The political extremities are always strange places to visit. The far-right of Catholicism (or perhaps better described as the Catholic part of the far-right) in particular has some strange features. Recruiting as it does from the same mélange of social panics and prejudices, the outcomes it preaches fall in the same spectrum as the rest of the far-right: anti-immigrant rhetoric, nationalism, rhetoric against transgender people, rhetoric against LGBTQI people in general and the same confused appeals for free speech for those who wish to restrict free speech.
On top of that toxic soup is a layer of Platonic philosophy: abstractions are things and are real things in a way that actual real things aren’t. Here’s Dragon ‘Award winning author and freelance editor’ Brian Niemeier on the nature of God:
“When Christians–and some theist philosophers like Aristotle–say God, we don’t mean an old man on a mountaintop composing a global naughty/nice list when he’s not conjuring boulders he can’t lift. Such a being would fall into the category of a creature, albeit a powerful creature, existing within the material, temporal order.
What we mean by God is the uncreated, all-powerful, and absolute Being who transcends the created order.” http://www.brianniemeier.com/2018/08/finding-god.html
From there he segues into some classic arguments for the existence of god that follow the basic structure of abstract thing can be observed in reality, therefore, the abstract thing must exist as a thing in itself, therefore, some ultimate abstraction of the thing must be a god.
As regular readers will know, I think such arguments are flawed but it is worth acknowledging they are powerful arguments in their own way despite their head-scratching elements. What interests me most about them, is that by their nature they define and limit what kind of thing ‘god’ must be. In Brian Niemeier’s argument, his god is the essence of pure being – it is the thing that is what it is ultimately to ‘be’. Fair enough, imagine such a thing exists — I can take that as a credible belief. Where that becomes laughably absurd is when somebody asserts such a belief AND asserts that the core principle of being that transcends the universe spends its days worrying about whether people are wearing the wrong clothes, kissing the wrong people or not bing prayed at in Latin (obviously far-right Catholicism really needs mass to be said in Latin).
I’m stuck trying to imagine what is more rational. If a person has to believe their religion must validate their petty prejudices about other people would it not be more rational to believe in a petty & temperamental god. Apologies to any lingering Zeus worshipers but I can see how Zeus, as a character, might have strong opinions on such things. Niemeier notes that his god is not “composing a global naughty/nice list” but also believes that without a specific magic ritual, said in the right language, you can’t access the abstract principle of being qua being.
Think about it this way. The abstract number 7 has as much claim to existence transcending mere physical existences as “being” or any other abstraction — perhaps more so as there is the practical and powerful discipline of arithmetic that deals with things like 7 whose conclusions have real world implications. If you wish to take the Platonic* stance on the existence of 7 then I can’t regard your position as irrational. However, if you tell me that the number 7 has strong views on immigration policy** or that you can’t really relate to the number 7 unless you do arithmetic in Sanskrit then I think I’m entitled to look at your beliefs somewhat askance.
‘But that’s just an argument from incredulity’ well, yes it is an appeal to how absurd the idea is but to put it in more concrete terms, if a thing is the pure abstraction of X then its only quality can be X or qualities of which X is a member. Imagine the quality of ‘colour’ as a thing in itself (if that was possible) and call that X. In such a case X can’t be red and it can’t be blue, by being abstraction of colour it can’t be a particular colour. Going closer to the point, consider the abstraction of ‘opinion’. The abstraction of opinion cannot be a particular opinion as it is, by definition, the abstraction of the common qualities held by all opinions.
The above is not an argument for the non-existence of god, its not even an argument against the existence of an ultimately transcendent god (although I don’t believe in either). What it is that you can rationally have some ultimate transcendent principle of principles in a Platonic hierarchy or you can have a god that thinks about things and cares about what is going on but those two things can’t be the same without promoting absurdities.
*[Platonic here refereing to ‘Platonism’ in the mathematical philosophy sense that is derived from Plato but which doesn’t neccesarily reflect what Plato said.]
**[Although if 7 did have strong views on immigration policy then I’m sure they would be very compassionate and progressive views]
Major spoilers for Get Out and lesser spoilers for Six Wakes follow below. This got long and warnings around topics that touch on (but don’t discuss in detail) body image.
Today I shall be discussing fashion as it is a topic in which I am very knowledgable on the grounds that once in the late 1980s I owned a scruffy flannel shirt and scruffy jeans and I was still wearing them a few years later* when Grunge was a definite fashion trend and so once, like a stopped-clock predicting future time, I was briefly fashion-forward.
The Met Gala is an event about which I know nothing other than what social media was telling me yesterday. Famous people went to it and it had some sort of Catholicism theme and some people really got into it. So basically cos-play for celebrities. Which is nice.
However, there has been some pushback from people not usually concerned about cultural appropriation who are suggesting that said costumes are cultural appropriation or, at the very least, people are either being hypocritical about the term or that the term itself is confused or that the ‘rules’ of what is or isn’t cultural appropriation is unclear.
Sometimes there are so many counter arguments that it is hard to pick which one is clearest:
- Catholic organisations were actually involved in the event.
- ‘Catholicism’ itself claims a degree of universality (sort of like you can’t moan about people copying your work if you published it using a Creative Commons liscence that said people could copy it).
- Catholicism is expressed culturally across a very wide range of cultures.
- Catholicism itself has been culturally appropriative.
- The Catholic Church is a great big powerful and rich thing – culutural appropriation is about cases of the wealthy or hegomonic taking from the poor or marginalised (to varying degrees).
- Unlike more broad religious terms ‘Catholicism’ applies to an actual organisation that actually can legally own property and own intellectual property and has the capacity to defend such claims in courts.
- Almost the reverse of that last point (but not actually contradictory) Catholicism has impacted on many cultures over many hundreds of years such that it is quite reasonable for non-Catholics of various cultures to make reference to the Catholic aspects of their own culture.
There’s a different argument as to whether some of the costumes were religiously disrespectful but here again we have a difference when considering such questions that parallel many of the points above.
Put another way. Catholicism has been around for over a thousand years organisationally and been present on all continents for about 500 years. You can’t appropriate what has been actively disseminated, sometimes at sword point.
Personally it is a weird thing. I grew up as a Catholic in what is an officially non-Catholic country with a Catholic past. Catholicism was also tied up with ethnicity in that it was often a central part of the identity of Irish immigrants in England and the descendants of those immigrants. In the UK as a whole sectarian divisions have not entirely gone (Northern Ireland most obviously) but in England they largely faded in the 1960s. So there is a sense in which I can see ‘Catholicism’ as a cultural thing that exists independent of the religion. There’s probably many elements in my cultural perspective that are shaped by Catholicism.
Looking further afield, the way many cultures (in particular indigenous cultures) have encountered and adapted to Catholicism via colonisation and European expansion is yet another dimension to what could be called ‘Catholic culture’ but here there is a clearer sense in ways something could be ‘cluturally appropriative’. Exploiting how one culture has adpated to such external influences and then stripping it of its meaning and context without respect to that culture would be an issue. Making a fashion statement by wearing a mitre is not.
*[Had I been wearing said clothes CONTINUOUSLY in that time period? It’s not impossible and would prefer not to comment on my laundry habits of that time period.]
Micael Gustavsson asked a good question in the previous post and my reply got so long that I thought it should be a post instead. [A caveat – I’m not an expert on Medieval philosophy or Ockham but I have been to Surrey. Any philosophy professors or expert on the theology of the middle ages feel free to correct my errors – or anybody really 🙂 ]
//Why would it have been impossible to reach todaylevel technology based on the philosphical thinking of thinking of Thomas? Or is that maybe to big a question?//
Mainly because it doesn’t work – so assuming technological and scientific thought proceeded anyway then over time then Thomism would increasingly be in conflict with advances in knowledge. It’s not so much that William O had to invent nominalism for science to happen, just that the kind of reasoning & conceptual framework that will come about in response to engaging scientifically with the world won’t match Thomism.
In reality, the most famous divergence came with Galileo’s conflict with the Catholic church but that just highlights one spot where a central authority tried to hold onto one aspect of a broader model and picked a very silly spot to make their stand.
I don’t think Ockham set these changes in Western thought in motion – I think he was an astute thinker who spotted a whole set of flaws in the Thomist consensus. The only way for these flaws to STAY overlooked would have been for the Catholic Church to somehow prevent intellectual development in Western Europe at both a philosophical and practical level.
Put a different way: the neo-Thomist right really want things (i.e. everything) to exist to serve an underlying purpose and for categories of things to reflect that purpose and deviations of things FROM those categories & purposes are therefore immoral.
A current example is the right and its reaction to transgender people. Now let me be clear the basic issue of the right is simply bigotry and ignorant prejudice but the styles of rationalisations that the right applies neatly illustrates how the view on categories works as an epistemology and a view on ethics.
So an anti-transgender rights conservative (which isn’t all of them) might claim that:
- there are only two sexes/gender
- that God created those two sexes for distinct purposes
- that when a person acts in a way contrary to the purposes of their sex that is sinful (because it is ‘unnatural’/against God’s purpose)
- that therefore they should not be encouraged or enabled to do so
These ideas are really just bigotry but if you were casting around for a reputable philosophical scheme to rationalise them then a set of ideas that join Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas look attractive. This is the idea that the reason things are similar (and hence can be lumped together in categories) even though they are different (so we can tell them apart) is because the truer, deeper, more essential reality IS the category. All women are alike (in this idea) because womaness is the underlying truth. As a way of thinking it makes sense if you are classifying quadrilaterals (all square-like things are instances of the underlying deeper truth of the Platonic ideal of a square).
Now there is a whole bunch of stuff there: a metaphysics, a theory of science, a view of God and theological truth (i.e. we can reason about categories and discover ethical truths). Why do John C Wright and Vox Day like syllogisms? Because they were a medieval/classic way of reasoning about CATEGORIES.
Now Ockham called bullshit on aspects of this. Specifically he moved (reluctantly at times) towards a position called nominalism – essentially that categories are primarily convenient ways of thinking about stuff. Things are essentially different but humans can identify similarities and lump similar things together. But that lumping together isn’t the truer deeper reality. Nominalism has its problems also obviously. However, when we look at things scientifically what do we see:
- There are not only two human biological sexes. It is not a biological fact that humans divide neatly into two simple groupings by sex. It’s not true physically and it isn’t true genetically.
Now, the existance of inter-sex people is NOT the cornerstone of transgender rights – those rights exist regardless but I’ll get back to that. I’m highlighting it because it illustrates how the neo-Thomist scheme falls apart on a contemporary issue once we engage with the actual facts of the world. Even quite strong natural/empirical categories that we encounter empirically (such as biological genetic sex in humans) that has fairly well-understood causal (in the modern sense) basis does not form categories with zero fuzziness in the boundary. If God set up this scheme then God set up a scheme in which categorical boundaries have a tendency to get fractal.
And that’s JUST sex! Gender brings in questions or societal roles, behaviour, attitudes, dress, personality etc shows no respect for neat natural categories. Of course, the empirical evidence for this is in the ‘softer’ sciences of psychology and sociology and hence easier for the right to dismiss but essentially we have a similar issue. The neo-Thomist is claiming that the categories are a TRUTH about the universe i.e. A QUESTION OF FACT and that from those facts THEOLOGICAL truths can be established (God’s intent) and from that an ETHICAL truth can be inferred (being transgender is supposedly against God’s purpose) – and they are plain wrong.
I doubt William of Ockham had and views or perspective on the issue of transgender rights and there isn’t a coherent way of saying what he would think if he was alive today because he’d be a different person BUT! Bill-O (as I feel I should call him now) was already pulling apart most of the pieces of that argument.
- His nominalism points to categories as being empirical observational things that will have exceptions, complications, and non-neat boundaries. We live in a world in which there is a platypus and birds are tiny singing dinosaurs.
- His fiedism separated theological truths from logical and empirical ones. I.e. if God exists then God transcends logic (God is more powerful than logic and isn’t constrained by it) but therefore you can’t logic God.
Now, as I said I don’t want to overstate the fact that biological sex is not a neat category as a reason for transgender rights being important. That isn’t the actual positive reasoning. Rather, it is the fact that biological sex is not a neat category that demonstrates that the neo-Thomist argument CANNOT be correct. It is a metaphysical scheme that falls apart when brought into contact with OBSERVATION – which is what happened repeatedly since Plato first came up with the idea. Ironically it was Aristotle (who Thomas Aquinas venerated) who began chipping away at the scheme. It wasn’t a bad idea as such and Platonism had a good run in mathematics until at least the 19th century.
To move away from biology and sociology, you can see how this divergence works in chemistry. Neat categories of four elements gives way to a plethora of elements. The periodic table itself isn’t a fatal wound because there are lots of natural groupings but the inherent fuzziness (e.g. elements that are nearly but not quite metals) pushes against it. Atomic theory kills it dead – the commonalities between elements arise not from them all being in the same category but rather similarities at an atomic level lead to common properties. Having the quality of a metal becomes something that can be described without recourse to the quality of being a metal.
Anyway, this article on William of Ockham is a good read: http://www.iep.utm.edu/ockham/
Also Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, which is a great read regardless is very much tied up in the times and ideas of William of Ockham as prototype for modern rationalism. The protagonist, William of Baskerville, shares the same first name with the addition of the allusion to Sherlock Holmes but is also an English Fransciscan and contemporary of William of Ockham. The background to the story involves a political dispute between the Pope and the real life Michael of Cesena head of the Franciscans in which William of Ockham was involved.
In the US a Christian college is sanctioning a member of its staff who asserted that Islam worships the same god as Christianity. Apparently this is a controversial notion and at odds with the college’s official doctrine. Now for an atheist the argument is a bit like asking whether Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny lee-Miller both play the character called Sherlock Holmes on television. Now that is a really fun argument to have but not one likely to get you sacked from your job if you take the wrong position. However, for people who are followers of the so-called Abrahamic religions this can be an important question.
Interestingly, it is a debate that is burning away over at Vox Day’s blog
[There is an interesting alternate view of Tybalt from a fan of Wright here]
[I’m putting some additional Tybalt opinions at the end]
It is a rule of blogging that a blog in search of hits must blog on the topics that have received hits. Such is the way of the blog.
The recent posts on the Sandifer-Day discussion received some nice slow-burn attention from directions other than File 770. Which was nice. So to break that winning streak I’m going to waffle on more about the Hugo puppy-nominated story “One Bright Star To Guide Them”. Specifically I am going to consider whether Tybalt the Talking Cat makes any allegorical sense whatsoever.
To recap “One Bright Star To Guide Them” is a story that looks at some characters in adulthood who, as children, went on a Narnia like adventure. The author is John C Wright and it was edited by Vox Day. It is one of several works by Wright that received a Hugo nomination this year (2015) because of the Rabid Puppy slate.
In the story the hero is Thomas and he has lived a somewhat successful,life since his childhood struggle against the forces of evil. His return to this supernatural struggle is heralded by the appearance of talking cat (yay!) called Tybalt. For most of the story Tybalt the Talking Cat guides Thomas through a series of conflicts and encounters with his former childhood companions. Continue reading