Hope and change

April 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

To mainstream media applause, Republican candidate says:

“I call on older people, white people, property owners, and married couples who powered the victories of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and the great Republican congressional victory of 1994 to stand together once again.”

Well, not exactly.

Uncertainty, the worst catastrophe

April 27, 2010 § 5 Comments

It occurred to me while reading this post (agree with him or not, Jim Manzi is an interesting and fair commentator on almost any subject) that modern people seem to have a pervasive tendency to take wild guesses seriously, because copping to ignorance is just unnacceptable. So we see ourselves going to war in Iraq based on a subjective “one percent probability” that Saddam Hussein would give weapons of mass destruction to Osama bin Laden, even though they hated each other and we couldn’t verify that Hussein had any WMD’s. We see draconian regulations proposed to head off a climate disaster that everyone with knowledge of the matter agrees is not expected to happen, but is nevertheless possible in principle. We see economic theories treated by armchair theorists as deterministic models of reality, even though anyone who really had such a model that actually worked could be a billionaire overnight. We see, treated as established fact taught as such to every schoolchild, a century and a half of wild speculations about what conceivably could have caused the world of single-celled creatures to become the world we see today, because the social consequences of admitting ignorance are thought too grave to be tolerable. We see fact-resistant insistence that freely distributing condoms in Africa will stop AIDS, that contraception will reduce “unwanted pregnancies”.

These are just examples which come immediately to mind. Everywhere we see the gravity of consequences driving people to conclusions which they have no reason to believe beyond bare possibility in principle, often in the face of strong contrary indications.

It seems that the thing we human beings hate most, more than just about anything else, is to admit to ourselves that we are ignorant, that we have to trust in God to deal with the things we don’t know: often things of great consequence. No wonder the Tree of Knowledge was Satan’s first choice of temptation for Man: more of a temptation, it seems, than the Tree of Life.

Machinists and Farmers

April 23, 2010 § 15 Comments

In some circles, the distinction between building a clock and breeding a new kind of creature seems to do some crucial metaphysical work, even though both are the actions of intelligent agents. We all know that a Bernese Mountain Dog is different from a Timex in fundamental ways. Yet it is still a fact that neither this oil-spill-eating bacteria nor that josephson junction would exist, as particular things, without the intervention, in time, of an intelligent agent.

The metaphysical issue becomes especially acute when we get into areas far away from common experience: geologic time and astronomic space, and into the submicroscopic realm, where common sense goes all the way out the window. Are the viruses we synthesize in the lab from non-living materials “alive”? Are they “artifacts”, or are they “natural”? If we manufactured simple cells in the lab from non-living materials, would they “live”? Would we classify them as “artifacts” or as “natural”?

The thing that strikes me about these questions is that they are not fundamentally questions about what nature can or would do on its own, or how God does things. Nor are they questions about what we ought to do. They are questions about what we can do. Not what God can do or “would” do, nor what nature can do, but what the Imago Dei can do: about what powers we have as acting, intelligent creatures made in the image of God.

And I’m not sure that that is a question which can be answered by a philosophy of nature.

How about a Congregation for the Cause of Rationality?

April 14, 2010 § 39 Comments

I happen to be “intelligent design friendly,” in the sense that I don’t think Michael Behe and William Dembski are villians whose ideas are not just wrong but utterly without merit, ideas which ought to be purged from polite company. I am open to the possibility that intelligent agency, not merely randomness and fixed laws, might in fact have been causally involved with some of the actual stuff we find in the real world. I also happen to be rather “neo-Darwinism hostile,” in the sense that I am fully convinced that many of the mainstream claims about evolution which I was taught in my primary education are outright falsehoods resting more on hubris than on fact.

Keep in mind that, with what follows, I am mostly talking out of my hat when it comes to characterizing philosophical positions. I’m not a philosopher, and I don’t play one on TV. I’m just doing the best I can here to describe where various folks have drawn lines in the sand in actual conversations I’ve had recently.

Because of my own admitted biases I’ve long been puzzled by the hostility on the part of some Aristotlean-Thomist philosophers to ID. On the one hand, I agree that one cannot “prove the existence of God” from empirical data (because we can’t “prove” anything, in a univocal sense of the term “prove” meant by the criticism, from empirical data); and there will always be folks who overreach, grind their various axes, etc. On the other hand, why all the hostility, the per se opposition, to empirical investigation of origins which is open to the possibility of intelligent agency as a cause? In particular, why all the hostility toward ID without at the same time at least a corresponding hostility to neo-Darwinian empirical investigation which a priori rules out agency as a cause? Why what looks to me like implacable hostility to the notion that some of the claims of some of the ID guys might sometimes be, you know, true and stuff: significant and interesting, even?

I think I understand it at least superficially now, after some recent discussion. To a certain kind of Aristotlean (CKA), certain things simply must be the case if the world view is to hang together. For the present discussion two things are critical. First, a very specific understanding of the categorical difference between human made artifacts and natural objects does most of the heavy lifting. Second, when we correctly predicate attributes to God we are making analogies to things we know rather than setting up an equivalence: in particular, for our purposes here, God’s agency and human agency are very different sorts of things, though they are analogous.

I agree that there is a categorical difference between natural objects and artifacts, and I agree that Divine predicates are analogies. But I don’t agree with what some folks mean by that.

What it all boils down to, best as I can tell, is that for our CKA the emergence of life from non-living matter through intelligent agency – when we are unequivocal about “intelligent agency”, that is, we are not making an analogy – is impossible. Some might even go so far as to rule out the possibility of building a living organism from non-living materials in a laboratory setting. (Ahem). It seems to me that that particular understanding is actually subject to falsification should such a thing be accomplished; though it ought to be emphasized that not everyone agrees that A-T metaphysics makes the empirical prediction that life cannot even in principle be synthesized from non-life.

So for our CKA, a proposal to scientifically investigate the possibility that life on Earth as we actually find it emerged in part through the action of intelligent agency is literally a proposal to scientifically investigate a miracle. Certainly God is capable of miracles, because he is God; but to our CKA a ludicrously improbable event is not literally a miracle, whereas an act of agency prior to the existence of human agents is a miracle.

Keep in mind that a Christian CKA supposedly believes in miracles. However, scientifically investigating the forensic possibility that a miracle occurred is, it is supposed, an irrational and wrongheaded thing to do.

My take on that conclusion is that we’d better call these guys and let them know.

Reuters signals indifference to truth in reporting the news

April 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

I think it is only reasonable to conclude that the news agency and journalist Philip Pullella approve of raping pets and torturing kittens.

Get the full story.


April 5, 2010 § 1 Comment

I am informed by an email correspondent that the blogger Morning’s Minion at Vox Nova lost his mother to cancer in the last week. My deepest condolences.

Usury Coda

April 5, 2010 § 12 Comments

So, after the last year or so of looking into the matter I think I understand what the moral species usury is.

Contrary to my expectations I find myself largely in agreement with St. Thomas Aquinas on the subject, assuming I understand him correctly. I fully expected to disagree with Aquinas when I first started reading about usury during the financial crisis of 2008; but that has turned out not to be the case. I think Aquinas was right: that to at least some extent the folks who think they disagree with him, who think that history has gone against his view, are disagreeing with a caricature. The one place where my view may differ slightly from his is in my understanding of altruistic lending, and just titles to actual costs which may arise in the case of altruistic lending. But even so that distinction makes no difference whatsoever in evaluating present-day commercial activities, since commercial activities by definition are not altruistic. (Curiously the distinction between a credit union and a commercial bank may make all the difference between Heaven and Hell).

I do not view changes in circumstances or changes in the nature of money as at all pertinent to the question. I view Belloc’s summary as substantially correct but incomplete.

Usury consists in lending money to a person, with recourse to the person for return of principal and profitable interest on the loan. It is always and without exception morally wrong to do this.

Non-usurious lending for profit consists in lending money to a person or organization, with recourse to specified assets and only those specified assets for return of principal, charging rent for the use of the portion of those assets represented by the loan, where the borrower has the option to pay off the principal and be quit of all obligation to pay interest. Non-usurious lending for profit, in short, involves mutual ownership of some specific asset or assets, where one party pays the other for the use of the other’s share of those assets, not for the use of money: in a case of default the lender can recover his principal from the assets only, not the borrower. There isn’t anything morally wrong with non-usurious lending for profit, and most business lending falls into this category.

Non-usurious altruistic lending consists of lending money to a person, with recourse to the person for return of principal and possibly also some actual costs incurred by the lender, provided that no profit motive is involved in making the loan. If there is any profit motive involved in making this kind of loan, it is usury. Therefore by definition it is not a business which can be justly entered into for profit.

I think we (or at least I) now have enough of an understanding to be able to look at the terms of many or most specific loans and say definitely whether those loans are or are not usurious. Unfortunately, a great many modern credit instruments – credit cards come immediately to mind, but that is just the most obvious in a vast sea of consumer credit instruments – seem to be both formally (in their contractual terms) and materially (in what actually occurs over the course of the loan) usurious.

There are other unjust acts which involve selling what doesn’t exist; this post specifically addresses the species usury, not those other generic acts. Acts of government in issuing currency and that sort of thing are outside the scope of these conclusions. And of course it is eminently possible that I’ll have to modify this view in light of some new information or argument of which I am currently unaware. But there is enough now in my view to warrant this definite conclusion, including definite criteria based on Magisterial sources for determining when the sin of usury specifically is being committed.

Asset-recourse loans are not usury

April 3, 2010 § 29 Comments

Pope Callistus III (1455-1458), Usury and Contract for Rent, from the Constitution “Regimini universalis” May 6, 1455 (quoted in Denzinger):

A petition recently addressed to us proposed the following matter: For a very long time, and with nothing in memory running to the contrary, in various parts of Germany, for the common advantage of society, there has been implanted among the inhabitants of those parts and maintained up to this time through constant observance, a certain custom. By this custom, these inhabitants — or, at least, those among them, who in the light of their condition and indemnities, seemed likely to profit from the arrangement — encumber their goods, their houses, their fields, their farms, their possessions, and inheritances, selling the revenues or annual rents in marks, or florins, or groats (according as this or that coin is current in those particular regions), and for each mark, florin, or groat in question, from those who have bought these coins, whether as revenues or as rents, have been in the habit of receiving a certain price appropriately fixed as to size according to the character of the particular circumstances, in conformity with the agreements made in respect of the relevant properties between themselves and the buyers. As guarantee for the payment of the aforeseaid revenues and rents they mortgage those of the aforesaid houses, lands, fields, farms, possessions, and inheritances that have been expressly named in the relevant contracts. In the favor of the sellers it is added to the contract that in proportion as they have, in whole or in part, returned to the said buyers the money just received, they are entirely quit and free of the obligation to pay the revenues and rents corresponding to the sum returned. But the buyers, on the other hand, even though the said goods, houses, lands, fields, possessions, and inheritances might by the passage of time be reduced to utter destruction and desolation, would not be empowered to recover even in respect of the price paid. [Note: precisely what I have termed an asset-recourse loan, as distinguished from person-recourse loans. — Z]

Now, by some a certain doubt and hesitation is entertained as to whether contracts of this kind are to be considered licit. Consequently, certain debtors, pretending these contracts would be usurious, seek to find thereby an occasion for the nonpayment of revenues and rents owed by them in this way… We therefore, … in order to remove every doubt springing from these hesitations, by our Apostolic authority, do declare by these present letters that the aforesaid contracts are licit and in agreement with law, and that said sellers, yielding all opposition, are effectively bound to the payment of the rents and revenues in conformity with the terms of the said contracts. [Ellipses in original.]

Turning it up to eleven

April 1, 2010 § 19 Comments

The Church teaches a set of criteria all of which must be satisfied in order for a decision to go to war to be just. I take it that the fact that all of them must be satisfied means that all of them must be satisfied, not that if several of them are turned up to eleven we can discount the remaining ones to irrelevance.

One way we can turn all the other criteria up to eleven to test the idea is through casuistry. I propose that the hypothetical of MAD, if we fine tune it a little, makes a reasonable gedankenexperiment.
Suppose that two armies are based on entirely different planets, planet Hatfield and planet McCoy. Planet Hatfield has only an army on it: all of the noncombatant civilians in the universe are on planet McCoy, so there are literally no innocents to protect from the Hatfields except the McCoys.
The Hatfields launch a planet-busting attack on the McCoys which cannot be stopped. (It doesn’t matter why: presume for the sake of argument that it is an unjust attack).
The only thing the McCoys are capable of doing is to launch weapons to kill some or all of the Hatfields without saving themselves. In other words, there is no serious prospect of success in the McCoys defending themselves through the use of arms. Presume certainty about the scenario, etc: that is, all of the other criteria for a just war are met.
Is it morally licit for the McCoys to launch an attack on the Hatfields?
As frustrating[*] as the answer may be, I think it is that no, it isn’t morally licit: each of the criteria in the just war doctrine must be independently satisfied, even when all the other criteria are turned up to eleven.
[*] I think part of the reason we find it frustrating – and I do mean “we” – is that we often find ourselves reluctant to leave ultimate justice to God.

Might makes right

March 30, 2010 § 33 Comments

One of the more difficult elements of the just war doctrine is the requirement that the country defending itself must actually have the power to defend itself in order for the decision to wage war to be just.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

– the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

– all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

there must be serious prospects of success;

– the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

(Emphasis mine).

Of course this means “might makes right” only as a necessary condition for a just war, not a sufficient condition. All of the other conditions must also be satisfied. But it is perhaps important to make it explicit that, contrary to modern egalitarian and democratic sensibilities, one of the requirements for justified remote material cooperation with evil is that the person doing it must be powerful enough to actually achieve the intended good end.

Put differently, we can’t justify our acts of remote material cooperation with evil by appealing to outcomes we are powerless to bring about.

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