Chastek Asks a Good Question

James Chastek’s Just Thomism is one of the sites I read without fail. I like it because he teaches me lots of things. He closed comments a while ago because responding to them took up too much time. So here is what I would have commented at his blog if he still allowed comments, in response to this post:

Many of the books in the “decline of the West” genre – which was already old by the time Weaver published Ideas have Consequences in 1948 but which still sells (Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed) – tell a curious narrative of decline over very large time scales. If Nominalism or Hobbesianism were as harmful as claimed, why is the diseased host still alive a half-millennium later?

Now that’s a good question. I myself have contributed a fair bit to the literature wailing and bemoaning nominalism. How do I answer the question?

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The Notion of the Social Construct Is Itself a Social Construct

We hear often from our adversaries on the Left that race, sex, nation, and so forth are all merely adventitious social constructs, and so presumably, as fundamentally adventitious, therefore nowise suasive or authoritative, but rather, only, and simply, and completely, specious.

But the notion of the social construct redounds to and devours itself. It is autophagous. It cannot therefore be true.

If reality is socially constructed, and if that social construction is by itself a legitimate generator of truth, then one of the social constructs that can be legitimately constructed, and therefore treated as true, is the social construct that reality is not socially constructed. If on the other hand reality is socially constructed, but that social construction is not a legitimate generator of truth, then one of the social constructs that cannot be legitimately constructed, or therefore treated as true, is the social construct that reality is socially constructed.

Finally, if reality is not socially constructed to begin with, then the notion that reality is socially constructed is simply false.

All our notions are affected by society, to be sure. But that does not mean, as the Social Justice Warriors would like it to, that they are all just made up for no good reason, so that we can modify them as we wish and without serious consequence; that they are not, in other words, simply true, more or less.

To think that our social constructs are adventitious is to suppose that we are a society composed mostly of inveterate liars or fools. But if that were so, how could we have managed to survive thus far?

The Sophomoric Appeal of Improper Reduction

When I was a sophomore in college, lo these many decades ago, I was totally stoked to be learning about psychobiology, cybernetics, and philosophy of mind. It was intoxicating to feel my understanding growing so rapidly. I could begin to see how experience might be translated into neural circuitry, in principle at least. I kept thinking, “Oh! So this is just that! Nifty!” Once that happened in respect to any particular perplexity, I could stop worrying about it, and move on. The process felt as though it gave me terrific intellectual leverage. It was exhilarating, to find that such complex things – such mysterious things – could be explained so simply.

This is I think why improper reduction is so popular. It vastly simplifies the problem of understanding reality. It makes everything easier.

It is alas a philosophical cheap shot. For, unfortunately, it does this by making everything altogether too easy, altogether too simple. It makes reality too simple, too easy. That makes modeling reality much easier, no?

It is by building an intellectual model of how a thing works that we come to feel that we understand it. The easier it is to build an adequate model of something, the easier it is to understand; and the simpler the thing you are trying to model, the simpler the task of modeling, and the cheaper the understanding you gain from the procedure.

As Einstein said in his famous emendation of Ockham’s Razor:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

The simplest theories are so parsimonious that Ockham’s Razor has sliced away the very sort of entities they were in the first place intended and devised to explain.

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Ockham’s Razor, the Gordian Knot & the Thomist Marlinspike

Reality is a knotty problem. It is terrifically difficult to unsnarl it, so that we understand it. It won’t do to cut through it, as (according to the most famous version of the legend) Alexander did with the Gordian Knot. To do that is in the final analysis to surrender to befuddlement, even as one defies it and forges onward, damning all torpedoes. So while Ockham’s Razor is amazingly useful as a way of clarifying and simplifying our understanding, it is not itself a way to arrive at understanding. You want to shave with it, rather than slash.

When Ockham’s Razor cuts away entities that are inherent to the experience of understanding, it forestalls understanding, rather than facilitating it. For example, if you find that your explanation of consciousness is so wonderfully parsimonious that it eliminates consciousness from the universe altogether, you’ve cut too deep.

I used to deal with gnarly knots all the time when I was working as a whitewater boatman. [I’m not working on the River these days, but I’m still a boatman; it sticks with you.] When you put enormous tension on a knot, as happens when it is doing what you wanted it to do under stressful conditions, it can tighten so much that it becomes impossible to untie with fingers alone. It is tempting at such times to just say the hell with it, and cut through the knot. But that’s a bad idea when you are hundreds of miles from the nearest supply of line, in the deep wilderness. You never know when you might need that piece of line uncut. So an outdoorsman will never cut line unless he must.

Instead, sailors and boatmen use a fid or marlinspike:

The marlinspike is not a sharp cutting blade, but a smooth dully pointed stout poker. Poked into the interstices of a knot, a marlinspike can be used to pry apart the recalcitrant strands without cutting them, and allow for a good grip on the one that must be pulled through in order to loosen the doggone thing (sometimes pliers are needed for that).

To unsnarl the world knot, you want the right tool for the job. A razor is the wrong tool for undoing knots. What you want is what might be called a Thomist Marlinspike: neither affirm nor deny, but rather first distinguish. Once you’ve pulled the strands apart, untangled the knot, and laid it out nice and straight, then you can get to work on the line with Ockham’s Razor, shaving off the frayed bits to make things all nice and tidy, shipshape and Bristol fashion.

Belief in “Evolution” is not Necessary for the Dissident Right

Understand the terms used here. This is about evolution in the Darwinian sense: That purely material forces drive all biological change and therefore God is not the creator of the species and the human race. As a Christian I reject Darwinian evolution; the Bible says that God created the living beings, including mankind, and therefore Darwin contradicts Christianity. I do affirm evolution in the other senses, including microevolution, minor variation in already-existing forms caused either by natural selection or by deliberate human interference. I believe it because we see it happening now. But Darwinian evolution, which goes far beyond the observable evidence to postulate that all biological change was non-theistic, is doubtful and unnecessary.

And by “dissident right” I mean the non-mainstream yet non-insane right. Others may try to define the term more narrowly, but since the mainstream right is not helping to restoring a sane society, we need a term for rightists who are on the right path. At the moment, “dissident right” is the best candidate. Continue reading

Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Yet More on Angels

I’ve been thinking about angels a fair bit recently on account of the fact that my wife and I moved houses this last spring. Hard to see the connection between those two topics, I know. But it’s there.

Shortly after we moved, a realtor friend responded to my newsy message about all the problems we were suffering in the new place (and still are, to a not inconsiderable degree):

… I sympathize with your after move feelings. In addition to what to do with [all your] stuff, issues with the new house are appearing. This is because the house typically goes into shock when a new owner arrives and it starts acting out. You want to be there, but the house is not sure it likes you or the new arrangement.

Patience is the key. Gradually, the house will accept you and all will be well.

I tell all my clients the above and may have already shared this with you.

I realized with something of a shock that this had the ring of truth. The house seemed to be *resisting* us.

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Consciousness & Time: Part I: Vulcans, Zombies, & Desert Islands

A guest post by our regular commenter PBW:

Imagine, for the moment, that at some time in the 1850s a Royal Navy vessel, operating to the south of Samoa, in running from a cyclone, finds a large uncharted desert isle. Inhabitants are nowhere to be found, but inhabitants there were, at least under the analogy of William Paley’s Watchmaker, because the island is replete with the artefacts of a much more technologically advanced civilisation than that of the explorers. There are buildings of peculiar construction and materials, and most mysterious of all, in all of these buildings are large “moving picture” frames. At one moment they will display scenes as from a play, though switching rapidly between characters who, while speaking, fill the whole frame. At the next, they might display scenes in strange cities of similar construction, filled with self-propelled vehicles moving at dizzying speed. In the skies are machines that fly. Again, they might show scenes from exotic landscapes, or views from the heavens onto the country far beneath, presumably from the flying machines. The people are heard to speak in a strange language, and music, often discordant, accompanies every scene. The people represented in these frames display a moral degeneracy as astonishing as the engineering itself.

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Jesus Is In His Person the Only Possible Mundane Fulfillment of the Law

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

Matthew 5:17-18

Jesus is the Logos. So is he himself, in his very Body, the Law.

The Law is infinite in its ramifications; it is the infinite Logos, and the Logos is the eternal knowledge and actualization of the perfectly coherent – NB, “perfect” means “complete” – infinite Gödelian stack of logical calculi, which alone suffices to that establishment of the totality of Truth, upon which any lesser portion of the Truth depends for its derivative truth, and so for its being, its factuality, and thus its salience to creatures, ergo its efficacy. Then only an infinite being might comprehend the Law, or enact it. And only by enacting it could it be fulfilled, or for that matter suasively Lawful; i.e., only were it actualized could it be Law in the first place; for only thus could it be a real character of an actual entity; only as actual and real could it be apprehensible to other actualities, or influential in their development. So, only the Logos himself can be the Law; and, so, Nomos is implicit in and entailed by Logos.

To know the Law perfectly is to be the Law. But of all men only Jesus knows the Law perfectly, or can therefore be it, effect it and thus forthward embody it. Only Jesus can fulfill the Law. For, only Jesus *is* the Law.

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Foundationalism: in praise of vagueness

Foundationalism: in praise of vagueness

Thoughts inspired by teaching epistemology for the first time and listening to the podcasts of Jordan Peterson

Epistemology became a major topic for analytic philosophers because they trace their intellectual origins to Descartes and the British empiricists. Descartes dismantles the foundations of his beliefs and then tries to rebuild them on certain grounds. Having used the method of doubt to tear everything down, including even mathematics, he finds irrefutable evidence of the existence of his own mind and then tries to prove that the “external world” exists.

Descartes

René Descartes

The British empiricists take their inspiration from Descartes, accept his distinction between mind and body and plump for body as the truly real. Following Galileo and Montaigne’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities, they attempt to dispose of mind-related secondary qualities as merely “subjective” and thus nonexistent.

Strangely enough, analytic philosophers complacently flip between claiming that physical reality is the paradigm of the real and also thinking that the existence of the external world is questionable and in need of proof. It is the latter that drives the analytic philosopher’s interest in epistemology. Continue reading

Philosophical Skeleton Keys: The Ontological Priority of Wholes to Parts

I struggled for several decades to understand composite wholes (organisms, organs, ecologies, societies, and so forth (not to mention molecules, atoms (in the Rutherfordian sense rather than the Democritean), cells, organelles, hadrons, etc.)) as deriving from and completely explained by the interactions of their constituent parts, until I finally realized that it simply can’t be done. Such “explanations” inevitably invoke the whole they are trying to explain as an obscure feature of their parts. They are, i.e., somehow or other circular. This is why honest and careful materialism *just is* eliminative.

The derivation must run the other way, if we are to understand either wholes or their parts. And once we run the derivation in the proper direction, taking the whole as itself an ontological real independent of its parts, and prior thereto, and furthermore definitive thereof, why then all sorts of vexing problems that simply cannot be solved under the terms of materialist modernism – the mind/body problem, in particular – simply vanish. There are to such ontological holism furthermore all sorts of interesting consequences, that tend to validate both our quotidian experience and the deliverances of traditional supernaturalism.

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