Thursday, July 31, 2008

Bioethics without God

It is considered in bad taste to bring God into contemporary bioethics discussions. Why? Well, one reason is that if one does so, one's argument will be irrelevant to atheists and agnostics. But note that in the American public, the percentage of people who accept the existence of God is significantly greater than the percentage who are Kantians, or utilitarians, or virtue ethicists, etc. Thus, say, an argument in favor of cloning based mainly on the premise that God exists (I don't know of any such argument off-hand) will be relevant to a much greater percentage of people than an argument for the same conclusion based on Kantianism. Moreover, while among academics there are significantly more atheists and agnostics, it still may be that the claim that God exists is at least as widespread as a belief in Kantianism, or in utilitarianism, or in virtue ethics.

Another reason it's in bad taste is that it allegedly brings faith into what should be a reasoned discussion. But this presupposes that the existence of God cannot be argued for rationally, a claim that is false (clearly false if we use as our standard of rationality the level of compellingness of arguments in applied ethics). Now one might with greater plausibility claim that no argument for the existence of God will be compelling to all, or even to a majority, of intellectuals. But it is in perfectly good taste to give serious bioethics arguments based on premises that are not compelling to the majority of intellectuals. Thus, one can give Kantian, utilitarian or virtue ethics arguments.

A third, though very pragmatic (but so is the first), reason is contingencies involving legal issues about church and state in the U.S., and cultural hangups connected with this. For better or worse, it is likely that the Supreme Court would see a law grounded in the existence of God, even if the law included a preamble giving a very powerful rational argument for the existence of God, as violating the separation of church and state.

I have theistic friends whom I respect highly and who try very hard to avoid making use of the existence of God in their work in applied ethics. While I think such work is very important both intellectually and practically, I also think there is a danger of distortion in bioethics if one confines oneself to working in this way. When one does have to do non-theistic work in bioethics, one should think of it as a way of tying one hand behind one's back, because that's what the rules of the game call for, not because that's what is appropriate to the enterprise of truth-seeking. For when we are talking about appropriate treatment of the beginning and end of life, it is plausible that the question of the relation between life and God is highly relevant. Some people think that the way science can explain all kinds of facts without invoking God is an argument against the existence of God. That's a bad argument. But if ethics, especially the ethics that deals with the beginning and end of life, could do without God, that should be quite surprising to a theist.

In the above, I talked of mere theism. I have a strong suspicion that, at least in our fallen state, more than mere theism is relevant. John Paul II somewhere said that we can only understand man through Christ. If that's right, then non-Christian bioethics is doomed to incompleteness. And incompleteness in a philosophical enterprise runs the danger of leading to distortion, through onesidedness.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Chesterton, the Internet, the family and arranged marriage

There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the wilfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literal sense of the words, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge. - G. K. Chesterton, Heretics, Chapter XIV

Thus the very thing that gives joy to many, including me, about the Internet, the availability of specialized, congenial social groups, is what is wrong with the Internet, according to the Chesterton. Chapter XIV of Heretics is an argument in favor of the moral importance of social groups--such as the family--whose membership we do not choose. It is, thus, an argument in favor of random associations. For in such groups we must simply bear with people--and, oh, how much sometimes there to be borne--whom we would not have chosen to be with, and this broadens the mind, pulling us out of complacency.

I have earlier argued that there is nothing wrong with arranged marriage. But Chesterton lets one go further. The very thing that people object to about arranged marriage, that it does not let one choose someone congenial to oneself, is its value. A marital selection based on congeniality lets each minimize the amount of required change and growth. But an arranged marriage, where a match in religious views is ensured by the parents, but otherwise personality characteristics may be wildly different forces one to broaden one's mind, at least in contexts that do not allow an easy way for the spouses to separate (of course, it is important to allow separation in extreme cases, such as abuse, even if remarriage is wrong).

This advantage is not very great, because the closeness of association in marriage is such that even in a love match, the negative, self-congratulatory effects of congeniality are mitigated by the myriad of differences, and sometimes annoying similarities, that one had no way of knowing about, and that make for growth as a person. Moreover, marriage itself changes a person, and so what one knew about the other prior to marriage will in part be irrelevant, thereby making a love match somewhat more like an arranged marriage.

This is not, of course, a blanket endorsement of marrying people who are utterly different from one. Congeniality in itself may not be so valuable, but if one is going to marry, one should marry someone with a modicum of virtue and moral sensitivity. Moreover, one should already have developed some virtue and moral sensitivity oneself to be mature enough for marriage. So there is a similarity in the fact of the possession of virtue, valuable not because of the similarity but because of the virtue, that it is good to have. Moreover, it's probably not a good idea to marry someone who is so far uncongenial to one as to impede moral growth, by changing love to disgust. And so on. At the same time, the evidence that a practice of love matches is better than a practice of arranged marriage at avoiding these problems is weak.

Finally, it must be reemphasized that the above defense of arranged marriage only works in contexts where it is not easy to separate from one's spouse, or where at least there are significant costs of such separation, such as a lifetime of sexual abstinence (as in the case of Christian marriage, where it is permissible for spouses to separate in circumstances of abuse and maybe even adultery, but they remain married in fact if not in law, and hence cannot marry anyone else). Chesterton talks of how scary it would be to be snowed in one's street. What is scary about it is that one would be forced to socialize with people one had not chosen for oneself. But it is essential that there be an element of forcing here--that one be stuck in marriage.

The above considerations give a powerful response to the following sophomoric argument: "If a couple really loved each other and were really compatible, they wouldn't need marriage. They would just live together, and their love and compatibility, rather than legal ties, would keep them together." Moral transformation hurts. Patients whose are not anesthetized need to be restrained for operations. If the couple is always compatible and their congenial love is sufficient, without commitment, to keep them together, then it is very unlikely that the members of the couple are being morally transformed by their closeness. Thus, leaving aside the case of the already morally perfect (and they might as well be celibate for the sake of the Kingdom of God), a couple is either not going to be transformed significantly by a life-long relationship or else there will be strains that require one to be held down, to be snowed in.

Let me end by noting that perhaps the most serious problem with arranged marriage is that, I think, it tends to be found in cultures where there is a strong pressure to marry. It is important that the marriage commitment be undertaken freely. This is compatible with the parents' choosing the marriage partner, or giving one a short list, as long as one is free to reject them all, free to remain celibate.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Faith and works, and Pelagianism

I think sometimes, especially in popular discussion, the debate over Pelagianism is seen as the "faith versus works" debate. But that is incorrect. These are two separate, and almost orthogonal debates. The question of Pelagianism is whether

  1. one can be saved by one's own efforts without grace
or whether
  1. grace is necessary for salvation.
Pelagius thought it would be really hard to be saved without grace, but it could in principle be done. The faith versus works question is whether the human state that salvation is somehow based around and that ensures salvation (at least should one die in that state) is
  1. faith
  1. love or morally good actions.

There are four polar views possible:

(3)salvation is based on faith, and one can get attain this faith by one's own efforts without gracesalvation is based on faith, and faith requires grace
(4)salvation is based on love or morally good actions, and one can attain this love or do these actions by one's own efforts without grace salvation is based on love or morally good actions, and one needs grace to have love or do the actions
The position stereotypically ascribed to Protestants is, of course, the upper right corner, and the position stereotypically ascribed to Catholics is, of course, the lower left corner.

But note that it is quite possible to be a Pelagian and believe in sola fide: this is the upper left corner in the table. For instance, one might think that faith is an intellectual assent, and believe that one can come to this assent on the basis of apologetic arguments. Likewise, someone can believe that salvation is solely by works, and yet be in no way Pelagian, if she believes that these works are of such a nature that they cannot be done save by grace: this is the lower right corner.

Why is there an idea that there is a link between the two questions? Well, one line of thought takes "works" in a very thin sense, as bodily movements (placing a sandwich before a homeless person, etc.), without considering intentions and motivations. If so, then it seems quite likely that we could, by our own efforts, do whatever "works" would be specified as needed for salvation. But that is a magical view of salvation, and not really held by any serious thinker. Even those Catholic and Orthodox theologians who lay a greater emphasis on works than on faith understand the works in the light of intentions and motivations. But once one understands that a part of doing the right works is having the right intentions and motivations, the inference from salvation by works to Pelagianism fails—for it may well require grace to do have the right intentions and motivations.

The relative independence of the two questions should, I think, help to clarify our thinking on the issues.

I think the really interesting theological and philosophical questions here is to figure out (a) how faith and love are interconnected so that (3) and (4) are both true, and (b) see how there is a deeper form of (2) that ties together grace and our own efforts.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A puzzle about freedom and the law

I am no legal or political theorist, but here is a fun little puzzle, not unlikely old hat to everybody who knows anything about these things.

Suppose you want to gamble (as far as I know a morally permissible activity within due limits—if you disagree, substitute something else, like scratching one's back in public), and I (say, as a legislator) enact a law prohibiting you from gambling, without any good reason behind it except a gut feeling that gambling is a bit icky. It seems plausible that I have acted wrongly. I should not prohibit you from an activity because I have a gut feeling that it is a bit icky. But why have I acted wrongly?

An obvious thing to say is that I have take away some of your autonomy or freedom. But what autonomy or freedom have I taken away? (I will use the terms somewhat interchangeably, but the issues may be subtly different in the two cases.) Intuitively, I have taken away your freedom to choose whether to gamble or not, or else the freedom to choose to gamble. But not quite. For you can still gamble even if gambling is illegal. So it seems that what I've taken away is your freedom to choose whether to legally gamble or not, or else the freedom to gamble legally.

Indeed, you no longer have these freedoms, since it is now impossible for you to gamble legally (assuming you have no ability to legalize gambling). So you've lost a freedom. But you've also gained a freedom. For now you are free to choose whether to gamble illegally or not, and free to choose to gamble illegally. You've lost your autonomy vis-à-vis the decision whether to gamble legally, but you've gained autonomy vis-à-vis the decision whether to gamble illegally. You lose one and you gain one. So it seems that you are not the loser in respect of autonomy, and hence you can't complain.

But, perhaps, you will say that now if you gamble, you are liable to be punished by law, or at least by your conscience (if you think you should obey the law). Yes—now you have a new freedom, to choose to gamble and be punished or not to do either. You've lost the freedom to gamble without punishment, and have gained the freedom to gamble and be punished.

Perhaps, though, the problem is that without a sufficiently good reason (and "feels a bit icky" is not a good reason), I have no right to deprive you of a freedom even if you get a new freedom in exchange. When we talk of autonomy, we should not be consequentialists who simply try to maximize the sum total of human autonomy. Just as it is wrong to kill one innocent person while saving another, so, too, it is wrong for me without sufficient reason to deprive you of one freedom even while giving you another. But while there is much to this lesson, I am not sure this is the right lesson to draw from the story. For consider the opposite case. Suppose that gambling is illegal. I now completely legalize it. By doing so, I take away the autonomy of your choice whether to engage in illegal gambling. So I've taken away one of your freedoms, and given you another in exchange. It looks now like legalizing and illegalizing have the same kind of effect on total freedom—each takes one freedom away and gives another. If I say that it is wrong with insufficient reason to take away a freedom even if I give you another, then in a situation where gambling is illegal and nobody has any good considerations for or against gambling, I should keep it illegal. But I am not sure that's right. Should one keep a restrictive law that has no rational justification? That doesn't seem right.

So it doesn't seem that considerations of autonomy are the right way to think about what goes wrong when one makes an activity illegal without sufficient reason. Is there a better way? I think so. To make something illegal is for the state to exercise a certain authority. To make something legal is for the state to cease to exercise a certain authority. As long as the state holds people to a rule, the state is exercising authority in respect of that rule. To release people from that rule is not to exercise an authority, but to cease to exercise that authority. Hence there is an asymmetry in making something legal versus making it illegal: to make something legal is for the state to cease to act in a certain way, while to make something illegal is for the state to begin to act in a certain way. If so, then we would expect an asymmetry in justification—actions in general require stronger justification than non-actions—and hence it is easier to justify the state's making something previously illegal be legal than the other way around. Of course this asymmetry is an anti-consequentialist one—it is an asymmetry similar to that between contraception and abstinence, or between killing and not preventing death.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Amateur astronomy update

Last night, I found an OK observing site a five minute drive from home. There are some sodium lights 100-200 yards away, but they are bearable. I also found the tube of my Odyssey 8 sits nicely on the front seat of the car, secured with a seatbelt, as if it were a person. Log for last night: M28, M25, M22, M21, M8, M54, NGC6652, M69, NGC6997. And, of course, Jupiter, but that goes without saying.

Sola Scriptura and ecumenism

I am Catholic and I don't believe Sola Scriptura. But here I want to engage in some friendly theologizing, trying to figure out what would be the best thing for me to say about Sola Scriptura were I evangelical. The main difficulty for Sola Scriptura is the standard self-defeat argument. Evangelicals typically take Sola Scriptura to be an important Christian doctrine, important enough that one can base theological arguments on it (e.g., arguing against some Catholic or Orthodox belief on the grounds that that belief is not found in Scripture). But let us take Sola Scriptura to be the claim that all true, Christian doctrines are found explicitly or implicitly in Scripture. Then, we have a self-defeat argument against Sola Scriptura: it is proposed as a true, Christian doctrine, but it is nowhere found explicitly or implicitly in Scripture, and hence by its own claim is not a true, Christian doctrine.

The fact that Sola Scriptura is not found in Scripture might be disputed. A standard proof-text for Sola Scriptura is 2 Timothy 3:16-17 which says that Scripture is inspired by God and has as its purpose that one might be "thoroughly equipped for every good work" (NIV; one may also query points in the translation). But of course the opponent of Sola Scriptura does not need to deny that all Scripture is inspired by God. Moreover, the claim that Scripture exists to equip us for every good work does not entail that Scripture is all that is needed to equip us thoroughly for every good work. After all, plainly, lots of other things are needed—air, food, water, intellectual skills, and, above all, God's grace. And even if Scripture were sufficient to equip us for every good work, it would not follow that Scripture contains all true, Christian doctrine. Finally, it is very unlikely that 2 Timothy 3:16-17 contains Sola Scriptura, since the "Scriptures" referred to are the ones Timothy learned "from infancy" (v. 15), and hence are the Old Testament. And the Old Testament surely does not contain all true, Christian doctrines. In fact, when this text was penned, Scripture was not yet completed, and there were surely Christian doctrines not yet in Scripture (such as the Christian doctrines taught in the next chapter of 2 Timothy!).

Nor is it likely that Sola Scriptura would be found in Scripture, since at the points at which most of the New Testament was being written, there was much reliance on apostolic preaching, or on reports of apostolic preaching.

So, what can an evangelical say in defense of Sola Scriptura given the self-defeat argument? One suggestion is to limit the scope of what is claimed. Thus, instead of claiming that Scripture contains all Christian doctrine, one instead claims that Scripture contains all the Christian doctrine that is necessary for salvation. A problem with this more limited claim is that it makes Sola Scriptura a not very interesting doctrine on standard evangelical views of what is necessary for salvation, namely faith that Jesus Christ is Lord. On such views, one can seemingly replace the claim that Scripture is sufficient for salvation with the stronger claim that some collection of three or four verses is sufficient for salvation. And surely one doesn't want Sola Scriptura to simply follow from the sufficiency of three or four verses.

I want to suggest that a better answer to the self-defeat argument is to say that the argument does not show that Sola Scriptura is false. Rather, the self-defeat argument only shows that Sola Scriptura is not a true, Christian doctrine, i.e., that it is either not true, or not a Christian doctrine, or neither. The evangelical can opt for saying that while Sola Scriptura is true, it is not a Christian doctrine. After all, many true claims, even claims about Scripture, are not Christian doctrine. For instance, it is true that Scripture has been translated into Swahili, or that most Bibles are printed in mostly black ink, but these facts are not Christian doctrines. This solution is not original to me—I heard it from a Protestant friend, I think.

Now this way of taking Sola Scriptura has a pleasant ecumenical consequence. It is not appropriate for an evangelical to consider a Catholic or Orthodox Christian to be unorthodox for denying Sola Scriptura. For only the denial of a Christian doctrine can make a Christian unorthodox, and Sola Scriptura is not a Christian doctrine. This reduces the division between evangelicals and Catholics and the Orthodox, though division remains on the other side (Catholics believe that the denial of Sola Scripture is a true, Christian doctrine, and there is no parallel self-defeat argument against their belief here).

Moreover, one might query the epistemological basis of affirming Sola Scriptura once one no longer takes it to be a Christian doctrine. After all, if it is not a Christian doctrine, then one cannot know it one the basis of public divine revelation. One might claim to believe Sola Scriptura on the basis of a private revelation (an angel whispering the doctrine to one), but that is unlikely to convince many others. Could one, perhaps, know Sola Scriptura empirically or maybe by a careful application of a priori reason? I doubt it. Surely one cannot know it empirically. Nor does it seem at all a candidate for a priori knowledge. Maybe one might think there is some way to combine empirical and a priori reasoning with divine revelation to get Sola Scriptura, but I doubt this.

If Sola Scriptura is not a matter of faith (since it's not a Christian doctrine), and cannot be known to be true, I think what would be most reasonable for an evangelical, short of chucking Sola Scriptura altogether, would be to take Sola Scriptura to either be a negative first person claim—"I am not aware of any source of true, Christian doctrine other than Scripture"—or as a working hypothesis.

What is interesting is that in both cases there should be an in-principle openness to the possibility of other loci of divine revelation, such as the Tradition that Catholics and the Orthodox refer to. Adopting either the "negative first person claim" or the "working hypothesis" view of Sola Scriptura would, thus, move ecumenical dialog forward. One might, of course, think this is a minus, but I don't.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Naming and taming

After having jumped into amateur astronomy, the sky has lost some of its aweful majesty to me. It's beautiful, but not aweful. I think this has something to do with the way that by having names to attach to objects and having ways of classifying them, there is a way in which we have tamed them. That beautiful glow over there—that's "just" the Lagoon Nebula. There is a way in which this is deceptive. We encompass a whole galaxy in a word, completely ignorant of the billions of fascinating lives that, for all we know, are unfolding there. But there is also a way in which the galaxy itself, leaving aside any life in it (I think it would be strange to talk of a dog, much less a human, as "part of the Milky Way Galaxy"), really is not aweful. It is a creature of God, and in itself not as wondrous as a human being with reason and volition.
I think the above gives me reason to be even more sympathetic to the Thomistic doctrine that God is not a member of any of the genera, and the early Christian insistence on God not having a name.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sex and reproduction

In my previous post I suggested, using amateur astronomy as an example, that an engagement in an activity can have a value over and beyond the value of the activity's goal, even though the value of the activity derives from the value of that goal.

An interesting instance of this is the following view of sex. Sex gets its value from being an activity naturally directed at offspring, offspring having great value. But the activity naturally directed at offspring has a value over and beyond that of offspring. Thus, even sex that does not result in reproduction, say because the couple is infertile (temporarily or permanently) has value. This value does not derive from the value of offspring in the particular case—there are none in the particular case—but from the fact that it is an instance of a type of activity that is directed at a good.

We can also see that there is something at least problematic in contraception. Contracepted sex is an engagement in a sexual activity while one is trying to ensure that that goal from which the activity derives its value is not attained. Imagine an amateur astronomer who, while engaging in the skilled activity of amateur astronomy (collimating telescope, choosing eyepieces, pointing telescope, etc.), just before looking in the eyepiece at the chosen object puts the lens cap back on. There, one's deliberate choices are contradicting that from which the activity derives its meaning.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Amateur astronomy and the joy of seeing

A couple of days ago, I got an 8-inch Newtonian telescope (an old Coulter Odyssey 8). I've been wanting to have a decent telescope since I was a kid. Earlier this year I had got some giant 15x70 binoculars, which gave some very nice views at dark locations, but the telescope will open new vistas. I'm still trying to find a good observing site close to home. At home there are too many trees and streetlights are very close.

Oddly enough, I don't have much of anything philosophical to say about amateur astronomy yet. Here is one remark, oddly making a connection with things I am writing in my book on love and sex—tomorrow's post will draw out the connection. Another will follow in two days.

Aristotle begins the Metaphysics with the remark that all humans desire to know, and gives as evidence the love which we have for the sense of sight, sight being the most informative of the senses. Yet the experience of amateur astronomers suggests that Aristotle is wrong. There is a joy in seeing that seems to go beyond mere knowing. After all, the average amateur astronomer, is unlikely to see anything that she couldn't find out much more about by reading astronomy textbooks or at least research articles. Yet, while the amateur astronomer may read astronomy textbooks and maybe even research articles, her paradigmatic activity as amateur astronomer, an activity into which many resources are put, is seeing.

One answer to the puzzle of why there is such an activity as amateur astronomy would be to bring in a distinction between knowing propositions and knowing what things appear like. If one has been born deaf, one may know all the scientific facts about a middle C, but have no idea what one sounds like. I don't think, however, that this is the best explanation of the existence of the amateur astronomer (or the tourist or bird-watcher[note 1]). One reason it's not, is that I am not sure I buy the distinction between knowing that and knowing what it is like. I think that a visual image can express proposition, a proposition that is distinct from those expressed in spoken words. One reason I say this is because I have a wide view of language, that includes gestures, sketches, and other things. So in seeing an object, one knows a proposition that cannot be put into words.

However, in fact, neither the story distinguishing between two kinds of knowledge, nor my liberality with propositions and language, does justice to the amateur astronomer. Two days ago I saw, I think, the Ring Nebula. That gave me some joy. But what did I see? It was not the magnificent photograph that can be seen here. It was a tiny and very faint greyish spot, which looked slightly less bright in the middle if one looked enough. (I was viewing only at 30X magnification—I need to get more eyepieces—in a light-polluted driveway, on a full-moon night, with a poorly collimated scope, a terrible combination.) Still, it was a delight to have found it. Yet if I was after information, even of the "what it is like" variety, I could have just used Google image search.

There is, then, a joy in seeing first hand, a joy that seems goes beyond the informational content. Seeing first hand, even through an instrument, has something more to it than seeing photographs. Part of it is, I think, is the activity in seeing that goes beyond contemplating. There is the taking up of a point of view. Think of people in an art gallery, looking at a picture from one distance, then stepping back or forward. There is the choosing of the right way of seeing it (glasses, microscopes, telescopes, with their various settings), the right time, the right location. And, especially for a beginner like me, there is the finding. There is a natural good in the activity of seeing, but this activity is more than just contemplating, where I use the term "contemplating" for the visual perceiving part of the activity. Contemplating is the completion of this activity, but the activity goes beyond the contemplation that results from it.

Now here is something that I think is interesting. While Aristotle is, I think, right that the value of seeing comes from the fact that seeing gives us more information than any other sense, we should not take this on at the level of individual instances or tokens. It is false that my seeing the Ring Nebula got all of its value from its informational content. Rather, it is that the activity of seeing (including here the taking up of a point of view, the screwing up of one's eyes, the finding of the object, the manipulating whether in reality or through changing filters, etc.—I am thinking here of Ian Hacking kinds of ideas) gets its value from the fact that it is an activity that has a directedness at a genuine good, the good of contemplating. But the activity then has a value even when it does not achieve the telos. This is a way in which Natural Law differs from consequentialism—instances or tokens of an activity directed at a good have a value over and beyond the relevant instance of the good. In fact, the activity is valuable even when the good that the activity is aimed at is not achieved. Thus, when I failed to find the Whirlpool Galaxy last night and the night before last, while that activity failed to achieve the contemplation that was its telos, it was valuable.

On this view, a particular engagement in an activity can gets its value from the fact that the type of activity has a value, and the type of activity can get its value from the activity's telos. The value of an activity can go beyond the value of the activity's point, even if the activity derives its value from that point. Notice that while amateur astronomy is a skilled activity, it would not have the same kind of meaning if it were not aimed in some way at truth—if, for instance, amateur astronomers put on filters that completely distorted the sky into prettier patterns.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Attempted murder

I can't resist posting this. The following principle seems plausible:

  1. You cannot attempt to kill someone whom you know to be dead.
But actually (1) is false.

Suppose you know that your great grandfather died between 1900 and 1910, but you do not know when. (You know your grandfather was conceived before 1900.) Moreover, a very complicated inheritance case turns on the question. It turns out that if he died before 1905, you can claim a large inheritance. Now, you happen to run into a Nobel-prize winning physicist, Dr. Mort, who is known for brilliance and honesty, and shows you an odd machine. Dr. Mort tells you that the machine is a Temporally Reversed Death Ray. You specify a past date and enter identifying information, and the Temporally Reversed Death Ray kills the person on that date. Oddly (you suspect this may have something to do with the Grandfather Paradox), she tells you that the Death Ray only works on victims past reproductive age. All this sounds really dubious, but, hey, Dr. Mort is reputed for brilliance and honesty, and who are you to doubt her word. So, you enter your great, great grandfather's identifying information, reflect that in 1902 your great, great grandfather would be past reproductive age, set the date to January 1, 1902, and press the big red button.

What have you done? Well, you have attempted to kill your great great grandfather, that's what. You have attempted to do this whether or not the machine works. You have attempted to do this even if it turns out that it is logically impossible for the machine to work. As long as you believed that the machine would work, you tried to kill your great great grandfather.

I wonder what the law would say. Normally, the law does not convict people of attempted murder if the method used was one that no reasonable person would expect to work—for instance, one is not going to be convicted of attempted murder if one attempts to kill by magic. That limitation is reasonable in law, but morally speaking sure the person who attempts to kill by magic is an attempted murderer. Moreover, given Dr. Mort's reputation, it seems that a reasonable person might believe her. And if the word of one physicist is not enough, we could imagine that she gets ten others of equally good reputation to speak, too. (Maybe one could find eleven Nobel-prize winning physicists of high reputation to do this as a joke. It is at least possible.)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Arranged marriage

A common objection to seeing marriage as linked not just to sex and reproduction but also to romantic love is the prevalence of arranged marriages in many non-Western countries at present and in many Western countries in the past. Sometimes the two spouses barely meet prior to the wedding. Since love requires knowledge of the other, it does not seem possible that the couple should marry out of romantic love. Given that there does not seem to be anything morally wrong with such marriages or with sex within them, it follows that sex in the absence of romantic love is morally acceptable and that marriage is not linked with romantic love.

Of course, one might object that such marriages are morally wrong. In fact, insofar as entering into a marriage is an undertaking of serious commitment, those arranged “marriages” where either party does not consent are not really marriages—they are invalid for the same reason that coerced “contracts” are non-binding. But it is certainly possible for a couple to freely undertake to please their parents or to entrust the choice of a marriage partner to parents. After all, one might reasonably think that our own insight into ourselves is often less clear than the insight that others close to us have into us, and so we might reasonably allow that our parents might make a wiser choice than we, assuming they share our values and hence can be counted on to make the decision in light of considerations that we endorse. So it is certainly possible for an arranged marriage to be freely consented to.

On the permissibility of sex without romantic love, it is worth noting that even those who link sex with love, do not argue that sex without fully matured romantic love is impermissible. Romantic love finds its consummation in sexual union, but romantic love can continue to develop past its consummation. The union as one flesh may be complete, but the interpersonal union almost always needs to grow in other respects. A requirement that one marry only when romantic love is fully developed in every respect would prohibit almost every, perhaps every, marriage that has taken place.

At the same time, love is always a duty, and the love needs to be appropriate to the relationship. Thus it is one’s duty to love the person whom one is to marry, and it is a duty to love the person in the way appropriate to the person whom one is to marry. Of course, if one does not know anything about this person, the love cannot be very specifically developed. But it can involve the three aspects of all love: one has a disposition to benefit this person (should one find out what the person needs), one appreciates the other at least as a person, a creature of God, a fellow human being and someone with whom one can engage in sexual activity, and one intends that union with this person (the sexual aspects of this union may be the easiest to intend for a young and sexually curious person!) All the while, one can remain open to the mystery, the surprise of the other person. And in this way, the arranged marriage is not that different from an unarranged “love match”. In a love match, too, one must remain open to the enfolding mystery of the other person, traditionally including even a lack of sexual knowledge of the other person. And in any case, marriage and sex themselves can change people in unpredictable ways, and some of the knowledge of the person prior to marriage is likely irrelevant. Every love must involve a willingness to adjust its form to the changes in the beloved and in the relationship, and must remain open to new things.

It is not so much wrong to marry someone that one does not love as it is wrong not to love the person one marries. Love is required of us always, under all circumstances. It is wrong not to love the person one shakes hands with, the person one sentences to twenty years in jail, or the person one marries. Of course a different form of love is required in each case. However, what primarily distinguishes the different forms of love is the type of real union that the love is directed towards and the aspects under which the beloved is appreciated. If one marries, one ought to have a directedness towards sexual and personal union with the other person, and an appreciation of the other person insofar as this person can be united with. But for this one needs only to know the other person as a fellow human being of the opposite sex.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

More on evil thoughts

When I say, in class or blog, that some thoughts are immoral, there is much resistance. Sometimes, this resistance is formulated as: "Only actions, not thoughts, are immoral." I have argued earlier that voluntary thoughts are actions. In this post, I just want to give a quick argument that some mental activities are immoral.

Suppose Maurice sincerely and prejudicedly believes a racist claim R about members of group G, and he says: "It is my opinion that R." We think Maurice deserves criticism. Even those who think that only physical actions are subject to moral evaluation are likely to agree that something has been done wrong—after all, Maurice has done something physical, namely he has spoken.

But what has gone wrong, and in what way? First of all, it need not be the case that Maurice's speech-act was either morally or rationally criticizable. After all, what he said was true: he said that it was his opinion that R, and indeed it was his opinion that R. He sincerely spoke the truth. What is wrong with that?

We should not criticize Maurice for telling us what his opinion was. We should, instead, criticize him for having that opinion. Now, we have two possibilities here. We can criticize him for epistemic failure, or for both epistemic failure and immorality. If we criticize him for both n the holding of the opinion that R, then we have agreed that mental activities, such as coming to the opinion that R, are subject to immorality.

So, let us explore the option of criticizing Maurice merely epistemically. But if so, then we cannot criticize him any more than we would criticize other people who hold equally or more irrational beliefs, such as that the earth is flat, or that the works of Shakespeare are a 19th century fake, or that the Law of Excluded Middle is false (the last of these is a denial of a law of logic—how much worse can one get than that?). Yet those holding racist beliefs are criticized in a special way, with the criticism not just having to do with the evidential weakness of their views. This suggests that there is something other than mere epistemic failure that is at issue. There is something immoral about coming to racist beliefs in an epistemically deficient way.[note 1]

And in fact I can say a bit about that immorality. We have a special moral obligation—surely not an epistemic one—not to form false beliefs about matters that are socially important, and particularly in cases where having such false beliefs is likely to result in prejudiced unjust behavior. Thus, Maurice should have been particularly careful epistemically in forming the belief R. And this "should have" is a moral "should have".

[Edited: The one time "C" occurred in the original post, it should have been "R".]

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Monday, July 14, 2008


According to substitutionary views of the atonement, Christ suffered a suffering that was due to us for our sins. Substitutionary views come in two varieties: (1) penal substitution views hold that Christ's suffering was a punishment of Christ for our sins; (2) non-penal substitution views hold that Christ was not punished but that nonetheless somehow his suffering was a substitute for our suffering. Pernal substitution views are, arguably, incoherent: y can only punish x for what y believes x to have done; anything else is an imposition of suffering, just or unjust, but not a penalty. It is difficult to figure out exactly how a non-penal substitution views would work, but there has been some recent work on this (Adam Pelser had some interesting ideas in a paper he presented at a recent SCP meeting, and I have recently read some good in-progress work from someone else).

In this post, I want to discuss how one can respond to a criticism (not an original one) that would apply equally to penal and non-penal substitutionary views. The criticism is that according to Christian doctrine, Christ's suffering redeemed us from eternal damnation. In other words, Christ's suffering must have been a sufficient substitute for eternal damnation. But while dying on the cross is very painful, people have suffered worse, and it seems likely that on orthodox views of hell as involving eternal physical pain, dying on the cross, even when one adds severe flogging beforehand, is not a sufficient substitute for an eternity in hell. And even if one adds the psychological suffering of being abandoned by most of one's friends, and maybe even bereft of God, to feel that suffering for less than twenty-four hours is not a sufficient substitute for an eternity of psychological suffering in hell—for, after all, orthodoxy holds that hell involves non-physical suffering as well. This is the "Insufficiency Criticism" (IC)—Christ didn't suffer enough for his suffering to substitute for our punishment.

One answer to this is to allow that the total suffering in hell is only finite, and that Christ's suffering during his passion might in fact have matched the greatest degree of deserved suffering in hell. But while it is possible for eternal suffering to be finite, it still seems likely, given what the Christian tradition has said about hell, that the suffering is very, very great in total, this is probably not the best response.

In response to the IC, I want to offer first a partial theory as to one aspect of Christ's spiritual suffering on the cross. According to Aristotle, the virtuous person enjoys doing virtuous activity. A virtuous person's emotions correctly track the truth of the matter: the virtuous person feels good about virtue and bad about vice. Now, I want to say something odd: if a perfectly virtuous person were to engage in a gravely vicious activity, she would find such engagement more spiritually painful than just about anything else that could happen. Of course, this is a per impossibile counterfactual. But I can justify it by pointing to three genuine possibilities. First, suppose that a presently virtuous person contemplates a past grave evil that she did and which evil has not yet been mended. This contemplation gives her great pain. Second, suppose that a presently virtuous person contemplates the fact that some presently virtuous people go on to become quite wicked over the years, and hence that she herself might do so. To the extent that she takes this thought emotionally seriously, she is deeply pained by the possibility of future vicious action. Third, recall that Aristotle says that a virtuous person enjoys the virtuous deeds of a friend, in a friendship of the best sort, as if they were her own, because the friend is another self. Now Aristotle thought one could only be a friend, in the best sense, of a virtuous person. Be that as it may, what he says about friendship can be said about love more generally, and it is possible to love a vicious person. And if a virtuous person loves a vicious, then the deeds of the vicious beloved can give the lover the kind of pain that they should give the beloved. These three cases should make clear the magnitude of spiritual pain it would be appropriate to feel at an evil action while one were committing it. After all, what would we not give not to be someone who had committed a murder, say?

Now, let us suppose that on the cross Christ, being not only a perfectly virtuous man but also God, is aware of all the evils ever done, fully understands the evil in its interpersonal and theological significance, and yet loves the evildoers. This makes it possible for him to feel the spiritual pain at the evil which the evildoer did not fully feel while doing the deed, a spiritual pain of immense magnitude. The offense was against the infinite God. Christ on the cross, on this theory, experiences that offense in its immense magnitude, and this suffering, though concentrated in time, is a sufficient substitution.

A difficulty with this theory is that one wonders why this substitutionary suffering had to be on the cross. After all, wouldn't Christ have felt the same spiritual pain earlier in his life, say while sipping wine at the end of a hard week's work and reflecting on the magnitude of evil? This theory does not do justice to the importance of the cross.

But I think we can bring the cross back to it. For Aristotle is not actually right in thinking that the virtuous person's emotions always correctly track reality. Emotions come and go. No matter how virtuous a person is, if she has been deprived of sleep for too many hours, whether by torturers or by parenthood, she will not have much in the way of appropriate emotions. She will, if she remains virtuous, act rightly, but may feel simply numb. A virtuous person's emotions correctly track reality only in circumstances which are appropriate for this tracking of reality. A virtuous person knows that parenting is a good, but she does not feel the warm glow of it except in appropriate observing conditions, typically ones incompatible with sleep deprivation, just as an art expert may not recognize the fake Rembrandt except in good light.

Now, Christ on the cross was, we might say, in ideal observing conditions in respect of evil. His emotions were genuinely human ones. Suffering has much to teach us experientially, which we may have already known theoretically. On the cross, as the perfectly innocent divine victim, he could humanly experience the fullness of the evils of the world, evils that he already divinely knew, and that he even theoretically already knew as a human being. Moreover, even if his physical pain did not have the same magnitude that the pain of someone being tortured to death over the period of a month might have had, the physical pain he did suffer was of sufficient magnitude to fuel an empathy that would humanly enable him to be spiritually pained at that victim's pain of being tortured over a month—or even at the physical pains of eternity in hell. He suffered, then, not just his own sufferings on the cross, but these sufferings of his own made it possible for him to suffer with the victims of all the past and future crimes he knew of, as well as to suffer, even more profoundly, with the perpetrators of these.

I do not think this exhausts what happened on the cross. In fact, I am very much unsatisfied with what I wrote. I don't even want to say that the theory I offer is true. But the availability of theories like this one shows that the IC should not be as persuasive as it initially seems.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Euthanasia, patient autonomy and the physician's task

In this post, I am not going to distinguish between a doctor's "helping" a patient kill herself and the doctor's killing the patient herself, since in both cases the doctor kills, in the former case in concert with the patient and the latter alone. To help an assassin pull the trigger or aim the gun is to be a co-assassin. There are two different kinds of reasons given for allowing doctors to kill suffering terminally ill patients: care and autonomy. Those who focus on care base their argument on the patient's suffering and the physician's task in relieving that suffering. One difficulty with justing the euthanasia on such grounds is that once one sees euthanasia as a part of the physician's task of relieving the suffering, then it would become the physician's job to euthanize an incompetent patient (an eight-year-old?) who is suffering, terminally ill and yet begs to live, but where either no proxy is available or the proxy consents, just as it would be the physician's job to do life-saving surgery on an incompetent patient who resists the surgery. But even a lot of supporters of physician-assisted suicide will say that this is going too far.

Suppose instead that we base the killing of the patient on autonomy considerations: the patient chooses to be killed. Here, it is not clear what role in the justification is played by the fact that the patient is terminally ill and suffering, except maybe an epistemic role in providing evidence that the patient is not insane to request killing. After all, if the point is that people have the right to make deep decisions about life and death matters, then it seems that it would be equally the right of a patient who is quite well physically and mentally but who wishes to avoid creditors to request being killed by a physician, whereas surely this is not a request a doctor should accede to.

Now, a defender of euthanasia might object that a limiting condition on a physician's following of patient instructions is the good of the patient, and the person seeking to escape creditors would do better to declare bankrupcy than to be killed. Thus, just as on the first view, euthanasia was justified by care with consent being a limiting condition, on this view euthanasia is justified by consent with care being a limiting condition. However, this is problematic in a different way: It misunderstands the doctor's role. While those who took the first view were wrong in thinking that care calls for killing, they were right that care is the doctor's task.

Consider a surgeon who removes a malignant tumor. It would surely be very strange to say: "In order to honor the patient's choice to determine what is and what is not a part of his body, Dr. Magrodska removed Mr. Jones' tumor." Surely the right thing to say is that Dr. Magrodska removed the tumor because it was malignant, with Mr. Jones' consent being a mere necessary condition (and one that could be satisfied in other ways were Mr. Jones to be incompetent). Professionals are not servants of their clients' wishes, and physicians are professionals par excellance.

Now, there may be things that only a physician is qualified to do and which are done primarily as a response to the patient's wishes. Certain kinds of elective cosmetic surgery are such. But I think it is correct to say that in such a case the physician is not acting as a physician. Rather, she is acting as a medically-trained beautician. And even there she risks losing her status as a professional altogether if she does not act from a belief that the surgery makes the patient more beautiful. That a task requires medical training does not make the task a medical one (not that killing people painlessly requires medical training—see my previous post). Someone with medical training may be needed as consultant for a film set in a hospital—but such consulting is not a medical task.

There is thus a tension between the aspects of care and autonomy in the justification of killing terminal patients. If one focuses on care, then consent becomes a mere limiting condition and one arrives at abhorrent conclusions about killing vociferously protesting children. But if one focuses on autonomy, then physician-assisted suicide ceases to be a medical task.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Physician-Assisted Suicide

Derek Humphry wrote, as part of a defense of Physician-Assisted Suicide (PAS):

The help of a physician [in PAS] is imperative, because loved ones and family members untrained in the medical profession are rarely able to help a loved one to die [...].
This idea seems a standard part of the arguments for PAS.[note 1]

But there are four ways of reading "able" in "able to help": morally, legally, technically or psychologically, as well as combinations of these. Hymphry is presumably not claiming that family members are morally unable to help, that it is wrong for them to "help", since it would be really weird to suppose that medical training somehow gives one permission to kill when before the killing would be immoral. Nor is he claiming that unlike physicians they are legally unable to kill, for instance because they would be charged with murder, since the legality of PAS is precisely what is at issue, and if PAS is illegal, then physicians are also legally unable to "help".

Probably the best reading is "technically able to help", given the mention of training. But on that reading, the claim is false. There are many highly reliable methods of basically instaneously killing a person, at least if the killer has a normal amount of dexterity and physical strength. At the expense of some gruesomeness, let's briefly mention shotguns and large axes. One might object that in those cases, it is not a matter of helping but a matter of doing the whole job oneself. But it is easy to give the victim a role, say having the victim pull the trigger with a string.

Perhaps, then, we should read "able to help" as "psychologically able to help". On this reading, medical training makes it psychologically possible to kill. This is scary in that it makes medical training be akin to military training, a regime that makes one into someone who is not merely technically but psychologically capable of killing, overcoming our innate resistance to killing (on the latter topic, see this fascinating book by Rachel MacNair). Besides, if psychological resistance is the issue, one doesn't need a physician, just an able-bodied psychopath.

Maybe the best reading of the quote from Humphry is to combine the technical and psychological. The technical skills of the ordinary person, just much as those of the physician, make possible multiple relatively painless methods of killing, but these methods are messy, and are likely to be traumatic for the perpetrator. The methods available to the physician are neater. I think, though, there is a more perspicuous way of putting the difference: The methods available to the ordinary person make it look like the family member has killed a person, while the methods available to the physician make it look like a medical procedure has been performed. But once we formulate it in this way, it seems that the main "advantage" of the methods available to the physician is that they hide what has happened—the destruction of a human body. And that, in turn, is no advantage at all, since it hides from the moral imagination the truth of the situation, thereby skewing the decision.

Objection 1: Humphry could simply be worried about cleaning up after a killing committed with an axe or a gun.

Response: That seems unlikely. Besides, if mess is the issue, someone formerly in the special forces could surely be hired to do a neat and instantaneous job. Physicians are not the only people with technical skills for killing.

Objection 2: Being killed medically is more dignified than being killed with a gun.

Response: I simply do not see this. Why should being poisoned by an injection administered by someone in a white coat be more dignified than being shot dead? After all, we think of soldiers in wartime as dying with honor and dignity when they are shot by the enemy. I think the issue is not that being killed medically is more dignified, but that being killed medically hides the truth about what is happening. And dying in such a sneaky way is, if anything, less dignified.

Final comment: If I am right, then a major reason for PAS is a desire to make killing look less like a killing. And that desire is illegitimate if PAS is morally permissible. At the same time, I think the presence of that desire reflects something good: it reflects a revulsion at killing. But to kill the patient in a way that hides the destruction of the body is not the right way to respond to that revulsion. The right way to respond to that revulsion is to recognize the dignity of human life, and to care for rather than kill the patient.

Friday, July 11, 2008


I came across this quote from Karol Wojtyla today, in the context of a discussion of hospice care: "dying means living before death". I think this is quite a profound comment on terminal care: to be dying is to be still living, with death looming. And so, in fact, we are all dying.

Crime, attempt and guilt

A lot of people think that someone who has succeeded in committing a murder has thereby done something morally worse than someone who unsuccessfully attempted a murder, and is guilty of a greater offense. Specifically, they believe:

  1. Ceteris paribus, one is more guilty in successfully committing an evil than in attempting to commit the same evil.
This doctrine has always seemed self-evidently false. I wonder a bit whether some proponents may not be confusing guilt with responsibility (if one successfully commits the evil, one is responsibility for the occurrence of the evil), or maybe with legal questions as to what punishment should be levied (we have good reason to levy lower penalties on unsuccessful attempts so as to create an incentive not to try again[note 1]) or perhaps issues of torts or restitution.

Here is a quick argument against (1). What one is guilty of now should not depend on what happens after one is dead. But whether a crime is successful can depend on what happens after one is dead (think of someone who sets a bomb on a timer, places it in the desired location, and then is run over by a car before the bomb explodes).

Here is a more complicated, but perhaps stronger, argument. If Jennifer wants to kill her husband George, but her shot misses and kills a bystander, her action is clearly unsuccessful. Now it seems very plausible that Jennifer is no less guilty when she kills the bystander by missing her husband than were she to successfully kill her husband. Therefore in cases where the unsuccessful crime results in the same kind of evil that the successful crime would have resulted in, one is no more guilty in the successful case.

It might be responded that Jennifer is successful, because it is her intention to kill someone, and she has killed someone. But that equivocates on "intention to kill someone". One way to intend to kill someone is for there to be a particular person, x, whom one intends to kill. The other way is to indiscriminately try to kill someone or other. The second intention is had by some crazed killers, but that is not Jennifer's intention. Her intention is of the first kind, an intention to kill her husband. Killing someone other than her husband is not success at all (to make this absolutely clear, suppose that she accidentally shoots and kills herself while trying to shoot her husband; then she has killed someone, but plainly her action is a failure).

This is not yet a counterexample to (1), because of (1)'s ceteris paribus clause. But suppose that we accept (1) and also accept the judgment that Jennifer is no less guilty when she misses her husband and kills a bystander than when she kills her husband. I think that to justifiedly accept both of these claims, we will need to say something like this: "Yes, Jennifer failed at her crime. However, her evil action resulted in an unintended evil, and when one sets out to do an evil, one is guilty for all the evils that result, regardless of whether one intended them or not." There is a German proverb, Hegel says, that a stone thrown is the devil's—the consequences of an evil action are all one's fault. To accept both (1) and that Jennifer is no less guilty when she kills a bystander seems to require a strong version of the devil's stone doctrine—not only is one guilty for all the evil consequences of an evil action, but one is no more guilty for the intended ones than for the unintended ones.

But this strong version of the devil's stone doctrine is false. Suppose Patrick litters by tossing a candy wrapper out the window, and that wrapper then is eaten by a bird who chokes on it and dies, and the dead bird is several days later eaten by a bear, who then gets tummy ache because the bird was dead too long before the bear ate it, and as a result of suffering from the tummy ache the bear trips near the top of a mountain, thereby triggering an avalanche that kills a hundred skiers. Now even if one thinks there is something to the devil's stone doctrine, one would surely not say that Patrick is just as guilty in this case as he would be were he to have put a bomb in the ski lodge, thereby intentionally killing the same skiers.

Perhaps, though, there is a weaker version of the devil's stone doctrine available. Maybe:

  1. One is guilty of an amount E of evil that results from an evil action up to a maximum level set by the total evil that was foreseen (or, maybe, could reasonably have been foreseen) by the agent.
Thus, Jennifer is guilty of the death of the bystander, because the evil in that death is less than or equal to the evil involved in the expect death of her husband. But Patrick is not guilty of the skiers' deaths, because that evil went far beyond what could have been reasonably expected—at most the death of the bird could have been reasonably expected.

It seems to me now that the best way for the defender of (1) to accept that Jennifer is just as guilty when she kills a bystander as when she succeeds in killing her husband is to accept (2). However, I think (2) should be rejected, and this is a reason to reject (1).

Why should we reject (2)? One reason is that we do not have a good account of causation that will answer when an evil counts as "resulting" from an evil action and where that answer will make (2) match our intuitions. Counterexamples to (2) given particular accounts of causation are very easy to manufacture. Suppose, for instance, that we take a counterfactual story, on which B results from A provided that B would not have happened had A not happened. Then, for instance, we do not account Jennifer a murderer if she successfully shoots her husband when there was someone else standing by who would have shot him if she did not.

Of course one could respond that there is indeterminacy in causation, and that there is a matching indeterminacy in guilt. Here the argument will have to rest at this point. I think guilt is an objective property (perhaps reducible to others), and I don't believe in indeterminate or vague properties.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Leviticus and a life of liturgy

I finished reading Leviticus. I had never read all of it before. It took a while to get any significant benefit from it, but finally things started coming together. Here are some unoriginal reflections. The text contains a welter of regulations about various aspects of life. In the first century AD, some heretical groups found the regulations so arbitrary that they rejected the Torah as something not fitting to a reasonable God, and some more orthodox Christians tried to find far-fetched allegorical readings of them (the Epistle of Barnabas, while well-meaning, and an interesting early witness to the Christian opposition to unnatural sexual activity, is a particularly egregious example). But textually these regulations are anchored in exhortations that the Israelites should be a priestly people, holy even as the Lord is holy.

Rudolf Otto has famously criticized the modern misunderstanding of "holy" as "superlatively morally good" for leaving out the numinous, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Indeed, if we read "holy" in Leviticus as "superlatively morally good", we will throw up our hands in despair, as the early groups I had mentioned did. The prohibition on eating hares surely is not in itself requires for superlative moral goodness. But neither does it appear right to read the text as simply exhorting us to be mysterious, awe-full and fascinating.

Rather, "holy" in the text tends to carry the connotation of "consecrated": holy to the Lord. A priest is, of course, consecrated to his deity, and his life is a life of liturgical service to his deity. There is no surprise if this liturgical service involves actions that are strange, for instance ordained by ancient tradition, held to be revealed by a deity, and so on. It is no surprise if a priest of a religion should be commanded to wear only certain kinds of clothes, eat only certain kinds of foods, perform special actions on special days, and so on.

What is surprising, however, is the notion of a whole people that is set apart, holy, consecrated in a priestly way, and perhaps also the notion of a service to the deity that encompasses all of the servant's time. But once we have the notion of a priestly people, and of liturgical services that encompasses all of a priestly person's time, that these people should have strange rules is no more surprising than that there should be regulations as to which direction around an altar a priest should proceed, or what material his knife should be made of. Liturgy, the priest's business, is full of rules that are not of the priest's making, rules that go beyond moral requirements. In fact, the existence of such rules seems central to liturgy—a liturgy that is created ad hoc for one occasion is either an oxymoron or at least deeply defective.

One thing we can learn from Leviticus, then, is the idea of a whole life lived as liturgy. And while the specific rules no longer literally apply in the Christian era, the idea of a whole life of service to God, a life of liturgy, is intensified in Christianity, in at least two ways. The first way is through every Christian's participation in the sacrifice of Christ, a participation more intimate than that of the Israelite in the Levitical sacrifices, because Christ the High Priest lives through us. The second, and liturgically very significant, intensification is that in the Eucharist all Christians need to participate, in a completely real way, in the quintessentially priestly action of eating of the sacrificial victim.

At the same time, we also see from Leviticus that even in a priestly people there can be distinctions between priestly roles. The priesthood of all believers does not entail that all believers are priestly in an equal way. Each Christian has a priestly role deeper than that of even the Israelite levites, but this is quite compatible with some Christians being ordained to an even deeper participation in Christ's priesthood. In fact, it seems that hierarchicality is an important part of a priestly people, just as priesthoods seem to be innately hierarchical.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The fun proper to science

I was with the kids at a large and obviously well-funded science museum today (I am not talking of the excellent Mayborn Museum in Waco), a place of much noise, flashing lights, and so on, all designed, presumably, to make science fun to kids. It was great fun for the kids. But it didn't make science fun for the kids. The kids had fun while doing things that might have had value for a scientific education had the excitement of noise, flashing lights and too many other kids not been distracting them. Or, as one might somewhat unfairly put it, they had fun doing things that would have had a value for a scientific education had the fun not distracted them from it.

There are two little points here, one for science education and one for both science education and for philosophy. First, to do something flashy—pressing a button and getting a result—is only science if it is done in the appropriate context of theory and/or careful observation. To learn to enjoy doing something flashy like that is not at all to learn to enjoy science. There is no correlation between doing flashy things and doing science. Some scientific experiments are flashy, involving booms and sparks, and some involve noting how varying x correlates with a weak but statistically significant variation starting with the third decimal place of y in a sufficiently large population.

Second, even if what the kids did were science, to have fun while doing science is not the same as to have fun doing science. One can have fun while doing science by listening to enjoyable music on one's iPod while doing an experiment, but that is not having fun doing science. For the doing of science to be fun to one, the fun must come from the doing of science, and must do so, as Aristotle would say, non-accidentally. It must be the fun proper to science, and must come from science in the right way. The fun of getting flashy effects is not one of the main forms of fun proper to science. The fun proper to science is the fun of observing patterns emerging from careful observations, of making and/or testing bold hypotheses, of seeing the mystery of the ordinary, and generally the excitement of the intellectual life.

Now, granted, one can often make a child (or even an adult) come to experience the fun of an activity A by having her engage in A while enjoying B. Thus, I guess, to enjoy certain kinds of music, one needs to hear a lot of it, and hear it in a positive mood. So one might feed someone chocolates while they listen to that music, both to make her stick around and to create a pleasant association. So making kids have fun while they're doing science, even if the fun they have is not proper to the science, is in principle a viable strategy. But that requires that the kids be actually doing science while having fun, and that one be aware of the distinction between having fun doing science and having fun while doing science, so that one does not congratulate oneself on "having made science fun" when one has merely had the kids have fun while having science.

Part of the point here parallels Peter Geach's point about the good. One cannot simply define "good" and "baseball player", and then conjoin the definitions to get the definition of "good basketball player" (if one could, the inference from "x is a good basketball player" and "x is a baseball player" to "x is a good baseball player" would be valid). The same is true of "fun" and "science". An activity isn't an instance of "fun science" just because it is fun and science.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


With training, a tennis player can see where the ball coming towards her will strike the ground. Why not say this is genuine perception? That it takes training is irrelevant—most perceptions do. I guess the best reason to deny this is a perception is to require that a perception be caused by the perceived state of affairs. But now here is an interesting thing. This morning I saw a cow and I saw it as a cow. The causal criterion requires, then, that the cowness of the cow have caused my perception. And this requires an Aristotelian view of forms as causally efficacious. A Thus, it seems, either we can see the future or Aristelianism is true or we can't see any cow to be a cow. Maybe the causal criterion can be replaced with an explanatory one, though, which would weaken the Aristotelian conclusion while broadening the scope of what we can see.

[By the way, sorry for the typos in recent posts. They were typed mainly with vim over ssh on my Treo. I now have a Internet access on a device with a full-size keyboard, which should improve things.]

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Distant stars

We are sometimes amazed that we are seeing the distant past when we look at distant stars. But just about always when we look around, we see the past--light takes time to come to us from the objects. Why is it more amazing when we see the more distant past? And anyway, isn't the measure of temporal distance relative to reference frame?.