Sex and the Religion of Me

Orthospherean James Kalb has written an essay for the latest issue of First Things. Sex and the Religion of Me: A challenge to the project of sexual liberation is about – well, you can pretty much tell what it is about.

The full article is behind a pay wall. Jim’s writing is good enough to warrant a subscription in its own right, of course, but it would be understandable if orthosphereans were to pause before committing their dough. At its beginnings, First Things was a revolutionary pioneer of intelligent, erudite Mere Christian traditionalism, both muscular and optimistic. But gradually it became an institution, and more mainstream. Partly this was due to the fact that its own success in making traditionalism respectable was a major factor of the recent increase in our numbers, many of whom are naturally more radical than the coterie of first class writers and thinkers at First Things. For many of the traditionalists First Things helped to incubate, it was not traditional enough, and too ready to accomodate itself to the terms of the discourse under the prevailing political weltanschauung.

In recent months, however, a number of exogenous factors seem to be radicalizing the whole traditionalist right, and First Things is no exception. The recent reversals on gay “marriage,” the apparent nod to libertinism of Pope Francis, last month’s fractious Synod, and the accelerating progress down the slippery slope to utter insanity of every aspect of our culture seem to have made pragmatic engagement with the political establishment impossible for serious Christians. More and more, it seems, the only options open to us are recusal, protest or civil disobedience. As the issues grow ever starker, the fissures ever deeper and steeper, the middle ground disappears. So, the writers at First Things find themselves more and more isolate from and inimical to the American political culture the journal had hoped to influence. Bruised and saddened, they seem to be moving rightward – or no, wait: upward, rather, and ever more perpendicular to the spectra by which kingdoms of this world calibrate each other.

That might make their conversations more interesting to orthosphereans and our ilk.

As a bonus, there is in every issue, and always at the First Things website, a plethora of insightful theology. David Bentley Hart and Peter Leithart are particularly worthy and voluminous contributors under that heading.

The Restoration of Order through Deletion

I learned a lesson from the amazing transformation of a nearby country place when the junk accumulated over decades under the stewardship of a previous owner was removed – a rickety fence, a broken down climbing structure, a mish mash of succulents, weeds, dead branches, garden decorations, and the like. It’s not that the place was especially junky, particularly compared with the rural norm throughout the Western states, where the devotion of at least a corner of every lot to rusted farm equipment, jumbled building supplies, and derelict vehicles seems to be de rigeur. To the casual eye, the place only looked lived in, a work in progress toward some vague goal, that like all our lives was encumbered somewhat by this and that – the detritus of failed or ill-defined projects, stuff that had not yet been gotten round to, or relics of obsolescent ideas. Nevertheless, when all the clutter was gone, the place was far more beautiful, restful, and even seemed more spacious. It looked half again as big.

The lesson: deletion is the first principle in the actualization of value, and therefore of order. We see this in natural selection, in architecture, interior design, landscape, music, writing, public policy, business, art, everything. Confusion is the enemy of value. To be properly and fully themselves, things must stop trying to be other things, must be clearly and only themselves. Extraneities are usually best got rid of.

A corollary principle became evident from the effects of the first: deletion makes possible the discovery and restoration of a thing as it is originally meant to be. When all the junk was removed from the place, a meadow became more apparent here, a grove over there, and aspects to the horizon or to forest opened up on every side. Windows that had looked out on nothing in particular now opened vistas to hidden depths in the landscape. One could see that it would make sense to plant a maple just there, or perhaps add a bench over yonder, or rebuild that stretch of crippled fence.

Deletion reveals order; restoration may then establish it more stably.

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Value is Conserved

I have long been intrigued by the conservation laws. Conservation of energy, momentum, charge, and so forth all seem to point to a more basic conservation, of which they are all instances. I was therefore interested to read in Bill Dembski’s latest book, Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information, his discussion of Conservation of Information in search routines. He has apparently demonstrated (I have not read the demonstrations, which appear in the technical literature he cites in the book) that increasing the likelihood of a successful search – i.e., a search that has an object and finds it – over and above the walk of a blind drunkard who is not looking for anything in particular may be accomplished only through additional investment of information in the search routine. This can be done in a number of ways: by a more comprehensive specification of the configuration of the object, or by adding a feedback circuit to the algorithm, or by adding strange attractors to the configuration space (so that the environment of the search itself embodies more information) or some other similar measure. But any such improvements of search efficiency – of the likelihood of success – come at a cost of their own: it takes information to inform the search. At best, then, informed search will cost just as much as blind search, and cannot cost less. But then also if the information added to the routine is not essentially perfect – free of noise and error – then the addition will cost more information than it saves: the overall cost of the search, plus the cost of the search for the improvements to that search, will exceed the cost of random wandering about the configuration space.

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The God of the Naturalist Philosophers

Like theism, naturalism has a doctrine of the ultimate: of the outermost limit of being and of thought, of the source and end and matrix of everything that is. The differences between the theist and naturalist notions of the ultimate lie, not in its operations upon the world – worlds can’t do without some environing context or other – but in its character. The ultimate of the theists is intelligent, rational, omniscient, good, supremely real, and so forth; whereas the ultimate of the naturalists is stupid, chaotic, unintelligible, blind, mindless, and unreal.

How could blind vacuous chaos give rise to an ordered, rational, sentient, intelligible world? In no possible way. It takes value to make value. Naturalists are therefore driven, willy nilly, to the conclusion that despite appearances, the world is in fact not at all ordered, rational, sentient, or intelligible. Thus it – and everything in it – cannot possibly be explained, there being in the first place nothing to explain (for under the naturalist presupposition, just everything is a brute fact), and in the second place no such thing as explanation. Naturalism elides smoothly into nominalism, and skepticism; and so, to nihilism; for, one’s vision of the ultimate is one’s vision of the essential character of existence as such. What’s to keep the nothingness back, after all, if in the final analysis everything is nothing anyway?

Apologetical Weapons: the Generous Appeal to First Principles

In our conversations with our philosophical adversaries, we should aim, not to destroy them intellectually, but to help them understand more fully, and for themselves, such truths as they have already managed to apprehend. Heresy and error, after all, are defects of good healthy doctrines. Certainly we should not refrain from pointing out their contradictions and absurd results. But our notice of such defects in the convictions of our adversaries should operate in them as prompts to deliberation. We can hardly expect them to undertake such a sober procedure when they see that the whole edifice of their thought is mortally threatened.

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The Ontological Arguments

Once and Future Traditionalist blogger and orthospherean Casey Ann, now on hiatus from her doughty online efforts so that she can concentrate on college, recently commented on a post from 2013 in which I offered an ontological argument for the existence of God, asking for help with the covalent ontological arguments of St. Anselm of Canterbury and of Alvin Plantinga. She wrote:

I’m currently suffering through a Philosophy of Religion course (the democratic nature of these courses is sickening), and we have just gone over the cosmological arguments, arguments from design, the ontological arguments, and their respective criticisms. I’m writing an essay about which I prefer and discussing its strengths and weaknesses. I immediately go toward the ontological argument per St. Anselm, which I have loved for years now. The problem is that each time I study it I find myself peering at it through seemingly various aspects that become obscure to me as the next one approaches (this also could be linked to sleep issues, but anyway). I would love to get your perspective on it. What do you make of St. Thomas’s criticisms of it? Can a Thomist use the ontological argument? Do you think that there are really two ontological arguments made by Anselm? How do you approach Kant’s criticism and does it reject the traditional notion of God as Being? Is modal logic orthodox? (ha…seriously). Lastly (at least for now), what about Plantinga? I’m very unfamiliar with analytic philosophy, so I hardly even tried to tackle his writing on it. I wrote on a paper for a concise summary of his argument, “If it is possible for God to exist, then it is impossible for God not to exist,” and yesterday morning it CLICKED, wonderfully (but at the same time I feel as though there’s a strange gap between the two statements that I need to work out). Is it possible to reconcile this with Anselm’s, whose I am assuming can be thoroughly defended (double question)? What about Aquinas? Please, Kristor, don’t be vague (not to say that you tend to be); I really could use your help even from a personal position. Thank you.

The rest of this post is my response.

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Nominalism contra Everything

The modern crisis all goes back to nominalism. The modern muddlings of clear definitions, confusions of really and essentially different things, and denials of essences or definitions in the first place are all outworkings of the nominalist turn. Once suppose that categories are merely conventional, that universals are merely nominal, that life is never simply black or white, but rather only shades of grey, and you find yourself on a steep and slippery slope to chaos.

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Philosophy versus Tradition

Many reactionaries complain that capitalism is eo ipso inimical to tradition. I disagree about that: it is liberal or deranged capitalism that is the problem; so that the problem is not with capitalism per se – which is really nothing other than the natural and basic form of human economic coordination, rooted at bottom in the exchange of gifts and favors, in the love we bear for each other as friends, neighbours and relatives, and so is the default to which all societies recur (and must recur, or else falter and dwindle) – but with its derangement. Latter day capitalism is sick, to be sure. But so is our whole society, beset in all her members and organs by the maladies and diseases by which we infect and corrupt her, a wounded animal struggling ever to heal herself, again and again deformed and crippled by our manifold political foolishness and iterated moral and intellectual insanities.

It’s not economics that is intrinsically inimical to tradition, but philosophy. In a traditional society, there would be no such thing. In a traditional society, no one would wonder how to be a good man, or what the meaning and purpose of life might be, or how and by what agencies the world is ordered. In a healthy traditional society, such questions would not even occur to anyone, because from earliest childhood everyone would have understood the ancient answers handed down by their forefathers from the very beginnings of time. No other answers would be even conceivable. Contrary doctrines would be greeted with outrage, horror and disgust.

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Traditionalism is the Reductio of Modernism

Walking through the Oakland Airport this evening I spotted another one of those dreary advertisements that all schools of business everywhere throw up, showing some brave person who is not a businessman striding bravely into the brave new world she has dreamed up, and exhorting the reader (and prospective applicant) to “think outside the box,” “do well, but do good,” and most importantly, “challenge the status quo.”

Creativity in business is all well and good, of course, in due proportion, and where there is a better way to do things. But that is not what these ads are about. They are appealing to people who consider themselves “agents of change,” and who want to get into businesses and shake them up so that they are less, you know, businessy and more like NGOs. Not seeking those yucky profits, you see; not selling. Ew!

Dragging myself along the concourse, I reflected on the relentless chorus of “change!” to which we have all been more and more subjected these last 50 years now, and considered (not for the first time) that neo-reaction and traditionalism are the last gasp of the modernist critique of all established authority, with the ironic difference that the established authority they call into question is modernism itself.

Traditionalism is a quintessentially modern phenomenon. It is an artifact of a shattered, rudderless society. In a traditional society, there could be no such thing as traditionalism; for, in a traditional society, any suggestion that perhaps things ought to be done differently than they have been done would be met with horror, and outrage; so that, far from calling for their defense, their traditions would seem to them not even traditional, but rather just, and simply, the way that things must of course be done.

What does it indicate, that modernism has in these latter days elaborated a withering modernist critique of modernism? Is the phenomenon of historically self-conscious traditionalism in fact modernism’s last gasp?

An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Cooperative

An eye for an eye makes the whole world circumspect. But, also, an eye for an eye makes the whole world cooperative, as Robert Axelrod showed with his study of tit for tat and competing strategies using iterated rounds of contests among genetic algorithms (described in his book The Evolution of Cooperation). Tit for tat beat all the alternative strategies, again and again; and as rounds of the contest were iterated, with winning strategies favored by the reproductive mechanism of the iteration, it more and more perfused the population of competing algorithms. As tit for tat increased in frequency, so did the total value generated by all competitors in each round: fewer and fewer defections occurred, and responses to defections were more and more often optimal.

That tit for tat wins the evolutionary game does not mean that its superiority is merely adventitious, an artifact of this or that sequence of random events that might have been quite different, and so generated quite a different sort of winner. On the contrary: provided the game goes on long enough, tit for tat wins every time, sooner or later, and no matter how the sequence of outcomes varies. The utile superiority of tit for tat is a truth of game theory, so that like any other mathematical truth it is from before any and all worlds, and holds true in every world. The metaphysical superiority of tit for tat, then, is the source and reason of its practical evolutionary success, and not vice versa (this is true of all perdurant evolutionary success). Tit for tat is the optimal strategy in evolutionary practice because it is the best in metaphysical fact. As metaphysically best it is the most moral policy of all (these are two ways to say the same thing).

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