The plausibility of theism; notes on the history of philosophy

The problem

Why are the arguments for theistic philosophies not convincing to most modern men?  The exasperated Thomist can point out that most of these modern men have heard only caricatures of these arguments at best.  This is true, but skeptics could not ignore or misrepresent our beliefs so easily if it weren’t for a more serious problem.  Alasdaire MacIntyre has pointed out that the difference between theists and atheists runs deeper than most realize.  It’s not that theists believe in the same things as atheists but just add one more (divine) object; the existence of God changes how we understand everything else.  Thus, that creatures are in some sense receivers of being is the key to understanding them, not just a claim needed to make the cosmological argument run through only to be forgotten once it has served this task.

Most theists, myself included, have failed to carry out such a philosophical revolution in our heads.  Most of the time, God is just “one more being” in my head, having little to do with how I understand the other items of my world.  Our concepts and categories are dismissed not because they are deemed not convincing but because they are deemed not useable.  By “usable”, I don’t mean “useful”; I mean “applicable”.

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Time and the fear of death

I plan to spend much of 2018 on the philosophy of time and becoming.  The following are unconsidered thoughts from an as yet uninformed mind, written mostly for my own sake.

Recall this quote:

Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

                                 — Albert Einstein

My life terminates in the future, but also in the past and also less than a meter to the left or right of my plane of symmetry, and yet only the first bothers me.  My reason agrees with Einstein, but I have learned that my instincts are less easily fooled than my reason.  I am afraid to die, therefore there is something wrong with this sort of eternalism.  (Note that it doesn’t matter that this fear is not very strong at this moment or that you may disapprove of it.  For you too, I imagine, the thought of mortality is spontaneously a cause of unease, even if you have overcome it with pagan fortitude or Christian hope.)

Aristotelian substances relate differently to time vs. space.  The left half of me is only a part of me, but me at the present time is the complete me, the complete me in the present.  The future concerns me because it is coming inexorably toward me.  But this doesn’t make sense.  Coming with respect to what?  With respect to time?  But that is tautological.  My left side terminus also “approaches” as one moves along the appropriate axis.  For time to “flow”, there must be some other measure that past to future progresses on.

Causality.  Our instinct rebels against the claim that the arrow of time is a result of the 2nd law.  We feel that the past causes the present, the present causes the future.  Causality is more basic than time.  Indeed, cause and effect are coincident temporally and spatially.  At an event, force causes acceleration, not vice versa.  The equation allows one to go either way, but one direction is the direction of causality, the other is the direction of inference.

But wait.  Considered as points on a manifold, the past is not coincident with the present.  My $latex  t=t_1$ and t=t_1-\epsilon are distinct events, making true causality impossible.  Therefore the past must actually persist in the present, although doubtlessly in a manner different from how it exists in its own time.  The pasts persists not as a poetic way of saying that the past causally influences the present, but as a literal requirement for the past to exert causality on the present.  Note that this requires no sense of an absolute standard of simultaneity.  Special relativity has sunk presentism irretrievably as far as I’m concerned.  (Then again, these are just my uninformed thoughts.)  An event persists in its future light cone.  How far?  Me at time A causes me at time B causes me at time C, so by this line of thinking A persists in some way in B while B persists in C.  But presence is transitive, so the present persists indefinitely.  Actually, this is extremely doubtful, but let’s just see where it takes us.

Does this explain the fear of death?  My present self persists into my future death and suffers this calamity in a way it is not present in my past coming into being.  But why worry?  Causal chains in which I participate continue after my death, so present-me lives in them.  That can’t be right.  Perhaps A only persists in B to the extent that it acts as cause.  I fear that while there is an exterior me whose actions initiate causal chains extending indefinitely into the future, there is some sort of inner me that is causally inert except in passing itself on from moment to moment, and that inner me is imperiled by death.  Yes, that’s it.  My existence is a sinking ship, and I want to cast off as much of me as I can before being swallowed up.  Perhaps that’s why I’m publishing this, a bit of my subjectivity tossed into the objective world–at least if somebody reads it.

The folly of intellectual ambition.  How I would love to make my mark, uncover some new truth.  But as Saint Augustine said when encouraging friendly criticism, inso far as what we say is true, it belongs to everyone and not to us alone; our errors are ours, but we are better rid of them.  The idea of introducing some new falsehood certainly holds no appeal to me.  Alas, I don’t have what it takes to discover a new truth–lack the IQ, the knowledge, the wisdom, the creativity; each dimension of the intellect a new occasion for me to confront my inadequacies.  Don’t have the time either; I’m 41 and squandered my youth.  But even if I could do something like what Einstein did, would I be at peace with death?  Despite what he said, was he?

Of course, everything I wrote above is very probably wrong, but it still has some value if it makes my intuitions clearer to me.

A lamentable lack of tribalism among the Lutherans

Hat tip to Patriactionary.  An observation on missionaries and the impulse to bash one’s own tradition

I couldn’t help but notice that his every reference to Lutheranism was derogatory or derisive. And yes, I mean that literally. He consistently treated our denomination, our traditions, and our theology as some kind of shackle from which we need to be released. There was definitely a strong note of that “Oh, if only we were more like Baptists, then an omnipotent and omniscient God could maybe finally find some way to use us to proclaim His Word” nonsense from the previous point.It’s not as though I think Lutherans or the Synod are beyond criticism—a quick review of this blog will tell you that. At the same time, our heritage of theology, hymnody, and history is a precious treasure won through hard-fought spiritual warfare against the Devil and this world. There are certainly things we need to change—mainly having to do with our embrace of modern worldliness and rejection of God’s word and our theological heritage—but one should not broadly treat precious things in such a manner, nor encourage others to do the same.

Is the universe too big?

In a comment on an earlier post, I was asked if I am bothered by the size of the observable universe, that it makes God’s concern for mankind implausible.  As I understand it, the idea that an omnipotent God made a very large universe is not problematic, but the worry is that He seems to have singled out one particular species on one particular planet in an unreasonable way.  I should warn readers that I may be a bad person to address this issue.  Long exposure to large numbers had desensitized me to them, enough that it takes some effort for me to even grasp the issue.

Are humans tiny?  Well, the Planck length gives a smallest length scale of 10^{-35}m, and the cosmological constant is 10^{-122} Planck length{}^{-2}, giving a largest length scale of 10^{61} Planck lengths (latex 10^{26}$m, also about the distance to the cosmological horizon at the universe’s current age), so in log space human size (meters) is around the middle, a bit on the big size.  Could the universe have been much closer to our own scale while still being habitable to us?  To give the universe a finite size, we’re presumably talking about non-trivial topologies.  Stephen Barr takes up this question for (if I recall correctly) a closed, spatially S^3 universe, and finds that, no, the universe must be enormous or it would collapse long before we could have evolved.  I thought maybe this limit could be evaded for a flat (k=0) universe where I just identify x=-L with x=L (similarly for y, z) for a “modest” universe size L (a spatially T_3 universe).  But no, that kills perturbations at longer wavelengths, screws up structure formation unless I keep the universe huge.  So, it would seem that with the laws of nature we’ve got, God had to make the universe big to grow us naturally.  Of course, he didn’t have to grow us naturally.

My problem with this line of thinking, that mankind must be “big” in a theistic world, is deeper, though.  I simply don’t assume that humans, or intelligent life itself, is God’s primary concern in creating the universe.  Why must we believe that?  We are told that God loves us and has a plan for us.  God overlooks nothing, and He values each of His creatures to the exact degree that they are valuable.  As Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.  And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”  Perhaps there are things more important even than us.  What if God’s main reason for creating man was to give his angels training as guardian angels before moving them up to more important things?

If a person thinks that importance correlates with size or mass, he should have no quarrel with theism itself.  Perhaps God was really mostly concerned with dark matter halos when He created the universe.  Suppose instead that you rebel against such thoughts, convinced that man, that thinking reed, is greater than such lifeless, mindless things.  If you are right, then God knows it, and He cares more about us than dark matter, supermassive black holes, or the interstellar medium.  After all, you were able to overlook mere size or mass to find a truer measure of importance, and if you can do it, surely God can do it.  In either case, it is your belief in the value rank of different creatures that causes you to believe what you do about what is important for God, not the belief in God itself.

Book review: Modern Physics and Ancient Faith

Modern Physics and Ancient Faith
by Stephen Barr (2003)

Trying to relate religion and science is a perilous enterprise; philosophy is supposed to be the glue that fits them together.  Professor Barr avoids many dangers by taking a limited goal.  Materialists, he says, often claim that science shows the universe looking more like materialism would expect it to look like than what religion would expect it to look like.  While not a proof of materialism, it would certainly count in its favor.  Barr contests this claim, saying that while it may have been true one hundred years ago, the last century of developments in physics, cosmology, and mathematics have reversed the situation, and the universe now looks much more like what a Christian would have expected.  Of course, the current picture may change again, and even if it doesn’t materialism would remain logically possible.  Still, the “natural reading” of things has moved markedly in our favor.

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The tribal Catholic’s strange new respect for Pope Francis

Both the Church’s enemies and disgruntled traditionalists are shocked that the Pope doesn’t believe accusations against his clergy on what he regards as insufficient evidence.

“Don’t be led by the nose by the leftists who orchestrated all of this,” the pope said.

If the Pope really said that, I take back all the nasty things I’ve said about him these past years.  It is a brilliantly political statement; it names the enemy, something neither Benedict nor John Paul the Apologizer ever dared to do.

Obviously, I don’t know any more than Pope Francis or the media whether Bishop Barros actually watched Fr. Fernando Karadima sexually abuse anybody.  The accusation sounds far-fetched, but weird things sometimes happen.  A great deal is made of the fact of the accuser’s abuse itself being regarded as credible by authorities.  However, if he is a genuine victim of clerical sexual abuse, then he has an incentive to harm the Church, and an attempt to calumniate a higher-ranking cleric is a distinct possibility.

It is ill-advised to give purported (or even actual) victims of clerical sexual abuse some sort of sacred status.  Most of them are, after all, enemies of the Church.  Yes, I know, you’re shocked that I wrote that.  “But Bonald, they are victims; they are the aggrieved.”  To which I say that you are confusing categories.  “Victim”, “aggrieved” are moral categories.  I am only making a political statement.  People trying to seize Church assets, damage the Church’s reputation, or enact anti-Catholic legislation are enemies.  The suspicion that an enemy has good reason to hate you is even more reason to be wary of him.  I can’t emphasize enough the importance of Carl Schmitt’s insight:  we must separate political from moral categories.  The enemy is not necessarily evil; don’t demonize him, but recognize that he is a threat. Regard him emotionally the way you would natural disasters.

In fact, morality is often very difficult to determine.  Contrary to the comic book picture of the world you get from the media, when groups fight, there are usually legitimate claims and grievances on both sides.  Recognizing who wants to damage your group, on the other hand, is almost always straightforward.  And it is usually the most important fact.

In the above article, the anti-Catholic Boston Globe is quoted as saying

When Pope Francis slandered victims of sexual abuse, ironically by accusing those very victims of slandering a Chilean bishop who was complicit in that abuse, he confirmed what some critics have said all along, what I have always resisted embracing: Pope Francis is a company man, no better than his predecessors when it comes to siding with the institutional Roman Catholic Church against any who would criticize it or those, even children, who have been victimized by it.

Properly so, because the institutional Roman Catholic Church is the body of Christ, the arc of salvation, our tribe.  Its survival takes priority over any other consideration.

By saying he needs to see proof that Bishop Juan Barros was complicit in covering up the abuse perpetrated by the Rev. Fernando Karadima, Francis has shown himself to be the Vatican’s newest Doubting Thomas. And it’s not a good look.

He wants evidence?  Shocking!  There’s a moral panic to go along with here.  The same people who insist the Church pay out million dollar settlements demand we always operate under the assumption that no one would ever have an incentive to make a false accusation.  Accusers must be believed, with no questions asked!  That’s seriously their position, to be applied only against their enemies, of course.

What infuriates me the most is the hypocrisy of it all.  Laws properly put caps on public school sexual abuse payments, because a community simply cannot allow its ability to educate its children to be held hostage to its least scrupulous teacher and to legal fortune.  Some of us think the Church also has a crucial job to perform.  The journalists say they want us stripped of our communal assets and our reputations destroyed because they care so much more about our children than we do; the world wants to protect our children from the Church.  As if the world were so much safer, so much more scrupulous!  Some of us think we need the Church in a functional state to help protect our children from the world, which knows how to destroy both body and soul.

I defy the moral arc of history. The Catholic tribalist and the will to live

One may certainly raise doubts about Locke’s theory that personal identity through time rests on memory, but it surely touches on something true.  Certainly our sense of continuity through time comes through memory.  If someone wanted to replace my memories with those of another person, I would resist it as a kind of death.  When it comes to collective identities, though, Locke’s position is indisputable.  That two generations have the same collective identity means that there is a group memory or perspective that has been handed down from one to the other.  To set aside one such collective mind and embrace another is the death of a people.

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A response to a laxist

Fr. Z. brings this to our attention:

The diocese in Albano, Italy is setting up a shelter for separated or divorced fathers who, having to pay monthly livelihood to wife and children, do not have a house to sleep in. This is Francis’ Church of mercy that Catholic rigorists don’t like.

— Massimo Faggioli (@MassimoFaggioli) January 12, 2018

Given that these men are living arguments for the evil of divorce, and the evil of a legal regime that encourages women to eject their children’s fathers for frivolous reasons. a reply from rigorists is not difficult to formulate.

If we had our way, these men would be living in their homes, their children would have fathers, and the law would not encourage female rebelliousness.

Next subject.

A new batch of deplorables

Quite a crop linked from Arts and Letters Daily just this morning.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline:

Alongside Marcel Proust, Céline is considered one of the greatest French novelists and stylists of the twentieth century, notably for his 1932 masterpiece, Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night). He is also recognized as a vile anti-Semite, xenophobe, misogynist, misanthropist, and early pro-Nazi who nourished the general defeatist spirit before and during the war and who, through his writings and articles, infused into French society a deeply insidious anti-Semitism.

Ezra Pound:

Perhaps no other poet in the 20th century presents more forcefully than does Ezra Pound the need to separate the life from the work — and the impossibility of doing so. Pound’s visionary role in leading poetry in English into the modern, after the etiolations of the late 19th century, seems incontestable. So do his generosity and loyalty as a critic and friend (to Eliot, Joyce and others), his tirelessness as a teacher, his unorthodox brilliance as a translator from multiple languages and above all, his supreme ambition for poetry, expressed in his long poem the “Cantos,” and in its animating conviction that poetry not only could but should guide the practical motions of society itself.

On the other hand, Pound was a sort of Antaeus. As long as his feet were on the ground that fed him with images and experiences, he was a giant. In the air, as a seer, a social theorist and a philosopher, he was notoriously vulnerable. He worshiped strong leaders; he indulged in a virulent anti-Semitism; and only slyly, belatedly, offhandedly did he take responsibility for mistaken actions and for detestable opinions that he expressed in writing. His life resists posterity’s best efforts to make it resemble a morality play. His arrogance, his ambition and his hopes for his country led him to record more than 100 radio broadcasts critical of the American government while he was in Mussolini’s Italy between 1941 and 1943.

Also, yesterday they linked to Peter Hitchens’ First Things article on the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, in which we are reminded that D. H. Lawrence had his characters express some pretty unfriendly attitudes toward Jews and lesbians.  Hitchens raises the wonderfully ironic possibility that future editions of the notorious book will probably be subjected to the new censorship.

So, what are we up to now?  Deplorables gave us the Enlightenment.  Given Frege and Heidegger, one could argue that both strands of modern philosophy, analytic and continental, trace to deplorables.  Then it turns out they gave us the theory of evolution.  Now literature too seems to owe reaction quite a debt.  When these guys are done digging, it may turn out that modernity owes more to those it labels villains than those it credits as heroes.


I’ve just noticed that the other article linked yesterday on Arts and Letters Daily was also about deplorables in the arts.  It’s getting hard to keep up.  Here’s one bit.  George Orwell called Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden “fashionable pansies”, clearly showing insufficient reverence for what Jesuits refer to as the “differently oriented”.

The Enlightenment hands itself to us

The progressive urge to purge is the gift that keeps on giving.  They don’t need those dead white men anymore.  They’ve found a 17th century Ethiopian living in a cave who wrote down the “all humans are equal” twaddle first.

Far away, grappling with similar questions, was Yacob’s French contemporary Descartes (1596-1650). A major philosophical difference is that the Catholic Descartes explicitly denounced ‘infidels’ and atheists, whom he called ‘more arrogant than learned’ in his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). This perspective is echoed in Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), which concludes that atheists ‘are not at all to be tolerated’. Descartes’s Meditations was dedicated to ‘the dean and doctors of the sacred Faculty of Theology in Paris’, and his premise was ‘to accept by means of faith the fact that the human soul does not perish with the body, and that God exists’.

In contrast to Yacob’s views, Kant wrote a century later in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764): ‘A woman is embarrassed little that she does not possess certain high insights.’ And in Kant’s lectures on ethics (1760-94) we read that: ‘The desire of a man for a woman is not directed to her as a human being, on the contrary, the woman’s humanity is of no concern to him; and the only object of his desire is her sex.’

The words ‘all men are equal’ were written decades before Locke (1632-1704), the ‘Father of Liberalism’, put pen to paper (indeed, he was born the same year that Yacob returned from his cave). But Locke’s social-contract theory did not apply to all in practice: he was secretary during the drafting of The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina (1669), which gave white men ‘absolute power’ over their African slaves. And he invested heavily in the English Trans-Atlantic slave trade through the Royal African Company. In the Second Treatise (1689), Locke argues that God gave the world ‘to the use of the industrious and rational’ – which the philosopher Julie K Ward at Loyola University in Chicago argues can be read as a colonial attack on the right to land of American Indians. Compared with his philosophical peers, then, Yacob’s philosophy often reads like the epitome of all the ideals we commonly think of as enlightened.

In his Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects (1753-4), Hume wrote: ‘I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites.’ He added: ‘There never was a civilised nation of any other complexion than white, nor any individual eminent either in action or speculation.’ Kant (1724-1804) built on Hume (1711-76), and stressed that the fundamental difference between blacks and whites ‘appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in colour’, before concluding in Physical Geography: ‘Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites.’

In France, the most famous Enlightenment thinker, Voltaire (1694-1778), not only described Jews in anti-Semitic terms, as when he wrote that ‘they are all of them born with raging fanaticism in their hearts’; in his Essay on Universal History (1756), he also wrote that if Africans’ ‘intelligence is not of another species than ours, then it is greatly inferior’ (fort inférieure). Like Locke, he invested his money in the slave trade.

I’ve been waiting for somebody to notice how conservative Hume was, even by my standards.  They can keep Voltaire; we don’t want him.  As for Locke, while we conservatives argue against his social contract theory often, there’s no doubt that he was a great philosopher whose work has lasting value.  Ditto Descartes and Kant, even more obviously.

So, welcome to the ranks of the deplorables Rene Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant.