The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Obscurity of God

Moses and the Burning Bush
Why dost Thou stand afar off, O LORD? Why dost Thou hide Thyself in times of trouble? [Psalm 10:1 RSV]
In this note I address a series of objections taken from a passionately argued article by Richard Carrier. I have re-ordered his argument and generally speaking summarised his words while preserving his original intent. Whereas Carrier is intent on attacking what he understand Christianity to be, I have have replied with a defence of Theism: the belief in an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God.

God should be obvious and certain
Carrier argues that if God wished to communicate with humanity, God would do so in an obvious way, so that we could tell that it was God; and in a clear way, so that would know exactly what God’s business with us was. We would then be able to respond to God’s intervention in a rational manner. He claims that:
We would all hear him out and shout “Eureka!” So obvious and well demonstrated would His message be. It would be spoken to each of us in exactly those terms we would understand. And we would all agree on what that message was. Even if we rejected it, we would all at least admit to each other, “Yes, that’s what this God fellow told me.” Excuses don’t fly. The Christian proposes that a supremely powerful being exists who wants us to set things right, and therefore doesn’t want us to get things even more wrong. This is an intelligible hypothesis, which predicts there should be no more confusion about which religion or doctrine is true than there is about the fundamentals of Medicine, Engineering, Physics, Chemistry, or even Meteorology.

I reply that it is not always proper for God to do everything that God is able to do by virtue of God’s might: might is not right!  Carrier’s first mistake is to conceive of God as “a supremely powerful being.” This error compromises his entire argument. It makes him view God as immediately akin to other agencies with which he is familiar and in particular human beings. This error leads him to believe that it would be possible to reject the obvious and clear message of God. In fact this is not true. No sane person would be able to dissent, were God to intervene in human affairs as Carrier demands that God should.

Moreover, God can’t possibly want to “set things right”; for if God is God (and not simply the most powerful being that exists) then things must be exactly how God wants them to be and there cannot be any question of setting anything right. Nor can there be any question of God wanting to stop us getting “things even more wrong”. This is not God’s business at all. The way that things are “wrong” now is itself part of the Creative Act.  It is a mistake to think that it is God’s purpose presently to sort out the mess that humanity is undoubtedly making of its existence. God is not the manager of a holiday resort set with the task of keeping a horde of lager louts in some kind of order.

Rather than stating confidently what God ought to do if God was real and then concluding that God is not real because these things are apparently not being done; Carrier ought to investigate whether there is any way in which the idea of a benevolent and omnipotent God can be reconciled with the Universe as we find it.If he were able to be show that no such reconciliation is possible, he would thereby prove that God cannot be both beneficent and omnipotent. However, if he is not able to demonstrate this, then all he can say is that it is not clear how God can be both beneficent and omnipotent – which is not at all the same thing!

In point of fact Carrier does not justify his conclusion. Moreover, I believe that – for those with the right outlook and who are at the right point on their spiritual journey – God’s reality is sufficiently obvious to produce exactly the exclamation of  “eureka!” that Carrier says should be forthcoming.

Carrier’s second basic mistake is to assume that God is in the business of communicating a message. Now at one level Carrier is right. The prophets were very keen to preach the “Word of God” and Jesus went about “proclaiming the
Kingdom”, His Apostles following close in His footsteps. However, at a deeper level this idea is wrong and misleading. “Communicating a message” can mean a number of things:
  1. Indoctrination; as in techniques of manipulative political, religious or corporate attitude formation.
  2. Spinning a believable lie; as is typical of the public relations business or legal advocacy.
  3. Presenting a sales-pitch; as in an advertisement.
  4. Telling a fictional story as such, for the purpose of entertainment.
  5. Imparting information; as in the words of a platform announcer at a railway station.
  6. Drilling; as in the memorization of a set of required responses, so that they can be performed automatically in reaction to certain questions or commands.
  7. Coaching; as a sports instructor might seek to improve the performance of an athlete.
  8. Training; as in those techniques used by military authorities to enhance the character, morale and resolve of soldiers.
  9. Education, in which the interior life of the student is changed by a process of engagement with a teacher.
God is in the business of coaching, training and most especially of education; but not indoctrination, advertising, public relations or entertainment. God’s purpose is to persuade and seduce us into friendship; not to train us into dutiful servitude, and certainly not to coerce and spiritually rape us!

Carrier conceives of God as at best a coach or drill sergeant, and as at worst an indoctrinator. What his argument succeeds in refuting is only his own assumption; namely that God is in the business of “imparting information" to humanity. This should not be surprising. I have already indicated what a terrible effect would follow, were God to communicate with humanity along the lines which Carrier demands.

The idea of freewill is ad hoc 
Carrier argues that for a human to have freewill, either their will must be “more powerful than the will of God, and therefore can actually block His words from being heard despite all His best and mighty efforts”, or else it must be that God somehow cares more about preserving our right “not to hear Him than about saving our souls, and so God himself ‘chooses’ to be silent.” He then says:
Of course, there is no independent evidence of either this remarkable human power to thwart God, or this peculiar desire in God, and so this is a completely “ad hoc” theory: something just “made up” out of thin air in order to rescue the actual theory.

I reply that the idea of human freewill somehow being “more powerful than the will of God” is absurd – whatever one means by “will”, human or divine. I therefore gladly accept his second alternative, namely that God generally5 chooses to moderate the impact of His communication with humanity for the sake of preserving our freewill. Carrier is, however, wrong to set up a dichotomy between God’s concern to maintain humanity’s autonomy and God’s concern to save our souls. First, it is not true that God “chooses to be silent”, as Carrier puts it; and second, it is precisely through God’s gentleness, reticence
and reserve that our souls are saved. I shall take up this point again in a little while.

If the idea that God generally speaks quietly precisely so that it is possible to ignore or mistake the Divine Word was not a core part of the Judeao-Christian tradition then his critique of the “freewill defence” would have some weight. However, Carrier is not right in saying that this is so.
And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. [1 Kings 19:11-12 RSV]
Quite apart from Elijah’s particular experience, the prophets generally heard God’s word in private and then proclaimed
to the people in their own human voice what they had received. Isaiah declares that the Saviour of Israel is a “hidden God”.
Truly, Thou art a God who hidest Thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour.[Is 45:15 RSV]6
Moreover Jesus specifically thanks His Father for hiding the core message of the Gospel from “the wise and prudent”7
and Jesus’ practice of teaching via parables was specifically intended to bury the truth so that it took some effort to
unearth and was not on show for all to see.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.[<span>Mat 13:44-46 RSV</span>]
In all this, God’s purpose is to direct divine revelation to where it will do good and away from where it would do harm; away from those who would treat it as a scientific or political resource or would wish to debate it and towards those who are ready to engage and wrestle with it, to dialogue with it and to be moulded by the encounter.
Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you. [Mat 7:6 RSV]
In any case, no believer can legitimately claim that Theism is anything other than a reasonable hypothesis or rational account – a rather good theory, in other words. While it is backed up by evidence, this evidence no more definitively confirms it than does the evidence which can be presented in favour of various scientific theories such as Darwinian Evolutionism, Copenhaganist Quantum Mechanics and Einsteinian General Relativity definitively confirm them. It is true that the evidence in favour of God’s reality is more indirect, abstract and experiential than the evidence in favour of the typical theory of classical Physics; but the way that modern Physics is going the difference between it and theology is becoming less and less clear. In the end, all science is based on faith; and even our acceptance of logic as the basis of dialogue is a matter of conviction.

Disagreements among theists

Carrier argues that even if the “freewill” defence is valid, there remains the problem of severe disagreements among religious authorities. Even among Catholics, who claim to accept the teaching of the Roman Church there are disagreements. Carrier rightly points out that:
These people have chosen to hear God, and not only to hear Him, but to accept Jesus Christ as the shepherd of their very soul. So no one can claim these people chose not to hear God. Therefore, either God is telling them different things, or there is no God.
Carrier argues that if God had a definite message for us, it would have been communicated indifferently to all peoples
and nations across the Globe, and all cultures would agree as to the basic business of salvation. Some would reject this message and others would distort it for their own ends, but if God cared to enable mankind to make an informed decision about spiritual matters God would have ensured that every human being had adequate access to the relevant facts. Carrier then claims that:
Everyone today, everywhere on Earth, would be hearing it, and their records would show everyone else in history had heard it, too. Sure, maybe some of us would still baulk at or reject that message. But we would still have the information. Because the only way to make an informed choice is to have the required information.
Carrier admits that people will disagree about anything, given half a chance, and that “there are always people who don’t
follow what they are told or what they know to be true.” However, he points out that Chemists agree on the principles of Chemistry; Physicians agree on the basic facts of Medicine and Engineers agree on the fundamentals of engineering.
So he asks, why can’t Theologians agree on the core doctrines of religion?

It would seem, therefore, that God has no business with humanity; or that God’s business is incoherent or mischievous; or that God is ineffective in communicating what God’s business is. Now, nne of these three options is attractive. It would therefore seem to make more sense to conclude from the discord among religions that God is nothing more than the imaginary construct (or, rather a set of disparate constructs) of the human imagination.

I reply that human beings certainly do suffer from conceit and don’t like to have their favourite (but mistaken) ideas corrected. Even those of us who on one level sincerely want to understand the things of God are often loathe to give up cherished ideas which we honestly think are good and wholesome; but which are in fact exactly the opposite. I think these considerations are sufficient to explain the observed disagreements among believers; even among those who claim to respect the same earthly authority. However, there is also a second consideration. This is that different personalities, perspectives and histories can easily give rise to diverse accounts of reality which superficially seem to disagree while being, at a deeper level, entirely compatible and mutually supportive.

What, in any case, would count as “the core doctrines of religion”? Perhaps people do agree well enough about these! St Paul tells us that, in fact, God has adequately and effectively communicated with all peoples and Catholics believe that every soul – even that of a pagan who has never heard of Jesus – receives sufficient grace to become God’s friend. The argument that there is insufficient agreement about “the core doctrines of religion” should be reversed. It should in fact be argued that what it is necessary to believe in order to be on the path of salvation is quite simple and straight-forward; indeed that it is pretty much common knowledge, so there is no excuse.
He that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.
[Heb 11:6 KJV15]
The Jewish tradition certainly takes this line; with the idea that for a gentile to please God, they must simply live a moral
life according to the Natural Law, as summarised by the Seven Commandments supposedly given to Noah. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether each of us has the right beliefs about anything; beyond the basics of kindness and simple decency. What matters is our sincerity of heart and goodwill and desire for justice. In the end “Be excellent to one another!” pretty much sums it all up.

God would be more humanitarian
Carrier argues that if God is quite definitely benevolent, loves justice and hates evil, God wouldn’t give up trying to help, cure or educate someone until their resistance to divine intervention became truly extreme. Any one who is really benevolent readily forces another person to act against their own immediate desires, over-riding their freewill in the matter, if that is necessary in order to rescue them from calamity. Carrier says:
Such people don’t give up on someone until their resistance becomes intolerable – until then, they will readily violate someone’s free will to save them, because they know darned well it is the right thing to do. God would do the same. He would not let the choice of a fallible, imperfect being thwart His own good will.

I reply that it is absolutely evil for someone to be spiritually raped. This can never be “for their own good”. The difference is that between human agency and divine agency. A one-off human coercive intervention can be benevolent, because it is temporary and has no implication for the way in which the person coerced lives their life once the coercion ends. Even one single dramatic divine intervention would have profound implications for the remainder of the life of those persons affected.
Now this isn’t to say that such interventions don’t take place. Typically, God acts in a dramatic and public manner when there is a pressing need to establish the credibility of some authority which will then abide for a historical period afterwards.

The two prime examples are the establishment of the Mosaic and Christian Covenants, each of which is supposed to have been associated with dramatic historic events. In neither case, however, was the divine intervention so dramatic that it forced all those who either witnessed or knew of it to accept that it definitely meant what it appeared to do; leastwise not once the passage of time had erased its immediacy from their minds.

Various Old Testament figures (especially, but not only various prophets) are presented as having had pretty direct encounters with God. Some of these were pretty coercive. Jonah is the most obvious example, but the experiences of Elijah and Jeremiah were similar. However, these were all events in the lives of individuals who had specific tasks to perform. God’s particular intervention in their lives set no general precedent and was private, not public; though the effects – as evinced in the subsequent lives of the prophets – were public, of course.

God deals with each of us as an individual, in accordance with our own peculiar needs. God knew that Jonah would not be harmed by being “bullied” in the way that God did this. Certainly Jonah wasn’t going to be convinced irreformably that God was real as a result of it: Jonah already believed that much quite definitely enough! No, the main risk was that Jonah wouldn’t be able to accept the reality of God’s benevolence towards sinners and that he would turn his back on God’s justice, preferring his own notion of “justice” based on retribution and vengeance.

In the case of Elijah and Jeremiah, God’s intervention was in the lives of men who were already intimate with the Divine. Although God certainly bullied or cajoled them into doing things, these things were actions which flowed from a faith which already existed. The fundamental orientation of their lives was not affected, but only nurtured and reinforced.

The analogy of a father or friend
Carrier argues that just as his father or a friend doesn’t violate his free will when they advise and admonish him – still less when they answer his questions clearly – neither would God do so by acting in the same kind of way. A good God must surely be motivated to act towards each of us with at least as much benevolence as a friend or father; and yet, Carrier claims that:
God doesn’t do anything at all. He doesn’t talk to, teach, help, or comfort us, unlike my real father and my real friends. God doesn’t tell us when we hold a mistaken belief that shall hurt us. But my father does, and my friends do. Therefore, no God exists who is even remotely like my father or my friends.

I reply that it is wrong to argue from what it is right and proper for a human being to do to what it is right and proper for God to do. Human beings are not God and are not infallible. Their answers, admonitions, advice and help are never ultimately authoritative and unquestionable, and we always know this to be the case. Hence, we always subject them to our own scrutiny and judgement, except in the urgent case of an emergency.

God is not any thing like a human being. Every one of God’s actions is necessarily indefinitely puissant and, if not moderated and mediated, forces the outcome. This is why God regularly acts through intermediaries. Even when God came into this world in the person of Jesus, He chose to do so in an obscure way and to teach in parables. Jesus was careful to talk-down the idea that He was the Messiah. Even when He rose from the dead, Jesus chose to reveal Himself informally and only to a select group rather than to appear publicly in glory.

In any case, God does do all the things that a good God should do; if only you look in the right places. God simply doesn’t do these things in the way that one might na├»vely think that God ought to. Instead, God generally acts quietly and gently in our lives, out of love and respect for our independence.

The analogy of a physician
Carrier argues that a physician is not vague when he counsels a patient as to how they can get well. On the contrary, he speaks clearly and in terms the that patient can readily comprehend. He answers the patient’s questions, and is ready and willing to present the evidence on which he is basing his treatment recommendation. Carrier says of the physician:
He won’t hold anything back and declare, “I’m not going to tell you, because that would violate your free will!” Nor would any patient accept such an excuse – to the contrary, he would respond, “But I choose to hear you,” leaving the doctor no such excuse.

I reply by pointing out that the relationship we each have with God is not comparable to the physician-patient relationship (where it is the business of the physician to actively cure the patient who is passive in the physician’s care) but rather the teacher-student relationship (which is predicated on a certain equality and on friendship) with the prospect in view of this developing into the lover-beloved relationship.

The teacher’s best tactic at all times is to ask questions and to challenge and to critique their student, not simply to drill
and indoctrinate them. Even if the student demands to be given the right answers, perhaps so that they can be memorized for the exam, it is entirely wrong for the educator to accede to this request. Indeed, one of the first things which the student must learn, if they are ever to understand anything at all, is that they must not make such demands – or at least never expect them to be satisfied.

Carrier’s problem here is that he doesn’t recognise how high is the vocation which human beings have received from God.
He presumes a much lower vocation – one that, perhaps, seems more reasonable. Once he finds that this doesn’t fit in with the facts he then claims the very idea of Theism is false, whereas what he should do is go back and check his premises.

The example of Christ and His Apostles
Carrier argues that the autonomy of the Apostles was not compromised by their spending three years in the society of Jesus, being instructed by Him; or by their witnessing His resurrection. Not even the autonomy of Thomas, who had the chance to place his hands in Jesus’ wounds, was harmed. Neither was the freewill of Saul of Tarsus violated by his dramatic conversion experience, or by the fact that he claimed to have received a direct revelation of the Gospel from Jesus.

Carrier then proceeds to ague that if Christianity were true, the Gospel would be presented to each and every one of us immediately by God, in much the way that God dealt with Thomas or Saul of Tarsus. He asks:
Was their free will violated? Of course not. Nor would ours be. Thus, if Christianity were really true, there would be no dispute as to what the Gospel is. There would only be our free and informed choice to accept or reject it. At the same time, all our sincere questions would be answered by God, kindly and clearly, and when we compared notes, we would find that the Voice of God gave consistent answers and messages to everyone all over the world, all the time.

I reply that for the Apostles to accept what Jesus said as authentic required a step of faith; one which many of their contemporaries didn’t make. It was not obvious to them that Jesus was the Messiah, let alone that He was God Incarnate! After all, both the religious and secular authorities rejected Him and many of His disciples walked away when He spoke words which they couldn’t accept.

Our present circumstances are not so far removed from those in which the Apostles found themselves. They existed within a religious tradition with its authoritative texts. They had met a teacher who seemed able to expound those texts and represent and develop that tradition in ways that rang true to them. He worked miracles and claimed peculiar authority – but He seemed every bit as human and frail as they. Then He died, executed as an agitator by the Roman authorities. Then they became convinced that He was really alive again in their midst and that He actually spoke to them and ate physical food with them.

We exist in exactly the same tradition. Nowadays it has a few more texts – which tell the story of the life, death and resurrection of the Teacher who the Apostles met; and which present His teachings as understood by them. His followers claim that miracles are still worked in His name, from time to time, and His chief follower claims to be able to speak with a peculiar authority when this is needful.

The main difference between us and the Apostles is that we haven’t had direct personal contact with Jesus. This is
not necessary for us, whereas it was very necessary for the Apostles; for they were being constituted as prime witnesses
to the resurrection and the authoritative exponents of the New Covenant. It was their role to testify personally to the historic reality of the Incarnation and to establish it as a matter of record. What we do not have is an infallible divine oracle. The existence of such an agency would undermine human autonomy. The situation would be rather like the vision which Galadrial, the Queen of the Elves, had of herself should she take the Ring of Sauron; which vision motivated her to refuse to take the Ring, even when Frodo freely offered it to her.

Carrier continues:
God would make sure He told everyone, directly, what His message was. Everyone would then know what God had told them. They can still reject it all they want, and God can leave them alone. But there would never be, in any possible Christian Universe, any confusion or doubt as to what God’s message was. And if we had questions, God himself would answer them… Indeed, the very fact that God gave the same message and answers to everyone would be nearly insurmountable proof that Christianity was true. Provided we had no reason to suspect God of lying to all of us, Christianity would be as certain as the law of gravity or the colour of the sky.

This pretty much makes the points that I have been arguing. If God did communicate with humanity as Carrier demands,
then “there would never be… any confusion or doubt as to what God’s message was… Christianity would be as certain as
the law of gravity or the colour of the sky.” This is contradictory to the statement “They can still reject it all they want.”

Knowing clearly what God’s message was and knowing that the message was definitely from God would make that message as impossible to reject as the fact that the cloudless sky is blue. As Carrier himself continues:
If Christianity were true, there would be no point in “choosing” whether God exists any more than there is a choice whether gravity exists or whether all those other people exist whom we love or hate or help or hurt. We would not face any choice to believe on insufficient and ambiguous evidence, but would know the facts, and face only the choice whether to love and accept the God that does exist.

Carrier is crucially mistaken here. Not even this choice would be open to us. This is because God is not any thing like a human being. God isn’t any thing that one can chose to adopt an attitude towards. Once one knew clearly that the omnipotent and benevolent God, the source of all beauty and life, the very ground of all being, is real; then it would make no sense to do anything other than adore this God: because this God would be, in all certainty, the most adorable object of love.

God does not respect agnostics
Carrier claims that many unbelievers are reasonable and open minded. He says:
I and countless others have chosen to give God a fair hearing – if only He would speak. I would listen to Him even now, at this very moment.
Carrier claims that the problem that he and others have is that God remains silent; the evidence in favour of God’s reality remains sparse and the arguments put forward by theists remain weak.

I reply that God speaks everywhere. The danger is that while on one level a person can be willing to hear God’s voice, on another they can remain antipathetic. They can insist that the answer be given in their own terms, even when those terms exclude the very answer that is supposedly being sought. It behoves each of us to examine our heart, to make sure that we are not imposing preconditions on God which make it impossible for us to hear God’s voice and recognise the everyday evidence of God’s reality. Jesus puts the matter before us in black-and-white semitic style.
And when He was alone, those who were about Him with the twelve asked Him concerning the parables.
And He said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything
is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand;
lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.” [Mk 4:10-12 RSV]

Jesus means that He uses parables in order to get people to ponder on His preaching, so that they might come to a personal understanding of it and so enter the Kingdom. He does not mean, as it might seem from this translation, that God purposefully disguises and hides from full-view the divine message precisely so as to ensure that people will not understand it and so be condemned because of their incomprehension. After all, not all those who were “outside” the inner circle with “the twelve” were somehow destined to be lost, which is what the text might seem to mean! The New Testament includes a number of statements conveying the universal vocation of salvation.

This process is necessarily open to the possibility (not the certainty, hence Jesus’ two-fold use of the phrase “they may indeed”) that an individual will fail to perceive Jesus’ intent and remain outside. The last phrase means only that anyone who does come to understand and accept Jesus’ message will be forgiven and that those who do not do so – and remain outside the Kingdom – will not be.

Moreover, I suspect that Jesus is also exasperated with the behaviour of those who should know better. Elsewhere He chides the Pharisees:
You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to Me; yet you refuse to come to Me that you may have life… If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote of Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words? [Jn 5:39-47 RSV]

Notice here that Jesus puts the onus firmly on the choice of those who refuse to see what is in front of their noses. As Jesus elsewhere has Abraham remark:
If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead. [Lk 16:31 RSV]

Monday, 17 January 2011

The Redemption is a Rescue from God

In a real sense, the redemption is a rescuing from God. Certainly, it isn't the case that Satan ever had any kind of ownership of the human race, which was "bought out" by Jesus' death. The expiatory sacrifice of Calvary and of the Eucharis...t was/is offered to God, not Satan!

The redemption is not a rescuing from God's supposed vengeful vindictiveness, though. Ezekial makes it clear that God is not at all vengeful or vindictive. No, God is the great lover of humanity. While we were still sinners He loved us and committed Himself to us.

The redemption is a rescuing of humanity from humanity's wrong ideas and expectations of God. It is largely these that constitute the "sin" which "separates" us from God. Our instinctive ideas of holiness are simply wrong and serve to alienate us from God. Jesus' life, death and resurrection serve to show us what true holiness is all about.

The redemption is an at-one-ment and a reconciliation: a peace-making and bridge-building between estranged parties; but the estrangement was one-sided. It is mankind that rejects God, not God that rejected mankind. The redemption is also something of an apology from God to humanity for all the pain and suffering of creation. God wants to be able to stand by us shoulder-to-shoulder in all things, in all our experiences and to be able to say: "Yes, I know just what it is like."

In Calvary and the Mass, God freely gives to us Himself, so that we can in turn have a rational oblation to offer back: a gift to adequately express our love for God and that is fit to exchange and trade with God in thankful return for our very being and life and sanitisation.

It isn't absolutely wrong to talk of God being propitiated (the Latin liturgy regularly uses this idea) but this must be understood only in a subjective sense. God is objectively always propitious (favourable, well-inclined, friendly) towards us; but when we are estranged from God by sin then God seems to us to be anything other than propitious. Hence, when we are reconciled with God it seems to us that God has been propitiated and it is fine to speak of God being propitiated in this sense.

Christ is the propitiation for our sins in that He is the loving face of God and also because He Himself "became sin" for us. Sin is separation from God. Jesus stepped into the breach that lies between us and God. He became the Pontifex Maximus by becoming the Bridge of Salvation Himself: the ladder leading from Earth to Heaven. Hence, as Jesus stepped into the breach that is sin, He "became" the breach that is sin. He occupied and filled in and eradicated the gap of sin that separated humanity from God.

What is the basis of value?

Dialogue with Primon

[Primon] I do not think that lack of permanence means futility (in common usage of the word futility). Just because something is not permanent does not mean it lacks meaning. 

[SCL] I think that impermanent physical things gain their meaning from participating in permanent spiritual realities. I think that you are making the common mistake of arguing:
(a) It is a fact that impermanent things have value.
[This is true, I believe]
(b) Therefore permanence is not required for value to exist.
[This is a non-sequetor]

[Primon] OK, but  I see older family members aging with more or less grace, gradually losing their abilities, which is sad, but does not make their positive achievements, accomplishments, nurture in the past of any less value. 

[SCL] Indeed it doesn't - if they ever had any value. The question is rather: "Can anything have value if it has absolutely no lasting outcome?" Moreover: "What is value, what has value: why and how?" and "How/from where does value originate?"

[Primon] Though perhaps you would argue the value comes in a legacy, which requires at least something to continue, making me for the first time realize why the sudden deaths of many due to war or natural disaster are more "bad" than the sum of the individual deaths over time, as not only a life is lost, but their legacy disappears in the lives of those around them.

[Primon] People, events, accomplishments are localized in space. Is this a problem?

[SCL] No - this is a good point. and one I am well aware of.

[Primon] So why is it a problem being localized in time?

[SCL] If there is an eternal dimension to existence, nothing at all; but it is not true that space and time are exactly the same kind of thing. The equations of Relativity intermix them, but time must either be taken to be imaginary or else the metric tensor must have a "-1" on its spur. Getting to grips with what that means, and how (and if) it relates to our subjective experience of time as being sequential and directed rather than sharing in the isotropy of space is a deep matter.

[SCL] One has a distinct feeling that events move onwards to a fulfilment; that work is undertaken for a result; that suffering can be tolerated for the sake of its end and for a good outcome. No such feeling arises conversely. The fact that was happy in the past doe snot justify present suffering. Hope only functions one-way. Clearly, present suffering is easier to bare if one has good memories of the past; but without hope for the future it is pointless to suffer grievously and it would be better not to exist at all.

[SCL] You seem to be tacitly assuming that you know what "value" is and then trying to make sense of it, rather than first asking what value might or must be. I think that this question is much easier to answer than it seems.

[Primon] It seems that value requires a subject. Something is of value to someone. A snake venom antidote has huge value to someone just bitten by the venomous snake, but otherwise may be of little or no value to someone like you or me. Anything created or inanimate can attain value by being good for a person.

[Primon] What is of value to a person is what helps them become a better, more perfect/fulfilled person. Similarly how a relationship gives us value is how it helps us to become better (either physically mentally or spiritually).

[Primon] However, I find it hard to say why every person is of value without invoking a God who values them. Someone who exists but I never hear of nor see, am many degrees of separation away from them, so they have no impact on my life -- it is hard to say they can be of any value to me.

[Primon] I guess then, my invoking God does not help, as my definition of value above would mean nothing can be of value to God (how can anything help Him or perfect Him!). From God's stance then, anything that simply "is" and is "as it should be" is part of God and obtains value from God's being. But I think when you ask me to define value (and to use such as any argument for eternity and God) requires the definition of value to avoid God and the eternal.

[Primon] So I am left with a notion that spiritual/conscious beings generate value within themselves -- value can be produced by something of non-value, i.e. inanimate matter -- and once we value our own being, we recognize that equivalent conscious beings have their own innate value. Still, hard then to argue that a psychopath is of any less value than a saint --- except a psychopath does not generally help others become the best they can be, whereas a saint presumably does, so a saint has greater value, not just in being more perfect in themselves, but is of value to others.

‎[SCL] Thank you for that excellent analysis of the question. It was a delight to read. Few people would get that far in one go. I agree with everything that you say. The only defect in your analysis (in my view) is that you didn't take it quite far enough.

[SCL] I suggest that you postpone the pursuit of a "spiritual" origin of value for a while. I think that value has a much more imminent and significance and meaning - which then has transcendent implications. I believe that until one has grasped the simple and direct significance of value one cannot possibly understand its transcendent root. "God" is the answer to all important questions, but unless one understands the question one gains nothing from knowing this answer. This is the HHGTTG "42" lesson.

[SCL] Is personhood and/or consciousness and/or subjectivity required for the basic concept of value to arise? I agree that value requires a valuer: an agent for whom the object is perceived to be valuable; but does that agent have to be a conscious personal subject? I agree that, in our experience, wherever there is PSEC there is value; but is the converse actually true, or are you just presuming that it is so?

[SCL] What is the irreducible/constitutional/necessary characteristic or descriptor of a thing for that thing to be an agent? It may help you to list examples of things which are agents and list examples of things which are not agents.

[SCL] Is it the case that all agents must value at least one object and that no non-agent can value any object - because valuation arises from agency?

[Primon] I worry that this is getting to be a lot of time about defining a word, which in principle can be defined in a multitude of ways. The question is what is the most useful definition for progress.

[SCL] Oh dear - we must definitely a...void getting into "defining words" that deadly. Also "useful" here is a bad word, I think. Trying to understand an idea is a very different exercise from defining the meaning of a word.

[Primon] Would I say "a flower values water" as a necessity of its life as "I value water" as a necessity of my life? I think in common parlance one can say water is of value to a flower's well-being, and since the analogy is almost exact, one could say it makes little point defining a term "value" that includes water being of value to me, but excludes water being of value to a flower.

[SCL] I strongly concur.

[Primon] Of course, flowers may be subjectively experientially conscious -- we have no way of knowing as we have not the means to communicate with them -- and if they were conscious, the availability of water would be a major characteristic of their experience.

[SCL] Indeed - but even forgetting PSEC , everything you say is true, in my view. One does not need PSEC to have a use of need for the idea of "value" when talking of flowers and water: "Water is valuable to plants." is a perfectly sensible thing to say and it is quite clear what it means.

[Primon] Does it make sense to say "clouds value water vapour". To me, once one shifts to inanimate objects it is bizarre to state they value something, even though without water vapour the cloud would cease to exist, just as I would without water.

[SCL] Exactly. So you have answered my question in one go, which doesn't surprise me. Value arises from life. For there to be value there has to be life and without life there is no value and wherever there is life there is value.

[Primon] Therefore, with no rational basis, the common parlance use of the word "value" becomes "that which is conducive to life" -- at least in my thinking.

[SCL] Exactly. You are repeating my train of thought precisely. This is most valuable to me as it indicates that my way of thinking is not altogether strange, but actually pretty much trivial; even though no-one else I know seems to agree with me!

[Primon] Whether it should logically be extended to be "that which is conducive to existence" to include inanimate objects is a matter of taste I think, and the point one wants to make. Given the two notions are different, it would make sense to have one term for "that which is conducive to life" and another term (perhaps more neutral than value, which has strongly positive connotations) for "that which is conducive to existence".

[SCL] Indeed. I think in fact that there is little call for a second term, as the law of conservation of mass-energy tells us that "existence as such" is guaranteed and that nothing is unconducive to it. Similarly, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics tells us that "everything runs down" and so nothing is conducive to the reduction of entropy.

[SCL] On the other hand, it is "good for a neutron to be bound to a proton" for else the neutron will change into a proton, electron and neutrino and so cease to exist in the form that it previously had.

[SCL] However, how is it possible to say that it is "better" for the mass-energy which is the neutron to have the form of "neutron" rather than that of "proton + electron + neutrino"? Perhaps this doesn't matter, though. For the neutron, "it is not good to be alone" (-: echoes of Genesis :-) and so the proton is the "proper good" of the neutron, but not vice-versa.

[SCL] However, the neutron does not in any sense strive after or seek out the proton. There is nothing in the constitution of the proton which "values" the proton, it has no "knowledge" of the possibility of teaming up with a proton in order to survive. Only when it encounters the proton (which encounter it does nothing to facilitate or promote) does it "perceive that it is its proper good" and so "love" it and be "attracted to" it and pair-bonds to it.

[SCL] So I think that "good" is a term that can be used with relationship to inanimate matter (on the lines which you indicated) and also "love" (in the most abstract and un-emotional and impersonal sense possible) but that value arises from life.

Friday, 14 January 2011

True and False

In my usage:

"Truth" is a potential property of ideas, and only ideas. An idea is true to the degree that it corresponds with (accurately accounts for) the reality which it purports to represent.

So: "This coin is circular" is pretty much true - not entirely, though, as no coin can be perfectly circular.

So: "This politician is a liar" is also liable to be pretty much true, in general - though most politicians tell the truth sometimes.

So: "Every massive body attracts every other massive body with a force that is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centres" is excellent as an approximation under most common circumstances in the local universe and for decades was accounted as being true without qualification; but in fact, it is false when bodies get very large or very close.

So: "Stephen is French" is false - though I may have a few "French genes" for all I know, and I speak a modicum of the language.

All of the above statements "exist" and have reality (as statements) so it is possible for "falsity" to exists and "be real" - as a true property of a false statement, which is the most that it ever could be!

Hence "reality" =/= "truth", as some of "reality" consists of "falsehood".

"Is it possible to attain truth?"

This is the crucial question, and it depends on a deeper one: "If one had a true idea, would it be possible to recognise it as being true?"  The point is that it isn't much good "accidentally hitting on the truth" if one can't definitely notice the fact that one has done so.

At the deepest level, I think this cannot be answered by logic or reason. These all rely in turn on the assumption that other ideas are themselves true - when this has not yet been established.

I believe that it may be possible to "recognise" that some ideas are true - that some ideas have "the ring of truth" to them. Plato believed that this was because we all have an instinct for truth, based on a direct access to knowledge and understanding of reality which we possessed before and apart from our mortal existence. I don't go along with the specifics of his theory; but I think that something similar must be true, or else one has a real "bootstrapping" problem in epistemology.

Evolution and Intelligent Design

1. "Survival of the fittest leading to change of the phenotype" is a process that would seem to be inevitable, once one begins understands the first thing about genetics. This is more or less a mathematical inevitability.

2. It is clear from the fossil record that there has been a process of "evolution", where earlier species have given rise to later species in some way or another. This is a matter of "historical fact" - in as far as there are "historical facts".

3. The idea that "#2 is as a result of #1" is highly plausible, but cannot be established with the same degree of credibility as either #1 or #2. Personally, I accept this as a working hypothesis and do not seriously doubt it.

4. The idea that "#2 is a random and entirely unguided result of #1" is impossible to evaluate.

5. Any-one who disbelieves both in "God" and "2001-style alien intervention" has no choice but to accept this "strong evolution" hypothesis; but they do so not on a scientific basis - but as a result of their "atheistic faith choice".

6. Any-one who is open to the possibility that "God is real" or that "aliens might have intervened" cannot adopt this position so readily.

7. I believe that God is real. As to how much "Divine guidance" the blind process of natural selection needed, I have absolutely no idea. Given the "butterfly effect" God could have dramatic effects on the process while intervening in ways that were undetectably small.

8. It seems to me that deciding this matter is beyond the scope of human ability.

Is religion the basis of Law?

The basis of (secular) law should be justice. Plato defines justice as "everyone minding their own business". In other words, justice is about harmony and cooperation and privacy and specialisation and expertise and respect: it is about everyone being able to use their talents effectively: it is about the fulfilment of the potentiality of every moral agent.
The business of a judge is to make sure that people DO mind their own business - or, better, to decide whether they are or not. The very idea of justice (coupled with the idea that it is not inevitable, but may be infringed) implies the business of a judge!

This principle of justice is constitutive of what God is. God is perfection. God has no potential which is not fully actualised. God's nature is fundamentally harmonious. Hence Justice is a valid descriptor of God and although it does not exist apart from God - for no being exists apart from the Divine Being - justice defines God, rather than God defining justice.

Hence Justice (and so law) is not religious at root. It is based on the Natural Law - the constitution of things as they are. It is possible for anyone of good will to discern the basis of justice and to make a good attempt at implementing laws to give expression to the idea of justice. Religion's role is to corroborate and motivate folk to live justly: see the OT for tons of stuff about this!

The word "God" is indeed a contraction of "good". In Platonism, "the Good" (but in Greek, or course) is how God is most accurately indicated. The word God is a wonderful indication of the basic nature of the Divine.

The Hebrew Divine Name YHWH (we can only guess which vowels are to be placed amidst this consonant acronym) is thought to be an archaic form of the verb "TO BE". This is an equally profound indicator of the Divine Nature; for BEING and GOOD are very closely related... as I argue in my second non-fiction book "The Good of Being", which I am now looking to get published.

Physics and Metaphysics

1. By metaphysics I do not mean "theology". Let's leave God and Religion out of this: but I write as a Catholic, remember!
2. By metaphysics I mean those underlying non-empirical assumptions which underpin Physics and which most physicists take for granted. Such as:
A) The Cosmos is governed by Laws.
B) The Cosmos is real.
C) Things and events have causes:
"nothing comes from nothing; nothing ever could!"
D) Causality only happens one way in time - if this is true!
E) Everything has a rational explanation.

Such statements are not Physics statements and I suspect never can/will be so. They go beyond the phenomena and experience with which Physics deals. They motivate Physics and also facilitate it. If one didn't believe these statements (or others similar to them: I am not meaning to be exact here) then one would have no purpose in doing Physics and no means to do it either.

Hence, Physics without Metaphysics has no foundation.

Mathematics is a wonderful language. As a Platonist I hope that the entire structure of the material world can be described mathematically. However, mathematics cannot deal with the kind of issues which I have just mentioned. Perhaps it can express them (this would not be so surprising as English can do so) but it cannot answer the questions raised. 

Mathematics can not justify the validity of mathematics. Mathematics requires an axiomatic basis and why one set of axioms is to be preferred over another is not a mathematical question, but a metamathematical question - or so it seems to me.

Even if it turns out that there is only one set of consistent axioms (which would seem to be false, because the empty set of axioms seems pretty self-consistent to me!) then this fact would not explain why that set of axioms is actualised in physical reality.

Mathematics does not of itself describe reality; it only deals with the relationships and interactions and implications of axioms. Physical reality is more than this. It is actually real, whatever that means - but that is a metaphysical question.

Faith and Knowledge

It is fundamentally impossible to "show" someone else the truth of a leap of faith. All that one can do is invite someone to make their own leap, based on their own experience, intuition and judgement. Faith is always personal, even if it relates to conclusions which are commonly held. The belief which I hope you have in "the validity of logic" is your own personal belief, even though it relates to "logic" which is something owned by all rational people.

Faith can provide us with certainty of a kind; but faith is only "practical certainty" - the certainty needed for action: Newman called this "certitude" - not the "theoretical certainty" of mathematics. We choose to believe certain things because this belief offers us a way forward which has the appearance of being fruitful and wholesome and life-affirming.

This is why we "believe in logic", at first; because we can see that if logic were to be reliable it would enable us to achieve a great deal, whereas if logic is unreliable very little is achievable. Subsequently, we find that we are able to achieve a great deal on the basis of logic and this corroborates our faith in its wholesomeness: but no amount of positive experience can ever turn our original act of faith into a mathematical proof.

Faith should tell us how reality actually is, if the belief (doxa) is a true belief (ortho-doxa). This is what we hope is the case, but can never be sure is so. This is the dilemma of faith. Faith deals with the most basic and important things and enables us to grow and learn on the basis of us having accepted these foundational principles with certitude and by faith; and yet we can never have true-and-certain-knowledge (episteme) of what the principles which faith proposes and upholds... unless and except by some intuitive leap of apprehension from the uncertain foundation of empiricism to the solidity of some spiritual reality which underlies material existence.

The Inhumanity of the Cosmos

Regarding the apparent "inhumanity" of the Cosmos; how much "empty space" is "too much" empty space? After all, God is infinite so no amount of emptiness will seem to be of the slightest account to God. It only seems like a lot to us, because we are miniscule - but what does that matter? If we were making a Cosmos we might be more inclined to make it efficient and pretty in an obvious way: but that is because we would have finite resources and a finite perspective. Judging God's work by our standards in this way is simply silly.

The problem of pain and suffering and disasters and catastrophes and disorder (which is all the same thing seen from different perspectives) is a bigger problem, because it seems to indicate that God has created a world that is based on "injustice"; where things cannot get on with "minding their own business" but regularly come into conflict with each other.

Every time two electrons bounce off each other they experience what one could describe as "conflict". Their free motions are disrupted. Their natural progression is frustrated. They suffer defeat in their objective of travelling in a straight line at constant speed... but this is a silly way to describe things.

Electrons simply do what they do and when they bounce off each other there is no "catastrophe" in any ethical sense. Similarly, when a star goes super-nova or when galaxies collide: this is simply what matter does, and such events can have "positive" outcomes (such as the production of the heavy elements of which planets are later formed) as well as "negative" ones.

I suspect that the Cosmos simply has to have the characteristics that it has (or at least ones close to these) if it is "to serve God's purpose". This may be the same as "to produce life" or may be a wider matter than this - how can you or I possibly know, or even begin to guess. While I believe that God is just and loving I do not know what the issues at stake are.

You and I are like soldiers on the front line. We may have good reason to trust the integrity and honour and judgement of the General who is in command of us and if so we will trust that the orders he gives and the strategy that he employs are for the best even when from our point of view they seem to be incomprehensible or even misguided.

In such a situation one has a simple choice: to be courageous and keep faith in one's General or to act upon what seems to be the case according to one's own limited experience and knowledge. The horrible fact is that one might be wrong about one's belief in the General. Perhaps he is misguided or incompetent or ignorant of what is actually going on. Perhaps it would be better to question the orders that have been received...

There is no easy answer to this dilemma. In the end one has to decide that God is real and good (there are excellent arguments to indicate that these statements are true) and that all the evidence to the contrary must be set aside and put down to one not knowing the full story; or one has to decide that either God is not realm or else doesn't care about the Cosmos - in which case one has a fundamental problem with valuing anything, for it would seem that life is futile and devoid of any possible worth.

I rather suspect (both as a physicist and a Catholic) that the Cosmos is finite, though I don't fundamentally care whether this is actually true or not - with either of my hats on. Actually, to be honest, as a physicist I hope it is finite; the maths would be so much simpler and various strange things would be avoided (such as the existence of infinitely many copies of myself al typing the same message...)

The existence of an infinite Cosmos is in just as much need of an explanation as a finite one. The epistemological deficit (the need for explanation) is not about temporal or spatial inadequacy, but about the local contingency of each and every thing, event and process. Adding up an infinite amount of contingency doesn't get rid of it - it just makes it infinite :-) If the Cosmos is contingent, why was and will it ever be at all? Only of God can it be truly said: "as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be; unto ages of ages."

It is one option to believe that God = The Cosmos. This is called "Pantheism". I think that this is a coherent position; but I don't like it myself as I can't believe that the Whole could have a property which none of its parts even begins to demonstrate - namely "necessity of being". However, this is a matter of faith on my part - though there may be an argument against Pantheism that I am not presently aware of.

The Ontological Argument for the Reality of God

It is possible to conceive and account of any being
which is not necessary but which might not (have) be(en)
as being only possible and potential:
an idea that only exists in the imagination,
but not corresponding to any reality beyond
and independent of the mind conceiving it.

Now, let us assume that
"The Greatest Conceivable Being" (GCB)
is of this character, as one might expect it to be.
If this is the case, one will be able to conceive of
and account of the GCB as only possible and imaginary
and not in fact objectively real.
In other words one ought to be able to conceive of
the GCB as nothing more than a figment
of one's imagination, whether
it is a figment or is in fact real.

However, such a figment is - clearly -
conceived of as lacking in one excellence,
namely reality.
It would seem to be greater
(more excellent, worthwhile, useful, powerful, perfect...)
to be real and factual than imaginary or fictitious.
Hence the "supposed GCB", understood as imaginary,
is NOT in fact the "true GCB";
for the same GCB, but understood as real,
is greater than GCB, understood as imaginary.

Note that it must be possible for the GCB to be real,
for it is certainly conceivable (by definition)
and so can have no internal contradiction whatsoever.

Hence it is NOT possible
to conceive of the GCB as imaginary.
This is a contradiction in terms
and the "GCB as imaginary"
is found to be unimaginable
as soon as one attends to the matter
and starts to give due weight and consideration
to the words involved.

Hence the GCB must be necessary and inevitable;
for else it would be possible to conceive of it
as being purely imaginary and only possible
- which task we have found to be impossible.

Hence we have demonstrated that
there is an objectively REAL BEING
which is necessary and inevitable
in a way that nothing else is.
The nature of this GCB comprises
all the excellences which are inherent
in every thing that is either real
or possible to be imagined
without internal contradiction;
such that it is greater than all other beings.

The Mouse

In my house there are mice. Henry was the first to spot one, scampering from the shower-room into the dining room. It was small and round – and so fast on its feet. At first I wasn’t sure whether there was just one or more; and furthermore, whether he, she or they were permanent residents or simply transient visitors. So I put down some peanuts where they would be easily found; and, yes, they vanished. We had mice.

For weeks, we saw no sign of them. No scraps of half-eaten fodder. No droppings – and certainly no tails vanishing into skirting-board holes: only the occasional scuttling above the ceiling in my basement study. Then one of the lights in the study failed. On investigation it seemed as if something had gnawed through the insulation of the low-voltage wiring and had caused a short: blowing the lamp’s power-supply. Mice again, I thought, replacing the insulation and transformer.

A few weeks later I was sitting in the study when I noticed a sudden movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned round and there it was, running across the beige carpet: a mouse. My first impression was of speed. In that respect he reminded me of the cockroach that I had encountered (so many years ago now) in a Kibbutz hotel next to the Sea of Galilee; but in no other respect. Whereas the cockroach had been black or dark-brown (I don’t recall – it was a long time ago) this new fellow was white, I think. Now that’s odd, you know. House mice are light brown; only tame mice are white, I’m told. So perhaps he was brown. Memory plays games, you know. What you think happened isn’t necessarily what did happen. Sometimes you remember what you want to remember – and tell others what you want them to think: to save your self-image, perhaps; but what have I got to gain by thinking that the mouse was white? That’s how I remember it, so let’s run with that image: a white mouse running across a beige carpet.

He ran behind a book-case, only to re-appear after the shortest delay and hurtle across the floor to search underneath the low table which has my printer and scanner standing on it. Always hiding and always searching. That was his mode of life. Intent on finding food – and there was none to be had in this room, I knew – and intent on not becoming food. Forever anxious and on the alert. Forever looking for advantage. Forever avoiding cats.

He was so small: small and round, it seemed. A tiny ball of white fur, with a tail of string, two bright black button-eyes and a twitching nose.
I felt a certain empathy of being. He was lost. Far from his home in the upper floorspace, as I supposed. He would not find what he searched for here; no matter how diligently he looked and no matter how obsessively he hunted. I guessed that he had made his way down the open stairway, from the hallway above; or somehow from between the ceiling of the study and the floor of the living-room: that dark mouse-universe of knotted beams and age-old dust. It seemed to me that he would never find his way back whence he had come; but was now condemned to a death from starvation and thirst in the desert which my study represented to his kind.

I took pity on his plight and determined to apprehend him – curtail his freedom for a moment – so that I might relocate him to a better place: uplift him from the depths which he had penetrated in a misguided pursuit of safety and sustenance; back to the place of light where food for life might be found and the company of his fellows be re-established. I left the study for a moment and returned with peanuts – which I placed in the emptied waste-paper bin next to my feet. I tipped the metal-meshed basket on its side and watched the mouse.

Oh yes, he was still out and about, running around my feet. He seemed oblivious to me, as long as I didn’t move. It didn’t take him long to sniff out the peanuts either; however his first tactic to obtain them was to attempt to gnaw through the basket’s black-painted metal mesh. Only when that failed did he think to investigate its perimeter. At last, he found the opening: what should have rightly been the bin’s top, but which now – due to its sideways repose – was its inviting portal. He paused for a good while. Somehow, though he was used to scuttling into narrow gaps, this wide open aperture seemed redolent of danger to him. It’s promise of peanut treasure seemed too simple. When effort was needed to bite through impervious bars, no danger was perceived. Now that the way lay open to him, he hesitated good and long; his mousy brain weighing up the possibility of an unknown and unknowable threat against the certainty of hunger assuaged.

Eventually, reason prevailed and he darted inside the bin. At once, I snapped it vertical; thinking to slam a book on top of the up-righted waste-basket and trap my prey inside. Alas – this plan of a man was frustrated by the alacrity of a mouse. He launched his little frightened body through the air like a ballistic rocket. I had no idea that such a tiny creature might jump so high! He escaped my well-meaning trap; by which I was intending to lead him back to his proper place, where he would prosper and have life. He fled my frightful hands and sought the comfort of the shadows behind a bookcase. For all I know, his starved body lies there still; but I do not know what became of him. I only know that he has not been seen in the study since that day.

Conversation with a conflicted gay Catholic

I'm a college student in the U.S. About a year ago I came to terms with my sexual orientation (I'm gay) but I'm still struggling with how to reconcile this with my Catholic faith.

Sympathy. Obviously, I know how this feels and what is involved.
I came across your website and was very interested because you raise a lot of really good points. I'm trying to discern what God's true command is regarding sexual morality and whether I agree with the Church's current stand. Obviously I don't want to reach the wrong conclusion and convince myself that same-gender sexual activity is acceptable in the context of a loving, committed, life-long relationship when it actually is a sin, simply because it's what I would like to conclude.
Quite. This is the biggie. You should beware, of course, that if the Magisterium is wrong in this matter it is this serious concern which enables it to manipulate people into toeing the line. The typical devout gay man is liable to argue "better to ruin my earthly life than my life after death." Equally, if the Magisterium is correct, it is important to follow its teaching. If one isn't morally certain that the Magisterium is wrong (and also that this is a matter of great injustice) then one has a serious obligation to conform in word and deed to its teaching.
At the same time, I know I won't have the conviction to lead an entire life of celibacy if I'm not really convinced in my heart that that is truly what is expected from God of homosexuals.
If the Magisterium's teaching is true, then you must aspire to a life of sexual continence  - not "celibacy", this just means "not getting married" (to a woman) I don't think that you would find this very onerous. The fact that you feel this would be very difficult means either that you must try very, very hard and go to confession every time that you fail and never give up; or that your conscience is telling you that this is contrary to your nature and is an inhumane and unjust imposition.

Of course, there are many folk (gay or breeder) who do aspire to such a life and enter the cloister in pursuit of it. The monastic life is a valid and valuable vocation, but it is not for everyone and for someone who is not called to it to pursue it is hubristic. The Magisterium's teaching amounts to the idea that all gayfolk are called to be consecrated virgins, and yet are not (any longer) allowed to become such - certainly not bishops, priests and deacons!
I haven't got a chance to read the whole site but I've read a lot of it and I have a question, mostly about the "Homosexuality and Tradition" part. You point out that when it comes to moral teaching, just because a Church Father teaches something doesn't necessarily mean it is apostolic because it could have been influenced by any number of things, but that "Nevertheless, any overwhelming and clear consensus: especially if it has Scriptural backing, would generally be viewed as significant."
Yes. Note that I say "would generally be viewed as" rather than "is". To be honest, though, if such a combination did exist, I would be one of those who would "view it as significant"; but not absolutely definitive.
You then conclude that "As it happens, we shall see that there is no such consensus in the matter of ‘homosexuality’". I have trouble seeing how you arrived this conclusion though. Well, kind of.
1. There is no consensus among the Fathers apart from "pederasty is wrong" (and sex, in general, is problematic) - wow!
2. There is no clear Biblical statement that homosexual genital activity is wrong: not even "pederasty"!
Hence neither part of the combination exists, let alone both!
It definitely seems there is a lot of support for the idea that same-gender relationships can be incredibly spiritually and emotionally intimate and can even include close physical intimacy. Your many examples are proof of this, and I definitely agree that the Church's stance today completely ignores and undermines this reality, which is sad.
However, after reading the many examples it seemed to me that I couldn't really find any active support for same-gender genital intimacy, only condemnation.
I think the matter is never covered one way or the other: except after Vatican II and then only indirectly. The Magisterium is very coy about sex even when talking about sex.
It felt like time after time when I read another example of same-gender love/intimacy/friendship, once again you'd make a statement like "There is no reason to suspect they were ever genitally intimate". Even the men who clearly displayed close same-gender bonds, including physical affection, and may have even written letters/poems with erotic themes/imagery, as far as I/you could tell did not cross over to genital contact.
Indeed, but the same would have been true if a male-female relationship were on display - unless children were discussed. People don't often write explicitly about such things in love letters and poems: only in pornography! One can't look for such proof; but recall the prayer in one of the "Union Liturgies": "That they be joined in spirit MORE than flesh." This makes it abundantly clear that this liturgy envisaged a "joining in flesh" - whatever that might mean.
Is this really only because many of them were monks/religious? Would any of them, then, have actually given their approval of same-gender genital contact for those who were not monks and had therefore not made a vow of celibacy? (i.e. would even St. Aelred, Paulinas, or any of the other example really agree with your assertions?) How can we be sure?
We can't. Certainty in such matters is a luxury which we cannot aspire to. In any case, this isn't the point I was trying to make. Such testimony can only serve to set a context which presents homo-gender romanto-eroticism (not just "dispassionate chumminess") as a positive and wholesome reality. This flatly contradicts the Vatican's view: that eroticism is essentially heterosexual because it is essentially about procreation and any deviation from its constitutive and unique teleos is depraved. Once this view is rejected, the Vatican's supposed rationale for its condemnation of most of the sexual activities which it condemns falls to the ground in a heap.
Is there ANY example in Church tradition of Church leaders, saints, Church Fathers, etc. ACTIVELY affirming same-gender genital contact in some type of context? (The Ralph of Tours example is interested but unfortunately more of a passive/indirect approval and thus not very satisfying because maybe there were other motives. Also the story of Sergius and Bacchus, except that the assumption of genital intimacy hinges entirely on the word "erastoi" and the story seems to have legendary elements to it already.)
Frankly, it would be amazing if there were; simply because people don't talk about such matters. On the other hand, some of the Fathers are very clear that male-female intercourse is an undesirable and disreputable thing and is only ever justified by the supposed necessity to procreate. Given that they held such views (in radical disagreement with the teaching of P-VI and JP-II) it is absolutely certain that they would have been dead-set against homosexual activity, as it could not possibly be justified by the need to procreate. This certainty tells us nothing useful, however - except that some of the Fathers had some serious sexual hang-ups and would have benefited from counselling/therapy.
I know you write a lot about your own reasoning for why same-gender genital contact is not immoral for people in life-long committed relationships on another part of the site, but as far as Church history and tradition is concerned, until there appears to be some example of ACTIVE affirmation of specifically same-gender genital intimacy, wouldn't it appear that there in fact WAS somewhat of a consensus on the issue of homosexuality in the early Church, the consensus being that "the line" not to cross was genital contact?
No. Silence tells one nothing. If one used this kind of argument, one would be able to prove any amount of nonsense. In any case, I think that if you'd asked the Fathers many or all of them would have agreed with you - because they had such a repressed and twisted view of sex, resulting from the general depravity of the culture in which they (as now we) live. As I have explained, such an agreement would have signified nothing so far as the content of the Apostolic Tradition is concerned. Rather, I think that it is providential that they never got round to putting the answer to your question in writing.
Furthermore, is this not exactly where "the line" is drawn for homosexual relationships even in Church teaching today? I know this seems like an unsatisfyingly arbitrary "line" to set, as you point out in your Chapter 4 of your site. Yet it seems this assumption would fit pretty well with any of the examples in Chapter 2 of your site in either content or tone, whereas the idea that same-gender genital contact could be morally allowed would seem to contradict several of the people you quoted at least in tone, even if arguably compatible with the content/context.  After the quote from St. Basil, for example, you state that "clearly it is directed towards preventing sexual activity among monks who are vowed to celibacy, and does not deal with the general case." Really? I suppose that's technically what he was talking about, but what, then, might St. Basil have said about the "general case"? Is it really prudent to think he would have been any more approving of the "general case"?
I don't know. I am not aware of Basil's general stance on sex. As I have explained, other Fathers would undoubtedly have taken the line that you indicate; but this would have been because of beliefs about sex in general which are in radical contradiction with both implicit Old Testament understanding and explicit C20th papal teaching.
Even looking at examples from the Bible, the same issue seems to come up. Is it not possible, for instance, that even David and Jonathan thought that "the line" God did not want them to cross was genital intimacy? For example, some people interpret "until David exceeded" ("gadal") as meaning that David had an erection and reached orgasm. Isn't it just as possible, though, that the men kissed passionately and shared close physical intimacy literally "until" David exceeded - that is, until he started to "grow" (gadal) an erection - after which they found it prudent to tone down the physical intimacy , so as not to cross "the line"?
This is all possible, but it has no rationale apart from a desire to systematise something which has no interior cohesion. I would, however, complement you on your ingenuity. This clearly shows that you are in good faith and are not at all trying to force the facts to fit your desires,
Once again, setting, the boundary at "no genital contact outside marriage", as arbitrary and unsatisfactory as it may seem, does seem to avoid contradicting anything in scripture or early Church tradition, whereas permitting it would seem to make at least some opponents.
Indeed; but you have said it yourself: this is “arbitrary and unsatisfactory”. Is this what we would expect from a good understanding of the Natural Law or of Apostolic Tradition? I think not!
I guess what I'm saying is, if the Church's teaching on homosexual activity really is in error (I'm talking the hard-line specifics here of what does and does not count as sin, not the theological babble about "intrinsically disordered" and all that), then why did the Holy Spirit allow Scripture and Tradition to seemingly align so well with it?
The fact that you are willing to describe the contemporary teaching as “theological babble” (I think that this is a little unkind, I have more time for it than that!) tells you all that you need to know about these matters. The Magisterium’s position is based on this “babble” not on either Scripture or Tradition. If you think that its account of the Natural Law is incoherent, then you have no choice but to evaluate the contemporary teaching as fundamentally flawed.
Holy Spirit has not allowed anything of the kind. All that we have in Scripture and Tradition is a natural human reticence to talk of genitalia. Hence it is never stated what it is right or wrong for a man to do with his penis – not even with his wife. Hence it is never stated that it is right for a man to do anything with his penis that does not involve a woman. Hence it can be argued that it is wrong for a man to do anything with his penis that is not open to procreation because the only reason for thinking that it is right for a man to do anything at all with his penis is that God explicitly approves of procreation. This argument is, however, laughable once it is made explicit.
For example, if same-gender genital contact really is permissible for committed relationships like David and Jonathan's, why didn't the David and Jonathan story make it more explicit, or why didn't some Church Father actively affirm it? Did they really just think it should have been obvious?
I think they just wanted to ignore the whole matter. They were generally so hung-up about sex that they avoided any issue that would have threatened their general prejudice.
But how could they think it would be obvious, with some other contemporary Church Fathers making anti-homosexual assertions even long before the shifts in public perception of the 12th century?
Anti pederasty, actually. Amusingly, David might have been little more than an adolescent when he got together with Jonathan; so their relationship was – perhaps – verging on the pederastic.
Or did they just see it as being not that important or not that serious of a sin? This is still not reassuring, because sin is sin. In summary, it seems that there either WAS a consensus, in which case the consensus would seem to have been that genital contact is "the line" not to cross for homogender relationships, or there WAS NOT a consensus, which would imply that there were people on BOTH sides of the debate, and yet where, then, were the people speaking ACTIVELY in favor of same-gender genital intimacy, either in the Bible or during the early Church?
I have explained, that I suspect there was a silent consensus along the lines that you suggest; but that this consensus tells us nothing worth-while and that the providential action of Holy Spirit was to ensure that this consensus was never represented on paper, so that no-one could ever use the Fathers to justify homophobia. This is more than Holy Spirit “managed” in the disgraceful matter of AntiSemitism, so we should be grateful for small mercies.
You have started out on a process that is liable to be somewhat protracted. Don’t try to be convinced of anything. Just consider the evidence and arguments that are advanced in the matter. Eventually, your conscience will speak clearly. Then you must follow what your conscience dictates – but respect those whose consciences differ from yours. Conscience is not infallible, but must be obeyed without question nevertheless.

Triaging Value

It seems to me that to have a basis for ethics one has to believe that some things are valuable. If nothing has any value then no action can have any motive: for acts always seek to obtain that which is good for or valuable to the agent - else they are irrational acts.

Now, if the entire universe is futile and will "come to nothing" as Physics predicts; then it follows that everything that presently exists and will exist and has been achieved and will be achieved is futile. Hence there is no point in anything and no possible purpose to life. This is the conclusion of the Nihilists, and in the terms which they set themselves I am sure that they are correct.

Faced with this harsh reality, one has three options:

1. Adopt Nihilism - but this is incoherent, for to do so indicates that there is a motivation for an act (the act of becoming a Nihilist)  but this is opposed to Nihilism.

2. Adopt Existentialism - claim that somehow human reality generates value "ex nihil". However this is incoherent as it is impossible for something which is intrinsically valueless (that is "human reality") to generate value. All that it can generate is relative value: "value to human life" - but if "human life" is of no value itself, this relative value is worthless, being relative to nothing-of-value.

3. Adopt Eternalism - claim that there is an aspect of reality (yet to be determined) which is not futile and is of an eternal and unchanging and imperishable nature. Once one adopts this position, value and worth spread outwards from this supposed eternal dimension of reality in a manner which it is possible to account of rationally.

Is there any such reality as Free-Will

If the "output " of any biological organism is either genetically determined or environmentally determined or random (or some combination of these three) then it would seem that none of these could feasibly be considered "free will" or what anyone means by "free will".

This is not a biological argument, it is a philosophical argument - and a good one.

However, all it establishes is that one must be very careful in talking about "FreeWill" because it is very unclear as to what it might mean or why one should be motivated to want there to be such a thing.

I think that one should take on board the idea that every act is caused (not necessarily determined) by other events (not necessarily in the past, of course) and the seek to elucidate what "FreeWill" might mean if this is the case.

In the and. any "FreeWill" decision either has a rationale or it is arbitrary. If it has a rationale it is either correct or mistaken - given the inadequacy of our knowledge it is always going to be some kind of "guess" as to what is best. If it is correct, it is determined by objective reality and we never really had a "choice"; if it is mistaken, then it is simply a mistaken choice and something to be avoided. If it has no rationale then it may be a "choice" but it is a sub-human choice and nothing to be desired.

Human righteous anger towards God

The problem of pain and suffering and death (whether of human responsibility or "natural") is immense. If there is no complete, final, adequate and satisfactory (just) answer to this problem, then we have every right to be very angry with God indeed: not that this would do us any good.

Of course, it is God who has made us how we are and has given us an awareness of the rights we have, as beings created in the Divine Image. It is God who has enabled us to appreciate the horror that is wickedness. It is God who has constituted us with feelings of righteous anger and a hunger and thirst for righteousness. God very much wants us to be aggrieved about the injustice which flourishes, even though we cannot fundamentally solve the problem in this world.

"Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they shall be satisfied."

Mind and Consciousness

It seems to me that the mind/soul/personality is very different from the consciousness/spirit/person/hypostasis. The mind of itself is not conscious: hence the ready possibility of conceiving of "the unconscious mind" - whether or not such there is any such.


It seems to me that the mind is a central aspect of the life/soul (synonyms) of a creature. The life/soul is the set of processes (chemical, electrical and mechanical) which cohere with the effect of maintaining themselves in dynamic stability.

Life is "constancy maintained in flux". Life is not any mystical reality or substance beyond the complex behaviour/motion of organised matter. The soul is not a principle which exists apart from the matter which it informs - except as a form; but then it is not active, being outside time, and activity/motion is the basic reality of the soul.

The animal mind is identical with the higher biochemical functions of the brain and is that part of the life/soul which reacts to and learns from external stimulae on the basis of internal (somewhat) adaptive models the external environment.

The mind consists of information and processes which continually manipulate this information in order to produce more information: that is, the mind consists of ideas and models and "utilities" available to be patched together as models. It is entirely possible that a non-living entity (such as an android) could have a mind; though it is uniquely life that would generate mind as part of life's self-definition as "self-sustained persistence" and Darwinian selection.

The human mind is reasonable, analytic and reflective because it has evolved to be so as a result of dealing with the physical world over many generations of selection of those individuals most able to respond successfully to environmental necessities and change.

It seems to me, that the life/soul/mind itself is easily understood on the basis of today's science; to the extent that one can begin to clearly envisage its Form in specific detail.


Consciousness is a different matter entirely from mind. Mind is the object and content of consciousness. One is conscious of one's ideas and the outcome of one's thought-process; but one is not conscious of the operation of those processes themselves - any more than the processes that enable one to ride a bicycle.

Just as I grasp a spanner in my hand; I grasp the idea of a spanner in my mind - and I am conscious of both; or, rather, in the second case I am conscious of the sense-data represented in my mind as sensations which I interpret as the "idea of holding a spanner". The "I" which I constantly reference is, to an extent, the idea that I have of my spirit/consciousness; but it is also the idea which I have of my overall unity - which is NOT at all (obviously) the same thing!

It seems to me that a complex, rational, analytical, reflective, emotive mind could exist that was not at all conscious: that the idea of mind can be fully described and accounted for without any mention of "consciousness" or "personal, subjective experience". This central aspect of human reality is entirely transcendent and ineffable. The consciousness or spirit is the principle by which I am conscious - the raw ability or potential for awareness as opposed to the content of awareness. It is that by which I am conscious not that of which I am conscious - the latter is, in my account, the mind.

While the consciousness, spirit or person is the basis (understanding, foundation or hypostasis) of all that makes us truly human and seems to be what gives objective value and worth to human existence, it is not easy (or, perhaps even possible) to analyse it, account for it or describe it. Hence, it is not possible for me to even communicate to you what it is in my experience.

First, the consciousness is entirely unlike any thing I can speak of; so the typical programme of deliniating a thing's being by saying what it is like (and how it is so) and what it is unlike fails. The consciousness is simply unlike all things and somehow seems only to be "like" God - another ineffable being. In particular, it seems to have no parts and be entirely singular.

Second, it is unclear that I have any experience whatsoever of my consciousness. It is rather by virtue of my consciousness that I experience all that I do experience. Hence, it would seem that to discourse of the consciousness would involve the impossible task of accounting for something which is beyond and beneath all experience (its foundation or hypostasis) and yet is the basis of all comprehension and understanding. All that I have to go on is the idea which somehow exists in my mind of "consciousness" - and how that idea got there, in the absence of any experience of consciousness for it to correspond to is a fascinating point in its own right!

Hence, if you have any understanding of what I am writing; this can only be because you yourself are a conscious being (or at least have an idea of "consciouness" in your mind) and are somehow recognising the incommunicable reality which I am "talking around" but not directly of.

Reality and Consciousness

Consciousness seems to be the bedrock, foundation and substance of reality. If there was no conscious being, then the distinction between "possible existence of the world" and "actual existence of the world" would be difficult to make. Although reality is objective, the idea of objectivity could never arise unless there was a subject to distinguish its own subjective and personal experience from the objective reality which gives rise to that experience in the first place.

I wonder whether it is this truth which is at the bottom of the persistent troubles in Quantum Mechanics. Modern QM obliquely recognises the importance of measurement and subjectivity, but gives no account of how the observer is involved: only that they are so.

As a Catholic, I hold the doctrine that the fundamental basis of reality is PERSONAL - that is "spiritual" and "consciousness". Hence the idea that reality is founded on consciousness does not surprise me, though I admit to having little understanding of its meaning or significance.