Man Ready To Hate Pope Again This Christmas

A delightful early Christmas present from Throwcase:

Man was delighted last year when thousands of news sources earnestly reprinted some story about the Pope that sounded pretty true because it criticised him. “We need more criticism of our enemies,” he said. “At this stage, intellectual rigour will only distract from our cause. Down with mindless belief!” Meanwhile, Guy was quite pleased this year when a Twitter hashtag made it seem as if the Pope was happy to embrace people of any colour or creed, except for the dogmatic Catholics he obviously needs to repudiate. “When he goes all secular relativist I go all fuzzy inside,” said Guy, smiling.


Reason and reality – a talk

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to give a talk at the local Guild of St Luke, an association of Catholic Health Professionals. I was asked to speak as an ethicist, and it gave me the opportunity to revisit some of the most intriguing themes from my bioethics days.

For those who don’t know, Catholic health professionals work in a difficult environment these days. There is a growing push to remove conscientious objection rights from the medical profession, presenting people with an all-or-nothing dichotomy: violate your conscience or give up being a doctor. It’s good that such associations exist to give support and encouragement not only in a Catholic context, but in the broader domain of ethics and ‘best practice’.

Here’s the basic text of my 15 minute presentation:

At university I wasn’t impressed by ethics. I was more interested in mysticism: reading John of the Cross, Zen Buddhism and everything in between.

What I learned from studying ethics at uni was that we couldn’t rationally defend our moral beliefs because of the is-ought problem; the fact value distinction. You can prove a fact, an ‘is’, but you can’t prove an ‘ought’. As Nietzsche wrote: “there is no such thing as moral phenomena but only moral interpretation of phenomena.”

There might be no way to rationally demonstrate that I should do something, or should want to do something. But I still had a sense of the difference between good and evil. Even if I couldn’t prove it, or convince others, I could choose to follow this intuition. It wasn’t until after university, through my work at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute, that I came across a system of ethics which resolved the is-ought problem. It was through the work of a neo-Aristotelian named David Oderberg, that I learned it was in fact possible to rationally demonstrate and elucidate moral principles.

The key is the observation that human beings all desire happiness, though they may never agree on what happiness is. This desire for happiness is a fact, an ‘is’. We are hard-wired to pursue what we believe will make us happy. This observation is the bridge from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. It is a fact all human beings share, from which we can derive the kinds of moral statements that are otherwise philosophically so contentious. Given that you want happiness you ought to do the things that will bring about true happiness, and avoid things that undermine it. How do we identify these things? Through logic, observation, and experience. This is the substance of ethics.

Along the way I picked up other principles and approaches that complement this ethical system: most significantly, the philosophical method of argument from first principles.

You see, in university I was struck by scepticism [an attitude of doubt, or a belief that true knowledge is impossible] and solipsism [the idea that only my own mind can be sure to exist, from solus ipse ‘self alone’]: two approaches that emphasise the limitations of our knowledge. How can we be sure of anything? How do we know the world is not a dream or illusion? Can we trust our senses? Is experience reliable? If you take on board too much scepticism, there is very little you can say. Scepticism can lend itself to a kind of relativism – an approach where the standard of truth are hard to pin down and the boundaries of knowledge and speculation disappear.

Modern philosophers are, if nothing else, very good at analytical coherence. They may not know if you are right or wrong, they may not agree on what right and wrong even mean, or if they even exist; but they can at least tell if you are being consistent and coherent. In a world of philosophical disagreement, you must at least agree with yourself.

As with the fact-value distinction, it can be hard to nail even the most coherent philosophising to the ground. Hard to bridge the gap between complex theorising and simple reality. This is where first principles become so important, especially in the practical approach to ethics – the difficult task of working out what I ought to be doing.

The first principles include:

1) An object cannot both be and not be, at the same time and in the same way.

2) Every effect has a cause, and every cause has an effect.

3) A thing is what it is.

These are basic observations of reality, and form also the basic principles of reason.

1) The principle of non-contradiction: a statement cannot be true and false at the same time, and in the same way.

2) The principal of sufficient reason: everything must have a reason or cause.

3) The principle of identity: A is A, every thing is what it is.

Knowledge of these first principles in reason and reality shows that reason and reality are connected. Our reason, logic, is derived from and a reflection of the logic of reality itself.

This is truly profound. And the more I reflected on these principles the more coherent and dynamic and integral they became. In order to speak and think rationally, we must respect these principles. If we don’t then not only are we being irrational, we are being unrealistic.

Reality – coming from the Latin res – simply means ‘all things’; the rules of reality are the rules all things obey. Not the physical rules but the deeper ontological rules. Things do not simply come into and out of existence for no reason. Objects are not both square and round, or both big and small, in the same way and at the same time. All things obey these rules, and these are the same rules or principles we acknowledge is the basis of reason – our reason.

Is it a coincidence that Christian Scripture and the early Church chose the Greek term logos – the principle of order, the active reason pervading and animating the universe, the anima mundi – to describe the son of God, through whom all things were made, and whose life is the light of men?

For me this was the point at which philosophy and Christianity first intersected, a coming together of natural and revealed theology. In practical terms, and remembering ethics as practical reasoning, this understanding of the logos at work in reality and in our own minds is one of the most reassuring, comforting, and inspiring things one could hope to learn.

It means that no matter how difficult life may become, this universe, reality itself, is not absurd. The stones themselves cry out in the language of reason, declaring the first principles and thereby telling us something of the nature of our maker.

Reason is some part of the life and nature of God, the ipsum esse subsistens; and in our participation in reason, I think we are more truly taking part in the life our creator intended for us. Any philosopher will, I hope, attest to the joy and delight of elevated reason.

What makes an endeavour shallow?

Due to relatively popular demand (1 counts as popular here; besides ‘popular’ simple means ‘of the people’, and I happen to know that the commenter in question is people).

As I was saying: people have demanded that I expand on my previous post, in which I created a dichotomy of shallowness and depth which though clearly insightful left some questions unanswered.

What is it, specifically, that makes an endeavour shallow?

While it might at first seem that the shallow/deep dichotomy is entirely relative, there are objective limitations to the relativism in human terms.  For example, as our commenter pointed out:

Even the ocean is both deep and shallow depending on your perspective.

However, we are all bound by a particular perspective – that of a human being. And despite the diversity in the normal range of human height, we are not so different that the question of depth of water is completely relative.  Depending on the context, if someone asks whether the water is deep or shallow, we tend to discern their meaning and arrive at the correct response quite easily.  It is only when the context is lacking that we are unable to offer a meaningful response.

People often take clauses such as ‘depending on your perspective’ to imply such a variety of perspectives that objective assessment becomes meaningless.  ‘Depending on your perspective’ starts, somewhat paradoxically, to imply a kind of ‘view from nowhere’, such that we begin to feel as though deep and shallow can have no real meaning since there is no truly objective perspective from which to make a valid assessment.

But ultimately, the fact that the terms are relative is not a new phenomenon, the fact that people have been meaningfully asking and answering questions about depth, makes the relativist critique somewhat redundant.  It’s a little like pointing out that units of measurement such as the gram or the ounce are in fact arbitrary, as though this should have some practical implication on the practice of weighing things.

In light of this brief analysis, we can return to the more difficult question of what makes an endeavour (metaphorically) shallow?

In my experience, the metaphor of depth and shallowness applied to human affairs is likewise relative, in that it amounts to a criticism or observation dependent on the insight or experience of another person.  For example, if I describe my thesis topic to my PhD supervisor, he may quite justifiably recognise that my knowledge of the field is not as deep as it ought to be in order to complete my thesis successfully.  This is analogous to pointing out that the water at the end of the jetty is too shallow for swimmers to dive into safely.

But my supervisor can only critique my knowledge as shallow because his knowledge is deeper, by which we mean his knowledge is more detailed, thorough, and far-reaching.  My supervisor in turn represents a standard of scholarship that is established and maintained across the whole academic discipline.  So even without my supervisor telling me my knowledge is shallow, there would still be an objective standard of knowledge against which my knowledge could be measured.

The epitome of a ‘shallow endeavour’ then, is one in which the efforts, knowledge, everything that makes up the endeavour itself, are insufficient for the stated goal.  Which is not to say that shallow endeavours are completely useless. No, they meet the goal to a shallow degree.  A little reflection should bring to mind suitable examples.  Take, for example, an online poll presented by a media organisation on some topical issue.  Here’s one I just found on the important question of whether the readers tend to recline their seats while on airplane flights:

Regardless of what the results say, the poll is almost worthless.  Not only is there no way of knowing if the participants are representative of the general population, but the poll is also likely to suffer from self-selection bias; that is, people who feel strongly about the issue are more likely to respond to the poll than those who don’t care.  All we can really conclude from the poll is the apparent reclining preferences of those readers of the website who feel strongly enough to click on the poll in the first place.

The second poll provides an even clearer example of the problems: the poll asks whether Obama is vacationing too much, and it turns out that an overwhelming 66% believe that he is, and he ought instead to be working.  Even the poll question itself states that ‘The President’s leisure time doesn’t sit well with his detractors’, which, one might think, would imply that his detractors would be more motivated to respond to online polls on the issue.  Again, all this result can tell us is that 66% of those who clicked on the poll after seeing it on the website believe, or profess to believe, that Obama is having too many holidays.  It doesn’t tell us how representative of the general population this is, though it may be possible for the owners of the website to work out what percentage of page views included a response to the poll.  Even then, the result would not tell them what their readers opinions are, but merely the opinions of those of their readers who care enough to click on a worthless poll.  In that sense, the real value of the poll is for the owners of the website to determine the level of interest in any given topic among their readers, assuming a correlation between level of interest and level of motivation to click on the poll.

In terms of shallow endeavours, these kinds of worthless polls are most egregious when people attempt, either wittingly or unwittingly, to use them as evidence of broader public opinion on an issue.  As marketing tools and gauges of reader interest, they may be more valuable; but rarely are they presented as such.  What makes this such an excellent example of a shallow endeavour is the failure to think or ask questions beyond the superficial appearance of valuable data.  On a shallow level, such polls appear to have the same merit as legitimate polls.  It is only by going deeper, by asking questions and seeking to understand in more detail, that a person may begin to tell the difference between shallowness and depth, value and farce.