This post deals with aspects of Mormonism which Mormons normally prefer not to discuss publicly, though I try to be tactful and do not violate any specific oaths of non-disclosure. If that bothers you, don’t read the post.
Monthly Archives: March 2013
I was born on the Ides — that is, the 15th — of March. (I’ve been told that my grandfather, who died shortly before I was born and whose name I bear, used to say “Beware the Ides of March!” sometimes for no apparent reason, though my father does not remember this.)
Today — my birthday — my wife and I were working in our study. She was preparing for a class with a junior high school student she tutors, looking at a handout from the student’s English teacher at school. She found the following example sentences on the handout and had to show them to me:
“It’s March 16th. It was my birthday yesterday.” The fact that the handout (photocopied from a grammar textbook) just happened to use my birthday as an example would have been coincidence enough — but on top of that it was actually on my birthday that we happened to read it!
But the coincidences don’t stop there. Wanting to give her student some additional material to practice, she asked me if I had any grammar books that covered the same topic. I got out an old grammar book I’d bought some 10 years ago in America and turned to the relevant unit. Here’s what I found:
“Is it the fifteenth today? ~ No, the sixteenth.” The same two dates that had been used as an example on the other handout!
I guess the synchronicity would have been more perfect if this had all happened tomorrow rather than today — but it’s still quite striking enough to be almost creepy.
Reading Aquinas, I’ve found another argument for the existence of God to add to my list:
The distinctions between things can’t result from chance since they are stably ordered; so they must result from some causal tendency. But not that of a cause acting by necessity of its nature, for nature is determined to one course, and so nothing that acts by necessity of its nature can intend distinction of things as such. So their distinction must result from the intention of a knowing cause; the consideration of distinction seems to be intellect’s prerogative, and Anaxagoras attributed distinction to intellect. But the universal distinction of things can’t result from some secondary cause’s intention, since all such causes are themselves part of the universe of distinct causes. So there must exist a first cause [i.e. God] — as such distinguished from all others — intending the distinction of all things.
— Summa contra Gentiles, 1.50 (McDermott translation)
I’ll comment on this line of argument later, since at this point I am only able to understand it in a very shallow manner, but it seems worth pursuing, and I think it ties into some of my recent epiphanies on the subject of agency.
I am interested in this mainly as an argument for the existence of God, but the secondary conclusion (actually the primary one in the context of the larger text), that God intends the distinction of all things, is also striking. Seijio Arakawa makes a similar point in his Brief Experimental Theology of Heaven and Earth:
The purpose of Earthly human existence (or, at least, the aim to which Earthly existence has been repurposed after the Fall) is not only to produce a number of saved individuals; it is to produce an unimaginable variety of them. (Otherwise, we would have to believe that human variations are always a product of sin or corruption, or at best irrelevant; such a belief certainly interferes with the commandment to love thy neighbour.)
The idea that distinction as such is good and is intended by God could be seen as one of the main things that differentiates Western religion from Eastern.
This past Tuesday night I was mopping the floor, and the cats were charging around chasing the mop. Something about the way they were moving made my wife say, “Don’t you think they look like slugs?” Actually, she said that mostly in Chinese — “牠們很像 slugs, 你不覺得嗎?” — but with slugs in English, since the corresponding Chinese word (蛞蝓) is rather obscure.
I didn’t quite see it. “Slugs? But slugs are slow.”
“Well, they look like fast slugs.”
She went on to mention their slug-like appearance three or four more times that night and the next morning.
The afternoon after this, I was tutoring one of my students, who has been practicing his English reading comprehension with a simplified version of Treasure Island. I don’t have a copy of the book, but he brings it to our classes with him and we begin each session by talking about the chapter he has just read. This time, I asked him how far he had gotten in the book, and he opened up to chapter 18 — the second paragraph of which reads as follows:
I could not paddle and I saw that I would be drowned or dashed to death on sharp rocks if I came closer to shore. And I saw what looked like giant slugs on the rocks. These, I later learned, were sea lions, barking in the sun.
So that’s twice in less than 24 hours that I encountered carnivorous mammals being rather improbably compared to slugs — and although sea lions are biologically caniform, linguistically they are lions, a kind of cat.
Some have suggested that human will is compelled to choose what it does, though not coerced. For not all compulsion is violent, only external compulsion: the movements of nature are compelled but not violent, since violence — originating outside — is incompatible with both the natural and the willed — both of which originate inside. The suggestion, however, is heretical since it destroys the notion of human action as deserving or undeserving: somebody so compelled to act that he can’t avoid it doesn’t seem to be doing anything deserving or undeserving. The opinion is also philosophically anarchic, not only opposed to the faith but destroying the foundations of ethics. For if we are not in any way free to will but compelled, everything that makes up ethics vanishes: pondering action, exhorting, commanding, punishing, praising, condemning. Opinions like these, which destroy the foundations of a branch of philosophy, are called anarchic: the opinion that nothing changes, for example, which does away with natural philosophy. People are led to embrace them, Aristotle says, partly by brinkmanship and partly by sophistical reasoning to which they can’t find the answers.
— St. Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones Disputatae de Malo (McDermott translation)
Finding the term philosophically anarchic a little odd, I looked up the original and found that Prof. McDermott has taken certain liberties with the text (something I had suspected anyway, since his Aquinas is so readable!). In the original Latin, the bolded clause reads as follows: Huiusmodi autem opiniones quae destruunt principia alicuius partis philosophiae, dicuntur positiones extraneae. — so it appears that Aquinas is not calling such opinions anarchic but rather foreign to philosophy, a designation which makes much more sense. Such opinions, regardless of whether or not they can be proven false, simply have no place in philosophy.
(I also looked up the passage from Metaphysics Aquinas cites here, just in case positiones extraneae should turn out to be a translation of a Greek term more properly translated as anarchic. But Aristotle merely attempts to explain why some people might deny the principle of non-contradiction. He doesn’t create and define a category of anarchic/foreign opinions as Aquinas does, or at least not in the cited passage.)
Aquinas’s concept of opinions which are foreign to philosophy is comparable to my concept of philosophically dysfunctional opinions. (See my use of that term here and here.) But Aquinas’s definition — opinions “which destroy the foundations of a branch of philosophy” — manifests a typically scholastic let’s-classify-everything approach which I find less than helpful. I prefer to define a philosophically dysfunctional opinion as one that undermines, not some particular branch of philosophy (perhaps some branches, such as astrology, deserve to be undermined?) but philosophy itself — thought itself, in fact.
The end purpose of all thought is to serve as a guide to action. This purpose can be frustrated, and thought rendered dysfunctional, in several different ways, but — to attempt to get into the scholastic spirit a bit — philosophical dysfunctions can be classified under three main heads:
- The denial of ends. If nothing is good or bad, or if no particular thing matters more than any other particular thing, then the idea of a “guide to action” makes no sense. A guide cannot function without a destination.
- The denial of means. If there is no causation, or if causal relations cannot be known and reasoned about, there can similarly be no guidance. In addition to knowing the destination, we need to know which roads lead to it and which do not.
- The denial of agency itself. Obviously if there is no action — only the passive propagation of mechanistic cause-and-effect — then there is nothing to guide.
On Thursday morning, I suddenly felt like listening to the Rolling Stones — specifically to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” I’m not a huge Stones fan and only own two of their albums, neither of which includes “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” so I listened to it on YouTube.
I remembered that when I was a little kid and heard that song on the radio, I had always assumed that “I’m Jumpin’ Jack Flash, it’s a gas gas gas” was a reference to Spring-heeled Jack, perhaps with a secondary allusion to the Mad Gasser of Mattoon — Jack and the Gasser being two characters I knew from the “true unsolved mysteries” books I liked to read in those days. Wondering if I had perhaps been right, I looked the song up on Wikipedia and found that it had actually been inspired by Jack Dyer, the gardener at Keith Richards’s country house — not by the spring-heel’d Terror of London. Then I skimmed the Wikipedia article on Spring-heeled Jack for good measure. (It didn’t mention the Stones song, but it did compare Jack to the Mad Gasser.)
That night, I came home to find my wife watching TV. It was a sci-fi program in which the heroes somehow get hold of a velociraptor (not sure how they do this, since I missed the beginning) and, trying to send it back in time to where it belongs, they accidentally send it back to Victorian London instead. The raptor of course starts killing people, but the deaths are blamed on Spring-heeled Jack. Then the heroes go back to Victorian London themselves to catch the velociraptor, and they too are accused of being Spring-heeled Jack!
I regularly go for years at a stretch without ever once hearing, reading, speaking, or thinking of Spring-heeled Jack — so having him cross my path twice in one day — well, it was kind of a gas!
I will attempt to make sense here, but don’t get your hopes up. I can feel as I write what follows that I am being neither eloquent nor clear, that my subject is defeating me. Nevertheless I will try.
It is necessary to assume the reality of cause and effect. Although, as Hume demonstrated, there can be no proof — nor even any evidence — that there is such a thing as causation, any philosophy that dispensed with the concept would be a dysfunctional philosophy, one incapable of doing what a philosophy is supposed to do, namely, to serve as a guide to action. One could not say that such a philosophy would be “false” necessarily, but it would be wrong and unacceptable at a level deeper than, and prior to, the level at which the concepts of truth and falsehood become relevant. As John R. Harris says in Climbing Backward Out of Caves, “causation is not a sight but a way of processing things seen” — but despite the lack of, the impossibility of, evidence for causation, it is nevertheless philosophically necessary for us to process things in this way.
The concept of mechanistic causation is incomplete without the concept of agency. Without agency, events are caused, but nothing is caused by anything. Each link in the chain of causation merely passively passes on what it has received. Such a model of the world — all dominoes and no fingers — is incoherent and philosophically useless. In a world with no agency, there can be no real causation, either. Such a world would contain intelligible patterns — it would not be a mere chaos — but it would be an abuse of language to say it contained causes and effects. And causes and effects are philosophically necessary.
What is agency, then? Agency causes things but is not caused by things. It has a relationship with prior events which is intelligible — it is not mere randomness — but does not amount to cause-and-effect. What exactly that means is admittedly hard to grasp. The concept of agency is (to borrow a simile from G. K. Chesterton) like the sun; it illuminates other things, but looking at it directly is not advisable.
Agency is what makes it possible for contingent things to exist. Without it, it would be impossible for necessary things to give rise to contingent things.
I should mention that, as a sort of corollary to my acceptance of agency, I also now accept the existence of God. I hasten to add, lest my religious friends get too excited, that at this point my tentative theism/deism is of the barebones god-of-the-philosophers variety — i.e., I don’t yet believe in anything that looks much like Jehovah — but it is nevertheless a significant step for me. This card-carrying atheist has turned in his card.