The acts of the Church

Some Catholic-Jewish meeting was in the news years ago. It was the usual grovelfest: Catholics apologizing and cursing themselves for their unprovoked and unmitigated antisemitism, followed by Jews pronouncing this “not good enough” and demanding more aggressive repudiations of past generations and current doctrine. The Jews were particularly incensed by the Catholic claim that while individual Catholics, including clergy and popes, are sinners (indeed, abominably wicked), the Church herself is holy and sinless. Of course, both sides took the absolute sinlessness of the Jews, both individual and collective, for granted. The whole thing was depressingly predictable, but it raised an interesting question: can the Church sin?

The question has several aspects. First, we must distinguish acts attributable to individual Catholics from corporate acts of the Church. Among the latter, one might ask whether all or some can properly be called acts of Jesus Christ, since the Church is His body. Second, one must distinguish the question of whether a corporation such as the Church can behave unjustly from the question of whether it can sin, since the latter usually relates to the state of someone’s immortal soul. Furthermore, the case may be special for the Church, since while other corporations are persons only by legal fiction, the Church is a genuine spiritual reality that transcends her members.

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In defense of conservative authoritarianism

Some commenters are saying that the conservative veneration of authority is mere nostalgia, an outdated model of society, or even anti-Christian. I strenuously disagree-authority is a core category of the social world, and its moral quality cannot be understood without it. However, it must be properly understood. In particular, it must be clear in what sort of social analysis one is engaged when one speaks of authority.

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The virtue of obedience

Originally posted at Throne and Altar.

The Marxist psychologists seek to discredit the virtue of obedience by conflating it with a certain psychological disposition.  The disposition in question is one we all feel to some extent.  We tend to conform to our social environment and feel distress when we find ourselves out of step with this.  Part of this conformity is the tendency to obey whoever this environment singles out as a commanding figure.  (I will not say an authority figure, because authority is a distinctly moral category, and we are now considering only the pre-rational level of psychological pressure.)  The psychologist then cites the Frankfurt School portrayal of the “authoritarian personality type” or Professor Milgram’s ghastly experiments to argue that we obviously need less respect for authority, where by “authority” they mean the residual rivals of their own power:  fathers and priests, never professors and newspapermen.

Now, the disposition to conform and obey is itself a generally positive thing.  In everyday life, the psychologically easy thing to do is usually also the correct thing to do, and I doubt even the liberals’ own order could last a day without this basic instinct to obey.  However, this instinct is not the virtue that we call “respect for authority” or “obedience”.  Obedience is a part of the virtue of justice, and it requires that we obey licit orders from legitimate authorities simply because this is a moral duty.  It may or may not be psychologically easy.  Usually it is, but we shouldn’t hold this against the virtue.  Virtuous acts are usually pleasant, or at least less unpleasant than the alternative.  This only sounds counterintuitive because our moral energies concentrate on those rare times when desire and duty clash.  Ordinarily, eating, wearing clothes, being friendly, paying taxes, and pulling over when the cops signal are the right things to do, but we don’t need to moralize ourselves into them because self-interest suffices.  However, like the other virtues, obedience shows itself most clearly when it is unpleasant, when the virtue is performed for its own sake.  Thus, the best image of obedience is the menial sailor who remains loyal to his captain even when the whole rest of the crew is crying mutiny and demanding he join them; the sailor does this, moreover, not because he particularly likes the captain, but because he knows that the captain is the one he has a duty to obey.  In such a situation, the one with a mere disposition to obey will not remain loyal; he will line up behind the powerful and charismatic leader of the mutiny.

The psychologists slander obedient men as being psychologically weak and ethically shallow, but this is the opposite of the truth.  A true appreciation of authority is only possible to one with a strong moral sense.  It cannot be a substitute for a personal sense of justice since this is its very foundation, and it in no way inclines a man to obey immoral orders.

Finally, I admit to being more than a little put off by these partisans of the anti-authoritarian status quo telling the dissidents that we need to stop being such mindless followers.

To change the culture V: metahistory

Today’s history is Whig history on steroids. Whig history is just the application of the anti-Christian good guys vs. bad guys narrative to the past, with the Left cast as the heroes and their clients the innocent victims. The fact that this history is generally accepted and almost never contested gives the Left tremendous moral authority. Conservatives are cast in the position of arguing “Yes, we’ve always been wrong in the past, but this time we’re right!”

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To change the culture IV: metaethics and storytelling

The trouble is not just that contemporary man reaches incorrect moral conclusions, but that his premises and modes of reasoning are off. From the basic principles of personal autonomy, cosmopolitanism, and the progressive moral hierarchy, evil is bound to follow. I do not believe any genius-level work is needed on the theoretical side to counter this. Our flags have already been planted on the two crucial counter-principles: particular loyalty (stressed by countless conservatives) and given meanings in the body being an ennobling rather than demeaning thing (enunciated most forcefully by Pope John Paul II). The trouble is how to make these principles appreciated, which is presumably a job for the arts.

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To change the culture III: metaphysics

There will be a revival of Christianity when it becomes impossible to write a popular manual of science without referring to the incarnation of the Word.

Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances, Chapter XXIII

Bruce Charlton is right–our disagreement with the World comes down to metaphysics. How does one choose a metaphysics? Rather, how does one choose between rival metaphysical assumptions? One cannot derive metaphysical beliefs from something more fundamental, because there is nothing more fundamental. One’s metaphysics must not conflict with experience, but that is a low bar; many systems provide some way of reading the observed facts. There are also internal checks. Whitehead says that a metaphysical system should be coherent, meaning not only that its parts don’t conflict, but that they all interrelate and co-depend. Metaphysics should also cohere with our scientific, psychological, aesthetic, and religious thinking. When one find oneself appealing to the (univocally) same concept when making sense of a quantum field theory calculation, when understanding the motives of an agitated friend, and when arguing that the Back to the Future sequels weren’t very good, one is inclined to accept that a concept with such reach has metaphysical validity.

What is the metaphysics of contemporary man? By his way of talking, he believes the universe has three basic components. First is “matter”, which is fundamentally a conglomeration of particles of some sort, although convenience leads us to give certain arbitrary groupings of particles their own names. (Like the ancient atomists, one probably must also posit space as an independent entity to make this work, but this will not be an important issue for what follows.) Second, there are “the laws of physics”, spoken as if actual entities rather than descriptions, which tell the particles how to move. The laws of physics at least logically pre-exist matter, because they created the universe ex nihilo. Finally, there is moral quality, which inheres in groups of people independent of their choices (free will is not required for moral quality), leading some to be identified as oppressors, others as oppressed. This moral quality does not seem to be grounded in a utilitarian calculus or neutral accounting of violations of some deontological moral law, but to be a primitive feature of the world. Finally, contemporary man believes truth is completely objective. He has shed all remnants of 20th century liberalism and postmodernism with its supposed multiplicity of “truths” and valid perspectives. No one may question “the science” (the truth of the first two components of the universe) or “justice” (the truth of the third).

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To change the culture II: speaking out

One reason the Left controls public spaces is that no one dares speak against them. Thus arises the idea that the Christian reactionary has a duty to speak out. I wish neither to encourage or discourage you from doing this. I only wish to help you clarify in your own mind what it is that you are wanting to do, and what you are hoping to accomplish by it.

  • Signaling allegiance. Some forms of “speaking out” are primarily intended to signal the alignment of the speaker with a particular cause or party. An example would be those “In this house we believe…” signs that Leftists put on their front yards. There is no attempt at an argument here. No conservative ever read one of those signs and changed his mind about anything. That’s not what they’re for. Certainly a Christian/reactionary could do something analogous, effectively putting a target on oneself and daring the cancelers to come for him. Why would he do this? The reason might be existential, of the “I have to look myself in the mirror when I shave” type. Or it might be strategic: one wishes to give heart to less courageous people of like mind and show to the undecided that Leftism is not indisputable. Ask yourself, why does Western society feel so much more totalitarian now than in 2019? It’s not COVID; it’s the fact that in 2020 every business and professional society decided it was part of their job to affirm and enforce Leftist orthodoxy. This was initially the “racial reckoning”, but it’s spread to everything, so that now every business has statements supporting Ukraine and abortion. These spaces should be contested. However, remember that what we need are not martyrs but survivors. Someone who speaks out and is fired is an example, a demonstration to all watching that the Leftist consensus is absolute. Someone who speaks out and is not fired but continues working as usual and interacting with co-workers has demonstrated that the Left does not totally own the workspace, which is indeed a major victory for us (in the sense of “getting us back toward where we were in 2019”). Note that for signaling allegiance, one must do it publicly under one’s own name for it to be meaningful at all. Nobody would bother anonymously posting “In this house we believe…” posters.
  • Teaching. Most people have a crude caricature of Christianity and non-Leftist thought put into their heads by post-WWII media and academia. We know better, having actually engaged with it from primary sources. This doesn’t mean we’re necessarily smarter than those who haven’t made this study, but from whatever accident of fate, we know things they don’t. One may consider one’s goal in speaking out to be pedagogical. You didn’t invent the arguments against democracy and for traditional sexual morality, but you know them, so you can share them. There is still much room for creativity in teaching–one must decide how to organize and present the body of knowledge. Whom should you teach? Those who are most open to learning–the undecided and mainstream conservatives. Unlike the allegiance signaler, the teacher can be anonymous. The point is the information being conveyed, not the commitment of the conveyor.
  • Researching. If you believe that significant rethinking of metaphysics, ethics, history, etc. is needed to recover the spiritual goods that before the Leftist onslaught we enjoyed unreflectively, then you may want to contribute to this intellectual project. This may require the work of a community of scholars rather than one isolated genius. If you can find this community, then with modest, not genius-level intellectual gifts, you can contribute to this project by working on some narrow aspect of the intellectual problems and communicating results to the community. Unlike the teacher, the researcher “speaks out” what he takes to be original thought. Unlike the allegiance signaler and teacher, the researcher is communicating mainly to those who already share his commitments. Without the community of scholars, narrow research is pointless, unless you have a passionate interest in some narrow question, in which case the point is personal and communication is secondary. The researcher cannot be anonymous, because dialogue with the community requires enduring recognized identity, but he can be pseudonymous. Indeed, if your work is valuable, there is an argument that the greater good is best served by protecting your livelihood. Like a good tenured professor, the Orthosphere engages in both teaching and research.
  • Revolutionizing. Or maybe you are trying to do isolated genius work, and your speaking out is presenting your new paradigm. I won’t make fun of you for that. As with the teacher and the researcher, the identity of the lone genius doesn’t matter, only his thought, so anonymity is fine. The lone genius by definition doesn’t require a community of fellow scholars, but he does require a society able to absorb his discoveries. You should put some thought into how you’re going to disseminate your work given the hostile media and academic environment. My recommendation would be to make friends with some teachers.

To change the culture I: the case of the mediocre reactionary

The following series of posts (I have written five and will post two tomorrow and two Saturday) is not directly inspired by the recent spat with our Romantic Christian friends, but there is a connection. As far as specifics go, I am probably in sharper disagreement with the RCs than the rest of the Orthosphere, in that I think the path forward is not in intuition but in rigorous analysis, not in discarding the corporate and sacramental aspects of religion, but in reclaiming and highlighting them. However, the Romantics are to be praised for appreciating the magnitude of the intellectual and imaginative task before us. A revolution of thought is needed for Christianity to make sense to and be attractive for contemporary men. Simply reiterating past thought, even true past thought, will not be enough. Not that we have spiritually advanced, but too much that was taken for granted has now become conscious and disputable; too many vague ideas must confront the more precise language we have inherited.

Hence we hear that we must change the culture–ideally that of wider society, hopefully that of a saved remnant, at the very least that in our own heads. This is a large task. What exactly is being asked of us? And first of all, who precisely is to accomplish the revolution? What should the individual reader feel called to do?

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Considerations on David Chalmers and Epiphenomenalism

Back in college, I thought that the safe bet was that neuroscience would eventually completely explain consciousness, meaning that mental phenomena, like seemingly all other phenomena, would admit to being ultimately explained by the laws of physics. I eventually talked myself out of this belief by a thought experiment, what I later learned to call the “inverted spectrum” argument (when I learned that I wasn’t the first to think of it). Suppose someone had the experience that I call blue when he saw what I call red light, and vice versa. Not even a full knowledge of every molecule in both our brains could prove this; brain states and experience are so qualitatively different that their connection can only be a matter of empirical fact, so hypotheticals like inverted spectra and zombies are always conceivable. From observations of this sort, one naturally proceeds to property dualism–a person (or maybe just a brain) is a single object with two irreducible sets of properties: physical and mental/phenomenal. This position seems to reconcile the irreducibility of the mental with the unity of the human being in an elegant way. The main objection to property dualism, as I learned from reading, is that it implies epiphenomenalism. Since the physical world appears to be causally closed (all those molecules in a brain obey the usual laws of physics), these mental properties cannot influence behavior. Most counterintuitively, mental experiences cannot even play any causal role in my insistence that I have mental experiences! This bizarre conclusion has motivated philosophers to look for some way to show that materialism is viable after all. It led me to my current condition of not being fully satisfied with any metaphysics of consciousness that I have encountered.

Reading John Searle’s The Mystery of Consciousness, I came across his review of David Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. Searle is usually respectful (as for example in his discussion of my hero Roger Penrose’s ideas that most philosophers would consider kooky), but when it came to Chalmers advocating ideas similar to my own, Searle acted positively outraged. I was intrigued and bought a copy of The Conscious Mind. It sat on my bookshelf for years, until a few weeks ago I was taking a trip to visit my parents (my first airplane ride in three years) and wanted something to read during the journey, and I finally got around to giving it a try.

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