On universalism

David Bentley Hart needs a serious smackdown.  Not for heresy, but for endorsing anti-Christian stereotypes (“Christians just believe in hell because they’re mean and hate people.”)  Theological arguments are one thing, but you don’t ever give aid to the enemy.  Especially when this particular ad hominem is so stupid.

The priest at my parish once was boasting about the young generation of Catholics–they’re pro-life and passionate about social justice and they don’t care about the afterlife!  Supposedly these youngsters are indifferent to the matter of their own eternal beatitude or damnation because they’re just so unselfish.  I’ll believe it when I see them being comparably indifferent to their own material comfort in this life.  Modern Catholics are indifferent to the afterlife because they don’t believe in it.

Which is actually a much more defensible position than universalism.  One could at least argue that all Jesus’ and Paul’s talk about heaven and hell was meant to be a metaphor for something else, but what exegetical principle could possibly justify accepting verses about heaven as literal and discarding verses about the other possibility?

One should not be able to get away with declaring bits of the Bible to be figurative without some indication of what is actually being talked about.  In case of the Last Things, the main message is Judgment.  Nearly always, when the New Testament talks about heaven and hell, it’s really talking about judgment.  In this life, we are all trapped in ambiguity; everyone is a mix of good and evil.  But such is the simplicity of God that final allegiance to Him must be all or nothing.  So our lives receive a final resolution, unjustifiable from the immanent perspective of our life history, imposed through Him.  If this is the literal message, then one could drop belief in a literal afterlife while retaining it, but believing in heaven while rejecting hell undercuts this only plausible figurative reading.  Universalism undermines Final Judgment, which is what Jesus is most adamant about.

Dropping the afterlife altogether solves the “how can it be fair to punish somebody forever?” problem and the “what kind of existence can it be if you can no longer change your mind?” problem.  Universalism solves the first (since eternal undeserved reward bothers us less); it solves the second only if you accept the Thomist argument that someone enjoying the beatific vision could never freely choose to sin.  Both of these are vulnerable to the “if that’s what Jesus meant, how is it nobody ever understood Him that way before?” objection.  My idea that the damned are punished for a finite time and then live a pleasant but non-beatific eternity in limbo also has more going for it than universalism, since our lives then have at least some eternal consequence.

Speculation about the afterlife is unhelpful.  The main message that must not be lost is Someday you will be judged.  That, and Don’t aid the enemy.

God loving the Jews best and the more general scandal

It is hard to understand how the God of classical theism can become part of His world.  Suppose God wishes to appear to me in a flash of light.  He could certainly create a bright object in front of me, or just the light, or just stimulate my optical nerve.  But when one considers that God continuously creates me and my actions, it becomes hard to say that He is more present in the flash of light than he is in me observing it or in any other object in the universe.  As the first cause of everything, even intelligent beings, it is hard to understand how God can relate to us like another finite being would.  In particular, he is always the active, never the passive (reactive) partner.  In the Thomist-Calvinist system, He can no more be disappointed or upset by one of us than Shakespeare could be angry at Lady Macbeth.  His love is understood not as a reaction to His creatures but as their cause.  The Thomist-Calvinist system is coherent, even beautiful, except for all the convolutions of trying to reconcile it to an incoherent concept of “free will”.

And yet the Christian religion is about God somehow becoming a part of the world, being able to act and react to it as one being among many.  This is, of course, the point of the Incarnation–the Son becomes a man.  However, even in the Old Testament, the leap has somehow already happened, in that God’s love for the Jews is presented as altogether passionate.  One can reinterpret God the jealous and forlorn lover of the Jews in accord with the doctrine of divine impassivity, but is such violence to the text necessary?  We seem to be presented with another instance of “God coming into the world”.  If so, presumably it is grounded in some mysterious way on the pre-eminent “coming into the world”, the Incarnation.  Perhaps by transitive application of Trinitarian relations to the Son’s human nature, so that the Father thereby “enters the world” as the tribal deity of Jesus’ kin, but that’s wild speculation.  If we want a nice symmetry (and who doesn’t?), perhaps the mystery of created grace is that of the Holy Spirit “entering the world”, particularized to a single soul, also somehow made possible by the Incarnation.

I am starting to understand Christian Zionism and philosemitism.  Last week, my daughter Sabrina needed some dental work.  It turned out not to be a big deal, but I was inordinately nervous, and with that and my last post in mind, it occurred to me that God loves the Jews the way I love my girls (and not only in the impassive way that He loves the rest of us), so as a favor to Him, I should abstain from criticizing and, whenever possible, from impeding His beloved people.  This seems to have occurred to most Christians already, aside from those who do it only out of fear of the Jews.

Jesus and the Canaanite woman

Last Sunday’s gospel is not a popular one, but one could argue that it’s the key to the whole Bible.  That key is

God loves the Jews best.

People tend to respond emotionally to this and think it means that if they are not Jews then God doesn’t love them.  No, it means that if you’re not a Jew, God doesn’t love you as much, but He still does love you, just as a man can love his dog, just not as much as his children.  Remember, in Dante’s telling, even the inhabitants of the humblest level of Heaven are satisfied with their place.

This key to the Bible shouldn’t be so surprising.  Most of the Bible is the Old Testament, which is not exactly shy about our God being the tribal God of the Hebrews.  Thus, chunks of the Old Testament seem boring or meaningless to most Christian readers.  Some Christians probably feel guilty about this and are loathe to admit to themselves that they find the Old Testament much less enjoyable than, say, The Odyssey.  For others, it is a scandal that must be overcome by theologians teasing out deep spiritual truths from every grisly episode of Israelite military history.  The Bible being God’s book, such truths are not infrequently to be had, so these theologians have done worthwhile work.  However, perhaps the guilt and the scandal can be eased if we acknowledge that most of the Bible is not written primarily for us.  Imagine sitting at a friend’s house listening to your friend converse with his family as they share family anecdotes.  Perhaps you would find some of them interesting or charming, but you would not expect to be interested in another family’s stories the way that they are.  With the Old Testament, the case is more analogous to reading love letters written to someone else.

Paul in the second reading is also clear that the salvation of his “race” is part of God’s ultimate plan.  It may even be the most important part (like “life from the dead”!), but Paul seems to think the salvation of the Gentiles is valuable in itself, not only as a way of making the Chosen People jealous.

God’s favoritism toward the Jews is manifest, even apart from the Bible, from their spiritual ascendency over Christians.  Christians accept the condemnation of their civilization, their “legacy of shame”, because they recognize from their inmost hearts the superior authority of Jewish prophetic revolutionary moral critique.  Unlike the case of Catholics, no one has to worry about whether there will still be Jews in a hundred years.

The danger of trading tribal deities for monotheism is that, even if it turns out that the one true God’s plan does center on a special people, that special people is unlikely to happen to be yours.  In fact, the universe being a very big place, perhaps we should feel lucky that God chose to concern Himself particularly with any group of homo sapiens.

A question of expertise

Contemporary society is unofficially organized by two principles.

  1. Authority, competence, and trustworthiness is established solely through the possession of credentials testifying to a relevant education and training.
  2. Ultimate authority over the entire social order belongs to the media, which adjudicates social status of both individuals and groups and tells people what their opinions on all matters of the day should be.

These two principles are not obviously in harmony.  What training do opinion journalists have to justify their vast power?  What credentialing process qualifies one to be a philosopher king?

The question will probably strike readers, as it would have struck Plato, as grotesque.  Surely the qualification to be a philosopher king, or more generally to have one’s opinions on all subjects taken seriously, is wisdom, something more likely to come from hard experience than from any university degree.  That’s not the point though.  The point is, if you were on board with the program of the modern world, you would respect only credentialed expertise.  You would also read the New York Times religiously and believe whatever you read there.  However, it is quite doubtful that the writers at the Times can boast any expertise that would justify such credulity.

We could easily look up the degrees and academic publication history of the writers at the major journals.  Some would be impressive, although I expect most wouldn’t be.  However, as soon as one poses the question, one realizes that no list of degrees would justify the obeisance these journals receive.

The Times and other big newspapers could claim expertise as journalists.  It’s what some of their employees were trained in, and they have interviewed their subjects and thus have the “expertise of direct witness” to report what they’ve seen and heard.  If they were humble newsmen just reporting what they’ve seen and heard, this would be enough.  But they also endorse political movements and candidates, propose an authoritative interpretation of American history, declare scientific hypotheses off limits, and in many other ways behaves as if possessed of a universal competence of judgment.

Amusingly, one of the things they do with this universal competence is ridicule people who defy expert opinion.  Only experts are qualified to have opinions according to the most influential people, who have no relevant expertise on most of the subjects they write on.

Suggestion: Deplorable Day

When I was growing up, I thought racists were just a bunch of low-class skinheaded morons, but now, thanks to cancel culture and the woke media, I’ve come to realize that racist sexist homophobes have made enormous contributions to the world we live in today.  So many great inventors, artists, scientists, writers, and composers, not to mention so many among the working class whose daily humble labor makes our lives possible!  According to the media, our civilization was built mostly by racists, so we certainly owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.

I think deplorables deserve their own holiday.  Today happens to be the day after the feast of the Assumption, which perhaps better than any other day reminds us that there is no longer any human without sin sensibly resident on Earth.  It is an implicit rebuke to the pretensions of the Pure Ones and so an appropriate day to honor the ones they have sought to erase.

the deplorable Ronald Fisher

Cambridge is posthumously canceling the great statistician.  Nothing notable about that.  Let me draw your attention to a few points in the linked article.

Other academic institutions are engaged in similar discussions. University College London has re-labelled buildings named after two other, perhaps even more prominent eugenicists of the late 19th and early 20th century, Francis Galton and Karl Pearson. The point is not to denigrate their achievements in areas where recognition is due – Pearson established a range of statistical methods that, like Fisher’s, are still in use today.

Weird.  It’s as if none of the founders of the science of statistics believed in racial egalitarianism.

The author continues

The point is, any memorial to racists and eugenicists “creates an unwelcoming environment for many in our community”, as Michael Arthur, provost of UCL, has rightly said. The right way to understand them and their ideas is through a properly contextualised display in a museum, not through an uncommented memorial that conceals more than it reveals.

Memorials in the end are less about the past than about the present and the future. The questions institutions need to ask of themselves are, what contribution do the memorials they display make to building a future that is democratic and inclusive and encourages all their members to respect one another’s identity? And what should they do with those that don’t?

Note the dishonesty.  The goal here, of course, is to make a less inclusive academic community, one where everyone knows that dissent will not be tolerated.

Also, journalists used to write slanted articles without explicitly tipping their hands, as the author does with “rightly”.  Who is going to be convinced by that word of endorsement who wasn’t already?  It’s so much more effective to control who gets the first and last word in, or even to fall back on “some say”.  The earlier part of the article is biased against Fisher, but only in the end does it start dictating to readers what our beliefs should be.  I think the goal now is less to convince readers than to protect writers.  In any opinion or news piece, there must be no question where the writer stands.  Otherwise, he opens himself to attack.  This is presumably why I keep finding articles, some of which are otherwise quite interesting and well-written, with bizarre out-of-place insults of Donald Trump thrown in.  Years ago, I was reading a book review of Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”, and the reviewer made the shocking claim that it was Nagel’s own fault other philosophers had snubbed his book, because at one point he mentioned intelligent design without endorsing it but without attacking it either.  Neutral description is no longer allowed, even in philosophical circles.  Look how they went after Scott Alexander for writing a refutation of neo-reaction because he tried to first provide a fair description of it.

The proper use of cruelty

Coming now to the other qualities mentioned above, I say that every prince ought to desire to be considered clement and not cruel. Nevertheless he ought to take care not to misuse this clemency. Cesare Borgia was considered cruel; notwithstanding, his cruelty reconciled the Romagna, unified it, and restored it to peace and loyalty. And if this be rightly considered, he will be seen to have been much more merciful than the Florentine people, who, to avoid a reputation for cruelty, permitted Pistoia to be destroyed. Therefore a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies; for these are wont to injure the whole people, whilst those executions which originate with a prince offend the individual only.

How much happier France would be if Louis XVI had been more ruthless in securing his rule!  I am astounded that today even the top military leadership think it illegitimate to suppress open and violent insurrection.  The first duty of authority is to defend and perpetuate itself.  Burning, looting, blocking traffic, destruction of public monuments, attacking police are not peaceful acts, but deadly provocations, or at least they would be, if their perpetrators were not agents of the true power.

Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

Best of all is moral terror, which the media inspires.  Not only can they destroy you; they can make every soul on Earth hate you; they can even make you hate yourself.  What can one do in the face of such power, but to bow to it in abject love and worship?  Still, if one were to try to separate the fear and love which are combined in practice, the rule of the New York Times rests more securely in its power to summon the mob than in any confidence that it has its subject’s best interests at heart.  (In fact, it doesn’t even pretend such benevolence!)

Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women. But when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.

Historical grievances persist precisely as long as it is profitable for them to.  One might hope that a patrimony lost could someday by a change of government be regained.  If the loss of a father were translated into an actionable monetary claim, these wretches might rediscover their piety.

Cross-post: The idea of a University

The Idea of a University in Nine Discourses
by John Henry Newman (1858)
available online

At a time when the proper mission of a university has been obscured by commercial and ideological interests, we can with profit consult the classic lectures on this topic delivered by Cardinal Newman to commemorate the establishment of a Catholic university in Dublin.

It is unfortunate, as Newman points out, that English lacks a convenient word for what he means as the distinctive excellence of the intellect, the equivalent of what “health” is for the body, because this is what a university education is meant to cultivate.  Intellectual cultivation might aid professional success and moral refinement, but it is a separate good worthy of pursuit in itself.  Newman refers most often to two particular facets of the properly formed mind.  First there is what one might call a philosophical enlargement, an appreciation for the validity and proper limits of each discipline.  Second, there is what he sometimes calls discipline of the mind, the habit of precision and systemization.

Continue reading

Learning to live with the new normal

My original understanding that the goal of lockdowns was not to avert virus-caused deaths, but to postpone them, to spread them out over time.  Now it seems life shall not return to normal until scientists have learned to cure or immunize.  The assumption that this can be done quickly strikes me as optimistic, and we must prepare for the possibility that the media and government will make social distancing essentially permanent.  There will probably always be enough danger of illness from a mutated coronavirus or some other disease to allow journalists to scream that anyone who wants churches open is a murderer.

We must be absolutely clear that social distancing is an evil.  Call it a necessary evil if you must, but it is social connection that is good.  Visiting family and friends in person is good.  Crowded churches are good.  Children playing together in parks is good.  The Western custom of showing one’s face in public (which conservatives used to argue showed the incompatibility of Islam with our way of life before we outdid them in head-covering) was good.  Google hangouts and Zoom are better than nothing, but they are not as good.

If I were a bishop, I would begin preparing a contingency plan for the possibility that meetings of more than 10 worshippers will never again be allowed.  (Even if the number is 20 or 30, some planning of the sort below will be necessary.)  If they are someday, great.  One should still plan for the worst.  It will surely not be time wasted.  We’re going to lose our churches eventually anyway, either from being taxed as punishment for not approving homosexuality or by legal persecution tactics whereby Catholics lose due process protections in sexual abuse accusations.  We will soon be unable to afford buildings that can house more than a dozen souls at a time anyway.  Our leaders display an indolence that should not be confused with principled conservatism and would probably not have carried through any serious preparation until our churches were taken from us.  In this sense, COVID-19 has given us a wonderful opportunity to restructure without hostile media attention and with with a bit more leisure.

Let us say a parish’s priest offers Mass a few times on weekday evenings (each lasting maybe half an hour) and perhaps a couple of times more than that on weekends, for about a hundred Masses a month serving a thousand parishioners.  Everyone could go once per month.  Families would have to be organized into groups of about three families.  Each group would attend Mass  together with the priest that one evening or weekend per month and would be encouraged to meet without the priest for prayer one other time (perhaps outside, if social distancing laws demand it).  Each family would have to submit its available times, and there would be a greater sense of commitment than before having officially agreed to a Mass time and with attending such small groups that their absence would be noticed.

Devising the schedule will be work, but it’s manageable.  Turning priests into Mass-saying machines while still leaving a bit of time for the other sacraments would be an awful burden on them; we could no longer expect them to do much of anything else.

Praying from home as a substitute for Mass cannot go on for 18 months, or however long it is they think a vaccine will take.  It feels silly.  We’ll all be atheists by the end of that time.

Also, if I were a bishop I’d still make all my priests wear body cameras, even now that they have been cut off from all human connections.

All of this would be to make the best of a terrible, terrible situation, but that’s what you’ve got to work with when you’re a Catholic.

Nonlocality: pick your poison

Quantum Non-Locality and Relativity: Metaphysical Intimations of Modern Physics (3rd edition)
by Tim Maudlin

I’ve lost most of my time to read.  This is the first one I’ve finished in a long time.

I first heard of Bell’s inequalities in undergraduate quantum mechanics, and I came away with the standard lesson that Bell had proved that, given the statistical predictions of quantum mechanics (since empirically confirmed), one must either accept that the laws of nature are nonlocal or that they are nondeterministic.  Like many, I was taxed enough in that class with formalism and calculations that I lacked the appetite for philosophical reflection.

In this excellent book, Maudlin quickly establishes that the idea of a “choice” between believing nature is nondeterministic and believing it allows nonlocal influences is completely wrong.  Violation of Bell’s inequalities proves nonlocality; determinism vs. nondeterminism is irrelevant.  The first chapter gives the clearest explanation I have ever read of Bell’s inequalities and consequences for nonlocal influences.  Only Reichenbach is as good a case as Maudlin for showing that physicists and physics students should read philosophers to understand their own field.

Maudlin’s conclusion is, as the title of this post indicates, that physicists are forced with a choice of what to believe about the nature of the world–although not the one we’ve sometimes thought we were faced with–and all of the choices are unappealing, in the sense that there are good reasons to resist any of them.  One can break relativity by accepting a special foliation of spacetime, a standard of simultaneity in which wavefunctions collapse, although this special slicing of spacetime seems to have left no imprint on anything measurable.  One can posit backward causation, signals moving back in time along light rays, as in the transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics.  (Maudlin, though, does not think such theories are viable.)  One can accept some version of the many-worlds interpretation, with all the violence it does to common sense.  One can formulate quantum mechanics in an explicitly foliation-dependent way, so that counterintuitively even facts that we think of as entirely local (such as the polarization of a photon at a particular event) will depend on how the describer chooses to mentally cut up spacetime.  Or one can accept an ontology in which microscopic objects usually have no local existence at all.  Perhaps being deliberately provocative, Maudlin questions whether physicists’ reluctance to tamper with relativity is well-motivated when faced with such a choice.

Rationally or not, I do share this reluctance to posit special foliations.  I see it as a case of preferring to let the more clear illuminate the more obscure.  Relativity is easy to understand, and the lack of time relations for spacelike separated events, or at least the absence of a need for such a thing, is at the level of a genuine philosophical insight.  The interpretation of quantum mechanics, on the other hand, is notoriously unclear.  Although Maudlin doesn’t mention it, physicists seem to be moving toward interpretations (e.g. consistent histories) that would be comfortable with foliation dependence of local quantities.  One can take that as a mark in its favor, or further confirmation of the perversity of physicists, that we’re more willing to tamper with logic than with Lorentz invariance.

If you get this book, make sure to get the 3rd edition, which has an extra chapter reporting new research on objective collapse theories that affects the debate significantly (but doesn’t resolve it).