Saturday, December 31, 2022

On the death of Pope Benedict XVI

I’m not sure when I first became aware of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was later to become Pope Benedict XVI.  During my high school years in the early 80s, I had only a vague awareness of the doctrinal controversies roiling the Church.  I then knew little more than that they had something to do with liberal theologians and their opposition to Pope John Paul II.  My first clear memory of Ratzinger himself is from the very end of that decade, when I had left the Church and was on my way to becoming an atheist.  I read a magazine article about him and his work as the pope’s chief doctrinal officer.  The impression it left me with was of a man of deep learning and gravitas.  For some reason, what stood out especially was a remark of his quoted in the article, to the effect that a sound theology “cannot… act as if the history of thought only seriously began with Kant.”  (I later learned that this came from a lecture of his since reprinted as the third chapter of God’s Word: Scripture – Tradition – Office.)

Friday, December 23, 2022

Why did the Incarnation occur precisely when it did?

Why did the second Person of the Trinity become man two thousand years ago – rather than at the beginning of the human race, or near the end of the world, or at some other point in history?  The Christmas season is an especially appropriate time to consider this question.  And as is so often the case, St. Thomas Aquinas provides guidance for reflection.  He addresses the issue in the last two Articles of Question 1 of the Third Part of the Summa Theologiae.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

When do popes teach infallibly?

It is well-known that the Catholic Church teaches that popes are infallible when they speak ex cathedra or exercise their extraordinary magisterium.  What that means is that if a pope formally presents some teaching in a manner intended to be definitive and absolutely binding, he is prevented by divine assistance from falling into error.  The ordinary magisterium of the Church, and the pope when exercising it, are also infallible when they simply reiterate some doctrine that has been consistently taught for centuries.  (Elsewhere, I’ve discussed the criteria for determining whether some such doctrine has been taught infallibly.)  Even when papal teaching on faith and morals is not presented in a definitive and absolutely binding way, assent is normally required of Catholics.  (The rare exceptions are something I’ve also addressed elsewhere.)

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Is God’s existence a “hypothesis”?

Over at Twitter I’ve caused some annoyance by objecting to the phrase “the God hypothesis.”  The context was a discussion of Stephen Meyer’s book Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Scientific Discoveries That Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe.  My view is that to present theism as a “hypothesis” that might be confirmed by scientific findings is at best irrelevant to actually establishing God’s existence and at worst harmful insofar as it insinuates serious misunderstandings of the nature of God and his relationship to the world.  Since Twitter is not a medium conducive to detailed and nuanced exposition, here is a post explaining at greater length what I mean.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Davies on classical theism and divine freedom

I’ve long regarded Brian Davies’ An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion as the best introduction to that field on the market.  A fourth edition appeared not too long ago, and I’ve been meaning to post something about it.  Like earlier editions, it is very clearly written and accessible, without in any way compromising philosophical depth.  Its greatest strength, though, is the attention it gives the classical theist tradition in general and Thomism in particular, while still covering all the ground the typical analytic philosophy of religion text would (and, indeed, bringing the classical tradition into conversation with this contemporary work).  The fourth edition adds some new material along these lines.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Augustine on divine punishment of the good alongside the wicked

Many today labor under the delusion that the reality of suffering is a difficulty for Christianity – as if Christian doctrine would lead us to expect little or no suffering, so that its adherents should be flummoxed by suffering’s prevalence.  As I have discussed in previous articles, this is the reverse of the truth.  The Catholic faith teaches that suffering is the inexorable consequence of original sin and past actual sin.  It is an essential part of the long and painful process of sanctification, of overcoming sinful habits of thought and action.  It is the inevitable concomitant of the persecution Christians must face for preaching the Gospel and condemning the world’s wickedness.  It is an inescapable punishment for sin, which we must embrace in a penitential spirit.  By way of suffering we pay both our own temporal debt and that of others for whom we might offer up our suffering.  By way of it we most closely unite ourselves to Christ’s Passion.  The extent and depth of human suffering thus confirms rather than disconfirms the claims of Christianity.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Update on All One in Christ

Recently I was interviewed by Steve and Becky Greene on The Catholic Conversation about my book All One in Christ: A Catholic Critique of Racism and Critical Race Theory.  You can listen to the interview here.  Author Gavin Ashenden and teacher Katherine Bennett discuss the book at the Catholic Herald’s Merely Catholic podcast, judging it “an absolute must-read for all Catholic educators.”  Meanwhile, at the Acton Institute Powerblog, Sarah Negri kindly reviews the book.  From the review:

This book is perfectly subtitled in that it spends significant time evaluating both the church’s denunciation of racism and the incompatibility of Church teaching with CRT… Readers who seek a thorough overview of the church’s statements and position on racism will find it here, and Christians who have ever experienced confusion as to whether CRT obtains as a remedy for it will come away with the understanding that Christianity and critical race theory rest on entirely different first principles; indeed, they present irreconcilable worldviews

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Adventures in the Old Atheism, Part VII: The influence of Kant

Immanuel Kant was, of course, not an atheist.  So why devote an entry to him in this series, thereby lumping him in with the likes of Nietzsche, Sartre, Freud, Marx, Woody Allen, and Schopenhauer?  In part because Kant’s philosophy, I would suggest, inadvertently did more to bolster atheism than any other modern system, Hume’s included.  He was, as Nietzsche put it, a “catastrophic spider” (albeit not for the reasons Nietzsche supposed).  But also in part because, like the other thinkers in this series, Kant had a more subtle and interesting attitude about religion than contemporary critics of traditional theology like the New Atheists do.

Friday, November 4, 2022

Thursday, November 3, 2022

The teleological foundations of human rights

My essay “The Teleological Foundations of Human Rights” appears in The Cambridge Handbook of Natural Law and Human Rights, edited by Tom Angier, Iain Benson, and Mark Retter and out this month.  Here’s the abstract:

Natural law theory in the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) tradition is grounded in a metaphysics of essentialism and teleology, and in turn grounds a theory of natural rights. This chapter offers a brief exposition of the metaphysical ideas in question, explains how the A-T tradition takes a natural law moral system to follow from them, and also explains how in turn the existence of certain basic natural rights follows from natural law. It then explains how the teleological foundations of natural law entail not only that natural rights exist, but also that they are limited or qualified in certain crucial ways. The right to free speech is used as a case study to illustrate these points. Finally, the chapter explains the sense in which the natural rights doctrine generated by A-T natural law theory amounts to a theory of human rights, specifically.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Divine freedom and necessity

In a recent article, I commented on Fr. James Dominic Rooney’s critique of David Bentley Hart.  My focus was, specifically, on Fr. Rooney’s objections to Hart’s view that God’s creation of the world follows inevitably from his nature.  That position, as Rooney points out, is heretical.  In the comments section at Fr. Aidan Kimel’s blog, Hart defends himself, objecting both to Rooney’s characterization of his position and to the claim that it is heretical.  Let’s take a look.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

It’s an overdue open thread

We’re long overdue for an open thread, so here it is.  Now you can post that otherwise off-topic comment that I deleted three days, three weeks, or three months ago.  Feel free to talk about whatever you like, from light cones to Indiana Jones, Duns Scotus to the current POTUS, Urdu to Wall of Voodoo.  Just keep it civil and classy. 

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Divine freedom and heresy

I commend to you Fr. James Dominic Rooney’s excellent recent Church Life Journal article “The Incoherencies of Hard Universalism.”  It is directed primarily at David Bentley Hart’s defense of universalism in his book That All Shall Be Saved, of which I have also been critical.  Fr. Rooney sums up his basic argument as follows:

If it is a necessary truth that all will be saved, something makes it so.  The only way it would be impossible for anyone to go to hell is,

1. that God could not do otherwise than cause human beings to love him or

2. that human beings could not do otherwise than love God.

3. There is no third option.

Both of these options, however, entail heresy.  This is why universalism has been seen as heretical by mainstream Christianity for millennia, for good reason.

Friday, October 14, 2022

The latest on All One in Christ

Here are the latest reviews of my book All One in Christ: A Catholic Critique of Racism and Critical Race Theory.  Casey Chalk kindly reviews the book at The Spectator World.  From the review:

Feser’s short book contains several excellent chapters that define, dissect, and ultimately demolish CRT. Not for nothing does writer Ryan T. Anderson call it “the best book I’ve read on the topic.”…

I presume none of Feser’s CRT sparring partners will actually read this book – they have proved themselves so impervious to even the most charitable and tempered criticism that they seem a lost cause…

Perhaps, then, the best target audience for Feser’s pocket-size refutation of CRT are those who thought embracing it would place them in the “good guys” camp, but have begun to realize they were suckered them into a spiral of endless self-abasement.  There is no forgiveness or reconciliation in the anti-racist paradigm.  That would mean equity had been realized – an end-state anti-racists will never allow, because it would eliminate their (very lucrative) raison d’être.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Can Pope Honorius be defended?

My recent article on the error and condemnation of Pope Honorius has gotten a lot of feedback both here and at Twitter (much of the latter surprisingly civil and constructive for that venue).  Because of the historical and theological complexities of the topic, several issues have arisen, but the main one I want to address here is the question of whether Honorius can plausibly be defended from the charge of heresy that the Sixth Ecumenical Council leveled against him.  Keep in mind that what is at issue here is not whether Honorius taught heresy while issuing a purported ex cathedra definition.  He was certainly not doing that, which is why the case of Honorius is irrelevant to whether popes are infallible when they do teach ex cathedra (which is all that the First Vatican Council taught in its decree on papal infallibility).  What is at issue is whether Honorius taught heresy when not speaking ex cathedra – and, more generally, whether any pope could in principle do so.

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

The error and condemnation of Pope Honorius

A pope is said to speak ex cathedra or “from the chair” when he solemnly puts forward some teaching in a manner intended to be definitive and absolutely binding.  This is also known as an exercise of the pope’s extraordinary magisterium, and its point is to settle once and for all disputed matters concerning faith or morals.  The First Vatican Council taught that such ex cathedra doctrinal definitions are infallible and thus irreformable.  The ordinary magisterium of the Church too (whether in the person of the pope or some other bishop or body of bishops) can sometimes teach infallibly, when it simply reiterates some doctrine that has always and everywhere been taught. 

The Church does not hold, however, that popes always teach infallibly when not speaking ex cathedra.  The First Vatican Council deliberately stopped short of making that claim.  One reason for this is that there have been a few popes (though only a few) who erred when not exercising their extraordinary magisterium.  The most spectacular case is that of Pope Honorius I (pope from 625-638 A.D.), who taught a Christological error that facilitated the spread of the Monothelite heresy, and was formally condemned for it by several Church councils and later popes. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Aquinas on the sin of rash judgment

Christ famously taught: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1).  As Aquinas points out, Christ by no means intended to rule out all judgments about another person’s actions or character.  Rather, he was condemning judgments that were defective in certain ways, for example:

In these words our Lord forbids rash judgment which is about the inward intention, or other uncertain things, as Augustine states… Or again according to Chrysostom, He forbids the judgment which proceeds not from benevolence but from bitterness of heart. (Summa Theologiae II-II.60.2)

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Chomsky on consciousness

On the podcast Mind Chat, philosophers Philip Goff and Keith Frankish discuss the philosophical problem of consciousness with Noam Chomsky.  Goff is a proponent of panpsychism and Frankish of illusionism, where Goff characterizes these, respectively, as the view that consciousness is everywhere and the view that consciousness is nowhere.  (This might be a bit of an overstatement in the case of Frankish’s position, given what he says during the podcast.)  Chomsky’s own position is not easy to capture in a simple label, but I think that it can, to a first approximation, be described as a kind of modest naturalism.  The discussion is very interesting, and what follows is a summary with some comments of my own.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Perfect world disorder (sans paywall)

You can now read my recent Postliberal Order essay “Perfect World Disorder” without a subscription.

Friday, September 9, 2022

Talking about All One in Christ

Some recent interviews about my book All One in Christ: A Catholic Critique of Racism and Critical Race Theory:  A print interview conducted by Carl Olson appears today at Catholic World Report.  A few days ago I did a radio interview about the book for The Drew Mariani Show.  And the book was one of the topics covered in my recent interview for Thomas Mirus’s Catholic Culture podcast.


Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Perfect world disorder

My essay “Perfect World Disorder” appears today at The Postliberal Order.  You can read it here (though a subscription is required in order to read the whole thing).  Good time to subscribe!

Monday, September 5, 2022

Libertarianism, jazz, and Critical Race Theory

I was recently interviewed by Thomas Mirus for the Catholic Culture podcast.  The discussion was pretty wide ranging, covering topics as diverse as libertarianism, the aesthetics of the music of Thelonious Monk, and Critical Race Theory.  You can watch the interview at YouTube or at the Catholic Culture website.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Individualism and socialism versus the family

Here’s another unpublished lecture the text of which I’ve posted at my main website.  The title is “Socialism versus the Family,” and I presented it at the Heritage Foundation back in February of 2019.  The talk begins by explaining the economics and ethos of socialism, and how socialism is related to liberalism.  It then explains the nature of the family, emphasizing the features recognized by natural law theorists and evolutionary psychology alike.  Finally it shows how egalitarian socialism is inherently incompatible with the family, but also how the liberal individualism embraced by too many modern conservatives is precisely what paved the way for the egalitarian assault on the family.  You can watch the video of the lecture here.

Friday, August 26, 2022

What is classical theism?

My essay “What is Classical Theism?” is among those that appear in the volume Classical Theism: New Essays on the Metaphysics of God, edited by Jonathan Fuqua and Robert C. Koons and forthcoming from Routledge. Follow the link to check out its excellent roster of contributors and range of topics.

Plato on democracy and tyranny

Over at Twitter, I posted a long thread of passages from Plato’s Republic setting out his account of how a democratic society’s fixation on liberty and equality yields the tyrannical soul.  You can read the thread here.  The relevance to the current situation in the West will be obvious, but it is a theme I explored in an American Mind article from a couple of years ago.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Countering disinformation about Critical Race Theory

Critical Race Theory (CRT) has over the last two years been a topic of enormous controversy.  But what is it, exactly?  Chapter 4 of my book All One in Christ: A Catholic Critique of Racism and Critical Race Theory is devoted to answering that question at length.  I go on in chapters 5, 6, and 7 to spell out the many philosophical, social scientific, and theological problems with the view.  (As this breadth of issues indicates, there is much in the book that will be of interest and value to non-Catholics.)  But chapter 4 is entirely expository, and quotes extensively from CRT writers themselves, so that there can be no mistake about how extreme and dangerous are the views that the subsequent chapters go on to criticize.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Aquinas on St. Paul’s correction of St. Peter

A pope speaks ex cathedra when he presents some teaching in a formal and definitive manner that is intended infallibly to settle debate about it once and for all.  This is an exercise of what is called the “extraordinary magisterium,” and Catholics are obligated to give such declarations their unreserved assent.  The ordinary magisterium of the Church can also teach infallibly under certain circumstances (which I have discussed elsewhere), and here too such teaching is owed unreserved assent.  Even when the pope or the Church teach about a matter of faith or morals in a manner that is not infallible, Catholics normally owe such teaching what is called “religious assent,” an adherence that is not absolute but nevertheless firm.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

All One in Christ

My new book All One in Christ: A Catholic Critique of Racism and Critical Race Theory is out this month from Ignatius Press.  If you are someone who prefers to order directly from the publisher, you can now do so.  You can also order via Amazon and Barnes and Noble.  In September, a German translation of the book will be published by Editiones Scholasticae.

Here’s the table of contents:

1. Church Teaching against Racism

2. Late Scholastics and Early Modern Popes against Slavery

3. The Rights and Duties of Nations and Immigrants

4. What is Critical Race Theory?

5. Philosophical Problems with Critical Race Theory

6. Social Scientific Objections to Critical Race Theory

7. Catholicism versus Critical Race Theory

Friday, August 5, 2022

Benedict contra Benevacantism

I’ve been reading the second volume of Peter Seewald’s Benedict XVI: A Life.  There is much of interest in it, including a new interview with Benedict at the very end.  Some of what he says is relevant to the controversy over Benevacantism (also called “Beneplenism” and the “Benedict is pope (BiP)” thesis), which holds that Benedict never validly resigned and that Francis is an antipope.  I’ve addressed this topic a couple of times before and the debate is, in my view, essentially played out.  But since a small but significant number of Catholics remain attracted to this foolish thesis, it seems worthwhile calling attention to how Benedict’s remarks throw further cold water on it.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Confucian hylemorphism

The Neo-Confucian Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi or Chu Hsi (1130-1200) famously posited two metaphysical principles often compared to Aristotle’s notions of form and matter.  James Dominic Rooney defends the interpretation of Zhu Xi as a hylemorphist in his new book Material Objects in Confucian and Aristotelian Metaphysics.  Into the bargain, he does so in conversation with contemporary analytic metaphysics and neo-Aristotelian philosophy.  It’s an excellent and important book.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Mullins strikes out

My new Philosophy Compass article “The Neo-Classical Challenge to Classical Theism” responds to several criticisms of classical theism and the doctrine of divine simplicity that have been raised by Ryan Mullins.  At Joseph Schmid’s Majesty of Reason blog, Mullins has replied to the article.  What follows is a rejoinder. 

Mullins’ reply can be found in the first part of the post (titled “Mullins Strikes Back”).  The second part is a reply by Schmid.  Because my article was directed at Mullins rather than Schmid, and because Mullins’ reply (and this rejoinder of mine) are already quite long as it is, I am in the present post going to confine my attention to Mullins’ remarks.  I intend no disrespect to Schmid.  But I have been meaning anyway to write up a reply to his recent article on my Neo-Platonic argument for God’s existence (to which he refers in this latest piece).  So I will put off commenting on Schmid until I am able to get to that.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The neo-classical challenge to classical theism

My article “The Neo-Classical Challenge to Classical Theism” has just been published at Philosophy Compass.  The article is a response to the critique of divine simplicity and other aspects of classical theism developed by self-described “neo-classical” theists like Ryan Mullins. Here’s the abstract: The classical theist tradition represented by thinkers like Anselm and Aquinas predicates several remarkable attributes of God, most notably simplicity or lack of parts of any kind.  Neo-classical theists have recently developed several lines of criticism of these attributes.  But these criticisms are not effective against the historically most influential way of spelling out classical theism, which is Thomism.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Goff’s gaffes

Philip Goff has kindly replied to my recent post criticizing the panpsychism he defends in his book Galileo’s Error and elsewhere.  Goff begins by reminding the reader that he and I agree that the mathematized conception of nature that Galileo and his successors introduced into modern physics does not capture all there is to the material world.  But beyond that we differ profoundly.  Goff writes:

I agree with Galileo (ironic, given the title of my book) that the qualities aren’t really out there in the world but exist only in consciousness. So I don’t think we need to account for the redness of the rose any more than we need to account for the Loch Ness monster (neither exist!); but we do need to account for the redness in my experience. Following Russell and Eddington I do this by incorporating the qualities of experience into the intrinsic nature of matter, ultimately leading me to a panpsychist theory of reality.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Cooperation with sins against prudence and chastity

Here’s another unpublished talk which I’ve posted at my main website.  It’s titled “Cooperation with Sins against Prudence and Chastity,” and I presented it at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. in March of 2018, and at Blackfriars Hall at the University of Oxford in January of 2019.  The lecture discusses Aquinas’s account of the nature of prudence or practical wisdom, and of sexual immorality as more corrosive of prudence than any other sin.  It then applies this account to a critique of the pastoral advice given by some churchmen in the wake of Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia.  That advice, I argue, amounts to cooperation with sins against chastity, and against prudence more generally.  You can listen to an audio version of the lecture here.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

Problems for Goff’s panpsychism

Panpsychism is the view that conscious awareness pervades the physical world, down to the level of basic particles.  In recent years, philosopher Philip Goff has become an influential proponent of the view, defending it in his books Consciousness and Fundamental Reality and Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness.  He builds on ideas developed by contemporary philosophers like David Chalmers and Galen Strawson, who in turn were influenced by early twentieth-century thinkers like Bertrand Russell and Arthur Eddington (though Russell, it should be noted, was not himself a panpsychist).

Monday, June 27, 2022

Aristotle on the middle class

On CNN the other day, liberal commentator Van Jones complained that the Democrats are “becoming a party of the very high and the very low” ends of the economic spectrum, and do not appeal to those in the vast middle, including the working class.  He notes that the “very well-educated and very well-off” segment of the party talks in a way that sounds “bizarre” to ordinary people, citing as examples the use of terms like “Latinx” and “BIPOC.”  He could easily have added others, such as “cisgender,” “whiteness,” “intersectionality,” “heteronormativity,” “the carceral state,” and on and on.  To the average person, the commentators and activists who use such jargon – insistently, humorlessly, and as if everyone does or ought to agree – sound like cult members in need of deprogramming, and certainly of electoral defeat.  (I would also note that having a college degree and being facile with trendy political theory does not suffice to make one “very well-educated,” but let that pass.)

Sunday, June 19, 2022

What is conscience and when should we follow it?

I plan to post some unpublished material that’s been accumulating over the years, over at my main website.  First up is a lecture on the theme “What is Conscience and When Should We Follow It?” which I’ve given a couple of times but has never seen print.  Is conscience a kind of emotion?  A kind of perceptual faculty or “moral sense”?  An operation of the intellect?  Or some sui generis faculty?  When are we obligated to follow conscience?  What is a lax conscience?  A scrupulous conscience?  A doubtful conscience?  What does the Catholic Church teach about these matters?  These issues and related ones are addressed in the talk.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Economic and linguistic inflation

F. A. Hayek’s classic paper “The Use of Knowledge in Society” famously argued that prices generated in a market economy function to transmit information that economic actors could not otherwise gather or make efficient use of.  For example, the price of an orange will reflect a wide variety of factors – an increase in demand for orange juice in one part of the country, a smaller orange crop than usual in another part, changes in transportation costs, and so on – that no one person has knowledge of.  Individual economic actors need only adjust their behavior in light of price changes (economizing, investing in an orange juice company, or whatever their particular circumstances make rational) in order to ensure that resources are used efficiently, without any central planner having to direct them.

Friday, June 10, 2022

The New Apologetics

I contributed an essay on “New Challenges to Natural Theology” to Matthew Nelson’s new Word on Fire anthology The New Apologetics.  It’s got a large and excellent lineup of philosophers, theologians, and others.  You can find the table of contents and other information about the book here.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

COMING SOON: All One in Christ

My new book All One in Christ: A Catholic Critique of Racism and Critical Race Theory will be out this August from Ignatius Press.  Some information about the book, including advance reviews, can be found at the Amazon link.  Here’s the table of contents:

1. Church Teaching against Racism

2. Late Scholastics and Early Modern Popes against Slavery

3. The Rights and Duties of Nations and Immigrants

4. What is Critical Race Theory?

5. Philosophical Problems with Critical Race Theory

6. Social Scientific Objections to Critical Race Theory

7. Catholicism versus Critical Race Theory

Monday, June 6, 2022

Anti-reductionism in Nyāya-Vaiśesika atomism

Atomism takes all material objects to be composed of basic particles that are not themselves breakable into further components.  In Western philosophy, the idea goes back to the Pre-Socratics Leucippus and Democritus, and was revived in the early modern period by thinkers like Pierre Gassendi.  The general spirit of atomism survived in schools of thought that abandoned the idea that there is a level of strictly unbreakable particles, such as Boyle and Locke’s corpuscularianism.  Its present-day successor is physicalism, but here too there have been further modifications to the basic ancient idea.  For example, non-reductive brands of physicalism allow that there are facts about at least some everyday objects that cannot be captured in a description of micro-level particles.

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Indeterminacy and Borges’ infinite library

Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Library of Babel” (from his collection Labyrinths) famously describes an infinite library, comprising books which together represent every possible combination of characters in the alphabet in which they are written.  Most of the books are gibberish, just as, if you emptied a bag of Scrabble letters onto the floor and looked at the patterns that resulted, almost none of what you’d see would count as a genuine word or sentence.  But because every possible combination is there, many intelligible books are there too.  In fact, every possible such book is there, so that the library contains all knowledge, every truth there is about everything.  For any of these truths, though, the trick is to find it somewhere in this infinite, bewildering Babel.

Monday, May 23, 2022

The hollow universe of modern physics

To say that the material world alone exists is not terribly informative unless we have some account of what matter is.  Those who are most tempted to materialism are also inclined to answer that matter is whatever physics says it is.  The trouble with that is that physics tells us less than meets the eye about the nature of matter.  As Poincaré, Duhem, Russell, Eddington, and other late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century philosophers and scientists were keen to emphasize, what physics gives us is the abstract mathematical structure of the material world, but not the entire nature of the concrete entities that have that structure.  It no more captures all of physical reality than a blueprint captures everything there is to a house.  This is, of course, a drum I’ve long banged on (for example, in Aristotle’s Revenge).

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Nietzsche and Christ on suffering

Over and over we are taught in scripture and tradition that suffering is the lot not only of mankind in general, but of the Christian in particular.  Christ, the “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3), is our model.  When he warned that he must suffer and die, “Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid, Lord!  This shall never happen to you,’” which prompted Christ’s own famous rebuke in response:

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.”  Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:22-25)

Monday, May 9, 2022

End of semester open thread

Let’s start the summer break off right, with an open thread.  Now’s the time to get that otherwise off-topic obsession of yours off your chest, at long last.  From plunging stocks to Pet Rocks, from buying Twitter to Gary Glitter to sharing an Uber with Martin Buber, everything is on topic.  The usual rules of good taste and discretion apply.  Previous open threads archived here.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Benedict is not the pope: A reply to some critics

Patrick Coffin has posted an open letter by Italian writer Andrea Cionci, replying to my recent article criticizing Benevacantism.  What follows is a response.  In his introduction to the letter, Patrick objects to my use of the label “Benevacantism,” calling it a “nonsensical devil term”(!)  I can understand why he doesn’t like the word, because it is an odd one and doesn’t really make much sense.  But I didn’t come up with it.  I had to use some label to refer to the view, and chose “Benevacantism” simply because it seemed to be the one most widely used.  But Patrick prefers the label “Benedict is Pope” or “BiP” for short, so in what follows I’ll go along with that.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Socratic loyalty

Socrates was so critical of his country that he was put to death by it.  Yet he could have escaped execution had he wanted to.  The reason he did not, as he famously explained in Plato’s Crito, was out of loyalty to the country of which he was so critical, and which willed to destroy him.  I don’t think that Socrates’ example is, in this case, one that we are bound to follow; Aristotle did no wrong in fleeing, lest Athens sin twice against philosophy.  All the same, that example is worth pondering for contemporary conservatives tempted to oikophobia by the sorry state of the West, and for Catholics tempted by the sorry state of the Church’s human element to depart from her, or to refuse due submission to the Roman Pontiff. 

Monday, April 25, 2022

Fr. Gregory Pine on prudence

Modern moral philosophers typically have much to say about abstract principles, but are not of much help for the average person seeking concrete moral advice.  Self-help books, meanwhile, have practical relevance but are philosophically superficial.  One of the strengths of Aquinas’s ethics is that it is philosophically sophisticated while at the same time offering practical guidance to non-philosophers.  This is especially true of his treatment of the virtues.  But even Aquinas sometimes needs a bit of exposition to make him accessible to modern readers.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Whose pantheism? Which dualism? A Reply to David Bentley Hart

Over at Substack, David Bentley Hart has written an open letter in reply to my recent review, at
Public Discourse, of his book You Are Gods: On Nature and SupernatureWhat follows is my own open letter in response.  Before reading it, it would help if you’ve already read my review and Hart’s reply.

Hello David,

Many thanks for your enjoyable and vigorous rejoinder.  If your eyes fall on this, I know they will be rolling at the prospect of yet another round.  But I cannot resist a reply to what seem to me basic misunderstandings, along with crucial concessions disguised as rebuttals.  I do promise to refrain from Photoshop antics and cheap puns, for the sake of preserving our armistice and basic good taste.  Plus, I wouldn’t want any of your readers to spill their sherry. 

Monday, April 18, 2022

Tales from the Coffin

In my recent post criticizing Benevacantism, I deliberately avoided naming specific individuals, in the hope of preventing the debate from degenerating into a clash of personalities.  I also said: “I make no judgment here about the culpability of those drawn to this error, many of whom are well-meaning people understandably troubled by the state of the Church and the world.”  Unfortunately, not everyone is keen on keeping the discussion civil or focused on arguments and evidence.