Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Noise

There are times when one's mind is full of noise. This is distinct from a mind that is very actively thinking things over. A noisy mind is one which considers many things without resolving them, which worries without settling, which ponders or constructs with no real goal in mind, which cannot choose for itself what it will think about. I say "noise" because this state of mind is extremely disrupting and is something that cannot be ignored, anymore than a jackhammer ripping away a sidewalk can be ignored.

How does noise disrupt? Like any harsh or loud sound, it fills up every space available to it. The mind works by moving into or out of empty space. You begin with a calm state of affairs, a blank slate on which you can begin a thought process. Over the calm, over the space, is imposed a new order.

When you've finished with your project for the moment, you can set it down knowing that nothing will knock it over in the meantime. Your workshop is a quiet place where ideas stay put. When you return to the thought process, it might require dusting off or some tightened screws, but it is largely ready to go for more development.

Sometimes thought processes grow beyond the original boundaries of the experiment. You need space around the workbench to extend the project: without it, the ideas get cramped and are difficult to unfold according to their potential. In the worst case scenario, they become stuck and unusable.

Mental noise permeates the empty space of one's mind. It bumps up against the borders of existing projects and keeps you from being able to stabilize the foundation for additional thought processes. Every time you turn around, it knocks over one of your works of art, which at least partly shatters on the floor. While you get a broom to sweep up the pieces, it scatters them around the floor like a gusting wind — and you might experience the displeasure of stepping on a shard of the scattered idea in entirely the wrong context.

The person whose mind has been beset by noise cannot possibly hope to move beyond whatever stage all of his projects were in at the time the noise began to creep into his mind. He spends his precious time erecting noise barriers and acoustic dampeners to create quieter zones in the room — far from ideal, and constraining, but nevertheless better than the chaos before. In these small corners the noise is not absent, but it is under control.

What's more, noise disrupts the largest and most important projects one has been constructing. It descends on big ideas like a fog, and it colors over your blueprints with a black marker. You begin to build offshoots of your towers — seeming improvements that add nothing to the purpose of the building except dead weight and bulk. Before long you wonder what it is you were trying to accomplish in the first place, and turn your attention back to more pressing matters.

Quiet is a precondition for the mind's highest activity, which is the consideration of the most abstract and thinkable things: the things that can be chewed on indefinitely, the stuff of perpetual meditation, and the timeless realities that form a kind of refuge for the unrepentant seeker. The contemplative life presupposes a rock-solid foundation of mental order.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Regression Theorem and Gold

Strictly speaking, Austro-libertarian economists favor a free market in moneys and are, so far as economic science itself is concerned, agnostic about what commodity should be chosen for use as money. But it’s no secret that libertarians in practice favor the idea of a gold standard, or in some cases an arrangement where gold is used for big purchases and silver for smaller purchases.

This preference for gold can sometimes manifest itself in a way that seems contradictory to their laissez-faire attitude. If there should be free competition in money, why talk about gold as though it ought to win? Why advocate, for example, a government reform explicitly aimed at recognizing gold and silver as legal tender?

I think the tension exists because, while Austrians think the choice of money is entirely open to the market, they reject the idea that the thing chosen as money is at all arbitrary. An Austrian can confidently predict, for example, that paper tickets will not win out on the market over commodities with preexisting exchange value. More specifically, Austrians hold to the monetary regression theorem, which says that the phenomena of money arises when a commodity with a preexisting exchange value comes to be preferred universally as a means of indirect exchange.

Austrians remain open to the idea that anything selected by the market as a medium of exchange should serve as money. But keeping the regression theorem (MRT) in mind, the following argument from history and applied to our situation today will make sense out of why Austrians demonstrate a preference for gold:

  1. MRT shows that markets must have chosen money from already valued commodities, and that this link is essential for economic calculation via prices.
  2. Historically, gold and silver have been the money of almost every advanced economy.
  3. Therefore, gold and silver have historically been essential for economic calculation via prices.
  4. Therefore, governments ought to legalize using gold and silver as money.

It should be clear that, if we lived in a world that did not have gold and silver, the MRT would still be in force. So also should the Austrian preference for gold be understood in this context: a historical observation bolstered by their belief that markets do not choose money arbitrarily.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Jesus wept

The shortest verse of the New Testament might also be the best refutation of Stoicism. If God incarnate and true man undergoes passions that follow from and strengthen the actions of his reason, and if he can weep over the loss of something external, then what is really left?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Who Says Mises Should Be Baptized?

A friend passes along this blogpost, by a distributist who is disturbed to see Catholics embracing the economic ideas of an atheist Jew.

The sad thing is that Mises was his own undoing in this area. He bought into cultural Enlightenment thinking far too much. For him the culture of liberalism was as important (in some ways) as the reforms they sought and the ideas they held. And he also didn't really get Church teaching, as merely his interpretations of Jesus and the gospels makes pretty clear (that is, to all but Catholic socialists and distributists, it would seem).

Not that this misstep of his means he deserves obscurity, which is what the distributists would like to see. But it does mean a large number of rank-and-file, less-than-critical-thinkers in that movement will have little to no motivation to crack open one of his books. (Just like so many Protestants won't consider Catholicism, not because they've already researched it and judged for themselves, but because by default it's other and that which is to be rejected. And so on with any movement that has a rank and file.) 

Most of all, it gives the intellectual leaders of that movement just that much more ammo to stifle the actual ideas at play. I said this was "sad" at the beginning because this latter trend would have made Mises — a man concerned almost entirely with ideas if ever there was one — very sad indeed. I think had he foreseen these reactions, he might have reconsidered his stronger stances against the Church, and withheld critical judgment until he had better understanding.

Neither does it excuse his critics from making a similar error, but that's the tragedy of it all I suppose.

Knowledge and the good

"If you really knew it was the right thing to do, then you would have done it."

How to connect knowledge with right action? We might claim (as Socrates did) that all sin is an intellectual error, a mistake, ignorance. But we might instead make the distinction that it is one thing (or faculty) to know the good and another thing (or faculty) to desire it. Or, in other words, we might say that humans have a will, an inclination, a faculty for incorporating judgment into appetites.

I once heard it claimed that the "application" section of a good sermon delivered from the pulpit — ideally 1/3rd of the speech — was nice but ultimately redundant. If you learn more about God's character, if you truly learn who He is, the argument went, then you will see that play itself out in all of your life choices. (Presumably from brushing one's teeth to deciding whether to change careers.)

I've always been skeptical of the claim merely because it's difficult to see what causal connection there really is between an affirmation of some theological premise and the practical judgment of what color socks to wear in the morning, or whether exceeding the speed limit constitutes sin.

There is simply no string of syllogisms, relying only on the data of God's character, that can move in pure deduction from abstract theology to speed limits. You have to have ethical and political theory to speak coherently about speed limits; and to do that you need to discuss something other than God — namely, his creation.

But I suppose if we were to explore the idea that knowledge of God must have an impact on our actions, a good place to start would be to talk about our will. In coming to know God we come to know truth and the good, because God is Truth and God is Good. It is imperative at this stage not to overlook the necessity of, not just knowing that truth and good, but also our desiring it as good and truth.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Hitchens and necessary morals

“Nine times out of ten, in debate with a cleric, one will be told not of some dogma of religious certitude but of some instance of charitable or humanitarian work undertaken by a religious person. Of course, this says nothing about the belief system involved: it may be true that Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam succeeds in weaning young black men off narcotics, but this would not alter the fact that the NoI is a racist crackpot organization. . . .  My own response has been to issue a challenge: name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer. As yet, I have had no takers. (Whereas, oddly enough, if you ask an audience to name a wicked statement or action directly attributable to religious faith, nobody has any difficulty in finding an example.)” — Christopher Hitchens, introduction to  The Portable Atheist

What is Hitchens actually proving here? I think he thinks he’s demonstrating that (i) religious people most often rest their faith on the good fruit it produces, but that (ii) religion is neither necessary nor sufficient for ethical behavior, and (iii) besides, religion seems to motivate a great deal of unethical behavior.

His first claim is empirical, drawn from his own experience in conversing with religious people. It doesn’t address the question of whether the reasonableness of religious belief need be dependent on the humanitarian efforts it generates. (I also doubt it’s true, but since it’s Hitchens’s experience we are discussing I can hardly do anything but grant him the benefit of the doubt here.)

The second claim is both less and more controversial than Hitchens intends it to be. I say “less” because, while there are a good number of religious believers who think ethical behavior is impossible absent some kind of grounding in faith, in fact that is far from the only (and perhaps even the majority) opinion on the matter. Jews, for example, believe that their specific laws for full ethical behavior apply only to Jews, and that there is a fairly loose set of requirements that keep Gentiles in good standing with God and neighbor in their own way. The basic Catholic position, as articulated by St Thomas Aquinas and the entire natural law tradition, holds that human beings are capable of engaging in ethical conduct in virtue of being human.

I say “more” controversial, however, because Hitchens engages in a bit of question-begging with this argument. “Name me an ethical behavior that requires religious faith,” he says, “and I’ll show you how in fact it does not.”

OK: how about the virtue of piety, of showing due respect and honor to God?

“Ah,” says Hitchens, “but that is not a virtue at all!”

Perhaps it isn’t, but for the present moment piety is not a virtue purely because Hitchens has defined it away. But then what is the force of the argument supposed to be? We end up with the True Scotsman fallacy: show me an ethical principle that requires religious faith, and I’ll show you an ethical principle that isn’t a true ethical principle.

What Hitchens’s skepticism leaves out is the possibility that ethical behavior has as its first principles human nature, but that those principles are illuminated and informed by religious faith. Thus an atheist might come to know and embrace ethical behavior, but without faith he will be lacking a certain perfection of that knowledge and even make mistakes on account of his being blind to the reality of our spiritual obligations as human beings.

The question, then, is not whether a believer or unbeliever can come across, embrace, and perform ethical actions. The real question would concern the perfection and completeness of such virtues. (Delve into those questions, and I do think there is a strong case to be made that the believer enjoys possibilities unbelievers do not.)

Thus, I find Hitchen’s argument here to be flaccid, which can be demonstrated by reversing the roles (and here we address his third claim):

My own response has been to issue a challenge: name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a nonbeliever that could not have been performed by a believer. As yet, I have had no takers. (Whereas, oddly enough, if you ask an audience to name a wicked statement or action directly attributable to materialist dogmatism, nobody has any difficulty finding an example.)

What happens? I honestly cannot think of an atheist virtue that precludes believers. Perhaps something like “religion dismantling,” since to enlighten your fellow man might be a virtue. Or perhaps something along the lines of “political humanism,” which is akin to our earlier example of naming “piety.”

So if the argument works both backwards and forwards, are we really saying anything particularly meaningful or incisive? In this case, I do not think so.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

John 4

When Jesus speaks with the Samaritan woman, he famously reveals to her details of her life that no stranger could know, and he uses that as a springboard to develop a conversation with her. He seems to read her mind with each step, taking a little information that she gives him and using it to reveal to her a greater truth.

(E.g., When he asks after her husband, she responds that she has no husband, and Christ reveals the full extent of her situation. When she responds that he is a prophet and asks his opinion on where to worship, he reveals to her not just where to worship but how. When she responds that the “how” is to be revealed through a person, he reveals that he is that man.)

What I hadn’t noticed until recently is that his first interaction with the woman fits the same pattern. Jesus asks her for a drink, and after her puzzled response he tells her: “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

It is true that Jesus tells her this to reveal himself in some way, to demonstrate to her that he is the source of divine life. Just like his prediction that she had five husbands and was living with another man revealed something about him (“sir, I can see that you are a prophet”).

But it’s easier to notice that the five-husband remark reveals something also about the Samaritan woman, since its content is so shocking. What’s more hidden is that Jesus’s remark about living water also tells us something very important about the Samaritan woman: “if you knew . . . you would have asked him and he would have given.” Jesus is revealing to the Samaritan woman something that was hidden inside her, something noble that was hidden along with her moral shame and luck-of-the-draw degraded place in life.

“You would have asked.” As if to say, you desire to ask; your inmost being longs for this; you know in your heart that you search for God. You want what will give you life in the fullest, and if only you knew its source you would not hesitate to seek it out.

And by naming this to her, Jesus not only makes her aware of this reality but brings it to fruition. It’s a picture of how God’s grace awakens our innate desire for him (even without our awareness) and brings it to completion as a work of charity, for our own good. He uses what he has placed there by design.