Friday, November 23, 2018

Free will vs a will that is free

Stop thinking you have "free will." Free will is not a thing in itself. Rather, you have a will, and that will is to varying degrees free and to varying degrees enslaved. The better you are, the more your will is free. The worse you are, the more enslaved.

You are almost always choosing, and whenever you choose something, you choose what you think is good. Notice that I didn't say it was "the" good or the "highest" good. I just said that it was "good". Anytime you choose something, you choose it because you think in the moment that it is good. Your will is your drive, your longing for and reaching out for the good. That exists in you no matter what. It's one of the deepest, most foundational and constituent parts of you, and it's reaching out for the good all the time.

Of course, you're not always able to get the good your will is reaching out for. I might reach out for the good of making a basket from half-court, but unless I have the requisite skill, I'm not going to be able to accomplish what my will is longing for. Again, my will might be reaching out for the good of health, but if my knowledge and intellect is so deficient that I think a diet consisting entirely of Snickers bars and Peeps will keep me healthy, then I won't be able to accomplish that good, either.

So your will is always reaching out for the good, and a free will is one that exists in a whole self that is able to recognize the good and which has the strength and virtue to actually accomplish that good. If your intellect can't tell which door has the new car behind it and which has the ravenous grizzly, the will isn't free to choose the good of stylish transportation, no matter how choosy it gets or how unforced its choice. Furthermore, if you don't have the skills of playing the flute really well, your will isn't free to choose to play the Flight of the Bumblebee, no matter how badly it wants to or how much everyone informs it of the fact they really believe in it.

So don't scream and shout over your "free will." There's not much good in being "free to choose" when your choices are limited by your own ignorance and weakness to the Dollar Menu of Life.

Existential moral failure

St Thomas Aquinas says there's essence and existence: two aspects of your being. You are a certain kind of thing (your essence) and you are that kind of thing actually are-ing, in this moment, right now (your existence). The essence is like a description, a form, a shape, a blueprint, and the existence is the fact that something described by that blueprint has just taken a bite of pie.

So, parallel to this, in the realm of acting and morality and choice, you can fail to rightly act in two ways, each corresponding to one of each of these aspects to being. First, you can fail essentially. This is to say, you're so screwed up inside that you think the wrong thing is the right thing, or else, again, you just don't have the strength to do the right thing. No virtue, no judgment: you're just a dumbass. Something is, in a limited sense, essentially wrong with you. (Don't take that to be a judgment on your whole being. It's not. You're a beautiful child of God.) It's your misshapen imagination or your weak biceps that are betraying your attempt to do the good. But then there's the more mysterious aspect of failure. You can fail not because you think the wrong thing is the right thing or you tried to do the right thing and didn't have the strength, but because you just ... fail to do the right thing. Existing is an act. It's possible to fail to do that act. Acting is also an act, and it's possible to fail to do that, too.

Your will to the good is like a rock-climber halfway up a wall. He or she has to be actually holding on, doing something, the entire time. But it is possible for him or her to just ... fail to hold on. And if they do that, they're going to fall and break stuff. Maybe all the stuff. That's the mysterious existential failure at the heart of a lot of our bad-acting: it's possible not to act.

Now, complete and total existential failure is unusual (outside of a Star Wars film). It's rare that someone just loses completely the will to live. You rarely fall all the way down the cliff. Usually, you fall a bit and get caught on some snag or ledge sticking out. Which is to say, you've always got some lower-order functions that are pretty good at doing what they do, and when you fall into failure, they take over. Depressed? Given up? Don't worry. You won't at first lose the will to eat. (At least not in my own experience.) That lower-order process will keep you alive and provided with at least a menial satisfaction even when you are tempted to stop trying at every other area of your life.

Of course, just like eating when you're depressed is, ultimately, not a good thing (so says my doctor), so a lot of the actions of those lower-order functions aren't that good when they take over. They're good in their place. Everyone has to have food, and hot dogs and ice cream are, in a limited sense, foods. And the satisfaction you get from eating is a good thing. But asking ice-cream to supply me with the satisfaction that should normally be supplied by rocking my vocation is asking for trouble. It will take a lot of ice cream to make me feel as good as watching some student succeed at doing something hard that they couldn't do before my class.

So when we give up on doing the really good thing, what we're usually doing is not falling all the way down the cliff and dying on the rocks below, but rather falling back on something we're good at that isn't actually the thing we're supposed to be doing in that moment. The soldier cowering in a foxhole when he's supposed to be going over the top and attacking the enemy isn't choosing something bad in itself. Keeping your head down when high-velocity projectiles are flying around is generally the right thing to do. But it isn't what the situation here-and-now calls for.

What we often call "choosing the bad" or "making the wrong choice" isn't about actively choosing the "bad". It's more that the situation calls for a really hard good, and we are about to do it, and ... then we fail and fall back into doing something that we're good at that will provide at least some kind of satisfaction. Weirdly, it's about the will to be. Are you willing to choose to be what you are being called to be right now? Or are you going to fall back into doing something else that's easy?

That's the existential question of morality. The choice to act well is the choice to be; more than that, it's the choice to be awesome, because that's what humans have been called to be. You have the opportunity to make that choice. Choose to be awesome. It will be hard, but it will be worth it.

Monday, September 23, 2013

I kind of suspect we're all Nestorians.

I'm going to get this down on electron because I've been thinking about it for a while, but I'm not yet 100% serious about all this.

I think the main undiagnosed heresy of the West is Nestorianism. In fact, I suspect most of us are crypto-Nestorians. I'm taking the essence of Nestorianism to be exemplified by the idea that in Jesus Christ there was not a unity of two natures in one person but rather that the two persons (the Son of God and the man Jesus) with the two different natures were in perfect "sync". (I'm completely bracketing the question of how Nestorian was Nestorius, mostly because I don't care. His heresy is a pretty good example, I think, for a way of thinking that is, I suspect, rife among otherwise orthodox Christians.)

Among Catholics, I think the most obvious manifestation comes when we think about the power of the sacraments. I suspect that many self-described orthodox Catholics, when they think of the power of the sacraments, do not think of the sacraments as actually, in themselves, accomplishing anything, but rather they believe in a kind of parallelism between the natural effects of the sacrament and the power of God, such that while the priest is, say, pouring the water, God is, at the very same time - and in perfect sync with the priest - cleansing the soul, but that the spiritual movement by which God cleanses the soul and the physical movement by which the priest pours the water are totally different and that there is no real relationship between them other than coincidence and exemplification. I suspect most Catholics think of the real power of the sacraments as lying "underneath" the visible, material thing but not being "in" it. Or else being "in" it like an egg is in a box, not "in" it like the meaning of a word is "in" an arrangement of letters.

I'm pretty sure all Protestants think this way, and I suspect this shared understanding lies behind almost all arguments on the sacraments. Everybody is thinking of the sacraments like this. The Protestants denying this, while Catholics affirm it. The funny thing is that I think the Protestants are right to deny it, and the Catholics are wrong to affirm it. But the Protestants have not escaped heresy. They're still wrong, because they just deny any relationship at all between the working of God and the sacraments.

  • Were the feet of Mother Teresa, as wrinkled, gnarled, and rough as they were, really beautiful? Can the twisting of nature communicate a form of beauty that goes absolutely beyond nature itself?
  • Our inability to believe in the goodness of nature, in the ability of nature to communicate anything supernatural, is behind this.
  • A clue to all this is understanding the power of the sacraments as being genuinely instrumental. The sacraments are instrumental causes of grace. But I suspect we don't believe that their naturalness, their natural powers, have anything to do with this.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Self-Consciousness and Authority

There is some link between self-consciousness and authority. When I was an undergraduate at an Evangelical college, we obsessed about self-consciousness and the inability to divest oneself of it, the inability to get back to a pre-self-conscious stage. You were stuck having chosen to choose whatever you chose.

Since I became a Catholic I haven’t once struggled with the question of self-consciousness. I think there’s a connection between self-consciousness and a lack of an ultimate authority beyond the self.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

If There’s No Natural Law, What Do Atheists Think They’re Doing?

Which is it atheists? Can non-theists intuit a moral law or not?

If non-theists can intuit a moral law, why isn’t that law “natural law”? If non-theists can’t intuit a moral law, why do you get all hepped up when Christians accuse you of having discarded morality with theism?

Frankly, these questions also apply to the Christians who make argue that atheists are necessarily amoral (or at least philosophically so, even if their upbringing and membership in a society that still maintains some moral momentum from its religious past keeps them on the somewhat straight and not-particularly narrow).

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Yup, American Catholics Are More American Than Catholic

I’ve been told that American Catholics don’t like to sing. Or they can’t. Or they won’t. Or something. There’s even a whole book devoted to trying to explain the phenomenon. I read it, and I found it interesting, although I don’t know how much stock to put in his theory that the Irish lack a sacred music tradition because the English proscribed the mass, which then had to be done in secret: no singing aloud. (Get it?) And the Irish are responsible for everything wrong with the current American church. Whatever your theory, though, the point is, Catholics in the United States don’t sing.

But in my local parish I sing in the choir, and I’ve noticed something really obnoxious: although all the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are sung in a kind of seventh grade, do-we-have-to?, mumble, any patriotic songs we sing are belted out. I mean, seriously, belted out. It’s like Sacred Heart on Memorial Day weekend turns into a New Year’s Eve dance where everyone’s got a solid quart of champagne in them and the band’s rocking out “Living on a Prayer.” So … Catholics do sing.

I’ve complained about this before to people, and one of the most common responses I get is that people sing songs they know, and they happen to know the patriotic songs because those songs are constant, whereas all our other songs change pretty much every mass. Parish music programs are always pushing (or are being required asked to push) on the congregation the latest in praisey-waisy, sing-along schlock, and nobody knows any of the songs. The congregation hears them once a year for about five years, and then Oregon Catholic Press mercifully drops them from Hymnbook Monthly, and we never hear of them again. And there’s a certain amount of truth to this explanation, but there’s more going on than just this.

In my parish and just about every other parish I’ve ever been in, the closing hymn is not much more than an afterthought. (Actually, it literally is an afterthought, since technically the mass has ended by then.) The congregation sings a maximum of two verses, one while the priest is pausing after the final blessing to collect the various altar servers, deacons, readers, and concelebrants, and one while all these people process out. If the choir is obnoxiously insistent, they might be able to squeeze in one more verse as a kind of postlude, singing people out into the parking lot, but when our choir tried this too many times, devout people in the congregation asked us to cut it out. They felt an obligation to stay and sing with us but were extremely embarrassed to be the only ones standing in the pews singing while everyone else was already sitting down at the lunch buffet.

This has been my nearly-universal experience, and if I ever thought that Catholic singing habits had to do just with familiarity, these last two weeks have been most instructive. On July 7, the Sunday after the 4th of July this year, our director of music scheduled “America the Beautiful” as a closing “hymn”. Well, fine. Not what I would consider ideal, but since it’s after mass, technically it’s okay. And true to form, the congregation wound up and knocked it over the fence. We got through all four verses. I paused after the second one, just to see if our momentum was going to carry us on through a third. It was. But after three I closed the book, thinking, “We’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty, now. How long does this congregation want to keep paying us time-and-a-half?” But everyone just tucked into that fourth verse like a pride of lions on a dying wildebeest. I was a little annoyed, but not surprised at all.

This past Sunday, however, the director of music scheduled “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” for a closing hymn. Now if any hymn in the hymnal is familiar to Catholics, this one is. It’s the oldest of old standards. It’s based on a Latin hymn that dates back to St Augustine’s time, and the tune’s been around since before the Declaration of Independence. People not only know it, they know to do the grace notes that aren’t even written in the music: “Infi-IH-nite thy vast do-OH-main, everlasting is thy reign!” So if there’s a song they know, and they know that they know, and they know they can sing, it’s this one. But we barely got through one of the three verses before people were picking up their purses and fumbling for their car keys. God’s reign might be everlasting, but his divine liturgy better not interfere with brunch. We did manage to squeeze in a second verse, but the celestial hymn wasn’t loud enough to justify the initial “Hark!” It was really more of of a “hey.” If you could weaponize irony we would have been investigated by the NSA.

So, why is it, American Catholics, that you can bring down the house with a song about America, but you’re embarrassed to raise your voice in praise of God? Is it because in all that talk about “the importance of my faith” you recognize that’s all it is, your faith? Whereas, America – that bright, beautiful name that stands for liberty and justice for all – is your sole real source of public values? Scold, scold, scold. Wag, wag, wag. All right, I’m done. I’m still highly annoyed, but I’m done.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Rhetoric of Freedom

The rhetoric of freedom is a universal solvent. Without an understanding of the purposes of that freedom, there is not a rule, practice, guideline, ideal, or even natural law that can stand up to it.

What to Do When You Disagree

Whenever you find that you disagree with someone, the important thing to look at is not what evil they’re excusing or committing, but rather what great good they see that blinds them to the truth.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Biggest Puzzles about the World #1

There are many things I do not understand about the world. Higher math is fascinating, but the frontiers are beyond my comprehension. I once met a gentleman at a party who was a mathematician at Dartmouth College. I asked him what part of mathematics he was studying, and he looked at me sidelong and said, "Do you want the mathematical answer, or the analogy I give to non-mathematicians?" "Oh, the mathematical answer," I said. "I know a bit of math, teach calculus and all that." "Okay," he said, and proceeded to open his mouth and for two solid minutes utter sounds that were no more meaningful to me than the average cow moo. "Wait," I said. "Back up. Give me the analogy." I half-understood the analogy.

So I'm aware of the size - not just in space but in concepts and in laws and in natures - of the universe. But what I don't understand is why this has any bearing on the existence of God. The ancient Hebrews, long before Newton, Hubble, and Einstein, were awed by the massive size and complexity of the universe they knew and overwhelmed by the understanding that God "measured the waters in the palm of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span." You have to have a weirdly literal mind to think that an increase in natural scale somehow makes a difference to that literary metaphor. Do modern men think that the Hebrews would have looked at pictures from the Hubble Telescope and gone, "Damn. God is big, but this is 17 point 846 times bigger than God. Phew. Thank you, Mr. Scientist, because I almost wasted my life learning how to read f***ing backwards."

But people, including the wonderful Richard Feynman, seem to think this way. I don't get it. Moreover, they keep pressing it as an argument to me and my ilk: their modern, believing interlocutors. I have never once read any science book or anything in a science book that made me doubt the existence of God. Not in mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, or anything. I don't understand how it could. Once you accept that God created everything, then every time a scientist delightedly yells "Eureka!" and shows you the cool thing he's found, you think, "Whoa. One more cool thing God created. This is a good world."

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Father’s Day Is Lucky It’s in the Summer

With the demise of marriage in this country as one man and one woman - which basically means the demise in our society of the recognized right of a child to have both a mother and a father - I suspect that Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day will become less celebrated. Particularly among children, it will be impossible for a secular institution, like a school, to celebrate Mothers’ Day while some of its charges lack a mother. Furthermore, while a child may desire a mother, may wish he or she had a mother, society can no longer affirm that desire. We can’t say, “Yes, you should have had a mother. You were gipped,” because we were the ones who gipped him. We’re the ones who said, essentially, “Two fathers are just as good as a mother and a father. There’s no essential difference, and society has no responsibility to do what it can to supply them both.”

As a result, any public celebration of either Mothers’ Day or Fathers’ Day will necessarily exclude those whom we have deliberately deprived of one or the other.

Please note that this same dynamic doesn’t apply to those who have lost a mother or a father to tragic circumstances. We can say to such a child, “Yes, it is a tragedy that you have lost a father or a mother. You deserve our compassion and help.” But we can’t say that to a child who lacks one or the other a the result of our deliberate policy. That child, we think, has suffered no injustice, no tragedy. We cannot admit that he has, for to admit this is to admit we deliberately committed an injustice.