Nominalism v. Realism

October 30, 2007

This post is the fruit of yet another religion/philosophical debate on the Wesnoth forums. They’re often productive, in that it helps you to clarify your own arguments, though no one is ever persuaded to the other side.

One interesting question I’ve been considering recently is that of nominalism versus realism.

Nominalism is often spoken of simply in terms of properties of objects – it would say, for example, that there is no property of ‘redness’ that an apple possesses, we just perceive it as ‘red’. But nominalism, which implies that nothing exists outside of the material world, also implies that there is no such thing as an “apply” to have “redness”. Basically, it seems to me that, if you don’t believe in anything other than the material world, there’s no reason to believe in the existence of anything as distinct from everything surrounding it.

I kind of need a reference picture to explain this:

We can all, I hope, agree that the upper-left-hand drawing is what, in essence, the world looks like: a bunch of atoms (which are composed of N, P and e, which are made of quarks and leptons, and probably so on and so on, though we don’t know yet) arranged in various ways. Consider the red dots subatomic particles of some sort.

Now, look at the upper-right-hand drawing; there, we group them into what we call an atom, and also into what we call a nucleus. But we’re no more justified in doing that than in grouping them like I have in the lower-left-hand drawing – sure, it seems to make more sense our way, but in a materialistic world there’s no “atom-ness” that our desired grouping has that my alternate grouping doesn’t.

So what I do is say that they have some non-material property that divides them into the proper objects. The particles in the nucleus aren’t physically green, and the electrons aren’t physically green, but they have some non-physical property, represented here as coloration, that makes them an object, and makes the alternate grouping not acceptable. In Platonic terms, there is a Form of Atom and Nucleus that these particles conform to, and thus they are an atom and a nucleus, not something else.

This ability to group objects into larger objects, which isn’t allowed in nominalism, is what lets me say that there is actually such a thing as “me”, as “you”, etc, as opposed to just a bunch of particles doing stuff.

The main problem with realism seems to be the Ship of Theseus problem and related paradoxes. I really don’t know how to answer those objections, yet. But realism still seems preferable because with nominalism, well, nothing actually exists so we can’t really talk about much of anything… I’ll post back later if I find an argument against the Ship.

Legislating Morality

October 28, 2007

As a Catholic, I believe that abortion is murder. I also believe that contraception, while not murder, is gravely immoral.

It seems pretty obvious that I should be in favor of outlawing abortion. And I am. What about contraception, though? Should it be outlawed?

One answer would be that it depends on whether contraception is immoral according to the natural law, or according to Christianity.  If according to the natural law, we should outlaw it, but if according to Christianity only, we shouldn’t, since we don’t want to establish a religion. It seems to me that it is immoral according to the natural law, but I’m not sure – it might well be fine unless you know what we know through divine revelation.

The thing is – even if it is against the natural law, should we outlaw it? After all, there are a bunch of things that are against the natural law that we don’t, and shouldn’t, outlaw. What should the criteria be? Does it have to do harm to others as well? So does that mean we shouldn’t outlaw prostitution (St. Thomas Aquinas made that argument, by the way)? In a perfect society, of course, there would be no prostitution, but there is an argument to be made that it shouldn’t be outlawed in an imperfect society like ours. Then there’s stuff like the various drugs (marijuana, cocaine, etc, for example, and more and more tobacco is joining the list) that are against the law because they harm the user. Even if suicide is immoral, does that mean we should outlaw dangerous and harmful activities? I tend to think not.

At any rate, I find it absurd that in current U.S. law abortion is legal but prostitution, using marijuana, smoking, drinking, etc, are not. But the question is, ought we to legalize all of them (certainly not!), legalize none (but why should drinking be illegal?), or legalize marijuana, prostitution, smoking, etc, but not abortion (why does this seem so extreme to me when it makes a great deal of sense)?

I think a lot of it is that I include prostitution in the list along with smoking and marijuana use. We immediately recoil from legalizing it, because it has to do with objectivizing sex. The thing is – can we really make an argument for prostitution being illegal that doesn’t require banning smoking and drinking? I don’t think we can, though I may be wrong. And this leads us to something that Christians are often accused of that may actually be true – we’re sex–obsessed. That’s a stereotype I’d like to prove false.

Dumbledore’s Retroactive Homosexuality

October 22, 2007

A few days ago, J.K. Rowling revealed that Albus Dumbledore was gay. Or so the world claims.

Does this change anything about how I view the books? No, it doesn’t. As I’ve said before, I dislike the books not for the moral message they send – which, I think, is not a particularly profound or important one, but which isn’t heretical – but for their lack of decent writing or mythopoeia. What Rowling revealed doesn’t change any of this. Wait a second – “You’re a Catholic! You’re against homosexuality!” Both true. But there’s three reasons we can’t say that this revelation makes the books into homosexual propaganda. (Mild spoilers ahead.)

First of all, let’s say that Dumbledore had been clearly gay from the inception of the series. Or that he had been revealed to be gay in, say, the 4th book. Does this mean the book is in favor of homosexuality? We’re not saying that Dumbledore was in a homosexual “relationship”, or even that he considered his “gayness” to be an integral part of his identity. We’re just saying that at some point he confessed to Harry, or McGonagall, or some other character – perhaps his brother – that he was attracted to men not women. What’s wrong with this? The truth is that some men are attracted to other men not women. We don’t gain anything by ignoring this. Saying this shows that the books are homosexual propaganda is like saying that a book in which a character is tempted to have sex with someone else outside of marriage is promoting fornication and/or adultery.

So really, as long as the books aren’t making an argument that Dumbledore should have embraced his homosexuality and that he would have been better off doing so, I don’t have a problem with it. I really wouldn’t have had a problem even if Dumbledore had actually embraced his homosexuality in the books, so long as he wasn’t presented as being right to do so. It’s not like there have never been good books in which characters have committed adultery or something like that. Hell, Dante’s Inferno is full of sinners.

I suppose an argument could be made that, even if having Dumbledore gay isn’t bad for Harry Potter as a piece of literature, it’s bad for it as a piece of children’s literature. To which I say – why is it bad for children’s literature to contain mention of homosexuality when it’s acceptable for it to go on endlessly about teenage relationships, hooking up, ‘snogging’, etc? I’d disqualify it as children’s literature for the latter offense much sooner than I’d disqualify it for the former. And it’s not children’s literature, whatever people say about it. Nor is it adult literature. It’s just bad literature.

Onward and upwards. The second reason this really isn’t a big deal is that, as the facts stand, Rowling didn’t make this clear in the books. There’s no evidence that Dumbledore is gay. None whatsoever. Why does it matter what Rowling says about it after the fact? If C.S. Lewis had said, after publication of the Chronicles of Narnia, that “oh, by the way, Aslan is really a homosexual”, would that mean that he was right, that Aslan actually was gay, and that the Chronicles of Narnia was any less of a Christian allegory? I would say no. It would mean that C.S. Lewis was a deranged lunatic who didn’t understand what he had written, but it wouldn’t change the meaning of the text.

Of course, J.K. Rowling probably wrote down somewhere that Dumbledore was gay, and how is that different  from how J.R.R. Tolkien (I love how all of these authors go by their initials) had the entire mythology of Middle-Earth written down in my notes but never published them? Since the Silmarillion was never completed, can we really say that when Frodo yells out “A Elbereth! Gilthoniel!”, what he says is a call to Varda the Star-Queen, rather than just some random string of syllables? After all, the explanation of that phrase isn’t contained in the Lord of the Rings itself.

This brings me to my third point. There’s a fundamental difference between elements of the story – who did what when and where – and elements of character motivation. Authors often leave elements of both types unexplained in their stories. The difference is that the author usually knows the nature of the story elements, even if he leaves them unmentioned. This is true especially when the narration is third-person omniscient. The narrator may leave things unmentioned for whatever reason, but the author is assumed to know what happened, to keep the story coherent so that if/when an explanation is provided it will be coherent, and to have the ability and right to go in later and write a sequel, prequel, whatever explaining those events.

With character motivation, though, we have no reason to believe that the author knows any more than we do about the subject. The author does not know the character’s mind. (Even with first-person narration, the author is just saying that “this person said this” – he’s not guaranteeing that what the person says is what he believes. You could easily have a first-person narration where the speaker was deceptive.) I think Rowling is aware of this at a certain level – observe what she said. She didn’t say Dumbledore was gay, she said “I always saw Dumbledore as gay”. Did Dumbledore ever do anything that conclusively showed he was homosexual? Rowling has said she “thinks” he fell in love with Grindelwald, and that’s why he went along with his plan. But Dumbledore’s actions make just as much sense if you assume that he was just friends with Grindelwald and respected him. She is in no better a position than we are to speculate on what’s going on in Dumbledore’s head.

Basically, it’s often said that fictional characters take on a life of their own independent from the author. This statement has troubling implications, which I may explore at a later date, but at a certain level it’s true. In the stories I’ve written, I always have an idea of why my characters do what they do, but these explanations are always on the level of how they would justify their actions to themselves or to an outside observer. They’re not the actual causes of their actions. This makes perfect sense, when you think about it – I don’t understand my own subconscious any better.

The Value of Religion

October 19, 2007

Religions seem strange, at first glance. Why do you need a group of people to find the truth? You should be able to find it on your own, right?

Of course, there are a bunch of competing truth-claims out there. One is true, the rest are false (unless you want to say that they’re all true, or there is no truth, in which case green pineapple rain.) The question is, which one is it?

The answer is – you can’t know for certain. You can’t prove anything is true without relying on something else that is assumed to be true, so you can’t conclusively divide the true from the false. You can show that a system is inconsistent, but if a system is consistent you can’t show that it’s false, even if it is.

Take creationism, which is often said to have been disproven. Yes, in a secular scientific framework, it makes no sense. But if you assume that God did in fact create the world in 7 days, you don’t arrive at any contradictions – for example, fossils are said to show that the world is ancient. But what do they really show? God could have put them there and made them look ancient. Etc. (I’m not interested in an argument about creationism right now, this is just an example.)

I’m not saying there is no truth. I believe there is. But it is almost impossible for us to know what it is.

So why are religions useful? Because they present us with systems that many people have examined and found to be pretty much consistent. I haven’t gone through and examined every point of Catholic doctrine and dogma to make sure I agree with it, because I agree with pretty much everything I have examined, I agree with all of the major theological points, and I’m not confident enough in my judgment on the points I do find less than persuasive to reject Catholicism because of them. I’d rather accept them and try to find out what is wrong with my reasoning about them.

This is part of my problem with ‘cafeteria’ religiosity – you can’t pick and choose what you think it best from each religion, because chances are pretty high your system won’t be at all coherent.

God vs. the gods; Literary Relativism

October 16, 2007

Last Thursday I went to a debate between two professors, one of theology and one of English, about “God vs. the Homeric gods”. It was enjoyable, and I agreed with a lot of what they said, but…

There seems to me to be a fundamental problem with how both of the speakers approached Homer. What both failed to address, I think, was whether or not the Homeric portrayal is coherent. Some mention was made of how Homer’s portrayal is confusing. It was assumed, however, that Homer had some deeper vision behind the confusion, and thus our inability to make sense of religion in the Iliad is in some sense our fault. Homer was a poetic genius; if he indeed said what he meant, as we assume, he would have had arguments for what he said.

Now, Christians view polytheism as fundamentally flawed and illogical. We cannot but say, then, that Homer must have been in error in his poetic theology. This position seems forbidden; one cannot say that the Iliad is flawed, only that it is confusing. Because it is one of the founding works of Western civilization, it is assumed that its composer – who, I agree, was a genius – must have intended everything he composed. When we look at what he has said in light of Christianity, however, we find that it is not only confusing, it is contradictory.

For example, there is somehow both free will and fate in Homer’s world. In the Christian view, free will and fate can coexist because God is timeless, and so he can know our destiny already and yet allow us free will because it just doesn’t make sense to speak of “already” when talking about God. For the Homeric gods, however, this is not the case. This is a contradiction.

We could make excuses for Homer, saying it is just an additional complexity in the work, but this is disingenuous. It is better to simply explain why the contradiction arose. Homer recognized that men had free will, and that if there were gods – as he saw that there must be – they must be great, much greater than men, and also that there was this thing “fate”, though he did not completely understand it. He then wrote his epic poems with this understanding, and this is why his poems ring true in so many ways – they are true in many ways. Homer did not see, however, how much greater than men God must be, or that there must be only one of him, or that he must be outside of time, and so he did not put that into his poem. Because of this, his poem is not just confusing, but contradictory and at times wrong when it talks about those subjects.

It really frustrates me how nobody is willing to say this. It strikes me as a kind of literary relativism; every author is always correct in the argument they make in their work, and our job as an audience is just to absorb their message…

Except for the first and last paragraphs, this was written as an extra-credit assignment for THEO 1310:06 “Understanding the Bible”. Most likely I won’t get docked points for posting it here as well; if I do, well, it’s extra-credit anyways.

Dream Narrative

October 10, 2007


I had a quite strange dream last night.

I was Calvin, from Calvin and Hobbes. I was with Hobbes, of course, and was playing (what else?) Calvinball. For those who don’t know, Calvinball is… well,

Other kids’ games are all such a bore!
They’ve gotta have rules and they gotta keep score!
Calvinball is better by far!
It’s never the same! It’s always bizarre!
You don’t need a team or a referee!
You know that it’s great, ’cause it’s named after me!

— Calvin

Anyway, we were playing indoors for whatever reason. (You know how those things are in dreams.) Suddenly Hobbes went over to the window and told me to come look at something. There were a bunch of blue jays outside (not that I know what a blue jay looks like – I just knew that’s what kind of bird they were). Hobbes said they were playing calvinball, and playing it better than we were.

Suddenly, they started bringing stuff to us. It seemed to have something to do with the game. When we inspected their gifts, however, they turned out to be body parts of birds –  heads, talons, wings. They weren’t bleeding, or messy at all, but they were clearly from actual birds.

The dream then ended. (Or, rather, shifted to a completely different setting such that I’m even sure it was the same dream. This second one was less interesting; it had to do with physics class or something…) For some reason I remembered it.

Why am I relating this narrative? Because of this blog post from Heaven Tree, which I happened to read a few days ago (I have absolutely no connection to the author, but it looks like an interesting blog so I might start reading it regularly). The above dream narrative sounds full of mystical significance, at least to me. But it doesn’t really mean anything; it resulted, most likely, from my brain randomly piecing together stuff that had been floating around in my head the previous day. And, detail-less as it is, I’m not even sure if the details there are are correct. Was I really Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes? I think so, but I’m also pretty sure the dream was in three dimensions. I have no idea what Hobbes looks like in three dimensions. So how could I have been Calvin, and my companion Hobbes?

And what the hell does it mean for blue jays to be playing calvinball better than Calvin? It sounds like something out of T. H. White –  remember the wild geese, and how man supposedly wouldn’t fight wars if he learned how to fly?

But even if it makes no sense, it still seems full of mystical significance. What this indicates, perhaps, is that this sort of artistic mysticism is really just randomness, and its mystic appearance comes from the human impulse to find order and meaning in things that are really random. If that’s the case, then, does that mean that things of this nature are worthless? Was this dream worthless?

I don’t think it was, because meaningful or not, it still seems like a rather beautiful image. Meaningless, but haunting, I would say.  Perhaps that is the nature of most art – randomness that we attempt to find meaning in, and sometimes succeed, but even if we fail it doesn’t matter. All I know right now is, I’m not going to be able to forget the image of blue jays bringing body parts as gifts while playing calvinball for a long time.

On Homework

October 9, 2007

Here’s another thing I’ve noticed about college. In high school, everybody complained about the workload all the time. “Too much math homework! So much reading! Augh!”. Well… so far, it’s exactly the same in college.

This doesn’t surprise me, but it seems like it should. After all, college is voluntary. You don’t have to go. And even if you do feel like you have to go, you have a great variety of choice in where to go. If you don’t want to read the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Beowulf, and Gawaine and the Green Knight in your first semester, why the heck would you come to UD? The distinguishing characteristic of our school is that everyone takes the “core courses”: you have to take four semesters of “literary traditions”, starting with Lit Trad 1; you have to take three semesters of philosophy, and which philosophy classes you’ll take are set; and so on.

I can understand people complaining about, for example, the one math class they have to take – they came here in spite of the fact that they have to take a math class, not because of it. But if you were going to come to UD in spite of the fact that you have to take the core classes, not because of it, why wouldn’t you go somewhere else?

I suspect part of it is that the people I talk to are mostly freshmen, and they’re used to high school where you complain about having to do work all the time. But then again, it doesn’t seem like the upper-classmen complain any less…

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