Sunday, July 17, 2011

Battle of Titans: Omniscience vs Omnipotence

Imagine that you and I each plan a vacation starting from Boston. You consult the family, do your research, and conclude that Disney World is the ideal destination. You plan your route accordingly. I don't do research, don't consult the family, and just figure we'll go to Disney as well. We start out together but, as we approach Washington after eight hours of driving, we've decided Disney isn't really the place we want to visit after all. We've heard good things about Niagara Falls. So we turn around and head north. As soon as we arrive, however, we realize how boring we'd find the Falls so instead of spending our vacation there, we head to Dollywood in Gatlinburg, Tennessee; one of my son's friends thought it was cool. After another day in the car, we arrive in Gatlinburg and are immediately repulsed by the country, honky tonk feel of the place. So again we pile into the car; being a Civil War buff, I decide to head to Gettysburg. Unfortunately, when we get there, I'm thrilled but everybody else is bored. By now we are tired of driving, so we head back to Boston. We end up spending an afternoon at Canobie Lake Park in New Hampshire as our vacation.

You on the other hand, having done the research and preparation, are quite confident of what you'll find in Disney World and have no second thoughts about going there. You drive straight there, have a ball at Disney, and come home refreshed and pleased with your vacation. Everything happened just as you planned.

Here is the question: Did all your prior planning, which lead to a confident expectation concerning what would happen on the vacation, somehow constrain your freedom of action? Is there some conflict between your knowledge of what was going to happen and your ability to "change your mind." Are you a hopeless slave to your knowledge and am I a true free spirit?

Richard Dawkins seems to think so, at least given what he writes in The God Delusion. While discussing arguments for God's existence, he says this in passing:

Incidentally, it has not escaped the notice of logicians that omniscience and omnipotence are mutually incompatible. If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he can't change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent.

I hope we can see from the vacation example that "changing your mind" isn't really an expression of power and freedom; it's an expression of weakness and ignorance. We change our minds when we realize our actions are counter-productive; and that happens when some mistaken view of the world we hold gets corrected. Since God is omniscient, He's never in that position. He's never mistaken about the way things are so His decisions are always optimal. That makes Him more powerful, not less, because He never wastes his energy on useless or counterproductive endeavors. Sure, God always knows what He's going to do, but it's not possible for Him ever to have a reason to do anything other than what He will do.

The deeper import of the apparent "conflict" between omniscience and omnipotence is its basis in the modern understanding of freedom. Freedom, for the modern mind, is found in the spontaneous act of the will uninformed by the intellect. This is why Dawkins sees "changing your mind" as just another arbitrary choice, like deciding you like chocolate rather than vanilla ice cream. "Know the truth and it shall make you free" is the foundational principle of classical philosophy established by Plato, because Plato saw the rational soul of man as an intrinsic part of nature. It is man's nature to know the universe, and through that knowledge he rises above his beastly nature and expresses the freedom unique to him. But the Enlightenment brought in the idea that the universe is fully governed by non-rational laws (e.g. the laws of science); the rational principle essential to man's nature is either placed outside nature (Kant) or simply denied. In either case, reason only applies to the universe known by science, and reason only reveals ever new laws that govern man's behavior. The more man knows, the more he realizes his actions are dictated by unconscious urges, psychological conditioning, genes, etc., etc. Freedom, it turns out, is only an illusion that persists as long as we are ignorant of the forces controlling us. It's not knowledge, but ignorance, that makes us free, or at least grants us the illusion that we are free. This is why Dawkins grants such significance to the act of "changing your mind": It's the paradigmatic act of modern freedom.

This modern and paltry understanding of freedom shouldn't be laid at the feet of the God of classical philosophy. His freedom is much more profound.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Old vs new philosophy

One thing of which I am thoroughly convinced is that there is no such thing as a perfect philosophy. By that I mean a philosophy free from any knotty problems or apparent contradictions. If someone claims to have such a philosophy, what it means, invariably, is that the philosophy has not been thought through enough to make the problems apparent. Chesterton's dictum that "nine out of ten new ideas are old mistakes" is appropriate here.

I believe one reason people avoid classical philosophy is because, having been thoroughly thought through, its problems have been exposed and are apparent to the uninitiated. Plato's philosophy, for example, struggles with the problems of the ontological status of the Ideas (where exactly do these things exist?) and their relationship to the physical world (how do physical beings "participate" in Ideas?) The long history of struggling with such questions led to Aristotle's revision of Platonic philosophy, through the philosophy of the Middle Ages, and culminated in the synthesis of St. Thomas Aquinas, each step having its own peculiar difficulties. Since the opponents of classical philosophy are quick to home in and advertise the problem areas, even those only passingly acquainted with classical philosophy are likely to know what they are.

But another way to look at the situation is to recognize that there won't be any surprises in classical philosophy. Whatever the difficulties are (and there will always be difficulties), they will have been smoked out by the centuries of philosophical reflection. There is virtually no chance that a philosopher will come along who notices some grave difficulty that hadn't already been noticed; anyone who thinks he has stumbled across such a thing only proves that he is not familiar with the history of philosophy. In vulgar marketing terms, in classical philosophy you can rest assured you will get a product that has been thoroughly tried and tested. (And not just in abstract philosophical reflection; classical philosophy has been tested in the court of life as well, forming the foundation of Western civilization in Greece and sustaining it for millennia through the Middle Ages).

It is tempting, in the face of some of the difficult problems classical philosophy has struggled with, to abandon the tradition altogether and start afresh from a clean state. This is essentially the attitude that gave birth to modern philosophy, most explicitly stated in Descartes. The experience can be heady, but it soon becomes apparent that the modern philosopher has only exchanged one set of problems for another. Descartes may have been satisfied with his philosophy, but the philosophers who followed him certainly weren't. Yet rather than drawing the lesson that it may have been foolish to abandon the classical tradition in the first place, modern philosophers adopted an attitude of permanent revolution. Each one starts philosophy afresh, convinced that his effort, finally, will put philosophy on the one absolutely sure footing. The most serious effort in this regard was that of Immanuel Kant, who was convinced he had established with his "critical philosophy", once and for all, the permanently sure foundation of philosophy. Alas, his followers were not convinced, but only drew the lesson that they themselves must begin philosophy yet again anew. The history of modern philosophy is a form of degenerate tradition; not a tradition that absorbs and organically grows an ongoing project of philosophical knowledge, but a "tradition" that repeatedly rejects as problematic all that came before and starts philosophy afresh. The hope of a modern philosopher is not to understand his philosophical predecessors and expand on their reflections, but to discover a "revolutionary and new" technique or principle in terms of which philosophy must be recast, and which will free philosophy from the problems discovered in the last revolutionary cycle. Since the problems latent in this new technique are as yet undetected, this ignorance offers the philosopher the illusion of the hope that he has finally "solved" philosophy. This continual cycle of creation, revolution and destruction is what gives philosophy its bad name in the modern world; it actually does go nowhere as its critics claim.

In any event, the upshot is that there isn't much point in trying to convince someone of the value of classical philosophy who is under the illusion that he possesses a problem-free modern philosophy. Classical philosophy is preferable to modern philosophy because the problem areas of classical philosophy are the problem areas of reality; trying to escape them is as futile as trying to escape from reality. But the appropriate response to someone attempting to escape from reality is not to convince him of the benefits of reality; it is to show him that in trying to escape reality he has only exchanged one set of problems for a worse set and, furthermore, the problems of reality remain. In other words, before introducing classical philosophy, a modern mind must first be convinced of the unsatisfactory nature of whatever modern flavor of philosophy he has adopted.

My experience commenting on philosophy blogs bears this out. I've found there is no point in discussing the virtues of Aristotle or Aquinas immediately, because whatever their virtues might be, the modern thinker usually only knows some of the problems associated with them, and he is usually convinced that he himself is in possession of a philosophy that does not suffer similar flaws; his own philosophy, at best, suffers from minor problems. (On the blogs I haunt, this philosophy is generally some form of empiricism.) Why waste time on some ancient philosophy with unresolved problems when there is a straightforward modern philosophy that suffices? Only when someone sees that the modern philosophies not only have a raft of critical problems of their own, but evade rather than face the problems addressed by classical philosophy, will Aristotle and friends get a hearing.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Kierkegaard and Chesterton

I make no secret that Soren Kierkegaard and G.K. Chesterton are two of my favorite thinkers. I've often thought there was a great deal of similarity between their thought, and if I were doing something like pursuing a master's degree in philosophy, I might propose as a thesis an exploration of their commonality. For, instance, the following passage is a pithy summary of SK's message:

All Christianity concentrates on the man at the cross-roads. The vast and shallow philosophies, the huge syntheses of humbug, all talk about ages and evolution and ultimate developments. The true philosophy is concerned with the instant. Will a man take this road or that? - that is the only thing to think about, if you enjoy thinking. The aeons are easy enough to think about, any can think about them. The instant is really awful: and it is because our religion has intensely felt the instant, that it has in literature dealt much with battle and in theology much with hell. It is full of danger, like a boy's book: it is at an immortal crisis. 

It uses some of Kierkegaard's favorite ideas expressed in the Kierkegaardian way: "The instant" as the true subject of philosophy, opposed to "huge syntheses" that distract a man with "talk about ages and evolution", etc. Of course, this passage isn't from Kierkegaard, but from the chapter "The Romance of Orthodoxy" from Chesterton's Orthodoxy. As far as I know, Chesterton never read Kierkegaard and perhaps never heard of him; SK did not become well-known in the English-speaking world until later in the 20th century. The fact that two such distinct thinkers, one Danish in the first half of the 19th century, the other English in the first half of the 20th, could speak with the same peculiar yet nearly synonymous voice is a reason for confidence in their message. The truth, when discovered, is what it is, whether it is discovered by a spiritually-tortured Dane, or a jolly Englishman.

GKC, Christian Paradoxes, and the the Secular Right

In his chapter "The Paradoxes of Christianity" in Orthodoxy, Chesterton discusses the contradictory charges that are often leveled against Christianity:

As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind - the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons.  No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far to the east than nother demonstrated with equal clearness that it was much too far to the west. No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness. 

Chesterton goes on to give several examples. The Secular Right provides another one in this post and this post. In the first, Heather MacDonald explains that her main problem with religion is that it falsely offers a "special friend" who will protect you from suffering:

That, to me, is the essence of religion: I have a special friend who will keep me safe from the usual disasters that rain down on my fellow human beings (see killer earthquakes and tsunamis, town-destroying tornadoes, fatal car crashes, children born with half a brain, and other Acts of God).

This understandable desire for a few strings to pull in the great random play of fate, for a special someone to get you out of tight fixes and to mop up messes, is an even more fundamental impetus behind religious faith than the hope for an exemption from death, in my observation.  The desire for a personalized leg-up lies behind the constant propitiation of the gods in the Aeneid and continues unbroken into the Christian cultivation of saints and the nonstop din of petitionary prayer...

In the second, Andrew Stuttaford explains that the problem with religion is that it teaches people that suffering is a blessing. He quotes a grieving father to that effect:

One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling—that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation. Isabel’s suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world.

With Chesterton, we might ask how Christianity can both sell people on the idea that God will protect them from suffering, and also sell them on the idea that suffering is a blessing and should be embraced. Chesterton did not immediately conclude that the attacks were baseless; but he did draw the deduction that if they were true, Christianity must be an extraordinary thing:

I wished to be quite fair then, and I wish to be quite fair now; and I did not conclude that the attack on Christianity was all wrong. I only concluded that if Christianity was wrong, it was very wrong indeed. Such hostile horrors might be combined in one thing, but that thing must be very strange and solitary. There are men who are misers, and also spendthrifts; but they are rare. There are men sensual and also ascetic; but they are rare. But if this mass of mad contradictions really existed, quakerish and bloodthirsty, too gorgeous and too thread-bare, austere, yet pandering preposterously to the lust the eye, the enemy of women and their foolish refuge, a solemn pessimist and a silly optimist, [masochistic yet hiding from suffering behind a divine skirt- DMT], if this evil existed, then there was in this evil something quite supreme and unique. 

Chesterton eventually had the inspiration that the problem may not be with Christianity but its critics:

And then in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a still thunderbolt. There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation. Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape. Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men might feel him to be tall. Old bucks who are growing stout might consider him insufficiently filled out; old beaux who were growing thin might feel that he expanded beyond the narrow lines of elegance. Perhaps Swedes (who have pale hair like tow) called him a dark man, while Negroes considered him distinctly blonde. Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the center. Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity that is sane all its critics that are mad - in various ways.

And with respect to suffering, it may be that Christianity is the sane center. There seem to be two truths with respect to suffering: The first is that we would like to avoid it; the second is that no matter how much we try, some suffering in this life is unavoidable. A philosophy that answers suffering must speak to our desire to avoid it, but also provide meaning to the suffering that will inevitably come our way. Christianity speaks to our desire to avoid suffering by affirming it. It was not always thus; man was originally created in a world without suffering, but since has come to suffer as a result of his sin. Our repulsion from suffering is not merely an animal reaction against pain. It reflects a knowledge, deep in our being, that things are not supposed to be this way; our outrage at suffering is a dim memory of Eden. (Pascal: we are fallen Kings.)

But despite the legitimacy of our outrage at suffering, suffer we will in this life, one way or the other. The Christian answer to this is Hope. Even a small amount of suffering absent hope rapidly becomes unbearable; this is one reason our hopeless culture is a slave to convenience. Suffering becomes more bearable the more one possesses hope. This is one of the truths that is meant when Christians sometimes speak of the "blessings" of suffering. It is not that suffering in itself is ennobling; but in our distress we may turn to the source of Hope, and in that hope discover a power to persevere through suffering that we imagined would destroy us. Yes, Christians pray that God relieve us of suffering; that is part of hope. But they also understand that following Christ must involve suffering. The Christian's attitude to suffering is summed up in Christ's prayer at Gethsemane:

Father, if you are willing, remove this chalice from me; nevertheless not my will but yours, be done. (Luke 22:42)


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Intellectual Liberation

Andrew Breitbart, in his Righteous Indignation, describes his intellectual liberation in these words:

I was taking ownership of my own education. Words cannot describe the emancipation I felt to discard those confusing works and philosophers that my gut instinct had told me to reject. Nihilism, after all, is never a comforting companion. I had known it was garbage, but I felt that I couldn't tell a Harvard PhD. that I thought it was garbage. Surely my professors had known something I didn't. Now I was realizing that just wasn't true.

I think his phrase "taking ownership of my own education" is apt. Only when this happens can true education begin. Up until that point, one is at best going through the motions. Taking ownership of education happens when we begin to understand the effects of ignorance, and dread them. We begin to see that ignorance is the worst possible affliction; for in our ignorance, we are not even aware that we are afflicted. Of course, the fact that we begin to understand the nature of our ignorance means that we are already on the road of true education, the only road, the one clearly marked once and for all time by Socrates. Socrates must be the foundation of education because the Socratic experience must be replicated in every soul that hopes to be truly educated.

Another interesting aspect of Breitbart's experience is his deference to the established educational authorities. Surely Harvard PhD's can't be shoveling manure? It is a part of wisdom to be deferential to educational authorities; for if we are ignorant, how shall we know where to learn the truth or even how to recognize it should we encounter it? It takes a wise man to distinguish the wise from the foolish, and since we are by hypothesis without education (prior to going to school), we defer to those reputed to be wise. The diabolical state of our educational system is such that the educational authorities use this very faith to abort true education in its infancy. They use their authority to teach that true education is not really possible (there is no truth) or, what amounts to the same thing, that the wise man is the one who understands that there is no "truth" out there for him to know. The soul awakening to its intellectual possibilities is strangled in its infancy by the very people who should be feeding it.

Fortunately, true education is always a possibility; it only awaits "the occasion" in Kierkegaard's terms. The occasion may be someone who simply does not accept the so-called educational/cultural/political authorities on their terms. He sees that the Emperor has no clothes and says so. Hearing this, we see that our own deference to such authorities is no more than a prejudice; a prejudice worthy in the general case when educational authorities deserve it, but unwarranted in the specific case when they don't, as is the case now. And deference is downright vicious when the authorities use it to maintain the populace in ignorance and slavery, as is also the case now. Breitbart's "occasion" happened when he began to listen to AM talk radio and encountered speakers who had limited academic credentials but simply spoke the obvious truth that the authorities spent their time avoiding.

For me, education didn't really begin until I read Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript. It was then that I began to see my true condition of ignorance, and the fact that I was in unconscious thrall to the "authority" of experts in all things. With Breitbart, I agree that "words cannot describe the emancipation I felt..."

Saturday, July 2, 2011


These posts (here and here) at the Secular Right blog, and recent family events, have led me to reflect on the meaning of suffering. What I write below is not particularly original, but having read similar things for many years, it is only now that I am truly beginning to understand what was meant.

The first thing we must understand about suffering is that it is unavoidable to some degree. The question then, is not whether we need to seek out suffering, but how we handle the suffering that life inevitably inflicts on us. Of course everyone agrees, secular and religious, that suffering should be minimized to the extent reasonably possible. The Catholic Church is the sponsor of hospitals and relief agencies throughout the world. I read somewhere that the Church is the single largest organized provider of such services; I don't know if this is true, but there is no doubt that the Church actively supports such activities in a big way. Clearly then, when the Church asks us to do things like "embrace suffering", she doesn't mean that we should needlessly endure suffering.

Despite our best efforts, however, some suffering in life is inevitable. In fact, quite a lot is inevitable. The basic metaphysical fact that our being includes a body that can be damaged means that suffering is a possibility in our existence; even if such physical suffering never becomes actual, its possibility causes anxiety which is itself a form of suffering. So as soon as we come into the world, we begin to suffer in one way or another. How shall we respond to the suffering that is unavoidable? This is the question of suffering that we all must face, religious or secular.

Furthermore, it is not obvious that avoiding suffering is the greatest good; there may be goods that we can obtain only through suffering, but that are worth obtaining even through suffering. In fact, it is obvious that there are such goods. Every child who endures vaccination shots has experienced this truth. And every parent who disciplines a child, even though such discipline causes suffering, knows that the suffering is worth it. (Both for the parent and the child. Remember "this hurts me more than it hurts you?") So the principle that "suffering should be minimized to the extent reasonably possible" takes a lot of unpacking, since it must involve a judgment with respect to goods obtainable only through suffering, and the degree of suffering that is reasonable in attempting to attain them.

My problem with the typical secular approach to suffering, as illustrated in the two posts linked to above, is that it never addresses this question, or even seems to be aware of it. In Andrew Stuttaford's post, he quotes a father grieving over the death of his daughter, a father who rages against what he takes to be the religious interpretation of suffering. I will not take issue with a grieving father, but I only note that Stuttaford offers no alternative interpretation of suffering. He simply agrees that the religious interpretation is unacceptable and moves on. In other words, he avoids addressing the question of suffering head on.

Is it merely accidental that Stuttaford quoted a grieving father in his post? If we begin to understand what Christ teaches us about suffering, we will see that it is not. For love is one of those great goods that is not obtainable without suffering. This is one of the meanings of the Cross. We live in a world where everything born must suffer and die; therefore, as soon as we love, we are presented with the fact that what we love will decline and disappear in one way or another. This knowledge in itself causes suffering, something every father or mother knows. As soon as a child is born, we are already anxious about all the things that can go wrong for him. And the more we love the child, the more anxious we become.

If we embrace love, then, we must also embrace the suffering that accompanies it. If we wish to avoid suffering, we must also avoid love. We see this happening in the fact that people no longer have love affairs, but "relationships." A relationship is understood to be an essentially temporary thing, makeable or breakable by either party at will, and so successfully avoids the deep entanglement  - and suffering - that a genuine love affair would involve. But if we wish to have real love affairs, and to love deeply, how can we deal with the suffering that we know must come our way?

This is what Faith and Hope are about, the two theological virtues supporting the supreme theological virtue of Love. Christ loved greatly and so suffered and died on the Cross; but that is not the end of the story. The Resurrection shows the far side of suffering when suffering is undergone in union with Christ. In Christ, there will be life and love when all appears hopeless, destroyed and finished. The key word is appears; for in this life, there is no "proof" that we will be experience a resurrection after suffering; all we see and know is the suffering and its apparent finality. But Christ reveals that suffering and death are not necessarily final; in Faith, we embrace the possibility through Him that it is not final, and through Hope, find the strength to face the suffering that will come our way through love. This is what Christians mean when they talk about "embracing suffering." It means not turning away from the suffering that love brings, but facing it and enduring it through the strength of Christ, for our own strength is not sufficient for the journey.

Absent a connection to Christ, how will we endure suffering? We all have greater or lesser natural gifts in this regard, but natural gifts are different in kind from the divine gifts flowing from Christ. Without Christ, we are simply unable to endure the suffering true love entails. So we find ways to avoid it: At the end of life by embracing suicide, or at the beginning of life by embracing abortion, and in the middle of life by avoiding the deep commitments true love involves.