Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Descartes' Bucket of Worms: Hume and Friends

You are majoring in WHAT?!

It seems most people believe philosophy is unimportant. It's impractical and has little relevance for real life.

The recognition that philosophy has practical consequences is illuminated when one considers the reality that science and technology can be used to either restore life or to destroy it. The post-modern world we live in determines, for example, not only what movies will be made but even what types of movies we are interested in. It influences the arts, culture, and politics. Who determines it? Who is the 'they' of "you know what they say?" It's the philosophical ideas that are put forth among the populace and that stick, whether good or bad.

A prominent theory of knowledge with roots in the 17-18th century that pervades modern thought and application is empiricism.

Empiricism was a reaction against the French rationalism begun by the Father of Modern Philosophy, Rene Descartes. Rationalism posited that the ideas in our mind are the objects of our thought instead of the actual objects itself. The problem is that ideas are not our objects of thought but that by which we apprehend the true objects of our thought: the world out there. In other words, reality is out there not in here-inside my head-as Descartes would have you believe.

Descartes led philosophy on its current modern route (a painful detour...). The point of departure for attaining knowledge is no longer understood as imposed by the object, but is first determined and then imposed on the object.

Father Giussani explains the error like this, "Water is H20. To reach this conclusion, I do not solve a mathematical problem."

Empiricism recognized this error in rationalism. (Plus, the rationalists were French while empiricism began in England; they are always trying to one-up each other!) Empiricists rejected the abstract method of the rationalists. However, they went the opposite extreme. Instead of being too abstract like the rationalists, they became too concrete.

Empiricism rejects any claim to knowledge that is not grounded in the concrete or material. It posits that all knowledge is empirical or sense-experiential. The only way to know things is through sense-perception. The logical consequence of this belief is the denial of the intellect and anything that is intangible. Since the foundation of all knowledge is sensation, there is no such thing as universals (such as happiness and justice) or natures and essences (such as the human mind/soul).

John Locke (17th Century Brit) went as far as to say that "maybe thought belongs to bodies." Locke was attempting to answer the critical questions, "What is it we know?" and "How do we know?"

Locke proposed that the mind is like a blank sheet of paper (the famous phrase in Latin "tabula rasa"). This means that we have no innate ideas and the foundation for all knowledge is sensation.

The shortcoming of this is realized in his statement, "We know what things are, but not why they are." However, if you claim to know what things are, you are claiming to know their natures or essences. This is a contradiction because Locke denies an intellect which is how we can abstract from our particular experiences to know the universals.

On the contrary! Experience shows us that if I can recognize one frog (the slimy, ugly, green creatures), I can recognize all frogs. Case-in-point: we know essences!

On the other hand...

David Hume's (18th-Century Scot) thought can be credited as the epitome of the skeptical empiricist movement. He suggested that we can only know things as phenomenons or as they appear to us in sensation. We can not really know them as such, in the totality of their being. This is tantamount to saying that we can only know our experience, not necessarily the object we are trying to know. This results in the belief that knowledge is subjective to the "knower's" (sense) experience.

Hume also denied principles of causation or cause and effect. He claimed that what is believed to be cause and effect is just the imagination linking separate ideas without any real connection or basis. Ideas truly have their origin in sense impressions. Another way to explain this is that impressions are the empirical origins of ideas. Ideas that are true and certain can be traced back to their distinct impressions.

The problem with Hume is that he proposes a theory of knowledge ("All knowledge is founded in sense-experience.") which is a philosophical belief, not an empirical one. To claim that things can only be known scientifically is not scientifically provable! To posit such a pre-supposition is a pretty big leap for someone to make who said that philosophy is sophistry and illusion! Following this line of reasoning, his theory of knowledge is equally sophistry and illusion!

Here's the crux of the problem with Locke and Hume: Knowledge is not about our ideas! It is about reality. The problem with his sense-phenomenalism is that the basis for knowledge is understood as to be found within the self instead of in the connection with the real. Also, knowledge itself is not an empirical object. It's not material! This is why empiricism's theory of knowledge is a contradiction and really can not, in a strict sense, be considered true philosophy.

Ironically, in denying the intellect or any spiritual reality it does not even allow for science to be done since it is science’s aim to identify universals and organize them into categories (species, kinds, etc.) and make generalizations regarding behavior. As a result, empiricism bases knowledge in a psychological description of what is sensed disregarding metaphysics as the basis of the nature of knowledge.

You can’t do philosophy or science with an empiricist worldview!

Influence in our day…

Scientism: The scientific method is the only legitimate method for answering ALL the questions. In a sense, empiricists are materialists. All reality is reduced to matter and everything can be explained in those terms.

Error exposed: The question, "Does my girlfriend love me?," can not be answered through a scientific experiment. In fact, the most real things in life: love, justice, happiness, goodness, beauty and art have nothing to do with science.

Moral Relativism/Atheism: Hume’s individualism (another obvious problem in our day)—that we can know our experience but not the thing experienced—has led to such ridiculous statements such as “I create my own reality,” that you hear a lot these days. This has further led (as I mentioned a long, painful detour…) to atheism. Hume believed in God but relegated His existence to a feeling: “We can't know there is a God, but feel there is one. We can't really know what's good or bad but can feel them.” This is a pretty weak argument (especially when there are so many better ones out there that Thomas Aquinas provided centuries earlier!) and had these men known the moral consequences of their philosophical errors they would have been more careful to avoid them I presume.

Error exposed: In college, my friend Mark and I always used to challenge the relativists by asking them, “So you don’t believe in moral absolutes, huh? Do you believe that absolutely?"

Moral/Ethical dilemmas: If the only reality is the physical reality than a human being (the word “person” no longer applies) is on the same level as a chicken. We are both equally a collection of matter. You might be laughing but there are some people (PETA?) who actually believe this.

Error exposed: Humans are different than animals in kind, not degree. Denying a human soul is to put me at the same level as a chicken.

Mortimer Adler explains well the uniquely human mind/body function, “The action of the brain is only a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the functioning of the human mind and for the operations of conceptual thought. We do not think with our brains, even though we cannot think without them.”

Regarding certainty…

To those who argue that empiricism or scientism is the only method of knowledge that offers certainty, Giussani says, “Let us note that man can err using scientific, philosophical, or mathematical methods. In the same way, he can misjudge human behavior. This does not detract from the fact that certainties may be reached by the scientific method and in the same way, through the 'method' of 'moral' knowledge."

Adler says, “But many of the conceptual constructs that we employ in scientific and in philosophical thought concerns objects such as black holes and quarks in physics, and God, spirits, and souls in metaphysics. These are objects about which it is of fundamental importance to ask the about their existence in reality.”

Giussani emphasizes the unreasonable and reductionistic nature of much of modern philosophy when he expresses, "Reason, then, is the ability to become aware of reality as it enters the human horizon. It follows different methods in order to know certain values or types of truth. Precisely because reason examines the object according to adequate motives, it develops different paths, depending upon the object."

The method must be determined by the object!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Great Lent

Orthodox Christians called Lent, Great Lent. It is a great and very holy period of time in the calendar of the Church.

"Oremus pro invincem" ("Let us pray for one another") during this time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in preparation for the event of the Resurrection.

Here is a meditation from Luigi Giussani...

The Virgin felt that the creature she was carrying in her womb would have, one day, to die (every mother feels this, even as she tries not to think about it), but she did not feel that He would rise again. This is the event which is uniquely comparable to the mystery of the beginning. Just as the seed took shape within her womb, so, in the fullness of time, He would rise again; that Man would rise again. But she didn't know this. "Let it be done to me according to Your word, " on the Virgin's lips, is the same as, "Lord, Your will be done," on the lips of Christ. The correspondence between the Angelus and the Cross lies in the fact that both say, "Let it be done to me according to Your word." This is the gesture of obedience in its pure essentiality. Its pure essentiality makes you tear away from something that God asks-to then pass through a cross and a resurrection from which a limitless fecundity springs forth, a fecundity who boundary is the boundary of God's plan. Fecundity springs forth from virginity. Virginity can be conceived of only this way.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"Make my kids religious!"

"I want you to hang out with such-and-such so you can bring them back to the Church."

I don't remember who said this, but whoever did, was very wise: Nothing is less believable than an answer to a question that is not asked.

The point in life is not to be religious or to go to church. "Being" religious is the privileged struggle of freely being able to express one's love and gratitude. It is not an end in itself. The point of morality is not to be moral, but to be happy. We were made for happiness and freedom. One can only truly be happy if free to be good. Goodness is in accordance with human nature and frees us to be the persons we were meant to be.

It is also--as practicing the virtues are--an act of the will.

Falling in love (and loving as verb, not feeling) can not be forced. It goes against the nature of love and it goes against the Mystery who freely gives love and wants it to be freely reciprocated. (It takes two to tango...)

The essence of religiosity is love. Keeping that in mind, here are some tips from a single, non-married, non-parent:

  1. Fathers are important. I have an aunt who asked me to make her kids religious and I flat-out told her the best thing she can do is to have her husband lead the family in prayer or do a short Bible-reading each week together, as a family, led by the father. This is especially true if you have sons. If the wife/mom is religious, it is more probable her daughter will be devout, but unless the father is, the sons most likely will not. Men learn from men. One of my good friend's family has family night every Thursday night. I like that idea.
  2. We are fighting huge secular demons in America. Materialism is one of them. You can not serve both God and Mammon. Choose one or the other. Also, it is better to emphasize character and integrity over school and grades. I would rather my child be a decent human being than an honor student.
  3. Start young. More than going to church, my parents taught me to love Jesus. Love comes first. Then obedience. You can't start with the "rules" as if that's the point. It's not the point. It's the expression. Making dinner for your husband is not the reason you married him. It's an expression of your love for him.
  4. Be strategic. My parents did not teach us morals through "talks" or cheesy after-school specials. They had unspoken, high standards of my sister and I and we knew what was simply not an option. My mother especially taught us morals through the arts and films. Movies are very influential. Use them.
  5. Growing up, I watched my grandmother read her Bible every morning. Very influential and a great visual memory. Try to have grandma around. :)
  6. Go to Catholic conferences together. It is very powerful and moving. My family has grown so much because of these shared learning experiences.
  7. Don't get strict on the stupid stuff. I drank alcohol well before 21. While my friends' parents were so strict on alcohol they were too busy to notice that daisy duke shorts are inappropriate apparel for a 7th grade girl or anyone for that matter.
  8. I love Catholic "stuff," but don't overdo it. Icons are beautiful visual depictions of the gospel. In the middle of my living room there is a prominent picture of Jesus. It is a powerful visual reminder that He is present and is the center of our lives.
  9. Create good memories and traditions. Good Friday at my house is hearing Fairuz (a Lebanese singer) sing Good Friday songs (in Arabic of course), smelling the incense burning, and reading the Bible. These images and senses stick well into adulthood.
  10. Lastly, the best teachers are witnesses.
"Preach the gospel always, if necessary use words."

-St. Francis of Assisi

Five days until Lent 2009!

Friday, February 13, 2009

In Memory of Monsignor Giussani

In honor of the fourth anniversary of the death of my beloved Don Giussani, I want to share with you the homily given at his funeral mass by the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, currently Pope Benedict XVI.

Father Luigi Giussani died two months before John Paul the Great. The Holy Father was a friend of Father Giussani and gave legitimacy to his movement Communion and Liberation.

Thank you, Father Giussani for bringing me closer to Christ, for the spiritual family of the movement, and for (still) educating me on Christian maturity.

Milan Cathedral, February 24, 2005.
Funeral Mass for Fr Giussani

Homily of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Dear Brothers in the episcopate and in the priesthood, “the disciples rejoiced to see Jesus.” These words of the Gospel just read indicate the centre of the personality and of the life of our dear Fr Giussani.

Fr Giussani grew up in a home—as he himself said—poor as far as bread was concerned, but rich with music, and thus from the start he was touched, or better, wounded, by the desire for beauty. He was not satisfied with any beauty whatever, a banal beauty, he was looking rather for Beauty itself, infinite Beauty, and thus he found Christ, in Christ true beauty, the path of life, the true joy.

Already as a boy, along with other young men, he created a community called Studium Christi. Their program was to speak of nothing else but Christ, because everything else seemed to be a waste of time. Naturally, he was able to overcome the unilaterality, but he always kept the substance. Only Christ gives meaning to the whole of our life. Fr Giussani always kept the eyes of his life and of his heart fixed on Christ. In this way, he understood that Christianity is not an intellectual system, a packet of dogmas, a moralism, Christianity is rather an encounter, a love story; it is an event.

This love affair with Christ, this love story which is the whole of his life was however far from every superficial enthusiasm, from every vague romanticism. Really seeing Christ, he knew that to encounter Christ means to follow Christ. This encounter is a road, a journey, a journey that passes also—as we heard in the psalm—through the “valley of darkness.” In the Gospel, we heard of the last darkness of Christ’s suffering, of the apparent absence of God, when the world’s Sun was eclipsed. He knew that to follow is to pass through a “valley of darkness,” to take the way of the cross, and to live all the same in true joy.

Why is it so? The Lord himself translated this mystery of the cross, which is really the mystery of love, with a formula in which the whole reality of our life is explained. The Lord says, “Whoever seeks his life, will lose it and whoever loses his life, will find it.”
Fr Giussani really wanted not to have his life for himself, but he gave life, and exactly in this way found life not only for himself, but for many others. He practised what we heard in the Gospel: he did not want to be served but to served, he was a faithful servant of the Gospel, he gave out all the wealth of his heart, he gave out all the divine wealth of the Gospel, with which he was penetrated and, serving in this way, giving his life, this life of his gave rich fruit—as we see in this moment—he has become really father of many and, having led people not to himself, but to Christ, he really won hearts, he has helped to make the world better and to open the world’s doors for heaven.

This centrality of Christ in his life gave him also the gift of discernment, of deciphering correctly the signs of the times in a difficult time, full of temptations and of errors, as we know. Think of 1968 and the following years. A first group of his followers went to Brazil and found itself face to face with extreme poverty, with extreme misery. What can be done? How can we respond? And there was a great temptation to say, “for the moment we have to set Christ aside, set God aside, because there are more pressing needs, we have first to change the structure, the external things, first we must improve the earth, then we can find heaven again.” It was the great temptation of that moment to transform Christianity into a moralism and moralism into politics, to substitute believing with doing. Because what does faith imply? We can cay, “in this moment we have to do something.” And all the same, in this way, by substituting faith with moralism, believing with doing, we fall into particularisms, we lose most of all the criteria and the orientations, and in the end we don’t build, but divide.

Monsignor Giussani, with his fearless and unfailing faith, knew that, even in this situation, Christ, the encounter with Him, remains central, because whoever does not give God, gives too little, and whoever does not give God, whoever does not make people find God in the Fact of Christ, does not build, but destroys, because he gets human activity lost in ideological and false dogmatisms.

Fr Giussani kept the centrality of Christ and, exactly in this way, with social works, with necessary service, he helped mankind in this difficult world, where the responsibility of Christians for the poor in the world is enormous and urgent.

Whoever believes has also to pass through the “valley of darkness,” the dark valleys of discernment, as well as adversities, opposition and ideological hostilities that even took the form of threats to eliminate his people physically, so as to get rid of this other voice that is not content merely with doing things, but brings a greater message , and thus also a greater light.

In virtue of the faith, Monsignor Giussani passed fearlessly through these dark valleys and naturally, with the novelty he carried with him, found it difficult to find a niche inside the Church. Even though the Holy Spirit, according to the needs of the times, creates something new, which is really the return to the origins, it is difficult to see one’s way and to find peaceful harmony in the great communion of the Universal Church. Fr Giussani’s love for Christ was also love for the Church, and thus he always remained a faithful servant, faithful to the Holy Father and faithful to his Bishops.

With his foundations he also gave new interpretation to the mystery of the Church.

Communion and Liberation brings to mind immediately this discovery proper of the modern era, freedom. It also brings to mind St Ambrose’s phrase, “Ubi fides est libertas.” Cardinal Biffi drew our attention to the near coincidence of this phrase of St Ambrose with the foundation of Communion and Liberation. Focussing on freedom as a gift proper of faith, he also told us that freedom, in order to be true, human freedom, freedom in truth, needs communion. An isolated freedom, a freedom only for the “I,” would be a lie, and would destroy human communion. In order to be true, and therefore in order to be efficient, freedom needs communion, and not just any kind of communion, but ultimately communion with truth itself, with love itself, with Christ, with the Trinitarian God. Thus is built community that creates freedom and gives joy.

The other foundation, the Memores Domini, brings to mind again the second Gospel read today: the memory that the Lord gave us in the Holy Eucharist, memory that is not merely a remembrance of the past, but memory that creates present, memory in which He gives Himself into our hands and into our hearts, and thus makes us live.

Through valleys of darkness. In the last period of his life, Fr Giussani had to pass through the dark valley of sickness, of infirmity, of pain, of suffering, but here, too, his eyes were fixed on Jesus, and thus he remained true in all the suffering, seeing Jesus, he was able to rejoice; the joy of the Risen One was present, who even in the passion is the Risen One and gives us the true light and joy, and he knew that—as the psalm says—even passing though this valley, “I fear no evil because I know that You are with me, and I will dwell in the Father’s house.” This was his great strength, knowing that “You are with me.”

My dear faithful, dear young people above all, let us take this message to heart, let us not lose sight of Christ and let us not forget that without God nothing good can be built and that God remains enigmatic if he is not recognized in the face of Christ.

Now your dear friend Fr Giussani has reached the other world, and we are convinced that the door of the Father’s house has opened, we are convinced that now this word is fully realized: they rejoiced to see Jesus. He is rejoicing with a joy that no one can take from him. In this moment we wish to thank the Lord for the great gift of this priest, of this faithful servant of the Gospel, of this father. We entrust his soul to the goodness of his Lord and ours.

In this hour we wish to pray particularly, too, for the health of the Holy Father, taken once more into Hospital. May the Lord accompany him and give him strength and health. And let us pray that the Lord enlighten us, give us the faith that builds the world, the faith that makes us find the path of life, true joy.


Monday, February 9, 2009

He's Just Not That Into You-the Movie

My sincere apologies for posting this and then taking it down without warning. And thank you to the four people who left comments. I invite you to re-post your comments if you are able.

My sister and I saw this movie on Sunday afternoon. The Rizkallah Sisters give it two thumbs up! Every woman will enjoy this film and so will every man who is secure enough in his manhood to admit that romantic movies are fun and that Sweet Home Alabama or 27 Dresses were especially enjoyable. (True stories but I won't name names!)

The film begins with a scene of a little girl who gets pushed on the playground by a little boy who happens to be her crush-item. She goes crying to her mother who proceeds to tell her that the reason he did that was because he likes her. The next shot is of the little girl with a sincerely confused look on her face.

The film responded to several of the issues we face in modernity.

1. Should women ask men out?
The film stresses the traditional idea that men should be pursuing women, not the other way around. Of course, in our day, women chase after men so much that men hardly ask women out anymore. Justin Long's character says, "Listen Gigi, if a guy wants to see you, believe me, he'll make it happen."

2. Are virtual realities such as text messaging, Facebook, online dating web sites legitimate means for meeting or communicating with your special interest?
I really appreciated how the film portrayed a negative view of technology in this case. Drew Barrymore's character had the insight that, "These days people don't meet organically anymore! You update your profile picture before you go get a haircut." I actually have a friend who got asked out to dinner through text messaging-seriously. Then two hours before the date, he canceled it. Via text message. I personally believe that the reason people (including myself) spend way too much time on Facebook and so forth is because we are really craving true, organic community but lacking it, we resort to technology to fill that need. Lorenzo Albacete says, "We need community in order to be truly human." At the end of the film, Barrymore deletes her MySpace account.

3. Relationship is an art, not a science. I can not explain, understand, or have knowledge about my significant other through the scientific method.
This is a typical assumption modernity embraces (due to bad philosophy stemming from Kant, previously Descartes...for more information, see my previous blogs): that any real knowledge is limited, narrowly to the scientific method. There is a scene in the film where a man gives his advice about dating women and then says, "It's not science but it's true," or something like that. Well, of course not!

4. Who really does the breaking up?
The film emphasized the idea that men are the real decision makers when it comes to making or breaking a relationship. While I have never been dumped (don't be jealous, I've still had my heart broken), I felt that I was always willing to work on things and it was essentially the man who threw in the towel. Women are extremely loyal and realistic about relationships. I tend to believe (because of my experience) that women are realists when it comes to love and that men are idealists. Always trying to match their idea of the perfect woman with a woman out there. I hate to break it to you men, but there are no barbie dolls and even if we look like one, believe me, we are just as quirky and weird as well, you are. :)

5. Vulnerability: A good or bad idea?
The main character, Gigi, is irresistibly endearing because of her vulnerability. She is unafraid to appear desperate because she is so honest about her need for a relationship. People who are vulnerable can be easily scoffed at but they only portray what most of us feel or want. Of course, one doesn't want to be too extreme and advertise in the personals section or anything but on the otherhand I find it so unattractive when I meet men who have to behave as though they are untouchable, super-extra ultra cool. Here in D.C., I meet a lot of people who have to make sure I know how smart they are. I admit, I am frustrated because I am a laid-back Californian with a Middle-Eastern temperment and personality. Even though it's risky (to live is to risk a poet said), I think being vulnerable is more humane. In one scene of the film, Gigi, crying says to Justin Long's character, "I may say and do a lot of stupid things but I'm closer to finding someone than you!" I agree with her but if I were the screenwriter I would have re-written the lines to say, "I may say and do a lot of stupid things...but at least I am alive!"

At the end of the day, we are all human. As my high school friend Jenny once told me, "we all pick our noses, Simone. If anyone denies it, they are lying."

This is a topic I would love to hear your ideas about....


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