Fra Verus

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Wednesday 5 October 2016

The Possibility of the Pre-Photonic Rulebreaker

Next up is the first part of St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae. This edition is fantastic. Physically, the volumes are as beautiful as they are sturdy. The English translation is solid. There are not really really any footnotes but Aquinas designed the Summa to be able to serve as a first introduction to scholastic theology and philosophy. Some familiarity with Aristotle and Plato helps a lot but not absolutely necessary. That said, Aquinas' language is sometimes quite complicated in a way that English just doesn't handle very well. Even with my so-so Latin, I find it much easier to follow the flow of logic in the Latin original than in the faithful English translation.

One of the first things a reader of the Summa notices is that unusual system of argumentation. While many ancient and medieval forms of argumentation remain familiar to modern readers, the so-called summa style is mostly dead. The style has the following form: First a question is asked, usually conceptually linked to the previous question, if there is one. Then arguments against the author's view are given, usually representing varying schools of thought and methods of argumentation. Then the author's response to the question is given. Finally, each earlier argument that had opposed the author's view is given its own individual refutation. Both the author's own view and the imagined critics cite a broad range of respected sources. Nearly all the works are cited equally by both sides. Normally I would expect this style of argumentation to be an endless string of strawmen. But Aquinas, for the most part, has the humility to represent the opposing views fairly and with citations as worthy those he gives his own arguments. That said, given that he argues against such heavyweights as Aristotle, Augustine, Boethius, and countless others, it is unlikely that serious strawmanning these figures would have endeared him to the Church or the rest of the scholastic community. But you can't go wrong with humility seasoned by pragmatism. It is, however, a lot of work. And the sheer amount of work involved is likely the biggest factor in this style's unpopularity.

The first part of the Summa contains what are known as Aquinas' five arguments for the existence of God. This popular description is somewhat misleading and yet it is the thing the Summa is most known for. It seems only right that I address it. While it is an argument for God's existence, it is also clearly stated to be a definition, e.g. "this is what we call God". The arguments are largely Aristotelian. First, there is classic unmoved mover argument. This is based on the Aristotelian observation that nothing moves unless moved by something else. And if one logically follows the chain back, it seems necessary that there must be some strange thing that does not have this same constraint. Otherwise, how would anything in our present universe be moving at all? The second argument is about "efficient cause". This is logically much the same as the unmoved mover argument except that the chain of movement is replaced with the chain of cause and effect. The third argument is also similar, instead being about a chain of existence, i.e. you can't create something from nothing therefore there must be an original and necessary thing. The fourth argument is about gradation. In other words, we live in a universe of greater or lesser and better or worse. It is assumed that these things are intrinsic properties of the universe and not merely the product of the human mind. And it is then supposed that in such a system there must be a greatest and best being. The final argument is that our universe has a level of complexity but also order and seeming purpose that would suggest that it was deliberately designed in some way.

The first three arguments are perhaps the most persuasive, even if they are all basically a single argument. We have no real answer for the ultimate origin of the universe. Sure, we have the Big Bang. And where'd that matter come from? Maybe it all came from photons. Where did all those photons come from? With better tools, we have peeled back the onion a lot more than Aristotle ever could but we still seem to have a logical dead end. Logic would seem to suggest that somehow either the rules changed, there was a thing that could violate the rules, or there is something entirely external to the system of our universe as we know it. These do not necessarily imply the popular contemporary notion of what God is, but they are what Aquinas means when he says God. He is not some bearded sky wizard. He is either the physics changer, the physics breaker, or the simulation programmer.

I find the argument from gradation pretty fascinating from a Platonist perspective. But it is hard to prove that it is not either a human construct or a simple happy byproduct of how the universe works. And while some things are said to be better than others, it is often situational. There is no magical perfect chair, for example. There could, however, be a perfect chair for a given person in a given situation. God would probably make a bad chair though.

The final argument kind of falls apart when one realizes that complexity and order are largely relative terms and we have no other universes for comparison. Maybe our universe, on some imaginary absolute scale, is a total chaotic shitshow. Or maybe our universe is, relatively speaking, ordered perfection. As for its seeming purpose, I think it would be pretty lame to have all this for no reason. But the universe probably does not care much about my feelings on the subject

Given all these things, I think I am firmly in the camp of believing that atheism is irrational because it denies the clearly possible. On the other hand, theism is unable to definitely prove its case. Agnosticism would seem to be the most rational path. However, theism can also be rational just by acknowledging its own optimism.

On some funnier notes, Aquinas will occasionally refute arguments that cite the Old Testament by simply saying that the ancient Hebrews were simply too primitive to fully grasp God's or Moses' true meaning. In a later part, he argues against the idea of astrology in part by saying that though "necromancers" believe that the movements of the planets and stars is important for the invocation of demons, it is not actually true. Instead, demons just like necromancers believe that it is true because demons are great fun-loving trolls like that.

I have also finished Rameau's Nephew and should be writing something short about that soon. And there will likely be at least one more Summa post before I finish reading it.

Saturday 18 June 2016

Novum Testamentum

Way after than promised, I have finished reading the New Testament, also known as Bible II: The Adventures of God Junior. For details about the edition I chose, see my previous post: Antiquum Testamentum.

While it should come as no surprise to readers with a Christian background, the New Testament is radically different from the Old Testament. Rather than tales of the previously-mentioned endless warfare in the meat-grinder of civilization, the New Testament covers a time of relative peace in the Middle East, the so-called Pax Romana or Roman Peace. The God of the New Testament is less about crushing your enemies, adhering to a long list of rules, and wrecking false idols than he is about loving one's fellow man, forgiveness, and "faith".

I put faith in quotes because the Latin word for faith, fides, has a broader meaning than the typical modern English usage. When we say faith, we tend to mean belief, or even blind belief. But the sense of the Latin equivalent is more a reciprocal relationship of loyalty and honesty. Fides is the same word we see show up in variant forms in phrases like bona fide and semper fi. It is the faith of "good faith". And it's interesting to see this contrasted with what we tend to translate as "works". The Latin opus (plural opera) is fairly translated as work or works. When I consider what Paul says in the larger context of Jewish law, one of the things he seemed to be saying was that it is important to follow Jesus and God's teachings honestly rather than simply going through the motion. I can think of two good examples of what I believe is meant by works rather than faith. First, consider the issue of the disciples picking wheat on the Sabbath or Jesus healing the sick on the Sabbath. Technically this is against the rules since the Sabbath is a day of rest. However, as Jesus says, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." What rest is there in hunger or illness? These things may violate the letter of the old law, but not the spirit of it since a starving or sick man can have no rest. To take another example, among modern Jews, there are certain people who believe in a long list of things that should not be done on the Sabbath. One of these things not to be done on the Sabbath is dialing a telephone. To overcome limitations like this, less faithful Jews have developed various devices and tricks. For example, I saw a video once of a man who had bought a fake hand on a stick that he would use to dial his phone. He argued that the hand dialed the phone, not him. Therefore he claimed that he had no broken any rule. That is not a faithful adherence to God's old law. Thus it is easy to see the point of the argument that works without faith mean nothing.

Non-Christians may find it odd that I make reference to the "old law". By that I mean the laws given in the Old Testament, the ones Jews adhere to in varying degrees to this day. These laws were superseded with Jesus' arrival. When asked about what laws people should adhere to, it is said in the gospels that Jesus only explicitly listed a few things: do not murder, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not give false testimony, honor your mother and father, and love thy neighbor. Acts and the epistles of Paul further clarify that dietary restrictions and circumcision definitely do not apply to converts. This is important to keep in mind when common criticisms about the "hypocrisy" of Christians are thrown around. The majority of such criticisms depend on citations from Leviticus in the Old Testament. Aside from those things which also appear in the New Testament, nothing in Leviticus is prohibited to Christians. And many things in Leviticus are, arguably, not even prohibit to non-priestly Jews. Take for example homosexuality. In Leviticus, death is the punishment for homosexuality. In Romans, it is said to be a sin but it is in a list of sins so broad that all of us our guilty. Paul's point, a point commonly reiterated in the modern Catholic church but less so in Protestant churches, is that we are all sinners and our only potential redemption is through God's grace. In other words, homosexuals are just like the rest of us: forgiven through Jesus and damned without him. This difference between Romans and Leviticus is not a contradiction for Christians. The rules of Leviticus simply do not matter anymore. Thus there is no hypocrisy or contradiction here. Let he who is without reading comprehension go back to getting stoned.

On the topic of inconsistency and contradiction, there is some truth to the fact that the gospels do not all tell the same story of Jesus' life. However, having studied both medieval manuscript transmission, oral transmission, and history more generally, parallel accounts like this almost never have this level of consistency. The differences are primarily in the level of detail. For example, if I'm not mistaken, the story of Lazarus shows up in both Mark and John but only John goes into enough detail to actually give Lazarus' name. Faithfully recording the gospels must have been very serious business in the early church and that seems only natural given the obvious importance of God's son showing up, delivering the new law, raising the dead, healing the sick, and then coming back from the dead himself. Similarly, the idea that there is "no evidence" that Jesus ever existed is farcical unless one arbitrarily decides that the Bible somehow does not count. I think most people would be surprised how little evidence we have for people and events in antiquity. It is not that rare to know of something from a single manuscript copy of a single work. And yet we accept those things as historical fact. If you want to start saying that Jesus did not exist at all, you need to start questioning half of the things you think you know about the ancient world.

More generally, most of the criticisms of Christianity that I personally had or had read that lead me to become an atheist as a teenager simply fall apart with a single honest reading of the Bible as a trained historian. It really comes down to a few simple questions, which correspond very nicely with the affirmations in the Nicene Creed. Do you believe there is a God who created the universe? Do you believe that he became man in the form of Jesus? Do you believe that Jesus was killed and came back from the dead? Do you agree with his teachings that we should probably not murder, steal, and so on? Most people can agree to the last question easily. A lot of people have no problem with the first question, though it is quite the sticky wicket. It is those middle two questions that I find the most difficult. Did the apostles and disciples really see what they think they saw? Was human incarnation really the best method God could come up with? If one accepts that we live in a created universe with some driving force behind it, these things certainly seem possible. Unfortunately, without witnessing them, I can not, thus far, come up with an ironclad argument for why these things would be so. Still, this is progress. When reading the Great Books, I am often left with more questions than I started with. I think the Bible is the first time where I have read something and eliminated more questions than I gained. And I have definitely vastly narrowed down the doubts I may have about the Christian faith.

In any case, next up should be Euclid, as I had originally planned. Stay tuned.

Sunday 5 June 2016

Antiquum Testamentum

The observant reader will note that I have not updated this blog in roughly a year and a half. He or she may also note that the next item on my reading list is Euclid's Elements. While I did start Euclid, I did not get very far before I started to worry that my Latin skills were getting too rusty. To remedy the situation, I decided to start reading the Vulgate, i.e. the standard Latin translation of the Bible. The Bible is big and Latin is hard. Thus the delay. The hypothetical observant reader will notice that the Bible is not included in the list of Great Books volumes. However, it is meant to be read along with the set. It was simply not included in the set for two reasons. First, when the set was originally published, most buyers would already own a copy of the Bible. Second, the Great Books are all in translation (unless originally in English) and people get very particular about their Bible translations. I have so far only completed the Old Testament but it seemed worth treating the two Testaments separately. The New Testament is much shorter and my Latin is much improved since I began this project. Therefore, the next blog post should not take long.

On the recommendation of a seminarian friend, who assured me that this is what all the cool priests use, I picked up this very fancy edition of the Vulgate: Douay-Rheims & Clementina Vulgata (English and Latin Edition) from Baronius Press. It is a beautiful gilt and leather-bound 8.5" by 11" volume. It is truly beautiful to behold. It includes both the Latin Vulgate and the Douay-Rheims English translation in an easy-to-read two column format. The same published also has nice editions of just the Douay-Rheims English translation and, though it may now be out of print, they at least once had a paperback Vulgate. That said, people are very particular about their Bible translations and most readers won't know Latin, even if they had the motivation to read this amount of it.

Having been raised by a fringe Protestant father, this was not my first encounter with the Old Testament. It is, however, my first time actually reading it straight through as an adult. Looking at it now as a historian of minor accomplishment has really changed my perspective. When I was younger, both Testaments were quite mysterious. We were a King James Version household so the language alone was strange. More than a few lines of the Bible have no clear meaning no matter how you translate them. Others are deliberately made vague in most modern translation. I also completely lacked any historical context for the events described within. I also lacked any real alternative mythologies or religions to compare it to. In short, I read it with completely new eyes.

For pure literary pleasure, the Old Testament tends to get worse the further in one reads. Genesis was the most aesthetically pleasing to me and the Five Books of Moses overshadow most of the rest of the Old Testament. The historical books are especially a drag in the style department but they sometimes make up for it with narrative content. Song of Songs was a real eye-opener. In most modern translations it is presented as some awkward poem about Jesus' love for the Church. If Song of Songs 1:1 doesn't involve something about "your tits are better than wine", you have some prude's censored translation. The original is quite erotic.

I really can not stress how much of a drag I found the historical books. It was an endless cycle of faithful Jews conquering other Semitic tribes until the Jews fell into decadence and faithlessness and were then in turn conquered by their neighbors. Rationally, I realize that the Middle East has historically been the meat grinder of civilizations and a history of any people from that region must necessarily involve cycles of conquest and defeat. But in the context of the Old Testament, defeat is always interpreted as a sign of God's displeasure. The Jews needed only to do a few simple things in order to avoid defeat. And this is a lesson that they failed to learn. By the time we reach the apocryphal 4 Esdras, God seems ready to give up on the Jews as his chosen people in favor of simply backing any and all who would follow his laws.

The apocryphal books were the most interesting because they were entirely new to me. Many books which Protestants consider apocryphal are considered canon by the Catholic Church. And Saint Jerome, creator of the Vulgate, also included a few apocryphal extras, like 4 Esdras, just because he was a particular fan of these books. Some books are simply extended in the Catholic versions. For example, the Catholic Daniel versions typically end with Daniel creating a bomb and then using it to blow up a Babylonian dragon god. We definitely did not memorize anything that awesome in Awana. 1 Machabees provides some nice historical glue between the rest of the Old Testament and mainstream Classical Antiquity and, in turn, the New Testament. It also suggests that the Jews basically invited the Romans in because they did not like the oppressive rule of one of the successor states to Alexander the Great's empire. 4 Esdras' opening of God's favor up to any all, combined with the abandonment of his particular favoritism toward the Jews, suggests that maybe Christ and his disciples were picking up on an existing theological trend rather than taking their religion in an entirely new direction.

It was over one thousand pages of Latin and it took me a year to read. It is also one of the major works of both Western and Middle-Eastern civilizations. I have forgotten and glossed over a great deal. That is true of basically anything I talk about on this blog but I think the religious aspect of it makes me feel especially guilty this time. I have reduced the entire world view of several groups spanning thousands of years to a few short, and often pithy, paragraphs. It is not ideal. But the perfect is the enemy of the good, or so they say, and I was long overdue for a post.