Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Incompleteness of the Cogito

Why am I always hung up on Descartes? I’m not exactly sure. I have a few ideas, but they are only suppositions. Well, here I am again, ready to make a quick comment about our famous Catholic Frenchman.

I realized last night, as I was drifting off to sleep, that I actually disagree with the Cogito. Now, I’ve said time and time again that I disagree with where the Cogito takes us, or at least where Descartes and others think it does – and where it has brought us today. But I think I actually disagree with the statement itself.

Let’s recap: 1) I will try and doubt everything. 2) Can I doubt that I exist? 3) Well, if I doubt that, then something must be doing the doubting; therefore, 4) that something is me. This doubting, a form of thinking, has helped proved that I exist. Hence, I think, therefore I am. However, that’s not entirely true.

Really, the cogito should go something more along these lines: “I think, therefore, I know that I exist.” Without this little interlude, we assume that the thinking is what makes me exist, instead of the thinking being the means by which I know that I exist. It sounds like it’s splitting hairs, but I think it’s immeasurably important hairsplitting.

My self-reflection right at this very moment, my doubting of my own existence, can help prove that I exist. (What good this does, I’m not so sure.) But if I were spending this same moment not involved in the Cartesian doubt, my existence would be the same. My thinking has not caused my existence; my thinking has not helped my actual existence; my thinking hasn't helped prolong my existence. All my thinking has done has helped me prove that I can’t not exist while at the same time that I doubt that I do.

Why is this important? Because the Cartesian fallacy too closely aligns cognition with existence, which is not what Descartes proved. Suddenly our minds, the workings of thought, holds primacy. Suddenly thought becomes necessary to existence. But Descartes hasn’t proved this, and it can’t be proved via his hyperbolic doubt.

I’m not sure if Descartes wrote his cogito this way in order to make it short and snappy. I’m also not sure if, after the translation and cultural shifts, I’m interpreting correctly. Regardless, though, to simply say, “I think, therefore I am” isn’t true according to modern linguistics, and I thought I’d point it out.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Religion as Culture Vs. Religion as Truth

Back to the moral and religious ambiguities of my Drew class on “Religion, Culture, and Conflict.” The origins of this post are earlier than this class, though: in a conversation with a fellow grad student and colleague at Seton Hall.

A few of us were grabbing some beers at a local bar, The Gaslight I think, and we were discussing our religious backgrounds. One of my fellow students was telling us about how she was raised Christian, but her boyfriend was Jewish. If they ended up getting married, she said, she didn't care how the kids were raised, as long at they were raised within some sort of religious heritage and practice. The comment made me scratch my head, but I didn't know the girl well enough to pursue the topic.

This story came back to me in intense clarity when a guest speaker came to speak to our class a few Mondays ago. He is a Methodist minister originally from Sri Lanka, a primarily Buddhist country. He has worked in conflict resolution around the world (especially in some tough cases in Africa); his specialty is dealing with the religious element of violent conflicts. He has some crazy stories.

He said that step 1 in establishing real religious dialogue is to “completely accept the Otherness of the Other.” While I could accept this statement within a specific interpretative lens, what he meant by this was to accept other religions as having the same value as your own. With my religious background and childhood, this sort of thinking makes no sense. If I accept that Christianity and Islam are equal, aren’t I accepting that both are false, and therefore neither have value? I know I’ve run across this idea many times before, but this speaker, as an intelligent and cogent communicator and thinker, helped me verbalize two very different approaches to religion.

There is the idea of religion as culture, as opposed to religion as truth. In the former version, religion is simply one piece of a culture – perhaps the most important – but it is not concerned, as is the latter version, with whether or not one religion is true and one is not. This is not, as I always assumed, on account of the philosophical problem of trying to find the “true religion.” People with this philosophical religious problem tend to be agnostic. Instead, this perspective views religions in the way that we might view other cultural practices.

For example, is it better to eat at a table or on the ground? Is one true? That’s a silly question to ask. We may say one is more practical, but even that judgment would probably have to do a lot with how we grew up with. Cultural practices and values differ, but except in issues that deal with human dignity and universal values, we don't say one practice is true, while the other is false – and even in issues of human dignity, we probably still wouldn’t use the terms true and false.

Likewise, according to this perspective, it’s silly to call one religion true and one false. As a cultural practice and tradition, we don’t use the labels true and false. Christians shouldn't call Hinduism false since this would amount to us calling a certain eating tradition from another country false.

On the other hand, religion as truth is concerned with, as you might expect, the truth/falseness of a specific religion. We don’t need to label other religions as harmful or dangerous, but we can label them false.

This is a very obvious distinction, and I’m sure I’ve thought about this before. But I suppose it is my religious background that automatically sees the religion as culture perspective as nearly incomprehensible. To be a Christian and not think a Muslim is somehow disordered in his religious thinking is nonsensical. If the Muslim isn’t disordered, then I must be. Or we both are. What I also didn't understand until lately is the sincerity of those who accept this version of religion, a sincerity that exists within an intelligent world. I would have supposed most people to be “hokey” if they didn't care whether or not their religion was true. But this speaker was very “non-hokey.”

From this perspective, you can understand why proselytizing is such a dirty word. It would amount to me going to an African culture and telling them that their language is false and dangerous, and that they need to learn English in order to “be saved.” Besides being silly, if people were to really do this and be serious in their attempt, it could be dangerous.

The problem with this view is that religions, at least the major religions, present themselves solely from the religion as truth perspective. They speak in absolutes. Besides, I would not accept religion if I assigned it to religion as culture. In fact, I would probably mock it the way a lot of scientists and other atheists do. If it were one cultural practice among others, I would probably see it as one that hinders real knowledge and truth. If I went to Mass every week and prayed to a God that I accepted wasn't real, and I did this only because it was part of my cultural heritage, I would take the whole experience as a farce. It would be a big game of pretend; and this is exactly what a lot of people view religion as. I guess I don’t blame them since so many religious people these days are really just asking for it.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Class, Abortion, and Moral Horizons

Here’s another post originating from my experience in my most recent class, “Religion, Culture, and Conflict.” There’s bound to be a lot more – eventually.

We spent a few weeks on the Israel-Palestine conflict, trying to take a complex look at the issues, in an attempt to isolate the religious and non-religious factors – or, at least, to see how these two sets of factor relate. My professor is a formidable historian, so it was terrific to learn about the history of the geographic location. He is a less convincing expert on religious dialogue, so his solutions seem childish at time – (i.e. his solutions essentially ask each religion to watered itself down). He is even less of a theologian, so we never seem to get into the heart of the matter, theologically speaking. But all in all, it was a good few weeks.

Then we started discussing Christianity and modern violence, mainly in relation to certain abortion-clinic bombers. I was astounded by my professor’s real ineptitude in discussing this matter. I was amazed, simply astonished, by the fact that he didn't really understand the pro-life argument.

(Side note: I don’t support any abortion-clinic bomber, especially if human life is at stake. In fact, I see an unraveling of the moral code that the pro-life issue stands on when we go down this violent road.)

Essentially, my professor sees the abortion-clinic-bombers as beholding to some bloody Biblical tradition that uses archaic and Old Testament justification for killing random people. Of course, he did mention the fact that these people also happen to believe that fetuses are human persons, but this was so minor to the explanation of the matter as to be laughable. Instead, he presented the ideas and words of the bombers in rich and violent religious language.

What he was trying to do was connect these bombers with the Jewish terrorists we were recently discussing, who felt the need to bomb Islamist holy sites so that the Temple could be rebuilt and the Messiah could return. These types of justifications for murder are couched solely in religious dialogue and specific interpretations of holy scriptures. I don’t think he was doing this intentionally to avoid the “life” or “personhood” debate; instead, I think he really thinks that the debate here is about some absurdly esoteric religious creed, one that takes no root in reason, but simply dogma. (I also think it is his academic nature to try and make connections between different religious conflict; however, these sorts of absurd comparisons most often miss the heart of the matter.)

It wasn't the time or space, but I wanted to say, “Excuse me, how come we’re not focusing on the fact that these bombers truly TRULY believe that abortionists are killing human beings? This is as much about religion as fighting against Hitler or bloody dictators – or anyone else that is killing thousands or millions of innocent people. Of course, there’s a religious element to it, but only in the fact that human dignity is in fact a religious expression.”

Once we accept that the bomber believes in the personhood and rights of the unborn baby, we can see his actions in a proper light. Then it becomes understandable. Now, I still find it wrong and immoral; but I don’t find it religiously impenetrable. But this is exactly what my professor seemed unable to do.

If someone were an animal activist that truly believed that animals deserve as much rights and protection as humans, then it wouldn't be a far stretch to understand that they might take arms to protect this cause. If we were to analyze this thinker, it would be ridiculous to gloss over the fact that they believe that humans and animals are equal, and paint them as a ridiculous radical. What is radical about this person is their belief; their action is actually quite reasonable, once the belief is understood.

What I couldn't believe was that my professor quite legitimately didn't understand this. I thought, “Although I don’t agree with the pro-choice movement, I understand it. I see where it is flawed. But if I accept a few of their foundational principles, I completely understand why they believe what they believe, and why they fight like they do.” So why can’t my professor do this? He seems to be doing exactly what all of his talk about ‘religious tolerance’ abhorred: misunderstanding the opposing side, and thereby painting them as unreasonable extremists.

My good friend and colleague (in the loosest sense of the word), Mr. John Harmon Esq., told me of a phrase by Lonergan, “the moral horizon.” There are certain clear moral issues that are simply beyond the horizon of some, whether because of time-period or some other hindrance. For example, slavery was supported by good God-fearin’ Christian people, people who otherwise treated all with respect and dignity – and this wasn’t that long ago. We cannot grasp this contradiction of beliefs now. It seems so clear that slavery cannot coexist with a true understanding of Christianity.

But I am amazed by my professor’s lack of real understanding of the issue because he lives in our present times. But in the world of secular academia, Harmon chided me, my professor had probably never encountered a real legitimate argument against abortion. He has never been presented with an academic explanation. It is almost as if his present mindset cannot grasp it. To him, pro-lifers are embroiled in the same sort of ideological warfare that led to 9/11. The pro-life argument is beyond his moral horizon.

This still amazes me; and I wonder how I should act/react.

Final note: There has been a tendency in all that I’ve read for this class to point out the “hypocrisy” of those who believe their religion to generally preach peace, but who also see that it can justify acts of violence at time. My professor shakes his head at the “incompetent contradictions” of these backward people.

But every single secular state believes the exact same thing: that people want to live in peace, but there are times that violence (i.e. war) is necessary. Only extreme pacifists would disagree. So the abortion-clinic-bomber is not simply wrong because he’s killing life to defend life: almost every person believes this a distinct possibility. The bomber is wrong on other moral levels, ones that this post doesn't intend to discuss.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Quick Word on Herman Cain, Other Republicans, and Picking Political Candidates to Support

This may be a very hasty generalization (and therefore misleading or perhaps flat-out wrong), but I intend to present some considerations, in order of importance, when picking and analyzing political candidates from a Catholic perspective. I don’t suppose this to be exact; but hopefully it’ll point to some sort of truth.

What should be the first considerations of Catholic when thinking about and analyzing political candidate, in particular, for the presidency? I submit that it should be the candidate’s attitude and belief (and political record) concerning the treatment of the dignity of the human person – especially toward those most in need of political consideration. I understand that this is a broad and perhaps vague first consideration. At the moment, I can’t think of a better way of saying it.

This is why abortion lands #1 for many Catholics and other Christians: it is the clearest and most horrendous attack on the dignity of the human person. It is not simply that the number of abortions is above and beyond other attacks on life – euthanasia; death penalty – but that it is representative of basic attack on the dignity of the person. Unlike the death penalty, which I disagree with in a 1st world country that has other means of detaining an individual, the child of the womb has never done anything to give up any of their freedoms. The “sin” of the child of the womb is unintentionally inconveniencing the life of another. This logic is an attack on the dignity of life in its most basic form. Putting the conveniences of an individual over the life of another is evil.

Second, a Catholic should consider the candidate’s stance on issues that deal with the human family and culture. JPII: “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.” This is when we start dealing with marriage, effects of policy on the family, etc.

Third, we should consider the political approach to dealing with the poor. The Church’s teaching on social justice is clear about the preferential option for the poor. A politician, and those like us who vote for politicians, must always consider how policy will affect the poor among us. Ratzinger says that this is the moral test of a society: how it treats it most vulnerable.

Only when we get beyond these initial political considerations should we be discussing things like economic policies. Now, let me get this straight: a candidate’s ideas of economics can definitely be enough for us to disregard them as viable options, even if they fall securely on the moral side of the first three considerations. All I’m saying here is that the first three are more important. We should be hesitant to support someone with the “correct” approach to economics (and solving the recession) if his/her alignment on the first three issues isn’t in line with Catholic teaching, tradition, and contemporary thought.

This gets me to some difficulties I have with a brand of Republican candidates, like Herman Cain, whose approach to the poor is problematic. Before I say another word, let me be clear about what I’m not saying: I’m not saying that the Democrats’ approach to the poor is the right approach. I’m not arguing for specific political action. I’m simply expressing my internal eye-brow-raising at some of the things Cain has said – things that make me question how he will approach the considerations of the poor, dispossessed, and economically marginalized.

Cain said: “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself! It is not someone’s fault if they succeeded, it is someone’s fault if they failed.” I think that this is a gross simplification of the socioeconomic situation of the poor and unemployed in America – simplification to the point of either stupidity or moral incompetence. I suppose I understand what he trying to say, but I still disagree; plus, I do not find a comment like this to come from a man who is even close to the Church’s teaching on the preferential option for the poor.

There’s a nonchalance with certain Republican sympathizers, who just shrug and say, “Hey, we’ll never solve the poverty-problem. Those who try to only end up putting us into more debt. It’d be nice if handouts worked, but they don’t.” Starting here and then working toward a viable and moral solution is one thing; but most often these comments are the end of the conversation, as if our responsibility toward the poor is low on the totem pole. But my point is that it should be one of the first considerations.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Myth of Secular Humanism, Revisited

At a educational training conference recently, my thoughts were driven back to a topic that has been discussed before on this blog and in several of our meetings, the idea that there is a consensus out there that by sticking to reason, science, and what we can know (practical knowledge) and by throwing off the shackles of superstition, religion, 'the God of the gaps' (or at any rate by relegating such eccentric intellectual hobbies to the private interior of oneself), we gain an objective perspective of reality - the way things really are.

The speaker at the conference was giving a brief commentary on diversity, and he suggested that there are two 'A's - Awareness and Acceptance - which are involved in a healthy, diverse community. When different groups become aware of differences, and then accept the Other notwithstanding those differences, this diversity is achieved, and the community avoids that unnecessary and grim tragedy of violence, hatred, and prejudice. He finished up by noting how the very conference room of us was full of Irish, Italian, Polish, African American, and Latin people... and who cares what anybody is? It's not as important as what we have in common. All this to the nodding of many heads in the room.

Now it goes without saying that all human beings have equal dignity (at least when we've accepted certain dogmas!), but my concern here is not with diversity. Rather, I think it very important and fascinating to note that the speaker's statement was accepted as a description of objective perspective, stripped clean of prejudice and bias, when in fact he had put forth a very strong position built on very particular beliefs.

He demanded to know why people could not put their personal prejudices aside and just accept everyone regardless of race, age, ethnicity, religion, etc. But this of course would mean accepting (either by internalizing or externally conforming to) his view of what is simply right and wrong. What he was really demanding is why everyone shouldn't act and think the way he does. I think this would be made most manifest if we took him to a culture whose beliefs radically differed from his own, say, the antebellum South, to a group of slave-owners. I suspect he wouldn't dream of simply respecting their culture as different, becoming aware of their different beliefs and accepting them.

Which brings us once again to the question of discerning the real, objective moral standard by which different beliefs and attitudes can be judged. More on that another time. For now let it merely be said that what is needed is not no judgment, but right judgment.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Communion Response to Altruism

Too often people conceive of Christianity as a repression of desire, and hence a repression of the real self. Christianity tells you to live for others, and not yourselves. Christianity hypocritically tells you to be selfish in order to gain heaven – the logical fallacy is clear.

This misses the heart of the faith. Christianity recognizes that our own desires and others’ desires are bound up together – that our very existences as social and relational creatures disallow me to separate my individuality from yours.

Christianity is not purely altruistic; on the other hand, it is not an egotistical self-gorging of the appetite. It is an acknowledgment that my desires and your desires are somehow inextricably bound up in the cosmic story of creation, salvation, and redemption.