"Essentialist" means just what I say it means…

April 27, 2006 § 13 Comments

Rob raises a pertinent question in the comments. Paraphrased: “What the heck do you mean by ‘essentialism’ anyway, Zippy?”

Wikipedia is interesting but not specifically helpful with what I am focused on here.

In a nutshell, an antiessentialist (or nominalist) will view a word like “liberalism” the way Humpty Dumpty views it. The word refers not to an objective external essence but to whatever internal state of his mind that Humpty chooses it to refer to; nothing more, nothing less, and always subject to Humpty’s will. Nobody else can impute an implication that Humpty does not agree to, because there is no essence to the referent other than just what Humpty wills. If Humpty is a liberal, it is only because Humpty agrees in every particular with what liberal means and implies, and further agrees that he is one. “Liberal”, if it applies legitimately as a label to Humpty, does so only because he chooses for it to apply and chooses all that it entails.

An essentialist understands a word to refer to some real essence that is external to and independent of the person who utters it. A speaker is not the God of the words he uses, creating just that reality by speech that he chooses to create: rather, his words refer to objective things and have objective implications about which he may be completely ignorant or mistaken. Humpty is a liberal if Humpty is in fact loyal to liberalism, which is an objective thing independent of Humpty. Humpty may or may not get to decide whether he has those loyalties – we don’t always get to decide what we believe is true, especially if it actually is true – but he doesn’t get to arbitrarily say what liberalism objectively is and what follows from it.

The gist of a number of my recent posts is that when someone starts playing Humpty Dumpty, it is time to make an omelette.

Statistics Worth Repeating

April 26, 2006 § 2 Comments

Consider, in a *single year* 1998, the Dept of Justice listed 103,600 cases of sexual abuse in public schools. From 1950 to 2003, there were 10,667 reported cases of clergy sexual abuse. That’s 10 times as much in one year as there were in 53 years in the Church. Yet nobody is passing laws singling out teachers for special exemption from ordinary laws. Only Catholics.

An ultramontane antiessentialist, by any other name, would be just as wrong…

April 25, 2006 § 52 Comments

“X is true because the Magisterium says so.”

“I know that X is true because the Magisterium says so.”

Sometimes the first statement is used in everyday sloppy language as shorthand for the second. But in general, these statements mean entirely different things; and in general, the first statement is false.

Extra credit: this is true even in disciplinary and juridical matters, not only in matters of faith and morals. The proximate reason we have to abstain from meat on Fridays is because the Magisterium has established this as a discipline. But the reason we have to obey the Magisterium in matters of discipline is not simply (and circularly) because the Magisterium says we have to obey the Magisterium in matters of discipline.

The Magisterium (and She says this herself, through the person of Pope Benedict) does not make things true by asserting them. The Magisterium can be relied upon to tell us what is in fact true. A sure witness to truth is not the creator of truth.

If a tree falls in the forest, and the Magisterium doesn’t say anything about it, it still makes a sound.

I Love Labels

April 22, 2006 § 24 Comments

How often does someone say “I hate labels”? Well, I love labels. Labels refer to essences, and to peoples’ objective loyalties to those essences or other objective participation in those essences.

Mistakes can be made with labels, of course, just as mistakes can be made in anything. But labels reflect the fact that things have essences: that when someone is labeled as an X that at the end of the day the label either does or does not objectively apply. The person either is objectively an X (that is, the person is loyal to X or in some way objectively participates in the essence of X) or not, even if the person genuinely is deceived about the matter and does not think so himself.

I love labels because they emphasize the fact that we are not God: that reality – even the reality of our interior selves which is not directly accessible to others – is independent of our willful assertions about it.

And that is why the modern world hates them.

The Essentials

April 22, 2006 § 21 Comments

Someone has been taking a lot of heat lately for some comments he made about the Da Vinci Code, gnosticism, and what he judges to be the non-connection between them. I haven’t read enough of the stuff he is criticizing to have a dog in the particular fight. But in the fight between essentialism and nominalism I have a very big, slobbery pit bull on the side of essentialism.

Many Catholics fall into a form of anti-essentialism when it comes to the Church. Islam, for example, these Catholics will say, is whatever Moslems happen to say it is. What makes the Church fundamentally different from Islam, Gnosticism, liberalism, conservatism, etc. is that the Church has a magisterium. The magisterium has the authority to say what is and is not Catholic, so Catholicism, unlike these other isms, has a true essence. These other isms are treated as though they lack an essence because they do not have a magisterium. They are whatever their adherents happen to believe that they are.

This anti-essentialism is not without consequence. It leads people to believe that, for example, Islam can be made peaceful simply by convincing enough Moslems that Islam should be peaceful. It leads people to believe that open borders will not harm the common good if enough people believe that open borders should not harm the common good. It leads people to believe that women can be made priests if enough Catholics believe that women should be made priests. It leads people to believe that reality is constructed by what we happen to believe, rather than what we believe being (ideally) a reflection of reality. It leads people to believe that reality should conform to our beliefs, rather than that our beliefs should conform to reality.

In other words, anti-essentialism leads people to believe that we are God. And I think that may explain its widespread appeal.

Liberalism (for example, as this analysis applies to other isms as well) has an essence that is independent of what any particular liberal thinks. To be a liberal is not to own the essence of liberalism, to define it for onesself: it is to have an alliegance to liberalism, a loyalty to liberalism, a faith in liberalism, a liberalism which has an essence that is independent of the self, a self which may well be deceived about the essence of that liberalism. There are “good” (which is to say highly loyal) liberals and “bad” (which is to say apostate or dissenting) liberals, just as there are good and bad Catholics. And what anyone in particular thinks or asserts about the matter has no necessary connection to what is objectively true.

As I said, I haven’t done the diligence required to take a side in The Fifth Column’s particular fight over the essence of gnosticism and the DVC. But very few things indeed are what they are just because we say so. Anti-essentialism is a lie, with all that that implies.


April 21, 2006 § 17 Comments

By way of background, a protein- any protein- is a complicated little machine. It is manufactured by a living cell, which initially produces it as a linear chain of amino acids, which (the “polypeptide chain”) then spontaneously folds up into a stable “native state”. There are twenty different amino acids, and a typical protein will be a few hundred amino acids long (many are longer, including many which are necessary for the process of making proteins in the first place). Now, just because a protein folds into a native state that doesn’t mean that it is useful for any particular purpose; but all life depends upon proteins folded into stable native states. (This includes viruses, prions – the little boogers that cause Mad Cow – everything living or close to living).

None of these things, including viruses or prions, grow independently of a preexisting living cell that has all the machinery (machinery which includes lots of complex preexisting proteins, among other things) required to make them.

But suppose random polypeptide chains did appear spontaneously in some primordial soup, or inside some primordial protected lipid bilayer which also formed spontaneously. How many random polypeptide chains have been shown to fold into a well-defined stable native state at all, let alone perform any useful function?

If you guessed “none”, you win the prize. Folding doesn’t make a protein useful for a particular purpose, but folding is necessary in order to get a useful protein at all. And random polypeptide chains don’t fold. Of the twenty to the power 100 polypeptide chains possible of length 100, only the ones already coded in DNA or designed by a person – an infinitesimally small fraction of all possible ones – will fold. Randomly generated ones don’t.

So the next time a materialist (or a functional materialist) tells you that all the diversity of life arose by random chance, natural laws, and natural selection, you will know for a fact that he is making a statement of faith, not a scientific statement.

And it isn’t the evidential faith of a Catholic – trust vested in a Person known to exist from the natural evidence. No.

It is a blind faith.

How many Darwinists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

April 20, 2006 § 8 Comments


Given geographic time, some random chain of Darwinists will happen to have a global free energy minimum at the bottom of an energy landscape that just happens to be shaped like a funnel, fold up into a light bulb, and screw themselves/itself into a socket, even though no random polypeptide (er, sorry, Darwinist) chains are ever observed to fold.

(HT: Mark Shea).

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