instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Abusus non tollit usum

In the recent dispute about means and ends on Catholic and Enjoying It!, a few people advocated a position that might be paraphrased thusly:
People who say the end doesn't justify the means just play around with the definition of the means until they can justify the end they desire.
You understand how the process works. You can work your way down the chain of intent: "Getting drunk is sinful? But I'm not getting drunk, I'm celebrating the New Year." Or the other direction: "But I'm not getting drunk, I'm pouring a clear liquid into my mouth and swallowing."

It wasn't clear to me at the time what the point of advocating that position was. Do people try to rationalize their sins? Certainly. Does this invalidate the moral principle that the end does not justify the means? Certainly not. If the advocates were merely trying to impugn the moral honesty of those they were arguing with, then it's no big deal for discussion; I personally can't claim to have never done some weaselly ratiocination to excuse something appalling I had done or was going to do. It may also have been the last, bent dart in the quiver, thrown into the discussion out of sheer cussedness. Sheer cussedness don't confront me.

If, however, it was meant as an attack on the principle itself -- if it was intended to suggest that the principle can't be properly applied in practice -- then we've got an issue.

We would all agree, I trust, that misuse does not take away use. (Good thing, too, since there is pretty much nothing humans are incapable of misusing.) Pointing out that people sometimes or even often misuse a moral principle is only an attack on the principle itself if the implication is that people always misuse it, or at least that there's no objective way of verifying that in a particular case the principle was used correctly.

But in fact there is an objective way of verifying that in a particular case the principle was used correctly. You just start with the end, with the answer to why you're doing something, then work your way backward along the chain of intent until you reach a purely natural (or physical or pre-moral) act, an act that has no associated moral choice. Since the end does not justify the means, and we intend the means we choose, every link in this chain has to be morally good.

Each link can be seen, for the purposes of analysis, as the object of an act the intent of which is the subsequent link. As the blessed John Paul II put it in Veritatis Splendor 73, the question is "whether that object is capable or not of being ordered to God, to the One who 'alone is good,' and thus brings about the perfection of the person."

Now, figuring out whether an object is capable of being ordered to God can be a tricky business, and it may be done more or less correctly in a particular case by a particular person. But it is not impossible; the perfection of the person is not a wholly opaque state. There is a perfect Person sacramentally present in your neighborhood Catholic church, if you want to go check your answer with Him.


Monday, January 23, 2006

Perspective in exorcism

ZENIT has published an introduction written by Georges Cardinal Cottier, O.P., to a book on exorcism. It's a bit disjointed in translation, but there are some interesting bits.
Though he sinned, the fallen angel has not lost all the power he had, according to God's plan, in the governance of the world. Now he uses this power for evil.
I've never thought of the devil's power in the world as being fundamentally the same power God intended him to wield according to His will. But of course it is; it's not like God said, "You've passed on doing My will and have chosen Door Number Two, which has... demonic power!"
The devil is much more dangerous as tempter than through extraordinary signs or astonishing external manifestations, because the gravest evil is sin... A sinner who remains set in his sin is more wretched that one who is possessed.
I admire myself for not being curious about demonic possession and related topics, lest through presumption I leave myself open to attack. Meanwhile, the demons are probably delighted with how open I leave myself to plain old temptation.
Saint Thomas and Saint John of the Cross affirm that we have three tempters: the devil, the world (we certainly recognize this in our society) and ourselves, that is, self-love.
If I had to identify a tempter in my life, I think I would much prefer to go with "the flesh" rather than "myself," which is an awfully personal way of putting it, don't you think?
The Sacraments have in truth a priority over the sacramentals, a category in which exorcisms are included, which are requested by the Church but not as a priority.
We tend to think of exorcism as the elephant gun in the Church's spiritual armory. When all else fails, we put in the call to Max von Sydow and take cover.

Really, though, exorcism isn't so much powerful as very focused, more scalpel than elephant gun, and the exorcist himself draws strength from the Eucharist above all else. And after all, time was the office of exorcist was one step down from the office of altar boy.


Friday, January 20, 2006

The object of the act

A recent dispute with other commenters at Catholic and Enjoying It! has helped me to clarify my understanding of traditional moral analysis.

As has been mentioned often enough on Disputations, three factors have been identified which determine the morality of a particular human act. (A "human act" is an act freely willed by a human, and therefore either good or evil.) The factors are the object of the act, the intent of the actor, and the circumstances in which he acts.

I used to think of the object of an act as being objective -- that is, as being determined apart from any subjective input from the actor. That's true, but I was overlooking the role of the actor's will in determining the object of the act.

Of course, the actor's will must have a role, or else it wouldn't be a human act, and it would have no moral dimension at all. In fact, the will plays two formally distinct roles, one in determining the object of the act and the other in determining the intent.

How it works can be seen by considering the example of lying. "To lie," the Catechism tells us, "is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error." An argument was offered: Doesn't this mean that, by definition, the actor's intent can determine the objective moral nature of the act?

The answer is no, because the "in order to lead someone into error" is not the intent of a lie, it is the object. The intent of the lie is the end sought by the liar in telling the lie, and with the possible exception of very perverse persons, there is an end sought beyond simply leading someone into error. The actor intends this end be achieved through the means of leading someone into error.

(That, by the way, is what makes the object of an act objective. We intend the means we choose (since we, you know, choose them), and if we choose sinful means we can't deny their sinfulness simply because, subjectively, we mean to do good.)

Note what happens in the case of lying if we take out the object (which some would have be the intent): "To lie is to speak or act against the truth." But speaking against the truth is not, per se, a lie as anyone understands it; I might be mistaken, I might be talking in my sleep. More fundamentally, it is not even a meaningfully characterized human act, since it fails to characterize what the human will thinks it has chosen.

For there to be a human act, an act to which we can apply some moral value, the will has to choose to do something, and it is that choice which specifies what human act is being done.

I'd summarize the above with this table, showing different perspectives or ways of expressing the two ways the will is involved in every human act:
Object - Intent
Means - End
Proximate End - Remote End
What human act is done? - Why is it done?


More curling links is the official website of Team USA's women's curling team. They took silver at the 2005 World Championships, so there's good reason to bet on gold at Torino.

Team Fenson, the USA's Olympic men's curling team, also has a website. They placed sixth at World last year, so they're facing longer odds, but that's why they play the game.

And do you even have to ask whether there is a web page that features images of every known curling stamp ever issued anywhere?


Thursday, January 19, 2006

Do you not know?

I gather that, this past Sunday, a lot of people heard that the body is not for immortality. (That's not unbearably bad, as the passage goes on to say the body is "for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body; God raised the Lord and will also raise us by His power." If you don't mind your natural end being different than your supernatural end, a case could be made that... ah, never mind.)

The words that popped out at me on listening to them, though, were from verse 19:
Do you not know ... that you are not your own?
And, well, no. I don't know that. At least, I might say that I am not my own, but I certainly live as though I were my own.

But if I am my own, then I cannot be holy, which is to say, I cannot be dedicated to God, which is what St. Paul explains in the words I elided from verse 19: "that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, Whom you have from God." St. Paul is speaking of sexual immorality, but it's true in general: the Christian is not his own, any more than a building given to God and consecrated as a church belongs to the one who donated the building.

We do know of a case where someone tried to have it both ways, to keep his property while announcing that he was giving it all to God, but that didn't turn out well for him.


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Not my choice

I admit to being surprisingly disappointed by George Weigel's God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church. My disappointment is surprising because I was toying with the idea of buying the book when a review copy was offered me.

The opening chapter, "The Death of a Priest," was great. It covers the final sickness and death of the blessed John Paul II, and those of us who love and miss him will find this chapter a clear exposition of the first few months of 2005, and a good reminder of those experiences.

In Chapter 2, "The Church That John Paul II Left Behind," Weigel lists the "EPIC ACCOMPLISHMENT" and the "FRUSTRATIONS AND AMBIGUITIES" of that papacy. Here things get a little... skewed.

I think I'm reacting to Weigel's reportorial tone, well suited to a recitation of the chronology of the events covered in the book, extending into his opinion and analysis. Certainly one man's epic accomplishment may be another's frustration, but Weigel seems content to simply assert his judgment rather than defend it, as for example when he writes that "the Church and the world will be wrestling with the thought of John Paul II for centuries."

Well, maybe.

Weigel also seems even more reluctant than I to criticize John Paul II. None of the frustrations and ambiguities are the Pope's fault, not even Weigel's dissatisfaction with many of the bishops the Pope appointed. The papacy is interpreted as though it had only a two-part munus, of priest and prophet; to the extent the blessed John Paul II chose to govern as prophet, Weigel gives him a full pass. Which is fine as a personal choice, but it doesn't produce the most insightful analysis.

And then some other oddities creep in, bits of ecclesial flotsam some of which constituted a nine-hours' wonder on St. Blog's, but that seem really out of place in so durable a format as a hardcover book. (I think in particular of the mention of sleazy pictures (sorry, Googlers, you're out of luck here) once posted on a Jesuit website.)

So my initial enthusiasm cooled, and it got to the point where reading the book was a chore, where I'd think, "Oh, I should finish that so I can blog a review." But then, getting to the point where reading the book is a chore is itself suggestive of a review.

I know a lot of other bloggers have commented favorably on God's Choice, and I was expecting to as well. I will say it seems like a good record of the events, and a handy overview of Pope John Paul II's papacy you might be able to hand to your kids in a decade or so when they ask what the big deal with him was anyway. I can't say how the book is on the title character, since I'm not going to force myself to read past Chapter 3 (on the funeral; subsequent chapters cover the conclave, an overview of Pope Benedict XVI's pre-papal career, and the future of the Church).



No, I mean the god of Szechuan cooking

I've noticed that, when people talk about what can be known about God by the natural light of reason vice faith in revelation, they often use terms like "the Christian God" and "the God of the Bible."

I understand the point -- to emphasize that what we can know with certainty about God by reason falls far short of what we can know with certainty about Him by faith -- but I think it's an unfortunate way of expressing it.

It is, after all, the same God.

I think our habits of speech should reinforce our habits of thought, and "the God [or god] of X" is a Biblical formula for identifying and distinguishing God [or god] from gods. To say that the Christian God cannot be known by reason is, literally, heresy, even though the intended meaning be orthodox.

When talking about our Faith, particularly on subjects like natural theology where we are likely to encounter non-Christians (or, for that matter, Christian fideists), we should be careful not to leave room for error to creep in due to our language. In this case, we should be careful to prevent the inference that the God Who can be known with certainty by the natural light of reason is not the God Who so loved us that He sent us His only Son.


Monday, January 16, 2006

Baby, You're the greatest!

Enbrethiliel tells the remarkable story of Sto. Nino de Cebu, the Christ Child who prepared the way for the Church in the Philippines.


Sunday, January 15, 2006

Curling Fever

Catch it!


Saturday, January 14, 2006

Don't I know it

After saying some nice things about me*, Scott Carson worries over some things I wrote on what Vatican I says about knowledge of God by the natural light of reason.

He quotes me:
In any case, the Church asserts that from philosophy we can learn that God is one, that He is true God, that He is our creator, that He is our lord, that He is the source and the end of all things, and perhaps most importantly, that His nature is perceivable in creation.
Then comments:
The way Tom has put it ("the Church asserts THAT...,THAT...,THAT...") the "knowledge", such as it is, is all propositional.
I think that's mostly true. The last proposition though, that God's nature is perceivable in creation, implies knowledge that is not necessarily so propositional.

Scott then says something curious about propositional knowledge:
So I can pass on this knowledge just by telling it to someone else.

So if I say to Richard Dawkins, "God exists, He is One, He created the universe", Richard Dawkins now knows all of that.
I say this is curious because, to me, it seems like Richard Dawkins now knows that Scott Carson said to him, "God exists, He is One, He created the universe," which is quite a different proposition (ha!) than knowing God exists, etc.

Scott lists a set of commonly held necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge:
1. Knowledge is a form of belief.
2. Knowledge is always true.
3. Knowledge requires an understanding of the reason why one's belief is true.
I read the first one more in sadness than in anger, having spent two weeks mulling over St. Augustine's definition of belief, according to which it would be more accurate to say belief is a form of knowledge, but if one isn't prepared to be broadminded in dealing with philosophers, one shouldn't deal with philosophers.

More to the point, saying to an atheist, "God exists," does not provide him with an understanding of the reason why "God exists" is true, so even by Scott's definition, I can't see how we can say the atheist now knows God exists.

Next, Scott writes:
How is it possible for somebody to know something with certainty when they don't even believe it? Tom's answer:
It has also been pointed out that the Richard Dawkinses of the world don't necessarily want to be convinced.
This seems to turn the question of knowing into a psychological, rather than an epistemological, problem, and that doesn't seem right to me. I don't know the things that I know because of the sort of personality that I have--after all, plenty of other folks with very different psychologies know precisely the same things that I know.
I think Scott actually does know a lot of the things he knows because of his personality. Ancient Greek, for example. As finite creatures, we can't know everything, and we choose what we are going to try to learn based on what seems good to us.

And just as temperamental interest is a necessary cause of us knowing a good deal of what we do know, I'd say temperamental prejudice prevents us from knowing some things we could know. In the case of the militant atheist, he may well reject the truth of a demonstration of God's existence (much less His other attributes that can be demonstrated by the natural light of reason) out of ill-will. He can choose not to assent to a "self-evident" premise, or choose to insist (contrary to reason) that a demonstration is invalid.

In short, if the question of knowing includes what is actually known, and not just what can be known or how it can be known, then it includes psychology.

*. Don't be fooled by the nice things Scott says. He's still trying to make up for heartlessly failing to name me his son's godfather eleven years ago. One forgives, of course. But one does not forget.


Thursday, January 12, 2006

How about a boy scout with a pea shooter?

Let me unseasonably conclude the Christmastide series of posts on thinking with assent with a brief look at the "thinking axis" of those plots, at what might be said to increase in relation to our thinking that signifies an increase in our faith.

"Pondering" may be the best term for the sort of thinking St. Thomas has in mind here. Pondering is thinking about something in order to understand it better or more fully; in the case of a matter of belief, in which one assents to what one ponders, pondering attempts to see more clearly what can be seen, including the implications and consequences of the belief and what is involved in making room for that belief in the believer's life.

This concept of pondering is extremely subjective. It's not the sort of thing that can be compared between two people, in terms of time spent pondering or effort spent while pondering. One person may quickly understand all he ever will understand regarding a belief, while another person may spend hours in unprofitable noodling. Moreover, a person may find that different beliefs call for different amounts of pondering.

See how I snuck in talk of the "amount" of pondering? I mean pretty much what you'd think I mean: the effort put into pondering over time.

I've been a bit fast and loose on the distinction between believing, which is thinking with assent, and faith, which is the virtue of sharing God's knowledge. Believing is the interior act of faith (confessing is the exterior act), which is to say it's what you do when you engage in your habit of faith.

So if you have faith in Christ, there are a whole bunch of things you believe, but you're only actively believing at most a few of these things at any given time. (That you actively believe all of them over time means you habitually believe them, which is to say you have faith.)

With all that said, I think there's a case that the more one ponders the elements of a set of beliefs, the more faith one has.

Now, I've already pointed out the subjectivity of pondering, so we can't say that someone who spends more time pondering Christian beliefs necessarily has greater Christian faith than someone who spends less time pondering. The simple-minded saints are in no way indicted as lacking in faith by this line of thought.

Similarly, such comparisons as between the centurion, who seems to have made up his mind and gone fully into external action well before he had a chance to speak to Jesus, and the disciples, who never stop pondering and never start acting with great faith, aren't objections so much as illustrations of this subjectivity. The centurion was well-prepared to understand and accommodate his belief that Jesus could command the servant be healed, even as the disciples were still trying to graft their beliefs regarding Jesus onto their wrong opinions about what the Messiah would do.

Another objection is that certainty is more clearly essential to faith than is pondering, and certainty and pondering seem incompatible, if not contradictory. "God said it, I believe it, that settles it," as the saying goes. We can preserve St. Augustine's formula of "thinking with assent" by using a modest reading of St. Thomas, that the thinking is less a deliberating action than the state of incomplete deliberation. If you believe Jesus is both God and man, will you actually believe it any more if you chew on it for an hour or two? And if you're constantly worrying over the same belief, doesn't that suggest you don't really believe it?

Sed contra, "And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart."

Respondeo, faith is a habit, habits involve acts, and performing the acts involved in a habit more can't be a sign of a weakening of the habit. In this case, belief is assured by assent, so thinking about it more doesn't mean you believe it less.

What happens through pondering the truths of the Faith is that they become more completely a part, eventually the focus, of your life. For the objection, I was trying to think of an example of something I believe that I don't think I need to ponder more, and I couldn't. The most basic beliefs -- God exists, Jesus is God -- reward on-going pondering; even the superficially dry "facts" of the Faith -- that Jesus went here and did that -- reveal themselves as unbounded mysteries.

Moreover, I suspect it's in some sense true that a belief you do not ponder [or confess, but that's another show], at least occasionally, is not part of the faith you hold.


Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Not reason alone

While I'm thinking of it, let me quote reluctant penitent's comment from below:
Our intellects might be capable of arriving at the conclusion that God exists. However, we are, by nature, more than intellect. We have other aspects of our nature that might rebel against believing in a God to whom we owe our being and who places moral demands on us. Consequently, there is, in our nature, something that inclines us to deny that God exists and, consequently, to refuse to believe something that our intellect tells us is certain--or, in many cases, that refuses even to allow our intellects to consider seriously the evidence for the existence of God.
I think this is a good point.

The full paragraph from Humani Generis I quoted in part in my last post runs like this:
It is not surprising that such discord and error should always have existed outside the fold of Christ. For though, absolutely speaking, human reason by its own natural force and light can arrive at a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, Who by His providence watches over and governs the world, and also of the natural law, which the Creator has written in our hearts, still there are not a few obstacles to prevent reason from making efficient and fruitful use of its natural ability. The truths that have to do with God and the relations between God and men, completely surpass the sensible order and demand self-surrender and self-abnegation in order to be put into practice and to influence practical life. Now the human intellect, in gaining the knowledge of such truths is hampered both by the activity of the senses and the imagination, and by evil passions arising from original sin. Hence men easily persuade themselves in such matters that what they do not wish to believe is false or at least doubtful.
I had been thinking of the difficulties and admixtures of error in coming to certain knowledge of God by reason as being due to our all-too-fallible intellects, our philosophical mistakes being akin to arithmetical errors.

As the Pope and the penitent point out, though, we also have all-too-peccable wills that prevent us from arriving at certain knowledge as surely as a student's disinclination to concentrate on his math homework prevents him from getting the right answers. (Of course, few students are so contrary that they want to get the wrong answer, but they might -- if, say, that insufferable know-it-all next to them says the answer is 15,647.)


Sound convinced?

It has been pointed out that quoting Vatican I won't convince the Richard Dawkinses of the world that God can be known with certainty by the natural power of human reason.

True enough.

It has also been pointed out that the Richard Dawkinses of the world don't necessarily want to be convinced.

It would be a misunderstanding of the dogma to think it means there's an argument -- call it the Babelfish Argument -- that persuades everyone who encounters it that God exists. If anything, the canon itself is directed less at atheists than at fideists who insist we can't know God exists (much less anything else about Him) except by faith. (This fideism seems to be alive and well in certain Catholic circles where it is mistaken for mature and modern faith.)

So what are we to do with the skeptic who says, "You say God can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things. Prove it!"?

For starters, I think we should try to understand what he means by, "Prove it." If he means something like, "Convince me God exists," or even, "Convince me we don't need faith to know God exists," we should point out that, going into it cold, there is no cause to be sanguine about the possibility of convincing him of anything. Again: the dogma says what is possible for reason to do, not what is necessary. If someone isn't convinced by a sound argument, that doesn't make the argument any less sound. (I'm using "argument" in a broad sense; I don't want to reduce human reason to syllogistic logic.)

But perhaps the skeptic means, "Walk me through an example of knowing God with certainty from the consideration of created things." In that case, I'd take him down the Uncaused Cause path, which in my opinion suffices to demonstrate God's existence.*

And I wouldn't stop there! As I've said before, Church teaching goes clearly beyond knowing that God exists by reason. Humani Generis opens with the observation that
absolutely speaking, human reason by its own natural force and light can arrive at a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, Who by His providence watches over and governs the world....
Given that there is an Uncaused Cause, what can we learn about It from Its effects? I have some ideas about how to get to the "personal, "providence," and governance Pope Pius XII mentions, though I haven't given much thought to scrubbing these ideas with the wire brush of Reason Alone.

*. Yes, I know a lot of people think the Uncaused Cause is an invalid argument. See my point above about the difference between a sound argument and a convincing argument.


Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The natural light of reason

I've been discussing this canon from the First Vatican Council with others in the comment boxes at Catholic and Enjoying It!:
If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and lord, cannot be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema.
This dogma is expressed in friendlier form in Chapter 2 of the council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith:
The same Holy mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason : ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.
This is kind of a peculiar dogma, in that it makes something about natural reason a matter of Christian faith. It's in the news, of course, because of the Intelligent Design dustups and the very public and extensive comments of Christoph Cardinal Schönborn on evolution and evolutionism. (See for example his interview with Beliefnet; link via Schonborn Sightings.)

This teaching contains several parts of interest in themselves. For one, it asserts that there is something (in fact, Someone) we can know "with certainty." If human beings are able to know things with certainty, we can toss out a bunch of modern philosophical positions. Of course, those Catholics who want to affirm Vatican I while insisting that nothing can be known with certainty will still play their games -- "I can't be certain I'm understanding this canon properly," "The Church goes beyond her competency in making dogmatic statements about epistemological matters," and so forth -- but the teaching can't be held responsible for those who refuse to accept it.

It also makes the assertion that Who can be known by the natural light of reason is none other than "the one, true God, our creator and lord." This, I think, is a stronger assertion than the old "God of the philosophers" wheeze -- or perhaps the old God of the philosophers is not the remote, featureless Cause He's sometimes taken to be. In any case, the Church asserts that from philosophy we can learn that God is one, that He is true God, that He is our creator, that He is our lord, that He is the source and the end of all things, and perhaps most importantly, that His nature is perceivable in creation.

You might run that last bit by a philosopher, but to me talk of perceiving an invisible nature goes beyond uncaused causes and unmoved movers and starts getting at the kind of God Who created this particular universe. That anything exists tells us some things about the Creator, but the things that actually have been made tell us even more.

Precisely what more we could quibble over. I suspect it's things like His love of order, His sense of beauty, His careful providence. But when you say "ever since the creation of the world, His invisible nature has been clearly perceived," it seems to me you're talking the homely philosophy of design and purpose, not the more rarefied arguments of some being having of itself its own necessity.

Again, there are those who would dismiss all such philosophizing, the plain and the fancy. Again, the dogma only tells us what is true; it doesn't say everyone will believe it.

That's a point that seems to get confused, when we say that we can know that we can know something by reason by faith. Well, people ask, which is it? Do we know that we know God with certainty by faith or by reason?

And the answer, of course, is that we can know God with certainty by reason, and that we know, "We can know God with certainty by reason," is true by faith.

It may also be that we can know, "We can know God with certainty by reason," is true by reason. Nothing prevents God from revealing what in principle we could, with the natural light of reason, work out for ourselves "after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors." But the Catholic faithful need not be beholden to human reason on this question of the capability of human reason.

So what does all this mean? I can't see how it could mean, as one person suggested, that the Council Fathers meant merely that the one, true God can be known with certainty, but not that He ever actually has been. That would be a nonsensical teaching.

It also doesn't mean the Fathers meant one can prove God exists, if by "prove" we mean demonstrate according to an argument that all must accept as sound. In fact, the teaching doesn't even speak of God's existence; it speaks of knowing Him, which is a whole different proposition. Further, it speaks in quite general terms of the capability of human reason, given God's nature and His creation; it makes no claims about the intellect or will of any particular person.

At the same time, it doesn't mean that any particular claim (much less every claim) of knowing God by reason alone is true. (This should be clear enough, given that many people argue for a cruel or indifferent god based on the world as they find it.)

But the best a person can do is reason from true premises to valid conclusions. He can't force someone to accept true premises or valid reasoning who is determined to reject them.


Sunday, January 08, 2006

Egged on

You want to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, but you've been drinking eggnog by the quart for six weeks, and if the next egg you see isn't scrambled with bacon there's going to be trouble. What to do?

Twelfth Night Nog.


Friday, January 06, 2006

Would you believe it?

A few people called me on my diagram that suggests great faith occurs only with lots of thinking. Are there not countless simple-minded saints, whose lives manifested heroic faith without much evident intellectual effort?

I don't think a parallel objection regarding assent was raised. I suspect we all know what it's like to assent to something more or less strongly, and it seems reasonable to say that how "much" one believes something tracks with how strongly one assents to it.

Note, though, that for St. Thomas assent itself doesn't admit of degree. It is "an act of the intellect as determined to one object by the will;" by the time someone has moved from doubting through suspecting, past opining, and reached assenting, he "cleaves firmly to one side." (Hence he writes of "firm assent," firmam assensionem.)

So if you were silly enough to want to graph faith as a function of assent, faith would be zero where there was even fear of being wrong. And since strictly speaking assent doesn't vary -- it's either present or it's not -- faith can't vary directly with assent.

I propose, though, that there is something related to assent -- call it insistence -- that does vary, and that faith varies with. Insistence is the degree to which someone is prepared to insist that what he assents to is in fact true. I may assent to my neighbor's claim that his middle name is John -- that is to say, I may have no doubt that it's John -- but I probably wouldn't be too insistent; I wouldn't be ready to get into an argument with someone else over this. On the other hand, I may assent to my parents' claim of the date on which I was born, and with great insistence in the face of some counterclaim.

When insistence is a matter of belief -- that is, when it's related to a matter that I don't have personal, direct knowledge of (or in St. Thomas's phrase, when I lack "the certitude of sight") -- then I would say the more insistent I am the greater faith my belief reflects. I have more faith in my parents than in my neighbor.


Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Believing is not seeing

While the previous two posts were more for entertainment than enlightenment, and more for enlightenment than instruction, there might be one or two further points worth making on the internal act of faith.

First, the idea of faith varying with the degree of thinking or of assenting you do is not at all what St. Thomas was getting at in the article I quoted. All he was trying to do was distinguish "to believe" from other acts of the human intellect such as "to know," "to opine," "to suspect," and "to doubt." "To believe" is simply the act of being certain that a thing is so (like "to know"), while also being unable to directly see that it is so (like "to opine," "to suspect," and "to doubt," to list them (per St. Thomas) in increasing order of uncertainty).

Note that this conception of belief is a purely human phenomenon, valid quite apart from any notion of specifically Christian belief. I might believe the car keys are in the kitchen, not through faith in Christ, but through faith in my wife.

It's important that our conception of belief be purely human in this sense. If it isn't, then we are forced to choose between two unacceptable alternatives: either only Christians are capable of the human act of belief; or the Christian act of belief is a thing utterly different from the "purely human" act of belief.

The first alternative is unacceptable for the obvious reason that it's clearly not true. Non-Christians believe all sorts of things, which is to say they have faith in all sorts of things, just as Christians believe all sorts of things unrelated to the Faith (such as the location of car keys).

The second alternative (which is where we wind up if you insist I'm begging the question on what belief is when I state that the first alternative is false) is unacceptable because it makes Christian faith an inhuman, divine imposition on human nature, and as we all know grace perfects nature, it never supplants it.

Okay, so inhuman impositions on human nature are bad, but how does a Christian act of belief being a thing utterly different from the "purely human" act of belief constitute an inhuman imposition on human nature? Well, sort of by definition, right? If the very act of Christian belief is completely unlike any other human act, then what makes it a human act? Where does it come from, so to speak? We not only cannot perform the act of Christian belief without God acting directly first (and not in the uncaused cause sense, but in the sense of an Actor affecting other actors, through Divine revelation), we cannot perform any act anything like Christian belief. Apart from Divine revelation, this alternative would have it, there really is no human capability for Christian belief. When you consider that this is the one necessary act for salvation, the idea that it is utterly unlike every other human act is untenable; Christian faith would be as much an imposition on human nature as photosynthesis.


Wednesday, December 28, 2005

More graph theo[log/r]y

Here is another (3D!) model of thinking with assent as the act of faith:

According to this model, faith increases when both thinking and assent increase; it decreases when either thinking or assent decreases; and it remains the same when only one of the two increases.

In other words, if you do a lot more thinking than assenting, the level of your faith is indicated by the level of your assent; if you assent more than you think, your faith is proportional to your thinking.

Thus the whole dark blue region is "little faith," and faith increases up to the red region, which is "great faith."

We might use this model to illustrate the story of Peter walking on the water:
  1. "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." The strangeness of this statement can pass us by in the whole drama of the story, but I'd say it was spoken in a moment when Peter was not engaged in top quality thinking. Still, he seems ready to do whatever Jesus might tell him, so I'd plot this at about an assent of 7 and a thinking of 3, in the lower right light blue.
  2. Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. If you're walking on the water toward Jesus, they can say what they like about you, but you're acting in great faith. This gets plotted up in the orange.
  3. But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Suddenly, Peter is doing way too much thinking and way too little assenting. Dark blue, upper left.
"O you of little faith, why did you doubt?"

There's something sort of Sisyphean about this plot, or at least about plotting Peter's actions on it. We want to keep pushing up toward the red, but if we push too hard in one direction, we might wind up rolling down the opposite slope. Of course, the solution is for us to only push when Christ is pulling.

"Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief."


Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The two-part act of faith, part two

It is St. Thomas's way to speak of mysteries in terms of distinctions, universal notions, the intellectual faculty, and so forth. It is Fr. Farrell's way to speak of mysteries in terms of how a man reads the morning paper. It is Disputations's way to speak of mysteries by taking things a bit too literally and turning them into poorly-rendered graphs.

If, then, we accept that the act of faith is thinking with assent, we might construct a "faith plot," with one axis representing an increase in thinking and the other an increase in assent:

The four corners of the plot represent four extreme states one can be in with respect to faith -- and to this point, it can be faith in pretty much anything.

What the diagram as rendered suggests is that if you get too far from the diagonal in any direction, you're no longer talking about an act of faith. A little thinking with a little assent produces a little faith, but adding a lot more assent doesn't preserve or add to that little faith, it converts it to zealotry. It's sort of like cooking, where mixing two ingredients in different proportions yields completely different results.


The two-part act of faith, part one

To believe, St. Augustine tells us, is to think with assent.

St. Thomas unpacks this definition somewhat, explaining that the kind of thinking involved in belief is what happens when you're deliberating over the truth of something but have not yet reached the "certitude of sight."

As the act of faith, belief is an action, a movement of the mind toward certitude. What makes belief a unique action of the mind is that it is a deliberation toward an answer we already assent to. Fr. Walter Farrell, OP, puts it this way:
It is, of course, paradoxical that our intellect should be restless, pondering, in the face of a truth, yet at the same time assent to that truth firmly. Actually this definition brings out the full nature of the act of faith. We do not suspect this truth, as a man might suspect the presence of burglars from the uneasiness of his dog; we are not doubting it; we have not merely an opinion of it, such as we might gather from the hasty accounts in a morning newspaper; we do not see it clearly, as we might the results of a scientific experiment. We believe it. And we thereby produce an act distinct from all other acts of the mind.