Monday, December 17, 2012

The Week In Review: Done

Consummatus est. It is finished. First semester of double-master's program: complete. Tying up all the loose ends provided for a busy week.

On Tuesday I spent most of the day writing my research paper for Philosophy of Nature. I hope the result proved satisfactory, not only because that paper accounts for 70% of my grade in that class, but because I've submitted that paper for one of the program's requirements, the Research Readiness Paper. The RRP is supposed to be completed in the first semester as part of one's normal classwork (i.e. not an extra project on top of everything else) and is used to determine whether the student demonstrates the capacity for graduate-level research and writing. So, yeah. Kind of a big deal. But I think it went well.

On Wednesday evening the DSPT hosted a panel presentation and discussion on Pope Benedict's most recent book about the life of Christ, which focuses on the infancy narratives. The presenters were: Dr. Thomas Cattoi of the Jesuit School of Theology, an Italian by birth with degrees from universities in the US and UK; Fr. Bryan Kromholtz of the DSPT, an American with a degree from a German university; and Fr. Anselm Ramelow of the DSPT, a German teaching in the US. (The trio kind of brings the geography full circle, don't they?) Interesting thoughts and insights, but instead of sharing those with you, I'll advise you instead to read the pope's book. :)

Thursday featured my final class meeting of the semester, as we finished hearing presentations in Intro to New Testament. I worked in the afternoon, then came home and spent the evening getting caught up on NCIS and The Office. I'll spare you all my commentary about the trajectories of those shows, but suffice it to say they were enjoyable episodes from the last few weeks.

The last few days I've been slowly moving into non-academic mode, which mainly involves quieting the latent impulse that I ought to be doing homework at any given point. The next semester doesn't start until February 4, so I have a good six weeks to chill, veg, and otherwise relax. I'll be visiting home from Dec. 23 to Jan. 1, and will spend the rest of the break in Berkeley working part time. I imagine I'll blog a bit more often in that span, so stay tuned.

I leave you with an amusing story I read in an article about a growing appreciation among feminists of the concept and practice of chivalry. The article was punctuated well by the following:
A story from the life of Samuel Proctor (d. 1997) comes to mind here. Proctor was the beloved pastor of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church. Apparently, he was in the elevator one day when a young woman came in. Proctor tipped his hat at her. She was offended and said, "What is that supposed to mean?"
The pastor's response was: "Madame, by tipping my hat I was telling you several things. That I would not harm you in any way. That if someone came into this elevator and threatened you, I would defend you. That if you fell ill, I would tend to you and if necessary carry you to safety. I was telling you that even though I am a man and physically stronger than you, I will treat you with both respect and solicitude. But frankly, Madame, it would have taken too much time to tell you all of that; so, instead, I just tipped my hat." 

Gentleman, may we all strive to act accordingly. Ladies, may you hold us to it.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Week in Review: Shemp for Heisman

I was depleted by a cold for most of last week. The bugger moved into my chest quite uninvited, and forced me to serve it an eviction notice (i.e. antibiotics). I was unable to go to class or work for a few days, but I made the best of the time by getting a few papers finished and a few others furthered. Thankfully, I'm nearly back to full strength now, just in time for The Big Push in this last week of the semester.

The school hosted an end-of-the-semester/Christmas party for the students and staff last Friday. It was preceded by a vigil Mass for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. They served delicious foods of many varieties and in large quantities and a good time seemed to have been had by all. One thing I learned during this evening: if a Polish Dominican says he doesn't know how to play poker but wants to sit in, don't believe him; pretty soon, every chip will be in front of him.

The evening was also an opportunity to express our thanks to our departing registrar, Teresa Olson, whose sterling work and solid presence will be missed.

I also attended a co-worker’s 50th birthday party this weekend–that is, it was a party for his 50th birthday; I don't know how many total birthday parties he's had in his life, though it may be close to 50, and I doubt that this was the 50th party for him this year. Anyway, it was a pleasant time in which I got to try some homemade wine produced by a 5-foot tall Italian immigrant from Genoa (really good), and engage in a Three Stooges-oriented discussion on the merits of Shemp and the demerits of Joe Besser. Good times.

The Heisman Trophy winner was announced this last Saturday, and sadly for us Notre Dame fans, Manti Teo did not win, but rather Texas A&M sophomore quarterback Johnny "Football" Manziel. Yes, sophomore Johnny Football. He's not a freshman. He'd been participating in college football for a year prior to this one, though not playing in games. It's misleading to tout him as "the first freshman to win the Heisman." Certainly he's the first redshirt freshman, and that's impressive enough, so there's no need to puff up his accomplishments with inaccuracies. Johnny had a great year, and gave a great acceptance speech. I have nothing against him. I am annoyed at the talking heads in the sports media, though, because the reasons they gave for Johnny winning over Manti, mostly centering on why it's hard to evaluate a defensive player's impact, were all just plain silly. This provides us an excellent opportunity to apply the fruits of philosophical study to real-life problems. Observe (note: these are actual quotes I heard repeated multiple times during the lead-up to the trophy presentation on ESPN Radio):

--"Teo plays as part of a unit." I may not be a football expert, but I'm pretty sure that quarterbacks play as part of a unit, too. Those offensive lineman, backs, and receivers would seem to have an awful lot to do with moving the ball down the field.
-- "If Notre Dame hadn't gone 12-0, Teo wouldn't even be in this discussion." But they did go 12-0, precisely because of the leadership and outstanding play of their senior linebacker. Why does Notre Dame's undefeated record count against Teo instead of for him?
-- "Johnny Manziel had that moment on the big stage against Alabama." This is the same argument as above, only reversed: The Teo partisan could just as easily reply, "If Texas A&M hadn't beaten Alabama, Johnny Manziel wouldn't even be in this discussion." Why does Johnny Manziel get more Heisman credit for one win than Manti Teo gets for 12 wins? Why does Johnny Manziel get credit for beating the top-ranked team, but Teo is marked down for being ON the top-ranked team?
-- "You just can't evaluate a defensive player in the same way." Then, as Mel Kiper, Jr. (and virtually every ND fan on my Facebook newsfeed) has said, call it the Offensive Player of the Year and be done with it. Drop the pretense that a defensive player has a shot at this award if there's no way to evaluate one. By the way, why is it that coaches, scouts, and sports writers have no trouble calling a defensive player the best in the country except at Heisman time?

I've spoken my part. I hope Johnny Football enjoys polishing his trophy while he watches Notre Dame beat Alabama for the national championship in a few weeks.

Ladies and gents, this is the final week of the semester. I have a short paper to finish, a take-home exam to polish up, and my big research paper to write. I've done all of the research and outlining and such (in other words, about 3/4 of the work); now all that's left is composition. Pray for me and my classmates that we make it through this week with our sanity intact. (And I will pray for you, as I know that a number of my readers are students as well.) St. Thomas Aquinas, patron of students, pray for us!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Week in Review: The Penultimate Countdown

You know how sometimes in the movies, the hero and the villain are fighting in an epic battle, and the hero delivers what he thinks is the knockout blow, and starts to walk away... then he pauses, and turns around, and finds the villain on his feet again? That sort of happened to me this week. I had all the early warning signals of the onset of a cold: extreme thirst, sore throat, light headed. I called in an airstrike of Vitamin C and felt better for the next few days. But then on Friday night, I got a tickle in my throat, which turned into a cough, which turned into a head cold, which promptly moved into my chest. Awesome. It's not too bad, really; I'm able to function, and should be back to fighting fit in a few days with the proper rest and hydration. I only mention it because I thought the analogy was funny.

My tickled throat did not prevent me from seeing Cloud Atlas with a bunch of DSPT folks on Friday, preceded by dinner at a local Mexican restaurant. If you're not familiar with Cloud Atlas, you probably still won't be even after you see it. It's a complex production that interweaves six different storylines from different time periods and different parts of the world, all loosely connected somehow and further complicated by the fact that the same six or seven actors play the important parts in each of the narrative threads, so that Tom Hanks is a 19th century doctor in one and a 1970s nuclear scientist in another; and Hugh Grant plays both a slave owner and a futuristic Korean restaurant manager. (Yeah, in the 22nd century Korean storyline, most of the main characters are white folks in prosthetic make-up made to look like Koreans. It's a little odd.) I liked the movie overall... I think. The more I think about, the more the pieces start to fit together. Still, I'll probably have to read the book to get a grip on it.

This is the last week of classes before finals next week. It's not quite time to play "The Final Countdown," and unfortunately there's no catchy 80s tune called "The Penultimate Countdown." I may not end up having any in-class final exams, but I will have one take-home exam, possibly another, a bibliography project, four short papers, and one long research paper to finish and turn in before the end of next week. So... yeah. I'll be busy the next two weeks. You may not get a mid-week post from me. But then we'll be on Christmas break, and I'll have all kinds of free time with which to compose more half-baked thoughts to inflict upon you.

As we're nearing the end of the semester, I thought it would be fun to provide you with some of my favorite quotes from classes:

Intro to New Testament:
"Time constrains me from multiplying examples, but..." (says the professor before proceeding to multiple examples.)
"We cannot escape the importance of knowing the languages these texts were composed in."
"We are transformed by the holiness of God into the holiness of God."
"Matthew is in some ways a very fussy stylist."
(This professor had many great quips during class, but most were too quick for me to catch with my pen, to my regret.)

Aristotelian Logic: 
"Would you take the next one, Brother...." (he says, trailing off, as he has apparently forgotten the Dominican student brother's name again.)
(after a visiting student correctly uses the Square of Opposition to make inferences): "You see, a child could do this!"
"'A universal is a relation by which a many is known as one.' Say it!"
(Beginning a syllogism with the premises, "All humans are rational" and "All Franciscans are human," he jokes): "Both of these are only probable, not certain."

Philosophy of Nature:
"If you start your philosophy inside the mind, you may never get out; that's the problem with most modern philosophy. If you start outside, with the external world, you might get somewhere."
Passing on a maxim from Scholastic thought: "Never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish."

Ancient Philosophy: "Until you've read Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Moses, you're illiterate."
"Find any good Greek dictionary, and the entry for logos will be about the length of your arm."
"Everybody on the bus?" (the professor's way of asking if we understand or have any questions)
"If technology makes our lives any easier, we'll never get anything done."
About Socrates' past: "Think ex-Marine turned philosopher."
"There is a mischievous grin behind most of what Plato writes."
(Synecius of Cyrene was elected bishop of Ptolemais in 410AD): "That probably precipitated his baptism."
(About one of Basil of Caesarea's letters:) "There's nothing original here, which makes it so interesting."

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Church Chat

Catholicism is a religion that began in an Aramaic-speaking part of a Greek-speaking part of a Latin-speaking empire. This has created perhaps the greatest legacy of linguistic mash-ups this side of the Norman invasion of the British Isles (wherein the French-speaking Normans ran into, or rather over, the Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxons and bequeathed to us English-speakers a language in which we raise cattle but eat beef). Since I’m a word nerd, and since I thought others might find it useful, I’ve put together a short list of words commonly used in our religion, in theology, liturgy, etc., which have an archaic provenance, and provided their original meanings in their original language. If there are others you’d like to know, please ask!

Alleluia/Hallelujah – from Hebrew, a compound word: hallel, “praise,” and jah, a shortened form of “Yahweh.” When we sing this word before the reading of the Gospel during Mass, we are singing, “Praise God! Praise God! Praise God!” Fitting words to greet the pronouncement of the Good News. Speaking of which…

Gospel – from Old English godspell, translation of the Greek term evangelion, “good news.” This may help you connect a few things: some translations of the Bible have Jesus proclaiming “the good news,” while the evangelists write gospels. These words are all connected. An evangelist spreads the Gospel, which is good news, the good news of our salvation in Christ.

Amen – Hebrew, “so be it,” “truly,” an affirmation. Some Bible translations will render the word in English, while others leave it in Hebrew: you might find Jesus saying, “Truly, truly I say to you” or “Amen, amen, I say to you.” When you say amen, you are assenting to what has just been said.

Hosanna – Hebrew, “save” or “rescue.” Though it began as a plea, it became a word of praise, a word of trust in God who saves us. When the people of Jerusalem shouted this word as Jesus entered the city, it was in praise of him whom they believed to be the Messiah, who would bring about God’s saving action for his people. We do the same during the Mass when we echo their words: “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Kyrie Eleison/Christe Eleison – Greek, “Lord, have mercy/Christ, have mercy.” You probably knew what this one meant, as he often translate it into English, but I mention it so as to share with you two points of interest: 1) Back in the day when the Mass was in Latin, this phrase remained in the liturgy in Greek. 2) The word kyrios, “Lord,” came into Greek from the name of the Persian king Cyrus. Cyrus à kyrios. We’ve seen similar things in other languages: the German word kaizer and the Russian word czar are both derived from Caesar, and the Polish word for king, krol, is derived from Carolus, as in Carolus Magnus, or Charlemagne, as we know him in English. (Thanks to Fr. Albert Paretsky, OP, for sharing that tidbit in class.)

Christ/Messiah – These two words are related. Christos is the Greek translation of the Hebrew/Aramaic massiach, which means “anointed one.” It refers to one chosen by God for a special purpose. In the Old Testament, kings, and occasionally prophets and priests, were anointed upon the reception of their office. Who is the only person in the Old Testament referred to as “God’s anointed one”? David? Moses? Aaron? Nope. That would be the aforementioned Cyrus, king of Persia. In the book of Isaiah, Cyrus is called the anointed because it was through his conquering of the Babylonians that the Israelites were freed from their captivity there and allowed to return to their land and rebuild the temple. Jesus, who frees us from our sins and who himself is the fulfillment of the temple, is the one who has fulfilled God’s ultimate purpose, and is so most truly called Messiah or Christ: he is the Messiah.

Apostle – from the Greek verb apostolein, “to be sent.” In the Christian context, an apostle is one who is sent by one with authority to carry out that one’s will. Christ is the true apostle, the one sent by the Father to effect his will of salvation for his people; likewise, Christ chooses and sends others to carry on this mission; and the apostles selected others and commissioned them. Those with authority to carry out a mission or serve a role give that authority to others to carry it on. This is the notion of apostolic succession. The term apostle is usually applied to the Twelve, but it is also sometimes used in the tradition for people who are sent to a certain area to bring the Gospel message for the first time, e.g. St. Boniface as the “Apostle to Germany” or Sts. Cyril and Methodius as the “Apostles to the Slavs.”

Disciple – from the Latin discipulus, “student.” Those who are called disciples of Jesus in the New Testament are his followers, broadly speaking. This term should be distinguished from “apostle,” but too often people will mix them up or lump them all together, e.g. by referring to the “twelve disciples.” True, all apostles are disciples, but not all disciples are apostles. Let’s not lose their special designation.

Catholic – from the Greek katholikos, “universal” or “whole.” This term came to be applied to the Church very early on, in 107 by St. Ignatius of Antioch. The Church can be called “catholic” in a number of related senses: it is meant for all people (not just for a particular ethnic group or social class); it includes all Christians, even if some are imperfectly united to it (e.g. Protestants, Orthodox, eastern Christians); it teaches the faith in its entirety. You hear it in the Nicene Creed as one of the four marks of the Church: “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” Hmm, perhaps a post on the four marks of the Church would be warranted? Yes? No?

Church – from the German kirche, from the Greek ekklesia, “the called-out ones.” The Church consists of those who are called out from the world to follow Christ. Not in the sense of leaving it altogether, but in the classic sense of being “in the world but not of the world,” of knowing that heaven and earth will pass away, that this life is not all there is to life.

Sacrament – from the Latin sacramentum, “oath,” the translation of the Greek mysterion, “mystery.” The sacraments are bonds of grace that God has made with His people. They are His promises, His oaths to us, that He will provide for our spiritual well-being through these signs instituted by Christ and given to His Church for our salvation and sanctification.

Eucharist – from the Greek eucharistein, “thanksgiving.” There’s a whole lot of eucharistic theology one could get into here, but just remember: the Eucharist is a sacrifice of thanksgiving.

Baptism – from the Greek baptizos, “washing, cleansing.” The connection here should be fairly obvious, especially if you’ve seen a full immersion baptism before.

Pope – from the Greek papa, “father.” As the successor of St. Peter and head of the church of Rome, the church which “presides in love” (as St. Ignatius put it) over all the Christian churches, the bishop of Rome is rightly called the spiritual father of all Christians. This is why you’ll hear the pope referred to as the “Holy Father.”

Cardinal – from the Latin cardo, “hinge.” The designation of cardinal is given to those who exercise especially important responsibilities within the universal church, whether it’s leading a large and important diocese or heading up a Vatican office; the church’s welfare “hinges” on their good work. Interesting note: the bird known as the cardinal was given that name because its color matched the garments of the “princes of the church.”

Bishop – from the Greek episkopos, “overseer.” The bishop is responsible for “overseeing” the good of his local church, his diocese. Say, that’s a good one…

Diocese – derived from the name of the emperor Diocletian, who divided the Roman Empire into smaller administrative bodies which took his name. As the empire declined and fell, Christian bishops were often left as the only local leaders capable of taking on the governing responsibilities of the diocese, so that the bishop’s ecclesiastical jurisdiction came to be identified with this area.

Priest – from the Greek presbyteros, “elder,” by way of the Germanic word priester, “priest.” I mention the Germanic root in this case because you’ll see quite a bit of controversy with Protestants over whether the New Testament presbyters can be identified with Catholic and Orthodox priests. The answer would seem to lie in the etymology: our word for priest does not derive from the Greek word for pagan cultic priest, hiereus, or the Latin word, sacerdos. This is a strong indication that the present-day priest is the successor of the New Testament presbyter.

Deacon – from the Greek diakonos, “servant” or “minister.” In the Acts of the Apostles, seven men are chosen as diakonoi to assist the apostles with their duties in “serving” the Christian community. Likewise, the modern-day deacon assists the bishop in serving the Church by proclaiming the Gospel, preaching the homily, baptizing, and performing funeral rites, as well as teaching, serving the poor, and various other tasks.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Week in Review: Irish Thanksgiving

For Thanksgiving, I was invited to the home of Tom and Kit Greerty, along with several other DSPT students. Tom is an attorney and former college football player (for Oregon State!) who is taking some classes at the DSPT, and who is one of the friendliest fellows you're likely to meet. As such, he and his wife like to invite students to their home who don't have elsewhere to go on holidays. There were about 10 or so of us students, as well as members of Tom and Kit's family. We chatted theology and philosophy by the fireside while a student in jazz guitar strummed for us. We enjoyed a delicious meal and sparkling conversation. And we partook in an epic, back-and-forth game of Trivial Pursuit that ended in defeat for my team (though, in our defense, they got WAY easier questions than we did... luck of the draw). I am quite thankful to my gracious hosts for their hospitality.

The Thanksgiving break was a good opportunity to get some work done on a few impending projects. There are only about three weeks left in the semester, and a few papers will have to be written before that time. It's going to be a bit of a marathon, but I think I've been sufficiently ahead of the game for things to get done without my losing my sanity. Hopefully.

I cannot go without being mentioned that my beloved Fighting Irish are 12-0, and await a date with destiny in the national championship game against whatever team emerges from the SEC title game. To those who consider SEC football teams automatically superior to any other foe, I will say only this: don't sleep on Notre Dame. 12 other teams made that mistake this year.

In class this week...

Intro to New Testament: Last week's class reminded me of a favorite quip of mine. We were discussing the Gospel of Mark and its features, one of which is the "Messianic Secret." This refers to all of those instances where someone, be it a blind man who is healed or a demon who is expelled, proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, but Jesus orders them not to tell anyone. Why would he do this? It seems that Mark's Gospel is set up such that it culminates at the crucifixion with the centurion's confession, "Truly this was the Son of God"--you can't really know Jesus as the Messiah until you see him crucified. But anyway, to the joke: keep this repetition of Jesus ordering that he not be identified as the Messiah in mind. "So many Catholics are so private about their faith that it seems they think the most important of Jesus' commandments was: 'Go and tell no one.'" That's funny!

Aristotelian Logic: This story is actually from a few weeks ago, and has nothing to do with logic, but the story was told during logic class, so I'm going with it: our teacher told of a priest he knew who happened to have taught Pope John Paul II when the pontiff was a seminary student. After the pope's election, he was in a procession and spotted his old professor, shouting, "My teacher!" The priest then quipped, "Remember, Holy Father, that no student is above his master." Ha!

Philosophy of Nature: Work continues apace on my research project regarding ancient and medieval theories on "intellectual substances"/angels as the movers of the celestial spheres. I think most people would be surprised if they were told this was a perfectly straightforward scientific theory that had only been falsified once additional data was found, no different than the physical theories of Kepler, Copernicus, or Newton. Given what they knew about motion, Aristotle and Aquinas reasoned to certain conclusions. Perfectly scientific. Now, people might read that idea and laugh; physicists at one time also laughed at the idea that the universe had a beginning. Physicists in the 20th century. They thought it so obvious that, of course, the universe was eternal. Yeah. The point is, even if something sounds silly to you with the knowledge you have now, it doesn't mean it wasn't reasonable at a different time with the knowledge they had then.

Ancient Philosophy: One of the best things I've gained from this class is a greater knowledge of the sorts of philosophical ideas and categories that early Christian theologians used to help sort out some of the questions that arose about the Trinity, the nature(s) of Christ, etc. There are many examples of the Church Fathers taking a bit of "pagan" philosophy and saying, "Actually, that expresses rather well what we're trying to get it; let's just tweak it here and there, and it can work." Case in point: we read Plotinus' account of the nature of the One or the Good, which then generates the universal Intellect and the universal Soul, calling them three "hypostases." So, basically, the Neo-Platonist movement taught that the ultimate reality, the One, was really three. Sound familiar? As Fr. Ludwig put it: "These terms have a long history ahead of them in the Christian tradition." Fascinating.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Chronological Snobbery

A mother was speaking with her son and his girlfriend. The latter two were living together, and the mother was expressing concern about what the grandmother might think of two unmarried people “shacking up.” The girlfriend smiled condescendingly, patted the mother on the arm, and said, “It’s 2012, dear.”

What an odd response. What does the year have to do with the morality of the action in question? Did I miss the announcement at the beginning of the year saying, “With the advent of the new year, the following actions are now permissible…”?

I know what she was getting at: “People don’t think that way anymore. Times have changed. We’ve moved on.”

C.S. Lewis and his friend Owen Barfield had a term for this way of thinking: chronological snobbery,

“the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also "a period," and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them” (Surprised by Joy, chapter 13).

It would be an argument something like this: “People used to believe in a geocentric universe. People also used to believe that fornication was morally wrong. People no longer believe in a geocentric universe. Therefore, people should no longer believe that fornication is morally wrong.” That’s a bit silly, isn’t it? What’s the causal connection between those two things? Is it that simply because times have changed, that means they should have? Where does this sort of thinking come from?

It’s my theory that people are getting their disciplines mixed up. They’re taking what they find to be true in science and applying it to the realm of ethics, which is a bit like trying to play baseball according to the rules of football: “That’s ball four, so it’ll be first and goal for the Giants.” Allow me to explain.

In empirical science, knowledge progresses through a process of formulating hypotheses, gathering data, analyzing that data, and extrapolating to general theories based on the outcome. When new data is gathered, previously held theories may be discarded if they no longer fit the data. Most people have neither the time nor the educational background to personally verify each new scientific discovery, and assume that this mechanism of advancement in knowledge is working as it should; they assume that science progresses. If an old theory isn’t held anymore, it’s because it’s been disproved. People used to believe the universe was held together by ether, or that the sun went around the earth, or that the universe was eternal; but they don’t believe those things anymore, so the scientific method must have eliminated them.

It may be the case that people, consciously or unconsciously, assume that this same sort of process takes place within philosophy, and especially morality. Perhaps they think that each generation of philosophy is a disputation with the previous generation in which the present group logically contradicts the ideas of the old guard, thus advancing our knowledge of the nature of being, or of ethics, or of the very logic being used to argue. If people used to believe in objective truth, or the real correspondence between language and reality, or the immorality of certain acts, but don’t anymore, it must be because these notions have been demonstrated to be false. If people don’t hold an idea anymore, it must have been disproved. …Right?

Really? Can you tell me when and how this occurred? Can you give me the name of the thinker who made this discovery? Can you demonstrate these new philosophical conclusions to me through valid argumentation? If you think you can, by all means, let’s proceed with the discussion; at least then, we’re investigating the matter and thinking about it, and not making the absurd move of pointing to the calendar and proclaiming “QED.” (* “QED” = quod erat demonstrandum, “That which was to be proved,” traditionally used in math and logic at the end of an argument when the conclusion has successfully been demonstrated.) You cannot simply assume that an idea has been reasonably disproved because it has fallen out of favor with “people” (a slippery term itself: Which people? Where? When?).

A person is quite prone to abandoning moral truths if it’s convenient; we need only look at our own lives to see that demonstrated. If enough people find it convenient to abandon the same moral truth for convenience, suddenly “people don’t believe that anymore.” Then if you were to ask someone why they didn’t believe that, say, “shacking up” was immoral, they’d respond with something like, “What? This isn’t the Middle Ages. It’s 2012.” They assume that, because either the mysterious “they” or “people” no longer hold that idea to be true, it must be because someone, somewhere at some time has shown that moral notion to be false, even if they can’t tell you how. “I can’t detail why Einstein’s model replaced Newton’s, but I trust that ‘they’ got it right; I can’t tell you why society has accepted X, Y, and Z that it used to reject, but I trust ‘they’ got it right.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this phenomenon of chronological snobbery as our country has been engaged in a discussion over whether to re-define the institution of marriage. Well, actually, I wish there were a discussion: then we might actually get somewhere. A discussion would involve stating principles, reviewing arguments and lines of reasoning, considering what the good of the human person and human society is, and the like. But what we seem to get instead is a lot of name-calling (“bigot,” “homophobe,” “Nazi,” etc.); a whole lot of appeals to popular opinion, or rather, the opinions of the popular (“Well, Brad Pitt is in favor of same-sex marriage, shouldn’t you be? I don’t see your name on any Oscar nomination lists”); and an awful lot of chronological snobbery: “That’s so backward. This isn’t the Dark Ages. Be on the right side of history.”

As G.K. Chesterton said, “Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.” Just because an idea suddenly becomes popular does not mean that its contrary has been demonstrated false. But if you think it has, present your reasoning. Let’s examine your premises to see if they’re true. Let’s see if they lead to your conclusion. Let’s have a discussion. Let’s not just say, “It’s 2012.” After all, there are only 40 days left in 2012; if you think you’re right simply because “it’s 2012,” maybe in 2013 you’ll be wrong.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Week in Review: Hammy Jokes

Not too many events of note to share with you from this last week. It was pretty standard. (I apologize for again not producing a mid-week post, but I've got one sitting on deck, ready to go for this week.) I'll share a few random thoughts and stories:

-- Could someone explain to me why Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, a Frenchman, drinks Earl Grey tea, quotes Shakespeare, and has an English accent? Did the British finally take over France some time before the 24th century?

-- I had the following exchange with a customer in our sandwich shop the other day:
Customer: What is the difference between the ham and the smoked ham?
Me (trying to keep a straight face): Well... one is smoked, and the other isn't.
Customer: OK, so one is smokier than the other?
Me: Um... yeah.
Customer: OK, give me half of each on sourdough.
-- My landlord asked me if I knew any philosophy jokes, so I told him this one: Rene Descartes walks into a bar and orders a few rounds. Near the end of the night, the bartender asks, "Would you like another?" Descartes answers, "I think not." And disappears.

(See, because Descartes' famous line was Cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore, I am." So the joke is that when he says, "I think not," he would cease to exist because he's no longer thinking [though that's not quite what is meant by the phrase--his point is that he can be sure of his own existence because, were he to doubt his existence, the very act of his doubting means there's someone doing the doubting. Anyway....)

On to the week in class:

Ancient Philosophy: Neo-Platonism has about as much to do with the teachings of Plato as modern-day Lutheranism has to do with the teachings of Martin Luther.

Philosophy of Nature: We've been addressing questions like, "What is time? What is motion? What is space?" You know, the simple, easy stuff. To paraphrase St. Augustine, "I know what it is until somebody asks me." It's the things that are most fundamental, the things we take for granted, that are the most difficult to define or explain. But let's try: both time and motion exist as part of continua. That is, time does not precede as a series of discrete moments, like a series of dots forming a line; nor does motion proceed in such halting steps. They are potentially or theoretically divisible into infinite parts, but not actually divisible in that way. Both time and motion are fluid transitions from something not being the case to something being the case; and indeed, we only know time because of motion, or change. Motion is the measurement of change over time. Combine this with Einstein's theory of relativity, which states that time and speed can only be measured relative to the observer, and we see that there are as many times as there are motions. Yeah, chew on that one for a while. I've spent hours over the last few weeks reading this stuff, and you get it condensed into one neat, hopefully comprehensible paragraph. You're welcome.

Intro to New Testament: "Apocalyptic" is not a word that means "scary," "destructive," or "catastrophic." The Greek word apokalypsis means "the remove the veil, to uncover, to reveal." That's why the Book of Revelation in your granny's old Bible is called "The Book of Apocalypse." We associate that word with the above-mentioned adjectives because, upon a surface reading of the text, we see an awful lot of earthquakes and fires and wrath and famines and plagues and such. These things are secondary to the real core of apocalyptic literature: someday, God is going to right the wrongs in the world, and vindicate those who have been faithful to Him. Sure, that's going to entail a bit of carnage for those who haven't been faithful, but let's not focus on the Four Horsemen so much that we forget the New Jerusalem and the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

Aristotelian Logic: The more I study logic, the more I become convinced that it ought to be a required subject in high schools. Back in the day, it was part of the basic trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic that any person would have to learn before moving on to other subjects; the assumption was that you wouldn't have the ability to understand anything else if you didn't have a grasp of these three. I've found the study of logic to be a great aid to my own thinking. Imagine how different society would be if everyone were well-guarded against fallacious arguments?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Week in Review: Syllogisms in Flight

Those of you who are attentive to patterns may have noticed that I tend to make two posts per week: one at the weekend describing the previous week's goings-on, and another at mid-week on some topic or other that I felt like expounding upon; you may have further noticed that a mid-week post from me was lacking in the last week. My apologies: it was a busy week, and I didn't have time to work out something decent. I will try to not let that happen this week. Can't let the public down. Either of you.

Apart from the cycle of class-homework-class-work-homework-work-class-etc. that I've settled into, there were a few events of note over the last week. On Tuesday the school put on another Philosophy Movie Night event, in which DSPT student Caleb Brown led the audience through the viewing of a film, pointing out  the storytelling and movie-making techniques being used by the filmmaker to convey the movie's message. That night we watched WALL-E, the Disney/Pixar film about a trash-cleaning robot who falls in love, saving humanity on the way and teaching us something about what it means to be human. I don't want to give too much away for those who haven't seen it, but for those who have seen, and for others when you do see it, think of Noah's Ark, and the movie may take on a whole different meaning for you. (By the way, the writer/director said Noah's Ark was specifically in his mind when writing the story.)

On Thursday I went with a few friends to see Flight, starring Denzel Washington. You may have seen the previews: a pilot makes a daring and amazing emergency crash landing, and admits to having had "a few drinks" the night before the flight. The commercials give the impression that the film might be about some sinister element trying to frame this hero, but really (and I don't think I'm giving too much away), the movie is about this man dealing with his addictions. There's a thread throughout about God acting in people's lives, but it's kind of subtle. Be warned: there are scenes featuring nudity and drug use. The movie can be tough to watch, but I thought it ended with a good message.

I also happened to have a nice little chat with the president of the DSPT, Father Michael Sweeney, OP, earlier this week. We were both in the school's kitchen, eating lunch, and he commented on the weather; we were soon discussing our love of the Pacific Northwest (he's from British Columbia and was pastor of a parish in Seattle for many years), and he asked me about my current studies and future aspirations. Unfortunately, I had to cut the conversation short (I was nearly late for work), but I appreciated the time he took to talk a bit with one of his school's students.

Highlights from class this week:

Philosophy of Nature: It's funny how, when scientific paradigms shift, some can be so derisive of what came before, only to be derided themselves by later generations. Some ancient models of the cosmos placed the earth at the center of the universe. Then someone came along and laughed and said, "How silly; of course, the sun is the center of the universe." Then someone came along and laughed and said, "You fool! Of course, our solar system is on the periphery of the real center of the universe." Then Einstein came along and argued that, according to his relativity theory, there actually is no center of the universe, or just as accurately, that everything is the center of the universe in relation to everything else. Let's us remember humility in the face of the great mysteries which we are trying to unravel.

History of Ancient Philosophy: It's amazing how varied are the backgrounds of ancient philosophers. Socrates was the son of a stone cutter. Aristotle was the son of the court physician to Philip of Macedon. Epictetus was born as a slave. Marcus Aurelius was born a noble and became emperor of Rome. Clear thinking and insight are not birthrights.

Introduction to New Testament: Our professor re-presented a theory of his about which I have written previously, but I realized I left something out. Do you remember the story where Jesus expels from a man demons who call themselves Legion, and they are sent into a herd of swine which then run to the shore and cast themselves into the sea, dying? I had earlier mentioned my professor's theory that this may be an allegory for driving out the Romans, since the standard of the 10th Legion stationed in Judea was a boar's head, and the demon called itself Legion. I omitted this important point: Jesus is the Messiah. The Messiah is one who rights wrongs, who punishes injustice, who re-establishes God's order. There are many references to God casting his people's enemies into the sea, or saving his people "from the raging waters"--think of the Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea. Historically for the Jews, too, the sea was symbolic of danger and chaos: storms, floods, and the invading Phoenicians, Macedonians, and Romans. Put this together with the boar's head of the 10th Legion, and we see this event, not as a political statement, but as a theological one: Jesus is the Messiah, driving the enemies of God's people into the sea.

Aristotelian Logic: We've begun discussing the form of logical argument, the syllogism. A syllogism is an argument with two premises that lead to a conclusion, like:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

The class "men" is identified with a characteristic, mortality; since Socrates belongs to this class, he also posses that characteristic.

Beware of arguments, though, that look good, but are really false, like:

All U.S. presidents have been male.
Lincoln was male.
Therefore, Lincoln was a U.S. president.

All three statements are true. And we have a class of people identified with a characteristic, then an individual named as part of that class. It would seem to be like the previous example. But it ain't. Try inserting another person's name in there and see if it works:

All U.S. presidents have been male.
Charlie Chaplin was male.
Therefore, Charlie Chaplin was a U.S. president.

The problem is with the term "male." While it is true that all U.S. presidents have been male, the reverse is not true: not every male has been a U.S. president. This problem is called "the undistributed middle" (perhaps I will tackle distribution in a later post.) If we made that first statement into a negative proposition, then the middle would be distributed, and the syllogism would be valid:

No U.S. president has been a Frenchman.
Napoleon was a Frenchman.
Therefore, Napoleon was not a U.S. president.

Universal negative statements like that have distributed terms (meaning what is said of one is said of all): it is true of every Frenchman that he has not been a president, and it is true of every president that he has not been a Frenchman. Universal affirmative statements do not have distributed terms: It is true of all U.S. presidents that they have been male, but it is not true of every male that he has been president.

Yeah, I should probably go over distribution more in depth at some point. But I hope that made some sense.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Week in Review: Artists and Cynics

In the balancing act between school and work which I've undertaken, I'm still wobbling a little at times, but I think I'll make it to the other side safely. For some people, having a limited amount of time in which to finish their work sends them into a nail-biting panic. They run in circles and wring their hands and spend an ironic amount of time telling people about how little time they have. Deo gratias, I am not usually that sort of person. Generally, I find that having less time available to me helps to focus me: "OK, I have only two hours to do this reading today" makes me buckle down more than, "OK, I have... all day to do this reading... but it's only three hours until lunch, so... I better just lie down for a bit." It does leave less time for leisure, but there's a positive effect there, too: the less leisure time you have, the more you can appreciate it and enjoy it.

I was nearly social on a couple of occasions this week, but plans fell through. This allowed me to catch up through season 4 of Mad Men; I can see why the show won four consecutive Emmys for Best Drama. I also took the opportunity to watch The Artist, which I thoroughly enjoyed. A film like that is an empirical datum supporting that study which found that 94% of human communication is non-verbal, and an exemplar of the old adage "Actions speak louder than words." Just think of how often you can glean a person's mood, attitude, or reaction to something from their posture, facial expression, or eye contact. Amazing, really.

Highlights from class this week:

Introduction to New Testament: Our professor has expressed his dismay at our class's lack of biblical literacy. I was able to pleasantly surprise him, though, when, one day before class, I was sitting and reading from the Gospel of Mark. The professor walked into the room, saw me reading, and said to me, "Of course, you're reading the Bible," his joke that, naturally, that's what one would be reading before a Bible class tinged by his earlier lamentations (pun intended--get it, it's a book of the Bible!). Then after glancing down at my reading material, said with surprise, "Oh, you are reading the Bible." Happy to oblige.

Aristotelian Logic: A few weeks ago I told you about the logical process of obversion, a process for clearing up confusing language (e.g. turning "No man is a non-factor" into "All men are a factor"). We also recently learned about a related operation, conversion. It sounds pretty simple at first: "No man is an island" also means "No island is a man." "Some Irish are red-heads" also means "Some red-heads are Irish." BUT a universal affirmative statement (e.g. All X are Y) cannot be converted simply, as those others were: "All sparrows are birds" does not mean "All birds are sparrows;" at most we can say that "All sparrows are birds" means that "Some birds are sparrows." You'd be surprised at how often people make a mistake in their thinking by assuming that a universal affirmative can be converted simply. It happens to the best of us.

Philosophy of Nature: We began class by taking a quiz, a highly unusual exercise for this class. There were about twenty statements dealing with Aristotle's philosophy of substantial change, and we were to label them true or false. As we began to correct the quiz, many of the students were getting the answers wrong, and they began to complain that the statements were vague, imprecise, and confusing. The professor simply responded, "Actually, I didn't write these questions, you all did; these are statements taken from your homework assignment from last week." He had contrived the whole thing as an exercise in teaching us to be more precise with our language. My friend and I after class said to each other, "That... was... awesome!" Never have I been so amused by being so humbled.

History of Ancient Philosophy: You're probably familiar with the term "cynic" meaning "a person with a negative or pessimistic outlook." Did you know that there was an ancient philosophical school called the Cynics? And did you know that the name has nothing to do with pessimism? The name derives from the Greek word kynikos, meaning "dog-like." There are a few different theories on how they got stuck with that name, but it's quite possibly connected with their mindset of eschewing conventional social behavior in favor of doing whatever comes naturally, which manifested itself in lewd public acts intended to shock others. You know, like teenagers.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Very Unique Post

Many know me to be a stickler for correct usage in language. For example, if you use "further" in reference to a physical distance, I will inform you that the word you wish to employ is "farther," but I'd be happy to discuss it further with you. If I ask you where John is and you tell me that "Him and Jack went to the store," I will cringe, mourn the loss of the nominative pronoun, and ask you to let me know when he and Jack get back.

Yeah, I'm that guy. I'm not proud of it. Recently I've tried to curtail my corrections to those instances that actually hinder understanding, as opposed to every case of impropriety. But my purpose in this brief post is different. Today, I aim my fire at the hyper-correcter.

You know these people. These are the ones who think that "me" can never be used in conjunction with another noun, and will chastise you for saying, "He gave a dollar to Sam and me." "Uh, I'm sorry, but it should be 'Sam and I,'" they'll say, the wattage of their condescending smile powered by the energy of their own sense of self-satisfaction. Next time that happens, you may politely inform them that since sentence calls for an object pronoun, "me" is correct; you can further enlighten them with the rule-of-thumb of dropping the conjoined noun and seeing how one would construct the sentence then: "'He gave a dollar to me.' Oh. I see."

Another example is on my mind at the moment. It may prove controversial, but I think it speaks to a deeper philosophical and theological truth.

"This is a very unique blog post."

Scoff McOvercorrecter would see that sentence and start having involuntary spasms. "Excuse me, but 'unique' means 'one-of-a-kind,' 'nothing like it,' so there's no way to qualify that: something is either unique or it isn't."

I think that's wrong. I think that's wrong in an important way.

Take the following number sequences:


Each of these sequences is unique in comparison to the others because no two sequences are exactly alike; they are different, unrepeated. And yet it would be perfectly sensible to say that the first sequence is "more unique" than the other two because it repeats no numbers within itself, whereas the second and third sequences repeat the number 2. The last two share a characteristic with each other that they don't share with the first, and yet they are truly unique despite that commonality.

Or say you had three golden retrievers in front of you. Each one is a different entity, and is unique in that sense; there is no other dog that is that dog. Yet one dog is considerably bigger than the other two and has a scar on its snout from a fight with a raccoon. All of the dogs are unique, but that one is more unique than the others; if it had six legs, it would be very unique among dogs.

When we use the phrase "more unique" or "very unique," we are recognizing that the thing we are describing 1) is an individual which belongs to a set (it's a species in a genus, for you Aristotelians), 2) shares many traits with other things in that set, but 3) that thing also has features which set it apart from that set. We are acknowledging the gradations of likeness and unlikeness between things.

The over-correcter would like to say that "unique" means "one-of-a-kind" in an absolute sense, but only God could properly be described in this way. God does not belong to a genus or species. God has no equal. And yet, God is still "like" other things in some ways; or rather, things are like God in some ways. Anything that exists has some relation to other things that exists. This is called "the analogy of being." It is because of the analogy of being that we can have any knowledge of God, or really, any abstract or conceptual knowledge of anything.

If anything were truly "absolutely unique," if no analogy could be made between it and anything else, you could not know it. You would have no mental categories in which to place it. You would have no way to describe or define it. After all, when someone asks you to describe something, what do they say: "What's it like?" That's asking for an analogy. Saying something is unique only prompts the question, "As compared to what?" If you take away the ability to compare (analogy), you then take away the ability to call something unique. It's a self-defeating proposition.

So, to conclude: if you're one of those people who say that you can't qualify "unique," like saying "very unique" or "more unique," the consequence of your position is that we can have no conceptual knowledge of anything, and no knowledge of God. Do you really want to say that? I doubt many people would take that position; if you did, you'd be very unique.

(There may well be a hole in this argument that a baby elephant could comfortably hide in, as I have not had a coursework in epistemology or metaphysics as of yet, and may be a little out of my depth, but it makes sense to me. Please do feel free to charitably point out any errors you spot.)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Week in Review: Angelic Research

Dear Readers (both of you),

I'm afraid there isn't too terribly much to report this week. No classes met this week, as it was what the school has termed Reading Week, ostensibly intended to give students a wee bit of time and space to do research for big end-of-semester projects, or perhaps to just catch up on reading for classes. 

I was able to get a good deal of work done on two of my impending projects. In Introduction to New Testament, I'm doing a bibliography project (meaning I have to research and find twenty or so books and/or academic articles concerning my topic and write a brief paper on how I would proceed were I to be writing a full paper) on the way in which angels serve as models for human behavior in the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. That is, in Luke and Acts there are many instances in which angels appear and do or say things, then people go and do likewise. Consider things like: the angelic host praising and adoring God that appears to the shepherds, followed by the shepherds going to the Christ-child and... praising and adoring God; or the angel who ministers to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, followed by... Mary standing by Jesus at the cross; or the two angels appearing to the women at the tomb telling them that Jesus had risen, followed by the women... going to the Apostles and telling them that Jesus had risen; or Stephen preaching God's word, God's message (making Stephen a messenger, or angelos), and the text of Acts saying, "His face appeared like an angel's." There's a lot there, I think, as did my professor, apparently, who suggested the idea. I have to keep digging.

My other project is a long research paper for Philosophy of Nature. I'm writing on the development between the time of Aristotle and Aquinas of the idea that the celestial bodies (i.e. planets and stars) were moved by some sort of "intelligent substances," which Aquinas deemed to be angels. This wasn't just some poetic notion, "Oh, the stars are pushed along by fat baby cherubs." Not at all. It actually begins with a very sensible principle. Aristotle believed that all motion was for reaching some end or purpose; in essence, motion is for getting somewhere. Seems reasonable enough, right? He thought that things had their natural places toward which they would tend when set in motion. So, cannonballs, being made of "earthy" substances, would tend toward the earth, while fire or heat would rise toward the heavens, toward the eternal fires burning up there. But this presented a problem when dealing with the movements of the heavens, because they just seemed to keep going round and round, not reaching any sort of destination. If natural motion always goes towards some destination, and the heavens weren't moving toward a destination, then their motion couldn't be natural motion; something had to be pushing them, something that had its own purpose, so it had to be intelligent. Aquinas, with no sound scientific reason to reject Aristotle's physics, saw this notion of "intelligent substances" moving the heavens, took the Christian notion that God governs creation via the angels, and put two and two together: these "intelligent substances" moving the spheres must be the angels! Now fast-forward 800 years, with the advances in astronomy and physics made by Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, and we're pretty sure that the planets and stars move due to their following the paths shaped by the way in which space-time is warped by the mass of other bodies, that is, gravitation. Angels aren't needed as agents of motion in the heavens... but that doesn't mean they don't still exercise some governance over them. There's a great depiction of this idea in C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Check them out some time.

The attentive reader may have noticed that both of my research topics involve angels in some way. They suggest here that one use their papers and projects to develop potential thesis topics. I'm considering doing something or other on angels, but I've still got a few years before I have to nail anything down definitively. I could research my roommates contention that "Every time the San Francisco Giants lose, an angel gets its wings" (he's a big Dodgers fan), which I find to be theologically problematic in a number of ways, but there may not be too much scholarship on the subject. (For the sarcasm-detection-impaired, I clarify that that was a joke.) We'll see.

Well, I managed to crank out more than I anticipated. Hope it makes some sense to you.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Three Methods of Persuasion

Aristotle, he of such nicknames as “The Stagirite” (which refers to his birthplace, Stagira), “The Philosopher” (which St. Thomas Aquinas calls him in his works, but only when he agrees with him), or “Ari” or “Telly” to his friends, wrote on nearly every topic one could imagine: ethics, physics, metaphysics, biology, zoology, poetry… I’m surprised he didn’t release a cookbook. Today’s focus will be on another area, rhetoric, and specifically on the three ways or “proofs” into which Aristotle classified all persuasive speech. Then you’ll be able not only to use these yourself, but to defend yourself against the persuasive attempts of others, be they politicians or used car salesmen (but I repeat myself).

Aristotle said that all persuasive speech can be divided into three categories:

Logos, “the appeal to reason”: We could perhaps also call this, “Use your head!” In this sort of appeal, the speaker uses facts, figures, arguments, graphs, charts, principles, axioms, and any other method aimed at the gray matter between your ears to persuade you to adopt the speaker’s viewpoint.

Pathos, “the appeal to emotion”: We could call this, “Have a heart!” Here the speaker’s objective is to tug at your heartstrings, to incite an emotional response in you, to make you feel what they feel (or, more cynically, what they want you to feel). The aim is not to induce your head to make a calculation, but rather to put you in the emotional state the speaker thinks will compel you to adopt the speaker’s viewpoint.

Ethos, “the appeal to the integrity of the speaker”: We could perhaps call this, “Listen to your gut.” Strangely, this method often has little to do with the subject matter at hand, but instead adduces the speaker’s own trustworthiness as the criterion of persuasion. “Trust me,” “You know who I am,” “We’ve been through a lot together,” and other such phrases are typical of this type of appeal. Aristotle says that this appeal is the most powerful method of persuasion.

Let’s use a concrete example to illustrate these: taxes! Who doesn’t love a good ol’ debate on tax policy, right? It has all the excitement of a root canal and all the clarity of Gabby Johnson’s speech from Blazing Saddles. But let’s examine some typical persuasive speech on tax policy and see what we can see.

Logos: “If we keep taxes low, it will encourage businesses to grow, which means hiring more workers, which means more incomes to tax, which actually means more revenue for the government. After all, what’s a larger number: 45% of 100, or 36% of 200?” (The speaker argues that, granted his premise that low taxes means more hiring and thus more income to be taxed, that a smaller percentage of a higher number produces a greater result than a higher percentage of a lower number.)

OR: “My opponent’s numbers don’t add up. Besides, it is not guaranteed that lower taxes will necessarily make businesses hire more people, so we ought not to rely on that.” (The speaker counter-argues by challenging that premise, saying that there is no logically necessary connection between low taxes and increased revenue.)

Pathos: “The middle class is suffering in this country, while the rich take advantage of loopholes to pay less. Companies make higher profits than ever before, while you struggle to put food on the table, or send your kids to college. Enough is enough! The wealthy need to pay their fair share!” (The speaker is appealing to the listener’s desire for justice, or the speaker is trying to stir up feelings of envy.)

OR: “The government is trying to take away your hard-earned money to feed the bureaucratic fat cats in Washington! Your money belongs to, not to the federal government! What’s fair is for you to be able to keep as much of your earnings as possible.” (The speaker is appealing to the listener’s desire for security, or the speaker is trying to stir up feelings of fear.)

Ethos: “I’m a businessman with 30 years of experience, and I’ve successfully run a state, a hospital, a prison, and in one case, a state prison hospital. I know what it takes to be successful, to balance a budget.” (Here the speaker, appealing to his past success, asks you to trust him in making decisions.)

OR: “According to the non-partisan Institute for the Advanced Study of Things and Stuff, my opponent’s plan will increase the debt by eleventy-gajillion dollars by next Thursday.” (Here the speaker appeals to the prestige of an institution as a reason to trust what he says.)

After looking at these examples, can you tell why is ethos the most persuasive type of argument? Logos relies on the audience’s ability or willingness to follow a complex argument, or apprehend a large amount of data, or accept the premises of your argument as true: many times an audience is unwilling or unable to do this, or they get lost in the attempt. With pathos, one must realize how slippery it can be to try to manipulate someone’s emotions: you may not produce the effect you intended. With ethos, the task is somewhat simpler: all you have to do is get the audience to trust you. They don’t have to wade through a morass of syllogisms and propositions; they don’t have to be carefully led to the proper emotional state; they simply have to believe that you would tell them the truth. And when people trust you enough, they’ll go along with what you say, whether or not they totally understand it, as a child with a parent, a student with a teacher, a novice with a mentor. And because it is so powerful, when it backfires, things can go horribly, horribly wrong. If the audience finds that the speaker was lying to them, that betrayal can diminish the audience’s ability to trust anyone. If the an immoral speaker uses that trust to manipulate people, we can see evil on the scale of Nazi Germany, the genocide in Rwanda, or that of Charles Manson or Jim Jones, all of whom led people to do the unthinkable.

To quote Father Christmas in the film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “These are tools, not toys. Bear them well.” You can appeal to someone’s reason validly, or you can use fallacious arguments to trick them. You can appeal to their emotions to make them feel the true weight of the matter at hand, or you can manipulate them into a malleable state, ready to do your bidding. You can appeal to someone’s trust in you to make them see when they wouldn’t otherwise understand, or you can use it to stab them in the back. Be careful how you use them.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Week in Review: The Russians are Coming with Sandwiches

This last week I started a part-time job at a deli not too far from the DSPT. Zarri’s Delicatessen in Albany, CA features sandwiches, sliced meats, and a variety of products such as pastas, sauces, wines, olive oils, etc. It’s owned by an upstanding Catholic family, and the owner likes to hire DSPT students so he can talk philosophy with them. After a few conversations with him, I’d say he qualifies as what Fr. Ludwig (my ancient philosophy professor) would call “a philosopher with a day job.” The other employees are a fun bunch, given to making smart-aleck remarks to each other as they make sandwiches or slice up some dry salami. I’m sure that once they get me trained on everything, you could walk in there and hear me singing “O sole mio” as I carve up some porchetta. The extra cash will most definitely help: try as I do to live simply, the Bay Area is an expensive place, and on top of that my car received some needed repairs, which were spendy—I went in for an oil change and ended up with five or six other things which I knew needed to be handled at some point, but didn’t realize were so urgent as they were. You’re probably thinking, “Oh Nick, you got taken by some seedy mechanic into paying for fake repairs’—sed contra, I could tell in the three-mile drive home how much better the car was performing. Still… I would have preferred to save that money, but c’est la vie.

Just yesterday for Mass I attended the Divine Liturgy at Our Lady of Fatima Russian Byzantine Catholic Church in San Francisco. Allow me to anticipate your questions: “Nick, what in the Samuel F. Hill is a Russian Byzantine Catholic Church, and why would a Russian church name itself after a Portuguese apparition?” As to the second question, no idea. As to the first, let me introduce a fact that may surprise you: technically speaking, the “Roman Catholic Church” is just one of twenty-two “Catholic Churches”, all of which are in communion with the Holy See and recognize the Pope as their head. See, the word “church” can mean different things: it can refer to your local parish; it can refer to the diocese, what’s usually called the “local church” in canon law, headed by the bishop; it can refer to the universal church, that is, the worldwide communion of “local churches” under the headship and authority of the Pope; or it can refer to a particular group of local churches which share a common historical and liturgical heritage, and are thus organized as their own sui iuris or “self-governing” churches, while still in communion with Rome. These sui iuris churches are the products of historical circumstances which caused them to develop differently from the Latin or Roman churches (i.e. most of the Catholic Church, numerically speaking). They are usually grouped under the name “Eastern Catholic Churches” because they all have their historical roots in parts east of Rome, from India to the Holy Land to the Ukraine and Russia, Greece and Albania. In most cases these churches were at one time part of the communion of the Orthodox Church, but later came into communion with Rome and were allowed to keep their own liturgical and cultural heritage. So: the “Russian Byzantine Catholic Church” is a Catholic Church which was at one time part of the Russian Orthodox Church, but broke away and came into communion with Rome. The “Byzantine” part of the name means that it follows the Greek liturgical tradition. Byzantine Catholic Churches refer to the Mass as the “Divine Liturgy” and will celebrate it in some of the different forms they’ve used through the centuries, such as the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, or of St. Basil the Great, or of St. James.

I went there because I have a great love for liturgy, and for Eastern Catholics liturgy is one of their defining attributes; their liturgy is one of the things that makes them who they are. As such, they tend to celebrate it with great care, which results in great beauty. This particular parish had recently moved into the downstairs area of a Roman Catholic church, but it’s small space was beautifully decorated with icons and ornamentation. Incense permeated the air, accompanied by the tinkling of the bells attached to the thurible (i.e. the thing what you incense with). Most of the liturgy was chanted, some parts by the deacon or priest, some parts by the choir with its mellifluous harmonies. (Sorry, “mellifluous” is one of my favorite words, and I couldn’t resist the chance to use it.) The only part of the liturgy in Russian was the first reading, read first in English, then in Russian. The rest was in English, apart from the typical Hebrew (amen, alleluia, hosanna) or Greek (kyrie eleison) words we always use in our English renditions. The prayers of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom are ornate and poetic; I think that the new translation of the Latin-rite Mass recaptures much of this quality in our own liturgy. The whole thing is a very sensate experience. It moves body and soul closer to God. The Second Vatican Council called the liturgy “the source and summit of the Christian life,” and celebrating it in a way that captures the entire person, body and soul, helps one to realize that: you are at the wellspring of grace, the apex of the spiritual life here on earth. The Latin rite liturgy (whether done in English or Latin), when done well, can be just as beautiful and moving as the Eastern liturgy I’ve described. I think more people would come to know the truth of the faith if they were to see it so beautifully enacted. It’s always there, but it’s sometimes hard to see.

I seem to be on a Russian kick of late: I was drinking White Russians a few weeks ago; I went to the Russian Catholic Church yesterday; and on Saturday I watched the classic film The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming (nominated for three Oscars when released back in the 1960s). Purely coincidence, I assure you.

A round-up from classes:

Intro to New Testament: We’ve been talking about narrative criticism, that is, using the structure of the Gospels as stories to interpret them. For example, by noticing certain elements of the structure of Matthew’s gospel, you can see how much it draws from and connects to Judaism. It seems to be divided, by a series of narratives and dialogues, into five sections… like the Torah and its five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). As he begins his gospel with the genealogy of Jesus, the very first words are, in Greek, “biblios geneseos,” which we usually translate “The book of the generations,” but could just as easily be translated “book of Genesis.” And where does Matthew’s Gospel end? With Jesus on a mountaintop. Where does the Torah end? With Moses on a mountaintop. The whole point is that Jesus is the new Moses, the fulfillment of God’s promise to the patriarchs, the true Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. Neat, eh?

Aristotelian Logic: Have you ever gotten tangled up in reading a sentence with lots of negations in it? Something like “He is not a non-factor.” Huh? We learned a way to clear up such phrases, through a technique called obversion. To get the obverse of a phrase, you change the verb and the predicate, reversing the negations so that they mean the same thing, but are stated positively: “He is not a non factor” becomes “He is a factor.” Or “All men are non-women” becomes “No men are women.” It may seem trivial, but it can be useful if someone tries to trick you with multiple negations in a sentence: “Did you take my sandwich?” “Uh… I didn’t not take your sandwich.” “So you took my sandwich?” “Uh… yeah.”

History of Ancient Philosophy: Funny how Aristotle keeps coming up in different classes. You’d think he was important or something. One interesting thing learned from discussing him in this class: Whether he’s discussing the nature of poetry, or rhetoric, or physics, or ethics, he goes about it all in the same way. He identifies the four causes of a thing, and thereby comes to know it. See, I told you that the four causes were useful!

Philosophy of Nature: Oh, poor Philosophy of Nature… I think you’ll get your own post later this week.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Hypocrisy: What It Is and What It Ain't

You sometimes see something like the following in public life: Person A speaks against a certain practice or policy as somewhere between being detrimental to national interests and being morally wrong; Person A is then found to be engaging in the very practice or policy he was condemning; Person A is declared a hypocrite for doing one thing and saying another. Whether it’s a pro-traditional marriage politician who’s been divorced three times, or an environmentalist being called out for flying all over the world in a private jet to speak to groups about how people shouldn’t fly all over the world in private jets, or public education advocates sending their own children to private schools, or an anti-drunk driving crusader getting popped for a DUI, society is quick to jump on the offender as an lying, two-faced hypocrite… and that’s if they’re feeling charitable.

But is that what hypocrisy is? Simply doing one thing and saying another?

No. I think there’s another piece that’s needed to complete the definition.

A hypocrite is someone who preaches against something BUT believes that it’s wrong when you do it, but OK when they do it. If they admit their mistake, then they are shown to be a sinner, or inconsistent, or capable of having a moment of weakness; but that’s not the same as hypocrisy. Hypocrisy lies in holding others to a standard different from oneself.

Let’s look at our examples. Take the anti-drunk driving crusader who’s charged with drunk driving. If they respond to the situation with a sincere admission to the effect of “I am so sorry, this was so wrong of me, I lost control of myself, it’s my fault,” that’s inconsistency between principle and action, a moment of imperfection (albeit a serious one, certainly). If they respond with a “Well, it was just once, I thought I was fine, nobody got hurt, what’s the big deal?” that’s hypocrisy. In the latter case, they’ve revealed the different standard to which they hold themselves: “Well, it’s not so bad if I do it, but if they do it….”

Or take the example of the pro-traditional marriage politician who’s been divorced three times. If he responds to criticisms by saying, “Yes, I’ve made some mistakes in my life, including not taking marriage seriously enough at times, and I regret that, which is why I’m all the more committed to this cause, as I see the importance of strong marriages and strong families for society,” he shows himself to be committed to the principle even if his practice has not always matched. If he were to respond by saying, “Look, that’s my life, I’m free to do as I please, I’m just one person, what’s it hurting you?” that’s hypocrisy. He’s holding himself to a different standard.

Notice, too, how often the hypocrite will play the “no harm, no foul” card. When they speak about the principle of their position, the underlying premise is that the thing is wrong in itself; but when they’re caught, suddenly it’s only wrong if somebody gets hurt. It’s a double-standard of morality. The hypocrite tries to get the principle to bridge the gap between the two standards, but the principle can’t support the weight of the act crossing over that chasm, and the principle snaps. The hypocrite has lost the principle.

When we see someone not practicing what they preach, we should first determine their attitude toward their lapse before we decide how to approach them. For the sinner who knows he has sinned needs encouragement to follow through on his penitence and firm purpose of amendment; the hypocrite needs to be shaken and jarred and made to realize his sin so that he may take that next step toward healing and integrity. If the sinner who has acknowledged his sin is chastised too vehemently, he may fall into despair; if the hypocrite is gently encouraged to get onto the right track, he may laugh as he would at a doctor who told him to keep up the good work on the physical therapy he was meant to be doing on his perfectly good knee.

Not all inconsistencies are hypocrisies. Properly distinguishing between the two could make the difference in saving someone’s soul.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Four Causes

The Four Causes One of the most important pillars of Aristotle’s philosophy was his theory of the four causes.

Whenever you want to know what something is, there are, basically, four questions you can ask about it:

What is it made of?
Where did it come from, or what produced it?
What kind of thing is it?
What is it for?

The answer to each of these Aristotle would call a cause of that thing. It’s a “cause” in the sense that it contributes to the existence of that thing as the sort of thing it is. The first question deals with the “formal cause,” the second the “material cause,” the third the “efficient cause,” and the fourth the “final cause.”

That’s a little abstract. Let’s use a concrete example. Take my guitar.

(Not literally.)

What is this thing made of? That is, what is its material cause? It’s made of wood, some metal and plastic, and metal strings. It would not be the thing it is if it weren’t made of these materials. In that sense, the materials are one of the causes of the existence of the thing.

What produced this thing? What is its efficient cause? If it were a hand-crafted guitar, the answer would be “a luthier” (that’s the technical name for a maker of guitars), but since it’s a big brand name, it probably was a combination of machines and people. Knowing what made it tells us something about the kind of thing it is.

What is it? What is its formal cause? It’s a guitar. Its arrangement of the various components into this particular shape and structure make it a guitar. You could have the different parts (neck, body, strings, headstock, etc.) all glued together in the wrong configuration, but that wouldn’t make it a guitar. The very form of “guitar-ness,” in that sense, is one of the causes of its existence: if not for the form of guitar, this thing would not be a guitar.

What is it for? What is its final cause? A guitar is for playing music. It is not for chopping down trees or brushing your teeth. If it weren’t for the purpose of playing music, the guitar would not be a guitar.

It may sound a little foreign to you that a thing’s purpose or its materials could be the cause of its being in any way. Modern science has reduced “cause” to the “efficient cause”: what brings it about? This is because the efficient cause is the only one that falls within the scope of empirical science’s method of investigation. You can’t test for the final cause or formal cause of a thing in a lab. You could determine a thing’s component materials in a lab, but from science’s point of view they would be mere building blocks, inactive and manipulated. The other three causes are philosophical principles, not scientifically verifiable phenomena. But that doesn’t make them any less real. The four causes are extremely useful for defining things. By identifying the four causes for a thing, you can get a pretty good picture of what it is. So, if I say, “A table is a piece of furniture made by a carpenter or machine out of a sturdy material for the purpose of holding other items at a certain height.” Now, if you’d never encountered a table before, you’d have a fairly good idea of what it was.

Aristotle’s four causes come up A LOT, not only in his philosophy, but in the later philosophy and theology of those, like St. Thomas Aquinas, who used Aristotle’s philosophy as a framework. Even in Aristotle’s work on poetics he uses them to define literary art! Point is: it’s super useful. Give it a try.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Week in Review: Goldilocks and the 2,000 Pigs

(If you haven't noticed yet, the titles for these "Week in Review" posts are composed by my slapping together two words from unrelated sections. I'm amused by it, even if no one else is. But, even if you don't laugh, I don't want you to be confused.)

This last Tuesday featured Round Two of our seminar on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. We discussed Books III and IV, where Aristotle, among other things, described the nature of the various virtues. Instead of describing our discussion, which centered on Aristotle’s description of the “great-souled” man (usually translated into English by “magnanimous”) as the pinnacle of virtue, I think it would be more beneficial to set out Aristotle’s basic understanding of virtue. It’s summed up in the Latin phrase in medio virtus stat, “Virtue stands in the middle.” Every virtue has a vice on either side of it, one of excess and one of deficiency. For example, the virtue of courage is the quality of facing danger or fear bravely, or as Aristotle more precisely put it, “The man, then, who faces and who fears the right things and from the right motive, in the right way and from the right time, and who feels confidence under the corresponding conditions, is brave; for the brave man feels and acts according to the merits of the case and in whatever way the rule directs.” When one doesn’t react in this proper way in these situations, he is not brave. But the type of error one commits will depend on whether one has too much courage or too little. The excess of courage is rashness or foolhardiness, rushing into a dangerous situation with no concern for one’s life; a knight charging 500 spearmen by himself is not brave, but rash. He has lost the right motive and is not sensing the right time for his action. The deficiency of courage is cowardice. 500 knights running away from one spearman is not brave, because they ought not fear in that situation. It’s a matter of too much, too little, and just right. Think of it as the Goldilocks method of discerning right action. The key, though, is to correctly identify what that middle is. You could set up two false ends and wind up with an erroneous middle, like sticking one goalpost at the back of one endzone and another goalpost at the 30-yard line, and calling the 10-yard line “midfield.” Or like saying, “Well, 10 shots of tequila is too much, but really anything less than 6 shots of tequila is too little, so clearly the right amount of tequila is 8 shots!” That ain’t virtue.

Apart from that….

This week also featured another Dominican Rite Mass at the DSPT. It was well-attended and beautifully celebrated. The Dominican friars are hoping to round up some students to volunteer to do chant for the liturgy so we can have a real “missa cantata” (sung Mass); I told them that if the chant parts weren’t all written for eunuchs, I’d be happy to participate. They pointed out that the parts are easily transposed. I may still help out if they need. After Mass, several of us headed to Luval’s, a local pizza place, to watch what ended up being the final game of the Oakland A’s’ memorable season. The game’s result was disappointing, but a good time was had by all.

On Saturday the DSPT hosted a lecture by Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, a former president of Gonzaga University and current head of several centers and institutes, on the topic of “The Evidence of Creation and Supernatural Design in Contemporary Big Bang Cosmology.” That sounds like quite a mouthful, but his basic point, which he made in quite an intelligent, engaging, and animated way, was: many discoveries being made in physics today indicate that the universe must have had a beginning, that suddenly there was nothing, and then there was something—and what does that suggest? If the universe had a beginning, there must have been something what beginned it (to put it colloquially), something not part of the universe itself. And what could that be? The religious person knows. The physicist will hopefully catch up soon. The lecture was followed by two responses from two DSPT faculty members, Fr. Michael Dodds, OP, and Fr. Anselm Ramelow, OP. I did not get to hear their responses, as I was helping to set up for the reception which was to take place after the lecture, but do look up the video of the lecture on the DSPT website. (It’s not posted yet, but it should be soon.)

Today the friars at St. Albert’s Priory invited students from the DSPT to join them for prayer and Mass and brunch. Unfortunately, the flu was sweeping through the priory like the plague (or should we say that the plague used to sweep through Europe like the flu?), so many of the friars were not to be seen. Nevertheless, we enjoyed their hospitality, which included a book sale of the duplicates from their library, with DSPT students getting a “100% discount” (i.e. free books!), meaning many a student left the priory with their arms fully extended and books up to their chins. I should also mention that between Mass and brunch they exposed the Blessed Sacrament and we recited the rosary together, with benediction afterward. What better way to spend a Sunday than free books, free food, and the Real Presence?

Notes from class:

Introduction to New Testament: Our professor mentioned to us a little while back a possible interpretation of a biblical passage based on a little historical knowledge. You may remember the account from the Gospels where Jesus encounters a possessed man, and the demons, who call themselves Legion, recognize him as “Son of the Most High God” and ask him not to send them back to the abyss of hell, but into a herd of 2,000 pigs; he permits it, and the demons go into the pigs, who then run into the sea and drown themselves. That always struck me as a little bit random. But consider this: the particular Roman army stationed in Jerusalem at that time was the Tenth Legion. That legion was quite active in suppressing revolts in Judaea throughout the first century AD. Guess what the legion’s mascot was? A boar. A pig. So, one could perhaps see, symbolically, Jesus driving the Tenth Roman Legion back into the sea, where they came from. Is this an overt political statement? Is it one more subtle way of saying, “God is King, not Caesar”? Interesting, isn’t it?

Aristotelian Logic: “The Square of Opposition.” No, it’s not a nerdy name for a boxing ring, it’s a visual tool used in logic to help one understand the implications of propositions. For example: if all we know is that it is true that “All men are mortal,” then it must also be true that “Some men are mortal” (since “some” is part of “all”), and false that “Some men are not mortal” and “No men are mortal.” BUT let’s say all we know is that it’s false that “No man is mortal.” It must be the case that “Some men are mortal,” but we don’t know whether that also means that “All men are mortal,” or “Some men are not mortal.” Kinda tricky to follow, eh? That’s why the Square of Opposition is handy. It can help you to sort things out quickly.

History of Ancient Philosophy: We’ve been reading Plato’s dialogues on the subject of love, the Symposium and the Phaedrus. Our professor emphasized that these texts were key in understanding the work of those Christian theologians who followed in the Platonic philosophical tradition: “Understand this, and you’ll understand Augustine, and Dionysius, and Bonaventure.” Once again: if you want to understand theology, it helps to read philosophy.

Philosophy of Nature: I really should do this one first next time, because when I leave it for last, I run out of steam, and can’t work up the energy to describe hylomorphic theory as it applies to contemporary scientific models. Yeah, I’m not sure what I just said there, either. Next time.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Three Most Important Questions

The ancient Greek philosopher Gorgias (each G is a hard G, like in “great,” not soft like in “gem,” and it’s definitely not pronounced like “gorgeous”) was a bit of an extreme fellow. He came along during a time when philosophers had been debating what the nature of reality was. First Thales said that everything was made of water, and that the water changed its form to make different things. Other philosophers suggested other substances. Then Heraclitus suggested that, really, everything is constantly changing, but things only appear to stay the same sometimes. Parmenides one-upped him and said just the opposite, that nothing ever changes, but things only appear to change sometimes. Gorgias then played the ultimate trump card and laid out his vision of reality: that it doesn’t exist at all.

He made the following four propositions:

Nothing exists. If it did exist, it could not be known. If it could be known, it could not be communicated. If it could be communicated, it could not be understood.

That, ladies and gents, is complete and total skepticism.

Now, when it’s put that bluntly, it seems ridiculous. And it is ridiculous. Gorgias’ second statement is a paradox: he claims to know that nothing can be known. And if he really believed it was impossible to communicate about anything, he wouldn’t have written a book attempting to communicate how it’s impossible to communicate anything. He wouldn’t have spent time carefully crafting the section on how nothing can be understood in the hopes that people would understand it. And I’m sure that when his book failed to sell and the repo man came to take his house, it would not have sufficed to tell the repo man “Sorry, nothing exists, including this house, and you, so you can’t take my house from me, because you’re not here, and there’s no house to take.” Then after the repo man punched him in the face, he could console himself with the knowledge that the repo man didn’t really exist, so he hadn’t been punched in the face… and come to think of it, he himself didn’t exist either, so he couldn’t be in pain.

The “nothing exists” one is a little hard to swallow, and you won’t find many people who go along with him on that. But Gorgias’ skepticism does leave us with important questions:

Is there truth? If there is truth, how can we know it? If we can know it, how can we express it?

These are perhaps the three most important questions we can ask about any subject. Any conversation on an issue or topic or problem, be it a debate on the floor of the US Senate or a chat over coffee between two friends, should start with these three questions. Is what we’re talking about a matter of opinion, or taste, or preference, or prudential judgment, or is there some principle, some question of right and wrong, some matter of “it is the case or it isn’t the case” about it? If it’s about the truth, how can we know the truth about the subject in question? Philosophy? Theology? Science? Some combination? Once we come to know this truth, how can we express it in a way others can understand? Description? Jargon? Analogy?

It seems that a lot of our current contentious political issues are so heated precisely because we can’t agree on the answers to these questions. Think about it. The question of same-sex marriage is essentially the first question: “Is marriage something with its own nature that should be preserved and respected, or is it an institution of entirely human construct, malleable at will?” That is, “Is marriage really something, or is it just whatever we call it?” Slapping each other with epithets and accusing people of hate doesn’t address that question, and thus it side-steps the crux of the whole issue. The abortion debate seems to be largely about the second question: One side says, “Who knows when life begins or when a human being becomes a person?” The other side says, “It’s obvious, isn’t it? It begins at the beginning.” (Of course, there is also the simple and sensible response to that first side: “If you say you don’t know, then don’t act. If you’re unsure whether it’s your son or a deer rustling the bushes, are you going to shoot?”) The third question seems to relate to the debate over “enhanced interrogation techniques vs. torture”: “Well, is it really easy to say what the distinction is between those two? Can we express that distinction?” “YES. Stop doing X, Y, and Z, it’s torture!” “Yeah, but… is it REALLY? I mean, can we say that for sure? Does that REALLY paint an accurate picture?” And you go in circles ad infinitum.

There are many, many, many, many, many, many, many other examples; I just grabbed what to me seemed to be the obvious ones. But they illustrate well the importance of first and foremost seeking the truth.

Of course, the most essential place to ask these questions is on the subject of religion, since it deals with the nature of ultimate reality. What is the truth? How do we know the truth? How can that truth be expressed? For a Christian, the answer to all three questions is the same: Jesus. Perhaps you don't agree with this just now. That's a subject for another post.