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It starts and ends with Nietzsche

I just read Maureen Mullarkey’s post “The Toxic Legacy of Rachel Carson” on First Things. Well-written and thought-provoking, as always. I will pursue the Rachel Carson references further. But it reinforces my beliefs about the ugly transformation of science in our time.

At least consciously, it starts with Nietzsche, who said what clever individuals have always believed: Truth may be awkward, annoying, and inconvenient; but what really matters is power. We say “What is Truth?”, when we would rather talk about what we want to do.   Truth is subjective illusion; power is real. You can tell because the powerful individual can silence the truthful individual.

Science, like religion, can easily find power more attractive than truth.

Once science served capitalism (e.g., Social Darwinism). Now it serves the New Elites (government bureaucracy, news and entertainment media, schools). Once the Comtian positivist invention “social science” was the leading edge of the science of power. Now it has expanded into any science that can be used to “save the world” (i.e., strengthen the New Elites), particularly the environmental sciences. As Francis Bacon observed long ago, “Knowledge (i.e. Truth) is Power.” But the knowledge/truth produced (on demand) by today’s “sciences” have several things in common. These sciences are highly speculative, often resulting from computer models extrapolating uncertain data into uncertain futures (global warming). Or they may be based on highly subjective “data” collected and massaged by agenda-pushing “scientists” (transgendering, i.e. genital self-amputation, is not a sign of mental illness). Either way, they are inherently untestable.

The distortions that result from such “science” can be seen in the now-discredited but very influential classics Coming of Age in Samoa (Margaret Mead), Silent Spring (Rachel Carson), or Population Bomb (Paul Ehrlich). Or the timely and convenient findings that same-sex marriage is just fine for children. Wise judges such as Vaughn Walker, ruling that the voters of California have no right to decide so important a question, wrote:

“The gender of a child’s parent is not a factor in a child’s adjustment… The research supporting this conclusion is accepted beyond serious debate in the field of developmental psychology…Children do not need to be raised by a male parent and a female parent to be well-adjusted, and having both a male and a female parent does not increase the likelihood that a child will be well-adjusted.”

The worst effect that such empowerment of science is that once the New Elites close ranks around a satisfactory finding that confirms their ideology, the likelihood of contrary findings diminishes to the vanishing point. Vaughn Walker and Al Gore agree: once the science is settled beyond serious debate, so…Shut Up!   Imagine that you are a university researcher and your studies demonstrate that children need both mothers and fathers, or that CO2 plays a minimal role in global warming, or that homosexuality is not genetically but behaviorally caused. How eager will you be to publish, knowing that you will be blasted as a liar, a “science denier”, and a bigot; and knowing that funding for your next research grant will be limited to what you collect selling pencils on a street corner?  So the conclusions of “science” are not only untestable, but also irrefutable.

Originally truth was primarily moral: “the things we cannot not know”. As Aristotle demonstrated, science only added to this base of knowledge what we clearly see around us. We always knew right from wrong, evil from good, sense from nonsense. Of course there were also always those who knew the value of being able to muddle our sense of truth: men like the Greek Sophists (lawyers, activist judges, politicians, community organizers) whom Socrates/Plato fought against.

Now our only source of truth is “science”. (It earned its quotation marks when universities accepted “social science” as legitimate.) And science is only of real value when it disproves what we think we know (like children need mothers and fathers).

With all human institutions, what starts as pursuit of truth and freedom suffers a sea change when its initial triumphs carry it to power. As soon as that happens, the battle begins for the institution’s soul. Continue to pursue truth and freedom, or use the power to “improve the world” (i.e., strengthen the New Elites).

The battle for the soul of the institution can be brutal or it can be swift and painless. For in many minds, truth is less attractive than power (for power is never inconvenient to the powerful). And for many, truth is of value primarily as a means of achieving power. The illusion of Truth is just a means; Power is the end.

Which brings us right back to Nietzsche.

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Criticism, Self-Criticism and Antisemitism

A common thread of modern leftist anti-Israel anti-Semitism is the claim that Israel has only itself to blame for Jew-hatred. If only they had been “nicer” to the Arab armies and terrorists committed to their annihilation! A preposterous but familiar excuse for leftist racism.

But in another sense, anti-Semitism does indeed have roots in Jewish history. For Israel, in addition to discovering monotheism and the concept of a meaningful history, also invented self-criticism. The first references to Jews as a stiff-necked, materialistic, ungrateful people may be found in the words of the Prophets of ancient Israel, quoted in the Jewish (and Christian) bible.

In a PBS series on Jewish history, host Simon Schama (a respected historian) cited as proof of St. Paul’s anti-semitism his claim that the Jews had often slain their own prophets. Schama seemed unaware that Paul was quoting Jesus, and Jesus was quoting the Prophets Nehemiah and Elijah, criticizing Hebrew ingratitude:

“They were disobedient and rebelled against Thee, and cast thy laws behind their backs, and slew thy prophets which testified against them to turn them to thee, and they wrought great provocations.” (Nehemiah 9:26)

“They children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword.” (1 Kings 19:10, quoting Elijah)

Continue reading

“Blind, pitiless indifference”

As I have written below, I have spent many years trying to find God.  I have found much Judeo-Christian theology coherent, consistent with reality, and therefore highly plausible.

But I still cannot convince myself that the other coherent, consistent worldview, atheistic materialism, is not also plausible.

Many authors have helped me along; I will list and discuss them sometime.  But nothing so far has been quite so compelling as this quote from atheist guru Richard Dawkins:

“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”

This chilling statement, offered in support of Dawkins’ atheism, is from his book Rivers of Eden, which I found quoted in Francis Collins’ The Language of God.  (I recommend Collins’ book highly.  He was the director of the Human Genome Project as well as a Christian.)

Dawkins is wrong, of course.  He omits the fact that the observable universe includes humanity, and humanity is somehow endowed with every property he enumerates as absent from the universe.  But the importance of his statement is that, as an atheist, he is comfortable with this as his “Truth”!

 

Progress Report on the Search for Faith

[Written November 11, 2013]

Still searching.

The best result so far is that I can accept the Thomist logic of a plausible God.  But I cannot make the leap from this Philosopher’s God to a loving, caring, father God; and only such a God can offer Hope for what I love. (see previous posting)

The Catholic Church attracts me, calls to me.  Its commitment to Faith and Reason is essential: I cannot believe in a God who makes no sense.  This Thomist thought is one of the Catholics’ greatest contributions to humanity.  (Not to mention other gifts such as clarified morality, organized charity, and the sanctity of marriage.)

But sometimes the church seems to know too much.  Too much confident Dogma where it seems only Trust can serve.  Too much certainty regarding details of God’s thinking.

On this too-great certainty the Church has constructed a demand for trust in its own thinking; and the Church has too often been too wrong.  It has been the fountainhead of anti-Semitism.  It has massively and brutally inquired into individual souls.  It has criminalized heresy and apostasy.

To its credit, the modern Church has purged itself of these errors (sins).  This has been late in coming and grudgingly accepted, but it has happened.  The heroic efforts of the modern popes (from Pius XII to Benedict XVI) deserve honor.

I cannot oppose myself to the Catholic Church of today.  Indeed, the Church today stands as the leading champion in defense of almost all that I hold dear and that is now under such attack.  Family, Life, Truth.

So I find myself standing with the Church…but apart from it. Continue reading

Hope for the Hopeless, O, Abide With Me

 

News today from the Mideast – all bad.  The Israeli-Palestinian “peace talks” drag on, with the US Secretary of State publicly blaming Israel for the lack of success.  In Geneva the US is on the verge of giving Iran the kind of deal the Mullahs want; in response, the Saudis are ready to buy their own nukes from Pakistan.  It will take a miracle to prevent a truly horrible all-out war in the region within a year. (My friend Mr. Hans Moleman has an insightful take on all this at his site mistermoleman.com.)

Back home, the trend towards undermining of the family continues at a rapid and yet accelerating pace.

Meanwhile, I continue my lonely search for Faith. And I sometimes wonder why.  What is so imperative about Faith?

I could, like many good people I know, put the Big Questions aside. Without Faith I could live a relatively moral, or at least decent, life, and when the time comes die a bravely accepting death.  It mightn’t be too bad.   I have lived an extremely easy life; with luck I could just continue on until it ends.

But without Faith there is no Hope.  And that I cannot do without.

As a young man, I saw the world as do most young men fresh out of (liberal arts) college: a cesspool of suffering and misery, caused by greed and folly, and just waiting for some brave, bright young man like me to set all things right.

The course of my adult life was one of gradual discovery (re-discovery, some might say) that there was much to love and value in this world.  The beauty of art and music, as humans re-capitulate the wonders of nature. The courage shown throughout history by those fighting (what they believed was) the good fight. The endless search to find the truth about ourselves and our world.   In a word, the great culture we have been blessed to inherit, and graced with the opportunity to hand forward to the future.   (In a word, I became conservative.)

But all this appreciation brings with it fear – the fear that every parent feels when gazing into his child’s future.  Can it possibly be safe, in such a dangerous world?

What if everything exists by accident, constructed on nothing, the result of an inexplicable chance pinpoint explosion called the Big Bang?  If we are accidental, then all we have done and built is doomed, if only by the force of Entropy.  We see these forces of entropic doom all around us every day, and we keep our sanity only by extreme mental exercises.

Some place their hope in mankind and science as the forces that will save us.  This is a fool’s hope, available only to those who haven’t looked into it too deeply.

Some avert their eyes and seek constant distractions to avoid thinking about it.  This works well until it doesn’t.

And some find Hope in their Faith in a loving God who cares about us and has a plan for us.

I have tried the first two, and they no longer work for me.  So I keep knocking on Door Number Three.

I still don’t know if God exists. But I know that without God, there is no Hope.

And I don’t think I can live without Hope.

Predestination: If True, Why Try?

Of all elements of Christian belief, predestination is perhaps the least acceptable to me.

For one thing, it undermines the strength of one of the great realisms of biblical faith: free will.

If predestination is true, then why bother resisting temptation, or seeking God, or … anything?  If God has ordained my success or failure at finding Him, at being saved, then I am Home Free (or the opposite).  And my Free Will, which I now struggle to direct in the right way, is all for nought.  It is an illusion.

Predestination seems to me as foolish and hopeless as the atheist philosopher’s materialist determinism.

I am undoubtedly missing something here.  But for me, the relevant question is this:  Is Predestination a necessary belief?

 

Visiting the Valley

Recently I have spent some time volunteering at our hospital’s cancer treatment center, where folks come as out-patients  to receive their regular chemo-therapy.  The patients and nurses are grateful, and we seem to make things a little easier. We help with ordering and serving lunch, fetching drinks, blankets, pillows, and things like that; what would be orderly work in the wards.

Most of the volunteers are themselves cancer survivors.  I am not.  And I got to thinking about the significance of that reality.

My wife is a cancer survivor – a very successful one.  Twenty-eight years since her cancer, with no recurrence!  But I know the fear of it never entirely leaves her.  Her annual screening is always a time of some anxiety, for me as well as for her (though she hides hers well).

While working at the center, I had a thought: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” The 23rd Psalm. And I understood it, in a way I never had before.  Every patient in there was walking through the valley of the shadow of death.  And the fortunate ones, the survivors like my wife, never entirely leave the valley.  They just make it to the brighter side of the valley.  But they never entirely leave the shadow behind them.

Of course, the rest of us are just as mortal; we all live with the daily possibility of death being around the next corner.  Car accidents, heart attacks, whatever – the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.  But we don’t think about it.  The shadow of our mortality does not block our sun.

But cancer is different.  No doctor will ever tell you that they got all the cancer cells.  You know there may be some in there, lying in wait for you.  You know their name.

I suppose heart attack and stroke survivors may be in a similar situation.  The chance of recurrence of those seems never to go away either.  Maybe they dwell in the valley too.

What is remarkable to me is how well most cancer survivors deal with the shadow.  Judging by the ones I know, they may be the least depressed people around. This is courage, no doubt, but also something else.

The awareness of the near presence of death has often been regarded as a morally salutary thing.  “Memento mori” (“remember death”), the Romans were told in their moments of greatest triumph.  Yet I think no one really does that except those dwelling in the valley of its shadow.  I know my wife cherishes every birthday as a gift, a gift of time, of life.   I try to emulate her attitude.  She is a constant example to me, of the courage to live life to its fullest.

When I volunteer at the center, I am visiting the valley. I find the valley-dwellers to be for the most part surprisingly cheerful, yet never frivolous.  They are serious about life, but never somber.

And when I sit at a bedside vigil for a dying patient, I watch them exiting the far end of the valley. I bid them farewell.

This volunteering is an invaluable gift to me, a memento mori as well as a memento vivere: “remember to live”.

Roger Kimball, Modern Art, and Flabby Elites

Roger Kimball of New Criterion has an excellent essay up at PJ Media, entitled “Annals of the art world: everything old is new again“.  He portrays the sad emptiness, the hollow pretensions, the “mere flabbiness” of modern “transgressive art.”

It reminded me of something I wrote a while back, in 2011, about something else written even further back,by classicist Gilbert Murray in 1940 (that’s how these things go, some time).   Murray pithily sums up the art world, and much the rest of culture, from around 1900 or so.

“First come inspiration and the exaltation of breaking false barriers: at the end comes the mere flabbiness of having no barriers left to break and no talent except for breaking them.

Here is “The Mere Flabbiness of the Elites”.

________________________________________________

I came across a passage which seems to describe in remarkably succinct terms the process of the “avant garde” elite’s degradation of our culture.  It is in a 1940 book on Aeschylus by the classical scholar Gilbert Murray.  He is contrasting his subject with the turmoil raised by the Sophists of Athens.

“The development is one which has often been repeated in ages of great intellectual activity.  Vigorous minds begin to question the convention in which they have been brought up and which they have now outgrown.  They reject first the elements in them which are morally repulsive, then the parts that are obviously incredible; they try to reject the husk and preserve the kernel, and for a time reach a far higher moral and intellectual standard than the generations before them or the duller people of their own time.

“Then, it seems, something is apt to go wrong.  Perhaps a cynic would say – and it would be hard to confute him – the element of reason in man is so feeble a thing that he cannot stand successfully except when propped in the stiff harness of convention. At any rate there is always apt to come a later generation which has carried doubt and skepticism much farther and finds the kernel to consist only of inner layers of husk and then more husk, as the place of George IV’s heart, according to Thackeray, was supplied by waistcoats and then more waistcoats.

First come inspiration and the exaltation of breaking false barriers: at the end comes the mere flabbiness of having no barriers left to break and no talent except for breaking them. “

(Gilbert Murray, Aeschylus pp. 79-80)

I must confess that, not being a classical scholar myself, I found this only by reference in Eric Voegelin’s Plato and Aristotle, the third volume of his Order and History.  EV’s analysis of Plato’s exposes of the Sophists has made it clear to me that these clever, clever men were the true models of much of modern Western society. ”Plato saw Athenian society as the Sophist writ large”, says EV somewhere, and it seems to be true again in our own day. The inter-connectedness of the Advocate, the Social Scientist, and the Community Organizer seem to me to be most meaningfully placed under the umbrella of the Sophists, all in more or less open, contemptuous rejection of the search for truth of the philosopher and the religious believer.

At any rate, Kimball’s book sounds like it will be worth the pain of reading it.

A tip of my hat of the hat (or at least a touch to the brim or knuckle to the forehead) to Jay Nordlinger at NRO’s Corner for pointing me to all this.

Note on DANTE

My name, Ben Finiti, is borrowed from Dante’s Purgatorio, Canto III, Line 73.  The excellent new translation by W. S. Merwin reads it as “you who ended well”, and is addressed to the souls in Purgatory.  They had lived sinful lives, but were able to turn it around and be forgiven at some point before they died.

For anyone living, it is therefore an aspiration rather than a fact.  It is my aspiration.  If I die today, I will have failed.  But I am not giving up. (And so far I’m feeling well; thanks for asking.)

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I cannot read or speak Italian; I don’t even like Italian food.  But Merwin’s version, with original and translation on facing pages, makes it easy, and lets me make an attempt at enjoying the music of Dante’s beautiful poetry.]

The rest of the verse, in Italian, is:

“O ben finiti, o gia spiriti eletti,”

Virgilio incomincio, “per quella pace

ch’i’ credo che per voi tutti s’aspetti,

 

ditene dove la montagna giace

si che possibil sia l’andare in suso,

che perder tempo a chi piu sa piu spiace.”

[In Merwin’s English:]

“O you who ended well,” Virgil began,

“o spirits already chosen, by that peace

which I believe awaits you every one,

 

tell us in what place the mountain slopes

so that it would be possible to climb,

for who knows most grieves most at the loss of time.”

[I love that last line.   I can certainly appreciate Merwin/Virgil/Dante’s sense of urgency.]

Here are some other examples of Dante’s lyricism (from Merwin’s beautiful translation of  Purgatorio) 

“fatti sicur, che noi semo a buon punto”   (“Take heart, it is good to be where we are now.) IX 47

ch’or si or no s’intendon le parole” (“now the words are heard and now are not.”) IX 145

e piu e men che re era in quell caso.”  (“and at that moment he was less and more than a king.”) X 66, of David dancing before the Ark.

pensa che questo di mai non raggiorna.” (“Think that this day will never dawn again.”) XII 84

di vera luce tenebre dispicchi.” (“you gather darkness out of light itself.”) XV 66

d’amaro sente il sapor de la pietade acerba.” (“the flavor of raw pity when tasted is bitter.”) XXX 80-1

di pentimento che lagrime spanda.” (“penitence that is poured out in tears.”) XXX 145

Merwin’s translation is in many libraries, and online at Amazon’s used book section.

Dante wrote in iambic pentameter, so it should flow like Shakespeare:

“But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? 

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”

A quick guide to Italian pronunciation is here.

What About the Guns?

In my last post, I commented on the president’s recent use of children as cynical props in the effort to restrict gun ownership.  From this, some have made the assumption that I am an opponent of gun control.  The presumption seems to be that anyone who favors a political cause these days must be willing to applaud any tactic that is used to further that cause.  The resultant attitude is that “Hey, we are busy saving the world here, so we can use any tactics that will help”.

This is the problem with what Eric Voegelin calls “gnostic political movements.”   When you and your partisans know how to save the world, it is easy to persuade yourself that you have both the right and duty to do so “by any means necessary” (as the radical violence-justification slogan has always had it).

Well, I don’t agree.  When a political movement cheerfully embraces such cynical manipulation, I cry foul.

As for Gun Control as an issue, I am fairly agnostic.  If I knew how to get guns out of the hands of crooks and crazies, I’d want to do it.  But I don’t, and neither do the Gun Control advocates.

The Second Amendment?  I don’t think it is much of an issue until we can agree what that “militia” clause means.

Hunting is a legitimate sport, and also the way many of my friends in Montana and New Hampshire feed their families.  Rifles and shotguns, including limited-magazine semi-automatics, are perfectly legit.

Target shooting?  An OK sport, I guess, although I always thought they used .22 caliber bolt action rifles.

Assault rifles?  You got me.  I am not sure what that category includes.  If it is automatic weapons (like machine guns or sub-machine guns), then it ought to be banned.  (I thought it already was.)

Large capacity magazines?  Who the hell needs them?  Soldiers and cops.

Background checks?  A good idea, I guess.  Apparently a lot of applications get turned down, so they must work at least somewhat on crooks.  But not on crazies, I suspect.

Hand Guns are another matter, and here we come to the real nub of the issue.  The handgun is the best weapon for most crime – and also for personal self-defense.

If crooks did not have such easy supplies of guns, there would be a lot less crime and a lot less fear.  But that is not the real world.  In our world, cops and courts are overwhelmed and underpowered.  The result is that many citizens fear for their lives and property all over America.

And there is a natural law that stands far above the Second Amendment: it is the individual’s right of self-defense.   It must be recognized and protected.

And many who are concerned about their self-defense suspect that Gun Control Advocates are inclined to treat all guns the same, and to regard legitimate gun possession and use as a privilege.

They fear that the most vocal such advocates don’t understand self-defense concerns because they reside in upper-class gated communities with private guards.

And lastly, there is the question of the effectiveness of gun bans.  Do they work?  When you look at Chicago gun-crime rates and gun-crime laws, you have to wonder.

So there is plenty of room for debate on these questions.  But the best way to avoid debate and still advance your cause is the time-tested one we are seeing in Washington.

Just have a cute 5-year old lisping sweetly into the camera:

“Pleathe, Mithter Prethident, make my thchool thafe!”

I say it is child abuse and I am sick of it.