instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

This Easter Season goes up to eleven

Gotta love that the title of the USCCB's page for today's readings is, "Tuesday of the Eighth Week of Easter."


Monday, May 28, 2012

An everyday marvel

The Pentecost at which the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples of Jesus who were gathered together was a day of marvels. A rushing wind, tongues as of fire, speaking in different languages -- and that was all before nine o'clock in the morning.

Those aren't the sorts of marvels we can bring about at will. What we can bring about, if we will, is people saying, "We hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”


Saturday, May 19, 2012

It sure ain't a sacrament

My parish has a church sign, the back-lit kind where you can change the messages around.

Usually, the messages are forgettable notes about when back to school night is and such. We might have some seasonal reminders that Christmas is coming or Easter was just here. Once there was a real groaner, something about "soul-ar power" from "The Son."

This morning, I drove past the church and saw that the sign says, "THIS IS A SIGN."

Who can dispute that?

This, I find, is my version of the old "how do you keep a moron in suspense" wheeze.

On the one hand, yes, it is in fact a sign.

But why does it say that it's a sign?

Was there some miscommunication with a literal-minded sign changer? Is this our pastor's Solomonic way of resolving the question of whether it's the Knights' of Columbus or the parents association's turn to advertise their event? Is it the work of a group of merry semiotic pranksters from the local high school?

Or is it the sign of a sign? Does the "this" refer, not to the back-lit thing with black letters, but to what's behind it? Is "This is a sign" the caption, so to speak, of the church and the school thousands of people pass every day, a way of saying, "These aren't just buildings, and folks moving about in them. Their presence and activity signify something, something we believe needs to be said, something we believe you need to hear. Please, come in and learn what we signify"?

Or, possibly, it signifies that I shouldn't be driving about at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning without even one cup of coffee in me.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Law of the Internet Savage

Let me propose the following law: In Internet discourse,
Passion * Charity = Constant
That's an over-formalized way of saying that the more passionately someone writes about a subject, the less charitable their writing is toward those who disagree.

The reason, I suggest, is that passions are powers of the sensitive appetite, while charity is a virtue of the intellectual appetite. It's the job of the intellect to align the impulses of passion with the demands of charity, and when we write passionately we often simply give our passions free rein, letting them direct our will without reason getting in their way.

I say "we often" do this, but of course everyone doesn't always do this. What I call a "law" above isn't a law so much as a tendency. Since it's a tendency to let the passions override the reason, and letting the passions override the reason is to live more as a beast than as a man, I will name it the Tendency of the Internet Savage. At least I would, except nobody names anything "The Tendency of [X]." I will, therefore, name it the Law of the Internet Savage.

Christians have, of course, been given another law, to love God and neighbor.

The Law of Christ offers less of an immediate visceral payoff than the law of savagery. Which may be why we spend so little time discussing things from the right hand edge of the graph.


Monday, May 14, 2012

Ad hominem, but only after ad argumentum

Mark Shea links to a post by Zac Alstin on ad hominem heuristics:
The ad hominem heuristic takes into account a person’s views, reputation, past conduct and circumstances as relevant information, while still acknowledging that actual arguments must be addressed on their own merits. The ad hominem heuristic is a basic premise of political life: when workers’ unions support a piece of reform, it is all but guaranteed that business groups will be immediately wary. For most of us the quickest way to form an opinion on an issue is to see where our enemies stand.
Which should give you a pretty good idea of the value of a quickly formed opinion.

 While allowing that it's human nature to try to understand why other people do things we ourselves would not do, Zac Alstin rightly observes that
when we engage in these ad hominem heuristics it means we have – rightly or wrongly – ceased to address or investigate the truth of the issue itself. We’ve moved on from the actual argument to secondary questions such as how much of a pillock you must be to hold opinions contrary to our own.
That's the key point, I think. It can be useful to know why someone holds an opinion, but one of the uses of that knowledge is not to learn the truth regarding that opinion. To use Mark Shea's example, saying, “Joe’s wrong because he’s a stupid bigot,” can be legitimate if two conditions hold: first, that what we mean is, "Joe hold the wrong opinion he holds because he's a stupid bigot"; and second, that we already have a sound argument that Joe's opinion is wrong.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

An experiment in critical thinking

  1. Watch this video on how critical thinking enables us to challenge our assumptions and biases.
  2. Count the instances in this video of evidence of the producers' assumptions and biases.
  3. Consider who the intended audience for this video might be, and what effect the producers might have intended.

NOTE: I'm not particularly recommending watching the video, just remarking on how calls for "critical thinking" can be undermined by thinking critically.

More generally: A call for a good thing is not necessarily good. For that matter, a call for a good thing may, on further inspection, be a call for something else, which may not be particularly good.


Wednesday, May 09, 2012

In case you were wondering where you stand

Tom Toles, the Washington Post's editorial cartoonist, is like an editorial cartoon's caricature of a Washington Post editorial cartoonist. There is not a liberal or progressive trope he does not support. If someone were actually to draw him in an editorial cartoon, he's be the figure holding the banner that said, "Death to Conservatives!"

Oh, wait. Someone did actually draw him in an editorial cartoon. And he is actually saying, "Death to conservatives."

To be literal, he is saying, "Is it okay to yell, 'Hurry up'?" But he is asking about yelling it to conservatives -- specifically, those reactionary dinosaurs who oppose attempts to redefine marriage -- and what they are to hurry up is their "aging and dying off."

It would be a terrible thing to falsely accuse someone of publicly wishing for the death of those whose political opinions he opposes. In this case, though, I wouldn't say it's a false accusation, since it was Tom Toles himself who drew the cartoon (which ran on May 9, 2012, if you want to go look for it; I'm not sure how to get a permalink for it).