Best of all possible worlds

I would like to adopt and institute the practice of writing a Christmas reflection.  Some years, it might be a story.  At any rate, it seems appropriate for one who likes to write, just as many people enjoy baking especially for the holidays.

Philosophers nowadays will sometimes frame an argument in terms of “possible worlds.”  One reason for this is because it helps distinguish between what is logically possible and what is physically possible.

For example, it is physically impossible – in our Universe – that humans could survive on the surface of Mars unprotected.  But is it logically impossible?

Well, we could imagine another Universe – a possible world – where human beings could breathe carbon dioxide and oxygen, and they could tolerate higher levels of radiation, extreme temperatures…and so on.  None of this is logically impossible.  There are no logical contradictions here, so there could be a world where all of this is possible.

This plays well to Multiverse theorists, who capture the imagination with the notion of infinite worlds where – literally! – everything that could happen does happen in one Universe or another.  Think of it:  In some other Universe, you stopped reading one paragraph ago.  In another Universe, you didn’t even open the link.  In still another Universe, you wrote this post.

As thrilling as those alternative Universes must be, there is no evidence that reality is composed this way.  Nevertheless, as a philosophical tool, the notion of possible worlds can be very useful, even to Christians.

Here is another use of possible worlds:  They help us understand the difference between contingent and necessary beings.

Let’s see – the device you are now viewing, which relays this post to you.  That exact device.  That device did not have to exist.  In point of fact, it did not exist for billions of years, and it will likely be junked and destroyed, ceasing to exist for the remaining trillions of years in the life of our Universe.

The device is obviously contingent – it depends on some other being for its existence.  We can easily imagine a Universe where this device did not exist.  (In fact, it was this very Universe, 100 years ago).

Necessary beings – if there are more than one – are entirely different.  They necessarily exist.  An example (if a matter of significant debate) is God.

When you think about it, the classic, historical, traditional understanding of God is that He must exist, that He can’t fail to exist, that He just is existence itself.  He is a necessary being, perhaps the only necessary being.

Ok.  Let that settle in.

Now – God could have made any world, any of the possible worlds which philosophers dream of but cannot themselves create.  He had, perhaps, an infinite number of worlds to choose from.

And He made this one.

Then, He who – literally! – cannot die, cannot fail to exist, took the form of a contingent being.  He became flesh and dwelt among us.  He made Himself vulnerable to death, to annihilation, to the outer darkness.

Behold, the philosopher’s mind collapses!  For, how can it be?  How can a necessary being humble Himself and make Himself vulnerable to non-existence?  How can He, who exists in any possible world, actually enter our world as one of us?  And why would He do such a thing?

This is the Incarnation.  This is Christmas.

Granite and God

If you’re not already a fan of, I highly recommend it.  The pictures are often gorgeous, and the things people do with architecture and decor really are amazing.  (It can sometimes be approached as a challenge by the DIY types).

Well, Houzz led me to this site by way of an article on kitchen upgrades, and so I took in what information could find.  I’m not keen on granite, so the idea that its favor is fading intrigues me.  (Nanotech countertops?!  The future is now).

And good heavens, don’t forget the comments.  A debate broke out over the existence of God!

Granted:  It takes a little over 30 comments to get to God, and up until then, the comments were largely relevant to the article.  I was enjoying the back and forth, as I know nothing about geology.  There are even some fun electron jokes thrown in for good measure.

Now, it would seem “Faith Priest” said something worthy of being censored; though the content is lost, we get an idea from “guru dogg” that it was incendiary, possibly explosive.

“When you see a warhead missile detonating above your city, how will your state of mind react to the state of burning flesh? When your eyes melt in your sockets, how loud will you call out to God?”

Huh?  I, for one, really want to know what Faith Priest said.  No matter, there’s still some fine material ahead.  “Bubbawubba Gump” says,

Holy bat sh*t crazy, Batman! @guru, you have spent way too much time in a dark room dreaming of what god will do to everyone and you should see a psychiatrist. If the bombs drop they will definitely be sent by some psycho who believes God wants him to destroy the world, not by someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife.”

So, Gump starts off in the land of humor and proportional response, then takes a sharp turn toward Dawkinsville, where any instance of evil is “definitely” the the fault of religion.  Because only religious people perpetrate evil.

“Geri” tries to bring the conversation to the abstract:

Without God, I am the sole authority and measure of my own good. There is no objective measure of good unless it is in comparison it to the infinite goodness, God Himself.”

Geri is actually getting ahead of me in the series on objective morality, but you can guess I agree with his/her point.  Not that the combox following an article on countertop surfaces is the best place to plant one’s flag.

Not one to let a reasonable point be made, “jfahle3″ retorts:

“See, caveperson, I don’t believe in an invisible sky giant. Fortunately for you, I don’t need an invisible sky giant to tell me not to steal from you, I just know it’s not right to steal from you.”

Let’s see – presuming superiority by name-calling, grossly misrepresenting what is meant by God, and failing to comprehend the point he/she is criticizing.  Here is the New Atheist trifecta!*

Something is missing, though.  “SwoodTN” goes for the knock-out with a left hook nobody saw coming…

Interesting article about granite. You know what is really interesting about granite? It can be found on every continent on earth and has the distinction of being carbon dated as earth’s oldest rock. Scientists say it formed over millions of years as the earth’s surface cooled. But if you look at granite under a spectron microscope, you will see radio halos trapped inside.”

Unless you’ve read Internet comboxes before, then you totally saw it coming.  Here is the “But how do you explain this?” angle, which takes a narrow set of facts and interprets them in an apparently straightforward way, with the conclusion that God did it.  Frankly, the jargon is beyond me, but the rhetoric is par for the course.

“Prism” replies with the obligatory, jargon-for-jargon rebuttal:

“(2) Granites that have been appropriately age-dated (using K-Ar, U-Pb, Rb-Sr isotope dating, e.g.) range from billions to less than a million years old. Felsic magma may be cooling deep in the earth (forming new granite) even as we speak (basic earth processes continue to operate as always), but younger intrusive rocks are not yet exposed at the surface for study.
And (3) re: radio halos in granite – not even close to true. See”

When you’re numbering your points 40 comments deep in an article about kitchen upgrades, you might be wasting your time.  It might be easier to say, “That’s interesting,” and point out that a mysterious occurrence in geology – if it is actually mysterious – does not tell us much about the existence of God, the ground of all reality.

Only two more, because they are more down to earth (or, up to the surface?).  “Stevo” says:

So called scientific TRUTHS are only theories that are constantly amended as more facts are discovered. Christianity is belief in proven facts about Jesus that only requires faith.”

I think I get what Stevo is saying, but his intellectual opponents on are not even going to try.  Remember, Christian brothers and sisters – when in doubt, be modest in your claims.  If you have no doubt, be even more modest.

We finish with “PlacidAir,” who replies,

There are no “proven facts” about Jesus — that’s why it’s called ‘faith’.

I strain myself here to understand what PlacidAir is saying, though as a disposition, I do endorse modesty (see above).  Is PlacidAir saying that we have not proven that Jesus existed, for instance?  The simple existence of Jesus of Nazareth is as close to certain as it can be – doubting it gets you the label of “Myther,” which is about the same level as the “FlatEarther“.

There probably is some grand take-away here, but I’ve relayed this combox debate simply because I found it amusing.  I hope it lightens your day.


*As always, the New Atheist is to be contrasted with the serious, non-militant atheist.  They may be distinguished by the following measure:  The latter can be reasoned with.

The Gift of Tears

Another trait of Catherine’s spirituality is linked to the gift of tears. They express an exquisite, profound sensitivity, a capacity for being moved and for tenderness. Many Saints have had the gift of tears, renewing the emotion of Jesus himself who did not hold back or hide his tears at the tomb of his friend Lazarus and at the grief of Mary and Martha or at the sight of Jerusalem during his last days on this earth. “   – Pope Benedict XVI on St. Catherine of Siena

We are used to seeing only sadness in tears, and that often at the blunt end of life’s troubles.  Loneliness and disappointment, loss and death – these things strike us like car accidents, and leave mourning and weeping as evidence of the trauma.

The gift of tears is something else, but let us say something more about these worldly sorrows.  We have no need to diminish them by comparison.

For the Christian, they are echoes of the Fall; and somehow, everyone senses that things are not quite right, that life ought to be better than it is.  The world was once a fairy tale, but it has been cut short.  Not “happily ever after”, but something nostalgic, like “we were happy once, but no longer.”

Else, why does death sting?  It is a plain fact, one never avoided, but we are hushed and dumbstruck when it visits us.

The gift of tears is not without sadness.  The sadness may be yet more profound, since it is a response not to natural events, but to supernatural significances.

Consider the sadness of Christ, when he cries at the death of Lazarus.  It is clear that Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead; he was not crying over the finality of this particular death, as Mary and Martha did.

Why does he cry, then?

Consider the sadness of the penitent woman:  As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.”   (Luke 7:38)

If she was weeping over natural things lost, why approach Jesus about it?  Even if someone had died, why does she not say anything, but content herself to an act of abject adoration?  What does she want from him?

“Your sins are forgiven,” he says.  “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

It might have been difficult even for her to say what she wanted, but it appears to have been a spiritual mercy.  But listen – even this, if accurate, is only a crude way to express the “exquisite, profound sensitivity” that she possessed.

And this woman is a bridge to the Christian experience of the gift of tears; St. Gregory of Nazianzus observed that the gift of tears was a kind of baptism:

“Yes, and I know of a Fifth [Baptism] also, which is that of tears, and is much more laborious, received by him who washes his bed every night and his couch with tears; whose bruises stink through his wickedness; and who goes mourning and of a sad countenance; who imitates the repentance of Manasseh (2 Chronicles 38:12) and the humiliation of the Ninevites (Jonah 3:7-10) upon which God had mercy; who utters the words of the Publican in the Temple, and is justified rather than the stiff-necked Pharisee; (Luke 18:13) who like the Canaanite woman bends down and asks for mercy and crumbs, the food of a dog that is very hungry.”

Centuries later, St. Ignatius of Loyola would find himself overcome with saying Mass, sometimes unable to speak the words because of his tears – “He sometimes cried so much at Mass that he could not go on, nor even talk for some time, and he was afraid that his gift of tears might cause him to lose his eyesight.” *

St. Thomas Aquinas is said to have experienced the same thing, sometimes coupled with visions.  And of course we have the example of St. Catherine as told to us by Pope Benedict above.

Weeping at Mass – if it’s not a wedding or a funeral – may seem odd, like voluntary poverty.  It’s not impossible to imagine, but we only think very strange – or else, very holy – people could really do it.  But we have the woman washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, and I said she would be our bridge.

The gift of tears is marked by deep, almost unfathomable penitence.  The woman did not just mess up, but realized she had made a most deplorable mistake, a real tragedy.  She had done something perhaps millions of other people have done - Luke does not say exactly what – but she, uniquely, saw the spiritual meaning of it, and it reduced her to uncontrollable sobbing.  She may have approached Jesus without any assurance that he would forgive her, yet she was compelled to humble herself anyway.  There was nothing else, nothing at all, that she could do except weep for mercy.

Ordinarily, we think that penitence does not feel good, and one does not see how it can be a gift.  At least with the natural sorrows, we see how they are unavoidable; they are the cost of being alive.  Why compound this with spiritual sorrows?

Oh, dear friend.  I would pray for you to know the gift of tears.  If I knew the gift of tears was at the end, I would want for you to endure every hardship life brings, and neither you nor I would regret it.

Because, at bottom, the gift of tears marks the presence of Joy.  To be so moved is to catch a glimpse of the face of God; you could never know such sorrow without encountering Him.  Yet what joy, because you are facing Him!

The experience of Sorrow and Joy both, not in some dilution but each at full strength, it presses the heart, wrings it out until it yields tears.  There is Sorrow, yes, but the Joy is unspeakable.  The only possible expression of it is in weeping, in a total breach of emotional control.

I give you one example, and I give it so that no one will think the gift of tears only comes to the holy ones.  It occurred when I was younger, and more spiritually immature.  You will see:  It is a very simple experience.

We were on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and I was walking with the group through a church – I want to say in Capernaum, but I am not sure.

Anyway, as we entered the church from the outside, and made our way through a winding vestibule, I could faintly hear a voice, singing.  We walked on, and the voice became clearer.

When we finally entered into the sanctuary, the voice broke on me like a waterfall.  My legs felt weak, as though under a physical burden, so I found the last row of chairs and fell to my knees.

It was a beautiful voice dancing in a cavernous church, a cantor practicing for the next day’s liturgy.  And there is much about a beautiful voice that anyone could understand, which might cause anyone to weep.

That is not what moved me.  Rather, somehow, the voice pointed me not to its own beauty, but to Beauty itself.  The voice was not the object of my admiration but the vehicle of my adoration.  I did not – I could not – simply sit and enjoy the voice, but I begged for understanding.  What did this mean?  What am I supposed to do with this?  Even, if faintly – why me?  Why should I be so blessed?

And that was all.  I have, since then, wept more profoundly at the touch of even simpler things.  I have sobbed because of the elegance of a shadow.

I suggested a breach, because that’s what it is.  You are traveling about in your body, in your self-image, in your conception of what the world is about and why you are here.  And then you are seized by the least tincture of some pure thing, like Beauty or Intelligence, and it’s all over.  Nothing you thought is quite right; nor are any of those things which threaten or impose on you real or true.

Something else – the Transcendentals, the attributes of God – reveals itself as fully real, as being the only true thing.  No argument is plausible, no capture of the moment is possible.

Only tears.


*Passages regarding St. Gregory and St. Ignatius taken from Dr. Taylor Marshall’s blog.

Punch a Heretic Day, explained to a 5 year old

I owe you all an apology. Yesterday, in honor of St. Nicholas’(s) feast day, was unofficial “Punch a Heretic Day.”

Not familiar? Much to my delight, my eldest caught me laughing about it, and what follows is a loose transcription.

A: Why are you laughing, Papa?

Papa: Well, there’s a lot you have to learn about this, but let’s see. You know how we’re Catholic, right?

A: Yeah.

P: The Catholic Church has been around for 2,000 years, since Jesus started it. During all that time, the Church has always been talking about God and Jesus, and trying to explain what they’re like.

A: Yeah, like how Jesus is our Savior.

P: That’s right. So, sometimes, people will say things about Jesus that aren’t true, and it’s the Church’s job to correct them, and say what’s true.

A: Maybe some people just say those things, but they just didn’t understand, and they just needed to be told the right thing.

P: That’s very good. Now, when a person won’t change his mind, and he keeps saying the false thing, he’s a heretic. Ok, you know Santa Claus?

A: Yeah.

P: [Here I realized that she still believes in Santa Claus and, despite my ambivalence, I did not want to call that into question during this conversation]. You know how some people call him St. Nick? Well, there was a real St. Nicholas.

A: Who lived before Jesus?

P: No, he lived after Jesus.  Well, he heard this man Arius talking about Jesus, but Arius was saying that Jesus wasn’t really God.

A:  But he is God!

P:  Right, exactly.  And he wouldn’t change his mind.  So one day, when the Church Fathers were talking about Jesus, Arius kept talking and saying that he wasn’t God.  So St. Nick..well, he punched him in the face.

(We both laugh)

A:  That’s not nice!

P:  Oh, I know, he probably shouldn’t have done that.  But Arius wouldn’t change his mind, and he wouldn’t stop talking.  So St. Nick punched him in the face.

(Laughter again)


I can’t tell you how satisfying this conversation was.  Nor how satisfying it was to segue-way to dinosaurs.  (It totally made sense).

And here are some memes for good measure.

Objective Morality – 5

So far, we have argued that:

1.  There is such a thing as objective morality.

Objective morality is a matter of ontology, though it is often revealed by epistemology.

2.  Humans have a moral sense which delivers knowledge about objective morality.

In this way, the good may be likened to light; we know that light exists because we can see it.  Just so, we know the good exists because we can detect it.

3.  One cannot deny objective morality then insist that we take his moral judgments seriously.

Anyone who does this is like a person who has declared there is no such thing as light, then complains that the sun is too bright.

4.  The denial of objective morality requires us to accept propositions which are almost universally rejected.

Eg. That there is no difference between genocide and mowing the lawn.

It is worth saying something at this point, before we continue.  While this series has been on my mind for some time, the impetus is a particular situation in which one person (she) wishes to persuade another (he) of a point about morality and God.  Speaking to that situation:

Our man, so far as I know, agrees with us so far.  We have not had to persuade him of anything yet.

In fact, it was our lady’s confusion on God and morality which prompted me to start!

I discovered from he that she insisted on the following:  Atheists cannot be moral without God.  Now, this is a (rookie) mistake, and one we can correct with the terms we have been establishing.

First, what is her claim?

She seems to be claiming that, without God, a person either cannot know or cannot do what is good (perhaps both).  Now, whether a person will do the right thing is a consequence of knowing what the right thing is, and it is further dependent on the will.  It is obvious that even Christians often will to do what is wrong, rather than what is right (or we wouldn’t require the forgiveness of sins).

If we leave the will out of it, then the claim truly has to do with knowing – that is, moral epistemology.  Properly framed, the claim is that somehow, as a result of a lack of belief in God*, the atheist cannot know the good.

This is important, because this atheist is not denying moral objectivity.  He is not denying that there is some ontology which grounds our moral knowledge.  He is simply denying that moral ontology concludes with God.

Nor have we, yet, concluded with God.  But we have come far enough to sort out this confusion.

After all, we are saying that there is a moral sense which delivers true moral knowledge to us.  It is by this sense that we establish the existence of moral objectivity, much as we establish the objective reality of light by our sense of vision.

So the real question is – does one’s belief affect his senses?  Does the atheist lose his sense of sight when he loses his faith?  Is there any belief at all which would cause a person to lose any of his senses as a direct consequence of that belief?**

It is true that the atheist could deny objective morality as a result of his atheism, but that does not (directly) mean he loses the moral sense.  That does not render him incapable of making moral decisions, though it does make him liable to hypocrisy.

Our “he” in question, though, is not such a hypocrite.  Objective morality is real for him; things are really right and wrong, in his eyes.  In this discussion, we will not trouble him by questioning his moral epistemology.

Our challenge to him concerns moral ontology.


*Or positive belief that God does not exist.

**I mean the belief itself, and not the things such a belief might lead someone to do.  Remember our illustration from before:  The blind man did not lose his sight when he denied the existence of light.  He blinded himself, to reinforce the belief.

Objective Morality – 4

Our approach so far has been fairly catechetical – we’re building a foundation of knowledge about morality.  Let us apply some of that knowledge, and have a little fun besides.

Generally speaking, atheists break themselves off into a few different groups with respect to morality.*

First, one has the intelligent, reflective atheist – here is one who recognizes that something needs to be said about morality, who further realizes it is not a matter of proving that individual atheists can be good people.  He wants to maintain that objective morality is real, and he’s trying to figure out how.  For him, I have respect.

Second, one has the intelligent, reflective atheist who concedes there can be no objective morality without God.  One finds an example in Nietzsche, among others.  The intellectual integrity of such people, I respect; their prescriptions for human behavior cause me to tremble.

Third, you have your atheist who declares that belief in God is not necessary to be good, because…well, look at him, the atheist.  He’s a good person!  Plus, evolution.  Here is one who is confused and proud of it, and we will deal with him later.

Fourth, you have your atheist who both denies objective morality, then tells you how terrible Christians are.  And God.  God is the worst.  But seriously, if Christians would just stop doing X, Y, and Z, they’d be good people, too, and everyone would be better off.


Let’s have fun with the fourth atheist.  Bearing in mind our illustration from last time, consider this:

Imagine you are in a dark room with a blind man.  You know that you have sight, and you know that light exists, but at the moment you can’t see any.

You come to find out – because he told you so – that this man does not believe in the existence of light.  In fact, he used to have vision, but when he realized that light was just an illusion, he blotted out his own eyes, so that he would not get confused about whether there was any light.

This seems rather drastic to you, but he is strangely proud of the fact.  So proud that he wants to convince you that there is no such thing as light, too.


Blind man:  Well yes, of course there’s no light.

You:  Uh…

Blind man:  Oh, you’ve been duped, too?  Not completely your fault; your parents probably taught you there’s such a thing as light.  Well, we now know there is no such thing.

You:  Why do you think that?

Blind man:  Light is an illusion!  Go ahead – prove to me that light exists.

You:  But you’re blind.

Blind man:  No, I see perfectly that there is no light!  Can’t prove it, then?

You:  Well- I mean, you just see light.  That’s how you know it’s there.  It’s obvious.

Blind man:  Ah, but Science has shown us that this is just an illusion, just as I’ve been telling you.  You only think you can see light because you have not been enlightened yet.


You let some time pass.  How did you end up in this room, anyway?  Maybe there’s a door here somewhere…


Blind man:  Excuse me, could you step to the side, please?

You:  I’m sorry?

Blind man:  Yes, could you step to the side?  I can’t see.

You:  (speechless)

Blind man:  Well?

You:  Listen, that doesn’t even make sense.

Blind man:  You’re a Christian, I bet.  Still believe in bronze-aged myths and a sky daddy?

You:  What does that-

Blind man:  Look, your body is opaque, you can’t help that, and for the most part you’ve stayed out of my line of sight.  But now your shadows are kinda bothering me.  If you would just take one step to the side, I would be grateful, and I think we’d get along splendidly.

You:  (Well, what would you say?)


This is just the sort of absurd thing our fourth atheist is doing.  He wants to deny there is objective morality (in the story, “light”), and finds some irrelevant way to dismiss it.  How could you prove to him that there is objective morality if, when you point to it, he dismisses it as an illusion?

That’s one thing.  To say there is no objective morality is to say that there is no moral difference between genocide and mowing the lawn.  Some people swallow that pill, and they usually experience bottomless despair as a result.

But our rather stupid fourth atheist goes one further, as he is wont to do.**

He now has the unmitigated temerity to correct your morality, though he denies objective morality.  He thinks that if Christians would just give a little ground on, say, abortion, that would be a step in the right direction.  Then they would be better people, morally.

This is just absurd, and beyond absurd.  It is like denying there is such a thing as light – effectively declaring oneself blind, unable to see because there is nothing to see – and then being critical of someone else’s shadows.

There is no expression of incredulity, not even the Internet classic “WTF?”, which would address this criticism with adequate disdain.  One is rightly moved to violence; and rightly restrictive of the impulse.  After all, there is such a thing as objective morality.

And don’t forget…he is the enlightened one.  Best to leave him alone, in the company of his only intellectual peer.


*This is how I have fun, anyway.  Oh, that?  Of course one may have fun with atheists!

**If the allusion is missed, it should not be lost.  Also, this seems to be a quintessential demonstration of stupidity, and I intend the word precisely, not as mere mud-slinging.

Objective Morality – 3

In the last post, we distinguished between the concepts of moral ontology and epistemology.  I now propose a leap, and an illustration.  If you will make the leap with me, we will come back around and see how and why it is made.

I want to suggest that our knowledge of morality comes from a moral sense.

And the illustration:  This is a sense much like our other senses.  Sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell…and moral cognition.

How can we do this?  Consider one of the examples of an action I gave last time:

I walk down the street at 4.5 miles per hour.  Is this right or wrong, morally?

Well, is it right or wrong?  Naturally, the answer is that it is neither.  When we consider the mere act of walking at a normal speed, we do not detect any moral quality in this action, neither good nor ill.  This is a perfectly rational conclusion if we have a moral sense.

Now consider:

I walk down the street at 2 miles per hour, helping an elderly man to his car.

Is this morally good, or wrong?  Naturally, it is good – I have assisted someone in his frailty, so that he may avoid pain and suffering as the result of a fall.  Here, we detect some quality of the action which was not present in the first example, which we judge to be “good.”

In the same way, our eyes detect light.  We can discern between a brighter room and a darker room, even between wavelengths in the spectrum of light, because of our vision.  A person who is blind has no such ability, of course.   The room may be brilliantly lit, or the lights may be off, and our blind friend would not have the first idea which it was.

These senses both deliver knowledge to us.  Our eyes deliver knowledge which no other sense can deliver, and without which we would have no concept of light; and it is just so with the moral sense.  None of our other senses or faculties could deliver moral knowledge, and without that sense, we would be toward morality like the blind man is toward light.

Good so far?

Now let’s turn the thing over and look at it another way, which will advance our study.  Consider that, if there were no such thing as light, we could not make any sense of our eyes.  The very reality of light is a pre-requisite for vision to exist, much less to comport with our experience of having eyes.  There wouldn’t be any eyes, one imagines.

Light, then, is an objective reality.  It is something which exists independent of us, independent of our thoughts and feelings about it.  And we might even distinguish between visual ontology and visual epistemology.

Visual ontology would be the study of light itself, the existence and foundation of light.  (One may want to know why light exists at all, or if it was necessary for light to exist in any possible Universe).

Visual epistemology would be the study of our understanding of light.  We start from our senses, which deliver immediate knowledge about light (maybe it’s bright, or green, or distant), and we apply our other faculties (namely, our reason) to advance our knowledge (red-shifts in the stars, the wave-particle nature of light, the wavelengths of the different colors).

We want to say something similar about morality.  Most of the time, we wrestle with moral epistemology:  What is the right thing to do here?  How should a person conduct her life?  What general principles may we follow, and how can we sharpen our understanding of them?

Yet all of our moral deliberations rest on that which we examine less frequently – that is, moral ontology.  And just as our vision is grounded by the reality of light, our morality must also be grounded by some objective reality.

This objective reality has, across the world and over the centuries, been referred to as “the good.”

Next time, we’ll examine the folly of rejecting objective morality (and why so few do it).  Then we’ll begin to examine our options regarding this good upon which our morality rests.

Objective Morality – 2

We kicked off the morality parade in the last post, promising to deal with ontology and epistemology in this one.  Let it be so.

Morality, we said, is a system of beliefs about what is right and what is wrong.  Elementary, no?  Yet, for our purposes, we must make some hay out of this simple assertion.

What, after all, does it mean for an action to be “right”?  And “wrong”?  Right or wrong with respect to what?

A few examples will make the point:

I walk down the street at 4.5 miles per hour.  Is this right or wrong, morally?

My child had her lunch money stolen.  I give her money for lunch, but no consolation.  Is this right or wrong, morally?  Relative to what standard?

I declare that cold-blooded murder is morally good.  Am I correct, or incorrect?

On the one hand, these are not challenging questions.  I suppose very few people would have any difficulty answering them, and that there would be a wide consensus on those answers.  More on this next time.

On the other hand, as any sophomore philosophy student will tell you, they are not as straight-forward as they seem.  The second question in the second example (Relative to what standard?) points to this, and the fact that I’ve asked questions about seemingly obvious situations is also suggestive.

The sophomore will want to contextualize the first example: Are you walking toward something?  Away from something?  Are you shirking your duties, or avoiding a conflict?  (Note that I meant merely the act of walking, apart from any context).

The example about praising cold-blooded murder as morally good is probably easiest to answer – but why?  How do we know that cold-blooded murder is wrong?  Are you sure?  (Freshman ethics courses are fraught with such questions).

To some extent, all we have done here is obfuscate the issues with hypothetical information.  The sophomore is just being difficult.

Yet, not merely difficult.  After all, it’s exactly when the context changes that our moral judgments are challenged.  But if the choice is easy in the first case, and difficult when the context changes, how are we to resolve this difficulty?

We require the moral standard itself.  What is “the good” against which we compare all moral actions?  When we have two choices, against what are they weighed in order to decide which is a morally better decision?

This is moral ontology, to investigate the nature of the good.

And how is it that we come to know the good?  When we are caught in a moral dilemma, how is it that we decide which action to take?  How can we be confident we know the good?

This is moral epistemology, the study of our knowledge of the good.

Many discussions of morality seem to bounce back and forth between moral epistemology and ontology, often without the speaker seeming to realize it.  I dare to say it’s a more subtle distinction that we’re used to.  We’ll get into this more in the next post.

Objective Morality – 1

The subject of objective morality is a troubled one.  Bring it up, even clearly and with care, and one is nevertheless met with some flavor of righteous indignation or a general misanthropy leaving us morally inferior to the apes.

For my part, I am as earnest as I am ambitious, and even troubled waters will not keep me from putting out to sea once more.*

First, what do we mean by objective morality?

Webster works well enough, and I paraphrase thus:  Morality is a doctrine or system of beliefs about what is right and what is wrong.

There is nothing foreign about this.  We pass moral judgments all the time, even without realizing it.  When someone speeds recklessly down the highway, flying past your own vehicle, you judge that this person is going much faster than is safe.  You further judge that they are deficient in their duties to the other drivers on the road, lacking in a value which can only be defined in terms of right and wrong.

Now, objective morality connotes a system of beliefs which is true independent of what anyone may think about it.

An example of an objective truth (which is not a moral truth) is that 9 x 9 = 81.  Even if the United Nations decided tomorrow that all of the world should answer that 9 x 9 = Porridge, it would remain true that 9 x 9 = 81, no matter what we say about it.

An example of an objective moral truth is that “Rape is wrong.”  If all the world should decide tomorrow that rape is morally neutral, or even morally praiseworthy, it would nevertheless remain true (according to the concept of objective morality) that rape is actually still wrong, no matter what we think about it.

Now – if you ask me, the first question we should ask in any discussion of right and wrong is whether there is an objective morality.

If there is not, then the discussion is drained of meaning.  We are now talking about personal preferences; even baser – we are talking about mere appetites.  There can be no moral objections, because there is no real meaning behind morality.  (More soon)

If there is, then we have some discerning to do.  How is it that we discover what is morally right and morally wrong?  According to what standard are these things judged?  This distinction is between moral epistemology and moral ontology, and we’ll discuss that next time.


*As before, in this space.

Salvation by Grace – 3

The first and second posts in this series introduce us to the layman level of the Justification divide:  Before considering the arguments from authority (those of Scripture, and those meaning to interpret Scripture), how is the layman confronted by the issue?

Here I attempt an analogy to suggest how the layman ought to approach the issue.  That the analogy, itself, has a basis in Scripture is both unintentional and telling.

One commonality between Protestants and Catholics – and I can’t say I’ve heard any objection to this – is that believers ought to become mature in the faith.  So who is it, in an ordinary sense, who is new to life and for whom we wish maturity?

And who is it, ideally, who provides the means to this maturity?

We have a child and a parent, respectively.  Permit me to guide a meditation on this…

From the very first moment, a human being is utterly dependent on his mother.  There is nothing that child could do for himself, except that he benefits from the many good and necessary things his mother’s womb provides for him.  He benefits – more basically, he survives - because of her good graces.

The child is born and remains, it is readily seen, utterly dependent on grace; but now he has reflexes which are his own, which have developed because of prior grace on the part of the mother.  He will suckle if something is put in his mouth, he will cry to express his needs.

Now this initial “adoption” of the child, even a biological child, is akin to Justification.  In a natural sense, the child has not merited the grace of his parents.  There is nothing he has done – there is nothing he could do – except to receive and cooperate with their grace.  It is they who have first loved him.

From the start, the mother and father wish for their child to become a mature human being.  The child should ultimately walk on his own, think clearly and speak deliberately, and become productive to the point that he will have grace to spare for others.  This maturation process is analogous to Sanctification.  The child cooperates more and more fully with the will of his parents.

This fuller sense of cooperation begins when the child develops a sense of autonomy, a period known as toddlerhood.  Now the child can (and does) choose not to cooperate with the will of his parents, even when that will is most obviously in his best interest.  But when he understands why he ought to cooperate, and does, then he grows.

The grace continues to flow.  The parents continue to feed the child, shelter and clothe him, provide for his education and his recreation, and dispense wisdom.  And, ideally, the child finds himself less and less dependent on these graces, as he becomes stronger, wiser, and more skillful.

The ultimate goal of the parents, I say, is to bring the child up so that he can survive on his own; better, so that he can prosper, be upright, and give grace to others, including his own children.

The Baptist in our previous post wants the child to mature in this way, but such maturation is secondary.  The Catholic sees salvation as on-going, as requiring works only because they are part and parcel of the maturation process.  You do a good work because that is the way you grow.

We are – I believe and confess – unable to perfect ourselves.  That is the purpose of grace, just as it is for the infant who is unable to care for himself.  Adoption (we Catholics consider this to be Baptism) brings us under His direct care, but He does not force His grace on us.  We must cooperate in order to remain, just as a child must cooperate with his parents in order to receive their care (he cannot be fed if he won’t eat; he cannot be taught if he won’t learn).

From the outset, though, I admitted this is only an illustration; if Scripture refuted it clearly and soundly, the illustration would fail.  However, as a Catholic, I have never seen Scripture as an altogether foreign entity.  It welled up through the geology of the human race; it is the water of everlasting life, but it carries the sediment of human history.  The illustration, then, might serve as a means to interpret the very same Scripture.  Indeed, this is how it seems to me.

Much like faith and reason, Scripture and the human experience are not at odds.  But that’s for another series.