Time for some random reflections (really…this blog…you don’t say??) on things I’ve read recently in the news. Without further ado:
…is apparently a Marxist. At least that’s what Judge Napolitano and Rush Limbaugh think. Oh, and apparently the Pope is also Rome’s Obama (who knew). In the interest of trying to be open-minded, I spent a little time reading up on those Catholics who are also strong proponents of the Austrian School of economics (in particular Thomas Woods and Thomas Fleming). There is evidently a strong connection between the conservative/libertarian approach of Woods (and Pat Buchanan) and being a traditionalist Roman Catholic. I find economics in general an esoteric science (as they say-the science of explaining tomorrow why the predictions you made yesterday didn’t come true today) and I’m as yet unpersuaded that the Austrian approach is any better grounded in reality than other schools. And while I dislike appeals to authority, if Milton Friedman thinks your wrong…well, that’s not a good sign.
Anyway, after my adventure through conservative academia (which is always a bit of a surreal experience) I couldn’t help but compare these folks to my favorite cultural commentators-Rod Dreher, David Bentley Hart and Ross Douthat. Conservatives all, traditionalists in faith (though Hart and now Dreher are both Orthodox, and Douthat doesn’t strike me as the ‘hardcore’ traditionalist type). All 3 commentators clearly understand the problems with socialism and communism; yet they also have no problem criticizing-sharply at times-the excesses of capitalism. All three understand that greedy materialism and sexual libertinism are two sides of the same coin, the currency of immediate gratification before else. This pathology now rules the West, and capitalism itself has no inbuilt restraints to hold back this cancer. Libertarianism’s strongly individualist philosophical foundation is far more of a hindrance than a help.
Capitalism, as I see it, is rather like evolution. Like evolution it has a number of critics who plug their ears and cover their eyes to avoid accepting the reality of how it is simply the best approach. And like evolution capitalism is amenable to being exploited by either human brutality or altruism for both instincts are, in a sense, quite natural. Something from outside the system must be used to pull the system in the right (see Jonathan Sacks talking about how culture can drag our biological instincts this way or that). And finally, like evolution, capitalism has its own zealots who can never resist the temptation to see within an across-the-board explanation (or, here solution) for all aspects of human life, well beyond politics and economics. As Rowan Williams once said of the neo-Darwinian lens of reality, it is quite daft really.
The argument is not that people are evil or untrustworthy because they are rich or Republican or what have you. No, in conservative fashion it is something more simple: All people are human and there are many aspects of human nature at are incorrigible, and as the scholastics would say, corruptio optimi pessima. I’m a bone-deep capitalist, and favor a libertarian(ish) approach to politics, but I also get that people are deeply fallible creatures and the modern West is in bondage to a spirit very foreign to that of Christ. The market alone, without some inborn moral restraints (Edmund Burke eat your heart out), can simply provide more fuel for the fire.
I have read the Apostolic Exhortation several times (I’m a law student, reading long documents in a single bound is basically my life) and I find it a wonderful, challenging, deeply inspiring document. The best part of the document is the following statement from the Holy Father:
I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centred mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth.
Indeed. I’d also like to quote another favorite columnist of mine, the late Charley Reese, on the life of John Paul II:
He criticized communism and he criticized capitalism, as any decent Christian must, for both sin against the human race. One sins out of a lust for power, and the other out of a lust for material gain.
Incidentally, Reese has also written a good piece on why he (like me) was almost a libertarian, writing:
capitalism, unless moderated by Christian virtue or government, is just as brutal and cruel as communism.
And so it is. In any case you can read the Pope’s response here. And in the interest of fairness, the last link goes to another critic (though I get the last word-the article cites Steven Pinker, so take it with a cup of salt).
I saw a good quote the other day from Stephen Lovatt:
We need orthodox Bishops who are imaginative and willing to engage with Modernity without succumbing to it; rather than Modernist/Liberal/Progressivist Bishops or Conservative/Reactionary/Authoritarian Bishops – some hope of that!
Couldn’t have said it better. A semi-related bit of encouraging news: The example of the Eastern approach of governance (that happy medium between Protestant individualism and the extreme heavy-handed centralization favored by some Catholics), is beginning to be recognized for its true value.
Not saying I’m gifted…but I can related to this somewhat. Check it out.
Interesting. Check it out.
First, an atheist photographer comments on faith. A short but good read.
Next, a few words from atheist activist/theoretical physicist (seems to be the combination of the age) Sean Carroll on religion. Carroll is commenting on Terry Eagleton’s review of The God Delusion, and interestingly seems to accept the argument that God is not a person in the conventional sense. He does not accept, however, the conflation of the God of the philosophers with the “personal/tribal” God of monotheism (interestingly I read a review of David Bentley Hart’s latest book the other day that took him to task for focusing on the former to the exclusion of the latter). He reflects on the evolution of Judaism from henotheism to monotheism (this isn’t news) and the conflation of El and Yahweh (again not news-Jonathan Sacks, Gerald Schroeder, Richard Elliott Friedman, James Alison and Pope Benedict XVI all acknowledged and made reference to this distinction).
Carroll goes on to dismiss the traditional argument from causality, stating that modern physics no longer uses the term (frankly, though, that paragraph really read more about semantics than anything else) and also suggests that arguing that God created the universe out of love is “crazy talk.” Well, I suppose to some it is. But there is nothing new in this commentary and certainly nothing newsworthy. If you’d rather see Carroll at his best, in his own field (I’m feeling generous) read this or this. I never knew there was such a thing as a “Big Bang Heretic”…who knew.
Finally, a good review of the approach of A.C. Grayling, including an outstanding line:
The possibility that religion takes time to understand, effort, reflection and study – that its meanings and truths are not readily laid out for the casual reader of scripture but placed like gems along an arduous journey, is not contemplated by Grayling.
And there it is.
BEYOND THE BRAIN
Finally, more on neuroscience and philosophy of mind (this is a fascinating topic to me, hence why I return to it again and again). This latest was prompted by an article on Slate about neuro-existentialism (again who knew there was such a thing). The article is an interview with Patricia Churchland, a philosopher (not neurobiologist mind you) who with her husband Paul Churchland are largely behind the philosophy of “eliminative materialism” (from what I understand a similar approach is followed by the Arch-Atheist Daniel Dennett). Tobias Haller wrote a good response, and one commentator responded by noting
So what if consciousness is made of biochemical signals in our brains? We can’t be reduced to the firing of a single synapse, any more than a symphony can be reduced to the striking of a single note. Yet ultimately the unique composition occurs because of the coordination of many single notes. It is in the endless variety of those events that we create something that is not mere neurotransmitters, but art, music, love…. the sum being greater than the parts.
Indeed and beautifully put. I have noted before I rather like the description of the soul provided by John Polkinghorne (it is the “information-bearing pattern” of the body), which fits with the Orthodox view that the soul is a created thing and not by nature immortal. Nonetheless when it attains full consciousness something qualitatively different has emerged beyond just physical events in the brain-a genuine openness to transcendence (which in in the tripartite view of the human person is known as spirit). Nothing threatening here. [Also see an interesting post by Father Freeman on this subject-that illustrates, to me at least, some important parallels with Buddhist understanding but goes further]
Back to business. I’ve also been fascinated as of late by the possibility of mind uploading-which as Keith Ward noted if such a thing is in fact possible than one essentially admits pure materialism can’t be correct after all. This is more or less acknowledged by Mark Gubrud, who dislikes talk of patterns or information (Polkinghornian language) precisely because it seems to point the way back to dualism and new language for the soul (who knew). He does, by the way, note that pure information apart from a physical substrate could not be distinguished from non-existence (an interesting point and frankly one I think is commensurate with Polkinghorne and the Orthodox). In any case, to remind people that philosophy is based on disagreement here is a link to a rebuke of Gubrud (honestly though I’m not 100% sure what exactly they are arguing about but it is nonetheless interesting).
Finally, two more good articles:
And finally, I close with a link to a good cartoon on that subject-which pretty much says it all.