Monday, October 18, 2010

Contra Atheism

“Atheism is not a doctrine, but a cry of protest.” – Philosophy professor Servant of God Fulton Sheen

In this entry, I’d like to do two things: 1) furnish some brief arguments as to why atheism is irrational; and 2) explain how I came to be an atheist as a teenager and how I grew out of it intellectually.


Pascal’s Wager

Here I will refer to Peter Kreeft, whom I recommend strongly on this:

In short, let me just say that Pascal’s Wager is misunderstood. When I was a Freshman in a 300-level philosophy class, my TA told us that the only reason to believe in God was Pascal’s Wager and that “betting on God” wasn’t likely to ingratiate you with the Lord any better than atheism.

The mistake here is essentially an equivocation: Pascal’s Wager is an intentionally weak argument rather than a strong one; that is, it is not an argument for Christianity so much as an attempt to show that 1) agnosticism is atheism in practice [you either do the religion stuff or you don’t do it] and 2) atheism is irrational. And since that is exactly what I am doing here—not arguing for Christianity but arguing against atheism and atheists—it is the first and most powerful which comes to mind. All the classic objections (but which version of God to believe in? for example) are all based on a misunderstanding of the argument as being for something (strong) rather than merely against something (weak).

The argument, properly understood, simply goes like this: you can’t win as an atheist. What do you get? You get temporary, finite pleasure; you get to be your own boss; but even these things are wiped out in the oblivion of death. So, in the end, you get zero, which is the same thing which Christians get when they die, assuming that there is no God. So, even if there is no God, it is no more rational to do as you please than do as some ancient book says: you get the same thing in the end.

Atheism is the worst bet in the world—if you win, you lose everything; if you lose, you burn in hell forever.

The Oblivion of Death

While I’m on that subject—that is, of the oblivion of death—let me also add that this brief asides is a sound argument against atheist existentialisms. To illustrate:
1.There is no God.
2.Therefore there is objectively no meaning in life or the universe.
3.Therefore [here is where the existentialist errs] we are free to create our own meanings of life.

Now, I’ve heard anyone from Sartre to Dawkins make this exact argument: you create your meaning in life [this stems from Nietzsche’s conception of the ubermensch as value-creator]. What’s wrong with it?

I REPLY that if there is objectively no meaning and life and we get to decide what our personalistic meanings shall be (getting the perfect golf swing, making a lot of money, having sex with hotties), then this bears no more correspondence to truth (that is, it is just as deluded) as a religion. So, atheist, I ask you what your beef with religion is? Can’t that be one of your subjective, personalistic meanings of life? Can’t I create my own values?

Nietzsche says yes, that makes sense. One has to remember that Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity was not that it was false; it was that it made people into wimps. His argument was not, “this is a delusion!” It was, “we can think of better delusions than this.”

Here I simply refer you to Nietzsche’s writings. He argues at length that if there is no God, there is no longer any correspondence between goodness and truth; Nietzsche did not care (as a result of his atheism) whether or not a proposition was true—he wanted to know is the proposition life-affirming?

So, an atheist cannot argue that religion is bad because it is deluded; he only can argue, with Nietzsche, that he would simply prefer a different delusion.

The nonexistence of God would mean that death is oblivion, thus making everything—good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood—equal. Read Nietzsche.

Kreeft reformulates Pascal’s wager into a justice-based wager not an outcome-based one. Let’s say you’re a totally selfless person and you don’t really care about what happens to you. If there is a God, he deserves your worship; and since you are selfless, you would want to worship Him. Therefore the wager works for the saintly heathens too.

Contra “Carpe Diem”

Here I would like to argue that “seizing the day” is irrational.
I begin with the uncontroversial proposition that the conscience is immutable. Everyone who doesn’t have a personality disorder has a conscience; and this conscience never sleeps—it hounds you, it lectures you, it will always needle you.

Therefore, you have two options (I remember realizing this at age twenty; it scared the crap out of me): 1) you can obey your conscience and it will shut up; or 2) you can try to destroy your conscience.

Now, the only way to destroy your conscience is to inflict on yourself mental illness or death. Which is preferable—acting morally at all times or mental illness and death?

Sheen on conscience:

That argument is a bit rationalistic; some people don’t buy a priori arguments, so I’ll offer an experiential version:
1.No one is completely happy. That is, everyone wants something and pursues it; and often, when someone gets what they want, they still aren’t happy—look how many celebrities, good-looking people, wealthy people kill themselves. No one is perfectly happy.
2.Therefore, trying to be happy is irrational.
As you have probably figured out, this is a weaker version of St. Augustine’s argument on page 1 of the Confessions.
But what makes us suppose that we shall be the exception? Alcohol didn’t make x happy; but it will make me happy! It’s irrational.
Connected with this is an even crazier irrationality: we know that every time we do something we know is wrong, we feel like crap. Yet we still do bad things. It’s the craziest thing in the world.


What if I don’t recognize [insert sin—fornication, masturbation, drunkenness, etc.] as wrong?
I REPLY that in a natural law framework, you would be considered insane. NL is “what you cannot not know.” Hence, if you believe these things to be morally permissible (isn’t that conveeeeeenient?), either you have flawed arguments for such a belief or there is something wrong with you that keeps you from perceiving something so obvious. [Individual moral questions would have to be for another blog entry than this one, which is just concerned with critiquing unbelief as unreasonable, even by selfish standards.]
Epistemological reasons for atheism or other arguments against belief I will take on a case-by-case basis, as there is no room for them here.

My story:

When I was in high school, I encountered Sigmund Freud for the first time. Very quickly, I became an atheist, since Freud, with science’s authority, gave serious pronouncements on God’s existence which are unscientific and fallacious. But I didn’t know how to spot fallacies back then and I fell for Freud.

What is Freud’s fallacy? The same as Marx’s and Nietzsche’s. Unfortunately, this is something everyone gets away with now, largely because of Freud: question-begging and the genetic fallacy.

It goes like this: Freud provides a just-so story as to how religion came about (one that no sociologist takes seriously) and, having an explanation as to how a belief arose, declares it a null set.

Now, you see this kind of argumentation all the time, particularly from the evolutionary psychology crowd (EO Wilson, DS Wilson, Dawkins, Dennett). But, as Einstein says, “the man of science is a bad philosopher.”

Explaining how a belief arose actually tells us nothing of the truth or falsehood of that belief. If, as Freud says, religion arose because of a prehistoric parricide whose guilt (but how does guilt come from non-guilt? How can you just invent guilt? Question-begging.) turned us neurotic and so we invented a Father in the sky.

So, Freud assumes there is no God, then explains why we belief, then says ta-dah: that there is no God.

It’s question-begging and the genetic fallacy. Be on the lookout for it.

Dealing with Atheist Arguments

There have traditionally been exactly two good arguments for atheism: 1) the problem of evil; and 2) the argument from Ockham’s razor (ironically, Ockham was a Catholic monk). They have not changed since antiquity; they are the same exact arguments. Some might say that they have got stronger as science and suffering have both waxed; I say, on the contrary, that both are weaker.

St. Thomas Aquinas dealt with both arguments. First, I will simply quote the Angelic Doctor:

Objection 1. It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word "God" means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.
Objection 2. Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God's existence.

Reply to Objection 1. As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): "Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil." This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.

Also, see Summa Contra Gentiles:

Reply to Objection 2. Since nature works for a determinate end under the direction of a higher agent, whatever is done by nature must needs be traced back to God, as to its first cause. So also whatever is done voluntarily must also be traced back to some higher cause other than human reason or will, since these can change or fail; for all things that are changeable and capable of defect must be traced back to an immovable and self-necessary first principle, as was shown in the body of the Article.

I REPLY, arguing quite differently than the Angelic Doctor did, the following:
1.The premise that God and evil are incompatible depends on a hidden premise that “there could be no morally sufficient reason for evil to exist,” a premise no one has ever been able to defend as it is so obviously weak.
2.The argument from evil at best, even if sound [which, as it is predicated on a false premise, it cannot be], can only demonstrate that an all-kind God does not exist. In other words, to be an atheist you have to refute every single theistic argument; debunk every miracle; and then this argument will work.

The argument from simplicity or parsimony is more popular among the scientists than among the philosophers, who generally prefer the argument from evil (see Voltaire, Tooley). But, of course, the scientists who make such claims are stepping outside of science and trying their hands at philosophy (see the Einstein quote).

This argument is fallacious everywhere, to the point where it might not even be wrong.

I object 1. On epistemological grounds. There is a hidden scientistic premise. That is, Dawkins/Philip Pullman/whoever, will only accept science as evidence.
Why is this problem? Science is self-limiting—it can’t investigate miracles; it can’t investigate anomalies; it is methodologically naturalistic and concerns itself only with nomology.
So, we have the question-begging fallacy again, that favorite of so many “rational atheists.” I will only accept evidence which presupposes naturalism; therefore all I see is evidence for naturalism; therefore naturalism!

Notice that science and reason are not the same thing. In fact, by even arguing at all, I am presupposing the viability of reason and our ability to know metaphysical truths. But science and reason are not the same thing: science is one sliver of rationality. Only since the Enlightenment have people (Descartes, Kant, Hume) been so stupid as to confute the two.

I object 2. That the argument equivocates (let us assume that the scientistic premise—that is, science reveals nothing supernatural therefore there is no evidence for it—holds) by defining God as some sort of Higgs-boson-like ad-hoc explanation for what we do not know about the world.
Christian theology, and even Jewish theology centuries before Christ’s Advent, has always been clear about the distinction between the supernatural and the natural. So, Dawkins’ argument from parsimony only works on pantheism (an idea so riddled with contradictions it didn’t need any refuting). Judaism and Christianity are not opposed to the idea of nature. Nature and God are not fighting it out for control of the world—as St. Aquinas says, “Grace does not destroy nature; it perfects it.” God made nature just as much as He made the miracles He has done.
So, it’s a straw man to make the Christian God a god-of-the-gaps. He has never been defined that way by Christians; why do you think you would refute Him by redefining Him however you like?

I object 3. On empirical grounds. Here I would recommend Aquinas’ Quimquae Viae. Aquinas argues from the structure of reality—not a god of the gaps. The cosmological argument is sound; the contingency argument is sound; in fact, there are at least five sound arguments. There may be more.

I’ve never met an atheist who didn’t fall into one of the above categories of argumentation. I welcome objections! Bring ‘em on.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Contra Feminism

In this essay, I’d like to sketch a brief critique of feminism by focusing on particular logical fallacies I see in various feminisms (sex-positive feminism is just as erroneous as sex-negative feminism). Why this is important is obvious: the influence of feminism on Western Culture cannot be overestimated. If you ever doubt this, consider that Women’s Studies exists.

  1. Because of the diversity of feminist thought, defining feminism is fruitless. That is why I shall stick to specific objections, and mostly to feminist assumptions rather than conclusions. This problem of vagueness constitutes my first objection: feminism can mean so many things that it is meaningless. The term is so hallowed that it must be invoked for everything; when Sarah Palin calls herself a feminist (as she has), let’s just give the whole thing up. It means nothing. Or, the famous quote that “feminism is the belief that women are people too,” is another example. If that’s the case—let’s assume it is—then why bother? Why a political agenda? If people from other groups—Christians, utilitarians, nihilists, every group really—think that women are people, then they’re all feminists. Feminism, therefore, is superfluous or unnecessary. If feminism were egalitarianism, we’d just call it egalitarianism. It must not be, then. And it isn’t.

  2. But let us assume that this bumper-sticker definition of feminism is incorrect. Let us assume, rather, that feminism is, as is often stated, about empowerment. Let us examine this concept: if female empowerment is the goal of feminism, then any means which feminism employs is justified, internally, to the extent that it empowers women. Feminism makes power an intrinsic good; an end rather than a means. Power in itself simply is not a good any more than money is a good. Money is not good unless you do something with it; neither is power. It can only be good for someone to have money/power, etc. if they put it to use in service of the Good. But feminism, because empowerment is its telos, tries to create an endless cycle of power: get power so that you can get more power.

  3. Which leads me to my next objection. Objection 2 was that empowerment is a false premise; objection 3 is that this is repugnant. Objection 2 was flawed with respect to truth; objection 3 is the consequence, namely that feminism is flawed with respect to goodness. To illustrate this, replace “female” with any group that does not regularly make a (resentful) historical claim for reparation: male empowerment, white empowerment, New England empowerment, British empowerment, whatever. It’s obviously repugnant.

  4. Following this is that feminism makes a subjective good into an objective good. That is, would feminism be a good if no one believed in it? Surely, it’s a good to the people who benefit from it; but would it be a good if there were no women? Let me give you another illustration: murder would be wrong even if no one had ever committed murder. Murder is objectively wrong—it doesn’t matter who you murder (man or woman), it’s wrong. What about unfeminist political crimes—hiring too many men (see Maureen Dowd’s recent complaint that she’s the only one of nine editors at the NYT who is female), not hiring enough women (notice it is not “not hiring qualified employees,” but “not enough of US.” Notice the naked power grab.). Is this objectively wrong? No. It’s subjectively unpleasant to women; but I’ve never heard of an actual logical argument that demonstrates, rather than assumes, that this is wrong.

  5. Which leads really to my main complaint, which undergirds the above objections: feminism is nihilism. Everything is a mask for the will-to-power—everything is patriarchal whether or not you know it; and, if you don’t agree, then you’re part of the patriarchy and you might not even know it. It’s classic conspiracy thinking, and if it weren’t so popular, you’d think a schizophrenic thought of it: to think that an entire civilization is built around a conspiracy to keep YOU down is literally insane. But the nihilist part of it is that everything is translated into power. Now, nihilism is one of the only worldviews which cannot be critiqued from within because it is airtight (I think with regard to this you have two options: nihilism or Catholicism; everything else can be critiqued from within and slides one way or the other). I can only critique nihilism (and, thereby, feminism) from without: nihilism does not give an exhaustive account of reality.

  6. More false premises: that work and having children are a means to self-satisfaction. This violates Kant’s first principle of ethics: people are not to be treated as objects but as subjects always. It is the most obvious yet easily forgotten moral truth. Feminism always addresses abortion as about the mother; the child is an afterthought. But prior to feminism, it had always been the other way around: childbirth was not invented so that I could feel whole, but a natural biological process to continue the species. It is for the child. Similarly, a job is not (unless you’re already rich and spoiled) for feeling good about yourself but for survival. You work for a living; you don’t live for working. It’s utter nonsense to put down women who do not work; it’s like putting down someone for walking just because you have a wheelchair. Work is a necessity.

  7. Here I’m just going to quote Helen Alvare: “What may at first appear to be separate and distinct problems -- promiscuity, teen pregnancy, divorce, abortion, euthanasia -- are actually related outgrowths of misguided thinking about freedom and about God…. material success for women as superior to work within the family; unencumbered choice as superior to marriage and family life; sex as recreation; children as burden; abortion; and even physician-assisted suicide. In the euthanasia cases before the Supreme Court in 1997, the legal arm of the pro-abortion movement filed a friend-of-the-court brief endorsing physician-assisted suicide. Their grounds? Decisions about the human body are to be left to the "autonomous" self; our bodies are our personal possessions to be disposed of as we see fit.” More concisely, Feminism is predicated upon an understanding of freedom as (1) negative; and (2) an end-in-itself rather than a means. Feminism treats freedom as an end—such and such is good because it will give me freedom—rather than as a means—I am free to do x and this is good because x is good. It is based upon the ideas that freedom equals a right to do whatever we want, whenever we want, regardless of whether others are hurt or whether truth is violated.

  8. More obviously, there is an incoherence (alluded to above) in feminist claims to be egalitarian. If they were egalitarian, they wouldn’t need to be feminists. Rather, feminism is a program of social engineering. As Hayek put it, "From the fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position, and that the only way to place them in an equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict with each other; and we can achieve either one or the other, but not both at the same time" (The Constitution of Liberty)

  9. Feminism—I will not say always, because I am not sure—often assumes—following Kant, Kierkegaard and the existentialists—that we cannot know the answers to our most important questions. We can’t know when life begins; "No one can know what's right for sure, so stop trying to force your opinion on me," "No Church is going to tell me what to do with my body," and so forth.

  10. Feminists think that there is no way we ought to be. This is an aspect of their nihilism, and their selfishness (“the hell of selfhood,” as CS Lewis calls it; hell is being locked in yourself). Feminists have a Nietzschean (talk about irony!) or Sartrean understanding of essence—they believe that they create themselves (this is Satan’s error in Paradise Lost; as Williams says, “hell is inaccurate”); they believe that they create their own essence. This is Nietzsche’s ubermensch; this is Sartre’s “authenticity:” value-creation.

  11. Feminism actually degrades femininity by imitation of traditional masculine qualities. Femininity is something to be ashamed of to them—women must be strong, independent; they must compete with the boys and do better than them. Of course, this is in stark contrast to all human thought to this point in history:

  12. Feminism gets sex wrong just as it gets childbirth and work wrong: sex is not for pleasure (this is not just feminism’s error; this is…everyone’s error); it is for babies. We have sex for the same reasons that the birds and the bees do. That’s what those parts are for. But in order to live how they want, feminists (and, by the way, Richard Dawkins, who says this is how we can “transcend evolution”) deny that there is a purpose to anything (no one denies that a nose is for smelling; but everyone denies that reproductive organs are for reproduction; maybe that’s why we call them sex organs now rather than reproductive organs. On a cow they’re reproductive organs but on a human they’re sex organs. Just as every biology textbook until the 1970’s said clearly that life begins at conception; every biology textbook used to say this.) It’s no wonder they need jobs and kids to feel better about themselves—they’re psychologically mutilating themselves. No one can love you enough to deserve sex unless married to you (have made a lifelong commitment to you; if someone loves you rather than fancies you, they’ll always love you—why would they stop?).

Feminism belongs in the trash. Let’s put it there.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Some Thoughts on Don Quixote

Woo! Nine days! I did it! Exhausted.

“which is the
madder, he who is so because he cannot help it, or he who is so of his
own choice?"

My reviewing anything this great is like Ellen DeGeneres judging singing. Oh wait…

Anyway, it’s sort of a joke that I’m to pass judgment on what is considered by many (Harold Bloom and the Nobel Institute, for example) to be the greatest novel ever written. But let’s just ignore this and pretend my opinion matters.

There is no question that it is a masterpiece, but why? It succeeds at every level of literary achievement to which it aspires, and it aspires to almost all of them—timeless and universal comedy both subtle and slapstick, a panoramic view of Spain (every social class and region, like Chaucer did with England), a unified and harmonious effect on the reader (everything in these 1100 pages fits together remarkably well), patient and confident storytelling by Cervantes, and philosophical reflections on everything.
Everything is in here. I kept finding Cervantes’ successors—you can find the fountain of inspiration for Voltaire (!!!), Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Mark Twain, Saul Bellow, Salman Rushdie, and on and on…Cervantes’ first novel contains all the novels that follow it. No writer has been able to contain Cervantes.

Now, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best novel. Being the first is impressive, and being influential is, too; but I still lean slightly toward the Brothers Karamazov as the ultimate novel. You can’t out-Cervantes Cervantes, but surely the student can become the master. More on that later.
We owe to Cervantes the novel, the anti-hero (that most modern phenomenon; the hero is ancient; the ancient world was idealistic, the modern cynical), the sidekick (Yogi and Booboo = Don Quixote and Sancho Panza). Don Quixote and Sancho Panza kept reminding me of the Three Stooges—we root for them yet we love nothing more than seeing them get the stuffing kicked out of them. Why?
I have learned from Cervantes, from Kafka, from Beckett, from Philip Roth [particularly before he turned serious, in his late comic masterpieces Operation Shylock and Sabbath’s Theater], from all the comic masters that great comic writing is deadpan. It is, on looking at it closely, on a microscopic level, deadly serious. But it is only when you step back, zoom out, like with an impressionist painting, that you see the humor. Writers of bad humor—see facebook, most journalism—are self-aware, smirking, self-congratulating. The great writers challenge you to discern what is funny and what is not. That is why so many people think Kafka and Beckett are gloomy when they are in fact comic.
The great tragic writers all avoid sentimentality and self-pity; they too, are deadpan. Bad writers write sad things sadly; good writers write sad things precisely. Bad writers write comedy using phrases like “or lack thereof;” good writers write comedy as seriously as they can.
How can you not laugh when the Duennas grow beards and Sancho, who hates duennas, exclaims in all seriousness, “A
thousand devils--not to curse thee--take thee, Malambruno, for an
enchanter and a giant! Couldst thou find no other sort of punishment for
these sinners but bearding them? Would it not have been better--it would
have been better for them--to have taken off half their noses from the
middle upwards, even though they'd have snuffled when they spoke, than to
have put beards on them? I'll bet they have not the means of paying
anybody to shave them."” It is the pleasure of watching MTV’s Punk’d—the seriousness, the taking of the bait.
Or, another example of serious humor—Don Quixote’s horse has no spurs. So whenever he goes to fight we have to remember that Rocinante is trotting casually. It’s a seriously funny image.

But what is it about? Everything, yes, but most acutely it is about deception, the need for illusion, edifying self-delusions (Plato’s noble lie), interpretation, coping with your mortality, and, interestingly for us, reading. What induces Don Quixote’s madness? Reading. And we never really stop thinking about reading before the book ends. Cervantes throws at us all sorts of views on literature, some of them coming from intelligent people, others from lunatics. But they all sound plausible—which one is Cervantes? Well, what kind of a writer would write something like this?

The canon of Toledo gives us some very sound ideas about what a novel should be:

"The enjoyment the mind feels must come from the beauty and harmony which it
perceives or contemplates in the things that the eye or the imagination
brings before it; and nothing that has any ugliness or disproportion
about it can give any pleasure…fiction is all the better the more
it looks like truth, and gives the more pleasure the more probability and
possibility there is about it. Plots in fiction should be wedded to the
understanding of the reader, and be constructed in such a way that,
reconciling impossibilities, smoothing over difficulties, keeping the
mind on the alert, they may surprise, interest, divert, and entertain, so
that wonder and delight joined may keep pace one with the other; all
which he will fail to effect who shuns verisimilitude and truth to
nature, wherein lies the perfection of writing. I have never yet seen any
book of chivalry that puts together a connected plot complete in all its
numbers, so that the middle agrees with the beginning, and the end with
the beginning and middle; on the contrary, they construct them with such
a multitude of members that it seems as though they meant to produce a
chimera or monster rather than a well-proportioned figure. And besides
all this they are harsh in their style, incredible in their achievements,
licentious in their amours, uncouth in their courtly speeches, prolix in
their battles, silly in their arguments, absurd in their travels, and, in
short, wanting in everything like intelligent art; for which reason they
deserve to be banished from the Christian commonwealth as a worthless

Or, when Don Quixote goes to the printing shop, they discuss what makes for a good book. “"Simplicity, boy! None of
your high flights; all affectation is bad."” And indeed, there is no affectation, no sentimentality in the entire novel.
As he leaves the shop, he says, “fictions have the more merit and charm about them the more
nearly they approach the truth or what looks like it; and true stories,
the truer they are the better they are;" and so saying he walked out of
the printing office with a certain amount of displeasure in his looks.”

Does Cervantes live up to his own standard? Of course he does! It amazes me that someone could be so funny for so long. Brevity is the soul of wit, Polonius tells us. Cervantes, the prince of wit (as he is known in the Spanish-speaking world), has written a mammoth book half the size of the Bible and…(!) it works! Cervantes found in Don Quixote complete freedom: he had not only a mouthpiece but a frame story with which to show us many other stories, including full novels in their own right (“The Ill-Advised Curiosity”). We all should be so lucky as to find such freedom. Having such comic characters also helps the author to stay omnipresent yet invisible—he can say whatever he wants, but you never know if he’s serious or not.
Cervantes’ view of writing is the same as that of Shakespeare—that it is to “hold a mirror up to nature” (Hamlet), and resemble life as closely as it can.
"That is true," said Don Quixote, "for it would not be right that the
accessories of the drama should be real, instead of being mere fictions
and semblances, like the drama itself; towards which, Sancho-and, as a
necessary consequence, towards those who represent and produce it--I
would that thou wert favourably disposed, for they are all instruments of
great good to the State, placing before us at every step a mirror in
which we may see vividly displayed what goes on in human life; nor is
there any similitude that shows us more faithfully what we are and ought
to be than the play and the players. Come, tell me, hast thou not seen a
play acted in which kings, emperors, pontiffs, knights, ladies, and
divers other personages were introduced? One plays the villain, another
the knave, this one the merchant, that the soldier, one the sharp-witted
fool, another the foolish lover; and when the play is over, and they have
put off the dresses they wore in it, all the actors become equal."

"Yes, I have seen that," said Sancho.

"Well then," said Don Quixote, "the same thing happens in the comedy and
life of this world, where some play emperors, others popes, and, in
short, all the characters that can be brought into a play; but when it is
over, that is to say when life ends, death strips them all of the
garments that distinguish one from the other, and all are equal in the

"A fine comparison!" said Sancho; "though not so new but that I have
heard it many and many a time, as well as that other one of the game of
chess; how, so long as the game lasts, each piece has its own particular
office, and when the game is finished they are all mixed, jumbled up and
shaken together, and stowed away in the bag, which is much like ending
life in the grave."

"Thou art growing less doltish and more shrewd every day, Sancho," said
Don Quixote.

Not, of course, according to his wife, who thinks he’s become absurd, speaking in riddles. Sancho’s transformation is as central to the novel as Don Quixote’s.

Cervantes, even more impressively, is able to write in any style (again like Chaucer), and that includes techniques that are considered modernist or postmodern. Cervantes uses metafiction (If books of chivalry are lies, isn’t the story of Don Quixote a lie?!!), unreliable narrators (Cide Hamete is a Moor, after all!), breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader, mention of the author (the captive captain says he remembers a fellow captive whom everyone liked name “something Saavedra”), and unreliable sources—after all, this is just a translation of Cide Hamete, and, as Don Quixote says in the book printing shop, “it seems to me that
translation from one language into another, if it be not from the queens
of languages, the Greek and the Latin, is like looking at Flemish
tapestries on the wrong side; for though the figures are visible, they
are full of threads that make them indistinct, and they do not show with
the smoothness and brightness of the right side; and translation from
easy languages argues neither ingenuity nor command of words, any more
than transcribing or copying out one document from another.” So how much of this do we believe, especially considering that a major theme here is that books about knights are full of lies?

Don Quixote is, of course, deluded. He even hints at admitting it:
"God knows whether there be any Dulcinea or not in the world, or whether she
is imaginary or not imaginary; these are things the proof of which must
not be pushed to extreme lengths. I have not begotten nor given birth to
my lady, though I behold her as she needs must be, a lady who contains in
herself all the qualities to make her famous throughout the world,
beautiful without blemish, dignified without haughtiness, tender and yet
modest, gracious from courtesy and courteous from good breeding, and
lastly, of exalted lineage, because beauty shines forth and excels with a
higher degree of perfection upon good blood than in the fair of lowly

But, what if delusion makes you a better person?

“since I have been a knight-errant I have become valiant, polite, generous, well-bred, magnanimous, courteous, dauntless, gentle, patient, and have learned to bear hardships, imprisonments, and enchantments; and though it be such a short time since I have seen myself shut up in a cage like a madman, I hope by the might of my arm, if heaven aid me and fortune thwart me not, to see myself king of some kingdom where I may be able to show the gratitude and generosity that dwell in my heart”

In fact, he is totally sane but for one error, and Cervantes uses him as a mouthpiece for every other kind of opinion than chivalry. You could say even that this book is one long meditation on deception, on disguises. The Knight of the Mirrors did not choose his name arbitrarily—he is a mirror to Don Quixote, the man pretending to be what he is not for the greater good.
"I don't know what to say, my son," replied Don Diego; "all I can tell
thee is that I have seen him act the acts of the greatest madman in the
world, and heard him make observations so sensible that they efface and
undo all he does; do thou talk to him and feel the pulse of his wits, and
as thou art shrewd, form the most reasonable conclusion thou canst as to
his wisdom or folly; though, to tell the truth, I am more inclined to
take him to be mad than sane."

“he is a glorious madman, and I should be
a dull blockhead to doubt it."

“All this time, Don Diego de Miranda had not spoken a word,
being entirely taken up with observing and noting all that Don Quixote
did and said, and the opinion he formed was that he was a man of brains
gone mad, and a madman on the verge of rationality.”

How hilariously serious and yet logical are Don Quixote’s impromptu lectures on the differences between soldiers and scholars, “the science of knight-errantry,” and the differences between courtiers and knight-errants! “Madness but there’s method in it!” (Hamlet)

Don Quixote may be play-acting, especially considering his praise for the stage.
He is learned, indeed, moreso than anyone else in the book, even the priests. But look at him (I’m thinking of Herzog here)—does it benefit him at all. “learning without virtue is a
pearl on a dunghill,” he says. And yet he seems virtuous, too! He turns away sexy women to keep chaste; he is generous; he wants nothing more than justice; he gives good advice. He is at once a great Catholic and a crazy person—a puzzle indeed.

A theme that nobody seems to talk about that seemed salient to me was that men misunderstand women. Since Don Quixote’s problem is one of misinterpretation of everything (inns as castles, a dirty farm girl as a princess, prostitutes as virgins), it is harmonious with this that Cervantes ties in story after story of men misinterpreting women and suffering the consequences thereof—Chrysostom, Cardenio, Anselmo, the goatherd…and so on. How many generalizations, often conflicting, are made about women by men in this book!

“Won't you tell me what is the matter, my
beauty? But what else can it be except that you are a she, and cannot
keep quiet?”

"That is the natural way of women," said Don Quixote, "to scorn the one
that loves them, and love the one that hates them: go on, Sancho."

“women are commonly impulsive and inquisitive”

"Brother, take it easy, and be not in such a hurry to drive this goat back to the fold; for, being a female, as you say, she will follow her natural instinct in spite of all you can do to prevent it.”

“Leandra's youth furnished an excuse for her fault, at least with those to
whom it was of no consequence whether she was good or bad; but those who
knew her shrewdness and intelligence did not attribute her misdemeanour
to ignorance but to wantonness and the natural disposition of women,
which is for the most part flighty and ill-regulated.”

“I follow another, easier, and to my mind wiser
course, and that is to rail at the frivolity of women, at their
inconstancy, their double dealing, their broken promises, their unkept
pledges, and in short the want of reflection they show in fixing their
affections and inclinations. This, sirs, was the reason of words and
expressions I made use of to this goat when I came up just now; for as
she is a female I have a contempt for her, though she is the best in all
my fold. “
Sancho’s discussing his daughter with his wife:
Teresa: “Consider, too, that your daughter Mari-Sancha will not die of grief if we marry her; for I have my suspicions that she is as eager to get a husband as you to get a government; and, after all, a daughter looks better ill married than well whored… marry her to her equal, that is the
safest plan; for if you put her out of wooden clogs into high-heeled
shoes, out of her grey flannel petticoat into hoops and silk gowns, out
of the plain 'Marica' and 'thou,' into 'Dona So-and-so' and 'my lady,'
the girl won't know where she is, and at every turn she will fall into a
thousand blunders that will show the thread of her coarse homespun
stuff. A fine thing it would be, indeed, to marry our Maria to some great count or grand gentleman, who, when the humour took him, would abuse her and call her clown-bred and clodhopper's daughter and spinning wench.
The day that I see her a countess," replied Teresa, "it will be the same to me as if I was burying her; but once more I say do as you please, for
we women are born to this burden of being obedient to our husbands,
though they be dogs;" and with this she began to weep in earnest, as if
she already saw Sanchica dead and buried.

"If all those who love one another were to marry," said Don Quixote, "it
would deprive parents of the right to choose, and marry their children to
the proper person and at the proper time; and if it was left to daughters
to choose husbands as they pleased, one would be for choosing her
father's servant, and another, someone she has seen passing in the
street and fancies gallant and dashing, though he may be a drunken bully;
for love and fancy easily blind the eyes of the judgment, so much wanted
in choosing one's way of life; and the matrimonial choice is very liable
to error, and it needs great caution and the special favour of heaven to
make it a good one. He who has to make a long journey, will, if he is
wise, look out for some trusty and pleasant companion to accompany him
before he sets out. Why, then, should not he do the same who has to make
the whole journey of life down to the final halting-place of death, more
especially when the companion has to be his companion in bed, at board,
and everywhere, as the wife is to her husband? The companionship of one's
wife is no article of merchandise, that, after it has been bought, may be
returned, or bartered, or changed; for it is an inseparable accident that
lasts as long as life lasts; it is a noose that, once you put it round
your neck, turns into a Gordian knot, which, if the scythe of Death does
not cut it, there is no untying. I could say a great deal more on this
subject, were I not prevented by the anxiety I feel to know if the senor
licentiate has anything more to tell about the story of Basilio."

“between a woman's 'yes'
and 'no' I wouldn't venture to put the point of a pin, for there would
not be room for it; if you tell me Quiteria loves Basilio heart and soul,
then I'll give him a bag of good luck; for love, I have heard say, looks
through spectacles that make copper seem gold, poverty wealth, and blear
eyes pearls."

“there is no woman, however secluded she may live or close
she may be kept, who will not have opportunities and to spare for
following her headlong impulses.”

And yet Cervantes is by no means misogynistic [the Crystal Palace scene in Montesino’s cave is the first literary reference to menopause], though I’m sure there are hordes of feminist critics who would find offense, and on that grounds (not on the ground of whether he is good or bad at writing), pitch him out the canon. But consider that after Chrysostom’s friend delivers a long diatribe about Marcela, calling her all sorts of names, she shows up and delivers a speech that shows she is virtuous, intelligent, and not at all to blame for Chrysostom’s foolishness. Men, here, continually fail to understand women, and Cervantes stands in the background watching it all happen, alternately laughing and gasping at the consequences.

The text is fixated on gender—this seemed loud and clear when the duenna’s complaint was growing beards. Romantic mismatches – rich and poor, ugly and attractive, supply a chain of Shakespearean comedy.

In fact, how many idealized women there are! Marcela, Leandra, Dorothea, the fair Moor, Zoraida, and on and on…The only women not described as awe-inspiring in beauty and virtue are the prostitutes at the inn and Dulcinea, Don Quixote’s dream girl. Her description cracked me up too:

"She can fling a crowbar as well as the lustiest lad in all the town. She is a brave lass, and a right and stout one, and fit to be helpmate to any knight-errant that is or is to be, who may make her his lady: the whoreson wench, what sting she has and what a voice! I can tell you one day she posted herself on the top of the belfry of the village to
call some labourers of theirs that were in a ploughed field of her
father's, and though they were better than half a league off they heard
her as well as if they were at the foot of the tower; and the best of her
is that she is not a bit prudish, for she has plenty of affability, and
jokes with everybody, and has a grin and a jest for everything…sun and
the air spoil women's looks greatly. But I must own the truth to your
worship, Senor Don Quixote; until now I have been under a great mistake,
for I believed truly and honestly that the lady Dulcinea must be some
princess your worship was in love with, or some person great enough to
deserve the rich presents you have sent her…”

How many idealized love stories, some of which that are positively Shakespearean, are in here! Is this just more satire, more humor? Or is Cervantes showing us the authentic next to the phony? I’d argue for the latter, that Cervantes is not a cynic, because of the timing of the stories. Whenever Don Quixote fakes something—like the hilarious scene when he pines in the wilderness for Dulcinea—it is followed by someone not faking it—when he’s pining he meets Cardenio, who really has lost his mind.

I’d like to quote that scene because it’s one of the funniest paragraphs I’ve ever read:

“in order to be able to swear without a weight on my conscience that I had seen you do mad things, it would be well for me to see if it were only one; though in your worship's remaining here I have seen a very great one."

"Did I not tell thee so?" said Don Quixote. "Wait, Sancho, and I will do
them in the saying of a credo," and pulling off his breeches in all haste
he stripped himself to his skin and his shirt, and then, without more
ado, he cut a couple of gambados in the air, and a couple of somersaults,
heels over head, making such a display that, not to see it a second time,
Sancho wheeled Rocinante round, and felt easy, and satisfied in his mind
that he could swear he had left his master mad; and so we will leave him
to follow his road until his return, which was a quick one.”
This silliness, this slapstick, is followed by the very real soap opera-like drama of Cardenio, whose story does not seem at all to be ironic or funny. The phony love of the duennas is followed by the authentic love of Claudia. Or the almost-incredible story of the captive captain (which may be true) is echoed in the second part by the direct experience of the fair Moor’s story.

Why are there so many dead moms in here? There are a lot of father-daughter duos. Perhaps that was more common in those days before the advances in medicine, but I found myself struck by it—Leandra, the Judge, Zoraida, and so on…I do know that Cervantes had two daughters. But I don’t know what to make of this.

Or, for another example to back up my thesis, we meet the “captive captain” right after Don Quixote has given a lecture on the glory of arms and war. Don Quixote has idealized, cartoonish views of what war is really like, and, as Cervantes knew from experience, war is miserable. The captive captain gives us a truly heroic tale just after Don Quixote’s silliness. There is nothing comic about it.

I should also like to add that the deepest love in the book is Platonic—that between Don Quixote and Sancho, the closest friendship in all of literature. They are, as Aristotle said of friends, one soul in two bodies. Despite all their bickering and silliness, the most moving love in the book is in chapter 52, “for all Sancho did was to fling himself on his master's body, raising over him the most doleful and laughable lamentation that ever was heard, for he believed he was dead.” Sancho is completely unlovable—fat, stupid, gullible, cowardly, and he speaks only in cliché proverbs. But who doesn’t love Sancho?

What is Don Quixote’s motivation? “We are not permitted to know,” Bloom tells us. Quixote seems at times to know that he really is not a knight, and to just continue pretending anyway. He is more alarmed than anyone when he is given a hero’s welcome by the duke. He is a knight-errant (knight erring?), and he frequently claims to want to go to war with the injustice of the world, to protect the weak, the widowed, the virgin, the sick, etc. from the strong. This, if anything, is a quest that never ends! And some, indeed, wish his adventure never ended. Sancho certainly wanted more. Yet as Alonso Quijano the Good, sane, lies dying, are we happy for him, or not? Do we want more adventures, or do we want what is good for his sanity? Like Hamlet, Don Quixote is a Noah-figure, or even a wannabe-Messiah, one good man who does not want to compromise with evil—and yet they both do! Hamlet kills his college buddies and Don Quixote hangs out with highwaymen. What gives? Is reality too harsh? The burden too great that you must compromise with evil?

“justice is such a
good thing that there is no doing without it, even among the thieves

Compare this to Hamlet’s “to be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.” To be good is to to be good in spite of the world, to despise the world, to despise what people think of you.

As Bloom puts it, after the illusion is over, there is nothing to do but die. He is at war with Freud’s reality principle—thou must die, which, at least to the young and those which have a lot going for them, is the ultimate injustice: nothing can be built which will last. So now what do we do?

I can’t say authoritatively, but I think Cervantes, or, Quijano, reaches the same conclusion as Hamlet: submission to Divine Providence. Quijano seems to acknowledge (as does Hamlet), Nietzsche’s maxim of “God or chaos.” Either things are intended or not. Either things are meant or not. God or chaos. Those are your choices.

Compare Hamlet’s 1601 speech:

There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will...
we defy augury: there's a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes?.

To Don Quixote’s (1615), after he must give up knight-errantry:

“there is no such thing as Fortune in the world, nor does anything which takes
place there, be it good or bad, come about by chance, but by the special
preordination of heaven; and hence the common saying that 'each of us is
the maker of his own Fortune.' I have been that of mine; but not with the
proper amount of prudence, and my self-confidence has therefore made me
pay dearly; for I ought to have reflected that Rocinante's feeble
strength could not resist the mighty bulk of the Knight of the White
Moon's horse. In a word, I ventured it, I did my best, I was overthrown,
but though I lost my honour I did not lose nor can I lose the virtue of
keeping my word. When I was a knight-errant, daring and valiant, I
supported my achievements by hand and deed, and now that I am a humble
squire I will support my words by keeping the promise I have given.
Forward then, Sancho my friend, let us go to keep the year of the
novitiate in our own country, and in that seclusion we shall pick up
fresh strength to return to the by me never-forgotten calling of arms."

Or compare Hamlet’s “sea of troubles” to fair Moor’s “sea of woes.”
Both speakers are giving up on fighting reality. You can either accept your lot as the Will of God; or you can call it chaos. The apotheosis of Hamlet and Don Quixote, the pivotal turning points which allow for them to overcome what plagues them (fear of death, fear of reality) is submission to the will of God.

Like Hamlet, Don Quixote asks you who is really crazy and who is faking (Don Quixote? The Seville madman? Cardenio?) , when is such-and-such insane and when is he not. And neither text gives us easy answers. They are insoluble texts, and that is why they will never get old.
Sancho admits to the duchess that Don Quixote is insane and that he deceived him (with the letter to Dulcinea) yet he follows him loyally anyway. Why?! The Duchess says, “'If Don
Quixote be mad, crazy, and cracked, and Sancho Panza his squire knows it,
and, notwithstanding, serves and follows him, and goes trusting to his
empty promises, there can be no doubt he must be still madder and sillier
than his master; and that being so, it will be cast in your teeth, senora
duchess, if you give the said Sancho an island to govern; for how will he
who does not know how to govern himself know how to govern others?'"
Who is crazier? Does Sancho speak in proverbs because he’s insane or because he’s stupid? And yet, both Sancho and Don Quixote seem intelligent at sane every once in awhile—such as when (Ch. 34 of Part II) they are skeptical of a man claiming to be the devil because “the devil wouldn’t tell the truth.”

There is a repeated question of credulity—what to believe and why. Don Quixote and Sancho believe things that are obviously false, yet they always have reasons to defend their belief. Continually, Sancho says that there wasn’t enough time for something to be made up—such as, say, when Don Quixote goes into the cave of Montesinos. Or when Sancho says he saw red and green goats in Heaven when on the wooden horse with his eyes closed. Sancho uses Tertullian’s formula “certum est quia impossible” – as we might phrase it, “you can’t make this stuff up.” But can you?
Of course, there is also the cruelty. Without cruelty there is no festival, Nietzsche said. And there is an unbelievable amount of cruelty in this book, some of which we enjoy and laugh at, and others which break our hearts. Gines de Pasamonte’s throwing rocks at Quixote, deceiving him with the ape, the enchanted head, the duke and duchess’s unbelievable pranks [with Altisidora, especially], the list goes on… Don Quixote becomes a toy for people’s cruelty.
“his was the first time that he
thoroughly felt and believed himself to be a knight-errant in reality and
not merely in fancy, now that he saw himself treated in the same way as
he had read of such knights being treated in days of yore.”

How cruel! They delude him more! As Sancho admits, “neither he nor I understand joking." They become the butt of everyone’s joke and become famous around Spain for their foolishness.

What is the relationship between beauty and enchantment?

Sancho’s reign over the island for ten days really pushed this book into the top ten or so books I’ve ever read. Before that, it looked like it was going to slow down, but what an amazing series of scenes! And what amazing political satire! Sancho, the illiterate dolt, is like Solomon.

“we know already ample experience that it does not require much cleverness
or much learning to be a governor, for there are a hundred round about us
that scarcely know how to read, and govern like gerfalcons. The main
point is that they should have good intentions and be desirous of doing
right in all things, for they will never be at a loss for persons to
advise and direct them in what they have to do, like those
knight-governors who, being no lawyers, pronounce sentences with the aid
of an assessor.“

All observed “a mixture of shrewdness and simplicity in all his words and

Compare Polonius’ advice to Laertes to Don Quixote’s to Sancho when he becomes governor of the “island”—both are comic figures, fools, pedants, yet the advice sounds pretty good! Cervantes and Shakespeare are playing the same head-game—you have to figure out for yourself whether or not the advice is good. If it came from Atticus Finch, it would be one thing, but from a crazy man who thinks he’s a knight? Another completely.

Indeed there is a great deal of political and social commentary—it is no coincidence that it is the nobility who play the cruelest pranks on Don Quixote and Sancho. It is also no coincidence that Sancho is illiterate and always using malapropisms, nor is it that the thieve Roque is better regarded than any politician: “his generous disposition, and his unusual conduct, and
inclined to regard him as an Alexander the Great rather than a notorious
robber.” Cervantes compares him variously to a politician, a soldier, and a friar.

Don Quixote also is the ultimate nostalgic, even moreso than Odysseus. As the saying goes, golden ages are always in the past. Don Quixote repeatedly says his mission is to bring back the golden age, to end the “iron age:”

"Friend Sancho, know that I by Heaven's will have been born in this
our iron age to revive revive in it the age of gold, or the golden as it
is called; I am he for whom perils, mighty achievements, and valiant
deeds are reserved; I am, I say again, he who is to revive the Knights of
the Round Table, the Twelve of France and the Nine Worthies; and he who
is to consign to oblivion the Platirs, the Tablantes, the Olivantes and
Tirantes, the Phoebuses and Belianises, with the whole herd of famous
knights-errant of days gone by, performing in these in which I live such
exploits, marvels, and feats of arms as shall obscure their brightest
deeds. Thou dost mark well, faithful and trusty squire, the gloom of this
night, its strange silence, the dull confused murmur of those trees, the
awful sound of that water in quest of which we came, that seems as though
it were precipitating and dashing itself down from the lofty mountains of
the Moon, and that incessant hammering that wounds and pains our ears;
which things all together and each of itself are enough to instil fear,
dread, and dismay into the breast of Mars himself, much more into one not
used to hazards and adventures of the kind. Well, then, all this that I
put before thee is but an incentive and stimulant to my spirit, making my
heart burst in my bosom through eagerness to engage in this adventure,
arduous as it promises to be; therefore tighten Rocinante's girths a
little, and God be with thee; wait for me here three days and no more,
and if in that time I come not back, thou canst return to our village,
and thence, to do me a favour and a service, thou wilt go to El Toboso,
where thou shalt say to my incomparable lady Dulcinea that her captive
knight hath died in attempting things that might make him worthy of being
called hers."

When I first read about Don Quixote’s story, before having actually read the novel, this is what stuck out to me most. Don Quixote was a man stuck in the past, in denial about change, the ultimate reactionary. But I see few critics actually say that about the novel itself.
He is outraged with the immorality of the world and, without any real evidence, assumes it was not always this way. How can you not sympathize? How can you not laugh anyway?
“I cannot realise the fact that there can be anyone on earth now-a-days who aids
widows, or protects maidens, or defends wives, or succours orphans; nor
should I believe it had I not seen it in your worship with my own eyes.
Blessed be heaven! for by means of this history of your noble and genuine
chivalrous deeds, which you say has been printed, the countless stories
of fictitious knights-errant with which the world is filled, so much to
the injury of morality and the prejudice and discredit of good histories,
will have been driven into oblivion."

He is a man for whom everything is an adventure. Everything about life is exciting for him, everything a quest, every whore a maiden, every inn a castle. Wouldn’t you rather see life that way?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Problem of Evil, Part One

“The Devil is the bitter proof that there is a God.” – Graham Greene, The Tenth Man

I would like to argue here that the problem of evil is a defeater for atheism. I realize that this is a controversial view, but I will do my best to explain it step-by-step.

Australian Catholic philosopher/mathematician/historian James Franklin summarizes the view as follows:
The problem of evil has a kick in its tail for the atheist. The atheist who talks about the problem of evil typically uses some very strong moral language. Piper writes of “the intensity and sincerity with which one’s imagination is used to make as vivid as possible the true horrors that lie behind the all too common word `evil’ … we see beautiful, innocent children reduced to corrupted hulks of suffering …” That reaction to evil is the right one. But is it compatible with the conclusion the atheist has in store for us, just after the end of his argument?
Consider, for example, the materialist world-picture which most atheists believe in. Is there really evil in the materialist world? Of course, there are animals in pain and distress, but one who takes an absolute perspective can well ask, why does that matter? Ordinarily one thinks that the suffering of a human is a tragedy but the explosion of a dead galaxy is just a firework. Materialism, though, denies the distinction between the two, since it takes humans to be the same kind of things as galaxies, namely, moderately complicated heaps of matter. If the fate of a galaxy cannot give rise to a problem of evil, because its fate cannot in any absolute sense matter, then neither can the fate of a brain. In posing the problem of evil, a materialist who does not really believe in positive worth is cynically trading on our sense of the importance of those who suffer, knowing he will undermine it later.
The atheist’s argument from evil has a moral force behind it. It engages our attention — and rightly so — by forcing us to remember how terrible evil is. Evil matters because it happens to things of great value — at least ourselves and those with whom we share a common humanity that allows us to understand their suffering. If the conclusion of the problem of evil entails a reductio of that notion of value, as well as of the existence of a good God, then it will have undermined itself by “proving too much”. The atheist who poses the problem is left in the end with the conclusion that evil was really not worth worrying about in the first place. That is bad faith, and what seemed to be the moral force of his position is exposed as a mere self-serving indignation. The materialist view of evil is frivolous. If all there is to evil is that I have a personal dislike of suffering, there is no moral standpoint from which I can criticise God for failing to alleviate it.
So the very existence of evil as a matter of absolute seriousness is a substantial reason to believe that the materialist world picture is false. Since the leading alternative theory involves a good and powerful God, that is a reason to believe there must be some solution to the problem of the evil.
One last question to the atheist. Perhaps the evil of this world is so bad that there is an obvious possible world that is better, namely the empty one? Consider someone whose suffering is so bad that they wish they had never been born. The atheist should imagine giving to such a person a button which the sufferer can press to render themselves never born. Will the atheist be happy for the sufferer to press the button? Perhaps. But the more relevant thought experiment involves a button that the sufferer can press to render the whole universe never born. Would the atheist still be happy to hand over the button? If the atheist remains entirely contemptuous of the religious appeal to the Best of All Possible Worlds theory, he ought to have no hesitation in handing it over. For hesitation involves weighing the claims of the sufferer against those of others who value their lives — weighing them in the way that God does in creating the actual world, according to the Leibnizian.

Put another away, if there were only atoms, there would be no evil. If there is no ontological distinction between a man and a dog, or a woman and a stick, then there is as little basis for morality about humans as there is about dogs or sticks.
1.We look around us and see that there is an overwhelming amount of evil in the world, both physical and moral.
2.In a materialistic universe, there would be no evil [notice how nobody really uses the word “evil” since Nietzsche! It’s an archaism reserved for Hitler, Stalin, and pedophiles. Nobody else.]
3.Materialism is false.

While Franklin’s argument is more of a jab as the bell rings on his defense of Leibniz, this argument dates back to St. Aquinas, who, in Summa Contra Gentiles argues:
[again, I’m paraphrasing]
1.We see a lot of evil in the world, and in Book III of Summa Contra Gentiles, we have defined evil as a privation of goodness.
2.Therefore, for evil to exist, not only must there be a greater amount of goodness (since evil is only a privation of good), but the atheist’s complaint presupposes a hierarchy of goodness which we would have no reason to expect in a chaotic, random universe.
3.Therefore, even the problem of evil can’t take down God.
Aquinas goes so far as to argue:

That to which a thing tends when in absence from it, and in which it rests when in possession of it, is the scope and aim and end in view. But everything, so long as it lacks the perfection proper to it, moves towards gaining that perfection, so far as it depends upon itself so to do; and when it has gained that perfection, therein it rests.* The end then of everything is its perfection.* But the perfection of everything is its own good. Everything therefore is ordained to good as to its end.
4. Things that are aware of an end and things that are unaware of an end are alike ordained to an end, with this difference, that things that are aware of an end tend to an end of themselves, while things that are unaware of an end tend to an end under the direction of another, as appears in the case of archer and arrow. But things that are aware of an end are always ordained to good for their end: for the will, which is the appetite of a fore-known end, never tends to anything except under the aspect of good, which is its object. Therefore things also which are unaware of an end are ordained to good for their end, and so good is the end of all things.*

Now that’s way more complicated than what I’m arguing.
But to illustrate my point, consider Bertrand Russell’s famous A Free Man’s Worship:
man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins -- all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.
How, in such an alien and inhuman world, can so powerless a creature as Man preserve his aspirations untarnished? A strange mystery it is that Nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurryings through the abysses of space, has brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking Mother. In spite of death, the mark and seal of the parental control, Man is yet free, during his brief years, to examine, to criticise, to know, and in imagination to create. To him alone, in the world with which he is acquainted, this freedom belongs; and in this lies his superiority to the resistless forces that control his outward life.

Nietzsche tells us that in such a universe there is no “good and evil” (and therefore we must move beyond such outdated concepts), only subjective or subject-relative morality. For example, chastity. Sex before marriage was abhorred in Medieval Europe; today it is almost mandatory. For an absolutist, one of these two positions is wrong. For Nietzsche and his followers, neither is wrong; morality is sociological. It’s not metaphysical. Physical evil is not evil; it’s just unpleasant to me.
And why? Nietzsche updates Spinoza’s (false) dilemma of “God or Nature” to “God or Chaos.” These are our choices. And this is why Nietzsche is the greatest atheist philosopher of all time. He’s the only one to push the ideas as far as they will go.
An illustration: when we say that a watch is a good watch, it is because it functions in the way it is meant to. In a materialist universe, nothing is meant to do anything. There is no design, no intention, no teleology. This is what Nietzsche means when he says that we can no longer speak of good or evil, only of what is pleasant or unpleasant.
So, for an atheist to say something is evil or good (in the objective sense), they must believe in some metaphysics (which Nietzsche claimed to have ended forever and because of this Heidegger calls him the greatest philosopher since Plato). A rational man, taking things to their conclusion, has two options: religious absolutism, or Nietzschean nihilism. They are the only coherent positions. Optimistic humanism a la Dawkins is untenable (see Russell’s essay for reasons why optimism is impossible) and secular humanism is a willful self-deception, as if to say “life is meaningless, your neighbor is no better than a dog, but let’s just play nice anyway.” It’s not morality, it’s sociology.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Devil and Daniel Dennett

In this brief entry, I would like to critique DC Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, his contribution to a genre dating back to Feuerbach, Freud, Frazer, and countless others, a bit like the “Gospel retelling of what really happened” genre of Norman Mailer, Saramago, Pullman, Kazantzakis. His main thesis:

Religion can be explained by evolution by natural selection.

Reply 1. “Religion” is a term so vague and abstract as to lose all meaning. You can’t even lump “All Protestants” meaningfully into a category. The fact is that not all religions are the same, much as the conflict-avoiders of the postwar West would like to say so. All religions and indeed all humans make exclusive truth claims which cannot simply be brushed aside with abstract platitudes about “peace and love.”

A demonstration:

  1. X is true.

  2. Y contradicts X.

  3. Y must be false.

Therefore, Christians and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, can’t simply pretend they agree just to avoid fighting at Thanksgiving. There are real disagreements and those disagreements just happen to be intractable (or else they would have retracted by now!). What is needed is real, open dialogue and common search for truth: intellectual honesty, not “conflict resolution.”

So Dennett takes this same bullshit definition that we inherited from WWII chaplains and turns it against religion. But it works just as little as “conflict resolution.”

Reply 2. Dennett commits the petition principii fallacy—that is, he begs the question. He assumes what he is attempting to prove. A demonstration:

  1. There is no God.

  2. Therefore all religions are (take your pick: (1) projections of human psychology [Feuerbach]; (2) projections of the human need for protection, father-figures, guilt [Freud]; (3) a projection of a society’s needs for order, etc. [Weber]; (4) a survival mechanism of the “selfish gene,” because humans, as pack animals, need to produce altruistic behaviors [Dawkins, Dennett]; (5) the result of brain behavior [Harris, Sharon Begley]; (6) ressentiment of life by the conquered losers of history [Nietzsche]; and so on.) a null set.

  3. Therefore, there is no God.

This is a fallacy. In order to demonstrate 2, you would have to demonstrate 3 first. For a belief to be “explained away” (e.g. the typical male self-overestimation programmed in us by evolution), it would have to be demonstrated as false, first.

Reply 3. Dennett commits the genetic fallacy. A demonstration:

  1. Person X began to believe in God because he was afraid to die.

  2. Therefore, it follows that this belief is false.

The manner by which a belief arose or came to be believed has no bearing whatsoever on its truth or falsehood. I can’t say, “you came to believe in evolution because some really smart people told you. Therefore, it follows that evolution is false.” This is just as fallacious.

Reply 4. Breaking the Spell is a just-so story.

While I am bit more hesitant about this reply, it must be said that Dennett posits the unprovable as scientific, by definition the realm of the provable.

Just because something can be explained in one way—say, natural terms—(and I am by no means admitting that for a second!) doesn’t mean that it is the best explanation. For example, look at all the books I mentioned about which re-tell what “really happened” with that Jesus Christ fellow. It must be asked: how do you know this? And these revisionists have no explanation but “my ideology!” They have no rival text of the time, and even if they did, they wouldn’t accept it on the grounds that it either isn’t scientific or was written by other child-like ancients. But I digress.

Every manner has been tried by atheists in order to circumvent the philosophical issues involved in the existence/nonexistence of a God. You can’t simply get around St. Aquinas that easily. You have to confront the philosophical issues head-on: is it really rational to believe something came out of nothing, by nothing, and for nothing? Is it really rational to believe that most humans have built their lives around delusions?

Therefore, atheists philosophers have got to find some way to stop doing this. While these books are all of powerful emotional import, they are flimsy intellectually. Fortunately for these atheists, most Christians—judging by what I see on television—are equally unsophisticated. Otherwise, none of this pap would’ve made it onto bookshelves.

In sum, Christians have nothing to fear from these kinds of books, until atheists find some better way of attacking religion.

Finally, Prof Dennett, if you’re reading this, I live in the town next to you. Let’s go out to lunch! I’ll buy!

Other replies to Dennett:

Friday, June 25, 2010

Tolerance and Relativism, Part One

"From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable." -- Mussolini

What prompted this entry was, unfortunately, a row with my mother and brother. And since they are not good listeners, I am writing down my thoughts rather than saying them.

Both conservatives and liberals came out of the Western Liberal tradition of the 17th Century, an arm of Protestantism. It is taken for granted, rightly, that we value tolerance and that we try to be tolerant. What divides conservatives and liberals, however, is how to define tolerance.

The sanest definition of tolerance is Locke’s. Our country was, rightly, founded on Locke’s political ideas, and Locke’s understanding was probably what was on their minds while they were drafting the Founding documents.

Today’s liberals, however, have a Kantian view. They are Nietzschean moral relativists, but the funny part is that Nietzsche didn’t care for tolerance.
To sum up and simplify drastically, Locke’s view is a necessary political fiction. People aren’t equal, but we need to pretend that they are for democracy to function. And, as Hayek points out eloquently, if people are unequal, and you treat them equally, you get unequal outcomes. To get equal outcomes you have to treat people unequally—affirmative action, feminism, etc. And this is something that I would have assented to as a radical teenager.

But now I see the foolishness of it. Locke, if I understand him correctly, supports an equality under the law, or, a rule of law which is by definition egalitarian.
When I was a liberal, if you had asked me what my first political principle was, I would have said tolerance proudly. If you had pushed me on it, and asked me “why?” (something no one ever does), I would have replied something like, it’s necessary for our system to survive.

But that’s only true in a Lockean view. The Kantian view is actually quite destructive to our system.

Kant’s view, put simply, begins with the idea that we can’t really know for sure anything about metaphysics. We don’t know if there’s a God; we don’t know for sure which religion is right; we don’t know for sure which political party is right; we don’t know for sure blahblah. As my mother and brother put it yesterday, “who decides what’s normal?” On the surface, this appears a valid question, since no one person decides. But if you push on it at all, it falls over.

What underlies this view is the above Kantian agnosticism about truth, and a Nietzschean moral relativism. It goes something like this: if no one knows what is right, and we can’t find out what is right, then the only absolute is freedom, and therefore it is morally imperative that we all respect each other’s freedom and not impose our views/ways of life on anyone else.

There are a few problems with this which are fatal. The biggest one is, “how do you know?” For you to know that the universe is unknowable, you would have to know the universe. If the Kantian view is true, then it is also false. It can therefore be discarded.

Furthermore, do we tolerate the intolerant? It doesn’t seem that way. Liberals seem willing to tolerate, for example, Christians only if they keep their mouths shut and don’t vote. This is also a Kantian view. In Kant’s “Religion Within the Limits of Pure Reason,” he essentially argues the same thing. Religion is okay as long as it is private; but religion has no right to defend itself based on truth-claims and reason. Live and let live becomes I’ll let you live if you go away.
So, if (1) the universe is knowable, (2) there is a unity of truth, (3) a unity of goodness, (4) truth and goodness are objective, it follows that somebody has to be wrong. In fact, we could all be wrong. But someone, at least, is.

If I say that p is true, and r conflicts with p, then r is untrue. So all of us make exclusive truth claims because truth claims, by definition are exclusive.

An example:
A. Gays ought to have the right to marry.
B. Marriage is between a man and a woman.

There is no compromise available here, nor is there a way to be tolerant in the moral relativist view, though state’s-rights-ers seem to attempt one. These state’s-rights politicians believe that we can “decide” to define marriage. This is just as Nietzschean as the left’s view (by the way, Nietzsche was a conservative; just saying.) because Nietzsche was the first philosopher (with the exception of maybe Feuerbach) to deny that we recognize morality or perceive it, and claim that we create it, or in this case, decide it.

So is it possible to re-define marriage? That’s a question for another time.
But what I would really like to point out here is that there is a contradiction at the bottom of all liberal social positions:

If you take the Kantian agnostic view, and do not think we can have metaphysical certainty, then you cannot support anything with certainty. A demonstration:

1. It is impossible to philosophize about things as they are independently of us or of how they are for us. We can only know sense-data, appearance, and not the actual thing-in-itself, the world.
2. Gays deserve marriage rights.

One of these propositions has to go. The first proposition cuts off the limb the second proposition stands upon. If gays deserve marriage rights, how do you know that? To avoid the is-ought fallacy, you have to find some self-evident moral proposition to underlie proposition two, one which I can’t find now. Perhaps the Kantian “treat others as subjects, not objects?” But I’m not sure prop 2 would follow from that.

My point is, the liberal argument, “who decides what’s moral? Who decides what’s normal?” undercuts their every issue. A wide view of tolerance can swallow up even your own ideas, and from what I can tell, it has done this to the liberal social agenda. Liberals have two options: ditch Kant (who has been refuted countless times), or ditch the agenda.

Peter Kreeft formulated a similar argument against abortion. It can be read here:

But here’s the important part:
“Let's assume that maybe you know that a fetus is a person with rights and shouldn't be killed, and maybe you don't. That's the Supreme Court's argument in Roe v. Wade: "We do not know when human life begins." Human life is a vague term, by the way. Life. Did you ever see life? What color is life? What size is life? The human person, on the other hand, is concrete. I don't think it's wrong to take life, I think it's wrong to take life from a person who has it. When does a person begin? That's the crucial question.
Well, there's two possibilities: a.) maybe you know that and b.) maybe you don't.
And then there's two possibilities. a.) You are right or b.) you are wrong.
So, number one: the fetus is a person, and you know it. You're right.
Number two: the fetus is not a person and you know that. You're right.
Number three: the fetus is a person and you don't know that. You think it's not. You're wrong.
Number four: the fetus is not a person and you think it is. You don't know the truth. You're wrong. (Like a Pascal's wager, two chances of being right, two chances of being wrong.)
What is abortion in each of these cases? The only four possible cases, logically.
Murder. Case number one: The fetus is a human person, and you know that it is a human person, and nevertheless you kill it. That's murder. That's the legal definition of murder. Knowingly and deliberately imposing violent death upon an innocent human person that you know to be an innocent human person.
Manslaughter. The second possibility. The fetus is, in fact, a person, and you don't know that. You think it's not a person. You sincerely believe that, "Well, maybe it's not a person, I don't know it. I don't know whether it is or not," and you kill it. What's that? Legally, that is manslaughter. Not deliberate murder. It's like running over an overcoat on a dark night in the middle of a highway, that has the shape of a human being, and it might be an old drunk who's just lying there, stoned in the road. And it might just be an overcoat. And you don't swerve, you deliberately run over it. Or, it's like shooting a movement in the bush that might be a deer, and it might be your fellow hunter. Or, it's like fumigating a dormitory without being sure that all the students are out, and the fumigation kills them. You might be lucky. You might find that there is no man under the coat, and there is no hunter behind the bush, and there is no student in the dormitory, but you didn't know that and nevertheless you shot, you fumigated.
Criminal Negligence. That's criminal negligence if there's nobody there, it's manslaughter if there is somebody there. All three cases—murder, criminal negligence, and manslaughter—are bad.
So only the fourth case justifies abortion, and it does.”

So arguing from agnosticism doesn’t get you anywhere. If you don’t base your ideas on what you know, then you have nothing by which to defend your ideas.
So using ignorance to defend a wider view of tolerance doesn’t get us anywhere.
Arguing from relativism is even more self-destructive.

1. Morality is relative/a social construct.
2. The War in Iraq is wrong/gays deserve respect/so-and-so deserves rights (more on rights later).

One of the two premises has to go. An even stronger example:

1. We should respect all cultures. (Multiculturalism) We shouldn’t be ethnocentric.
2. Morality is culturally relative. Some societies do certain things and some do others.

Premise 2 refutes premise 1. If morality is relative, then de gustibus non disputandem est—you no longer have any way of criticizing anything I say or do.

The truth is that morality is not relative, and this can be shown empirically. There is no society which values cowardice, theft, or rape. There is no society which hates courage. Certain places and times have different priorities, but if there is no objective standard by which to understand these, then morality is just a bit of sociology, and all our moral judgments can refer only to our self-government and how we live. Any vote, any law, any action, has moral consequences.
I once, as a liberal, questioned a conservative about this. “How can you impose morality on people?!” He replied, “how can you not?” meaning that all laws have moral significance and rely on the existence of an objective moral standard.

This is even stronger, because, in an irony, political correctness is rooted in the desire for respecting other viewpoints (prop 1). This should be a good indicator that lurking beneath the words of tolerance is dogma. Tolerance is the dogma; it is the thing we do not question. Neither do we question equality.

My brother replied, “well what about wiccans? Shouldn’t we tolerate them?”
My reply: Yes, in the Lockean sense. They have human rights just like the rest of us, have political rights to vote, assemble, etc.

Here’s the rub: tolerance is not acceptance. I am in no way obligated to accept them, only tolerate them. We do not tolerate what we like; we tolerate what we don’t like.
The sense of tolerance prior to the 1960’s was rooted in the Reformation and the religious conflict which followed it (more religious conflict has happened after the Middle Ages than in it). In fact, Locke wrote his Letter on Toleration in Holland, fleeing possible arrest in England in the 1680’s. In 1685, the Edict of Fontainebleau revoked the Edict of Nantes, causing 400,000 Protestants to flee France. You can see why toleration was on Locke’s mind. Interestingly, Locke did not think atheism should be legal, because such a belief would make sin rational. But other religious sects, Locke argued, should be permitted to exist within limits. You can’t force people to convert to your religion by definition, since conversion has to be something of the heart. Locke argued we not accept, but tolerate—Locke is trying to avoid what Madison called a “tyranny of the majority.” I won’t lock you up, even though we outnumber you; otherwise, I can’t convert you. Tolerance thus is a compromise, a substitute for equality—we refute, we don’t persecute.
Anyway, Locke’s political understanding of tolerance is what is needed. It is the prime virtue of a society, and the sign of its health. But there is a tension in liberalism between the desire for tolerance and the desire to actually do anything politically, especially to change traditions which liberals find harmful or negative.

And relativism is of no use to us on the subject of tolerance, because relativists deny the very sources of our disagreement.

In fact, for tolerance to be an absolute, morality must be absolute. Moral relativism therefore gives Dennett's "acid bath" to tolerance just as much as it does to, say, Natural Family Planning. Therefore, if you want to be tolerant, you must remain a moral absolutist.

While it does seem the only way to justify something so ridiculous as the contemporary Left's social program (these are people who defend abortion, homosexual adoption, etc. They actually want these things to happen.), even the Kantian metaphysic combined with moral relativism can't justify their ideas.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Sonnet IX

More doggerel. My ninth sonnet:

When I go out in public, all appears
Your glass: I think that they are really you.
So many times I've said, "hello, my dear!"
Excited til I find it isn't true.
They look at me as if I've lost my mind
(Perhaps they're right; I might be mad).
If I assume it's you perhaps I'll find
I'm right, which makes me think such shame not bad
But that my sweet illusion's clever, smart
For--oh!--it would be worth embarrassed shame
To see the girl whose meek and gentle heart
Enthralls my own, to give to her my name!
But since the world to me reflects your face
The universe appears a better place.

Sonnet VIII

This is my eighth sonnet.

I cannot write! And you're the one to blame.
When times I sit with pen in hand and think,
No words arrive, no sounds besides your name.
And any shape I make in lead or ink
Appears to me to be your gentle eyes.
Or when I set about a plot or tale
Instead I dream of you and fantasize.
And anything which I conceive would pale
Compared to those your figure's graceful lines.
So what am I to do?! For now I sit,
My pencil in my idle hand declines:
I know not what I ought to write with it!
But then, rememb'ring that you are my muse
I take this flame and put its heat to use.

Sonnet VII

This is my seventh sonnet.

Tonight, oh lovely stranger, when I made
My way back home, I could not see the street
Because my thoughts on you, my love, had stayed.
I could not see at all, and so, my feet
They made me trip. I fell upon my face
As though in prayer, and there remained. Instead
Of getting up to fall again, in place
I did not move, til passers thought me dead.
For I would rather keep my mind
On you, my sultry beauty, than return.
And even as they took my pulse, I pined
For you and whispered, "how I long! I yearn!"
The moment that I looked at you, for me
Since then has seemed the worst calamity.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Sonnet VI

This is my sixth sonnet.

The minute I, a younger self, had found
My heart desired woman's gentle touch,
My pain, my troubles, always did abound
(When here I'd never thought I'd asked for much):
The sneers and scoffs of rivals, victor's grins;
The sweat of crazy passion, reason's sleep,
Producing monsters, vices, repeated sins;
And though I did my penance, did I keep
A watchman's eye upon my heart? No; no.
And in return I got another loss
And disappointment, woe
More pain and tears and worry, scorn. Eros
However, paid me back that fated day
You came; we met; you took it all away.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sonnet V

This is my fifth sonnet.

Sonnet V

In me I find no madness called divine:
I do not weep or sigh; I do not turn
And toss when midnights I in bed recline;
I search myself in vain for signs I yearn.
For poets sing of hearts that leak with holes
From Cupid's bolt, which pierced them from above
But neither body aches nor does my soul.
Does this, you ask, imply I do not love?
Say not--if you must talk a million years
This rotten lie! My heart, it beats, replies:
"Compared to those who pine with salty tears
Compared to weeping singers heaving sighs,
To Dante, Petrarch, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne,
I count myself the most assured one.