In defense of natural law I: The audacity of natural law

Consider the following statements:

  • It is intrinsically immoral to have sexual intercourse with someone who is not one’s spouse.
  • Parents have a duty to raise their children, and children have a duty to obey and revere their parents.  Unless extreme circumstances make it impossible, children should be raised by their biological parents.
  • It is intrinsically immoral to deliberately cause a sexual act to be infertile.
  • It is immoral to drink live blood.
  • Suicide is intrinsically immoral.
  • It is always wrong to kill an innocent person, even if he has low quality of life and wants to die.

Setting aside for the moment the all-important question of whether or not these statements are true, what they have in common is that they all belong to the natural law system of ethics.  They all take a set of biological facts–coitus, filiation, death–and purport to read moral meanings out of them.  The natural law presumes that the human body is charged with meaning, so that biological acts and relations have their significance built into them.  The “natural meaning” of the act exists prior to and independent of what the actor understands or intends by that act, and yet he is morally bound by the natural meaning none the less.

I saw a nice example of natural law reasoning in the movie Vanilla Sky.  (It’s not very good; don’t watch it.)  I don’t remember the characters’ names, but in actors’ names here is the setup:  Tom Cruise has been sleeping with coworker Cameron Diaz in an informal relationship, and then he decides to leave her for Penelope Cruz.  (When you’re Tom Cruise, you can do those sorts of things.)  Diaz’s character becomes distraught and pleads with Cruise that he can’t just leave her like that after they have coupled.  ”Your body makes a promise even if you don’t.”  This is a natural law way of thinking.  We say that fornication is wrong because when you have sex with someone, you make her a promise–whether that’s what you and her want to communicate or not–and that promise is the same one a person makes at a wedding ceremony.

This way of seeing things is very different from the modern mentality (although, as we’ve seen, the old mentality pops up in unexpected places).  Modern man is, whether he admits it or not, strongly shaped by Cartesian dualism to see the body as “brute matter”, as res extensa distinct from the res cogitans (the soul).  Meaning, it is believed, is a distinctly mental phenomenon.  Its origin, and indeed its whole being, is in the mind.  What an act means is what the actor intended it to mean and what he knew his observers would take it to mean–no more, no less.

Modern ethics is usually consequentialist or deontological.  Sin is identified either as harming someone else or instrumentalizing him (treating him as a “mere means”).  Harm and instrumentalization are defined solely in terms of the person’s preferences and choices.  Natural law agrees that harm and instrumentalization are wrong, but it defines them differently, in terms of man’s natural telos and natural meanings.

Modern man finds this idea of normative natural meanings foolish and arbitrary.  Natural law advocates are said to be ignoring the person to focus on the body, of ignoring intention to focus on biological function.  Natural law is accused of committing the “naturalistic fallacy” by hostile philosophers; Catholic heretics accuse it of “physicalism”.  These accusations have the merit of getting at the essence of the disagreement.  It it’s “physicalism” to believe that sex, parenthood, etc. don’t just mean what we decide for them to mean, then we natural lawyers are physicalists.

The modern critique of natural law has an undeniable plausibility.  Biological facts can no doubt affect our and other people’s desires and thus indirectly become morally relevant on modernity’s terms, but it is not obvious how they can dictate duties to the res cogitans independent of these considerations.  And yet, there are strong reasons why we should give the natural law account a careful hearing before we dismiss it.

First of all, one must be clear that to object to physicalism means having a quarrel not only with a few Catholic ethicists, but with the consensus of all mankind.  Across ages and cultures, all peoples have believed in natural meanings.  If nothing else, they have all agreed on the moral import of filiation and kinship.  That one person emerged from the uterus of another is a biological fact.   The social state of “motherhood” recognizes not only this fact, but also duties and rights that are supposed to flow necessarily from it.  A man has no right to expect love from his neighbors or coworkers.  His behavior may warrant their respect, but love can only be an unearned gift.  He has no right to ask his secretary “Why don’t you love me?” nor would she probably have any answer.  Love was never “on the table”.  A man can expect his mother to love him; the very relationship gives him a rightful expectation.  ”Mother, why didn’t you love me?” is a natural question for an unloved son to ask.  There probably is a reason, although no reason could justify so grave a failure of duty.  I have special duties to my children and my kin.  Partly, this is because they happen to be the people who are closest to me, but this isn’t the whole story.  I would fail morally if my brother on the other side of the country were homeless and I didn’t fly him to me and take him under my roof; yet there are homeless strangers in my very county to whom I am not obliged to make such an offer.

The consequentialist and deontologist can only agree with these intuitions by accident.  They will often grant that having children raised by their biological parents is administratively convenient.  As a practical matter, it would be hard for the State to find enough caretakers to replace all these parents.  But the family is only a matter of practicality, and in fact its ultimate value is open to question.  After all, it puts children at the mercy of people with no childcare training and next to no official supervision, all because of a “biological accident”; our bureaucratic age wouldn’t tolerate such feudal anarchy in any other area of life.  Similarly, they may agree that a particular act of adultery was wrong because it hurt the other spouse’s feelings, but they must also admit that this is because that spouse is being irrational.  A regime of universal promiscuity, where sex is “just like shaking hands”, might well be a happier world, and, consent assumed, wouldn’t obviously involve reducing any other person to a “mere means”.

Here is the second reason to consider carefully before rejecting the system of natural meanings.    As the two examples above indicate, a world without them would be a nightmare.  Unchecked by natural law, consent, efficiency, and happiness maximization would replace the love of parents with the expertise of childcare professionals; it would erase the bonds of family, ethnicity, and nation; it would reduce sex to a meaningless pastime.  Our desires would be satisfied.  We would all be happier.  Or would we?  For me, one of the most important aspects of happiness is the knowledge that I personally matter to some particular other people.  Being a man of no great importance, these people are a half-dozen family members.  What I do matters because they depend on me and they care about me.  In the post-natural bureaucratic utopia, there will be nothing like this.  What I do won’t matter much to anyone else–this will be true by construction.  If anyone really depended on me, that would limit both our freedoms.  It would make my dependent unequal, because if I failed that person would suffer, through no fault of his own, relative to those depending on someone else.  There must be supervision, uniform rules, backups and failsafes, so that in the end I can’t be allowed to matter to anyone else.

As Hegel pointed out, there is a leap from abstract right and morality to the ethical life.  We have no way to put abstract moral rules (e.g. utilitarian or Kantian) into effect–no way to know what they mean–until we are embodied in an “ethical society” where everybody has a specific place and duties.  How, though, are we to assign these particular duties?  Modern abstract ethical systems can only produce abstract organizations and can never provide this element.  In the past, it has always come from relationships like marriage and filiation that rely on natural law for their normative character.  After they are wiped out, a utilitarian calculus of the future may register the unhappiness that results, but it could not replace what it had destroyed.  Natural law seems to be the only way to lock particular people in duties to each other.  There is true happiness from the sense of meaning this provides, and the utilitarian rulers of the future might be forced to reinvent natural law as a “noble lie” to fill this void.  Let us then see first if we can defend the theory honestly as truth.

A defense of natural law must establish several points.  To fail on any one of them is to fail overall.  First, it must defend the claim that there are natural meanings.  It must establish that these are not merely projections of our subjective wishes or the mistaking of the customs and assumptions of our own culture for universals of nature.  This will be part 2 of this series.  Next, it must argue that these natural meanings are morally binding.  This step is often skipped over, but I think it’s a crucial and underdeveloped part of the theory.  Suppose we allow, with Cameron Diaz, that sex has a natural meaning that includes commitment.  Why could not the man and woman simply agree that this natural meaning is not the one they intend to give it?  That way, no false expectations would be generated; moving on would not be a betrayal.  That natural meanings are binding I will argue in part 3 of this series.  Finally, we must ask how the two meanings, what something naturally means and what we intend, are meant to relate to each other.  We must show that natural law does not itself fall back into a different sort of dualism.  This will be the subject of part 4.

Transition to the Orthosphere: phase 2

The Orthosphere group blog is off to a good start.  In fact, I’d say that blogging there has been so active that Throne and Altar has acquired an unexpected function of giving my writings a place where they can stay at the top of a page for a while.  I’ve decided to move ahead with phase 2 of my switch.  I will continue to cross-post my material, but I’ve turned off comments on this site, except for posts that I only put here.  That way, everybody commenting can be part of a single conversation at the other blog.

Tips on being a good reactionary–cross-post

Perhaps some of you are new reactionaries?  Like anything worth doing, Reaction is worth doing well.  But where can you get guidance?  Chances are, none of your friends or family would want anything to do with your “extremist” beliefs.  Well, I’m no expert, but I’ve been at this for a while, and I have some tips for you.

 

1) How to not be a sellout

Conservatives are all obsessed with “sellouts”.  These are people who used to be conservatives but switched sides, thereby acquiring an enormous boost in social prestige.  Now they make their livings attacking us with spectacularly ignorant and simplistic accusations which they say should be taken seriously because of their insider expertise.  You know, dirtbags like Frank Schaeffer, who’s making a career out of shitting on his father’s memory.   Or Christopher Buckley, who’s doing basically the same thing, but whose filial impiety is a bit less egregious.  Or Damon Linker, who found a perfect career path in getting a start with First Things and then stabbing Father Neuhaus in the back to become a lackey for the establishment.  We conservatives hate sellouts, and we are prone to imputing low motives–cowardice, a desire for status or money–to their defection.  Liberals listening in would think us oddly fixated on what goes on at “cocktail parties” and “faculty lounges”.

So, how do you avoid selling out?  Of course, only the God Who sees the hearts of men knows what caused the above cases, but I can tell you what I think is a common path.  You don’t do it by avoiding all contact with liberal arguments for fear of being converted.  Don’t worry–there’s no danger of that happening.  Not following liberal ideas just makes you an ineffectual reactionary.  No, what usually leads people to sell out, assuming they were ever true reactionaries to begin with, is the attitude you take to your fellow conservatives.

At some point, you will be surrounded by intelligent liberals whose esteem you crave, and they will start talking about some idiotic thing a television personality on Fox News said.  You may think to yourself, “These people say they hate conservatives, but maybe it’s just that they’ve only been exposed to Fox ignoramuses.  They don’t really hate me.  I’m not like that.  If I could just show them that there are thoughtful, articulate reactionaries like me…”  Don’t kid yourself.  The liberals really do hate you.  They may hate Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, but they hate you–a principled patriarchist and monarchist–far, far more.  They have no respect for what you consider to be your sophistication.  Being able to invoke Aquinas and Hegel won’t impress them.  To a liberal, you are as ignorant as Beck and the rest.

(Liberals, if you haven’t noticed, use the word “ignorance” in a funny way.  Ignorance means disagreeing with liberalism, regardless of how knowledgeable one is.  So, for example, if a person believes that women should stay home with their young children, that means he is “ignorant”, although the one making this accusation doesn’t have to point to any particular fact that the person with the objectionable opinion doesn’t know.  Glenn Beck may be “ignorant”, but Pope Benedict is super-ignorant, etc.)

Anyway, the moment you start separating yourself from other non-liberals in the hope of winning the esteem of liberals is the moment you start on the road to selloutdom.  Sometimes the people liberals hate really are boorish morons.  Certainly you shouldn’t defend every idiot who calls himself a conservative; they’re mostly classical liberals and libertarians anyway.  Just don’t ever let yourself think that it’s just “those people” that the liberals hate, and that you could get a hearing from them if you could prove how different you are.  No, what the liberals hate is you and what you cherish.  Don’t ever forget that.

2) Humility

You are a convert to Reaction; we all are.  Let this experience be a source of humility for you, rather than pride.  Until the day before yesterday, you were spouting nonsense thinking it was self-evident truth.  The modern world has gotten into you deeply, as it has gotten into us all.  Your theoretical rejection of liberalism is the beginning of an intellectual journey, not its termination.  Most likely you, and for that matter I, still have many opinions that are shaped by pernicious liberal prejudices.  In fact, all of your opinions about the world that you haven’t rigorously examined are probably of this sort.  That doesn’t mean they’re wrong.  Liberals believe that the sun rises in the East, and it just so happens that it does.  On the other hand, you now know that the media and schools are committed to a false view of the world, and these have been your only source of information outside your immediate experience.

Suddenly, you realize that you don’t know nearly as much as you thought you did.  For example, is the Taliban really evil?  A week ago, you might have thought to yourself “Well, everybody knows that the Taliban is evil.  If both sides are forced to condemn something, than it must be bad in a pretty unambiguous way.  In this case, MSNBC and Fox both agree on the verdict, so it must be true.”  Now you know not to think of the different factions of liberals as “both sides”.

Well, but what about the accusations?  The Taliban are religious fundamentalists.  They’re intolerant.  They hate women and want to keep them in the home.  They’re against education.  Wait a minute!  Those are the exact same things they say about us!  Imagine for a second that you were a middle class Afghan reading his morning newspaper about this horrible faction of Americans called “the Orthosphere”.  They hate women!  They hate learning and freedom!  “What an awful group of people,” you would think to yourself.  So, if the Taliban were exactly like us–the good guys, I hope you’ll agree–we would be hearing exactly the same sorts of accusations from the liberal media that we actually hear.

So, does that mean that the Taliban is good?  Should we send an ambassador to work out an alliance?  No, they might be every bit as rotten as the media says they are.  Unless you have been to Afghanistan or have serious scholarly knowledge about that country, you have no idea.  When the newspapers report isolated facts:  such-and-such number of Afghani civilians were killed in such-and-such a way, this is usually true.  It’s the metanarratives that the media use to situate these facts that we know is untrustworthy, is in fact malignant.  So, if the newspapers report a Taliban atrocity (funny that I can’t remember much of that), we can chalk it up against them.  On the other hand, we should keep scanning the papers to see if our Afghan allies are doing things just as bad.  If the papers regard one sides atrocities as regrettable lapses and another’s as an indication of intrinsic wickedness, we are to discard this interpretation unless it matches our own.

Liberalism has infused a number of bigotries regarding various cultures and various historical epochs.  You must now test them all.  Reject Whiggery.  The fact that side A ended up winning out over side B is no guarantee that side A was right.  Is civilization always better than tribalism?  Should we prefer Athens or Sparta?  Who was right–the barons or King John?  Was replacing feudalism with capitalism a good thing?  Did the American colonists have just reason to rebel?  Did the Confederates?  Was the Risorgimento laudable progress or inexcusable Piedmontese aggression?  You no longer know.  You must reevaluate each case on the basis of your new principles.

Your conversion to Reaction is imperfect, as is mine.  We have turned our intellects against liberalism, but it will take a lifetime to acquire the sensibility of a man informed by tradition.  Therefore, your ancestors, who didn’t suffer from this mental handicap, should receive a benefit of doubt.  If you agree with your generation on some matter against all past generations, suspect–suspect strongly–that you are wrong.  If you think that the belief of all prior generations across many cultures is silly or crazy, you can be certain that you have misunderstood it.

3) What you need to learn about liberals

You must understand liberalism, but you needn’t subject yourself to all their vulgar editorials, television harangues, blog posts, and  protest signs.  There, you won’t find your views challenged, just insulted.  You should rather seek out academic presentations of the liberal position and read the classics of the liberal tradition (Locke, Mill, etc.).  In addition to giving you the highest and most coherent presentation of liberalism, these works are markedly less polemical and insulting than what you’ll find at the lower levels.  You don’t have to put up with your enemies speculating about your mental illness or sexual frustration.

4) A proper pessimism

If you think there is a silent majority of conservative Americans or orthodox Christians, you are setting yourself up for a painful disillusionment.  Let me give it to you now:  the atheist Left has won the allegiance of the vast, the overwhelming, majority of people in the Western world.  The group that rejects liberalism in any principled way is probably less than one percent.  Not only is there no silent majority, I doubt there is even a “hard core” of appreciable size that isn’t crumbling before the liberal onslaught.  We are headed to battle, but not to victory.  We will not be remembered with gratitude and respect by future generations.  There will be no statues to honor conservative heroes.  We will be cursed by our grandchildren–the fate of all vanquished.

We must fight, although victory is humanly impossible.  At best, we will preserve our integrity.  At best, God will through our faithfulness save our children and a few strangers.  Even if not, truth and duty need not offer us any motive but themselves.

Birth control and the rhetorical tics of the Left–cross-post

The HHS mandate has certainly been a boon to bloggers.  Much worthwhile has been said about why are enemies are compelled by their beliefs to instrumentalize sex, marginalize the traditional family, and make war on the Church.  I’ve almost stopped getting angry at them for these things, since they do follow as a matter of logical necessity from the guiding beliefs of the age.  What I still find especially irritating about the Leftist hivemind is not just that they all have the same thoughts, but that they even come packaged and expressed in the same terms.  Leftism is being even more perverse than it has to be.

1) What about the men?

Contraception, we are told, must be free because it’s important to women, either to the sacred cause of “women’s health” or the even more sacred cause of “women’s choices.”  Now, just as you would never guess from the liberals’ rhetoric about “choice” that abortion actually involves snuffing out a fetus, you could listen to hours of their talk about “women’s health” without being reminded that contraception is about preventing the arrival of new children.  Liberals like to be abstract, but I expect most of my readers have already had “the talk” with their parents and know that not just any activity results in pregnancy.  We’re talking about heterosexual intercourse and nothing else.  Conception means that someone has just become a mother, and someone else has just become a father.  Becoming a mother is a big deal, but so is becoming a father.  So it seems that two people’s strong interests are involved in each contraceptive use.

So, why never mention the fathers?  Again, this isn’t Bonald being a heteronormative meanie–everybody knows that sex that results in pregnancy always involves a woman and a man.  One would think that it would actually strengthen Obama’s case to refer to the men as well; he could say that he’s protecting the interests of both halfs of the population.  Wouldn’t that make the mandate twice as good?  Neither women nor men are to be punished with babies!  Yet neither the White House nor its media lapdogs have done any such thing.

There are several reasons.  First, to bring up men’s interests would mean referring to what exactly it is that contraception is designed to frustrate, and the Left is squeemish about this, preferring their vague statements about “women’s health” and “family planning”.  More importantly, men are not a designated victim group.  It is therefore wrong to be solicitous of their interests.  They deserve to be punished.  In fact, a measure that benefits women actually becomes less attractive if it also benefits men.  The purity of the legislator’s intentions is brought into doubt.  How can we know that what motivates them is really the good goal (helping women) and not the bad, selfish goal (helping men)?

2) How much is hidden in “harm” and “fairness”

Jonathan Haidt claims that liberals restrict their moral reasoning to considerations of “avoiding harm” and “fairness”, which conservatives also consider authority, group loyalty, and purity/sacrality.  This is the case here.  Calls to protect “women’s health” protest some unspecified harm that comes to women who don’t have a free means to sterilize themselves.  Calls to protect their “choices” most likely derive their force from a sense that rich women get all these (unspecified) advantages of self-sterilization, so we must level the playing field for poor women.

Interestingly, it is the liberals’ criteria that are most reliant on a robust sense of human nature and human flourishing.  The harm and fairness cases both assume that contraception contributes to human flourishing, that it is a fundamental human good.  Of course, this is exactly the point in dispute.  If the traditional Christian and Catholic view is correct, then contraception is degrading and wicked.  Helping someone do something wicked and degrading is like sneaking drugs to an addict or porn to a compusive masturbator; they may be grateful, but you are not really helping them.  You’re keeping them enslaved to disordered desires and blocked from genuine goods.

But let’s be agnostic for a second, and not assume that Catholic sexual morality is correct.  Let’s not assume that birth control is intrinsically evil.  Suppose we even assumed that it is some sort of good.  One still hasn’t gotten to the liberal view of things.  They don’t just take contraception to be a good; they take it to be a fundamental good.  They say, in their confused but definite way, that denying a person birth control pills can block her from achieving the good life.  Why else employ the dread measure of state coercion?  The state doesn’t mandate that every good be available to every person.  There’s no push to make sure every poor person has their own microscope, even though knowledge about the natural world is generally regarded as a good thing.  It’s a fine thing to be able to look at cells, but some form of a good life is possible without it.

Liberals regard a situation where someone who is not in a position to have another child must abstain from sex as intolerable.

Is that true?  I certainly don’t think so.  One thing that is certain is that it is not a morally neutral claim.  With their birth control fanaticism, liberalism has abandoned its founding pretense to be a neutral arbiter between competing comprehensive moral doctrines.  It was always a sham, as everyone who’s been on the receiving end of the liberal stick knows.  A Cartesian view of the body as a meaningless machine coupled with a crude utilitarian ethic is the officially established and legally enforced dogma of the modern State.  There is no neutrality on matters of sex.  In the public schools and juvenile justice system there hasn’t been for a long time.  Government officials who would never dream of telling children to stop fornicating have no trouble ordering them to use condoms.

3) On the opposition “playing politics”

An interesting tick in liberal defenses of the administration, for example the ones Proph and Larry Auster have referenced, is their accusation that the opposition is engaging in some sort of partisan stunt.  I’ve seen this pattern over and over again.  The Left launches an attack on some sector of traditional society.  (They are the progressives; they are aggressors by definition.)  The attacked parties complain, which I wouldn’t think would surprise anyone.  The Left, however, is outraged by their victims’ behavior.  (They don’t feign outrage; I’m convinced they really feal it.)  The Left sees itself as the aggreived party.  What’s more, they don’t even give their opponents the courtesy of assuming that they are sincere in their beliefs.  They immediately accuse them of manufacturing a publicity stunt so that, out of pure malice, they can derail benevolent Leftist initiatives to which no one could genuinely object.

In this case, it’s those sinister Catholic bishops in cahoots with sinister Republican politicians who planned this whole thing just to make Obama and his health care initiatives look bad.  Why did they do this?  Insert any standard Leftist demonological explanation:  they hate women; they hate poor people; they hate Obama becaue he’s black; they’re the 1%, etc, etc, etc.

This is an interesting position to take.  The New York Times and the rest of the liberal propaganda machine have decided not to be outraged that the Catholic Church condemns contraception, but that it has decided to create publicity stunts designed to get Republicans into office.  This lets them salvage their tolerant & neutral credentials a bit.  But does it really make sense?  Put aside for the moment that most of the episcopate is pretty clearly pro-Democratic and pro-Obamacare.  If we admit that the Church’s prohibition of contraception predates (by quite a healthy stretch of time) any use it might possibly have for American partisan polemics, if we admit that the Church is sincere in its condemnation, then one must admit that the Church would have to find the mandate intolerable.  By their own principles, the bishops would be compelled to protest it.  So are the liberals angry about the way that Church went about this?  “Okay, so I understand that this is something that’s going to upset you.  Why did you have to generate all this publicity?  Don’t you know that this is going to help those people?”  Should the Church have been more discrete in its complaints?  Perhaps the pope should have addressed the president behind closed doors, with hat in hand, or maybe prostrated before the presidential throne.  He could then beg for a favor.  When summarily rejected, he would have the sense to thank the president for granting him an audience; then he’d go back to Rome and the Church would make no further trouble.

The problem is that the president and his officials are birth control fanatics; they refuse to reconsider or even discuss their commitment to universal contraception.  If anyone was to win any concessions, it would have to be against Obama’s will; he would have to be compelled by legal or electoral force.

As Proph has pointed out, it’s really amazing how a single perspective–not only a single position, but a single formulation of it–so quickly materializes over the whole Left.

Me, my father, and Billy Joel

I got my taste in music from my parents, and my father was the one who introduced me to Billy Joel.  It’s an association that has outlasted two technologies; my parents have The Stranger and An Innocent Man on record and Storm Front and River of Dreams on cassette cape, and I’ve got the four-volume Greatest Hits on CD.  Most rock singers peak and fade quickly, and their songs only capture what they were at one moment in life.  Mr. Joel, however, was productive for a very long time, and it’s very interesting to just listen to the Greatest Hits CDs sequentially and see how a man’s perspective changes with time.

One day, I think it was when I was in college and visiting home, my father and I were on a drive somewhere, and Piano Man was playing on the radio.  In the song, Billy Joel’s character is a piano man at a bar reminiscing on what a bunch of losers everyone around him is:

Now Paul is a real estate novelist \ Who never had time for a wife \ And he’s talking with Davy \ who’s still in the navy \ And probably will be for life \ And the waitress is practicing politics \ As the businessmen slowly get stoned \ Yes, they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness \ But it’s better than drinking alone

At this point, my dad pointed out that the piano man is being presumptuous in his pity for these people.  Perhaps Paul is really devoted to his career and not marrying was the right choice for him.  And the Navy is a perfectly good and honorable career.  Perhaps they’re unhappy, but the song doesn’t say so, so it’s just as likely to be the narrator’s imagination.  Really, nothing he sees justifies his dire conclusions about the people in the bar.  I hadn’t thought about it before, but once it was pointed out to me, I could see this smug sense of superiority throughout the song and in several others of the “early” Billy Joel era.  I can understand and pity these people because I live on a higher level of sensitivity and authenticity.  It’s a very common attitude among young men of an artistic or intellectual bent.  I was infected with a bit of it at the time myself; subtle hints like this from my father helped me outgrow it quickly.

Whether the point he’s making is good or bad, Joel is a songwriter who always puts a lot of thought into his lyrics; he at least tries to say something interesting, not just catchy.  One can’t assume a complete identity between him and the roles he puts on.  It could be that Joel meant the piano man to be arrogant and over-dramatic.  I’ve never been able to work up any offense at his most blasphemous song, Only the Good Die Young, because he right away establishes some distance between himself and the character.  The latter’s argument

Come out, Virginia- Don’t let me wait. / You Catholic girls start much too late. / Ah! But sooner or later it comes down to fate. / I might as well will be the one.

is so absurd, and it’s so impossible to imagine a girl actually going for it, that we know Joel can’t be speaking entirely in his own voice.

My father was also the one to notice that Joel’s perspectives changed significantly with age.  The later songs aren’t about girl chasing or other young men’s interests anymore.  As he put it, they sound more like the voice of a man with a family and responsibilities.  He pointed this out when we were listening to the “later” Joel song, The Downeaster Alexa.  This is one of the lesser-known Billy Joel songs, but one that my dad and I both really like.

Well I’m on the Downeaster “Alexa”
And I’m cruising through Block Island Sound
I have charted a course to the Vineyard
But tonight I am Nantucket bound

We took on diesel back in Montauk yesterday
And left this morning from the bell in Gardiner’s Bay
Like all the locals here I’ve had to sell my home
Too proud to leave I worked my fingers to the bone

So I could own my Downeaster “Alexa”
And I go where the ocean is deep
There are giants out there in the canyons
And a good captain can’t fall asleep

I’ve got bills to pay and children who need clothes
I know there’s fish out there but where God only knows
They say these waters aren’t what they used to be
But I’ve got people back on land who count on me

Now I drive my Downeaster “Alexa”
More and more miles from shore every year
Since they tell me I can’t sell no stripers
And there’s no luck in swordfishing here.

I was a bayman like my father was before
Can’t make a living as a bayman anymore
There ain’t much future for a man who works the sea
But there ain’t no island left for islanders like me

The man who used to warn that “working too hard can give you a heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack” has come to take the father’s provider role very seriously.

The thing that most strikes me about Joel’s later songs is his growing focus on transience, the sense that no matter how much we cherish them, all things are destined to pass away.  We certainly see it in the above song, where the character loves and wishes to carry on his father’s way of life but sees this way of life being destroyed by large impersonal forces that, in the long run, he cannot resist (the depletion of the fish population, in this case).  It’s a sentiment that certainly speaks to us reactionaries.

I think what happened is that time and a growing sense of mortality have turned Billy Joel from a cocky Jew into a sober atheist.  He knows–it’s the one thing that atheists know with unmatched clarity–that our time is short, very short.  One day, I was playing on the floor with little 12 month-old Julie with the CD player on in the background, and I happened to catch the lyrics

This is the time to remember \ Cause it will not last forever \ These are the days \ To hold on to \Cause we won’t \ Although we’ll want to

Nothing profound, but it hits me with more force than it used to.

Where is the comfort for an atheist, when he realizes that extinction is the fate of all things?  One of Billy Joel’s last songs was a lullabye to his daughter Alexa.

Goodnight, my angel
Now it’s time to sleep
And still so many things I want to say
Remember all the songs you sang for me
When we went sailing on an emerald bay
And like a boat out on the ocean
I’m rocking you to sleep
The water’s dark and deep
Inside this ancient heart
You’ll always be a part of me

Goodnight, my angel
Now it’s time to dream
And dream how wonderful your life will be
Someday your child may cry
And if you sing this lullabye
Then in your heart
There will always be a part of me

Someday we’ll all be gone
But lullabyes go on and on…
They never die
That’s how you
And I
Will be

This is how an atheist faces death.  He turns to his children, and thinks that perhaps a part of him will live on in them.  But then he remembers that someday they too will be gone.  Everyone he knew and loved will be not only dead but forgotten.  However we reach forward, no one can claim a place in the distant future.  If a higher meaning is to be found, we must look outside of time.  As he rocks his daughter to sleep, he senses that, although they are two distinct people–unique beings whose time is short, what they participate in, the love of fathers and daughters, is something ancient, perhaps even eternal.  Someday we’ll all be gone, but this moment we’re touching and enacting something of ultimate significance.

And this is true.

The best that science can do–cross-post

Can a materialist believe in the theory of evolution?  I doubt it.

Back when I was in junior high and high school, I remember being given flow chart-style expositions of what textbooks call “the scientific method”.  It went something like this:  1) ask a question; 2) formulate a hypothesis; 3) do an experiment; 4) if your hypothesis is verified, it gets promoted to a “theory”; 5) keep doing tests; 6) eventually, the “theory” gets bumped up to being a “law”.  There are certainly criticisms that could be made of this.  Flow charts always do some violence to what is fundamentally a creative process.  The “hypothesis” stage is often unnecessary for science fair-type projects–often a student would (and logically should) remain agnostic about the outcome of his experiment until the data is in, but his teacher forces him to “hypothesize” some answer in deference to “the scientific method”.  A decade as a research scientist and I still don’t know what the difference between a “theory” and a “law” is supposed to be.  But, given that the point is to introduce junior high kids to scientific ways of thinking, the standard exposition isn’t bad.

One thing that’s good about it is that it gets across the idea that scientific explanations have varying degrees of certainty.  “Science” doesn’t always speak with the same assurance.  If you don’t believe in blackbody radiation, you’re crazy.  If you don’t believe in dark matter, the evidence right now weighs against you, but your opinion is respectable, and I wouldn’t be shocked if it turned out to be right.  If you think string theory is bunk, you are (I suspect) in agreement with a silent majority of physicists.

So I started thinking–how far does scientific certainty go?  There’s a school of thought that says that natural sciences never achieve real certainty:  every theory is just one experiment away from disproof.  So, for example, the 1/r^2 laws for electricity (Colomb) and gravity (Newton) have been very well tested.  Still, that gives no certainty that a slightly more accurate measurement wouldn’t find deviations.  And, in fact, we do predict and observe slight deviations due to QED and general relativity, respectively.  I expect that someday deviations from these theories will also be found, when we can test extreme enough conditions at high enough accuracy.

But not all scientific theories present themelves as exact and fundamental in this way.  Consider the following three theories:  1) the connection between statistical mechanics and thermodynamics; 2) evolution by random genetic variation and natural selection; 3) the existence of souls of animals.  The first is due to Boltzmann, Maxwell, and Planck; the second to Darwin; the third to Aristotle.  I think it is flatly impossible–inconcievable–that any of these three theories could be disproved by any future observation.  As soon as you understand these theories, you realize that they must be true; the only logically contingent question is whether the circumstances for their application are ever actually realized (and these questions have obviously affirmative answers).

Not only does the process of natural selection not tax our credulity; we realize that, assuming there are heritable traits and that some traits give one a leg up in the reproductive race (and who could doubt either claim?), natural selection will happen, given only enough generations.  It would take divine intervention to stop it from happening.  It doesn’t matter if we don’t know exactly how mutations happen or how a given adaptive trait functions.  The theory is independent of these details.

Similarly, it could be that we have much to learn about the particles that make up atoms, but none of that can affect the laws of statistical mechanics.  The identification of entropy with a multiplicity of microstates and of temperature with entropy’s energy derivative (and, for a gas, with the average kinetic energy) are permanant gains in knowledge.  They have to do, not with unexplained mathematical rules, but with identifying what things (entropy, temperature) fundamentally are.  When one understands what entropy is, one sees that of course it will never decrease for a closed system.  The most basically questionable part of thermodynamics is the first law, because it depends on energy conservation, a presumed fundamental law of nature of whose veracity we can never really be certain.  (It’s one of those permanantly-one-experiment-from-disproof laws.)

Then there’s Aristotle’s claim that living beings have substantial forms.  Moderns scoff at this “unscientific” idea, but of course it’s used in every page of every medical textbook in existence.  We assume that things like substantial unity (that we can identify what is and isn’t part of the organism), function (ask your doctor what the function of the liver is, and see if he chides you for asking an unscientific question), and identity through material change will apply to living things, and we are not disappointed.  Zoologists and paleantologists make predictions based on the assumption that animals are self-moving, and that they will act for their own preservation and propagation, and these predictions are confirmed.  Substantial unity–the “soul”–is certainly scientific.  It may not be just scientific–it is also ontological–but it’s not less than scientific, because the scientists could never do without it.

Evolution, thermodynamics, and the soul are certain knowledge because they are formal knowledge.  They have to do with patterns that we recognize, and as such they have a real intelligibility that material knowledge–e.g. knowledge of the fundamental laws of the matter that makes us up–lacks.  To one who apprehends that he has a soul–that he is a unity of drive, intelligence, and action–it wouldn’t make sense to be told that scientists have done some very careful tests of the cells in his body or of his psychological states, and they have learned that he actually has no principle of unity, that “he” is nothing but an arbitrarily identified aggregate of matter.  Whatever these scientists have been doing, they could only have been learning more about the matter that incarnates the vital pattern he calls himself.  The existence of the pattern is not open to doubt once one has apprehended it.

We all realize that this idea of the soul is philosophically tinged.  We expect to have to defend it from the empiricists and materialists.  “What part of the body is the ‘soul’ in?” they jibe, and we Aristotelians roll are eyes and answer back something like “What part of the statue is the ‘shape’ in?  What pigment in the painting is the ‘pattern’made of?”  The funny thing is that all other definitive scientific theories are in the same boat.  If he really refuses to believe anything he can’t touch or see, the materialist should not believe in natural selection.  If we “zoom in” to the life story of any individual organism, natural selection disappears.  It’s not some kind of magical force that smites the unfit.  Any given animal that died before reproducing was killed by something else–hunger, disease, predators, etc.  No particular animal died because of natural selection, just as no particular cell in your body houses your soul.  Substantial forms and evolution are in the same boat.  Similarly, if one “zooms in” to a single atom or molecule, the concepts of entropy, temperature, and pressure become meaningless.

It would seem that mid-twentieth century physics’ reductionist turn was at least partly mistaken.  Vocal reductionists like Stephen Weinberg made high-energy physics–fundamental laws about elementary particles–the measure of all knowledge.  If I’m right, one can only have real and certain knowledge to the extent that one’s theory conceptually divorces itself from these fundamental laws.  Statistical mechanics works by throwing away everything but energy and multiplicity.  Evolution works by throwing away everything but heritability and adaptivity.  Aristotelian biology (i.e. anatomy and physiology) works by cataloging form and discarding matter.  (Thinking themselves materialists, biologists like to say that they “turn over” the basic properties of the matter in living beings to the chemists and physicists, but the fact that they can “turn over” this subject and continue on their way without trouble shows that it is actually formal causality that they’re dealing with.)

A better discontent — cross-post

Maybe I just know better than I once did where to look, but it seems like the far Right is thinking and communicating more clearly than it once did.  The best of our side have gotten better at identifying the key issues and our key concerns on those issues.  They can speak directly about meaning, piety, and loyalty without having to first blather on about the Vision of the Founders or the genius of the price mechanism.

Here are some encouraging articles I’ve come across just recently.  Here‘s an excellent statement of the conservative sensibility from Front Porch Republic:

As I look at the way we are now, I see a people who wish to be light, free from the weightiness of responsibility, limits, duties. We want sex without fertility, food without calories, endless consumer goods without (observable) environmental degradation, religion without law, divorce without fault, mobility without loneliness, bodies without aging, entertainments without limits. We want our freedoms to be endless and without cost, allowing us to float free from now this to now that, casting off identities and  responsibilities like old clothes discarded.

Of course, to those who are unbearably light, nothing is more repugnant than weight, but we are in our very natures called to weightiness, for we are moral agents, responsible for all.

Whether you think of the text as Holy Writ or mere literature of the past, the early chapters of Genesis indicate to us with bracing clarity the choice before us now. The human emerges from the dirt and yet is somehow responsible for the dirt, capable of tending, keeping, filling, and ordering the very dirt from which he is. The human is told to build, till, improve, cultivate–to husband (in the old sense) the cosmos as its responsible priest. And yet he is to exercise this creativity within the limits of fidelity, for he is steward and not Creator, always dependent, and obligated to be responsible.

How will we make our world and ourselves? Will be we unbearably free, infinitely light, using our creative capacities to cast off our responsible nature and soar into the beyond? Or will we be heavy, using our skill to tie ourselves into the loam from which we came, hoping to be faithful to obligation, duty, and the task of responsibility? Will the tapestry we weave have substance, or just the play of newness, with the shuttle undoing all that has been created before?

I want to be heavy. I want my children to be heavy. I want my life to be one of creative fidelity, finding new ways to be obligated and woven into the fabric of the world and the lives of my lover, my children, my neighbors, and friends.

Also, if you’d like to know what those queers at Yale missed out on, I’ve just come a great article by the estimable Dr. Esolen on liberal totalitarianism, parental authority, and sexual revolution:

On June 25, 2009, a seven year old boy was abducted at gunpoint from his terrified parents. They had just boarded a plane to fly to the country where the boy’s mother had been born, and where her kin still lived. They were leaving their own country for good, because they had grown weary of the harassment they suffered there from a syndicate of well-placed thugs. They themselves had broken no law.

The boy’s name is Domenic Johansson. He is now going on ten years old, and he has seen his mother and father only very briefly since. The thugs, officials of the Swedish government, have allowed the parents very little opportunity to visit. Domenic’s mother has suffered a nervous breakdown, and is now quite incapacitated. The foster-woman into whose care Domenic was given has informed the boy that she will never let him return to his mother and father, no matter what any court might say. Domenic, once a cheerful little boy, looks haggard, crushed, dull, as if the heart had been ripped out of him.

What was the crime committed by Christer Johansson and his wife?  The crime was simply that the Johanssons, a devout Christian couple, had pulled Domenic out of the state school and were educating him at home. It was, we should note well, perfectly within their rights by the Swedish law then in force to do this. It was also within their rights as specified by the European Union.

There was a time when certain things were considered holy. The family was holy: it was a realm of order and authority and love, not to be burst into by marauding benefactors. “A man’s home is his castle,” went the saying, meaning that the home, for father and mother and children, is as an independent dukedom, with its own traditions, its laws, its bonds of loyalty, its wisdom, and its hard-won wealth. So long as no crimes against God and man were committed, that castle was to be honored; for upon such families the whole social order was founded. One would no sooner set spies in the home to rat on mother and father, as the Soviets did, than one would burn down a church. It is not simply that one would refrain from abducting a child, as the Swedish government has done. One would not wish even to associate with someone who could conceive of so vile a thing.

Let us be clear here. The American Leviathan loathes everything that is not Itself. It does not want self-reliant people who can take care of themselves and their neighbors. It does not want people teaching their children in their own way. It does not want free associations, like the Boy Scouts, who actually do things like clean a park or build a bicycle path, things that benefit everyone, and for little or no cost to their towns and cities. It does not want private schools with their own curricula. It does not want private universities with their own ideas about what sports to sponsor, or what people they should hire. It will allow the shells of these things, so long as the “free” truckle to its will, and the “private” strip naked to its searching glare. Its pact with the little people is simple enough. The Leviathan will promote a false freedom, mere license, which helps to destroy every other social institution in existence, from the family to the neighborhood to the local school to the church. Then the Leviathan, having built a sufficient number of prisons, will come a-knocking on every door to help.

This is really the central meaning of the debate concerning whether the Catholic Church should provide for Fornication Protection Kits – for that is what we are talking about, though no one wishes to say so openly. The diktats from Levi come cloaked in the language of medicine, just as the diktats from Lotta and Lars come cloaked in the language of children’s welfare. But just as no one without a diseased mind can really explain why it is a benefit to children to be yanked out of their innocent mother’s lap and sent to live with strangers, just because mother and father wanted to teach them to read and write, so no one without a diseased mind can explain why it is a benefit to women’s health, or anybody’s health, to underwrite the sexual revolution.

Finally, Stephen lays out for us why American Catholics must be reactionaries, and what that means.

[W]hat is the smartest way to fight? What if none of these stances is effective in stopping or repealing Obama’s birth control mandate? What if engaging with the political system as it currently is actually creates more problems in the long run than it solves? For instance, civil disobedience may not work, because it will be hard for protesters to goad the federal government into using just enough violence to gain the support of the masses, but not too much violence so as not to suffer considerable loss of human life. Moreover, mustering mass support for her position may entangle the Church in dubious alliances that she may later come to regret. And, to go one step further, even considering armed resistance against the US military is just ludicrous.

Does that mean that American Catholics should abandon the fight? No! There remains open to them another option: the reactionary stance toward politics. For the reactionary, neither civil disobedience nor military resistance is capable of restoring a sane political order. Early on, some reactionaries, most notably the French reactionaries in the Vendée, took up arms against the revolution. But, by now there is now hope of restoring the old order. Indeed, it is not clear what the best one could hope for in the current situation is. The name of “reactionary” is an unfortunate relic of an earlier age, but at least it does connect the modern reactionary to his spiritual forbears.

Intellectual resistance is more demanding than military resistance. As the Colombian aphorist Nicolás Gómez Dávila said, “To think against is more difficult than to act against” (source). Armed resistance certainly requires courage, but the soldier has an immediate enemy who could destroy him at any moment, which helps him remain vigilant. Intellectual resistance, on the other hand, consists of transforming a culture, without the fear of death to spur us onward. Moreover, the reactionary does not wage an empty war of words in newspapers, on TV, or on blogs. It is a battle for souls. It is a war in which we must convert, ourselves first and then others.

American Catholics should by all means work within the ordinary political process and use civil disobedience to oppose President Obama’s contraception mandate. But, there is no guarantee that American Catholics will enjoy any success. Indeed, after Catholics are forced to pay for contraception, it is nearly certain that the federal government will impose a requirement to pay for abortions; this will play out in the same way that Catholic adoption agencies have been forced to close down after they refuse to place children in homosexual households. We Catholics will be exiles in our own country. The task of a reactionary Catholic, then, will be to figure out how to hand on the faith in an age of persecution, how to prepare an underground spiritual and intellectual resistance, to convert hearts and minds. We will need to wait and be patient. Above all, we will need to take Cardinal von Galen’s words to heart: “Become hard! Remain firm!”