Ambiguity at the Everyman

My latest piece is up at The Everyman discussing the common trick of arguing from ambiguity: you know, you say “a man isn’t a woman,” and they answer “who gets to decide the definition of ‘a woman’?” Turning obvious and object concepts into mush in order to win an argument:

There is a scene in C.S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress where the hero has been imprisoned by a giant called the Spirit of the Age, whose glance turns everything transparent so that one can “see through” it. The jailor who works for the giant furthers this process by debunking ‘social constructs’ with graphically brutal descriptions of the food he provides to the prisoners. One day he offers the prisoners milk while making a sneering comment about how they might as well be drinking the cow’s “other excretions.”

At this point the hero exclaims “Thank goodness! Now I know you don’t really believe what you’re saying!” and then proceeds to point out that there is an obvious, objective difference between milk, which is given to feed the young, and, say, urine, which isn’t. It’s not a question of convention or habit or mythology or belief; it’s a question of what in fact happens.

Our own zeitgeist hasn’t lost the taste for this particular game, which indeed is a very old one. It might be called the argument from ambiguity, and how it works is that, rather than trying to establish a given position, one instead claims that the relative concepts and categories cannot be clearly defined and thus cannot be objectively applied. This often manifests in terms like “shades of grey” or “who’s to say?” or “spectrums,” and it has a superficial credibility in that hard cases can be found in most subjects, and bringing these up can lend the speaker an air of intellectual sophistication.  

Read the rest here.

Everyman Article on Why You Can’t Just Agree to be Wrong

A new piece is up on ‘The Everyman,’ this one discussing how false logic doesn’t work even if everyone agrees about it:

When I say or write a word, such as “four,” I am attempting to convey an idea that is in my head to yours. Our minds have no direct common communication, so the only way I can do that is to create signs in the environment we share, such as sounds or images. These, by common consent, correspond to particular ideas. That this is by consent rather than by nature can be seen by the fact that the same ideas can be expressed by totally different sounds: ‘four,’ ‘quattuor,’ ‘she,’ and so on all convey the same idea, only in the established ‘styles’ of English, Latin, and Japanese. Likewise, the same sounds can be used to convey different ideas: ‘four’ sounds the same as ‘for’ and ‘fore,’ but they all mean different things.

From there, take a step back from the words to consider the ideas themselves. Ideas are reflections of perceived realities. The idea ‘rock’ is the reflection in my mind of a particular reality that I encounter. It may or may not be a completely accurate reflection; if I see a given rock, I may believe that it is heavy (that is, my idea of it is as something heavy), only to find when I pick it up that it is light, whereupon the idea in my head would change to more closely resemble the actual rock itself. This what we mean by calling our thoughts ‘true’ or ‘false.’ A true thought accurately reflects the reality it corresponds to, as far as it goes, while a false one does not (as we will see, this applies to more abstract concepts as well as to concrete physical reality).

Thus, there are three elements in any given word: the sounds or symbols that make up the word itself (such as ‘four’), the idea that is being conveyed, and the reality that this idea reflects.

Now, we have established that the words used are a matter of convention and consent; that everyone in a particular region agreed to use the sound ‘four’ to convey that particular idea. However, the idea itself is nota matter of convention, because it reflects an objective reality that we encounter in the real world (or at least an objective concept).

Go here to read the rest.

Talking About the Abu Dhabi Document at the Everyman

A little late on this, but the documents says that it hopes to be a long-term object of research, so I suppose this is sort of a way of that coming to pass, though I don’t think the authors would like my take.

In any case, I was asked to give my response to the document and some aspects of it at The Everyman, and today part of that response is up.

Nor does this call for unity and peace amount to anything substantive. Not long after the above passage, the document states that, “Dialogue, understanding and the widespread promotion of a culture of tolerance, acceptance of others and of living together peacefully would contribute significantly to reducing many economic, social, political and environmental problems that weigh so heavily on a large part of humanity.”

The trouble is, talk about tolerance, acceptance, and ‘living together peacefully’ doesn’t actually solve anything because it declines the question of what the conflict is actually about. It amounts to simply telling people as a bald-faced assertion that whatever point of contention they have with each other should not lead to conflict, with the ‘acceptance’ and ‘living together peacefully’ points implying that this refers not only to violence but to any kind of contention or disagreement. But that implies that peace and cohesion are to be regarded as more important than any potential points of conflict between Christians and Muslims. Which in turn means that the call for ‘tolerance, acceptance, and living together’ only works for people who already value peace over the points at issue. And, to be clear, the points at issue here are the nature of God and reality and the salvation of souls.

I hope I don’t have to explain why the Pope cannot be telling Christians that they are to value peace and cohesion over their faith, or why this is extremely dubious grounds on which to try to launch a religious renewal.

I am not, of course, saying that there ought to be violence between Christians and Muslims. The point is that the two sides are in fact in conflict. We can and should call for that conflict to be restrained and to be fought with words and ideas rather than weapons (though history gives us little reason to hope for that), but we cannot simply deny that it exists without denying the real content of both religions. Again, this amounts to these two religious leaders trying to promote peace and oppose materialism by saying that religious differences ultimately do not matter. Whether that was their intent or not, that is the actual meaning of their words.

Read the rest here.

Explaining Traditionalism at ‘The Everyman’

When it comes to society and politics, I call myself a Traditionalist, and today at The Everyman, I got to explain a little of what that means: 

Another point where the Traditionalist would reject Liberalism is on the question of freedom. For the Liberal, freedom is the highest good, and he would define freedom along the lines of, “the right to do whatever you like provided you do not interfere with another person’s rights.”

Of course, this requires a clear set of rights, which in turn require a standard for what is and is not a ‘right.’ Because if we take that definition of liberty to be substantially correct, then paradoxically the more ‘rights’ people have, the less freedom any one individual has (again, as we are daily observing in our own culture: if one man claims a right to not be insulted, then another man’s freedom of speech is proportionately limited).

As far as I am aware, this is a standard that Liberals have never been able to establish: there is no clear and objective way for a Liberal to determine what does and does not qualify as a ‘right.’ In fact, the Liberal principle that freedom is the highest good means that there can be no standard by which to judge of rights or freedoms (what can the highest or most basic of goods be judged against?).

Traditionalists, following classical philosophy, would say that rights, rather than being ‘self-evident’ foundations of freedom, are derived from moral duties and observable facts. That is, where a Liberal would say that natural rights determine moral duties, the Traditionalist would say that rationally discerned moral duties require certain rights. For instance, the fact that a man is a father imposes on him duties to provide for his family. This, in turn, requires the right of private property, since it would only be out of his own property that a man could be said to be providing (otherwise whoever owns that property—e.g. the State—would, in fact, be doing the providing). Now, that is not necessarily the only traditional justification for property, the point is that it is a justification, and one that is entirely logical.

Read the rest.

AMDG

First Post up at ‘The Everyman’

My first post is up at the new Catholic / Conservative commentary site The Everyman, which you definitely should check out. It’s only a week or two old, but there’s some good stuff there.

In our day, of course, telescopic charity has never been easier. We have television and the internet to bring us tales of want and injustices from all corners of the world to stir our heartstrings. Of course, sometimes this brings real help and attention to people who genuinely need it and who would never have received it otherwise. But there is another side to it, and it’s one that I think is too little addressed.

The fact is that modern media creates an illusion of immediacy where none in fact exists. It has a tendency to fixate our attention, whether in sympathy or anger, on people thousands of miles away whom we have never met and whom we in fact have no contact with whatsoever. But, because we so often hear about them and hear them debated endlessly on the news, we can come to feel like we are involved, and that we must show ‘charity’ to one side or another.

But such ‘charity’ typically doesn’t result in any concrete action for good or evil. As C.S. Lewis pointed out in one of The Screwtape Letters, love and hatred for distant public figures or the people we see on the news is largely imaginary; we do not know these people, they are “lay figures out of newspapers.” As private citizens, our scope for doing either good or ill to them is effectively non-existent. Outside those immediately present, not one person out of a thousand is actually going to have any effect on, say, missionary work in Africa or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nor does voting or campaigning change this; it may or may not be a good thing to do, but again any one person’s scope of action and consequent responsibility in these matters is so narrow as to not exist.

Read the rest here.