Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Futile Struggle

Being in law school, about to graduate, I have become incredibly discouraged with the state of the modern world, especially the legal world. Not because of the laws themselves necessarily, but how people approach issues. Especially moral issues. People rarely approach these issues critically. Worse, they rarely approach them with any understanding of foundational principles. The things that really matter are just assumed true, and people beg the question all over the place without even realizing it. Law probably represents a sort of quintessential example of this. Can't come to a philosophically consistent position? Doesn't matter. Just call a previously clueless position "precedent" and rely on it like it justifies your absurdities.

And everyone is so infected with modern philosophical bias (is-ought, induction, mind-body) that you can't even begin to have a real moral discussion. I've never claimed to have all the answers in the world, but it's ridiculous; even beginning to approach serious issues will always devolve into ridiculous rhetoric. There was a guy in class, just the other day, that said, "That's just your opinion!" to another kid's completely reasonable point. Worse, there's this sort of belief that everything that people "used to believe" is stupid and meaningless and without merit. And people go on and on about how we're just evolving, getting on the "right side of history," finally figuring it out, free from arbitrary religious rules.

A significant part of this problem is the fact that people who could be called "traditional" or whatever are often as ignorant or more ignorant than moderns. There are any number of reasons for this. One, they are more modern than they realize going in and are just unintentionally holding on to old ideas without old arguments. Two, they are never, ever trained in anything like real philosophy that could equip them to address modern moral arguments, even by their religious leaders. (I know I wasn't.) Three, they were doomed from the start, as their positions are actually based on very modern, very unjustified positions. (I think this third position is more common than people realize.) So you get suburban Christian moms "defending traditional marriage" without having any clue what that could possibly mean. Any good modern liberal will jump all over her, make memes out of her, and smugly go on with his life. In the past, it seems to me, that this was less of a problem, as things were necessarily top-down (or whatever you want to call it), and everyday folk didn't have to be brilliant Thomists. But today, everyone's up to bat, and philosophy is often way too difficult for everyone to debate, much less make policy from those debates.

This has led me to believe, mostly if not totally, that the modern project can never escape from this. It's not just that people don't know some things. It's that they don't know how to know things. Or, more accurately, that the modern world doesn't prepare them or help them to know things. Perhaps worse, that the modern world inhibits their ability to know things. Philosophy is hard. Very hard actually. Philosophy is nuanced, complex, and probably more difficult than most people can handle. It's not democratic nor is it, at a certain point, for everyone. There are foundational principles that have to be in place before you can do anything with it. You can't just jump right in to complex moral issues midstream. But this is exactly what the modern world does; it doesn't really care about foundations. And these foundations, which some traditionalist may be going on about, are just put in the "marketplace of ideas" along with any other ridiculous claim, even ones without their own foundation. And the democratic system just picks the most popular.

And of course the most popular today is very rarely the most true. And in many ways it doesn't matter if it's the most true. And this idea becomes the foundation for the next thing society tries to figure out. So when someone gets up and says, "No, gay marriage doesn't make any sense; it's like a square triangle," no one, except maybe a lone Thomist in the background, will have any idea what he's talking about. He's dismissed for acting contrary to modern principles, trying to lead the world "into the dark ages," and called a bigot. And of course this will happen. Because philosophy is hard. Very rarely is there nuanced understanding in a gay rights rally. The same goes for a traditional marriage rally.

And the more critically-thinking groups of people, like people on Feser's blog, or some other thoughtful Catholic site, aren't invading or changing society; they're mostly retreating from society because they feel, even if they don't realize it, that it's a lost cause. This isn't necessarily a criticism of them. (I'm one of them!) It's more just a recognition of the reality. And you could probably just look at the breakdown of the groups of people who are really into traditional Thomist stuff, at least in the West, at least from what I've seen: white and male. Rarely non-whites and rarely female. This isn't bad in and of itself of course, and I'm not even calling for some sort of outreach, but it clearly represents a problem. It shows that the groups just splinter off into their protected sects and become one among the many. This has become even worse, I think, with things like the Internet. And it's not like this group (traditionalists) are exactly the ruling class, appealing to transcendent truths and declaring top-down moral principles. In fact, they're usually looked at with serious suspicion as moral guides because of who they are. No matter how right this particular group may be (and I think it mostly is), the modern world doesn't really care.

In other words, I think it's sort of a failed project. It has led to many goods, and there's no doubt of that, but it almost feels like it inevitably will fall in on itself. It will become so incoherent and so self-referential (see the United States Supreme Court) that it will eventually fail to function in any serious way. There will be no real guiding principle outside of itself. I personally don't know what to do about it. I try to fight the good fight, speak the language, appeal to the senses of the modern world, but I really don't know what kind of good it does. Now, I don't like to be the sort of guy who thinks that you can't even start to address the problems, almost like a quasi-conspiracy theorist claiming that the whole thing is rigged, but goodness it's rough. The way it's set up, you can't even begin. I do think that truth will ultimately reign over falsehood. I'm just becoming less certain that it will  happen in this society.


  1. So sorry to hear you are going through this.

    My stupid advice FWLIW (remember Internet advice is worthless): if you do not have one, find a good confessor; consider devoting more time to works of mercy.

    1. I really did not know what the L meant in FWLIW. I had to look it up! But yes, I hope this post did not come off as too negative. Especially in a way that might discourage people. I'm doing fine; I just get a little frustrated sometimes. Anyway, your advice has been taken.

  2. I agree with pretty much all of what you've written here. I've said before that while I find Thomist reasoning/arguments very powerful, even compelling, I know better than to think that the world is going to be changed by those things directly. I don't think the movement on the issue of gay marriage has had much of anything to do with detailed, principled argument - and really, it rarely does on much of anything else.

    I also agree that people who are normally called 'traditionalists' tend not to know these arguments anyway, and usually have some bad arguments of their own. I think what is extremely important is image, rhetoric, and reasoning that's more compelling and persuasive at the lowest common denominator.

    That said, I don't think it's completely hopeless. I think Feser's book has been pretty remarkable in that he made it very easy to understand some extraordinarily important, fundamental concepts about Thomism, as well as metaphysics generally. It's not going to become a book with 100 million copies sold anytime soon, but I think it's already shown that it's a book which can influence discourse - and some of this influence can get to areas that it needs to. Some of those people who are persuaded may end up going on to try and persuade people with more effective rhetoric and means - even if, at rock bottom, they were convinced by the higher level arguments. Best cast scenario and all.

    But I get the impression that what you're really saying here is how damn wearying it is. It is tiring to trying and have a conversation with people who cannot do much more than, in essence, repeat a mantra or state the absurd or ungrounded over and over again, and who then seem to believe they actually said something penetrating.

    There needs to be more of a focus on persuasion, not just arguing.

    1. Yes, I don't mean to come off as exceptionally negative or anything, even though this post is clearly negative. I was just in a grumpy mood last night. And yes, you properly identify the sentiment. I'm not saying it's ultimately hopeless or meaningless.

      In some ways I'm not even saying persuasive methods need to be developed (though they clearly do). I'm more saying that I'm annoyed with people and how the whole thing is set up. Discourse, at least in my life, takes place at such a ridiculous level. The best and the brightest minds (even professors) fail to see core philosophical problems.

      And it's hard to even write this without sounding a bit like a condescending jerk. I'm well aware of that. But I don't mean it that way. It's more of a "there's something wrong with how we do things" post than it is a "everyone is so stupid" post.

  3. I loved this post. Really, really great stuff. You hit the nail on the head. However, I don't think that you should be too demoralized. You're making a difference. It may be small, but, if even one wayward soul is persuaded, it's worth it. And Crude's right: persuasion is the key. Like Paul, you have to appeal to people in language that they can understand--as Selmys put it. You're way ahead of the curve in that regard, particularly since your life story has an inherent magnetism to it.

    Also, strangely, you echoed David Bentley Hart in this passage:

    And these foundations, which some traditionalist may be going on about, are just put in the "marketplace of ideas" along with any other ridiculous claim[.]

    Hart has used this exact same imagery to describe the modern landscape: a market in which every idea is equal(ly meaningless), and in which "what I want" becomes the only disciminating factor between them. I actually kind of jumped when I saw you use the expression, since Hart's argument has been on my mind a lot lately. Weird. Needless to say, I think you're absolutely correct here.

    1. Ha, I definitely was not Trying to echo Hart, though I was aware of similarities. I promise that I had not read the article that that came from before writing this. I was just in a rant-y mood last night while studying First Amendment. First off, I'm quoting Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes from Abrams v. United States with the "marketplace of ideas" language. I was trying to tie in my law school experience to poke fun at the entire project. (Hart may have been doing something similar in his own way.)

      But no, as you know, I do not subscribe to Hart's thesis, if I understand it correctly. I do think significant moral truth can absolutely be determined through purely philosophical reasoning. I was actually really unimpressed with some of the things he wrote in his last article to Feser. (I honestly think Hart would be more convincing if he weren't a theologian but some sort of immoralist, for what it's worth.)

      My position is actually a bit more elitist in a certain way and much less grave. I'm almost saying that the masses of people are not intelligent enough to understand these truths in any significant or nuanced way (at least not giving them all a voice), not that it is absolutely objectively impossible to understand these truths. I'm saying that the way the system is set up, where everyone is "up to bat" and required to figure everything out on their own is necessarily going to lead to the catastrophic modern failure. More, I'm trying to say that when you have mass votes = truth, the less-nuanced, easy position is favored.

      In other words, I'm trying to say that the game's rigged, not that the truth is unattainable or unreachable by real, rigorous study and thought. And moreover, because we Do favor an equality of ideas, the truth (which, again, is absolutely attainable) will be smothered. I think of myself when I was younger. I remember saying, and this is a quote, "Who Cares about Aristotle!" I was arguing something about individual rights or some other thing, and I had absolutely no foundational principles. I had to be taught. I had to sit down and shut up. Because I was not nearly as smart as I thought I was. Because Philosophy is Hard.

      But people don't do that. They aren't even encouraged to do that. In fact, the louder they are, the more successful they are. That's how the whole thing is set up. And I guarantee, I would have made a pretty decent politician if I would have kept spouting that nonsense. And I would have gotten lots of followers and votes. Because it was not nuanced and because it was easy.

      Anyway, I am not really impressed nor do I really get thoughtful when someone says "that argument barely convinces anybody!" I usually say, to that, "Well, obviously those people are too dumb to understand what's going on." And, honestly, I think that's true. In fact, most of the time, the Less popular and Less convincing an idea is, the More likely it is to be true.

    2. Just looked it up to make sure, and I was wrong. The exact phrase "marketplace of ideas" first appears in United States v. Rumely and was used by Justice Douglas. He was just echoing Holmes' sentiment from Abrams. I'm an embarrassment to my profession.

    3. I hadn't heard that court example--interesting. I find law fascinating in its own irrational way. Anyhow, I didn't mean to spark something off regarding Hart, but I should clarify that his point in the example wasn't that the truth isn't attainable. He was criticizing the modern socio-political system, in which every idea is equal because everything is relative. What you're left with is a "market" of neutral options, all of which have been stripped of their claims to absolute truth. Individual choice is the only determining factor between right and wrong--everything is only right or wrong "for me", according to my own choices. Basically, he uses a capitalist-consumerist metaphor to illustrate our intellectual climate. Keep in mind that he doesn't believe any of this; he's just describing what most modern people believe.

      Also, for what it's worth, I think that your criticisms of democracy ("the masses of people are not intelligent enough", "mass votes = truth", "the louder they are, the more successful they are") are spot-on. Plato had pretty much the same concerns. Leaving law and governance up to the masses is a doomed project.

    4. Then I definitely agree with Hart's sentiment here, heh! I was speaking more to the general debate going on over on Feser's blog.

      You usually hear the "marketplace of ideas" language in a First Amendment context, where there's this belief that unrestrained speech will be better because it will allow competing ideas to be really fleshed out in such a way that the people will be able to pick the Best idea or product. The concept, I think, is that when every idea is out there, we will know truth when we see it and jump on it. Sort of like how we'll jump on the "best" product at the "best" price in a free market, driving people to produce better goods. Here's the original quote: “Like the publishers of newspapers, magazines, or books, this publisher bids for the minds of men in the market place of ideas.” It's so funny to me how commercially-oriented even (and especially) the liberal-minded people in our society were and are.

      I think there's Some truth to this in that rational discussion of an issue is often much better at combating falsehoods than censorship is. But I'm clearly not convinced that truth will somehow "rise to the top" in any serious way. You have to have a Lot more in place and a Totally different culture before people can even begin to see or understand truth.

  4. I don’t know philosophy but your blog and Feser’s have really influenced me to study it. I can’t defend the claims and I would never use this as a reason to support them intellectually but I get the sense of what Mortimer Adler was talking about when he said Thomism’s “intellectual austerity, integrity, precision and brilliance...put the study of theology highest among all of my philosophical interests”. I’m looking forward to seriously challenging Thomistic philosophy and can’t wait to be proven wrong. Please keep it up.

    1. Thank you; this is very kind. And despite the tone of this piece, I do hope that you see the truth that is out there. And that you will always stay encouraged while doing it!

  5. Speaking as a white male (lol), I don't think this phenomenon is unique to Thomism.

    Look at the New Atheists: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Victor Stenger, Lawrence Krauss, A.C. Grayling, etc. Think of other prominent atheists like Phil Zuckerman, John Loftus, Dan Barker, Stephen Hawking, etc. All white men.

    Look at the Protestant side. William Lane Craig, Josh McDowell, Norman Geisler, Lee Strobel, Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis, Francis Collins, Randy Alcorn, Timothy Keller, Gary Habermas, Michael Licona, etc. All white men. The only non-white men I can think of are Dinesh D'Souza and Ravi Zacharias. I can't think of any women.

    I think the confrontational nature of apologetics appeals more to men than it does to women. Women outnumber men in the pews, in parish leadership positions, as teachers in religious schools, etc., but apologists are almost entirely men.

    1. I definitely wasn't making some sort of argument that it's Bad or wrong that these groups are mostly white males. At all. Really. At all. I was just trying to point out that the influence of Thomism doesn't really spread outside itself in a meaningful way. And I blame this on the fact of how the world is set up: group v. group, each rallying for its ideals like a political struggle.

      People will say that Thomism just doesn't "appeal" to non-white women because it doesn't match their "interests." Which, to me, is a crazy thing to say, as truth is truth, but that's what I'm trying to get at. I'm mostly criticizing the broken world, where Real truth is even conceived of as "equal" with other "competing ideas."

  6. You have point Joe. I had the choice between a philosophy class and another class for an elective one semester. My adviser implored that I take the philosophy class saying that it would broaden my horizons and help me learn the best way to argue. I ended up taking the other class because I thought the abstract concepts of argument and thought that it would present would be too difficult for me. From what I ended hearing from students that did take it, it did end up sounding way too difficult for me.

    Very few people know how to really argue anymore and thus resort to dribbling out pseudo-intellectual gibberish to make their points. I knew that I would never make it through that philosophy class with a satisfactory grade and I also knew that constant debating would never be one of my strong points. That is one of the reasons I decided to forgo a career in law.