Friday, September 16, 2022

The Surprise of Human Adulthood

In recent years I've from time to time heard the lament that the adults aren't in charge anymore, as they were for example in the middle of last century. Along the same lines it's been said of a good person in an otherwise irresponsible organization that he or she is "the adult in the room." Certainly there does seem to be of late a dearth of people willing to put aside their own peculiar interests for the greater good.1

This conception of adulthood stands opposed to adulthood in the broader animal kingdom. Adulthood for most animals is primarily about sexual maturity. Indeed being ready for sexual reproduction is so essential to adulthood that the adult form of some insects cannot even consume food, but can only really move about and mate.

The irony is that the monomaniacal obsession with mating is precisely what keeps many humans from behaving like "an adult", in the human social sense of being responsible.

Humans are unusual that way. Reaching adulthood means the ability to set aside the activity that our bodies have sexual matured to engage in. There's a sense in which being an adult requires being able to reach back to that freedom from concern with mating that is characteristic of the juvenile stage of life.2 I think that's why preserving the sexual innocence of children is important: it gives freedom to the subsequent adult.

An additional point to be made concerns the irony of celebate Christian priests being called "father", when their celebacy is precisely what prevents them from being fathers in the primary sense. Such men are fathers because their celebacy frees them (or should) from the constraints of physiological parenthood, and allows them to act in a detached way for the greater community. They are fathers because fatherhood itself is not about mating (despite in its primary sense usually being a consequence of mating), but is most essentially a posture of care over others from a position of emotional detachment.3


1. Critical theories are no help in this regard, because they claim (self-contradictorily) that it's impossible for anyone to rise above their peculiar interests.

2. This is also true just in physiological terms. Human form is relatively unspecialized and undifferentiated compared to other animals (we don't have fur, claws, fangs, etc). So human bodies retain characteristics of earlier, undifferentiated stages of morphogenesis.

3. Spiritual motherhood is similar, but detachment is more characteristic of fatherhood in its various senses.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

The Cartesian-Baconian Influence on Liturgy

A friend highlighted this Evening Prayer intercession for the Liturgy of the Hours (Thursday of Week IV):

Lord, it is your will that men use their minds to unlock nature’s secrets and master the world, – may the arts and sciences advance your glory and the happiness of all peoples.
Give us light, peace and security, Lord.1, 2

"That men use their minds to unlock nature’s secrets and master the world": For me, this phrase has too many overtones of Decartes and Bacon.

Descartes says his purpose is

[...] to discover a Practical, by means of which, knowing the force and action of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us, as distinctly as we know the various crafts of our artizans, we might also apply them in the same way to all the uses to which they are adapted, and thus render ourselves the lords [or masters] and possessors of nature. And this is a result to be desired, not only in order to the invention of an infinity of arts, by which we might be enabled to enjoy without any trouble the fruits of the earth, and all its comforts, but also and especially for the preservation of health [...] 3

Francis Bacon reveals his purpose by describing himself as

come in very truth leading you to Nature with all her children to bind her to you service and make her your slave.4

"Master" the world, indeed. Bacon elsewhere advocates vexing nature to reveal her secrets.5

Both Descartes and Bacon justify mastering nature in order to (in Bacon's phrase) "relieve man's estate", which is fine. But as C.S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man, “What we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”

The Latin original of the prayer is revealing:

Qui voluísti ut hómines ingénio suo secréta naturália investigárent ad mundum regéndum, — da ut sciéntia et artes ad glóriam tuam et ómnium felicitátem dirigántur.
Da lucem, pacem et salútem, Dómine.

The phrase of concern "ut hómines ingénio suo secréta naturália investigárent ad mundum regéndum" translates something like "that men should investigate natural secrets with their ingenuity in order to rule the world". As the song says, Everybody wants to rule the world.


1. English and Latin text from iBreviary.

2. It would be interesting to know the origin of this line from the Liturgy. Just from the face of it, I'm doubting it's an inheritance from the preconciliar Liturgy and suspecting it's a Bugnini device. I could be wrong, but from my brief investigations, it appears the intercessions didn't exist before the Council.

3. René Descartes (1596–1650). Discourse on Method. Part VI. (emphasis added)

4. Francis Bacon. "The Masculine Birth of Time" in Benjamin Farrington, The Philosophy of Francis Bacon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 62.

5. Bacon, Novum Organum, Bk. 1, Aphorism 98.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Strawberry world

Spring has sprung and strawberries are everywhere. Real strawberries are sometimes sweet, but usually mostly sour. It's strange the way the flavor I tend to associate with "strawberries" is more characteristic of confections like candy or ice cream. It's a bit like life and love.

So strawberries don't become "strawberries" except by adding loads of sugar. Many indications these days say that all the added sugar in our diets is unhealtful and killing us. So we make strawberries the perfect creatures of our imagination at our peril. That too is like life and love.

Friday, April 15, 2022

What Price

If you could experience a period of elevated creativity and fruitfulness along with unparalleled emptiness and suffering, would you do it? What if both aspects of that period were necessary for the continuation of the world, or its redemption from descent into chaos?

There's a saying that's been going around in a meme:

Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, weak men create hard times.1

The Hollywood heresy (its principal heresy anyway) is that any effort that is momentous or significant is readily appreciated as such by the public at large and probably also emotionally invigorating to those engaged in it.2 The reason for the current cultural corruption is that too many people believe that heresy. But any worthwhile effort has a price to pay.

It's been said before. The problem with the present age is that the people in charge are not adults. Adults put aside their own wants and desires for the good of others, even the common good. They pay the price.

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)


1. Attributed to G. Michael Hopf, in his 2016 novel Those Who Remain. But decades ago, Professor Kreeft said something similar in a talk. To my inquiry he noted that the similar phrase he likely used ("Hard times produce saints, and saints are for hard times") is a common sentiment.

2. This principle is another example of the principle that the medium is the message, or at least a close neighbor. The entertainment industry's view of the world is basically its business model. My recent viewing of Free Guy brought this to mind, but it's a common enough trope on screen for the hero to save the world to instantaneous and unanimous applause of the masses.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Abraham and Aristotle

I've been listening to the History of Philosophy podcast. One thing that has struck me with some force is the great similarity of the three Abramhamic religions in taking up Plato and Aristotle, especially Aristotle. The Jews have Maimonides, the Muslims Avicenna, and the Christians Aquinas as the most prominent philosophers of their respective faiths, and these men might fairly be called followers of Aristotle.

And each of these faiths has contributed something unique and valuable to Aristotelian thought. I think of Avicenna in particular, since he was the first to apply Aristotle's distinction between essence and existence to metaphysics, and in particular to the unique Existent that is the transcendant God of Abraham. I hadn't know that fact before; he is not popularly credited for this advance among Christians who, say, study Aquinas.

As has become more and more apparent over the years with the secular world in ascendancy, these three faiths already share so much in common, most prominently belief in the an omnipotent, all-wise Creator. Yes, there are deep differences and these are not to be glossed over. But it would be of mutual advantage—and advantage to the health of the broader world—if they would cooperate more. Aristotle, it seems to me, would be a sound reason for gathering for cooperation people who don't normally mix. If we are going to build peace in this world, it ultimately has to be based in reason, not force, since reason is how we build agreement that is co-natural to everyone involved, that is, rooted in our nature as rational animals.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Twinning and ensoulment

A friend told me about the great Jimmy Akin's blog post on identical twinning and ensoulment. The Catholic doctrine is that for a normal, non-twin embryo, God creates the rational soul at the moment of conception. (Please note that this issue of ensoulment is only tangentially related to the issue of the humanity of the embryo from the moment of conception. Ensoulment is a matter of faith and possibly natural theology, while recognizing the humanity of the embryo requires no faith and is a matter of natural philosophy, i.e., science and not faith.)

Identical twins occur when the single fertilized egg (i.e., embryo) splits into two embryos. Akin lays out two possibilities in the blog post. Either the single soul (A) present at conception persists and another soul (B) is created in addition; or else the single soul (A) is destroyed and two new souls (B and C) are created to take her place. Neither of these scenarios are altogether satisfying. Is one soul subordinate to the other, or else are they equal and God has quickly killed the initial soul?

Let me lay out a third possibility: the single embryo splits into two embryos because there are two souls present. After, just because we don't see manifestations of two souls doesn't necessarily mean that two souls aren't present, especially as an embryo is such a slight entity.

One weakness of this position is that it doesn't seem to explain what happens when an embryo is split by an external agent, as for example, in a test tube by a technician. Regarding this situation, the first comment to the linked blog post (by Jim Scott 4th) says it well: "God knows the actual future with infallible certainty & thus logically can create two souls for a single zygot destined to become twins." In this situation, the duality of souls isn't a cause of twinning, but is just along for the ride, so to speak—an explanation no worse than Akin's non-causal descriptions. And heck, if you're going to invoke God for ensoulment, why not have him employ his powers?

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Ultimate and Penultimate Currencies

Note: I started writing this in January 2010, and apparently put it away for some time. The basic theorem is an idea that has stayed with me and that I think on not infrequently. I actually thought I had published it here already. Oops.

In reading Cardinal Ratzinger's Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life on the evolution through salvation history of the notion of our reward from our Creator, a point that I've been mulling for some time struck me powerfully. As everyone knows and as is well attested in the pages of Sacred Scripture, the earlier conception of our reward was long life and worldly prosperity. Many are the Patriarchs given their farewell encomium by cataloging the preternatural number of their years before their passing, their great worldly wealth, and their long and lasting memory in their many descendants.

The Single Penultimate Currency Theorem

As I mentioned in my previous post, our concern for ourselves, our well being centers primarily on our bodily existence. All other wealth (jobs, money, possessions, children; even to some extent honor or reputation and education) is wealth to the extent that it succors our bodily existence. Hence, all good boils down to a single "currency"—our lives.

Yet it is also apparent to those who take the time to reflect on life and its meaning, that this life is not everything. The most evident manifestation of this truth is that this life ends. What payment does one receive at the end of life? It is all the same. And when one is dead, how does a happy memory profit the deceased? He is clearly beyond caring. And to top it off, this condition last far longer than one's life.

People can use whatever evil means they can to acquire the wealth that enhances and preserves life. But is a dishonest life truly worth living? People with integrity, who are truly worthy of respect, will say "no." But what good can we cite that would be worth living and dying without the goods of this life as long as one keeps one's honesty? One doesn't have to name it to recognize it must exist if justice is to prevail and goodness and happiness go together (NB: for many ancient philosophers, virtue was its own reward, so it needn't be eternal life). So, there must be another currency, one that is more ultimate than our corporeal existence.

Life is a currency, but it is thus only the penultimate currency.

Two Antepenultimate Currencies

But there are more immediate currencies (goods that humans work for) that become evident when we reflect on the sterotypical differences between what motivates men and women. Men tend to work for outward recognition, things like status, honor, and money. Women tend to work for love and personal connection. It's almost as if the “masculine” world of “achievement” and the caregiving world were two independent economies. (I think this is the reason caregiving is so poorly remunerated: the true currency here is not money.)

They aren’t truly independent of course. In truth these two economies are interlocking, two sides of support for human existence. Traditionally the masculine economy is seen as bigger and more important: naively it seems to provide the context for the caring economy, but really the two provide the context for each other. It’s been the Christian genius to reveal how the caring economy is in many fundamental ways more important; it is closer to the ultimate currency (according to Christian lights), without being identical to it of course.