Cannibalism and the Resurrection

March 6, 2012

Just cannot get enought of this Saint Augustine!  What will I do when I put aside his weighty tome, City of God?  Maybe I’ll go back and read over the parts I only skimmed.  (I estimate that I’ve read about 75% of the 1070 pages in my edition.)

Augustine is thorough, and he’s determined to refute all the arguments he has encountered against his religious views.  It can get pretty detailed.

…So, the knotty question comes up about the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead.  We are talking about the virtuous, saved souls, who are bound for heaven.  What size body will they get on their reawakening?  If they died old, will they get their young body?  What if they lost a limb or two in this vale of tears, our worldly life?  Will it be reconnected to their body?

And this…surely one of Augustine’s weirdest forays into the logic of miracles: What about those people who were victims of cannibals?  And that includes people who were eaten by others who may not have been pagans, e.g. during the travails of the sack of Rome by barbarians – some Christians may have taken this last resort to stay alive.  Will the resurrected victim somehow get a reassembled body, even though his flesh has been consumed and incorporated into that of another?

Yes, we are assured that the saved will be made whole.

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Burning in the City

March 5, 2012

Nearing on the end of Augustine’s The City of God, I continue to be entertained by Saint A’s withering sarcasm towards his ‘opponents,’ i.e., the pagans, and his dogmatic torturing of ‘rationality.’  One man’s rational is another man’s fanaticism.

In this later book, Number XXI, he is discussing the nature of eternal torment meted out to the sinners after the Second Coming, and dealing with difficult ‘scientific’ issues, e.g., how can a sinner’s body continue burning for eternity?  After all, would it not be consumed after a while?  Augustine uses a fascinating argument, what I call the argument from ignorance, which essentially states, “You [pagans] cannot explain everything we see in the world – we are all ignorant of things.  Therefore, you should not object to my assertion that God performs miracles.”  Doesn’t make a lot of sense, but then, it’s a line of reasoning heard today, as are so many things the Saint says.  Rick Santorum comes to mind often when I read him…

Here, the Saint makes an interesting point about the relative authority of texts:

But, as I said in the eighteenth book of this work, we are not obliged to believe everything contained in the historical records of the pagans, since their chroniclers…seem to be at pains to differ from one another …But we are free to believe, if we so choose, those reports which are not in conflict with the books which, as we have no doubt, we are obliged to believe.  XXI 6: Not all marvels are natural; many are devised by man’s ingenuity, many by the craft of demons 

Obviously, it’s all clear and simple which texts ‘we are obliged to believe.’  Following on, Augustine discusses many ‘marvels’ that are generally accepted as true, although they seem laughable to us.  So, he argues, if you accept them, you might as well believe me too.  Certainly, the miracles God performs are no more absurd than these ‘marvels.’  But, of course, he does believe in some of those marvels:  He’s not just being funny.

…My purpose here is to demonstrate the kind of marvels recorded in profusion in pagan literature, and generally believed by our opponents, although no rational explanation is offered, whereas the same people cannot bring themselves to believe us, even though rational grounds are produced, when we say that Almighty God is to perform an action which lies outside their experience and contravenes the evidences of the senses. … XXI 8:  The omnipotence of the Creator is the ground of belief in marvels

 Marvelous things are abounding in the world, and, really, is a man rising from the dead so much more remarkable than some of the animals and natural wonders we come across?  At one point, he cites the numerous volcanoes in Italy, mountains that burn continuously without being consumed!  And, my goodness, Fire turns stones white, but turns wood black!  And charcoal, which is created when fire consumes wood, cannot itself be destroyed by fire or earth!  Thus, people put charcoal under stone property markers, knowing that it will never decay, so that if the stone markers are moved, they can prove the original location!  What a weird manner of pre-scientific reasoning…Fire destroys, so there must be something magical about charcoal which will not be further destroyed.

…For in any case, I have sufficiently argued that it is possible for a living creature to remain alive in the fire, being burnt without being consumed, feeling pain without incurring death; and this by means of a miracle of the omnipotent Creator.  Anyone who says that this is impossible for the Creator does not realize who is responsible for whatever marvels he finds in the whole of the world of nature.  It is, in fact, God himself who has created all that is wonderful in this world, the great miracles, and the minor marvels that I have mentioned…The nature of eternal punishment: XXI 10

The salamander was thought to have the ability to live in fire – that’s strong!- and so become the symbol of the French kings. Later, the amphibian was shown as a fire-breather. It shows up on several facades in New York City, most notably here on the Alwyn Court building, which is swarming with them.


Augustine on Intercourse before Sin

May 9, 2011

In Chapter 23 of Book XIV of Saint Augustine’s City of God, the good doctor deals with some very thorny delicate questions.  He is considering the nature of Adam and Eve’s fall after they ate of the Tree of Knowledge, and thinking of just what was the state of their souls, and their virtue, before the fall.  A question arises:  Would procreation have taken place in paradise, if no one had sinned?

Why does this question of sin and sex arise?  Well, as a Christian, Augustine is at pains to show time and again how the lusts of the body are evil, man’s state of thralldom to his passions turns him from goodness and virtue, and towards damnation, and that the saintly path of renunciation of the flesh is the means to salvation.  But, surely, God did not intend for Adam and Eve to live in purity for all eternity by themselves!  All alone in that great big garden of Eden?  No – it was necessary for the number of saints to increase to its fixed limit (somehow I missed this bit of theology, but when the number of saintly humans reaches a certain value, it will be time for the Last Days), so naturally, Adam and Eve had to have children, had to…do…it.  But sex without sin, without lust, without base animality is not possible, correct?  Ah, not so!

Augustine proceeds to describe to us just what sex without sin would be like, but he does so with great circumspection, avoiding coarse language, and trying to do without any explicit reference to the private parts, because, after all, even with such a virtuous aim, the reference could excite some people to impure thoughts.  The whole business comes down to will power. 

Virtuous men and women have power over their bodies.  Their souls and virtue rule their body, and control its baser impulses.  Just so, Adam would have ‘relaxed on the bosom of Eve’ without any enthusiasm brought on by lust and desire or impure thoughts.  He would simply will his organ to do its duty just as any man can will his arm to move up and down.  The entire thing would be quite wholesome and reasonable, actually.  Viagra would have nothing on him!

Augustine points out that some animals seem to have control over parts of their bodies that we do not.  For example, many animals can cause their hides to flex and jerk, and they do it to shoo away flies, or even to shake out spears. 

Man has not this ability: but surely that does not mean that the Creator could not have bestowed it, at his pleasure, on any animate creatures?…It would not have been difficult for God to fashion him such a way that even what is now set in motion in his flesh only by lust should have been moved only by his will.

To further make his point, Augustine brings forward contemporary evidence:

We do in fact find among human beings some individuals with natural abilities very different from the rest of mankind and remarkable by their very rarity.  Some people can do some things with their body which are for others utterly impossible…Some people can even move their ears, either one at a time or both together.  Others without moving their heads can bring the whole scalp … down towards the forehead and bring it back again at will.

There you have it, simple!  Certainly Adam could have impregnated Eve by virtuous exercise of his will, bringing his mind in its clear grasp of sinless need for children to make his body do what was necessary.  Augustine is filled with such breathtaking insights, but this is only a hypothetical.  We all know what really happened.


Dylan vs. Saint Augustine

November 18, 2010

 Augustine

Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

 

In fact, from the moment a man begins to exist in this body which is destined to die, he is involved all the time in a process whose end is death.  For this is the end to which the life of continual change is all the time directed, if indeed we can give the name of life to this passage towards death.  There is no one, it goes without saying, who is not nearer to death this year than he was last year…

City of God – Book XIII, Chapter 10:     The Life of Mortals:  Should it be Called Death?

Here’s a link to Bob Dylan doing his song, I Dreamed I saw Saint Augustine.


We are in the 21st century, no?

September 19, 2010

I saw this bumper sticker ahead of me on a van this morning.  I’m no expert on Marxist sociology, but I believe the idea is that ideology is determined by material circumstances, i.e., the means of production determine the dominant ideas of an era.  Okay, so how come this fellow, and he’s in good company, is espousing ideas that are right out of Saint Augustine’s City of God?  Clearly, this driver is a citizen of that heavenly city, not the city of the world.

Or, are we to assume that all the significant elements of society are not much changed today from what they were in the early 5th century A.D?  How else to account for the incredible staying power of these ideas?


Augustine: Lost in the clouds

August 23, 2010

 

After devoting hundreds of pages to a sharply worded, often funny, and always derisive deconstruction of the folly of Roman paganism, St. Augustine finally turns his attention to more positive topics, e.g., the superiority of Platonism as the one pagan philosophy that is closest to the true religion of Christianity.  What strikes me most is the way in which thinkers of his day, and ours, are bewitched by their own polished use of language.  So many chasms of unexplained propositions are glided over so lightly.

From Book VIII, Chapter 6 of The City of God:

As for the teaching which is comprised in [what] Platonists call logic, or rational philosophy, heaven forbid that I should think to compare them with those who have placed the criterion of truth in the bodily senses and have decided that all that belongs to the realm of learning is to be measured by such unreliable and misleading standards.

In other words, abstract thought gives knowledge; observation yields error.  Here we have the Christian imprimatur placed on a Greek concept that will inhibit the growth of science for another thousand years.  As I remarked on my post about Playfair, the great innovator in representing quantitative data with graphs, this prejudice against the evidence of the eyes lingered on into the scientific age.

Here I always wonder what bodily senses they use to see what beauty which they say is found only in the wise. With what physical eyes have they beheld the beauty and grace of wisdom?

A marvelous example of rhetorical skill tripping up the search for truth.  He fixes on a metaphor, takes it as concrete, and then teases out the contradictions that ensue, using it as evidence for his spiritualist point of view.

They saw also that in every mutable being, the form which determines its being, its mode of being and its nature, can only come from him who truly is, because he exists immutably.

This lapidary phrase is almost like a chant, a mantra.  Often, in this chapter, Augustine uses rhythm and apparently simple logic to build to towards a triumphant declaration of the obvious truth of his religion.  He continues with this evocation of the entire panorama of existence:

Nice glasses!

It follows that the whole material universe, its shapes, qualities, its ordered motions, its elements disposed throughout its whole extent, stretching from heaven to earth, together with all the bodies contained within them; and all life, whether that which merely nourishes and maintains existence, as in the trees, or that which has sensibility as well, as in the animals; or that which has all this, and intelligence besides, as in human beings; or that life which needs no support in the way of nourishment, but maintains existence, and has feeling and intelligence, as in the case of angels – all these alike could come into being only through  him who simply is.

Yes, I love it, I do

For a wonderful introduction to The City of God, see this text.


Saint Augustine, Dunning-Kruger, and rules of debate

June 6, 2010

Smite the unworthy!

Those who waste their time with this blog know that I can be argumentative, but I do try to give the other person a chance to explain and defend alternate views.  Anyone who comments on blogs will certainly be aware that this is not the rule.  Venom, flaming, insult, and complete lack of interest in hearing any dissenting views are very common.  Well, it’s a free cyber-world, and if people only want to engage with those they agree with already, that’s their choice.

Since I am interested in the controversy over climate change – anthropogenic? proven? – I visit blogs that take the so-called consensus view, with which I disagree.  Sometimes I comment.  Generally, the response is anything but measured and polite, and a debate at the level of grade-schoolers ensues.  To be fair, the same has happened on blogs that I do generally agree with when I have begged to differ on some particular point.

How to conduct a rational debate with those you disagree with, even fundamentally, has always been a fascinating question for me.  What are the limits?  Reading Saint Augustine’s City of God, commenting on RealClimate, and following up on the Dunning-Kruger Effect [Full Text] has brought this all together!

If you follow the link to RealClimate, a premier pro-AGW blog, moderated by Gavin Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Science (right around the corner from the Seinfeld diner) you can decide for yourself how well or badly I was treated if you have the patience to follow the thread that begins at comment No. 22.  One fellow suggested I was suffering from psychosis, others intimated that I was a nefarious troll, feigning real interest in the discussion, but intending only to sow dissent and distraction at the site.  (Really, they didn’t have to respond to me – are they that easily sidetracked from their great work?)  Many commented that despite their repeating the obvious logical case for AGW over and over, and presenting me with incontrovertible evidence, I remained recalcitrant.

I was reminded of accounts of witch trials and inquisitorial interrogations I have read – the sinner refuses to recant or confess, maintains innocence, despite being presented with indubitable evidence of his guilt.  His stubborness is further evidence of his sinful, heretical nature – burn him!

As in the period of the great religious wars of 17th century Europe, there is an unwillingness to accept that some matters cannot be settled definitively, at least not yet, and that judgement of men and women plays a part.  For the AGW crowd, it’s all settled, the evidence is in, to maintain that one’s judgement of the evidence leaves one unconvinced simply demonstrates that one is:  stupid; ignorant of science; a shill for the oil companies; psychotic; all of the above…OR, a victim of the Dunning-Kruger Effect!

Ah, now we are getting somewhere!  But before we dive into contemporary academic study of incompetence (I kid you not), let us give an ear to Saint Augustine.  Fine man, but he didn’t suffer fools gladly.  At least, not people he knewwere fools!  Here is what he says at the opening of Book II, The City of God. [He was refuting pagan authors who laid the blame on Christianity for the recent sack of Rome.]  Anyone who has read AGW denunciations of skeptics, deniers, denialists, and other ‘crackpots’ will have a frisson of déja vu.

If only the weak understanding of the ordinary man did not stubbornly resist the plain evidence of logic and truth!  If only it would, in its feeble condition, submit itself to the restorative medicine of sound teaching, until divine assistance, procured by devout faith, effected a cure!  In that case, men of sound judgment and adequate powers of exposition would not need to engage in lengthy discussions on order to refute mistakes and fanciful conjectures.  But as things are, the intelligent are infected by a gross mental disorder which makes them defend the irrational workings of their minds as if they were logic and truth itself, even when the evidence has been put before them as plainly as is humanly possible.  Either they are too blind to see what is put before their face, or they are too perversely obstinate to admit what they see.  The result is that we are forced very often to give an extended exposition of the obvious, as if we were not presenting it for people to look at, but for them to touch and handle with theirs eyes shut.

And yet, will we ever come to an end of the discussion and talk of we think we must always reply to replies?  For replies come from those who either cannot understand what is said to them, or are so stubborn and contentions that they refuse to given in even if they do understand.  In fact, as the Bible says, “Their conversation is unrighteousness, and they are indefatigable in folly”  You can see how infinitely laborious and fruitless it would be to try and refute every objection they offer, when they have resolved never to think before they  speak provided that somehow or other they contradict our arguments.

Many of us have had the experience of arguing with someone in thrall to some weird conspiracy theory (men did not land on the moon!) and it is very frustrating.  At some point, you have to give up.  But at what point?  And how do you tell if you are arguing with a person uninterested in reason or someone who just completely disagrees with you?  A certain amount of trust in the good faith of the other is absolutely essential, and a willingness to bend over backwards to try and understand them.  This is rarely present in abundance.

And why bother when the Dunning-Kruger Effect (DKE) is handy?  (I’ve been its victim several times, according to some bloggers.)  The simple truth is that those who are incompetent in a field are the least able to judge their own level of expertise.  Moreover, their very incompetence is an obstacle to them realizing how little they know.  (Ignoramuses are famously confident.)

Having a dispute over a complex scientific question?  Your opponent refuses to accept your argument, claiming that your evidence is weak and your logic is full of holes?  DKE to the rescue!  Obviously, your gadfly is one of those who just doesn’t get what science is all about (The argument for AGW is basic physics, duh!) and it’s useless to engage because he hasn’t the mental  tools to  understand how ignorant he is!!  The simplicity, neatness, and unassailable logic of this riposte is simply beautiful!

What do Mssrs. Dunning & Kruger really say?  From the abstract of the article available at the link above (italics mine):

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the meta-cognitive ability to realize it…Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.

The article is a careful academic exercise in experimental social psychology.  I would be very surprised if the authors would endorse the free-wheeling use of their names to silence opponents in scientific disputes.  They are also careful to point out that self-overestimation of competence can have other sources as well.  Finally, their work was concerned with a rather narrow range of phenomena, for which they were able to develop fairly uncontroversial measures of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  Even their measure of competence in humor, yes!, was based on a survey of professional comedians’ assessment of a fixed sample of jokes – surely they have a good idea of what’s funny!

The interesting thing about the misuse of this academic article is that it takes a study that assesses peoples’ self-awareness of competence in uncontroversial areas – logical deduction, grammar, etc. – and applies it to a…controversy!  The whole point of scientific controversy is to arrive at the truth, which will then be, perhaps, uncontroversial.

I did have another reaction to this paper, however.  It struck me as similar to saying, “The problem with poor people is they have no money.”  Sort of obvious.  Incompetent people don’t know they are incompetent.  Well, sometimes they do.  And why in heck is it paradoxical that giving people training and tutoring will improve their self-assessment of skill?  I would venture that the notion of competence includes the idea of self-awareness of skill level.  We used to call this wisdom or judgment.

The authors begin their article with the sadly comic story of a man who robbed a bank, thinking he was invisible because he smeared his face with lemon juice.  Obviously, not competent to judge  a lot of things.  They conclude with a cutesy remark:

Although we feel we have done a competent job in making a strong case for this analysis, studying it empirically, and drawing out relevant implications, our thesis leaves us with one haunting worry that we cannot vanquish. That worry is that this article may contain faulty logic, methodological errors, or poor communication. Let us assure our readers that to the extent this article is imperfect, it is not a sin we have committed knowingly.

Ha, ha.  So funny.  Maybe they suffer from the DKE…Boy, good thing they don’t do stand-up comedy.  These are professors at Cornell University by the way.  What do we learn about anything from this article?  Stuff like this is what makes academic a pejorative term.