Sunday, August 16, 2009


According to what principle in Catholic medical ethics is genetic or surgical human enhancement an inherent moral evil?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Government, behavior control, and personal responsibility

Politics factor into this discussion, but it's not primarily political. Better to call it political philosophy, or even more broadly, philosophy of authority.

I didn't study political philosophy directly, so I hope those who have will forgive a lack of citations and jargon.

Right now I'm listening to a local conservative talk radio show. The host is criticizing Obama for advocating "nanny state" policies that shield people from the negative financial consequences of bad choices, while at the same time preaching "personal responsibility" in his speech to the NAACP.

OK, never mind the silly false dichotomy. Fallacious host is fallacious.

But it got me thinking about some of the differences between the party platforms, their operative presuppositions about the human person and the role of government, and how consistent principles can be seen through apparently divergent policy.

The purpose of government.

If I were asked to describe the purpose of government in as broad terms as possible, I would propose that it's goal is

to provide a stable framework wherein human life can proceed indefinitely, with the minimum authoritarian impositions necessary to secure the most inviolable collective values.

From this description arises what are, I believe, the most fundamental questions that give rise to virtually any overarching political ideology (including anarchism), and within them, to parties.

How flexible should the framework be? How do we balance the criteria for circumscribing "human life" (individualistic vs collectivistic, biologistic fs psychologistic, etc.)? What do we mean by "proceed"? I.e., Should the government be concerned, or not, with progress in one or another spheres, and if so, by what means, and how is it measured? What are the most inviolable collective values (and what role should government have in regards to collective values that are lesser than these)? What sort, and what degree of impositions should government exercise within its material ability to do so?

Theoretically unlimited possibilities.

Whatever the answers to these questions, government cannot escape a basic fact: as the number of people in a community (X) tends towards infinity, the likelihood of (Y) action being taken by at least one person tends towards 100%. A corollary: As time (A) tends towards infinity, the likelihood of (B) occurrence happening at least once tends towards 100% (Can a maths expert put these ideas into correct notation pls?)

In other words, all governments deal with theoretically unlimited possibilities of human behavior and events, not bounded by what we believe is likely, what we believe possible, or even what we can imagine.

Kind of a Hobbesian nightmare. O LOOK A REFERENCE!

Intermediary networks of governance.

And yet between totalitarianism and total theoretical bedlam exist dozens of pre-existing networks. I hesitate to call them "structures" because not all of them are the result of deliberate construction. They all vary in types and degrees of organization, and in their relation to time and culture.

Among those networks present today are, of course, heritage, the family, religion, the market, the workplace, media culture, the public, and even the Internet.

How much faith do you put in them?

I think that, exclusively in regard to this question (there are dozens of other questions) a spectrum arises that partially characterizes the difference between the Democratic and Republican platforms. That spectrum lies in the degree to which one affirms the effectiveness of the intermediary networks to effectively fulfill the goal of government bolded above.

Absolutely Ineffective | Totalitarian <-> Communist <-> Socialist <-> European left <-> Democrat <-> Republican <-> Libertarian <-> Anarchist | Totally Sufficient

Please bear in mind that there is nothing scientific intended in the above spectrum. Some might object to my distinguishing between socialism and the "European left" (which I think most agree is more left than the American left, but which seems to me to be short of full socialism). I don't know enough to say.

The religion component (You knew it was coming).

But the spectrum does have some explanatory value. For example, you can see how Christian Republican Rob can be bff with atheist anarchist Tiervexx in the Laissez-faire thread. Both (correct me if I'm wrong) are heirs to an anti-authoritarian sentiment and a good amount of optimism in man's ability to self-regulate.

It might also serve to explain the ideological component of America's Catholics being largely Democrats (historical component notwithstanding, of course). True, the Vatican is socially conservative, which sadly lent a hateful passion to the nationalists in Spain's civil war and to a large movement of American Catholics to the Republican party after Roe v. Wade.

But Latin Christianity has never viewed human nature with much confidence, and that pessimism extends to intermediary networks--in particular, free market capitalism. Which was a Protestant invention, anyway. Rather, Catholicism tends to view most human institutions, including the market, as good but also incontinent and desperately in need of a colostomy bag.

Government authority is that colostomy bag. It might be full of shit, but damned if it ain't necessary.

And so Catholic social doctrine has the distinctive mark among American religion of favoring some "liberal" economic policy. Pope John Paul II is on record as teaching, in an encyclical no less (the highest level of ecclesiastical document second only to a council declaration), that governments are responsible to secure the medical needs of citizens and refugees where the free market fails to do so.

So what's your point?

I could take this three directions.

  • Discuss the authoritarian elements of contemporary left-wing economics (I am economically left-wing, but I am concerned about authoritarianism).
  • Discuss the means used by government to directly and indirectly influence human behavior, whether it should, and toward what ends.
  • Discuss my own theories about the balance between governance by intermediary networks/spheres vs. sovereign authority.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Writing activity from the past several weeks, Pt 5

I also have a certain Pythagorean mysticism about the fundamental unity and intelligibility of being, and yet I reject the premise of Pythagoras and Descartes that mathematics is a first principle. Consider that Daniel Tammet "sees" numbers as shapes, colors, and movement; I'm persuaded that he and other savants have a privileged access to truth not as numerical but as phenomenological. Logic and math are secondary, they are declensions of what is ultimate.

I am also convinced that, while there is not exactly a way to "de-fine" the marks of truth (which implies that truth is fin-ite), the marks of error are easier to perceive. Systems that are closed and complete, yet which arrogate to explain the whole and lay it completely bare, almost certainly need adjustment if not scrapping. Theories which leave human agency and aspirations frustrated, or which terminate in absurdity, may have value in reminding us of real chaos, but it can only be a penultimate chaos. I have both intellectual and faith reasons for that conviction.

My avatar is something like a "theological seal"; it represents to me something like an archimedean point of reason and faith. Kenosis is the Greek word used in Philippians to describe the Incarnation: he "emptied himself". In this case, it doubles as a condition of truth--that truth must be open to infinity, and completely accessible.

let's just never get into a debate about feminism vs. Christianity.

Oh, I dunno. I don't think it would be as ugly as you think. I have a whole theology (actually borrowed from Hans Urs von Balthasar) of Christ as supra-feminine; if the Son is Logos, the Word, there may be here an identity with Holy Wisdom, spoken of in the feminine, or even the bride of the Song of Solomon. Even so, I know that this theory won't satisfy feminists, who still correctly point to the primacy of the Father, to whom Scripture and tradition refer to in the masculine.

I've read Mary Daily's "The Church and the Second Sex," and I know that any attempt to justify the status quo of the male priesthood will only viewed by some as a smokescreen concealing male will-to-power. But without losing my rabid orthodoxy, I can still say that if the feminine is "second" within a Trinity, that makes her the central sex; the pivot, the linchpin, the axis. IMO, a correct understanding of sex in Christianity does two things: (1) recognizes the inter-sexual dynamic of the Trinity, and (2) relativizes the importance of the clergy in the bigger picture of salvation.

Writing activity from the past several weeks, Pt 4

As a high school teacher I taught world religions. I tried to stress that "there are always similarities and there are always differences." It is naive to suppose that religions hold their deepest truths in common. Two religions might teach the same thing but for vastly different reasons (Christianity and Buddhism have an extremely different take on why worldly attachments can be harmful).

Or they might teach the same doctrine but hold it in vastly different orders of priority relative to each religion's total framework; Hindus and Buddhist both hold something like moksha/nirvana as the ultimate spiritual destination, but Buddhists (afaik) have no analogue to Hinduism's legitimate life alternatives, like kama (sensuality) and artha (wealth and success). Hindus appear to be in no real hurry to escape from samsara.

But it's equally naive to suppose that they are totally irreconcilable. The religions are coextensive. There are real contradictions--I'm sorry, Ann Holmes Redding, either the Qu'ran or Jesus are the inerrant and ultimate revelation of God, not both; and no, that's not just a throwaway detail. To say you accept both is, in a way, saying that you reject the claims of both--claims that are held by more intellectually honest believers of either creed.

But there is a reason for the significant overlap between the distinctive teachings of Jesus and the wisdom of ancient Hindu sutras. Many Hindus believe that Jesus's youth was spent with the gurus in India (like early Christians thought that Plato's monotheism was plagiarized from Moses). More likely, it's the case that truth is a discovery to be encountered by divergent explorers, not an invention that can only spread through imitation by copycats.

Is it only your opinion that it's more likely, or do you have any evidence that supports that? I'm not saying that I don't also have that sense, but I'd like to hear reasoning in favor of, "more likely."

There's substantial overlap in certain teachings of different religions. The question is, can the overlap be interpret as a sign of enduring truth; or is it merely the cross-pollination of ideas?

Some points.

  • Inter-religious consensus on this or that doctrine is not a gaurantee of its truth; just as a popular vote is not a gaurantee of the goodness of the law voted for. Yet in both cases it seems the consensus and the truth are not completely irrelevant to each other. Still we can always point to certain doctrines that are more or less pan-religious and yet offensive to our consciences--like depriving women of dignity.
  • Inter-religious consensus on a morsel of wisdom might, given circumstances, be adequately explained either by independent parallel discovery or by cross-pollination. These two possibilities are also not mutually exclusive, as a culture's "good idea" might be a hybrid of something original and something borrowed.
  • In the case of independent parallel discovery, we have to admit the distinct possibility of mere coincidence, including the coincidence of disparate peoples arriving at the same error independently. Jimmy and Sally, neither one especially good at math, might both guess that 1/0 = 0.
  • In the case of cross-pollination, we also need to admit the distinct possibility that the morsel of wisdom may be really true; and the fact that one people discovered it independently while another discovered it through imitation is, by itself alone, not a dealbreaker for its being true.

In spite of all of this, I think that we are legitimately impressed when two very disparate peoples arrive at the same (or very similar) contingent possibility of development without having communicated with one-another. Take for example Mayan written language and advanced irrigation technology, remarkable for having no apparent roots in proto-Indo-European language or any influence by Eurasian ingenuity. One couldn't be blamed for inferring a certain common human ordering toward these developments, even if not all cultures have always (or yet) developed irrigation systems or written language and seem to get along fine without either.

Corroboration is not a deductive guarantee of objective truth, but it is a powerful inductive intimation of it. Science itself is the ever greater accumulation of corroborations and falsifications. If a certain idea has gained widespread currency, especially if it has done so through spontaneous independent parallel inspiration (some cite the maxim, "Treat others as you would want to be treated") that seems a valid argument that this morsel of wisdom has, as far as we know, universal validity.

But what about cross-pollination? Here we can perhaps more easily imagine scenarios where a bad idea spreads.

I tuckered myself out again. Some questions I want to return to:
-What makes an idea "bad"?
-What is the method of its cross-pollination? (Voluntary or involuntary?)
-If voluntary, what can we legitimately infer from the popularity of an idea?
-Under what circumstances might a popular idea also be a bad one?
-Is the popularity of an idea an argument for its truth, or at least that some part or aspect of it is true?

irrigation developed because of a need, just the way eyes developed because of a need -- not necessarily because of a truth. Evolutionary psychologists would probably say that the most successful religions satisfy basic human needs. As those needs are universal, it isn't too hard to believe that the constructs created to fulfill them would be similar.

The categories of needs and truths are also not mutually exclusive. William James was a fan of the notion that evolutionary psychology itself was a clue--mind you, a clue, not a smoking gun--not only about human beings, and not only about the physical, but the metaphysical and the moral spheres as well.

The evolution of eyes would seem in indicate the presence of that which is seeable, and the advantageous nature of the ability to detect and utilize that data. But the seeable was present before any such organ existed that could detect it. The truth preceded the need.

I believe in evolution and in the principle of natural selection, but I keep an open mind about the possibility that there may be other natural causes linking truths to needs and needs to mutations. I'm not a Lamarckist, and I know that "genes have no windows," i.e., that so far as we know there is no direct correlation between environment and genetic mutation. (Edit: Woo!)

Needs must be satisfied, and they must be satisfied by a something. We will not survive on a diet of air. The moral and the metaphysical are no less important to civilizations. If independent parallel technology development points so a truth about human needs and the means to satisfy them, why should not a a similar principle be one (among many) means of moral and metaphysical investigation?

I hardly claim that an entire religion can be patched together with this type of thinking; though such claims are made by "inductive theologians" (like Peter Berger in A Rumor of Angels). I also I sneer at attempts to "combine all religions"; unless the author is honest about the fact that the frankenstein result would not be an orthodox contributor to any one of them.

I only suggest that more than a few wisdoms cross the boundaries of creeds, and that this may speak strongly of potential universal validity.

If all of the teachings of religions, including the really popular ones, are nothing more than culturally relativistic memes that are chance subjects of viral popularization, then the only reason to study them is for ethnographic reasons. Like pinning butterflies to Styrofoam. There's nothing deep about that.

But if the massive upswing of the moral and metaphysical thought of civilizations; the trajectory of wide swaths of critical thought have moved here or there in a direction that was powerful and positive, it seems to me we can scarcely ignore them, and even that those movements deserve a certain respect (if not automatic assent).

I essentially agree with you, or I at least want to... of course, science waters down the miracle of all this and points to such overlaps as simple means to adaptive human behavior, like love, cohesiveness, cooperation... destroying or shunning outsiders...

But how universal are the deepest wisdoms that religion has to offer? How would we know, as human beings? We magnify the importance of things that pertain to us. Even if they are of the utmost importance to us, what do they tell us about the universe? What do they have to do with God? Where are we, in God's grand scheme? Why is there all that alien space beyond us?

Let's not be too daunted by the possibility that Jesus was influenced by Indian mystics. He would be no more of a copycat than the pope or any of us. I suppose, though, that the problem is that Jesus is not "supposed" to be ordinary, because Christianity says he isn't, which gives way to circular reasoning. We just aren't. supposed. to believe that. 'cause it's bad. Even though it wouldn't contradict claims of his divinity, it would be... discouraging for us. So we don't like to consider it, although it may be true. We tend to embrace comforting possibilities as more likely.

Sometimes, I don't like the things I watch myself think and say. I'm going to cut out the devil's advocacy, say my prayers, and go to sleep.

Writing activity from the past several weeks, Pt 3

Post subject: Re: Carrying thought patterns across disciplines

One pattern that has deeply ingrained itself into me, via philosophy, is consciousness of the hierarchic order of being. I have a personal theology integrated with my religious orthodoxy, that it is inequality, not balance, which is prime.

A symbolic illustration would be the nautilus shell versus the Yin-Yang as an all-encompassing microcosm of nature. With all due respect to Taoism, I feel that the nautilus more completely represents how complimentary and quantitative difference and tension create beauty--such as the difference between the accelerating rate of growth combined with a merely constant rate of change, the cause of logarithmic spirals.

It's a pattern that I am more or less convinced is determinative not only for physical phenomena and aesthetics but also for truth in philosophy, politics, and religion. I know that sounds vague and like I haven't really thought this through--and boy does it need better elucidation. But it's the way philosophy fundamentally shaped my perception of everything.


I would imagine this would also apply to social hierarchies? Hierarchies of wisdom? I have to go to work at the moment, but I like this line of thought. I'd like to know where you see certain things and phenomena in such a schematic


Part of my difficulty here is that I'm not really pushing for "hierarchy" necessarily, or most deeply, in the sense of the Catholic clerical hierarchy or the Hindu caste system or the corporate ladder or academic hierarchy--such instruments of governance are as good or evil as their members. I am oddly enthusiastic about social hierarchy, but only when it takes natural analogies of interdependence as a model.

Re: hierarchies of wisdom, I believe truth is hierarchic in terms of depth, scope, urgency, precision, etc; but I also believe that there is a real analogical relationship between higher and lower orders of truth. I am an analogic realist--I believe that true analogies point beyond themselves toward a fundamental intelligibility of being; they are not merely constructs. I also think that analogy is entirely different, deeper than, and prior to both science and deductive logic, whose methods depend on it.

I am a spatial thinker, and whenever I read an opinion, a critique, or an essay, I can almost see its lines of connections with similar ideas on higher or lower orders of truth. Often I need to ask the author questions to avoid misunderstanding. But when I learn a new idea, it's not like one more coin to add to my coin collection; it's more like a fossil that more or less resembles this part of that dinosaur's skeleton; correcting past excesses and adding completeness to an inexhaustible and difficult corpus of knowledge.

I defintely disagree with the aesthetics. Symmetry and balance seem to be the most commonly recognized forms of beauty, across humanity.


Good point. And yet the bilateral symmetry of animals is always partial. A minority of humans are ambidextrous. The brain hemispheres have slightly different functions (not as radical as often supposed, but still). The way hair parts on a person's head usually favors one or the other side. The heart is appropriately asymmetrical.

I wouldn't dare say that these modest, often vital imbalances always and everywhere follow the golden ratio; but more significantly, I am captivated by the way these imbalances create a relationship of mutual interdependence. And moreover, the term "equality" starts to lose its cash value when you're talking about such a relationship. Which side of the heart is more important? Well, the left ventricle is stronger. But who's going to argue that the right atrium is expendable? It seems silly to speak of a competition between heart chambers.

This also gets me into trouble with feminists. I think that the whole concept of being the equals of men is broken on the most fundamental level--not because males are superior, but because it's like demanding that the right atrium be the equal of the left ventricle. When a practice or an idea violates the absolute human worth of women, then I'll get pissed.

Am I right in assuming you believe political and societal stability is only obtainable through imbalance of power?

Yes and no. You're right in that I've come to view the value of "equality" as something of quaint artifice, and you'll rarely hear me use the word in earnest (I'll instead speak of absolute human worth). I believe political and social stability is only obtainable through difference and mutual interdependence, equality be damned. Absolute human worth is prior to this belief, of course (injustice isn't about violating equality or discriminating, but rather violating absolute human worth, which sometimes takes the shape of one of the former). But still, I believe that it's erroneous to aim for equality as a value sui generis.

Does the yin yang symbol illustrate "quantitative difference?"

No, quite the opposite, if I understand correctly; everything I've read has emphasized that Yin Yang is a balance of opposite equals. That's exactly where I differ with it. Natural homeostasis rarely if ever involves an encounter of any two things that can sensibly be described as "equal" in any way. They are both vital, and if you want to play word games you can call them equally vital, but being "vital" is not something that differs in degrees--you either need it, or you don't.

But the philosophy, itself, asking for trouble, socially (er, well, it always has), the same way that eugenics did.

I've exhausted myself. But I'll just say that it's the difference between "Power Over" and "Power With". C.f. Foucalt.

Attached is a graphic I just did. I've been thinking of designing this for a while. It's not perfect (stupid pixels always want to round my divine proportions!) but it's sort of a synthesis.

First, a version that I did not create:


And my version.

Both illustrate nicely the concept of mutual interdependence and a certain "happy subordination" which is not "power over" but "power with".

The reason I would still give preference to my own version is that I am attracted to the symbolism of the open spiral vs. the closed circle. Closed systems (in any sphere of being, including relationships) are subject to the law of entropy. Ideologies are closed systems. Wisdom always points infinitely outward and inward, never exhausting truth, yet still hinting at it.

I also position myself against a merely circular view of time. But it's a little bit of a caricature to state that western religions have a linear view of time; it's more accurate to describe it as a progressive spiral. The snake never swallows its tail.

Writing activity from the past several weeks, Pt 2

Why has the word "organized" become a term of abuse (as in "organized religion") when nature itself is incredibly organized (i.e. organic)?

How, in the face of everything we know about human nature, did individualism and private autonomy become absolute values?

Why do we still celebrate the age of sexual libertinism when we find ourselves less happy, less loved, and more damaged than ever before?

When did a thing's ancient pedigree go from being a sign of abiding truth to a scarlet letter of obsolescence?

Why is the first response to hypocrisy always to spurn the virtue that the hypocrite failed to practice?

Why do people reject faith and obedience in the name of individualism, only to live and speak in lockstep conformity with a zeitgeist which long ago ceased to offer anything new?

Catholics won't be proud of their faith until they're released from the technicolor fantasy that the highest freedom is the consumeristic accumulation of options.

preach it!

"Why has the word "organized" become a term of abuse (as in "organized religion")..."

I think you answered your own question there...

"How, in the face of everything we know about human nature, did individualism and private autonomy become absolute values?"... Read More

Ummm, so, what is wrong with individualism? I don't see how that's a bad thing, for your argument or mine. And PRIVATE AUTONOMY? Free will is pretty much a human right, last time I checked - oh, wait you're arguing for religion. That's why those values are bad. Of course. How could I be so silly? (And free will has always been present in human nature, ya know.)

"Why do we still celebrate the age of sexual libertinism when we find ourselves less happy, less loved, and more damaged than ever before?"

I may not be a happy person, but I know for certain that sexual libertinism is not the cause of my unhappiness. If it were not for that, there would be even MORE sexism in the world than there already is, and I would be

(cont. from above)
...even less happy.

“When did a thing's ancient pedigree go from being a sign of abiding truth to a scarlet letter of obsolescence?”

An ancient “pedigree” is not proof of something’s legitimacy or worth. Unless, of course, you think that noble and royal titles mean that those people are better than the rest of us, simply because they have “pedigrees.”

“Why do people reject faith and obedience in the name of individualism, only to live and speak in lockstep conformity with a zeitgeist which long ago ceased to offer anything new?

Conformity is one thing. Obediance is COMPLETELY different. Conforming is something almost no one can avoid, because almost no one is original in what they do, say, etc. But conformity is not obediance. Obediance is following without question. One can conform and question, because one CHOOSES to conform.

Re: individualism - has a lot to do with geography/technology. Historically, the more isolated/mutually dependent a society is, the less individualist. The more mobile and global, the more individualist. (Sweeping generalizations, but still.) You're going to take on globalization? Technology? Wouldn't you rather - I don't know - sleep in?

Writing activity from the past several weeks, Pt 1

Recently, the gay marriage poll has been making the rounds, and the results are unsurprising. Rather than vote, I posted a status that said, "THE INTERNET IS LIBERAL!" I might as well have posted, "PUPPIES ARE CUTE" or "MICHAEL JACKSON IS WEIRD [Postscript, this was written before his death. Rest in peace, Michael.]." My point was that polling the general Facebook populace is an exercise in restating the obvious.

My sister, who I love, wrote, "What's up with your fascination with this topic (the gay marriage thing). Given that it doesn't impact you or (presumably) anyone you know and love personally, I don't see any reason for you to be feeling ALL CAPS - level emotion here."

The spirit of my all-caps post was a little subtle. It's hard to communicate certain sentiments over the Web. Certainly it begged for misinterpretation. Yet at the same time, my sis is correct: I am fascinated with the gay marriage issue... sort of. More accurately, I am fascinated with the wider issue of modern sexual libertinism and the collapse of an intelligent and persuasive response to it, of which the "gay marriage" issue is just a subset.

As a social conservative (a standpoint informed by, but ultimately independent of, my Catholic faith), I critique the exaggerated privatization and individualization of questions of sexual behavior brought upon by a zeitgeist completely beholden to the teachings of mid-20th century figures like Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Hugh Hefner, and others. Overall, I fear that modern western society has grossly underestimated the universal importance and impact of sex (and its natural correlates).

I am skeptical that a society that puts on giant blinders to the basics of the birds and the bees (in favor of a utilitarian and commoditized model of sexual pleasure) can operate for long without severe collective, and thus individual consequences. And I do not predict that those consequences will happen in some undetermined future--I observe that they have already happened; the bottom has fallen out; and we celebrate it even though as a society we are less happy, less healthy, less loved, and more alone than ever before.

Even though I do not consider my position to be irrational or not well-founded in verifiable evidence, I face incredible obstacles to my own credibility--from my allies as much as my opponents. My position will always be caricatured as a blind, sentimental 1950s romanticism; or as Biblical fundamentalism; or (as in the case of the gay marriage issue) simple hateful prejudice. And I receive no help from the fact that no small number of my allies are blind romantics, fundamentalists, and prejudiced people.

I stand by my convictions about morality and about public policy (which, believe or not, are distinct in my mind), not in the name of "tradition" or "God's law", but in the name of the public good; and because my reasons do not easily express themselves in sound bytes and catchy slogans, I see little hope that my views will obtain in the wider society. Short of a miracle. Fortunately, I believe in miracles.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Book stuff 5

In the previous four posts I have been sifting through possibilities and uncovering how my central goals will affect the tone and content of my first book. Now I need to ask what to write about.

And I am certain that my first book needs to be a diagnosis of modernity.

Let's break the impossibly broad into the ludicrously difficult.

  • Modernity within the history of ideas; consistent patterns
  • Fundamental presuppositions; convergences and departures with its others; the precise contours and composition
  • Consequences for action and civilization; where modernity operates and how; predictable elements.
  • Assessment and "big picture"
  • Call to action

The initial direction that I wish to investigate is something along these lines: that human thought is both complex but also binary; that memes, like organisms, have a common ancestor; and that features of these ancestors can be objectively recognized and traced through history. I wish to deconstruct the notion that human thought is progressive along the lines of discovery and science; and reconstruct a model of the history of ideas that is alternately progressive and regressive. Human thought is not a Comtean climb out of the valley of superstition over the mountain of positive fact; human thought, like being itself, is the constant interplay and tension of being and non-being, producing innumerable variations, some large or small, beautiful or ugly. The history of thought is like the Hindu metaphor of a river of many tributaries, but there is oil in the water; each tributary has a different mixture of each, and at every convergence and division the proportions and patterns change. Some tributaries are safe to drink from in proportion to their purity; others are deadly.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Book stuff 4,

In my last "book stuff" post, I reflected that the first step of "reasoned evangelization" must be a kind of listening. It is not merely that it needs to be well-researched (foregone conclusion!) but that I must be for the reader, early and often, both a companion and a gatekeeper--both unpretentious and knowing. That is a difficult balance to achieve.

The voice of the author ought to be sympathetic without patronizing the reader. It should carry a sincere gentleness which, though formal, is soft-spoken and universally welcoming. It is not (unless absolutely necessary) the mechanical rigidity of logical parsing; nor a syrupy sycophancy. It is above all, human. One thinks of Tom Bombadil from The Lord of the Rings. How does one unselfconsciously, and without the slightest self-aggrandizing, be as familiar and comfortable to the reader as a closest friend?

Once that voice is present, the same voice must also be--unselfconsciously--supremely assured about the End, about the ultimate Triumph of good. As per St. Julian of Norwich, "all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well." This has nothing to do with being omniscient. The author should be a "gatekeeper", like Virgil to Dante. If he is not omniscient, he is at, least, trustworthy; the reader has no hard "proof" of this, and rightly so, else it would not be trust.

Like the measured morsels of truth the author slowly uncovers, the gatekeeper himself is never fully disclosed nor totally hidden. This is not a contrived "peek-a-boo" meant to manufacture a false mystique. In fiction, the "gatekeeper" archetype has a goal which stretches beyond merely transmitting information--a goal that is vulnerable to carelessness in letting too many know too much before the right time. The point is not to be frivolously coy. It is to be the midwife of a delicate labor of truth.

Another "Lord of the Rings" figure I believe exemplifies this is Gandalf. Gandalf is both personable and mysterious; both warm and elusive. He does hold his cards close to his chest, to be sure, but at the same time he communicates the unspoken assurance that his mystery, like his warmth, is ordered toward joy.
Pippin glanced in some wonder at the face now close beside his own, for the sound of that laugh had been gay and merry. Yet in the wizard's face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a foundation of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

You can't count on people.

This is both a religious truth and a popular truism. We like to delude ourselves that it isn't true while we become joyful friends with someone. The happiness of true blue friendship seems to carry the inherent promise of endurance. Even moreso than romance, which is fraught with insecurities and pressures, deep friendships combine light-hearted casual love with weighty, time-worn loyalty.

Would that this was a guarantee.

But even friendships, which are some of the holiest things in nature, are natural and are part of the "world which is passing away". Fr. Denis Robinson of St. Meinrad Archabbey coached me in this one lonely evening at the American College of Louvain. I was melancholy because all of my friends were gone. I felt empty without them. Father reminded me that as long as we trust our happiness to something of the Earth--even a dear friend--that happiness is doomed to drown with the sinking ship.

Only Christ can be trusted. Only Christ will not pass away.

It would be a mistake to disregard this as mere religious misanthropy. The intention is not to withdraw from friendships into the cold darkness of a candle-lit chapel; nor is it to turn one's nose up to lost friends like so many sour grapes. "Bah! Forget friends!" No, it's actually more innocent than that. By remembering the human condition, we learn to regard friends as beautiful clouds. They dot the sky; they remain for a time; and then they leave. There is nothing I can do about it--why mourn the passing of a cloud? Christ is the beautiful blue behind the clouds, and he contributes to their beauty. When they all pass away, he remains, and he is still beautiful.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Book stuff 3, Categories in evangelization and reason

Continuing on my search for the subject of my first book, it seems necessary to take the category of "reasoned evangelization" and analyze it into subcategories. Since I am not entirely sure where to begin, I'll just start somewhere and see where that takes me. Say, for example, "apologetics", which is a time-honored and classical category.

Apologetics can be taken in the broad sense to be any reasonsed defense (or pejoratively, an attack). It evokes a polemical mood, and though this is not necessarily the case, such is suggested by the very title of any classical polemical work beginning with the word "Contra".

Unfortunately, in my experience of popular (and Internet) apologetics, much of what passes for apologetics is in fact sophistry. It is often content to misrepresent contrary positions, and somtimes employs language impotent to satisfy anybody but its own champion. The temptation is for insular communities of the faithful to employ apologists who--so long out of touch with real flesh-and-blood opponents--construct fictitious enemies out of a list of supposed errors.

This points towards an important category of reason prior to apologetics: listening. Reason demands a full account of all positions, and the free mutual encounter of fully developed, mature accounts based on firm foundations. Hence it also requires a representative skilled enough to give it. There is a reason Frederick Copleston chose AJ Ayer as a dialogue partner on the subject of the existence of God; the same reason it would be better to debate Richard Dawkins than Marilyn Manson!

But listening is more than just having, understanding, and being fair to articulate opponents. Listening also requires a perspicuous perception of humanity, the heart, the world; perhaps dasein is the appropriate word. This indicates that the listener must be, if not a phenomenologist or a philosopher, at least a good student, and never an idealogue (one who latches onto, and is blinded by an idolatry to intellectual constructs). Something in the vein of C.S. Lewis.

The defect of Internet polemics is the absence of this prerequisite sympathy and innocence. It is the innocence of Socrates, which relinquishes control of the opponent's thoughts, and, trusting in the unity of truth, merely reminds her of what she already knows. He is the midwife of truth, coaching one to breathe as she gives birth to truth.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Book stuff, continued

But an evangelical mission does not alone determine the content of a Christian author's book. It is too broad a category. Specialization is necessary. Let us analyze "evangelization" into its various parts:
  1. Grace (this is out of my hands)
  2. Reason
  3. Delight
  4. Promise

The above list is not wholly original--I am keeping in mind St. Augustine's styles of preaching: Calm, Moderate, and Grand, which correspond to the need to educate a hostile audience; delight a friendly one; and exhort a comitted audience to action; these, in turn, correspond to the above categories of Reason, Delight, and Promise. Special thanks to Colt Anderson's book Christian Eloquence.

Within this bunch, I sense that my missionary calling lies with the hostile audience, and thus, toward an educational, calm, rational corpus. That is not to say that my works should not be delightful or offer an eschatological promise. But my mode of writing is to always anticipate the most hostile possible reader. Such an audience will not be benefitted when too much energy is devoted to delight--they will (sometimes rightly) suspect that the author is trying to swindle them with pleasant, rather than true, words. And the hostile audience is far from able to grasp the meaning or importance of a Revealed Promise.

So, let's take Reason, then, and break that down as well.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Book stuff

I know I will write a book. It is only a question of when, and whether I will wait until I have more education under my belt before beginning. I am leaning towards "no".

My knowledge of philosophy and theology is broad but not deep. The important thing is that I know enough to know what I don't know, and where to find it. The research skills are there; the resources are there. I would have liked to develop more linguistic skills, without which I know my thoughts will not be taken seriously by major universities. However, with help, I may be able to manage.

I feel as though I have already written several books in my mind. The content of this blog is basically my "Pensees" (Blaise Pascal was the original blogger). Given that, the question is: where do I begin? I have dozens of ideas, arguments, missions, theories, metaphors, concepts, and hobby-horses. Not all of them are of equal value. Not all of them have broad applicability. Not all of them are fully developed. I don't want to start something I cannot finish. But I don't want to write ten books and feel that I haven't even started.

If I follow Understanding by Design, the first question to ask is: what do I want to accomplish? What is the effect I want to have on the reader? To which the ultimate answer is: "repent of your sins, believe in the Gospel, and be baptized." This will always be the underlying goal of anything I write.

Friday, March 13, 2009

On Facebooking...

I've had a Facebook account for years, but hardly ever looked at it. My current profile picture--the one where I look barely awake--is more than two years old, but I'm not inclined to change it. Recently (with the news about Facebook's website changes), I decided to revisit the old page, confirm all of my friend invitations, and just get invovled more often.

By the way, for those of you reading this ON Facebook, note that I can't access Facebook directly from my work computer. What you're reading is the RSS feed of my Blogspot post.

It's gratifying to see so many old friends, some of whom are now married. Some of them have changed in appearance. Some have children. It almost makes the idea of a high school reunion rather redundant--if also easier to organize (Yah, CFHS, Class of 2000!)

I also love the new connections with old acquaintances who I believed were "done with me", who perhaps I had angered in the past or allowed to drift away. Being accepted or invited to be on their friend-list is a deeply felt gesture of reconciliation (for those of you for whom this is the case, and you know who you are, thank you).

It also brings a few worries. I wonder how many of my high school buddies would take offense at my being a devout Roman Catholic, with everything that entails--including being in the anti-gay-marriage camp. That issue is a lot hotter now than it was ten years ago. We social conservatives are the nazis, slave-owners, and segregationists of the 21st century, judging by the way we're typically portrayed. Oh well.

My seminary buddies--now priests and deacons--have been especially active on here, which is nice to see. I wonder how I'm perceived, this ex-seminarian high school teacher. All of you should know that I'm jealous of your education, even while I support Mundelein's commitment to educating only prospective clergy.

So, here I am. It's nice to feel so connected, to know that I'm remembered and acknowledged, and that I'm not alone. I'm sorry I drifted away from you all, and I'm glad to have such an easy way to keep in touch.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Sound Science vs. Rigid Ideology, parte due

"Promoting science isn't just about providing resources -- it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it's inconvenient -- especially when it's inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda -- and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."

I called it.

What is frusting about this Obama soundbyte is that it is a complete non-sequitur. Someone who didn't know any better would think that the conservative stance against embryonic stem cell research is based on the desire to "distort or conceal... scientific data" that is "inconvenient" to a "political agenda". It's as if there's some secret that ESCR would expose that conservatives want to keep secret. What? Mr. President, who is the one distorting and concealing here?

But here again we see the opposition between "sound science" vs. "rigid ideology"; in this case, "...facts, not ideology". I suspect this will be central theme of Obama's social agenda for the US. My question for him is:

Mr. President, what "facts" are the conclusive evidence that ESCR is not the inhumane exploitation of the already absurd state of these conceived human beings?

Oh, right.
“Well, uh, you know, I think that whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or, uh, a scientific perspective, uh, answering that question with specificity, uh, you know, is, is, uh, above my pay grade.”

Well, while you're doing things appropriate to your "pay grade," why not leave such legislative decisions to the experts?

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Basic Concepts for High School Media Projects

Having just given a media project, as well as a workshop to teachers on assigning said media projects, it became evident to me that both teachers and students need an introduction to certain "big ideas". Let me see if I can't carve out a basic "table of contents" for what such an introduction would contain:

Windows Concepts
  1. Files and file extensions
  2. Directories
  3. Networking
  4. Storage
Hardware Concepts
  1. Cameras and camcorders
  2. Storage media
  3. Card readers
  4. Transfer cables
  5. Capturing
Software Concepts
  1. Project files
  2. Media file types
  3. Codecs
  4. Conversion
Media Concepts
  1. Clips
  2. Resolution
  3. Frames per second
  4. Audio
  5. Compression and quality
Copyright Concepts
  1. Copyright law
  2. Derivative works
  3. Fair use
  4. Public domain
  5. Waived Copyrights (Copyleft; Creative Commons)
  6. Giving credit

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Revising my "About Me"

"The Greeks discovered that Being is True, Good, and Beautiful. To the Jews and Christians it was revealed that, underneath and beyond all this this lay three yet greater things: Freedom, Love, and Mercy. Thus is nature perfected by Grace."

I'm not satisfied with this.

Greeks: Being = True, Good, Beautiful
Christians: God = Freedom, Love, ________?

The problem with calling God "Mercy" in this case is that it really is not distinct from "Love" in the Christian sense. All Christian love is kenotic love--self-emptying love--which is mercy.

Freedom and Love are two names of God; what is the third? The scientist asks, "Why do you need a third name?" Because of my intellectual love for patterns, and because of my suspicion that God also loves patterns.

Ah. Got it. Mystery. Mystery is the third name of God--it is the name that denies the act of naming God. It is the name which reminds us that God cannot be systematized. Thus, within this little system, there is a word that explodes the system outward.

"The Greeks discovered that Being is True, Good, and Beautiful. Jewish and Christian revelation unveils three yet greater things: Freedom, Love, and Mystery. The natural wisdom of the mind is both perfected and shamed by the Grace of God."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Resources for legal moviemaking in the educational setting

I split this blog entry into two. Here you will find links to resources and documents pertaining to the rights of teachers and students vis-a-vis creating multimedia projects.

The most directly useful documents are asterisked (**).

Web sites containing royalty-free and public-domain music and sounds:

  • Jamendo - Free and royalty-free music under the Creative Commons License (except for anything labelled "NoDerivs"). Credit original sources.
  • The Freesound Project - Free and royalty-free sound effects and music loops under the Creative Commons License. Credit original sources.
  • Public Domain Information Project - Royalty free and public domain music for purchase.
  • Public Domain Music - MIDIs of public domain music, usable with the permission of the site owner (see his FAQ).
  • MusOpen - Unrestricted recordings of public-domain classical music.
  • Public Domain 4U - Unrestricted recordings of public-domain jazz music.

Copyright documents and guides:

  1. Copyright Act of 1976 on Fair Use - Primary Source (sections 107-118)
  2. Copyright Act of 1976 on Fair Use - Introduction
  3. ** Fair Use Guidelines for Educational Multimedia (by the Consortium of College and University Media Centers) - This is the most important in this case.
  4. TEACH Act of 2002 - Summary by US Copyright Office
  5. TEACH Act of 2002 - Amended Sections 110(2) and 112
  6. ** TEACH Act of 2002 - Guide by the University of Texas System
  7. ** Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians - Circular 21 by US Copyright Office (contains the "Agreement on Guidelines for Classroom Copying in Not-for-Profit Educational Institutions" by the Ad Hoc Committee of Educational Institutions and Organizations on Copyright Law Revision, the Authors League of America, Inc., and the Association of American Publishers, Inc.)

Online misinformation:

  1. Too strict: The first link in a Google search for "copyright" and "teachers" points to A Teacher's Guide to Fair Use and Copyright. While decent, this document incorrectly applies the so-called "Spontaneity Test" to all materials whatsoever, including use of audio and video in projects. For reference, here is the text from the "Agreement on Guideliness for Classroom Copying" cited above:

    (i) The copying is at the instance and inspiration of the individual teacher, and
    (ii) The inspiration and decision to use the work and the moment of its use for maximum teaching effectiveness are so close in time that it would be unreasonable to expect a timely reply to a request for permission.
    However, this rule does not apply to audio and multimedia material. It explicitly states in the same document:

    As stated above, the agreement refers only to copying from books and periodicals, and it is not intended to apply to musical or audiovisual works.
  2. Too lenient: Several guides (Google "fair use" and "favor" and "against") take a creative approach to establishing the legitimacy of copying practices. They use scales--not unlike a certain Knight of the Round Table. According to Cornell's copyright policy document, "Where the factors favoring 'fair use' outnumber the factors weighing against a finding of "fair use," reliance on the fair use exception is justified." Technically I would be in line with Cornell's policy if I sold Xeroxed copies of a textbook at profit, so long as I had enough "checkmarks" on the "fair use" side of the worksheet. Now there's a felicific calculus for you.
Remaining question(s):

I can't seem to find an unambiguous and authoritative answer on whether teachers and/or students have the right to circumvent copy protection technology on DVDs for instructional purposes.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Resources for moviemaking

In a few weeks I will be giving an in-service to my colleagues on the use of Windows MovieMaker. I've downloaded a handful of really great tools, and the more I learn, the more I feel like making videos again. But half of my new discoveries have been legal in nature. The Web is an elusive treasure hunt of information about the doctrine of Fair Use. Most of it is strewn about in localized summaries--getting to the primary sources literally took me hours.

So in this post I would like to list both the tools I'm using to produce my tutorial (and certain excellent guides), as well as a list of important primary-source documents related to copyrights and responsibilities in the non-profit sphere.

Movie tools:
  1. Windows Movie Maker 2.6 - the basic Windows home movie editor
  2. CamStudio 2.5 beta 1 - records on-screen activity
  3. Magnifying Glass Pro - zooms in on area around mouse cursor, because CamStudio does not have built-in zooming functionality yet
  4. Impress - free "PowerPoint"--can do fantastic basic animations, excellent for using with compositing/chroma key/blue screen)
  5. Synfig - free 2D animator, allegedly as powerful as Adobe Flash, but not for the faint of heart. I haven't tried it yet, but I would like to.
  6. Fraps - records 3D video games

Tutorials and guides:

  • Compositing and Chroma Key in Windows Movie Maker:

I'm going to explain the first part of this myself, because too many of the guides out there assume you already know how to do this.

Windows Movie Maker does not natively do compositing/chroma key/blue screen effects--where you "erase" the colored background of one video clip so that another one ("behind" it) shows through. You can trick Movie Maker into doing exactly this, though.

First, you need to create a folder. Open up File Explorer, and browse to (minus the brackets). Right-click and select "New" and "Folder". Name the new folder "AddOnTFX".

Now that you have that folder, you are going to create two files in Notepad: one named "composit.xml" and the other named "chroma.xml".

Visit this tutorial by "PapaJohn." Copy the contents of the first example into your "composit.xml". Copy the contents of the second example into your "chroma.xml". Follow the rest of his directions, and enjoy!

Friday, January 30, 2009

One thing I don't get.

So I'm reading all about Pope Benedict lifting the excommunication from the four bishops at the top of the SSPX schism. It really doesn't matter to me, one way or the other. However, I am confused by one point:

If these bishops are no longer excommunicated, but are still stripped of all ecclesiastical faculties, and yet they continue to celebrate the sacraments in defiance of the Holy See, aren't they basically already self-excommunicated?

I don't get it.

Monday, January 26, 2009

"Sound science" vs. "rigid ideology"

President Obama has done a good thing. The complaints against him sound like my students complaining about not being allowed to turn in late work--both desperate and unconvincing. Why would environmental requirements be costly to auto companies when Toyota has proven that automotive cleanliness is a huge marketing boon? Why would car companies have to manufacture a different car to meet each state's requirements rather than a single model that conforms to all of them?

But this is not really a blog post about cars, the environment, or the laws governing them. This is a post about political language. I was delighted to see that the link I clicked, titled "Obama: 'Rigid Ideology Has Overruled Sound Science'", was about cars, and not about what I feared: embryonic stem cell research. Most of us that follow such things understand by now that "sound science" in the political realm is code for embryonic stem cell research.

Everyone, at arguably the most important time of their life, has been an embryo. We do not come from embryos, any more than we "come from" our infant, toddler, or teenage selves. We all were them. There is no discontinuity, biologically or ontologically, between that tiny bundle of cells and the first African American president it would become.

But, common sense aside, witness the power of words--such as the words of President Obama when he declared in his inagural speech that he would "put science in its rightful place." What is the rightful place of science? The revelation I received in Leuven was, years ago, that science itself does not answer that question. And if science, the only legitimate source of enforceable legislative truth, is silent on the question of its own "rightful place", then there is only one answer remaining to fill the void:

The rightful place of science is whatever we want it to be.

It is a fair wager that the next time President Obama invokes the dramatic language of "sound science" versus "rigid ideology", it will not be for such a benign purpose as environmental responsibility. Both terms are wildcards of immense political cash value. Does the technological data surrounding embryonic research teach a doctrine on whether it is right to do so? No? Then whence our answer? It seems we will be given two options: the gilded prose of a polished man who promises it is good, and "rigid ideology"; i.e., any belief structure that disagrees with him.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Dreaming of Leuven

The summer of 2001, Fr. Kevin Codd, the president rector of the American College in Louvain, personally visited me in my home town. My bishop had alerted Father that he had a seminarian who was eligible, via the DeRance scholarship, to complete his philosophy training in the small medieval town of Leuven, BE.

I was initially leery. At that time, I was locked into a combative, politicized, teeth-grinding Catholic conservativism. I even told this devoted man of God that I feared his seminary was "very liberal". I even used those words. I was not set at ease when Fr. Codd was joined by an alumnus, a local priest, dressed in Bermuda shorts and telling me, "The worst explanation you can give someone for a Catholic doctrine is 'Because the Pope said so'." I fawningly adored the Pope, which did not bode well for my reception of said advice.

In spite of my fears, Fr. Codd persuaded me that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I was not, however, impressed with his dewey eyed, sing-song sentimentalism about the town of Leuven. At that time, I would have studied philosophy in a Wal-Mart broom closet if I was assured that it would be faithful to the Magisterium. I could not fathom that a town's history or beauty was relevant to the quality of my education. Yes, yes, it's very pretty, but what will I be taught?

It took a couple of years, but Leuven broke the hardness of my heart. I never lost my loyalty to Rome--and still haven't--but my loyalty became wiser (a process that remains ongoing). Before, I scoffed at Fr. Codd's cooing about Leuven, and at the lavish praise by Bishop Fulton Sheen of the same. Now, as I think back, I cannot help but to sing the same song.

Lately I've had a recurring dream. In the dream, I am back in Leuven, not a seminarian anymore, but living there as a student of the University. On a whim, in the early evening, I go to the American College. Through the large chapel doors (that are rarely opened), I hear the voice of Fr. Wallace Platt giving an impassioned moral exhortation. I do not enter the chapel, but wait. When the Mass is over and I know that the community is having dinner, I open the front door and peek in. There are the tables, and sitting at them are all of my old formators--Fr. Kevin, Fr. Wally, Fr. Denis Robinson, Fr. Aurelius Boberek, and everyone. The students faces were all new (my dreams mix fantasy and reality), but the priests were happy to see me and welcomed me to a table. I did not eat--I did not presume the right. But I talked and laughed and joked and philosophized.

Sometimes when I have the dream, the students are my old confreres. Sometimes I stay the night--in a bare, unfurnished, musty-smelling room. I am always a guest, never a resident. Sometimes the dream takes me to the cobblestoned streets of Leuven, to cafes and pubs, familiar and unfamiliar. Sometimes my family is there and I am joyfully showing them everything there is to see. It is always early evening, after a rainstorm, with the sun poking out from behind still-present rainclouds, and the smell of rain still in the air. I always walk up or down Naamsestraat, my home street.