If only someone were negotiating on whites’ behalf

If we were allowed to speak on our own behalf, we would prefer to have non-white quotas than diversity thought policing at work (including “diversity statements” from applicants and humiliating diversity training of employees). We’d rather the salaries of the diversity and inclusion commissars who torment us went to hiring non-white regular employees instead.

We would rather just have a law removing all statues of whites and names of whites on public buildings than have a racial reckoning. That lady who objected to the Father Damian statue because he was white was being nice. At least she didn’t feel the need to destroy his reputation first, like they have done to the other canceled Catholic saints. I honestly think a law of this sort would reduce racial tensions. If we must lose the public honor of our heroes, at least spare us the lectures on how they are symbols of “hate”.

Similarly, we’d rather have a law against giving any awards to whites than force private organizations to undergo yearly racial reckonings and vilification of their white members. We would enjoy everyone knowing that the awards had thereafter become jokes but no one being allowed to say so.

Schopenhauer on death

Arthur Schopenhauer is much given to refutation by insult, a practice that irritates me. Thus, he says many times that only fools could believe in the existence of the soul after death without also believing in its existence before birth, but we are never given an argument why the idea is incoherent, just that some arguments for post-existence are unavailable to one who won’t embrace pre-existence (i.e. that the soul is atemporal, which no one who believes in an afterlife believes anyway). Personality tics like that make me warm to Schopenhauer less than I do to Montaigne. Let me now try to set that aside.

According to Kant, all we know about things are how they fit into categories that we already have in our minds. (You can’t get an answer to a question that you can’t think to ask.) There may be more to objects than this, but we’d never know it; thus the claim that the thing “in itself” is unknowable. Schopenhauer, like Descartes before and C. S. Lewis after, claimed we have unique access to one object, ourselves, toward whom our relationship is not just that of a subject knowing an object, and from this he thought he had caught a glimpse of the thing-in-itself: will. Now, the thing-in-itself is, by definition, outside our ordinary categories of thought–space and time (and hence, he infers, individuation), substance and causality. Thus, temporal properties do not apply to our innermost essence, which is the thing-in-itself, which is will, but belong only to our “representation” (the world as ordered by our mental categories). So this essence doesn’t cease to exist at death. Now, if we are to deny temporal categories, neither should we say that it persists after death, but having made this point Schopenhauer soon puts it aside in his enthusiasm for what he takes to be the wisdom of the ages (all peoples who weren’t screwed up by those dumb Abrahamic religions): the transmigration of souls. As he pithily puts it, men fear that death means themselves terminating while the world continues, but in fact it’s the opposite: our innermost essence (unindividualized will) is beyond termination, while the world (our representation of it) ends.

This German idealist reasoning is remarkable. I’d like to try it. I have a red rubber ball. “Red” is an a priori category I have imposed on the ball–just an arbitrary range of EM radiation when my ball has so many other properties that are not captured by this designator. Because there is more to the ball than its color, let us speak of the ball in its other aspects, abstracting from color. Call this “the-ball-apart-from-its-color”. Now, by definition, the-ball-apart-from-its-color does not include color descriptions. One might say that the the-ball-apart-from-its-color is not red. It is not any color. The-ball-apart-from-its-color is invisible! Warming up to my though of the-ball-apart-from-its-color not being red, I shall even see wisdom in calling it that quality which is the opposite of red, namely blue.

The lesson of this rather silly example is clear. If your post-mortem hope is in your noumenal self being atemporal, you’d better find something else to help you sleep at night. That you-apart-from-temporality can’t be said to cease to exist (because of arbitrary restrictions on what aspects of you we’re talking about) doesn’t mean that you won’t cease to exist.

I’m a fan of philosophical writings about death, but they usually strike me as dishonest. The problem is framed that each of us knows that he is going to die someday, and we must find some reason why we shouldn’t be freaking out about this. But that is starting with a desired conclusion and reasoning backwards, an invitation to sophistry. We should start our investigation open to the possibility that maybe it is rational to be inconsolably horrified by the prospect of our own mortality. Of course, practically speaking, such horror would not help anything and would make us miserable, so we would like to avoid it. But that’s not a rational justification.

Speaking even more practically, regardless of whether or not the knowledge of our own mortality should fill us with crippling terror, mankind never seems to have had this problem and doesn’t seem to have it today. Here I think Schopenhauer is right, and it’s a point I’ve made myself–Christianity has made men less able to accept death than they were without it. And this is a good thing, because the heathen acceptance of death is founded on forgetting the distinctiveness of each person and is therefore metaphysically deficient and morally suspect.

A corollary to “things coming to a point”

If things are coming to a point–less ambiguity, with fewer and fewer aspects of life or culture free from a stark choice between Christianity and atheism, then things were less pointy in the past, and we can afford to be more generous toward ambiguous figures in the past than we can be toward prevaricators in the present.

As an example from the last post, I am less hostile toward Renaissance humanism than most traditionalists are. Yes, one can find elements in it that contributed to the West’s later embrace of evil, and these elements do indicate defects in the humanist program, but that doesn’t mean that these defects are the essence of the program, or that humanists like Petrarch were less than sincere in their belief that they were doing the Church a favor.

As another example, growing up in an ultramontanist Church, it was once natural for me to see advocates of imperial or royal power in ecclesial organization as enemies of the Church, antecedents of a later age’s anticlerical totalitarian revolutionaries, while advocates for the autonomy of national Churches against the Papacy remind us in retrospect of post-Vatican II liberal, heresy-infested local Churches. And it is true that support of the temporal power did evolve into the atheist subjugation of the Church, and resentment of papal authority brought much ruin to the Church during Vatican II and afterward. But when judging past figures, we must remember how differently things not only seemed but were when the temporal power in question was a Christian kingdom, and the national Church in question was robustly illiberal. Plenty of Gallicans and Josephists were sincere Catholics. In the light of Vatican I, we can definitely say that their positions were defective, but during their time it was still possible to have such defects without having a fundamentally anti-Christian orientation. Today, those who support secular states or local synods against the universal Church are open in their hatred of the historic Faith. Things have come to a point.

Postscript on Renaissance Philosophy

Over Christmas break I read most of The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosophy to see if my inferences from Cassirer’s book held up to subsequent scholarship. In fact, the claim that Renaissance humanism and the resurgence of Platonism were primarily reactions against Averroism’s supposed threat to the Faith seems to be so well supported that it would probably not even be considered remarkable to Renaissance historians. I’ll next want to see what support (or disconfirmation) I can find for my guess about the role of revived Platonism in the scientific revolution. One interesting thing I learned in my book was that the resurgence of skepticism, which we have seen being the Catholic apologetic weapon of choice in counter-reformation France, also seems to have had its origins in these same worries about the danger to belief in personal immortality from an unreliable unaided reason (a position ironically similar to that of their Averroist opponents). Nevertheless, the argument that we should prefer revelation to fallible private reasoning works better against Averroists than against Calvinists, i.e. when the content of revelation is not itself in dispute.


There is much, much less intellectual diversity now than there was one hundred years ago. It is impossible to imagine someone like Oswald Spengler arising in the intellectual world of today, much less his becoming a cultural sensation. The Overton window has not merely shifted Left but drastically narrowed. Even Leftists were much more interesting and diverse one hundred years ago–one cannot imagine a character like Georges Sorel in today’s world either. One hundred years ago, the ideological landscape was a dizzying array of communists, Fabian socialists, anarcho-syndicalists, guild socialists, laissez faire classical liberals, nationalist liberals, distributists, agrarians, and Carlists. And when I say that these groups existed, I mean not as a couple of isolated dissidents unable to propagate their doctrines, the way dissidents exist today, but rather that they had significant followings and were able to participate in the great debate about how society should be organized. The metaphysical debate, too, was much more open, as it was an age of positivist, but also of spiritualism, Bergsonianism, and the neo-scholastic revival. Today, we have a consensus with enthusiastic support from nearly all writers, and the few whose support is less that enthusiastic know that it is professional suicide to openly question it.

Continue reading

Rousseau vs. the cosmopolitans

From The Imaginative Conservative. Rousseau may be another enemy thinker whom I haven’t given enough credit.

Rousseau refers to the commercial man as a “bourgeois” whose existence hinges upon the thin and shallow ethic of “politeness.” [13] Politeness epitomizes both falseness and hypocrisy. Polite citizens, Rousseau quips, possess the “appearance of all the virtues without having a single one.”[14] The polite, bourgeois individual desires to get ahead, so he pretends to care about the needs of others, even if he harbors contempt for them in his heart.

Commercial individuals only live together in society incidentally and share no common attachment to their Fatherland. Indeed, Enlightened commercialists possess more loyalty to their specialized profession than to their country. “We have Physicists, Geometricians, Chemists, Astronomers, Poets, Musicians, Painters,” Rousseau complains, but “we no longer have citizens.”[20] In the absence of a fatherland, these pseudo-citizens turn their gaze to all of humanity. Rousseau posits that this attention to “humanity” is a thinly veiled effort on the part of individualists to dispense with any meaningful civic duties that may threaten their private pursuits. “Distrust the cosmopolitans,” he admonishes, “who go to great lengths in their books to discover duties they do not deign to fulfill around them. A philosopher loves the Tartars so as to be spared having to love his own neighbors.”[21] A principal issue with the Enlightenment, Rousseau proclaims, is its institutionalization of this very cosmopolitanism: “National hatreds will die out, but so will the love of the Fatherland.”[22] A healthy political society would recognize the unique habits, customs, morals, and beliefs that make its regime distinctive. Cosmopolitanism, in contrast, makes “for a mixture of all peoples that must inevitably have destroyed the morals and customs of each of them.”[23]

Time, free will, and the first person perspective, Part IV

It’s interesting to consider why Breuer’s and Popper’s arguments fail when applied to God. How is it that God can have complete self-knowledge? The reason is that our usual model of knowledge fails in His case. For finite subject A and object X, we think of A’s knowledge of X as an internal state of A, the presence within A’s mind of a representation of X, this knowledge being a proper part of A and ontologically distinct from X, indeed which may or may not even correspond to the truth about X. However, God is completely simple, so He has no internal states. In this case, we are told not regard God’s self-knowledge as a proper part of His mind (from which one could show that it must be incomplete) but as identical with His being.

It is unacceptably anthropomorphic to think of God as having a perspective on the world. This would make Him part of the universe, rather than its transcendent principle. God has no internal mental state corresponding to his perspective on the universe; His knowledge of the universe is rather a property of us–one might almost say that it is us. The scholastics used to put it that we have real relation to God but not vice versa. If there is a global, third-person view from nowhere, it has nothing in particular to do with God’s knowledge. It is not one degree closer to His omnipotence than our partial, first-person views.

Here is another way to reject the idea that this global view makes our first-person views to be falsehoods. Just as your perspective and my perspective are just two partial views compared to the global perspective, our perspectives and the global perspective are just three finite creations compared to God’s absolute transcendence.

In the Middle Ages, it was generally believed that a hierarchical universe was most neatly congruent with monotheism. Given the universal human symbolism of heaven and the sky god above, we should always speak of this intuition with respect. But it was challenged, first by Nicholas of Cusa, precisely on grounds of theological appropriateness. Cusa thought a universe without center or privileged perspective and with a number of indeterminate features more fittingly expressed God’s complete transcendence. We have now grown used to the idea of the Earth as just one more celestial body flying through space and can’t appreciate the disorientation such ideas must have caused at the beginning of the Renaissance.

Or perhaps we can. Suppose it should turn out that we must accept the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics after all. Wouldn’t that take Cusa’s program of equalizing perspectives to a whole new level?

That’s not the common good

F. A. Grabowski at Crisis is understandably perturbed by an excerpt from Pope Francis’ book Let Us Dream (yes, he really wrote a book with that title) on the New York Times. I have no stomach to read the source myself. I will respond to quotations on the Crisis article which may not completely capture Pope Francis’ thought but which give me a chance to note some widespread deficiencies of public discourse.

“Looking to the common good is much more than the sum of what is good for individuals. It means having a regard for all citizens and seeking to respond effectively to the needs of the least fortunate.”

The first sentence is a true and important point, but it is completely undermined by the second. The needs of the least fortunate are still individual goods. Unfortunately, this seems to be what people usually mean by “common good”, which means that the idea of a distinctively common good has been lost. The common good in pre-conciliar Catholic social thought meant primarily the irreducibly common good, that which can only properly be said of the community and belongs to its members only by their participation therein. Things like being a high-trust society, the fact that everyone in the neighborhood knows one another, a long established Christmas tradition that the whole town cherishes, and things of that sort. I suppose a certain distribution of resources could count as a properly common good (not what the poor have, but the quality of the community that ensures it), but this is a severe materialistic impoverishment of the original idea which included material but especially spiritual goods. (Spiritual goods are particularly apt to be common.)

In contrast to healthcare workers and other “antibodies to the virus of indifference” are those who have protested the lockdowns, refused to distance, and marched against travel restrictions.

These protesters, whom Francis regards as “selfish”, are the pandemic’s bad actors.

We have also lost the ability to speak of competing goods and trade-offs. It would be one thing to say that personal livelihoods, small businesses, personal liberties, community social life, and the corporate worship of God are precious goods, but that in the current emergency they must be sacrificed for an even greater good. This would be to say that protestors are wrong while acknowledging the legitimacy of their concerns, preserving the dialogue and mutual respect that are a large part of the social common good. People don’t argue like that anymore. When a trade-off must be made between two sets of goods, one set is declared “selfish”, meaning it has no legitimacy at all. No compromise is acceptable between legitimate and illegitimate goods; a categorical choice is demanded. This is so even if the same goods are recognized as legitimate in other contexts. For example, Pope Francis thinks that native workers are selfish for wanting freedom to move within their home town in order to keep a job, but he insists that third-worlders are absolutely righteous in moving across countries (illegally if necessary) to get that same job. Francis would never call migrants “selfish”. Nor should he, really, because it is legitimate to pursue one’s self-interest (within the limits of law and morality). In many contexts, we are expected to think of a group of people pursuing their common interests as admirable.

Time, free will, and the first person perspective, Part III

We emphasize again that the conflict is not between science and religion or between competing philosophical schools. All global viewpoints–scientific, religious, philosophical–clash with what I’ve called “the first person perspective”. This can and has been used to argue that the latter is simply false. Indeed, I myself have claimed that certain conceptualizations of personal experience, when carried over as objective statements about the world, are false, or rather meaningless. However, it does not follow that the manifest picture of the world, our lived experience with it, is simply invalid.

The assumption is that our partial viewpoints can be contrasted with some global omniscient viewpoint, and that the latter would then be the ultimate standard of truth. However, there might not be any such global view from nowhere. Or, equivalently, the global perspective might just be the union of all partial perspectives.

An example of how this would work is Carlo Rovelli’s relational interpretation of quantum mechanics, which assigns a distinct state vector/wavefunction to every system relative to every other system.  Such theories would recognize states of systems relative to various other systems, but no perspectiveless “true” state. This is a more radical form of something we have already learned to live with from the theory of relativity.  Even in Galilean kinematics, each observer has his own standard of rest, and it is meaningless to ask which is truly at rest.  Clocks on the ground run slightly slower than clocks in orbit.  Which is right?  Both:  they both correctly measure proper time along their worldlines. One must settle for answers to such questions, because that’s all there is.  Could it be possible that all physical processes–including those in our brains–are slowing down at an equal rate so that we would never notice?  No, because ideal clocks are defined to keep uniform time.  As Aristotle said long ago, time just is the measurement of change, one thing relative to another.

In physics we have learned to live with perspectival relativism without it leading to incoherence or pure subjectivism.  One notices that physics has been quite a bit more successful with this than continental philosophy.  Post-modernism promises to deliver us from the tyranny of metanarratives but immediately imposes its own obnoxiously tyrannical metanarrative.

How did physics avoid the fate of postmodernism? First, abstract truths (mathematics) as well as the contingent laws of physics are taken to be universally valid. Second, partial truths become absolute truths when the necessary indexicals are attached. Other observers may see things differently than observer A, but they all agree on what it is that observer A observes. Third, every observer can explain every other observer’s observations from its own perspective and the same universal laws of physics. Fourth, the framework explaining how different observers/frames/system perspectives relate does not surreptitiously adopt one particular perspective the way postmodernism, contrary to its own principles, adopts the metanarrative of oppression as universal and absolute truth.

On the other hand, perhaps there is a global, all-encompassing “view from nowhere” which presumably would not involve features such as a flow of time or libertarian free will. Would that be a problem? Well, one could presumably reconstruct any and all of the partial views from the global view, while no single partial view could recover the global view. Does that not mean that the global view would be more true?

The situation is analogous to the case of emergence. Macroscopic substances are made of atoms. From the configurations of all the atoms, one could infer the state of the macroscopic object, but since that state is a course grained description, the reverse is not true. Does that mean that atoms are more real than the things they compose? This seems to be a common philosophical belief. However, in this time of anti-metaphysical skepticism, the idea of one existing thing being “more real” or “ontologically prior” to another existing thing should be treated with more suspicion than it usually gets. What does it really mean? An object either “really” exists or it doesn’t. Wholes can’t exist without their parts, but parts can’t exist without forming some sort of whole.

Similarly, we should question whether a perspective that is more complete is therefore more true. If a global perspective exists, it may be true that partial perspectives can only exist given its framework, but it is certainly true that there could be no global perspective without there also being partial perspectives (because each constituent of the universe globally conceived is a particular perspective, cf. Leibniz again). If anything, it is the partial perspectives that here are in the role of atoms. Of course, just as in the case of emergence we compared existing atoms to existing composites, we are here comparing the global viewpoint (if there is such a thing) to valid first-person perspectives. False beliefs held in the first person perspective are not equal in truth to a correct global perspective, or for that matter to a correct partial perspective. I am assuming there is a correct apprehension of the world from my point of view.

But wait a minute. Don’t we know that there is a global perspective? Isn’t that God’s perspective?

To be continued

Time, free will, and the first person perspective, Part II

From a global, third-person perspective, free will and the flow of time make no sense. That goes for any global perspective–scientific, religious, or philosophical. The best that can be said for free will is what Kant said: we must treat ourselves as free agents when we are making decisions. However theoretically incoherent, free will seems to be an unavoidable pose for practical reasoning. “I will do whatever I am causally determined to do” (or “I will make a nondeterministic random choice”) may be true, but doesn’t help when we are in the midst of making a decision.

Laplace asserted that a demon with complete knowledge of the universe at one instant in time could, using the laws of Newtonian mechanics, predict the entire future and infer the entire past.  Karl Popper later realized that this couldn’t possibly work if the demon is itself part of the universe.  Then the demon would have to be able to predict his own future choices.  But suppose he decides to do the opposite of whatever he predicts he will do? We have a paradox. Paradoxes related to self-reference like this were used by Russell to critique “naive” set theory and can be used to prove the undecidability of the Halting problem over Turing machines.

It has been argued by Thomas Breuer that no observer can perform a complete measurement of the state of a system of which it is a part.  For the proof, a self-measuring system consists of a total system with its list of possible states, the measuring apparatus with its list of possible states, and an inference map that associates sets of apparatus states with sets of total system states.  Breuer makes an assumption of “proper inclusion”, i.e. that the apparatus is a proper part rather than the whole, and interprets this to mean that there are distinct system states with the same apparatus state.  Given this, the conclusion is unsurprising.  Notice how the problem is set up.  One could, I suppose, identify the measuring apparatus and the system itself, and then say that the system perfectly “measures” or “knows” itself simply by being itself and in whatever state it’s in. Clearly this is not measurement or knowledge as normally understood, which requires a duality between subject and object and a representation of the latter in the former.

For the impossibility of complete self-knowledge, it doesn’t matter whether the knowing being is deterministic or not. Descartes realized correctly that consciousness involves privileged knowledge of itself. In the 20th century, we realized that a being’s perspective necessarily also involves a certain ignorance of itself.

I am a unique perspective of the whole universe, as Leibniz taught us. (To quote Wittgenstein “I am my world.”) This distinctive perspective is necessarily partial. In particular, some degree of knowledge of myself is only possible from an outside perspective. (Wittgenstein again: “The subject does not belong to the world but it is a limit of the world.”)

This, I believe, is what greater minds than mine have found troubling. If the flow of time and freedom of the will are necessarily connected to a limited perspective, can only be conceived from a combination of knowledge and ignorance, then doesn’t that mean that my first-person perspective is an illusion, is a lie? And that the only truth is the third-person perspective of science and religion?

To be continued