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.)