Wednesday, December 30, 2015

ISIS is not the cause of our civilizational crisis. We are.

I got an e-mail today from National Review magazine (a promotional one, I'm sure) with a letter from John Bolton about the danger from ISIS. The subject line read, "Our role in the civilizational crisis."

But one of the ways we know we are in a civilizational crisis is that we don't know the civilizational crisis we're in—as evidenced by Bolton's letter.

ISIS is not the cause of our civilizational crisis. In fact our civilizational crisis is not external at all, but internal. The threat of ISIS is insignificant compared to the threat constituted by many of the people who point to ISIS as our problem.

The biggest threat to our civilization is that, while we bemoan the threats to it, we ourselves have abandoned it. 

George Steiner called it "planned amnesia." It is the process we have been engaged in over the last 100 years of failing to pass on the ideals and values of our culture to the next generation. We have counted on our schools to do it, but not only has it become evident that they are not doing it, it has become very clear that they are undermining it altogether. And it is a testimony to how effectively they have done it that we don't even realize how effective they have been.

One would think conservatives would realize this, but they have submitted to the public school-administered cultural lobotomies as quietly as have the liberals they claim to oppose. They talk about how little our children know, but they don't know themselves exactly what it is our children should know.

The great cultural catastrophe of our time is almost entirely self-inflicted. It is our own disregard of the importance of the Western civilization and the Christianity that undergirds it and our neglect in teaching it to our own children. It is the greatest achievement of world history and it is dying (to use T. S. Eliot's words) with a whimper.

We'll enjoy the benefits of it for another generation or two if we're lucky. And then—like all civilizations that abandon the heritage from which they were formed and are sustained—we'll go the same way as the Babylonians, and Egyptians, and Greeks, and Romans.

Some day another civilization will be founded on the ashes of this one. They'll eventually sort through the debris and they'll marvel at the lack of insight we had about what our problem really was. They'll have to conclude that any people as short-sighted as we are to our own condition and as blind to the solution staring them in the face deserved what they got.

Have a nice day.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Hierarchy of Religious Truth: Another answer to the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God

As a former student of mine, Laurabeth Long, reminds me, Peter Kreeft, a Catholic philosopher, addresses the question "Aren't all religions the same, deep down?" this way:

Allah, of course, is God—the same God Jews and Christians know and worship. Islam is not only a Western, theistic religion rather than an Oriental, pantheistic religion, but it bases itself explicitly on the historical revelation of the God of the Jews, tracing itself to Ishmael, Isaac's brother, to whom God also promised special blessings, according to Genesis. (Fundamentals of the Faith, p. 85)

This follows on his discussion of the hierarchy of religious truth, which he describes this way:

By Catholic standards, the religions of the world can be ranked by how much truth they teach. Catholicism is first, with Orthodoxy equal except for the one issue of papal authority; then comes Protestantism and any "separated brethren" who keep the Christian essentials found in Scripture; third comes traditional Judaism, which worships the same God but not via Christ; fourth is Islam, greatest of the theistic heresies; fifth, Hinduism, a mystical pantheism; sixth, Buddhism, a pantheism without a theos; seventh, modern Judaism, Unitarianism, Confucianism, Modernism, and secular humanism, none of which have either mysticism or supernatural religion but only ethics; eighth, idolatry; and ninth, Satanism. To collapse these nine levels is like thinking the earth is flat. (Fundamentals of the Faith, p. 75)

Monday, December 28, 2015

Rebels Without a Clue: The Mall at St. Matthews and the rise of the "Nothing in Particular" riot

Remember when people had reasons for rioting? 

I'm trying to remember when demonstrations lapsed from being about something into being about nothing. As I recall, riots used to be about something—starting with material necessities (food, high prices, jobs, better wages and working conditions, etc.), then big events (the War in Vietnam), then big ideas and values (The French Revolution, civil rights demonstrations, the Arab Spring)—then they became about a pretext for other more general grievances (Watts riots, Ferguson, Baltimore), and now they aren't about anything in particular.

The disturbance at St. Matthews Mall in Louisville that made national news on Sunday was clearly another example of this latter kind of demonstration, which we are seeing with greater and greater frequency.

According to NBC News:

"As they were responding to those disturbances, others were breaking out. ... Disturbances started to feed on themselves." McDonald said. "They were just overwhelmed with a number of calls for service and reports of disorder."

The officers on duty at the mall called for backup, and 50 officers from five different agencies responded, according to police.

"It was a series of brawls" involving 1,000 to 2,000 people ages 13 to their early 20s, McDonald said, adding that "the entire mall" was affected.

It was another riot furthering The Cause of Nothing in Particular. It was an upper middle class disturbance in an upper middle class mall in a country that harbors more spoiled teenagers per square inch than any other place on earth.

It is another instance (the 2011 Wall Street and London demonstrations were two more prominent examples—see my article on those here) of a bunch of people with way to little to do and way too much time on their hands looking for a little existential self-authentification. They did it for the same reason that Albert Camus' Mersseault shoots the Arab on the beach in The Stranger: because he could.

"This was a riot," [Officer Dennis] McDonald added. "It was crazy." ... "I've been a police officer 33 years, and I haven't ever seen anything like this before," he said. "We always plan for worst-case scenario, but this exceeded that."

They were rioting for the same reason (if it can be called a "reason") that young people join ISIS: It gives them a purpose in their otherwise meaningless lives.

McDonald said investigators haven't determined what sparked the outbreak of violence, but they don't believe it was planned.

That's right: You don't plan something if you don't have any reason for doing it. You just do it. That's one of the salient features of the Nothing in Particular disturbance: not having a reason is a necessary part of it. It makes you feel like you've done something when you haven't really done anything, other than ruined a holiday weekend for a few policemen and their families. 

As I have pointed out before, these riots are not about anything—they're not even about nothing. That would be nihilism and nihilism is at least something. We know that nihilism had nothing to do with this because no self-respecting nihilist would be caught dead at a mall.

Nihilists at least believe in something so strongly (even if that something is Nothing) that they're willing to kill people and break things. The psychology behind the modern Nothing in Particular rioter doesn't allow him to do even this. 

These teenagers were rioting in the same sense as P***y Riot is a rock band: There's very little evidence that they actually do what they are purported to do, but it is in the interest of the media to pretend that they do, and so we all just go along with it.

It's hard to tell from the news reports, but it doesn't appear that there was any real violence to speak of. There were reportedly "brawls," but, since no injuries were reported, it is likely they involved little more than a scuffed up pair of Sketchers, or perhaps a torn pair of chinos here or there. These are rioters in need of remedial riot training.

The worst specific thing reported to have happened at the Mall at St. Matthews was that teenagers wouldn't allow the stores to close. Presumably this involved the risky expedient of standing around where you weren't wanted. 

Heck, they could've done that at home.

Do higher graduation rates mean schools are improving?

It is one measure of the bankruptcy of modern public education that its policymakers really think that the production of more graduates is necessarily a sign of academic improvement. 

Here is the subtitle to a New York Times report on higher graduation rates in one school district:

The number of students completing high school has reached historic peaks, yet other measures of academic readiness for college or jobs are much lower.

Of course, there are two ways you produce more graduates: The first is to increase the number of students who meet the fixed standards required to graduate; the second is to lower the standards required to graduate so that more students meet them.

The public education system expects us to conclude from the mere fact that a higher percentage of students graduate that students are, on average, learning more. But in a system in which there really are no well-articulated standards one is required to meet in order to get a high school diploma--other than having passing grades in classes in which grade inflation has rendered the distinction between passing and failing grades meaningless in absolute terms--there is simply no way you can conclude, from graduation rates, that schools are improving.

That those who spout this nonsense expect the public to accept it is nothing other than an indication of their own disingenuousness--and their lack of respect for the judgment of public they spout it to.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

What is the difference between philosophy and theology?

I was reading Hans Urs Von Balthasar's Glory of the Lord today as part of my Sunday reading. In the very first volume of the series which he calls a "theological aesthetics," he starts by discussing what word he wishes to begin with. The word, he says, is "Beauty."

It is a word, he says, that philosophers end with, but that theologians should begin with. This made me think of the relation between philosophy and theology, which some Protestants I have run across (not all certainly, and probably not even most), on the grounds of Colossians 2:8, think is a relation of opposition. Of course, that is a bad interpretation of the verse. But what, in fact, is the relation between the two?

Philosophy is, generally speaking, the attempt to attain truth through human reason. Theology, on the other hand, extrapolates from Divine revelation an understanding of truth—philosophy travels from the lower to the higher, theology from the higher to the lower.

And when both human reason is working properly, and Divine revelation is interpreted rightly, philosophy and theology meet in the same truths.

The thought I had about the relation between the two, sparked by Balthasar, was this: The difference—perhaps even the chief difference—between philosophy and theology is that, while philosophy ends in truth, theology begins with it.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

A rational answer to the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God

Once again James Chastek (who has the advantage over most other people that takes advantage of the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas) nails it on an issue on which a lot of nonsense is being written:

Hypothesis: Asking whether Muslims and Christians believe in the same God is the same as asking whether geocentrism and heliocentrism are descriptions of the same universe.

He explains:

The question is not best seen as followed by an instruction to check the yes or no box. If you’re asking whether contrary theories to explain the same fact are about the same fact, then the answer is (analytically) yes. If you’re asking whether contrary theories to explain the same fact are the same (i.e. not contrary) then the answer is (again, analytically) no. Rather, the question becomes interesting when we ask what relation contrary accounts have to the thing they are accounting for.

My only question here is why we couldn't make the same argument about, say, about Mormonism. It seems to me that Mormonism is a different matter than Islam in this regard. While Islam is a Christian heresyin that it came out of Christianity and retains enough of the Christian conception of God's essential nature to be considered a wrong belief about the same God, Mormonism seems to deny every essential feature of the Christian God, constituting a conception of God completely alien to the Christian one. 

Of course, this assumes a legitimate distinction between God's essential features and his accidental ones, but I believe that could be done.

In any case, Chastek's post is here.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

How necessary is a knowledge of modern logic to the reading of philosophy (or anything else)?

I am going to bring the discussion in the comments section of what is now an old post: "Why Traditional Logic Does Not Employ Truth Tables" back out to the main blog. The interest in my posts on logic, which tend to get a little technical, continues to astound me. Part of the interest in this last one is clearly the fact that the philosopher Ed Feser linked to it. My Sitemeter stats show that clearly. But even before that, my previous post, "The Difference between Traditional and Modern Logic," which just had its three year anniversary, continues to consistently attract more hits than almost any other post on this blog. 

The term "logic" rivals only "science" (about which anything I say seems to invite comment and criticism) and "zombies" as the most popular topics. If I could only devise a post which dealt with all three--imagine what my Google page rating would be!

So here is my response to one of the comments on the "Why Traditional Logic Does Not Employ Truth Tables" post, which will be the first of several.


Thanks for your post. Let me take up your comments (and others here) in several posts. Here is the first of these. You say:
"M]uch of logic is usually unnecessary to see basic validity, as many arguments can be seen to be valid or invalid without any conscious analysis. Bringing the entire heft of Aristotle's Logic down an argument like, "My house is painted red, therefore the west wall of my house is painted red," is clearly overkill. All logic is about the more complex arguments.  However, truth tables are very useful in proving theorems like "P V Q === Q V P" (where "===" is used as the symbol for L-equivalence).
I don't know that "all" logic is about more complex arguments. From someone in the academic world, that may be close to being so, especially in modern academic philosophy. Then again, most instances of the use of logic are outside that context and are not even close to being as complicated as that context would require.

I'm sure there are contexts that require a more quantitative treatment, as your example of L-Equivalence illustrates. But, again, this particular illustration seems to me to be required only because L-Equivalence is a concept of equivalence in the field of mathematics. I may need to understand these more quantitative concepts in mathematical logic when I am dealing with modern specialists who are dealing with qualitative concepts in mathematical logic, but in the vast majority of philosophical writings outside this field of specialty it will have no value at all.

I would go further and say that, although I studied mathematical logic in school (and have taught it at the introductory level), the fact is that there is no single instance in all the philosophical writings I have read (or any other writings for that matter), in school and without, that required a knowledge of mathematical logic. A knowledge of traditional logic, on the other hand, was indispensable.

I'm sure that will sound heretical to someone inside the academy, and I admit, as someone who does not operate in that world, to having more than a little impatience with unnecessary academic subtleties. In a world of specialists, any generalist must seem a little primitive.

I hate to sound like such a pragmatist here, but even the vast majority of complex arguments don't require the kind of symbolization that modern logic employs, and my evidence for that is the whole history of philosophical writing, the great majority of which was accomplished, not only without the employment of any kind of modern symbolic calculus, but without the least knowledge of it.

I would also assert that there is a tendency among many modern philosophers to employ symbolism in a way that not only does not clarify anything, but actually obfuscates it. I have no proof of this other than my own experience, but I can think of more than one occasion--in a lecture or some academic article--on which the speaker or author has begun some point by saying "Let P equal ...," a few minutes into which it becomes very evident that, not only did we not need anything to "equal P" in order to understand the point, but that letting something "equal P" actually obfuscated what was not a terribly complex point.

In other words, I think most of the time we just need to let P equal P and go on with our philosophical lives. But I am starting to belly-ache here. I hope you see my point, and you are welcome to try to dispel my ignorance on these points on which I am, far from being an expert, simply an interested observer.

Trump and Bush in Need of Remedial Insult Training

Most people think there are too many insults in the campaign for the Republican nomination for president. I disagree. The problem isn't too many insults: The problem is not enough good ones.

I could tolerate Donald Trump's insults if they at least evidenced some rudimentary level of wit. Unfortunately, what we have seen instead is petty schoolyard taunts. And George Bush is even worse. I mean, "Donald Trump is a jerk"? Really? Is that the best we can do?

Give me Carly Fiorina any day. Her razor sharp retorts are far above the blunt rhetorical instruments of the Trumps and Bushes.

Part of the problem is that we are Americans who don't have a very good mastery of our own language. If you doubt it, listen to a British sportscaster working a soccer game. They're actually literate people. They use words that Americans would have to look up (and ought to). None of the pedestrian descriptions you hear from our publicly-schooled color commentators--they're actually witty and creative.
I think some remedial insult training is in order here. 

One thing these people ought to do is to go and look at some of the classic political and literary comebacks. Here are three of which I am particularly fond:

George Bernard Shaw (a playwright, for the culturally illiterate Americans reading this, at a time when Churchill was low in the polls):  "I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend ... if you have one."

Winston Churchill: "Cannot possibly attend first night; will attend second, if there is one."

Or this one:

Lady Astor: "Winston, if you were my husband, I would poison your coffee."

Churchill: "Nancy, if you were my wife, I would drink it."

Or, my personal favorite:

Chesterton (upon meeting up with his old friend Shaw, a militant vegetarian who was skinny as a rail, before a speech): "Shaw, looking at you one would think there was a famine in the land."

Shaw (looking the 400 pound Chesterton up and down): "Chesterton, looking at you, one would think you had caused it."

It's too much to hope for I know. So will have to endure Trump's petty tweets and Bushes low-wit retorts. When is this thing over?

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Solution to College Student Protests

In a time when college students are lucky if the food at the dining commons is edible, students  at Oberlin College are protesting because cafeteria food is not "culturally accurate." This is just the most recent demand by the student PC Police on college campuses, who apparently don't have any real problems to deal with.

A number of critics have described today's college protesters as "infantile," a diagnosis with which I wholeheartedly agree. And I have just the prescription.

When college officials encounter this kind of protest on their campuses, they need to start handing out pacifiers. That's what they're for: To silence the whining.

Campus officials could also designate a morning story time (I suggest Where the Wild Things Are and The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), and provide mattresses (cheap, uncomfortable ones) for afternoon naps. They could also put those useless diversity bureaucrats to work providing a free diaper service. I suggest having them issue cloth diapers and requiring officials to wash them by hand.

If that doesn't quiet them down, and the equally Politically Correct officials don't have the fortitude to use a hickory switch, then I suggest sending them all to their rooms without dinner.

Or, if there are students from certain places in Southeast Asia, they could go ahead and make the cuisine more authentic by serving other students.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

We could learn a little from the French about how to deal with #terrorism

As I was watching the Republican debate Tuesday night, I wondered once again what the men and women who went through the Depression and World War II would think of their country now, which seems to be in full-scale panic mode about the prospect of a terrorist attack.

What would the Greatest Generation think, for example, about whole school districts closing merely because of threats from questionable e-mails (Los Angeles Unified) or because of something someone scrawled on a bathroom wall (our own absurd Eastern KY University).

What would they think about a whole population that can be brought to its emotional knees by one relatively minor terrorist attack?

Fourteen people died in San Bernadino, California at the hands of Islamicist terrorists. The attack was, of course, frightening. 
I'm sure that the deaths of the fourteen people in San Bernadino was the most important thing in the world to their family and friends, and that's as it should be. But the rest of us need to get a grip. As an occasion for the personal grief among the people who knew the victims it is cause for grief and outrage, and as a policy matter it is something we surely need to consider carefully and to take sober measures of preventing it from happening again.
But ants kill 30 people a year and falling out of bed kills about 450 people a year. Coconuts kill 150 people per year, icicles in Russia 100. In fact, tap water kills 100 people per year. But these things are not covered in long repetitive segments for days on end on CNN.

But in this day and age when full-time newscasts take every outrage and magnify it 100-fold, it is sometimes hard to maintain the proper perspective.

Now this will be received as hard medicine by those of us who are slaves to the news-cycle, where every little event is blown into mammoth proportions and becomes the excuse for hasty and heedless policy prescriptions which are urged on us in urgent tones—and which must be implemented now or we'll all die.

I attribute all of this also to the simple fact that we are spoiled, soft people who live in easy conditions that, in any other place and time, would be thought lax and effeminate.

No one up until our time would have considered a terrorist act of such a limited magnitude to constitute the kind of crisis we now think it is. And anyone suggesting that it was would been told that they need to get a grip and to think about how minor this was in the total scheme of things in a world in which a war (WWII) had just killed from 50 to 80 million people and caused the devastation and homelessness of millions more and where in the decade before that millions were impoverished by bank closures and loss of jobs and where a decade before that some 38 million people were killed in the war (WWI) that was supposed to "end all wars."

Heck, even Korea and the Vietnam War are still within living memory.

People need to stop watching Anderson Cooper and start reading William Shirer. They need to start reading history to give them some kind of context to current events. Of course, that assumes that people can still read, and, if they can, even know that there is history to be read.

Unfortunately, our schools today have performed the cultural equivalent of a lobotomy on a whole people. Now that's a crisis. Somebody ought panic about that.

I'm with the French on this one: Find out who committed the atrocity and kill them. Otherwise, continue to lead your life normally. It's the worst thing you can do to the terrorists.

In fact, the next time I hear about how wimpy the French are, I'm going to remind the imbecilic American person saying it how we, as a matter of course, react to these things compared to the French.

Au revoir.

Yale students signing petition to repeal the First Amendment

Just in case you wondered how far gone our higher education system is:

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

"Brooklyn": (the movie): A Review

On the basis of Joe Morganstern's recent review of "Brooklyn" in the Wall Street Journal, I took my wife to see the movie. It is a story about a young immigrant woman, Eilis (pronounce "Eye-lish") who leaves her mother and sister in Ireland for America in the 1950s, rents a room in a boarding house, gets a job, and meets a young man at a dance with whom she falls in love and gets married. But just as she marries the young Italian plumber, she gets word that her beloved sister has died. Despite the doubts of her husband, who knows the allure of home, she travels back to Ireland to be with her mother, and promptly falls in love with a young Irishman.

How she battles the draw of home and resolves to do the right thing are the chief conflict in the story.

Now if I had read the description I just gave, I would not be terribly interested in seeing the movie. It seems to have a terribly chick flickish quality to it. But Morgenstern's review was glowing. And then I looked it up on Rotten Tomatoes, where its positive review percentage was 99 percent. When was the last time you saw that? And then, of course, there was the excellent trailer.

I worried that, after reading all of these gushing reviews, it couldn't possibly meet my expectations. But I didn't have to worry.

"Brooklyn" is what I call a "small movie"—that is, a movie about something we consider of little consequence: one young woman, a speck in a sea of such people migrating across the ocean for a better life. We talk incessantly about the big issues—immigration, war and peace, hunger—and think they are the important thing. But it is the "small" stories of one or two people that really tells us something important about reality.

Everything about "Brooklyn" is astounding. The story takes place both in Brooklyn and Ireland. And both settings are utterly convincing. I love movies that are able to invoke another time and place in a believable way. Who needs a time machine when you can go back in time with a movie like this and see things as you are convinced they really must have been like?

There is none of the anachronism you see in so many attempts to recreate history where the attitude about the world is just the common, contemporary attitude put in the mind and mouth of a character from another time (like Ridley Scott's "The Kingdom of Heaven," in which Orlando Bloom's character spoils the whole otherwise admirable movie by give a deflating politically correct speech about how unimportant the land they are defending (Jerusalem) is. No person of the time would have said what was put in his mouth. It was utterly disappointing).

Here you will see people in the mid-20th century as they really were, not gussied up for early 21st century viewers. There Eilis herself, with whom the viewer simply falls in love. She is innocent but determined. The obviously Irish Saoirse Ronan plays Eilish with an expressionless grace that is hard to describe. And in fact she does what every other aspect of this movie does—from the characters to the director: namely, to never overplay their hand.

There are scenes that in the hands of any other director would have been mined for every ounce of sentimentalism they could produce. But director Tom McCarthy resists this temptation at every turn. Not that there aren't tears shed a number of times (by both the characters and the audience); there are. But the sentiment is never over-sentimentalized—there is not a single instance in which the viewer is called upon to respond in any other way than that which is fully backed up by the events on the screen. The movie is like a finely cooked French meal: Every flavor is perfectly balanced.

Eilis' landlady, Mrs. Kehoe, plays a pivotal part in this story. We are brought back again and again throughout the movie to her dinner table, where she dishes out admonition and advice to the young, sometimes wayward (in one case completely clueless) girls under her roof. She is the quintessence of good sense and, in a stern way, good humor. Contrast her with the Irish shop owner, Mrs. Kelly, for whom Eilis had worked while in Ireland, a cruel, conniving woman, whose machinations when Eilis returns to her original home are the occasion for Eilis' realization of what she must do.

Eilis has not told anyone in Ireland that she is already married, a fact that looms over her trip home. The anxiety that is produced as she falls harder and harder for a young Irish pub owner is made all the more unbearable by the sympathy we have for Eilis—and the empathy we have for her affection for the young Irish man whose subtle and honest attractions we can sympathize with. But when she is invited to the marriage of her childhood friend, they take their vows—vows of loyalty and love that she herself has taken back in America, unbeknownst to the young man sitting at her side—an irony the camera underscores when it refocuses from the bride and groom in the front to Eilis, sitting in the second row behind them, her own heart being pierced by the words she is hearing from the priest.

Again, the expression on Eilis face does not change, but we know she feels the irony as deeply as we do.

But it is when her former employer, Mrs. Kelly, discovers Eilis' secret and tries to use it to manipulate her that she realizes what she must do. This is when the tension breaks and we know that she has decided to do the right thing and return to her husband in America. It is the evil intent of Mrs. Kelly that brings about Eilis' return to the good. How evocative of real life is that? Who says that evil does not have its purpose in the ultimate end of things?

We are heartbroken for the young Irishman who has fallen in love with her—and who has been given every reason to believe it will be consummated. And again, our sorrow is not exploited by the director, who shows him to us, in the lovely house his parents have vacated for him, in the anticipation that she will help him refill it, reading the letter she has sent to him telling him the truth, and informing him that she has gone back to America.

Eilis' makes mistake after mistake, and she pays for each one of them. But despite her failings, she rights herself. She returns to America and to her husband.

There are aspects of this movie that remind me of a Jane Austen story. But the difference is this: In a Jane Austen story, all the loose ends are tied up. Austen begins with an ordered world, into which disharmony is introduced, which resolves finally into a new harmonious order. "People die," as Flannery O'Connor once quipped, "but no one gets hurt." Austen's view of reality is the view from 50,000 feet. It can seem unrealistic, but that is because she shows us reality from an eternal perspective, in which there really is an ultimate resolution to all things.

But in "Brooklyn," people do get hurt. All the loose ends are not tied up. There is damage that for some characters will last a lifetime. But there is beauty too—sometimes in the very events which seem the most tragic. There is comfort here along with the pain—as Kentucky poet James Still once phrased it, a "punishing comfort." It is the view from the ground: Our view here and now. And what we see in this story is that amidst all the rubble that we leave along the way of life, there are plenty of flowers growing. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Why Spelling Matters: L. A. school district didn't notice capitalization error in terrorist threat

This is beautiful. The entire Los Angeles Unified School District shut down today because of an e-mail terrorism threat from someone who identified himself as a jihadist. But New York schools received the same threat and considered it a hoax.

Why? Because of a spelling error.

Here is NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, explaining one of the reasons New York decided not to close its schools:

Bratton said one reason authorities believed the email was a hoax was because the word Allah was not capitalized: "The language in the email would lead us to believe that this is not a jihadist initiative... That would be incredible to think that any jihadist would not spell Allah with a capital 'A.'"

So the literate police in New York noticed something that the semi-literate educators in L.A. missed, causing the huge West coast school district to lose a whole school day.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Grammar Guy: Should one accept the singular "they"? The Washington Post says, "Yes." I say "No"

Below is an interesting discussion I had with Steven Greydamus this morning on his Facebook page on the issue of the singular "they." Steven had posted an article from about the Washington Post Style Guide including the singular "they" (as a way to avoid "he" or "she" or "he/sh"/"he or she, etc. in noun/verb agreement) as an acceptable English form. Here is the discussion:

Martin Cothran Another sign of the decline of Western culture.
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Steven D. Greydanus
Steven D. Greydanus Martin: What part of "Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, Kipling, and C.S. Lewis" is confusing to you? Not to mention the King James Bible! Shakespeare and the King James Bible practically ARE the English language. Not to mention Chaucer, Spenser, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Walt Whitman, Shaw, Edith Wharton, and George Orwell. If these are all indicative the "decline of Western culture," pray tell when was the height?
Like · Reply · 1 · 1 hr

Martin Cothran
Martin Cothran I wish I could accept your noble argument. However (and the story you posted completely ignored this), the reason we are even talking about this is not because anyone is trying to mimic the greats, but because we are neutering the language. The reason we are being forced to use "they" is because it is considered politically incorrect to use the generic "he." So our choices are "he/she," "he or she," "she" (a common, mostly academic affectation), or "they." We are talking about this because of the political manipulation of our language. That may be fine with you, but I'm sticking with Jacques Barzun on this one, and they can pry the generic "he" out of my cold, dead, editor's hand.
Like · Reply · 1 hr
Steven D. Greydanus
Steven D. Greydanus Wishing to preserve generic "he" is one thing, and wishing to defend Western civilization against the forces of inclusivism may be noble; however, rejecting singular "they" as grammatically wrong because it aids the inclusivists is unhistorical and, um, aphilological? Language is what we have made it, and plural "they" is not a corruption. End of story.
Like · Reply · 1 · 1 hr
Shane Coombs
Shane Coombs It's too early on a weekend for me to decide which side of the argument this favors, but I think it's more accurate to say that ALL language is corruption. The way languages develop, just about every word and rule forms from the corruption of earlier ones.
Like · Reply · 53 mins
Martin Cothran
Martin Cothran Well, I was being intentionally hyperbolic, but I guess there was no way for you to know that. Still, I didn't know there were prescriptive philological and historical rules for the acceptance of linguistic innovations that one could be said to violate. If there are, can we change them in the name of innovation? If I were arguing for usage as the criterion upon which to judge the acceptability of linguistic innovation, I would stay away from invoking prescriptive rules. It can do nothing but undermine my argument. Language may be "what we have made it," (which is true only because it is a tautology), but the question here is whether we SHOULD change or accept a change in official English. Your argument, I think, is that we should accept it if it has precedent among the great English writers of the past. I guess I am thinking that if we use that principle, we will have opened a linguistic Pandora's Box. One look at Shakespeare's English, incredible as it was in its context, should be a warning against it. Chaucer should stop you in your tracks. For example, should we accept Shakespeare's spelling as a part of officially acceptable English?
Like · Reply · 38 mins · Edited
Martin Cothran
Martin Cothran Shane, in a sense I agree with you, but I can tell you as someone having been involved in education for a number of years that the official rules do serve a useful purpose. You can't just accept anything. It is almost a cultural necessity to have some commonly-accepted reference point to which everyone can appeal in times of dispute. I'm not arguing for slavish adherence to a set of rules that were handed down from Sinai (or that inhabit Plato's realm of the ideal forms), but I'm thinking that Catholics of all people should appreciate the role of a central authority which exercises a sort of centripetal linguistic force.
Like · Reply · 35 mins

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

The college president who criticized campus protesters actually knows what education is

Here is Everett Piper, President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University in Tulsa, explaining his questioning of the adult status of recent college campus protesters.

Imagine: A college administrator who actually knows what education is. He's talking about the liberal arts, he's using words like "Truth," "Goodness," and "Beauty"--he even quotes Chesterton.

 Does anyone know where we can find any more like him?

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Ten Great Christian Novels (and a few others you might to check out)

Here is the introduction to my list of great Christian novels at Memoria Press' site:
The following is a list, not of the ten greatest Christian novels, since I haven't read all the novels ever written, but at least ten of the greatest. Any one of these would make a great Christmas present for the reader in your family (hopefully there are more than one). These are not children's books, of course, but they are books that an adult or even a well-read, classically educated highschooler could read for profit and enjoyment. They are also books that warrant spending a little extra money on and getting a nice, hardback edition, maybe one with nice illustrations—one someone could hand down to his children or grandchildren. I have included in each case a comment on a good audio version of each book, where this is one, but I do not intend this as a substitute for reading the book. I find it helpful—with books that one should read more than once (and all these books meet that criterion)—to both read and listen to them. These are two quite different experiences and you will notice quite different things about the story. 
See the list here.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

#UK Covers Up a Historical Mural, and Other Acts of the Liberal Cultural Taliban

The University of Kentucky today covered a mural painted by Ann Rice O’Hanlon eighty years ago because it portrays slaves working in a field. "The reason given," said Kentucky writer Wendell Berry yesterday in an opinion article in Lexington Herald-Leader protesting the decision, "is only that it shows people doing what they actually did. Black people did work in tobacco fields. Black musicians did play for white dancers. Indians did seriously threaten the settlers at Bryan’s Station."

If we're going to start covering up images suggestive of past misbehavior—behavior that did happen, despite our desire to cover it up, can we now cover up our UK insignias on account of its having repeatedly (and successfully) been sued for racial discrimination in hiring and firing? Or how about UK's mismanagement of Robinson Forest, a 14,786 tract of forest left in trust to UK, 3,885 acres of which it allowed to be mined or leased for strip mining and 800 more acres it more recently tried to make available for clear cut logging?

Let he who is without sin cover the first mural.

The action by UK is a part of a larger movement of people who think that the proper response to uncomfortable aspects of our history is to cover it up by covering up images, changing names on buildings, and eliminating or destroying historical markers and sites.

This is all accomplished under the assumption that, in destroying the evidence of our past failures, we somehow strike a blow for justice; that in destroying the records of our past, we somehow rectify it.

Soon no one will know our historical crimes. And we can all pretend that nothing bad ever happened.

All this is our own cultural equivalent of the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan or ISIL's destruction of mosques, tombs, and churches. How can we condemn them for doing the same thing we ourselves do?

What will we do, twenty or thirty years down the road, when we become embarrassed about how we acted in trying to erase our own history? Destroy the records of the destruction of our past?

How absurd we are going to seem to our historical selves?

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Crybullies Aren’t Just for College: On Corporations and LGBTQ Political Correctness

Crybullies Aren’t Just for College: On Corporations and LGBTQ Political Correctness. Calls for “Safe Spaces” on campus don’t just threaten the future of academia. The same mindset seeks to silence dissent and respectful disagreement in business as well.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

How bad should we feel about how bad college protesters feel about how inadequately bad the rest of us feel?

The nation's colleges and universities have been roiled by demonstrations by minority groups protesting insensitivity toward minorities by college officials who have given inadequate demonstration of how badly they feel about how badly minority students feel about how inadequately bad college officials feel about the feelings of minority students, resulting in the resignations of many college officials who have openly admitted the inadequate level of guilt they feel about the state of the protester's feelings.

Meanwhile, many normal Americans who are watching all of this are feeling bad about the fact that these students are squandering all their time feeling bad about how insufficiently bad other people are feeling, partly because it is making everyone feel bad.

We should all feel very badly about this. In fact, we do, which is really bad.

One of the things that made minority students feel bad at Harvard University recently is the fact that the university was founded by a slaveholder, making Harvard a White supremacist institution which is now, in consequence, under the obligation to feel bad about itself.

Of course, it has never been a secret that Harvard was founded on the basis of a bequest from Isaac Royall. So why it is that none of this has mattered until now?

Some observers (i.e., me) think that it is the result of a whole generation of students who have spent so much of their lives worrying about their feelings that they are completely ignorant of history, about which, if they had known anything, they would be even more upset than they already are.

In fact, other observers (i.e., also me), think that it is probably a good thing that these students are so wrapped up in feeling bad about how inadequately bad other people feel that they don't know very much history.

"What you have to realize," said one expert on the subject (me), "is that history is filled with bad things. And because these things are bad, they make people feel bad. And this, of course, is even worse. So it is perhaps best that people who feel bad about bad things that happened in the past--and who get upset when people in the present don't feel badly enough about them--should be careful about their exposure to what actually happened in the past."

"In fact," he continued, "the past is the last place you want to investigate if you don't want to feel bad."

This particular observer (me) wondered what would be the end result of all the bad feelings if more people knew about their own history. "We would all have to resign," he said.

"And just imagine how bad that would make everyone feel."

Monday, November 16, 2015

"It's all about me" vs. "It's all about Allah"

Maybe it's just the fact that we are in the middle of a presidential campaign—and one taking place in the midst of a "War on Terror"—but we hear a lot these days about "American values" or "Western values" and how they are under siege from groups like ISIS.

What I'd like to know is exactly what values we are talking about. The assumption, after all, is that there is some well-agreed upon set of cultural principles that we all think should be protected. Is this assumption true, and if it is, what does it consist of?

Are we talking about the traditional Western values of wisdom and virtue that comes from reflection on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful? Are we talking about the belief in a divine order that reflected in nature itself that was reflected in the Declaration of Independence's invocation of "unalienable rights" and that we ignore at our peril? Do we mean the body of soul-nourishing wisdom that was handed down to us by the great thinkers of the Western tradition?

Or do we mean the debased ideological prejudices that now dominate the two poles of our national discourse, one in the form of political correctness and multiculturalism that preaches tolerance and diversity but marginalizes anyone who disagrees, and another in the form of a right-wing liberalism that views every cultural entity in terms of a materialistic commercialism? The latter gives lip service to religion, but doesn't really practice one, and the former disavows religion, but practices a secular one.

When we talk about "American values" do we mean the misogynistic rap music and pornography that constitute America's chief cultural export to the rest of the world? Or do we mean the literary heritage embodied in the works of authors like Nathanial Hawthorne, Herman Melville, John Steinbeck, and Flannery O'Connor, and the political philosophy behind our form of government that we find in the Federalist Papers and that was lived out by the likes of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson—a heritage that our own academic class now sneers at?

It would be nice to know exactly what the people who use these political slogans actually mean by such expressions.

As for me and my house, we abide by the principles as set forth by the great conservative thinker Russell Kirk, who, in his book The American Cause, discussed the three orders: the Political, the Economic, and the Moral Orders that constitute American civilization.

The Political Order
America's Political Order is one of ordered liberty closely tied to a belief in a federal republic. The history of political philosophy has been a chronicle of the tension between order and freedom, and most political heresies have clustered at one or the other end of this spectrum: The right has often overvalued order, and the left freedom. Today, however, order is out altogether. There are two forces in politics, both of which are on the same side of the battle field.

We have liberals who believe in unconstrained freedom, and so-called "conservatives" who believe basically the same thing--as Allan Bloom once put it, left-wing liberals, and right-wing liberals. Like the left-wing liberals before them, the right-wing liberals have basically abandoned the "ordered" part of "ordered liberty."

Self-professed conservatives still voice their support for a decentralized form of government (which is what federalism means), but many of them will look the other way when the U. S. Supreme Court dictates the debased values of elite culture by fiat from the bench on issues like same-sex marriage on the radical individualistic grounds that it "doesn't affect my family."

The Economic Order
American conservatives (but not liberals) still support a free economy, but at the same time they have acquiesced in the distortion of the free economy by large corporations who, allied with the federal government and grown fat on corporate welfare, have aggrandized power unto themselves at the expense of economic freedom. They are Monsanto capitalists. And they're not conservatives.

The Moral Order
"The United States is a Christian nation," says Kirk, and he's right--in the sense that the values we have traditionally practiced in this country are derived directly from the Christian tradition and the teachings of the Christian Church. The people who point to Thomas Jefferson's attempt to eliminate the miracle accounts from the Bible (with an actual pair of scissors, producing what is now called the Jefferson Bible), forget the part he didn't clip out: the Christian system of ethics, which he fully accepted, as did basically everyone else involved in America's founding.

Kirk also believed (with T. S. Eliot, another great conservative thinker) that "civilization grows out of religion." Our traditional moral order is derived exclusively from the Old Testament teachings of Moses and the New Testament teachings of Jesus. And although the secular technocratic elite of today purport to possess a more enlightened ethic, all they have really done is to take certain specific aspects of the Christian ethic and isolated them from the rest. Charity and brotherly love (although focused on government, rather than individual action) are still valued, even if they are now isolated from traditional beliefs about sexuality, marriage, and the family.

As Chesterton pointed out, it isn't the vices that are wandering loose, causing damage, but the virtues, isolated from each other and out of balance with the whole of Christian teaching.

That's what I think "American values" means. That's what I think most people would fight and die for. What values these other people champion, I am not sure. Do they think people would go die in a ditch in some third world country for someone's right to protest at a college because others are not giving their ideology enough sympathy? Or for someone's right to change their gender? Or, other end of the spectrum, for the right purchase the consumer goods they would like to have.

I really don't know. And I wonder if the people who reject the traditional beliefs about what our culture consists of do themselves.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Why Traditional Logic Doesn't Employ Truth Tables

One if the interesting things about this blog is that, while most of what I talk about is politics and culture, the post with the most continuing popularity is an older post I did on the difference between traditional and modern logic. I was going to continue that discussion in later posts but not only got rather busy, but ran into some conceptual problems in the next section of what is basically a pamphlet I wrote a few years ago that I have yet to resolve to my satisfaction.

In the meantime, here is a discussion of the differing views on truth conditionality that address some of the same issues I addressed in the earlier article.

One of the questions I get rather often from students and logic instructors about traditional logic is why it doesn't teach truth tables. Modern logic, the most common kind of logic encountered in high school and college, uses them, so why does traditional logic ignore them?

Many people encounter a smattering of logic in high school math courses, which teach a few of the rudiments of modern logic. Here, more than likely, they will encounter simple truth tables. Truth tables were invented by Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps the the 20th century's most influential modern philosopher. He invented them to accompany the calculus into which modern analytic philosophers had transformed logic. They were seen a way to quickly solve for the truth of simple and complex logical propositions in the modern system.

Let's take the statement, "There are seven days in the week and twenty-four hours in a day." In the modern system of logic we would want to immediately reduce this down to its formal elements. Let's say that P = "there are seven days in the week" and that Q = "there are twenty-four hours in a day." If we did this, then we could represent the statement as follows:

P and Q 

How do we find out whether the statement "P and Q" is true? In modern logic, the truth value of this statement is determined by its elements--in this case, the statements signified by "P" and "Q". We know as a matter of simple common sense that the statement "P and Q" is true only when both the statements represented by "P" and "Q" are themselves true--in other words, if it is true to say that there are seven days in the week and if it is true to say that there are twenty-four hours in a day. If either one or both of these statements are false (in other words, if a week is made up of something other than seven days or if a day is made up of something other than 24 hours--or both), then the statement would be false.

Using truth tables, we would set forth all of the truth possibilities of P and Q so we could see clearly when "P and Q" is true and when it is false:

P     Q     P and Q
T     T           T
T     F           F
F     T           F
F     F           F

We don't really need to go to all this trouble to verify that a simple statement like "P and Q" is true. But what if you had a statement like "P and (Q or (If R, then S))"? When statements become this complex, truth tables can be an easier way to calculate their truth value.

So if truth tables make the determination of the truth of statements more easy to calculate, then why doesn't traditional logic teach them?

There are several answers to this question. The first is practical, the second is theoretical.

The Practical Usefulness of Truth Tables is Overstated
The first reason is that, although truth tables have certain technical applications, they are not practically useful in actual argument or discussion, since most statements used in everyday speech and even in academic conversation never get to the level of complexity that would require a truth table to figure them out. They are certainly helpful in certain scientific applications and for computer computer programming (modern logic's most practical application), but outside those fields, they are seldom needed.  

I have not only taught logic, but engaged in private and public debate for over 25 years. While I have made use of William of Sherwood's traditional mnemonic verse of the 19 valid syllogism forms and the procedure for backing into missing premises repeatedly (both of these are covered in my Traditional Logic, Book II), I have never had to resort to a truth table. 

This is partly the result of the fact that most real life argumentation is conducted in or reducible to categorical reasoning on which you cannot use truth tables anyway. This is because categorical reasoning operates on the basis of the relations between individual terms (which are neither true nor false, since only full statements can be true or false) and truth tables work only with hypothetical reasoning, which operation on the basis of relations between statements. In addition, even though modern logical techniques were developed primarily to deal with complex philosophical and scientific problems in an academic context, the vast majority of the reasoning you encounter even there consists simply in chain arguments (strings of simple arguments strung together) that don't require any advanced calculus to solve.

The Faulty Metaphysics Behind Modern Logic
The second reason for the absence of truth tables from traditional logic has to do with the philosophical differences between the traditional and modern systems of logic. To state it baldly, traditional logic doesn't believe in truth tables.

The reason they are used in one system and not the other has to do with a concept called truth functionality.  What is truth functionality?  “A compound proposition,” said Edward Simmons, “is said to be truth-functional when its truth as a whole depends solely upon the truth values of its component parts.”  In other words, the truth or falsity of its parts will tell us the truth or falsity of the whole.

In the statement above, "P and Q", we can tell its truth from its component parts. "P and Q" is called a "conjunctive proposition"--it conjoins P and Q. Traditional logicians believe that conjunctive statements are the only kind of statements whose truth can be "solved" in a truth table--the only kind of statements, in other words, that are truth functional. No other kinds of logical statements ("P or Q", "If P, then Q", etc.) are truth functional in this way.

The reason traditional logicians deny the truth functionality of hypothetical propositions has to do with the underlying assumptions about language and reality.  To illustrate this, let's take another simple statement, this time a conditional statement (This is where the problem with modern logic's assumptions become very clear):

If it rains, then my dog will get wet

In modern logic, we would "solve" for the truth of this statement using a truth table:

P     Q     If P then Q
T     T           T
T     F           F
F     T           T
F     F           T

This kind of statement is considered true in every possible case except when P is true and Q is false (the second line). Let's say my dog is an outside dog and has no protection from the rain. In that case, when it rained my dog would get wet--both P and Q would be true, and therefore it would be true to say (as on the first line of the truth table) that the entire statement, "if it rains my dog gets wet" is true.

But let's say it was raining, but my dog was in the garage, dry and cozy. In that case, it would be true to say that it was raining, but false to say that if it rains, then my dog gets wet (as indicated on the second line of the truth table). It rains, but my dog does not get wet. The statement would therefore be false.

But what about the other two possibilities, in other words, when it is not raining at all (when P is false and Q is either true or false--the last two lines of the truth table)? Why, as indicated in the truth table, do modern logicians say the statement would be true in those cases? 

As someone who has heard the explanations of why this is the case--as well as having tried to explain it to his own students in class--I can testify to the difficulty in trying to understand this. 

But the fact is that modern logic's treatment of the conditional statement (particularly its treatment of conditional statements in which the antecedent is false) is problematic not because it is complicated; it is problematic because it is problematic.

In the traditional system a conditional statement is considered true only if the fact that your dog gets wet really occurs as a result of the rain—in other words, if the statement asserts what is called a valid sequence.  To put it another way, there must be a real logical relation between the rain and your dog getting wet.  The fact of it raining must, in some way, materially imply that your dog will get wet.

In the modern system, however, there need be no real connection all.  All that is required is that, as a matter of fact, the consequent (my dog will get wet) is not false when the antecedent ( it rains) is true.  Unless this is the case, the statement is considered true.  Therefore, in the modern system, statements such as:

If the moon is made of green cheese, then ducks can swim

are considered true statements, since their antecedents ( in this case, "the moon is made of green cheese") is false at the same time that the consequent ("ducks can swim") is false.  In fact the antecedent is false and the consequent true, therefore (according to the modern logician) it is a true statement.

While modern logic considers this statement true, traditional logic sees it, again, for what it is: nonsense.  The moon being made of green cheese clearly has no relation (logical or otherwise) to the fact that ducks are able to swim.

In the traditional system, conditional statements are considered to assert a necessary connection between their elements (the antecedent and the consequent), while in modern logic the only connection has to do with the happenstance coincidence of the truth or falsity of the elements. There must be either a cause and effect or ground-consequent relation between the antecedent and the consequent. The rain and the dog getting wet are to be seen as having a fundamental metaphysical relation (in this case a cause-effect relation) to one another. The assumption behind modern logic is that such necessary connections either do not exist or that they do not need to be accounted for in our system of logic.

The underlying problem here is that modern logic is concerned with the attempt to quantify reality. It wants to turn logic into a kind of calculus. This was the dream of philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, who hoped that one day man could create what he called a "calculus ratiocinator"--a logic machine for the "solution" of logical problems. In many ways Leibniz was Aristotelian in his thinking (traditional logic is Aristotelian), but he would have had to have had very non-Aristotelian assumptions in order to believe that this was even possible.

Traditional logic does not attempt to reduce logic to a quantitative calculus, largely because it views logic as a linguistic and metaphysical art, not a technical mathematical calculus. Traditional logicians recognize a distinction between what is called extension and comprehension--on other words, that any comprehensive view of human reasoning would have to recognize both the quantitative aspects of human language, but also the qualitative. It rejects modern logics reduction of all human reasoning to extensionality.

Traditional logicians reject the idea that language can be quantified in the way that modern philosophers believe it can. Logic, according to the traditionalists, is inherently qualitative and logocentric (centered on the Word), and attempts to quantify logical language can only serve to distort the process of reasoning.

Behind the idea of such a calculus is a view of the world fundamentally at odds with traditional metaphysical beliefs. Ultimately, the only way logic can be made into a calculus is by denying the essential metaphysical nature of the world that logical language attempts to portray.

This, of course, is not a problem for the logical positivists who developed modern logic because they did not believe in traditional metaphysics, although, of the three people who wrote the book that put modern logic on the academic map (Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, and Wittgenstein, the latter of whom greatly influenced, but did not actually author the book) both Whitehead and Wittgenstein later repudiated it--for different reasons. 

Their progenitor is David Hume, the 18th century British empiricist philosopher who went so far as to question the rationality of the belief in cause and effect. What modern logic has done is to create a system of logic that honors Hume's positivism by ignoring metaphysical reality: You can "solve" an "If P then Q" statement by ignoring the metaphysical implication in it and taking account solely of the "truth value" of its elements. 

In the modern view, in other words, "If, ... then" statements do not posit either a cause/effect or ground/consequent relation. They operate basically like conjunctive statements, ignoring the very relation that those who use them actually mean to assert (cause/effect or ground/consequent).

It is logic for Humeans.

In other words, the question over truth conditionality--in addition to anything else that might be wrong with it--is the logical consequence of a faulty view of metaphysics.