Sunday, April 25, 2010

Brief Thoughts on a Sensory Experience

Earlier this year, I went to Dr. McGuire to have my wisdom teeth pulled. After taking one look at the x-ray, McGuire let out a quiet, “Ooh.” This is never a good sign. Ever. In this case, I had a cyst growing around one of my teeth, thus explaining the nearly excruciating pain I’d been in for the past few days. Fortunately, he could operate and fix the issue that day. The only real side effect (other than obtaining a few dreamy days’ worth of Percocet) was a numbing of a nerve that went across the left side of my chin. McGuire assured me this was normal, and that the feeling would return, even if it took a few months.

The doc was right. After about a month, feeling began to return – but in the form of pins and needles. Then something very odd happened. Every time I drank something, especially if it was cold, it felt as if a little was spilling out of my mouth. I was constantly wiping my chin. My beard made my discovery that nothing in fact was spilling out take a few days. Finally I realized this. It’s sort of hard to explain, but let me try:

Whenever any cold liquid touched the inside of my bottom lip and chin, it ran across the nerve that was regaining sense – and this experience made it feel exactly as if there was something cold pouring on the outside of my lip and chin. Exactly. I kept experimenting with this, because it was so odd. I could recognize that nothing was on the outside of my lip and chin, but still feel like it was.

Although this is odd, and I could dive into a Cartesian doubting of all sensory experience on account of this, I am more interested in what happened after this. Our minds are powerful things, and mine did something truly wonderful.

After I recognized that there was nothing on the outside of my lip and chin even though it felt as if there was, my mind’s interpretation of the sensory data changed. The actual sensory data did not change; and it still hasn’t – but how my mind chose to relay this data was transformed. No longer did the feeling convey the conclusion that liquid was spilling out of my mouth. At first I thought perhaps that the nerve in my mouth was healing or “normalizing.” But when I consciously thought about the feelings occurring, I came to the conclusion that no sensory data had changed. However, since my mind recognized (through the use of my eyes, different sensory data) that my initial interpretation was not valid, it was modifying itself.

Now when I drink, technically the same feelings occur; but I now recognize this sensory experience as feeling inside of my mouth. Two conclusions/questions for me stem from this: 1) Sensory experience is not first-level type of experience. What do I mean by this? I’m not positive, but it’s something like this: When I feel something, I don’t actually feel that thing. My nerve endings experience something and translate the data into workable conclusions. 2) Our mind, using new data, can reinterpret what the nerve endings tell us. I’m not sure if proves the existence of a “mind” completely separate from “the senses,” (I’m not sure I believe that) – but I think it points to the idea that we have a “mind” that works independently from, even if constantly connected to, our senses. I take a Thomist/Aristotelian approach to this discussion; and I feel like this experience reinforces it.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Why High School Freshmen are Hardly Ever Really Pro-Choice

Every year I’ve been teaching (and that’s four), I have taught a unit on persuasive writing. Ostensibly, the focus is on structuring an argument in a logical and coherent manner, and maintaining a tone that is forceful and persuasive (as opposed to most arguing, which is rooted in belittling the opposing side, e.g. radio show hosts).

The kids are allowed to pick any topic, as long as it is controversial. I don’t limit the topics, and so I invariably am met with a bunch of essays on legalizing marijuana, lowering the drinking age, and stopping animal testing. Of course, I am also met with a bunch of papers on abortion. Bingo. These I like to deal with.

The kids know that I like to argue, and can argue for any side of any argument. One of my mantras is (and I’m sure I didn’t make this up), “You don’t really know your side of the argument until you completely understand the other side.” Toward this end, part of the paper must include a Devil’s Advocate: the strongest, most intelligent argument against their position. Because I emphasize this so much, I can pretty much argue anything I want without people feeling that I am pushing my beliefs; intelligent adolescents, at least in this culture, automatically rebel and defend themselves against “belief pushing.”

The other day, I was meeting with each individual student about their essay proposals, which were basically outlines for their papers. I was discussing with a pro-choice student (let’s call her Abigail) about her argument. Her three arguments were pretty much regurgitations or rewordings of the same idea: the government can’t make choices for women; and so even though I wouldn’t have one, women need to have the choice to have abortions. Abigail’s Devil’s Advocate didn’t even mention the fact that pro-life people claim the fetus is a child.

Very simply, I explained to Abigail that we don’t have the freedom to choose whatever we want; for example, “Abigail, are you free to go over and strangle Ben over there?” Abigail shook her head. Then I connected this to the real pro-life argument, that of the child’s, albeit inchoate, life. “So the pro-life argument says that, just like you don’t have the freedom to strangle Ben, you don’t have the freedom to take the life of a child in the womb, even though it isn’t as tangible.” Abigail is a smart girl, and I could almost physically see the argument sinking into her intellect. She thought for a few moments, and then said back to me: “So how I am supposed to argue against that?”

What I have realized through this experience and others like it is this: Children, at least up to the age of 16 or so, are hardly ever truly pro-choice. If I took a poll in class, I’d bet it would be split 50/50. But if I broke down the argument, fairly mind you, there would hardly be anyone arguing for abortion. You see, to truly argue for abortion, you must make some intellectual concessions that an innocent and natural intellect simply cannot accept. For example, a lot of true pro-choice people accept that the fetus may be a baby at some point in the womb, and that either a) we can somehow draw a line as to where that is, such as the third trimester or something like that, or b) the individual right of the woman and her freedom to choose takes precedence over the life of the unborn baby. But what I find absolutely amazing (perhaps it shouldn’t amaze me) is that innocent Reason, epitomized by extremely intelligent honors 15 year-olds, can’t make either of those concessions. In fact, they seem either ridiculous or cold-blooded to them.

This is not a proof of the invalidity of abortion in the normal sense; but I think it points out something about the potential flaws of purely intellectual and abstract thought. An intelligent person of the 21st century can abstractly and rationally defend the act of abortion, using women’s rights and America’s idea of freedom to back him up. But a youth, who is less used to purely abstract thought, simply cannot grapple with the basic idea that abortion is the killing – or at the very least, the potential killing – of a human being. They can’t get past this point.

Pure intellectual thought, unconnected to physical reality – as in the case of Descartes – can lead to gross error; and perhaps the budding intellects of freshmen in high school can help us avoid these sorts of errors.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Greek + Hebrew = An All-Perfect Unmoved Mover Who Loves You Personally

Last Saturday, the People of Hope held a conference; the topic was the Scriptures, and the speaker was a Bible scholar from the farms of Idaho. The talks were fantastic, the speaker was engaging and holy, and the material was remarkable. Without getting into specifics, the talks were basically an introduction to the study of the Scriptures as a narrative of salvation history, paying particular attention to the historical contexts.

Since then, I’ve been contemplating the historical significance of Christ’s arrival on earth. Why choose the specific point in history? I remember learning somewhere (probably KA) about the progress in communication and travel around this time-period: it was a great time for Christ to come because His message could be dispersed through the nations in a relatively short period of time.

But I think the significance goes deeper. The intellectual framework for the message and theology of Christianity is essentially a marriage, albeit a bickering one, of Hebrew and Greek thought. From this amalgamation of philosophies we get much of our understanding of God. We get an all-perfect unmoved mover who can and desires to love us in a personal way.

One of the foundational tenants of Catholicism is the all-perfect and all-good nature of God. This is essentially a Greek idea. Aristotle’s unmoved mover becomes God in Aquinas’ writing. God’s very nature of Love is what holds all of creation together. Nevertheless, just as the term “unmoved mover” seems to imply, there is not much personality, affection, or involvement in this Greek idea of God. Why is it that this all-perfect and all-good entity would concern Itself in the affairs of squabbling, mortal men. There is not much exploration in Aristotle of a personal knowledge of this Unmoved Mover, let alone a relationship.

Enter the Hebrew theology and Scriptures. The God of the Old Testament is a loving, personal, jealous God. God gets angry at the wickedness of His people, but He also feels compassion and forgives. Although the Old Testament doesn’t disallow it, there is little exploration the Greek or modern Catholic idea of God’s perfection. Men, like Moses, seem to change God’s mind; and sometimes God seems to act purely out of an emotions.

Both individual theologies of God miss out on integral aspects of Who God is, how we’re supposed to view Him, and how we come to know Him. But when we marry them together, we get a wonderful window into the beauty that is God. The Greek without the Hebrew breeds movements like Deism, visions of God as a distant and unmoved deity, who cares little for the Universe He created, simply because “caring” is an emotion that would lessen His greatness; and the Hebrew without the Greek can give us a loving God, but one whose emotions could get in the way – a God whom we may be reluctant to trust, since his unaffected perfection is not established.

But as a Catholic, I believe in a God that created the entire world and controls every aspect of it right now; but this God loves me in an intimate way. This God created, maintains, and understands all of the galaxies, black holes, and supernovas; but he also desires that I come before Him and tell Him I love Him. There is nothing more perfect, more Good, or more powerful than this Being; but this Being chose to come to earth to die for the sins of each individual person, because He loves each and every human with a passion that is unsurpassable. This is an awesome God.

And so Christ became man when He did, so that we could understand Him in this way.

I have two intellectual reactions to this line of thinking: First, are there other theologies and intellectual frameworks by which we can understand God in a different way? I think this is what mystics and others preach, especially when they delve into Eastern thought. Perhaps the marriage of Hebrew and Greek thought was perfect for the establishment of the Catholic Church, but what other awesome truths can we learn about God from different contexts. There is no intellectual philosophy that can contain or fully explain God; likewise, there are no two that can do this.

Second, I don’t see it as a coincidence that when modern man began to cast doubt upon the foundation of Western thought, he began to doubt his faith; and when modern man began to rail against Western thought, he began to rail against his faith. Although the essence of individual conversations is beginning a relationship with God, for contemporary culture to turn away from sin and toward its loving Creator, the battle of philosophies needs to be fought and won.