a selection process that ultimately has no moral worth, why not rebel against it? Perhaps the answers we've been getting from science really are wrong on some fundamental level--not wrong in the sense that they have predictive power, but wrong in the sense that the universe is not worthy of our comprehension. Much like a young Christian who suddenly discovers he can't find it in himself to worship a God who banishes people to eternal torment in hell, maybe one day humanity will rebel against the very idea of knowledge, on the grounds that the universe is just too cruel or depressing to be worthy of our careful study.

Theodicy, it seems to me, is not merely a question for theists.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

ReasonTV on civility

In probably their greatest short video ever, ReasonTV captures the absurdity of ahistorical claims about how "uncivil" modern political rhetoric has become. Take a look:

Everyone who gets tired of "negative campaigning" needs to remember how terrible bipartisanship is. Seriously. What do we get when both sides of the aisle work together? Let's see, how about

  • more government spending
  • more military intervention in foreign countries
  • more government intervention in our lives
  • more executive powers granted to the president.
In other words, when Republicans and Democrats work together, there's no limit to how much damage they can do to our freedom.

There is a good explanation for this, I think. The spirit of cooperativeness stems from a spirit of nationalism, a sense of solidarity with one another as "Americans." When we apply this name to ourselves for the sake of political solidarity, it unfortunately means that we begin to embrace American exceptionalism: the idea that we are the chosen people of the world and we can do anything. This may sound radical, but I'm really troubled by nationalism, and sometimes I even question this whole nation-state idea that everyone in the whole world embraces in our day.

All that aside, even if you think that politicians should be nice and civil to each other all the time, maybe it at least puts things into perspective to know that our politicians have always taken jabs at one another. I personally think that spirit of competition between politicians is a good thing. Never trust politicians who like each other. That only makes it easier for them to get away with cheating you.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Empirical religion

A friend of mine alerted me to a new book being released by philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who takes on the ideas of the "new atheists" and offers a new defense of the Christian faith as compatible with modern science. He says he wants to move from being on the "defensive" going on the "offensive," bringing positive arguments for why atheism is wrong and must be rejected.

I don't know very much about Plantinga, and the NYT article doesn't explain very much about his real argument. Nevertheless, the article got me once again thinking about that great question in our time: can a person believe in God and embrace science? It's a loaded question, to be sure, but it's one I am doomed to face for the rest of my life if I am to continue taking both my faith and my profession seriously.

I get very uncomfortable with Christians being either on offense or defense in this game. What most people seem to miss is a point atheists often make but don't consistently bear out in their arguments: none of us really know that much. To say that there are still questions science can't answer doesn't logically necessitate that Christianity has a claim on our lives. If science can't explain everything, it may be equally the case that Christianity can't, either. More importantly, it could very well be true that Christianity (or theism in general) doesn't even explain what it claims it does.

The reason I say all of that is because I think there is too much intellectual conservatism dominating Christian apologetics. Classical arguments for the existence of God are interesting, but there are good reasons why they don't work anymore. I find it hard to take the claim Christians so often make that even if evolution is true, it doesn't change what Christian orthodoxy ought to be. For God's sake, why not? Are there not a million ways in which this could profoundly affect our understanding of who and what we are? Or what about the age of the universe? Or the nature of atoms and subatomic particles? How can we help but think about the implications these have, not only for determining our place in the universe but for understanding our very nature?

Atheists say that the logical consequence of all these discoveries is that it's silly to believe in God, and so their bigger point gets lost because they tie it to a particular conclusion that Christians can't accept. The bigger point is, I think, a good one: it is that orthodoxy cannot simply be a matter of closing your eyes and missing new discoveries. A community genuinely interested in truth will not persecute or cut off those who challenge traditional thinking. It will not constantly be on the defensive against new explanations that refute old ones.

Is this not, in fact, more consistent with the story of Christianity? I am constantly impressed by how often the word see appears in the gospels. "The eye is the lamp of the body," Jesus says. He accuses the Pharisees of being "blind guides of the blind." And this accusation comes after they take offense at his overturning of traditional food laws, to which he replies, "Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?" The central story of Mark's gospel is the healing of a blind man, which requires two healings, because the first healing only partially restores the man's sight; this seems to symbolize the disciples only partially "seeing" what Jesus really came to accomplish. In John's gospel, light and darkness are central themes throughout. Jesus is "the light of the world," and "Whoever sees me has seen the Father." And John says that "we have seen his glory."

I could go on and on. The point is that Jesus does not make classical arguments for the existence of God. He instead wants us to see what God is doing: "See, something greater than Solomon is here!" Christianity is not a logical deduction from axiomatic truths about God. It is the direct result of people bearing witness to the world that they saw something new.

If we miss this central characteristic at the heart of the Christian faith, we lose out on the most valuable resource truth-seekers have: the willingness to be surprised, and the courage to break with tradition when the time calls for it. Not that breaking with tradition means turning away from it in resentment. Early Christians could not help but see themselves as the fulfillment of ancient Israelite tradition. In the same way, all new discoveries have the potential to give us a greater understanding of what we had previously believed.

The idea that previously held beliefs still have a place in spite of new discoveries is just tragic to me. Rather, we ought to have our eyes open to ways in which new discoveries can change our vision of who God is. I think the theory of evolution, for instance, really should cause us to rethink and reinterpret the story of creation, particularly the idea of the image of God in human beings. We should not leave this rethinking up to those who have no patience for faith and no desire to build it up. We should be the ones courageous enough to accept that God is not the same as our ancestors believed he was. The story of God and his people is full of surprises.

I am sensitive to the fact that many have taken these ideas and used them to collapse Christianity into a metaphor for the human experience, replacing divine interaction with the created world with human progress. I understand that orthodoxy cannot simply embrace the latest trends in human thinking uncritically. But after a while I lose patience with conservatives, who seem painfully close to what Jesus would call "blind guides of the blind." Do scientists really make discoveries, or not? Is theology so privileged as to be beyond all empirical correction? There would be no such thing as Christianity if that were true!

I am sorry that I am not able in these blog posts to give satisfying answers to the serious problems that Christians face in reconciling faith and modern science. Many people attempt to do this in a way that is trite or illogical, while others claim they are irreconcilable. Neither strikes me as attractive, which is why I will continue to try patiently to think about these things on as deep a level as I can manage. And whatever I think, I'll blog.

But the truth is, answers can never be satisfying forever. Life is always changing. When things stop changing, that's called death. God is the God of life, and I believe that if we are faithful to him we can never stop embracing the change that is necessary. For that we need our eyes to be open.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

How not to solve problems in education

In an article in the Washington Post, Marion Brady argues that our standardized tests are the product of unaccountable institutions that are out of teach with real educational needs. She relates the story of a friend "on the school board of one of the largest school districts in America" who decided to take a tenth grade standardized test himself, to see how he would do. The results were abysmal. In particular, he only managed to get 10% on the math portion (no surprise to me, by the way) and a 60% on the reading portion. The key to Brady's telling of the story is that her friend is actually a perfectly successful individual:
His now-grown kids are well-educated. He has a big house in a good part of town. Paid-for condo in the Caribbean. Influential friends. Lots of frequent flyer miles. Enough time of his own to give serious attention to his school board responsibilities. The margins of his electoral wins and his good relationships with administrators and teachers testify to his openness to dialogue and willingness to listen.
So the claim of the article is not that grown-ups on the school board are stupid, but rather that the tests are too hard, and don't really test anything that students will need to know as adults.

Maybe this is true and maybe it isn't. I'm sure we'll hear some responses back and forth about that claim. But if you dwell on this question, then the real point of the article is easy to overlook. The real point is made when Brady quotes her friend as saying,
“I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the [state test] in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.”
Individuals who lack perspective and aren't really accountable are exactly the kind of people you get when you put some people in charge of others. If there was ever an argument for a libertarian restructuring of education it's precisely this. It comes down to a simple logical quandary, really: if the only way to hold people accountable is by putting others in charge of them, then who holds the people in charge accountable?

The case for freedom in general, and education in particular, is that people will generally be held accountable by reality. The real world does not have unlimited resources. Possibilities are only endless insofar as the human mind is able to make more creative use of what is available. This means all decisions come with considerable risk: there is no way to be absolutely sure that one particular choice is better than all of the others which could have been made.

This is true of education no less than anything else. The desire to standardize education stems from the desire to shield children from the possibility of being "left behind," but in the process it simply forces all students to bear the consequences of whatever risks the federal government takes in determining education policy. A political process simply cannot determine what is best for everyone, given the unique individual needs of millions of students.

Education is not a magic bullet. We have damaged our society by indulging ourselves in the illusory narrative that all good students who do the right thing will invariably be successful in life. Statistics may show that this is true; but for any one particular individual dealing with the particular circumstances of his own life, statistics mean absolutely nothing.

Society learns more when we allow people to make their own decisions and bear the consequences of those decisions. This often turns out badly for some people who take risks; but to imagine that we have a better alternative than this is nothing short of delusion. The only alternative is to let other people make our decisions for us, and then to bear the consequences of the risks they have taken. The idea that any government bureaucracy or corporation could produce a curriculum appropriate for all students is yet another example of the fatal conceit at work in our political system.

There are ways we could quickly make our educational system more free. School vouchers are a good idea. We could also start abolishing laws in school districts that prevent charter schools from moving in. Repeal No Child Left Behind. There have to be dozens of other actions that could be taken, but all of them are prevented by one special interest group or another. All we can do is watch those groups fight each other for power.

There are many problems in education, and almost all of them are caused by the fact that certain people have too much control over the decisions we make for ourselves and for our children. The way not to solve those problems is to give someone else even more power over the people who now have power over us.

The way to solve these problems is liberty.