Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Hole in the Bottom

Tonight we commemorate the final passing of a year that, like every other, has been expiring since it began, over 360 days ago.

We spend our days strutting around as if we govern ourselves, as if we control "our" lives. However tightly we cup our hands, this life drains away with each passing moment.

What foolish mortals we are to miss what is right before us: we are not our own masters.

"And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life?
And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin;
yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?...

"Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The New Scrooges

"Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat...
but please don't put a penny in the old man's hat,"

or at least that's what the classic carol would go if some intellectuals could re-write it according to their ideology.1

Lew Rockwell site still has posted Butler Shaffer's defense of Ebeneezer Scrooge from Dickens's A Christmas Carol. (I will not dwell on Shaffer's misspelling of Cratchit, but merely speculate that Shaffer was following the irregular spelling conventions of Dickens's time. For clarity of commenting, I have taken the liberty of replacing Shaffer's brackets with parentheses.)

Shaffer's defense of Scrooge centers around the claim that there is no just wage. In fact, he blames Bob Cratchit for being underpaid:

One of the offenses with which my client [Scrooge] has been charged was that he had not paid Bob Cratchett a large enough salary. Cratchett has worked for an allegedly substandard level of pay – whatever that may mean – for my client for many years. Why? Why did he not quit? Why didn’t he go to work for some other employer – perhaps one of the politically-correct businessmen who periodically show up at Scrooge’s office to solicit and browbeat charitable contributions from my client?


To anyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of [abstract] economics, two things should be clear: (1) if, as has been alleged, my client is a tight-fisted, selfish man, he surely would not have paid Bob Cratchett a shilling more than his marginal productivity was worth to Scrooge’s firm, and (2) if Bob Cratchett was being woefully underpaid by my client, there must have been [!] all kinds of alternative employment available to this man at higher salaries.

"Must have been"! What question begging! Shaffer fails to consider the possibility that if all of Crachit's possible employers are poorly formed wretches like Scrooge, then none of them will give him what he justly deserves. For comparison one might ask: how much is slave labor worth? Slavery was a social institution. A single family could not have held slaves without the consent of an overwhelming majority of fellow citizens. Else, the slaves could have sought refuge with a neighbor. Slaves were paid nothing, not because their labor was worth nothing (the basis of the antebellum economy!), but because society unjustly agreed to pay them nothing.2

Similarly, I claim that Cratchit was like a slave unable to better his lot with another employer by the broad consent of all possible employers, whose common misunderstanding and personal injustice permitted them to underpay employees.

Shaffer reveals the assumption behind his argument:

If Cratchett cannot find more remunerative work, and if my client is paying him the maximum that he is marginally worth to his business, then Cratchett must be worth precisely what my client is paying him! Economic values are subjective, with prices for goods or services rising or falling on the basis of the combined preferences of market participants.

What's being asserted here is far more than the truism that a thing's price is what you pay for it. The claim is that goods are only worth what people (arbitrarily) agree to be their price: they have no intrinsic worth. As much as I agree with the Austrian school of economics on many of its concrete prescriptions and proscriptions, its fundamental problem is its disbelief in intrinsic worth.

The ridiculousness of the Austrian school on this point is shown by examples of things that people pay for that are demonstrably valueless and even harmful, such as addictive drugs, pornography and the like.3 There are also borderline cases: how much are relatively injurious commodities, like cigarette's, worth?

Then there are inflated prices: How much does the latest celebrity news (Britney, Paris, et al.) add to our existence? Does anyone seriously think that tulips in seventeenth-century Holland contributed so much to human life that they were actually worth the enormous prices of the tulip bubble?

Another class of counterexamples transcends normal economic valuation: how much is motherhood worth? It is surely part of the myopia of modern economics (and their MBA minions) that mothers aren't figured into economic indicators like gross national product. If stay-at-home mothers don't "contribute" to the economy, no wonder women feel pressure to work outside the home!

The values of things come from their connection to real human goods, like health and education. For example, the food you buy in the grocery store has value to you because it provides nutrition that allows you to keep living. To deny intrinsic value is to deny intrinsic good. Shaffer and fellow travelers have become relativists through economic nominalism.

Nominalism is the denial that universals point to realities in the world. To a nominalist, "cat" is simply a useful label to group a bunch of particulars that have no real commonality, so that there is no way for the intellect to grasp4 the essences of things in order to form universals.

Similarly, in nominalist economics, there is no way for the intellect to grasp a commodity's connection to real human goods (e.g., nutrition, family, safety) in order to discover its intrinsic value.5 As Richard Weaver wrote, "The genius of value seems to have taken wings along with the other essences which nominalists would deny." If we cannot know what is good, we are moral agnostics—relativists, effectively: the good is just what each person says it is.

Most certainly there is a subjective element in prices, but that does not deny each good's intrinsic value. Valuation is something that only a conscious subject can engage in, so we would expect the subject to enter into it and to bring a knowledge of hard-to-quantify realities and relations. It is difficult to consider all factors that give a commodity a particular value to a particular person. Essences and goods are more closely allied with qualities than quantities, and it takes a person to evaluate qualities.6

Plus, valuation is subjective in that it is different for each person relative to his situation. A starving man would justly part with gold for a meal, while a well-fed man rightly values food more moderately. Nevertheless, the human ends at stake are the same and can be objectively evaluated—which is not to say that some sort of rigid mathematical formalism can be applied universally.

So there are real values for things, and there is a just wage a man should be paid for his labor. Of course, the existence of a just wage doesn't guarantee that we will always know it in any particular case. Even less does it mean that a legislature can know it well enough to mandate it for an entire country, as many proponents of the minimum wage assume.

The whole point of Dickens's melodramatic portrayal of the Crachit family is to remove any doubt that Scrooge is underpaying its patriarch. How can Shaffer ignore this?

It takes a recalcitrant blindness to deny an author's manifest meaning. As we'll see, for Shaffer, this blindness doesn't stop at Dickens's creation.

Values in the Soul and the Supernatural

Human happiness comes from enjoying human goods, and unhappiness comes from lacking these goods. Shaffer himself admits that Scrooge is profoundly unhappy:

Taking my client as the miserable fellow Dickens has presented him, let me be the first to admit that if Ebeneezer’s obsession with materialistic pursuits rendered him an unhappy person, and were it the purposes of his detractors to help extricate him from his self-imposed miseries and to restore him to that state of happiness and innocence so common to most of us in our childhood years, no one would be happier than I. But it is not my client’s happiness that the prosecution endeavors to obtain, but his money.

I claim that Scrooge's unhappiness comes from the fact that he knows in his heart of hearts that his miserliness is wrong. Shaffer casts these "detracts" as if they simply wanted Scrooge's money, instead of wanting his money as a means to a greater end. It's been a while since I've looked at Dickens, but might it be possible that Scrooge's "detractors" want him to part with his cash as a means of growing out of his miserliness and finding happiness?

Is it not enough that Scrooge's own conscience condemns him? The supernatural also condemns him in the form of the three spirits of Christmas. But Shaffer has a rejoinder to this as well:

Keep in mind, these specters are possessed with the powers to suspend ordinary rules that operate throughout the rest of nature. They can successfully defy gravity, move backwards and forwards in time, cause matter to become invisible, raise the dead, and foresee the future. Having all of these amazing powers, why did these spirits not intervene to cure Tiny Tim of his ailment?

But take this argument further: if there is a God in heaven, why doesn't he cure all the Tiny Tim's of the world? Perhaps because exercising a spiritual good like generosity is more important than physical health. Perhaps because, just as a parent knows it is good for the child to clean his own room, the Supernatural knows that good actions are overall better for the actors.

It is significant that atheists use these same sorts of arguments: maintained consistently, the same relativism that denies intrinsic goods and intrinsic value eventually leads to a denial of the Author of All Good.

If it weren't for the divorce between abstract economics and the reality of human goods, there wouldn't be the philosophical rift between economic and cultural conservatives that we suffer from today. But then again, the divorce of economics from integral goods is emblematic of the rupture in the constitution of fallen man.

Even in tough economic times like these, charity is still in order, so please do put a penny (or a pound) in the old man's hat.


1. That it is an ideology is somewhat evident in the rhetoric of this more recent Lew Rockwell piece in which he absolutizes economic actions as "good" or "evil": "Don't Cave!." While I agree with his conclusion that these interventions are wrong, to call them "evil" is to conflate prudential economic decisions with moral absolutes like the right to life.

2. When I say slaves were the basis of the economy, I am of course not saying that they were the only ones who contributed value to that economy.

3. I understand Murray Rothbard admitted these sorts of cases, but didn't let them cloud his belief in Austrian-school principles.

4. Notice I didn't say "comprehend": we needn't have comprehensive knowledge to grasp a thing's essence.

5. The irony is that such economic relativism would seem to be more characteristic of supporters of "fiat currencies" and less of Austrian-School economists, most of whom advocate return to the gold standard.

6. That our current economic system (read: the souls of its participants) is overly obsessed with quantities is evident from the fact the recent uproar over lead-paint on toys from China. Why should it take a violation as serious as this to wake us up to the crisis of quality in goods not only from that country, but from everywhere we buy to cut the bottom line?

Butler Shaffer, "The Case for Ebeneezer," (December 13, 2004).

Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: Phoenix Books, 1948), 142.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Power or Reason?

Just ran across this excellent quotation in Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences:

It may indeed appear before the struggle is over that the attack upon private property is but a further expression of the distrust of reason with which our age seems fatally stricken. When it is no longer believe that there is a restraining reason in accordance with which men may act, it follows that the state cannot permit individual centers of control. The repudiation of transcendentalism compels the state to believe that individual centers of control will be governed by pure egotism, as indeed they largely are at present. At the same time, this repudiation pushes aside the concept of inviolability. The modern state does not comprehend how anyone can be guided by something other than itself. In its eyes pluralism is treason. Once you credit man with the power of reason and with inviolable rights, you set bounds beyond which the will of majorities may not go. Therefore it is highly probable that subconsciously or not, the current determination to diminish the area of inviolable freedom masks an attempt to treat man as a mere biological unit. For liberty and right reason go hand in hand, and it is impossible to impugn one without casting reflection on the other.

In other words, since according to popular, liberal conception, reason has no power over men, all interest boils down to arbitrary exercise of egoism, which knows no bounds. In this conception, the only force restraining this chaos is the state.

One aspect of silliness here is that the state is somehow exempt from being an exercise of any egoism, despite it being just another human institution, and subject to all human foibles of anything created by these (supposed) biological units. I'm pretty sure this is another reflection of the being implicit divinization of the ego, or at least certain egos, that occurred with Cartesian dualism. When Descartes split the spirit from the body (making the person not a whole, but two wholes), he effectively made an element of the individual transcendent in a way that only God truly is.

Somehow the collective Ego has gained a property (infallibility) not present in the constituent individual egos. This sort of implied emergentism is enough to make one suspect that what's true of the state, might be true of an individual: maybe we humans aren't just agglomerations of molecules in motion driven by selfish desire, but wholes capable of rational self-determination! Naaaw!

Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: Phoenix Books, 1948), 137-138. (I clipped the actual text from this ISI page.)

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Spurious Hope?

John Zmirak's latest on InsideCatholic is a well crafted picture of the nightmare we can expect from the Democratic takeover. He's predicting much of the same thing I am, albeit more skillfully.

Nevertheless there are some interesting dissenting responses to his post about how serious the threat of FoCA is. Here are some excerpts:

The problem with being my age is that you remember too much. For example, I remember the same kind of talk in 1992, which was also supposed to be The End of Civilization as We Know It. Yet, we seemed to survive the next eight years. Some even think we did better in the 90's than in the ought's. In politics, the end of the world seems to be a quadrennial event.

—John Médaille

No doubt we've been used cynically by the Republicans, as Bush has most manifestly shown by disregarding the unilateral actions he could have taken to promote pro-life.

For instance, why are we hearing about FOCA from Catholic sources, but not from McCain or Palin themselves? Their opponent has made this a priority, why haven't they pressed him on that?

For one thing, McCain's friend Joe Lieberman is a FOCA co-sponsor.

For another, perhaps they too realize it has no chance of passing.

From Catholic News Agency, see Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life on FOCA:

“Moreover, it’s so extreme, I really don’t think it would ever reach his desk, even if the Democrats increased their numbers in Congress,” Fr. Pavone said."

—Kevin J Jones

... Obama is no progressive messiah; he's a standard politician like any other. As such, his primary mission in life is not to pass FOCA, but to ensure his own re-election. If passing the law helps, he'll try to do it; if not, he won't.

With that in mind, if the Congress were to pass -- and Obama sign -- the FOCA, there would be such an explosion among voters (the great majority of whom do NOT support FOCA) that all the gains Democrats made with moderates this year would be for naught. The FOCA is great for rallying the Democratic primary base, but like Obama's other promises to the fringe of his party (like filibustering FISA), it will disappear once he takes office... Only to reappear as a 2012 campaign promise.

FOCA is a boon for direct mail fundraising (on both sides), but it isn't going anywhere as legislation.

—Brian Saint-Paul

I'm not so sanguine that they won't pass the bill. The problem is that unlike the Republican elite, who cynically use social issues to promote themselves, the Dems are true believers. "Science" after all sanctions their worldview. Obama's record and public statements show that abortion is important to him.

A couple years ago the legislature of my state had passed a pro-abortion1 bill and a same-sex "civil union" bill. I took mail-in cards to churches to help people tell our Democratic governor not to sign them into law. One pastor let me put the anti-abortion cards in the church, but not the anti-civil-union cards; he told me that our governor would sign the former but not the latter: he is a compromiser, the pastor assured me. Wrong: the governor signed both bills into law.

The problem is: compromise with what? These people live in like-minded coteries and never hear any opinion but their own reflected back at them. For them to compromise means to do what they hear "everyone else" say should be done: exactly what they want to do (like Bush, but without the advantage of a disagreeing media).

I can only hope they are right that the Dems aren't serious about passing FoCA. Unfortunately they'll probably restrict themselves to their typical anti-democratic (ironic, isn't it?) stealth routine of legislating through liberal Supreme Court justices—we'll incrementally get the full effect of FoCA for two to three decades at least.

Then again, perhaps it would be best for them to pass it. At least then we'd have an honest fight out in the open.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The REAL Hope

A demagogue takes the highest office in the land. We are witnessing the decline of the republic, not unlike the passing of the Weimar Republic that preceded Germany's fall to National Socialist rule.

But is Obama comparable to everyone's favorite dictator? In his own words to his supporters, "You did it [voted me power] because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead." Does he know what "enormity" means? The first definition according to Miriam-Webster is "an outrageous, improper, vicious, or immoral act." Obama says more than he knows. But honestly I don't think the voters understand the enormities he seems intent on enacting (but neither do his supporters seem to care all that much).

He has pledged that the first thing he will do is pass the Freedom of Choice Act (FoCA). With a solid Democratic majority backing him in Congress, the only thing that would prevent him from carrying out that promise is if he exercised a "politician's prerogative" to change his mind. From his (other?) waffling and equivocations during the campaign, it appears he is well practiced in this art. I wouldn't count on that though: from his voting record, there seems to be no dearer cause to the man than abortion and ensuring that a child slated to die under an abortionist will not see the light of day.

FoCA will sweep away any state restrictions or limitations on abortion, such as parental consent, waiting periods, and mandate federal funding of abortions. Further, in enshrining abortion as a fundamental right, it will eliminate the ability of health-care workers to opt out of participating in abortions for reasons of conscience. It will likewise force religious hospitals to perform abortions or shut down.

The silver lining to these radical actions is that it might wake people up. It's one thing when children are killed invisibly in some minority corner of a city1, but it's quite another when federal troops are closing down, say, Catholic hospitals. (Don't underestimate Obama's slickness and ability to seduce people into swallowing poison.) The shame of this sight will be the just dessert of those of his supporters with some moral quality; the shameless may know no punishment in this life.

Speaking of the Catholic Church, the bishops were much better in speaking up this election cycle. Perhaps that was because statements by Pelosi and Biden treaded on their proper territory (doctrine). But one gets the feeling that it was too little, too late. We're soon be paying for two generations of subtle dissent (since Humanae Vitae), malforming of consciences, and skullduggery (e.g., Cardinal McCarrick's twisting of then-Cardinal Ratzinger's statement on the excommunication of pro-abortion politicians). I'd like to ask those bishops who haven't taken a decisive stand how what they think history will look on them. In the last few decades the left has been spouting the canard that the Church didn't do enough to prevent the Holocaust. It seems to me that the future will look back with deep disapproval on bishops who refrained from speaking up strongly against the killing of over 40 million innocents in our day. May God help them when they face judgment on the last day!

As far as the coming tyranny is concerned, we can thank the current occupant of the White House for setting us up quite nicely. In expanding beyond bounds the power of the imperial Presidency, Bush (along with Cheney) has handed unprecedented power to his successor. "Conservatives" have only themselves to blame. Perhaps they thought someone as "good" as Bush (read: on "their side"—supposedly) would always hold the Presidency? But just as only Nixon could go to China, only a "conservative" could curtail civil liberties without complaints from "conservatives." Years ago I warned my Bush-boosting parents that whatever powers Bush accumulated to the Presidency would be passed on to whoever, say Hillary Clinton... and now we have a President-elect who's far to the left of Hillary!

Bush and Co. certainly accelerated the centralization of power, but it was a road we've been heading down for quite a while. The whole system is broken. The stakes are so high that both major parties have dispatched hundreds of lawyers2 to dispute contested votes. The problem is that the stakes shouldn't be so high: no single man should have so much power. (This, along with the large effort required to campaign, is why we can't get decent, sane men to run for President nowadays.)

Robert Royal has some apt words:

Republicans have also been pandering, to a smaller but large enough swath of the population. What both parties have been doing used to be known as demagoguery and was recognized by the Founding Fathers as one of the reasons that democracy historically has been a very unstable form of government. Once popular passions are loosed from the bounds of law, the people usually demand everything from their rulers. This runs counter to the deepest sources of our civilization. Aristotle once remarked that if man were the highest being, politics would be the highest science. But that wise pagan pointed to heavenly beings and other things above us as normative, i.e., politics is limited and subordinate to higher truths.

But our government reflects its people. The fundamental problem is our impatience: we want it all and we want it now. We don't want to wait to be rescued from the suffering that threatens us, so we hand our self-dominion to a man, or to an institution, we think will save us.

What we really need is Hope. Not the worldly sort that Mr. Obama claims to fulfill, but the theological virtue that points only to God. Were Obama's claims true, he would leave us nothing to hope for. Given that they are hollow, we have all the more reason to put our trust in our Creator.

Put not your trust in princes,
in a son of man, in whom there is no help.3


1. Planned Parenthood situates its clinics primarily in minority neighborhoods.

2. If only we could dispatch them in the other sense!

3. Ps 146:3.

Monday, October 27, 2008

His Top Priority

Please consider forwarding the link to this spot:

Friday, October 17, 2008

Obama Paper Dolls

Well we knew Google had a liberal bias. Here's further evidence.

I searched for "dover books". The first resultant link was to no surprise, just what I wanted. I clicked the Google link that says

More results from ».

At the bottom of the first page I find:

Obama Paper Dolls

pad, Dover Home, pad, Store Directory, pad, Customer Service, pad ... Here's a sample of other books in this Dover category pad ... - 27k - Cached - Similar pages - Note this

Interesting: what a curiosity! Is Dover campaigning for Obama? I click through and see Dover also has McCain paper dolls.

So it's not that Dover is promoting Obama by printing paper dolls of the Democratic Presidential candidate, but that Google is promoting Obama by selectively linking to the Obama paper dolls over the McCain doll (and "above the fold" so to speak).

Of course, the comeback is "they had to link to one or the other!" My response: no they didn't. Why link to either?1

Besides it turns out that Dover has a page that lists both products.

Google's personnel are known to be liberal. So what I wonder is: Is this bias the manual result of the human agents involved in selecting which links to present, or is it an automatic result encoded in the software? How systematic is the bias?

Obama and Abortion

If you're pro-life to any extent and supporting Obama, you might want to think again, as Professor Robert P. George of Princeton explains in this excellent article (h/t Touchstone):

Obama's Abortion Extremism

Here's a good paragraph (and just the tip of the iceberg):

But this barely scratches the surface of Obama's extremism. He has promised that "the first thing I'd do as President is sign the Freedom of Choice Act" (known as FOCA). This proposed legislation would create a federally guaranteed "fundamental right" to abortion through all nine months of pregnancy, including, as Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia has noted in a statement condemning the proposed Act, "a right to abort a fully developed child in the final weeks for undefined 'health' reasons." In essence, FOCA would abolish virtually every existing state and federal limitation on abortion, including parental consent and notification laws for minors, state and federal funding restrictions on abortion, and conscience protections for pro-life citizens working in the health-care industry-protections against being forced to participate in the practice of abortion or else lose their jobs. The pro-abortion National Organization for Women has proclaimed with approval that FOCA would "sweep away hundreds of anti-abortion laws [and] policies."

(And there's MUCH more in the article.) Not that I particularly like McCain, but Obama is simply beyond the pale. Forget the spiel about his associating with terrorists. A friend of mine has a bumper sticker that says

Terrorist have killed 3,000 Americans since 1990.
Abortionists have killed 4,000 Americans since yesterday.2

The most ironic part is that over a third of those abortions are African-American babies. Those number of abortions can only increase (and be funded by your federal tax dollars) if Barak Obama is elected to the White House; he would be backed by the likes of Nancy Pelosi as majority leader in Congress. Here's what Wikipedia says about her abortion stance:

Pelosi supports the legality of abortion. She voted against the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 and earlier attempts at similar bans. She voted in favor of the 1998 Abortion Funding Amendment, which allowed the use of district funds to promote abortion-related activities.

She has also voted in favor of using federal funds to perform abortions in overseas military facilities, against parental notification when a minor is transported across state lines for an abortion, and in favor of providing funding for organizations working overseas that promote or perform abortions and abortion-related activities.

And as Dr. George makes clear, Obama is even more extreme on this issue!

Paper dolls will never replace those aborted children.


1. One might also ask where the dolls for the minor-party candidates are. But then it's hard to blame Dover for following demand.

2. The bumper sticker points out the stupidity of prioritizing the fight against terrorism over the fight against abortion. Unfortunately, this is the stupidity (or the major example of stupidity) that Republican Party has come to indulge under the Presidency of George W. Bush (or maybe the Vice Presidency of Dick Cheney?). That McCain is pointing to Obama's Ayers ("terrorist") association instead of his abortion extremism (which goes against the 90% of Americans who think abortion should be restricted in some way) only shows the extent to which McCain is brainwashed by the military-industrial culture of death and blind to the real interest of his country. I'll vote for McCain, but only because I live in a "battleground state" that I don't want Obama to win.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Gimme Generation

It seems that the federal government is getting into the "business" of bailing people out of their troubles. First there were Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, then AIG, then the banking industry $700 billion (which may not be "enough"!). Then the state of California asked for $7 billion to pay for its profligacy. And now it seems the commonwealth of Massachusetts wants its turn at the federal trough.

I guess those initial outlays were like blood in the water. Now everyone wants a bailout.

How bad is the economy? Is it really necessary for the government to step in to "save the day"?

These are complicated questions. There's a lot of psychology involved in economics, and people's expectations are sometimes unreasonable. I suspect that the more answerable question is how we got into this mess in the first place.

The big problem is that the generation in charge, the Boomers, was raised with the expectation that everything would be provided for them.1 In other words, they were raised to be irresponsible. And indeed, of the two Boomer Presidents this country has had (Clinton and Bush II), both have been disasters.2 True to their heritage, the people now in charge of our country (not just the President or the government) have bequeathed to their children an enormous government debt and a profoundly troubled economy.

As the Onion once put it,

"The selfishness that has been a hallmark of the Boomers will continue right up to the very end, as they force millions of younger Americans to devote an inordinate amount of time and resources to their care, bankrupting the Social Security system in the process," Clausewitz said. "In their old age, the Boomers will actually manage to take as much from the next generation as they did the previous one, which fought WWII so that their Boomer children could have Philco TVs and Davy Crockett air rifles."

This means it is up to younger generations to shoulder the additional burden that their selfish forebears have sloughed. The temptation is to envy the material prosperity the Boomers have enjoyed at the expense of others. The Psalmist had a similar experience and began to envy the worldly success of the unjust people of his day:

But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
my steps had well nigh slipped.

For I was envious of the arrogant,
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

For they have no pangs;
their bodies are sound and sleek.

They are not in trouble as other men are;
they are not stricken like other men.

Therefore pride is their necklace;
violence covers them as a garment.3

Their eyes swell out with fatness,
their hearts overflow with follies.

They scoff and speak with malice;
loftily they threaten oppression.

They set their mouths against the heavens,
and their tongue struts through the earth.

Therefore the people turn and praise them;
and find no fault in them.

And they say, "How can God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?"

Behold, these are the wicked;
always at ease, they increase in riches. (Ps 73:2-12)

The temptation is to view the worldly success of others and one's lack of success with a sense of frustration, as if this failure were some sort of penalty for keeping virtue:

All in vain have I kept my heart clean
and washed my hands in innocence.

For all the day long I have been stricken,
and chastened every morning. (Ps 73:13-14)

But the Psalmist soon recognized his error and sees that the unjust have no lasting happiness in their possessions:

If I had said, "I will speak thus,"
I would have been untrue to the generation of thy children.

But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,

until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I perceived their end.

Truly thou dost set them in slippery places;
thou dost make them fall to ruin.

How they are destroyed in a moment,
swept away utterly by terrors!

They are like a dream when one awakes,
on awaking you despise their phantoms.

The solution is not to emulate those whose success you envy, but to adhere to the Lord and His justice: that is where real happiness lies.

When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,

I was stupid and ignorant,
I was like a beast toward thee.

Nevertheless I am continually with thee;
thou dost hold my right hand.

Thou dost guide me with thy counsel,
and afterward thou wilt receive me to glory.

Whom have I in heaven but thee?
And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee.

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.

For lo, those who are far from thee shall perish;
thou dost put an end to those who are false to thee.

But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord GOD my refuge,
that I may tell of all thy works. (Ps 73:15-28)

For God alone my soul waits in silence,
from him comes my salvation. (Ps 62)

Just because the Boomers are unjust doesn't mean that the rest of us have to be. We should be thankful for this opportunity to display virtue (whose lack got us into this mess). It won't be easy, but no real challenge ever is, and without challenges, how can one grow closer to God?

Some excellent commentary on the financial crisis here.


1. Notably raised by the so-called Greatest Generation. Maybe not so great after all!

2. Partially mitigated disasters. What saved Clinton from being an unmitigated disaster was the other party controlling Congress. What that saved Bush from unmitigated disasterhood was the moral debt he owed to social conservatives.

3. "Violence" - when one will not discipline one's self, one has to take it out on others, for example, the unborn, and people in other countries.

"Long-Awaited Baby Boomer Die-Off To Begin Soon, Experts Say," The Onion 35.02 (January 20, 1999).

Always entertaining: Baby Boomer Death Counter

Thursday, October 02, 2008

God Is Not My Opposite

This was in last month's Magnificat (p. 347) and I thought it worth reproducing since it speaks to the fallacy of gnosticism and the need to look to nature to understand God.

A thing is not true just because I need it, for need does not create truth, but only directs us to it. Or am I forbidden to ask whether the miracle of the Incarnation is true? Must I even believe it just because it is not true for my critical thought? And is faith therefore essentially a conflict and contradiction? That could only be if God were not merely something different from me, but something essentially opposite; if my whole being were sin. Then I should in truth possess in myself no means of access to God. I should be darkness unpenetrated by God's light; I should be a corpse, and his life flowing round me. But am I a corpse? Am I only sin? No, I am not. I have sin, but I am not sin. I have death in me, but I am not dead. I have contrariety in me, but not pure negation, not absolute contradiction. Just for that reason my thought, for all its stumbling, can discern the problem of my being; and my will, however much it may waver, can desire the removal of my contrarieties in the God-Man. So faith in the Incarnation is not a miraculous flower growing in me without root; it has its root in my natural capacity for God, in what the theologians call a potentia obedientialis, and it is evoked therein by God. Therefore faith does not come to me without my co-operation. I must hold my soul ready for the living God, and I must hearken to him when he gives testimony of himself.

—Father Karl Adam, Christ Our Brother, trans. Dom Justin McCann (Collier Books, 1959).

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Ideological Subtext to the Financial Crisis

Yesterday I talked to an old libertarian banker friend. He dislikes the whole idea of a bailout, but reluctantly admits that the economy probably needs it in order to slow and contain the crisis. By his estimate, it would take the economy 20-30 years to sort itself out without the bailout. (Reasoning: it took us 3-4 years to get over the tech-bubble bursting, and those were goods that were only to last 3-4 years. In the present crisis, homes are durable goods, lasting 20-30 years. I'm not entirely sure I buy this argument, as it seems that houses resell better than computers, and people don't necessarily own a house for that long.)

Much more interestingly, he observes that some of the economic weakness originates in way that banks were ideologically forced to make loans to people with bad credit. Community groups (including the ACORN group with which Obama worked) sued banks for not making enough loans to racial minorities.1 The banks weren't singling out these people; it's just that minorities tend not to have as good credit (doesn't make them bad people). Since banks couldn't have special lower standards only for minorities, they had to lower their standards for all loans. Thus they were forced by "community" groups to make bad loans.

My friend estimates that these loans amount to about a tenth of the current economic crisis.

Of course people with bad credit who get a loan they can't handle end up much worse off when they default on the loan than if they had no loan in the first place. Ironically the real victims of this liberal strategy were these people they were ostensibly helping. This is similar to the students who get into a prestigious college, not because they are qualified, but simply because of institutionalized racial preferences. How does it help them when they have to drop out?

Once again we have an affirmative-action type of plan using heavy-handed tactics to ruin things for everyone, but especially for the people they were supposedly helping. For liberals, the motivation seems to be not so much actually helping people, but feeling like they are helping people.


1. Hopefully this doesn't sound like a white supremacist argument. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and unfortunately liberals seemed to be determined to make them right more often.

Update (Oct 2): More on the mortgage crisis and the Obama connection here.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Real Crisis

The economic crisis is all over the news.

A friend notes that worries about the government's bailout of AIG is exaggerated, that the government will likely make money on the deal. Fine. My worry is that the government is so deeply involved in the economy at all. When politics and not economics controls where the money goes, when stupid decisions don't receive their natural retribution, then the economy ends up weaker in the long run. Of course, the problem is the collateral damage of destroyed trust ruining it for everyone else.

The real crisis goes much deeper and some of its roots extend to our founding, but many more to the last half-century of American prosperity, as described in this excellent article by Andrew Bacevich. This is not just a problem originating with the financial elites of this country, but is a problem of from people like you and me, Joe Citizen, living beyond our means and expecting the good times to go on forever.

The heroes and villians of the article will probably surprise you. The usual good guys and bad guys end up playing much different roles when you look at them from the perspective of leading our nation in self-control.

Also some commentary I ran across from a physicist with a liberal point of view here. He surprisingly opposes government intervention, but I suppose for the unsurprising reason that he thinks the bailout will benefit the rich (only).

I personally don't blame the quants (physicists on Wall Street) for all the evils of the universe (ha ha) so much as their MBA masters, whose exclusively quantitative approach to the world (notably inspired by the success of physics) courts disaster.

Andrew J. Bacevich, "Appetite for Destruction," The American Conservative (September 08, 2008) 18-24.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Luck Substitutes for Reason

A recent New York Times article illustrates how chance acts as a imitation or placeholder cause in scientific explanation. The article recounts a study that compares the survival of the dinosaurs to that of another reptile group:

But then at the end of the Triassic, for some unknown reason the dinosaurs survived while almost all the crurotarsans did not. “There was a certain amount of luck involved,” Dr. Benton said. “One group got pretty much wiped out and another group soldiered on and took off. The dinosaurs finally got their chance.”

Notice the phrase "for some unknown reason." In other words, "luck" takes the place of an actual explanation for the extinction of one species and the survival of another.

I don't have access to the actual paper on which the Times article is based, but its abstract puts it in scientifically more mellifluous terms:

The results strongly suggest that historical contingency, rather than prolonged competition or general "superiority," was the primary factor in the rise of dinosaurs.

"Historical contingency." It's translation as "luck" is faithful to the thoughts of the researchers. Steve Brusatte explains, "Why did crurotarsans go extinct and not dinosaurs? We don't know the answer to that, but we suspect that it was nothing more than luck, plain and simple." (Bristol University press release)

"Nothing more than luck".


How did they come to this conclusion? The Times writes:

“The assumption is that the diversity or range of body forms is more or less proportional to the number of modes of life that they’d occupy,” Dr. Benton said. So the finding shows that the crurotarsans were more diverse in terms of their lifestyle, diet and habitat — they filled more ecological niches and were, if anything, the more successful of the two groups in the late Triassic. “The dinosaurs didn’t find a way to squeeze into the crurotarsans’ role,” he said.

The press release put it thusly:

[C]rurotarsans were more abundant (more individuals, more fossils, more species) than dinosaurs in many Triassic ecosystems, and crurotarsans were in some cases more diverse (greater number of species). Putting all this together, it is very difficult to argue that dinosaurs were ‘superior’ to crurotarsans, or that they were out-competing crurotarsans.

So, in other words, 'We can't explain it with our brute quantitative measure of "superiority," so the only explanation can be "chance".' True enough.

But having to resort to chance only shows the coarseness of scientific measures, and not the actual reality of the situation. It's kind of like failing to catch any fish in a lake with a net with three-inch-wide mesh and then proclaiming the absence of minnows. Chance cannot be a final explanation.

Henry Fountain, "Dinosaurs Got by With a Little Bit of Luck," New York Times (September 12, 2008).

"Dinosaurs' 'superiority' challenged by their crocodile cousins," Bristol University Press release (11 September 2008).

Stephen L. Brusatte, Michael J. Benton, Marcello Ruta, Graeme T. Lloyd Science, "Superiority, Competition, and Opportunism in the Evolutionary Radiation of Dinosaurs," "" Science 321:5895 (12 September 2008) pp. 1485-1488.

Maybe I'm running out of steam, or maybe I just had too many distractions this summer.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Recall that Copernicus removed Earth from the center of the universe, and Enlightenment mythology says that he destroyed man's special status in creation (of course the mythology forgets that man is unique for being able to contemplate having a special status). A recent AIP news item seems to undermine the so-called Copernican hypothesis that supposedly underlies so much of the modern scientific worldview:

But according to a new study by Northwestern University astronomers looking at 300 planets orbiting other stars, we might really be special. "We now know that these other planetary systems don't look like [our] solar system at all," said Frederic Rasio, an astronomer at Northwestern, in Chicago. Computer simulations used by Rasio's team showed that the birth of a planetary system is a very violent affair, with the gas disk that gives birth to the planets pushing them toward the central star, where they often crowd together to be engulfed. Gravitational encounters between growing planets fling some across the planetary system, or into deep space. "Such a turbulent history would seem to leave little room for the sedate solar system, and our simulations show exactly that," said Rasio in a news release from Northwestern University. Our solar system "had to be born under just the right conditions to become the quiet place we see," he said. "The vast majority of other planetary systems didn't have these special properties at birth and became something very different."

Phil Schewe, "Maybe We Are Special, The Solar System Says," Physics News Update Number 869 #2, August 15, 2008.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Environmentalism and Religion

Freeman Dyson's recent book review concludes with some insightful thoughts:

All the books that I have seen about the science and economics of global warming, including the two books under review, miss the main point. The main point is religious rather than scientific. There is a worldwide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth, that despoiling the planet with waste products of our luxurious living is a sin, and that the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible. The ethics of environmentalism are being taught to children in kindergartens, schools, and colleges all over the world.

Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion. And the ethics of environmentalism are fundamentally sound. Scientists and economists can agree with Buddhist monks and Christian activists that ruthless destruction of natural habitats is evil and careful preservation of birds and butterflies is good. The worldwide community of environmentalists—most of whom are not scientists—holds the moral high ground, and is guiding human societies toward a hopeful future. Environmentalism, as a religion of hope and respect for nature, is here to stay. This is a religion that we can all share, whether or not we believe that global warming is harmful.

Unfortunately, some members of the environmental movement have also adopted as an article of faith the belief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet. That is one reason why the arguments about global warming have become bitter and passionate. Much of the public has come to believe that anyone who is skeptical about the dangers of global warming is an enemy of the environment. The skeptics now have the difficult task of convincing the public that the opposite is true. Many of the skeptics are passionate environmentalists. They are horrified to see the obsession with global warming distracting public attention from what they see as more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet, including problems of nuclear weaponry, environmental degradation, and social injustice. Whether they turn out to be right or wrong, their arguments on these issues deserve to be heard.

He's correct that environmentalism is a religion, as it binds people to set of beliefs, and these beliefs are not necessarily based on publicly available reason. I have recently been thinking about extreme environmentalists' condemnation of human life itself as "luxurious living". As Dostoevsky observed, if God is dead, everything is permissible; there are no limits to what man should do. Thus it makes sense that since not everything is permissible, in lieu of the old God, we need a new god, a new standard by which to condemn what is evidently disordered.

Dyson is also right that the debate should not be arbitrarily shut down, as he elsewhere in the article notes that the PC-faction has in Britain; there is still a lot of uncertainty in the science of "climate change." ("Global warming" is passé; it's an open secret that the globe's surface temperature hasn't warmed for a decade now.)

I just by chance ran across another discovery that should effect the "climate change" discussion. UMass Amherst scientists have established that bacteria can metabolize minerals containing carbon and reintroduce it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

According to Petsch, the bottom line is that the release of organic material from sedimentary rocks contributes approximately 2 percent of the carbon dioxide that enters the atmosphere each year. While this may seem like a small amount, it is another piece of the puzzle that can be used when determining how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades.

Just goes to show that the science of "climate change" is anything but settled and that discussion should continue.

Freeman Dyson, "The Question of Global Warming," The New York Review of Books 55:10 (June 12, 2008). h/t Touchstone (July/August 2008)

Steven Petsch, "New Piece of Climate Change Puzzle Found In Ancient Sedimentary Rocks by UMass Amherst Researchers" Press Release, July 23, 2008.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Four Levels of Teleology

The existence of teleology (from telos, Greek for end or purpose) is a controversial issue in the study of nature. The Scientific Revolution succeeded in rendering the notion disreputable, largely by ridiculing its abuses and ignoring its strengths.

A big obstacle for moderns to believe in natural purpose is the flattening of language that's occurred since the so-called Enlightenment. Words nowadays mean only one thing (or at least that's the popular perception) and have lost much of their flexibility. Gone are analogous senses of words. Mariano Artigas, in The Mind of the Universe, goes a long distance to rehabilitating teleology for the modern mind by helpfully distinguishing four senses or levels. Each higher level presupposes all the lower levels and adds something new. Figure 4.2 (p. 126) summarizes what he explains at greater length in the text:

  1. END of a PROCESS
    "The End" of a film, of a journey, of an exam.
    Final stages of any process
    Attractive or repulsive physical forces
    Multiple tendencies of living beings
  3. VALUE for a SUBJECT
    Something good or bad for the subject who acts
  4. PURPOSE of a PLAN
    There are known aims and designs

The text:

On the first level, teleology refers to the "end" of a "process." Sometimes we can distinguish particular stages in a process and consider the conclusion of any one of them as an end. We can speak about ends in a spatial sense, but when we talk about teleology we are primarily interested in the ends of processes that develop in time. This meaning of "end" is at the same time something real and completely neutral from a philosophical point of view. However, it is a necessary component of the remaining three levels.

The second level contains a stronger finalist meaning, as it refers to the "goal" of a "tendency." This meaning presupposes the first and adds something, the existence of a tendency toward a determined end. This is no longer a neutral issue from the scientific or philosophical points of view, and it poses two problems: how we can determine the existence of tendencies and how we can explain them.

On the third level a new qualification is introduced: we say that particular ends have a "value" for some "subject." Here, "value" means something is convenient or inconvenient, good or bad, for a particular subject or kind of subject. Discussions about teleology sooner or later refer to values.

These three levels exist in both natural and human activity. But on the fourth level there is a new kind of teleology that belongs only to the purposeful activity of intelligent beings: to reach a "purpose" as a consequence of a "plan." This is the level on which we can properly speak of purposeful actions and of design.

Intelligent purposeful action is teleological because, by its very nature, it is directed toward something that can be considered to be the end of the action. This end is a goal, as far as it is reached as the result of a tendency, and is also a value, because otherwise the subject would not desire it. Natural activities are not so clearly teleological because it may be difficult to determine whether they are directed toward determinate goals, and because it may be even more difficult to determine whether these goals, if they exist, can be considered real values.

The problem of natural teleology has a double aspect: first to determine whether natural tendencies toward goals that can be considered values exist, and then, if these goals exist, to determine whether they require the existence of some intelligent plan that governs the activity of nature.

But to return to teleology in nature, a paper by John Keck, the director of the Institute for the Study of Nature, recently published in The Thomist discusses the natural teleologies in the laws of physics. The introduction observes that physics necessarily deals with teleology (on Artigas's level 2): "In book 2 of the Physics, Aristotle establishes that nature's obvious regularities—its tendency to act in particular ways (which itself maintains the good of the cosmic order)—reveal an ordering to specific ends. That things happen 'always or for the most part' indicates finality or purpose." The paper continues,

The only alternative to purpose is chance and, although chance events often obtain, the natural world is inherently teleological. Scientific laws, modern and ancient, physical, chemical, and biological, capture nature's regularities and im-plicitly testify to teleology. That baking soda and vinegar react expansively, and that confetti is normally attracted to the static electric charge on a balloon show the order and purpose of nature. Far from being opposed to modern science, teleology is its conditio sine qua non. (532-3)

The rest of the paper is devoted to observing how the ends of physics processes constitute values (Artigas's level 3). The main focus is on establishing how gravity and entropy constitute constitute natural motions toward the ends of spatial unity and disunity.

Gravity is the kind of motion that Aristotle describes in book 8 of the Physics as "bring[ing] to actuality the proper activities that [material bodies] potentially possess." It is a natural motion—a natural motion toward physical or spatial unity, a surrender of the masses' separate existences to a greater participation in the transcendental perfection of unity. The more matter they contain, the more they are already united in sharing a sympathy of being, and the more strongly (i.e., with greater force) they are drawn together still. (543)

That the end of entropy is disunity is indisputable in the sense of level-2 teleology, but the conclusion seems forced with regard to level 3: to what extent can disunity be considered a good? Instead I think that Dr. Keck would be better to observe that matter as such need not tend toward a good, because matter, insofar as it is matter, has no perfections (I speak of matter in the Aristotelian sense here). Matter is closely allied with the notion of the infinite (both are privations of form or limit), so it would make sense that matter as such would tend "toward" boundlessness (cf. Physics III.7.207b35-208a4). Other than that complaint, I can find nothing to disagree with.

The paper also also mentions that "On the level of individual charges, the action of electro-magnetic forces tends toward the natural end of (electrical) charge neutrality" (542).

That physical matter (mass-energy) has ends constitutes a continuity with the living world. Once life is constituted (however that happens), the preservation of the organismic configuration of matter becomes a value for the organism. As Hans Jonas writes,

[L]iving things are creatures of need. Only living things have needs and act on needs. Need is based both on the necessity for the continuous self-renewal of the organism by the metabolic process, and on the organism's elemental urge thus precariously to continue itself. This basic self-concern of all life, in which necessity and will are bound together, manifests itself on the level of animality as appetite, fear, and all the rest of the emotions. The pang of hunger, the passion of the chase, the fury of combat, the anguish of flight, the lure of love—these, and not the data transmitted by the receptors, imbue objects with the character of goals, negative or positive, and make behavior purposive. the mere element of effort lifts bodily activity out of the class of mechanical performance, and the fact that movement requires effort means that an animal will move only under the incentive of an interest.

... The organism has to keep going, because to be going is its very existence—which is revocable—and, threatened with extinction, it is concerned in existing. There is no analogue in the machine to the instinct of self-preservation—only to the latter's antithesis, the final entropy of death. (126)

As a matter of fact, every part of an organism is united in the effort to survive, and I think it's safe to say that this unity of effort is what defines their unity of form.

But the question of how to move from level 3 to level 4, that is, how to go from animal life to rational life, remains to be seen. Jonas points to the human capacity for image making, which is closely related to the sense of sight.

Some sort of disengagement from the causality of the encounter [with the sensible object] provides the neutral freedom for letting the "other" appear for itself. (The organization of our senses assures this disengagement in advance.) In that appearance the affective basis ("stimulation," "irritation") is canceled, its record neutralized....

Vision, of all senses, most conspicuously realizes in its normal performance this double feat of "abstraction": setting off the self-contained object from the affective condition of sensing, and upholding its identity and unity across the whole range of its possible transformations of appearance, each of which is already an integrated simultaneous manifold. (168-9)

Sight and the image-making capacity share in disengagement from their object. At last month's ISN Summer Conference, Lenny Moss gave an outstanding keynote address that showed how the concept of detachment permeates nature from human beings down to the lowliest bits of matter. Detachment is "is a measure of the relative independence of an entity from a larger milieu—its ability to resist the forces of thermal or other kinds of winds." As entities ascend the hierarchy of being, they become more detached from their environment. With mounting being and detachment, an entity acquires the ability to carry a history. "To have a history requires the ability of an entity to buffer itself against random perturbations, or perhaps even to set its own agenda as to how it will receive and respond to stimuli from without." (It's not hard to see how Moss's scheme allows for free will.)

Similarly, notice that each of Artigas's levels of teleology is at a greater remove from the subject of the telos. The end of a process is simply part of the process. The goal of a tendency is a future part of regular process. A value for a subject is hypothetical or possible future part of a process. The purpose of a plan is possible future part of an intelligent subject's activity.

Mariano Artigas, The Mind of the Universe, (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2000), 126-127.

John W. Keck, "The Natural Motion of Matter in Newtonian and Post-Newtonian Physics," The Thomist 71 (October 2007), 529-54. [The URL works at present, but may change soon.]

Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2001/1966).

Lenny Moss, "Detachment, Genomics and the Nature of Being Human," ISN Summer Conference 2008 (June 13, 2008). [published proceedings planned]

Monday, July 07, 2008

Graying and Dying

Just a short note to point out a couple of interesting articles on the graying and dying of our population. First, Boston Globe op-ed by Jeff Jacoby on the coming population bust.

Human fertility has been dropping for years and is now below replacement levels - the minimum required to prevent depopulation - in scores of countries, including China, Japan, Canada, Brazil, Turkey, and all of Europe. The world's population is still rising, largely because of longer life spans - more people live to old age than in the past. But with far fewer children being born today, there will be far fewer adults bearing children tomorrow. In some countries, the collapse has already begun. Russia, for example, is now losing 700,000 people a year.

Even in the United States, where birth rates are still (barely) at replacement level, there are hints of the dislocations to come: In Pittsburgh, reports The New York Times, deaths now outnumber births and hospitals are closing obstetrics wards or converting them to acute care for the elderly. Pittsburgh's public school enrollment was 70,000 in the 1980s. It is 30,000 today - and falling.

By mid-century, according to one UN estimate, there will be 248 million fewer children than there are now. To a culture that has been endlessly hectored about the dangers of overpopulation, that might sound like welcome news. It isn't. No society gains when it loses its most precious resource, and no resource is more valuable than the human mind. The coming demographic winter will chill us all.

Second, NPR's Here and Now had a program a couple weeks ago on Andrew Blechman's Leisureville: Adventures in America's Retirement Utopias. Sounds like the older generation is partying down, without regard for the decreasing number of young people to support their benefits.

Jeff Jacoby's follow-up op-ed underscores the dire economic effects of an aging population:

Far from boosting the economy, an aging population depresses it. As workers are taxed more heavily to support surging numbers of elders, they respond by working less, which leads to stagnation, which reduces economic opportunity still further. "Imagine that all your taxes went for nothing but Social Security and Medicare," says Longman in "Demographic Winter," a new documentary about the coming population decline, "and you still didn't have health care as a young person."

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sex on the Brain

Work's been keeping me from writing anything here, though I have been thinking of things to write. I thought you might be interested in a couple interesting articles on sex I've run across.

The first is about a study that exposed men to sexually suggestive stimuli and then measured their impatience.

“It seems that sexual appetite causes a greater urgency to consume anything rewarding,” the authors suggest. Thus, the activation of sexual desire appears to spill over into other brain systems involved in reward-seeking behaviors, even the cognitive desire for money.

“After they touched a bra, men are more likely to be content with a smaller immediate monetary reward,” writes Bram Van den Bergh, one of the study’s authors. “Prior exposure to sexy stimuli may influence the choice between chocolate cake or fruit for dessert.”

Rather unsurprisingly, all of men's appetites are primed by related mechanisms, which bears out the traditional wisdom that exercising the virtue of continence in one area, say food, builds that virtue in others, say sex. Of course, this relation is why advertisers use sex to sell products not even remotely related to sex. It also helps explain why our sex-soaked society finds it so difficult to make decisions requiring a delay in gratification.

The second revealed some surprising results about the sexual arousal patterns of women. The study found that whereas men are aroused by images solely of the sex to which they are attracted (e.g., heterosexual men by images of women), women are aroused by images of both sexes (e.g., heterosexual women are aroused by images of women as well as images of men).

One important detail to note is the questionable methodology of the study

To rule out the possibility that the differences between men's and women's genital sexual arousal patterns might be due to the different ways that genital arousal is measured in men and women, the Northwestern researchers identified a subset of subjects: postoperative transsexuals who began life as men but had surgery to construct artificial vaginas.

In a sense, those transsexuals have the brains of men but the genitals of women. Their psychological and genital arousal patterns matched those of men -- those who like men were more aroused by male stimuli and those who like women were more aroused by the female stimuli -- even though their genital arousal was measured in the same way women's was.

It may be that I'm just poorly informed about the basis of "sex-change" operations, but this methodology assumes without warrant that these operations truly give their subjects "the genitals of women." The assumption would seem to be an instance of assuming a human construct is equivalent to nature (or that nature is but a construct).

And yet despite the flawed methodology, the study is suggestive (and not merely in a lurid way). For one thing it seems to reflect the greater plasticity of female sexuality elsewhere observed. Take as an example Caitlyn Flanagan's restrospective on young women at college:

The other thing that the girls tended to do was to fall head over heels in love with one another. The 1907 Barnard yearbook observed that crushes were “an epidemic peculiar to college girls,” marked by “a lump in the throat, a feeling of heat in the face and an inability to speak.” While romantic friendships between women were an accepted aspect of life in the 19th century, Peril’s reporting on the nature of those relationships is eye-opening. An 1898 advice book called What a Young Woman Ought to Know describes the irritating behavior of girls who imposed their ardor on the world:

They go about with their arms around each other, they loll against each other, and sit with clasped hands by the hour. They fondle and kiss until beholders are fairly nauseated.

In 1928, one besotted “smasher” at a Texas college formalized her feelings in a yearbook entry: “Roommate, darling, how I love you.”

These women in that innocent age weren't actual lesbians, or even manifestations of the LUG (lesbian until graduation) phenomenon that wasn't unusual during my tenure at Columbia, and for that fact better examples of the relative plasticity of female sexuality than the latter.

Another suggested insight is the objectivity beauty of the the female form. One needn't go so far as to call it an eternal form, but there's something about it that goes beyond mere conditioning or habituation (a friend once claimed—I think wrongly—that if our mothers were green spheres, we'd grow up to be attracted to green spheres). I've heard that even the great apes readily recognize human females as female, whereas we humans have trouble distinguishing ape females from males (though perhaps the latter is only a sign of human insensibility). The question this raises is whether the attraction to the (human) female form is merely "hardwired" into primates' neural circuitry or has deeper roots, perhaps as deep as the very materiality of our existence.

Certainly angels are examples of intelligent creatures who aren't sexual beings, but also examples of intelligent creatures without bodies at all. But we might ask: in what manner and to what extent is (attraction to) the female form necessary to a species of embodied intelligent beings?

Bram Van den Bergh, Siegfried DeWitte, and Luk Warlop, "Bikinis Instigate Generalized Impatience in Intertemporal Choice" (2007).

Meredith L. Chivers, Gerulf Rieger, Elizabeth Latty, J. Michael Bailey, "A Sex Difference in the Specificity of Sexual Arousal," Psychological Science 15: 11 (November 2004), 736-744.

Caitlin Flanagan, "The Age of Innocence," Atlantic Monthly (April 2007).

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Phillip Johnson, Put Down that Kool-Aid!

There are a couple especially noteworthy articles in the May Touchstone. First L.P. Fairfield writes a review of a book on panentheism (not to be confused with pantheism).

"Panentheism" means "God in everything" and conversely, "everything in God." Unlike pure pantheism, it does not merely identify God one-for-one with the sum total of everything in the cosmos. But unlike biblical Christianity, it does not separate God and the universe either.

Well that's one common strain of understanding of the word, but there is also a Christian understanding of it. The Wikipedia article on the subject matches with the understanding of the subject imparted to me by some good theologians:

The Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches have a doctrine called panentheism to describe the relationship between the Uncreated (God, who is omnipotent, eternal, and constant) and His creation that bears surface similarities with the panentheism described above but maintains a critical distinction.

Most specifically, these Churches teach that God is not the "watchmaker God" of the Western European Enlightenment. Likewise, they teach that God is not the "stage magician God" who only shows up when performing miracles. Instead, the teaching of both these Churches is that God is not merely necessary to have created the universe, but that His active presence is necessary in some way for every bit of creation, from smallest to greatest, to continue to exist at all.

I wish I could do better than an inadequately sourced Wikipedia article, but I'm not an academic theologian by any means. Whatever the definition of the word, suffice it to say that when I talk about panentheism, I do not intend the new-agey meaning described in the review, but the understanding of the Orthodox and Oriental Christian Churches that I've just reviewed for you.

The second article I'd like to mention is surprisingly related. Phillip E. Johnson disputes the "God-in-the-gaps" argument against Intelligent Design (ID) theory:

[The] point [of theistic evolutionists who warn intelligent design theorists against committing what they call the “God of the gaps” fallacy] is that it is futile to rely on “gaps” that the theory of evolution has not yet explained as places where divine acts might be necessary, because those gaps will inevitably be filled as science progresses. Eventually, God will be squeezed out of these spaces, with consequent embarrassment to the cause of religion.

That may be the reason some or even most theistic opponents of ID theory give for their opposition, but there is a more subtle danger. What ID proponents fall into is giving the idea that God can only work in the same mode as natural causes. In reality God's ways of operating far transcend natural causes, including human ways. Whereas humans make new things by pushing around matter that already exists, God creates, that is, He brings something from nothing. The fact that there is a natural order at all is His work. Human making relies on a pre-existing order, but God is responsible for the entire order that pervades his creations, including the possibility of generating further order. As Thomas Aquinas wrote:

Nature is nothing but the plan of some art, namely a divine one, put into things themselves, by which those things move towards a concrete end: as if the man who builds up a ship could give to the pieces of wood that they could move by themselves to produce the form of the ship. (Commentary on Physics II.8, lecture 14, no. 268; h/t Mariano Artigas)

So my objection to ID is not that it exposes religion to embarrassment, but that its proponents leave unchallenged a materialist premise that implicitly denigrates God and overlooks the most obvious evidence of His action.

Of course, this isn't necessarily so. Johnson and other ID proponents could very easily add to their writings something like this caveat: "Of course, even if ID were proven wrong, that wouldn't disprove God's action in creation, because the very order of nature presupposed by science manifests God's action. This order is evident to every man without the mediation of special scientific techniques."

But they don't write that. They insist on giving "scientific" materialists home-field advantage. They answer the atheist charge that God can't exist because he doesn't make (the way humans do) by shouting, "Oh, yes He does!" They leave unchallenged the atheist premise that creating is just like making, and in doing so, they leave their readers to tacitly accept that faulty premise.

In a sense it's like boys arguing about whose father is smarter. One boy asserts, "If your father's smarter than mine, he'll beat him right now in checkers." The second boy, instead of resting secure that his father is a Nobel laureate, instead responds, "My father will too beat your father!" Maybe the second boy's father doesn't think playing, let alone training, in checkers is worthwhile, or maybe he's simply got something better to do at the moment. God's action on nature is farther beyond human action than a Nobel laureate is beyond the neighborhood checkers champion.

It is sad that Johnson and many good people who fight for belief in God get so caught up in the dispute with atheists that they imbibe (or at least allow others to imbibe) the subtle and deadly materialist premises of their interlocutors.

L. P. Fairfield, "Review of Unreasonable Force Panentheism: The Other God Of the Philosophers—From Plato to the Present by John W. Cooper," Touchstone (May 2008), 33-34.

Phillip E. Johnson, "Science Futures," Touchstone (May 2008), 9-10.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Physics for Realists

Looks like Anthony Rizzi's new book is out. You can order your copy for just shy of $100 plus shipping at the IAP Store.

This first of its kind in 300 years textbook will enlighten you and your students. For advanced high school students and college freshmen.

"Physics for Realists is a landmark textbook that uses our common sense to discover and clarify modern physical theory. The resulting pedagogical approach makes physics more accessible and its beauty more evident. This book will revolutionize our understanding of physics and the way it is taught." -Murray Daw, Bowen Prof. of Physics

This textbook presents the fundamentals of Newtonian Mechanics to the college undergraduate or the advanced high school student in a way that taps the student's common sense. Starting with things we see directly, it leads the student to a deep understanding of the best in modern theory. Each chapter builds on the previous one in a simple way to the crescendo of special relativity, drawing the student at each step into the excitement of physics. This profound unity of principle is complemented by a unity of practice through the challenge of a manned mission to Mars by AD 2030, which is the current commitment of the US.

Real world problems and examples salt the text, helping the student to ground his thinking and see the importance of physics to everyday life. It is the hope of the IAP that this approach will make the rigorous, scientific content at once engaging and challenging to both those interested in careers in the hard sciences and also those not traditionally attracted to mathematics and the hard sciences. (Prerequisite: Calculus) (The book will begin shipping May 20, 2008.) [I've cleaned up some of the formatting here for readability.]

(That the advertisement fails to mention that Dr. Daw helped Dr. Rizzi with the textbook, and is hardly a disinterested evaluator, is a bit disingenuous. But then I guess one gets endorsements where one can find them.)

Not having seen the published text, I myself should refrain from saying anything substantive about it. But I will express my fervent hope that Dr. Rizzi has made the effort to weave final causality into substance of the text. As you may know, final causality is in fact the heart of Aristotelian natural philosophy, and what is so desperately missing from modern science. Integral purpose is the way that Aristotle's conception of nature is far superior to that of modern science.

If you'd like to hear Dr. Rizzi himself speak on his new book, he'll be appearing on EWTN LIVE with Fr. Pacwa on May 28th at 8:00pm ET. I wish Dr. Rizzi the best with his new book.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Pinker's Confusion

Steven Pinker's screed against of the President's Council on Bioethics will be officially published by The New Republic on May 28 (h/t Holopupenko).1 He writes of the Council's recent document Human Dignity and Bioethics,

This collection of essays is the culmination of a long effort by the Council to place dignity at the center of bioethics. The general feeling is that, even if a new technology would improve life and health and decrease suffering and waste, it might have to be rejected, or even outlawed, if it affronted human dignity.

Whatever that is. The problem is that "dignity" is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it. (emphasis added)

Pinker charges that dignity is a vague notion. Perhaps. As vague a notion as “dignity” might be, he seems to have little notion what improvement in life means: to know how to improve life requires a clear notion of the ends or goods that life is supposed to achieve. As we'll see, Pinker can offer little more than "autonomy" as an end of human life.

So it should come as no surprise that Pinker is hopelessly confused about bioethics. Newsflash: the accent belongs on "ethics" not on "bio." "Bio" is a modifier and "ethics" the subject. This is why, as important as scientific data is to its deliberations, it is more important that Council members to have ethical training than that they have scientific training. Science provides the raw material for bioethical discussions (which needs to be parsed scientifically), but the actually thinking in these discussions is unavoidably ethical (that is, extra-scientific).2

Pinker upholds "autonomy" as the true basis of bioethics:

The bioethicist Ruth Macklin, who had been fed up with loose talk about dignity intended to squelch research and therapy, threw down the gauntlet in a 2003 editorial, "Dignity Is a Useless Concept." Macklin argued that bioethics has done just fine with the principle of personal autonomy--the idea that, because all humans have the same minimum capacity to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose, no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another. This is why informed consent serves as the bedrock of ethical research and practice, and it clearly rules out the kinds of abuses that led to the birth of bioethics in the first place, such as Mengele's sadistic pseudoexperiments in Nazi Germany and the withholding of treatment to indigent black patients in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, Macklin argued, "dignity" adds nothing. (emphasis added)

Newsflash: not all humans have the same capacities "to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose." And even if they did all have the same capacities in these departments, it is much less than clear that they would have the same capacity to articulate themselves and defend their interests. Perhaps he and Macklin are thinking that all humans are adults, but even here, it is still less than clear that the postulated equality holds.

The egalitarian paradigm of "autonomy" appears to work well in the central bright spot of human life, but breaks down on its shadowy borders. Humans both at the beginning and at the end of life cannot reason and choose independently. People in the center of their adulthood struck by illness also lose these capacities.

Of course, Pinker can salvage "autonomy" (restoring its bedrock edges) by maintaining that people lacking these capacities are unworthy of protection. In that case, equal capacity is intended not so much as a description of human beings as much as a re-definition of which lives are "human" and thus worthy of life and legal protection.

But if one is going to monkey around with the definition of "human," it's rather difficult to find a principle that allows one a substantial disagreement with Nazi bioethics: wasn't the Nazi's modus operandi simply to redefine what human lives were worthy of life? These days of so many addictions, it is especially easy to get an individual autonomously to surrender his autonomy. Having "willingly" surrendered his autonomy, such an individual could be easily enough recategorized as non-human and disposed of at will. But then the whole notion of the individual is a legal fiction. "No man is an island," so why should we expect individualism to provide ethical "bedrock"?3

Of course, it would be much easier to take Pinker seriously if he weren’t so manifestly anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish. But then his bigotry is of a piece with his dislike of the ethical dimension of bioethics. As Walker Percy writes, modern man tries to hold two opposing views in his head: the materialist "scientific" view of himself as a mere organism, and the (remnants of the Judeo-Christian) notion of himself as possessing a sacred worth. The latter of course is the basis of our system of government and rights: our worth and our rights are not based on some ability we have, but on the fact that we are "created human." (Not that the reasoning behind these notions of rights strictly depends on any sort of revealed truth: Aristotle's ethical system without Divine revelation substantially agrees.)

Pinker is perfectly consistent in railing against Jewish and Christian thought. But now we have to wonder: does he really have a substantial disagreement with Mengele? Or does he simply part ways with Mengele's inability to avoid being "caught" by a more powerful authority?


1. Doubtless Pinker is smarting from his drubbing at the hands of Kass in last year's Commentary. The exchange is in response to Kass's original April 2007 article.

2. Come to think of it, Pinker's misunderstanding of "bioethics," his elision of "ethics," casts into a different light the word's coinage. Was it an attempt by "scientific" biology to usurp the prerogatives of ethics, an attempt to sever or mute its connection with the tradition of ethics? From my understanding, it seems that the people who devised the term were more on Pinker's side of the discussion than on Kass's.

3. Neuhaus had some valuable thoughts on human dignity, which I quoted here.

Steven Pinker, "The Stupidity of Dignity: Conservative bioethics' latest, most dangerous ploy," The New Republic (May 28, 2008). [The histrionic tone evident in "latest, most dangerous" approaches self-parody.]

Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Mystical Vision of Pan's Labyrinth

Recently I saw a powerful film called Pan's Labyrinth. The filmmaker, Guillermo del Toro, is obviously of a man of the left, but it appears to me that he is groping toward something much bigger than political ideology. As with any great work of art, there's a lot going on in this film, and I'll try my best to lay it out systematically, but it may be too much for me to bind together into a coherent argument.

I'm writing this assuming you have seen the film. BE WARNED: this means that I'll not shy from SPOILING the surprises. It's a powerful film, worth seeing without my interpretations supervening from your memory, although it is at times frightfully and somewhat gratuitously violent.

The film reflects the particular character and gifts of the Hispanophone soul and actually consists of two parallel stories. First the grim reality of Ofelia's "real" life in post-Civil War Spain: she is a 12-year-old girl enthralled by fairy tales that follows her mother to the Nationalist outpost commanded by her new step-father, Captain Vidal (her actual father died before the action begins). (Recall that the Nationalists under command of Francisco Franco had won the war; the leftist Republicans were their opponents.) Second, the fairy-tale side, best introduced by the voiceover just after the initial scene and a later monologue by the faun:

A long time ago, in the underground realm, where there are no lies or pain, there lived a Princess who dreamed of the human world. She dreamed of blue skies, soft breeze, and sunshine. One day, eluding her keepers, the Princess escaped. Once outside, the brightness blinded her and erased every trace of the past from her memory. She forgot who she was and where she came from. Her body suffered cold, sickness, and pain. Eventually, she died. However, her father, the King, always knew that the Princess's soul would return, perhaps in another body, in another place, at another time. And he would wait for her, until he drew his last breath, until the world stopped turning...

Faun: Your real father had us open portals all over the world to allow your return. This is the last of them. But we have to be sure that your essence is intact, that you have not become a mortal. You must complete three tasks before the moon is full.

The three tasks require Ofelia to exercise various virtues. The first requires courage. The second additionally requires temperance (she nearly fails for lack of it). The third requires a virtue that transcends the cardinal virtues. We will later return to the third task.

Ontology and Obedience

As you may have already noticed, the fairy-tale premise of the film relies on a form of mind-body dualism (hence the idea of earthly reincarnation). In such views the body is a prison for the spirit. For this reason, it is really no surprise that the film has the doctor, one of the "good guys," employ euthanasia1 to end the pain of a Republican that Captain Vidal has tortured (and plans to torture further). In answering Vidal, the doctor explains his disobedience of Vidal's order to heal the prisoner for further questioning, "But captain, to obey—just like that—for obedience's sake... without questioning... That's something only people like you do."

Obedience is an issue in Spanish culture. From my outsider's perspective, it seems that historically the Spanish have either obeyed without question, or not at all. You may recall that the tragedy of the Spanish Armada turned on the question of obedience. At the Armada's approach, the English fleet was trapped in port for many hours by an inauspicious tide, and the Spanish admiral could have ordered the Armada to take it out like fish in a barrel, were it not for his unwavering obedience to his King's orders as to how the English were to be engaged. In other words, the greatest defeat in Spanish history could easily have been its definitive victory, were it not for blind obedience to orders.2

More modern generations naturally enough reject this morbid rigidity, but go to the opposite extreme. What's lost is the happy medium: intelligent obedience, in which a leader specifies a general result and allows the subordinate to determine the most appropriate means.

One thing I found annoying about the film is the unquestioned and uniform presumption that the Republicans (the leftists in the Spanish Civil War) are good, and that everyone representing the traditional order is evil. The only clear representative of Christian Faith in the film, an old priest, chows down to a hearty meal while he cheerily agrees with Vidal's plan for severe rationing of the local people.

The Nationalist troops are even worse, especially Ofelia's step-father, Vidal, who is a monster rivaling those in the Ofelia's fairy tales. Of course the actual history of the Civil War is not so clear cut. The Republicans were far from the doughty boy scouts of the film.3 A.O. Scott's New York Times review put it well: "Mercedes’s [the maid's] surreptitious visits to the rebels often coincide with Ofelia’s journeys into fairyland, and it may be that the film’s romantic view of the noble, vanquished Spanish Republic is itself something of a fairy tale." (As we'll see later, it could even be this air about Mercedes and the rebels is part of Ofelia's fairy tale.)

The Republicans rejected Spain's traditional Catholic Faith. When Ofelia asks Mercedes whether she believes in fairies, Mercedes replies, "No. But when I was a little girl, I did. I believed in a lot of things I don't believe anymore." One senses that Christian Faith is one of those things.

Self-sacrifice and Meaning

Despite the rejection of Christian Faith, the film transcends the usual cramped ideologies of the left. The baby brother is clearly a human person even in his mother's womb (and del Toro even goes through the trouble of using a CGI to show him). Indeed, the lives of innocents play a central role in this film.

Ofelia's failure to control her appetites during her second task results in the deaths of two of her fairy guides. Concupiscence is exactly the vice that issues in so many abortions.4 (Notice how the Pale Man represents concupiscence: insatiable appetite and eyes in his grasping hands. When the he chases Ofelia, he is that vice roused to life.)

In Ofelia's third and final task, the faun asks her to surrender her baby brother to him to regain her homeland.

Faun: Quickly Your Majesty, give him to me. The full moon is high in the sky. We can open the portal.

Ofelia: What is that in your hand?

Faun: (glancing at large ceremonial dagger) The portal will only open if we offer the blood of an innocent. Just a drop of blood: a pinprick, that's all. It's the final task. [Early in the film, Mercedes had advised Ofelia that fauns are untrustworthy.]

Faun: Hurry. You promised to obey me. Give me the boy!

Ofelia: No! My brother stays with me.

Faun: You would give up your sacred rights for a brat you barely know?

Ofelia: Yes, I would.

Faun: You would give up your throne for him? He who has caused you such misery, such humiliation?

Ofelia: Yes, I would.

Faun: As you wish, Your Highness.

It is clear how Del Toro has returned to the theme of obedience here. He's showing that blind obedience is wrong. Point well made. What he may not see as clearly is that this disobedience to an earthly authority in this case is justified by obedience to a higher law made by an authority that transcends this world. Only a transcendent authority can guarantee the transcendent worth of a human person, even an infant. Lacking such an authority, the only support for human dignity is evanescent emotion or earthly might ("might makes right").

Vidal fatally shoots Ofelia in cold blood. While the girl lies dying, Mercedes weeps over her body, humming the mournful lullaby that haunts the soundtrack. A surge of light envelopes the dying Ofelia and she finds herself restored in her father's kingdom:

King: Arise, my daughter. Come. You have spilled your own blood rather than the blood of an innocent. That was the final task and the most important.

Faun: And you chose well, Your Highness.

Carmen: Come here with me, and sit by your father's side.5

The visual symbolism of this scene is revealing. Is it not significant that what is nominally the kingdom of the underworld is flooded by light? It is not clear what del Toro intended by the underworld kingdom (philosophical materialism?), but the spontaneous human response to light makes it the most potent sign of beatitude.

Is the cruciform symmetry of the round-stained glass purely accidental? Ofelia and her parents all wear red. But is it the red of the Revolution or the red of the martyrs' Love? That Ofelia has not drawn others' blood but surrendered her own would seem to imply the latter. As David Mills observed of Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy, the story "works" to the extent that it reflects the Great Story.6

The poignant contrast between the stark, cold world and the child-like spiritual reality is reminiscent of the conclusion of Graham Greene's masterful The Power and the Glory. It is a mystical vision that sees the Divine in the face of the tragic, and I think it is especially characteristic of the Spanish mind. There is no middle ground, but the two extremes entail each other: the tragedy is the glory. You can hear the uncompromising "all or nothing" of the Spanish mind in the decisive snap of the Spanish "no." This lack of compromise is perhaps why Spanish is a language so suited to talking to God and has produced great mystics like St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. As Emperor Charles V is reported to have said, "To God I speak Spanish, to women Italian, to men French, and to my horse German."7 He was on to something.

After Ofelia's mother's death earlier in the film, the priest's funeral oration8 reflects the mystical recognition of God's presence in apparent absence:

Because the paths of the Lord are inscrutable.

Because the essence of his forgiveness lies in His word and in His mystery.

Because although God sends us the message, it is our task to decipher it.

Because when we open our arms, the earth takes in only a hollow and senseless shell. Far away now is the soul in its eternal glory.

Because it is in pain that we find the meaning of life and the state of grace that we lose when we are born.

Because God, in His infinite wisdom, puts the solution in our hands. And because it is only in His physical absence that the place He occupies in our souls is reaffirmed.

As in the story Ofelia spontaneously devises much earlier in the film to tell her unborn brother, eternal life can only come through death:

Many, many years ago in a sad, faraway land, there was an enormous mountain made of rough, black stone. At sunset, on top of that mountain, a magic rose blossomed every night that made whoever plucked it immortal. But no one dared go near it because its thorns were full of poison. Men talked amongst themselves about their fear of death, and pain, but ever about the promise of eternal life. And every day, the rose wilted, unable to bequeath its gift to anyone...forgotten and lost at the top of that cold, dark mountain, forever alone, until the end of time.

Like the whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory, Ofelia's final choice is not not so much to surrender for someone else her earthly life, but her eternal life. Recall that the whiskey priest is committing a sacrilege when he says Mass for his flock, because he is in a state of serious sin, and he knows he is damning himself. Similarly, Ofelia doesn't so much give up her life to save her brother from the faun (it is Vidal who kills her), but her chance to pass into her father's kingdom.

By materialistic lights, the fairy-tale ending is pure fantasy: if this life is all we have, the dream must die with the dreamer. Separating truth from dream in the events portrayed in the film is frustrated by the initial scene in which Ofelia lies dying alone with a ribbon of blood spreading from her nose. The blood then "rewinds" itself, implying that the rest of the film is a recollection of events leading up to that moment. But is it a recollection of events as they actually happened, or the wishful reconstruction of a young life tragically grasping for meaning and in a world devoid of meaning?

Del Toro's intention is unclear. He may be trying to say that meaning in the world is simply the wishful thinking of a childish imagination. Certainly we humans have a natural thirst for meaning, but just because we want it doesn't make it illusory. The existence of a thirst does not itself indicate that its object is unreal. On the contrary, as C.S. Lewis points out,

The Christian says, "Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. (Mere Christianity III.10)

Regardless of whether del Toro intends his film as a critique of mystical vision or an example of it, it is clear that he intends his film to have meaning, that is, to point to something—a truth—beyond itself. Whatever he intends, that the world itself cannot contain ultimate meaning highlights our need for it and points beyond the world to Real Meaning, a presence limned by absence:

And because it is only in His physical absence that the place He occupies in our souls is reaffirmed.


1. Though it must be admitted that the issue is somewhat clouded in wartime, especially since the doctor is an ally of the Republican rebels.

2. I don't know the history in detail, but this obedience could well have been determined by a solemn oath.

3. The actual truth of the Spanish Civil War is not so simple. Among their many crimes, the Republicans were notoriously anti-clerical. They mercilessly hunted down and murdered clergy and religious (i.e., monks and nuns). They even exhumed the bodies of religious and put them on display as a sign of disrespect.

4. On the other hand the fact that Vidal has no real love for his wife (Ofelia's mother), but is only using her for the children she will bear, embodies the typical leftist charge that the wife in a traditional family is merely a baby-producing slave (abortion and contraception are typical means to "liberate" women). The charge ignores the fact that women are even more easily used merely for pleasure than for breeding (at least a man is tied to his woman by their progeny, whereas "love" feelings come and go). In reality neither the necessity of children nor the compulsion of erotic love is universally sufficient to break through masculine egotism. For man to consider his mate an equal, faith in fundamental human equality is needed. Some might build this faith on sentimentality, but Christian Faith is a much firmer basis.

5. One wonders how she would ever succeed in mounting such a stalagmite of a throne. These fixtures are certainly visually striking, but also completely impractical. They remind me of the doors of a well-to-do house I saw in Monterrey whose door handles were in their centers. The symmetry was visually appealing, but unhelpful for opening a heavy, wooden door.

6. A lecture David Mills gave at the International Institute for Culture Summer Seminar in Eichstatt, Bavaria, June 17-July 6, 2002: "Philip Pullman's Dark Materials" (July 1, 2002). Some of these insights were published: David Mills, "His Dark Witness," p. 23 sidebar to "Enchanting Children," Touchstone (December 2006), 19-26.

7. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 2nd ed. "Je parle espagnol à Dieu, italien aux femmes, française aus hommes et allemand à mon cheval." Evidently he was speaking to a man.

8. For whatever reason, this oration is absent from del Toro's original draft screenplay (available on the DVD).

Guillermo del Toro, El Laberinto del Fauno (2006). [Official site]

Note: Took me long enough to come up with this one, didn't it? I hope it was worth the wait.