Saturday, January 27, 2007

Nominal definitions

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
  - from Romeo and Juliet
My last two posts, on Tolerance and Unconditional love may have a common theme, i.e., my complaint about the corruption of words and their meanings to suit a particular viewpoint.

Some folks may even seek to change the very definition of a word to fit their ideology. The underlying premise seems to be that words have only a subjective meaning, and, in one sense, this is correct. For example, the decision to call the seed of an oak tree an "acorn" is merely nominal and subjective. We could just as well call it a "plebsit", or use the utterance "acorn" to refer, say, to the seed of a pine tree instead. This is true as far as it goes. The illogic comes if we expect the acorn itself to actually become like a pine cone because we've changed the word or its nominal definition.

I am indebted to Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D. and his book Healing the Culture for his methodical examination of the 4 classic levels of definition. (Thanks also to Erika P. for giving me the book.) The first level of definition is the nominal level, where we humans decide what to call something, what utterance to attach to it. The next 3 levels are what we discover about the thing - what it is, what it does, and its ultimate end or purpose. These 3 levels are objective, and inherent to the thing at hand. Thus, the acorn continues to be what it is, and continues to carry the same potential regardless of what utterance is attached to it. You would do well to read Spitzer's own more thorough discussion at this link.

Spitzer is concerned in his work primarily with moving on to a philosophy of happiness, freedom, and life issues. In particular, the objective definition of what constitutes a person is important, and i hope to devote more blog space to that theme some time. For now, i would like to suggest another current example of misappropriating a word's definition...


For centuries, marriage has been defined as a union between a man and a woman, usually publicly acknowledged, and usually including sexual relations and the conception and raising of children. Certainly in Western Civilization this has been the case. Not only has the word been so defined, but the underlying substance has long been recognized as central to the cohesion of society. The arrangement of marriage facilitates the domestication of men, the protection of women, and the inclusion of men in the rearing of children. It thus forms the very foundation and cornerstone of civilization as we know it. These principles are inherently part of what makes marriage what it is. Even were we to change the nominal definition of marriage, the underlying reality would remain.

Why do i bring this up? Because i have recently been involved in a few conversations in which another party argues that marriage is something that government or society can define or redefine, or that it is a human right that ought to be extended to same-sex couples. The danger in this line of thinking, as i see it, is not that same-sex marriages would somehow denigrate or tarnish heterosexual marriages. Marriage simply is what it is regardless of any subjective legislative or judicial decree that may be handed down. The danger is, rather, that if we as a society begin to neglect the foundational value of marriage in its objective meaning, we may very well be dismantling our own civilization. This is much more than just a subjective wrangling over words.

The morality of homosexual relations is a topic in its own right, which i will not attempt to address right now. The point of this particular post is just to say that words mean things, that the term "same-sex marriage" is an oxymoron, and that it behooves us not to meddle with our civilization's very roots.

You may also want to check out this blog for some excellent discussion of this and related topics.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Unconditional love

God's love is unconditional. There are no limits to His love, and nothing we can do to increase or diminish it. Surely this is an inarguable axiom, isn't it?

Since God's love is unconditional, one might surmise, it follows that He can never be displeased with any of us; His blessings are assured, no strings attached. Whether i seek His will or go my own way, God holds me in the same high regard. Even were i to deliberately commit grave sin, and willfully reject God, He would love and embrace me all the same. In fact, if God's love is all-encompassing, perhaps there is no such thing as sin. My consciousness of wrongdoing before God is just my own imaginative mistake; in reality i cannot offend God at all, since He loves me no matter what. Quite obviously, then, there can be no Hell, and i can be sure of enjoying eternal life hereafter regardless of how i may have lived in this world. Even Hitler and Mussolini must be in Heaven.

But wait - can love be thrust upon someone who doesn't want it? Would that be true love? It may be better to say that love, by definition, must be freely offered, not forced upon the recipient. And if freely offered, it must be freely received. This means it may also be freely rejected. This is what sin is: a rejection of God's love, and of the demands of that love. We must, in fact, be able to completely and finally reject God's offer of love. This is what Hell is. Jesus, the very embodiment of God's love, warned of eternal Hell more than any other prophet or teacher of the Bible.

If everybody eventually goes to Heaven regardless of how they live, this life on earth is ultimately meaningless. How loving would God be to put us through all the pain, turmoil, and angst of this life for no ultimate reason? But if there is Heaven to gain and Hell to avoid by the choices we make, then life truly has meaning and purpose.

I'm beginning to think that the term 'unconditional love' can be considered an oxymoron!

Moreover, an unconditional love which makes no demands, which always accepts the recipient just as he is, seems quite passive. Neither participant is expected to do much of anything; it is an agreement to just let be, much the same as indifference. But God's love is anything but passive or indifferent. Jesus loved us to the point of dying on the cross to restore our broken relationship with the Father. He requires something from us as well.

To be sure, God's plan is a very, very lenient and easy one. He gives us, not an unconditional promise, but one with very easy conditions: If we agree with God that our sin is evil, repent of those sins, and join ourselves to the crucified and risen Jesus, He is happy to forgive us and gather us into his eternal home. Is this unconditional love? I think it's better.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


I used to work in the engineering department of a manufacturing company. I was a draftsman, creating mechanical drawings for the shop. To allow for the inexactitudes of man and machine, the dimensions given for each machine part would include an allowable variation - a tolerance. Establishing the correct tolerance for each dimension was an important consideration. Calling for more precision than needed would slow down production and drive up costs. Conversely, allowing too much variation would result in ill-fitting parts and a poorly functioning assembly.

This engineering concept of tolerance always seemed to correspond well with its general definition elsewhere. Namely, it was usually acknowledged that nobody is perfect, that it's unreasonable to expect absolute adherence to codes of conduct, so let's cut each other a little slack now and then.

Lately, however, lots of folks are referring to tolerance as if it means that we can no longer hold to any standards at all, that any behavior must be accepted and even approved. Surely such a definition bears no similarity to its original meaning.

If a car manufacturer were to adopt such a definition of tolerance, their vehicles wouldn't run very well. I doubt that you'd even be able to drive them from the dealer's parking lot.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Epistemology - Part 2

OK, back to the epistemology theme (see my first epistemology post below )...

Virtually every system of knowledge begins on an a priori basis, that is, with one or more unproven or self-evident principles. For instance, the entire system of mathematics begins with the concept of quantity. Given two piles of rocks, it is observed that there is a difference between the two piles - namely, that one pile is bigger, one smaller. To account for the concept of quantity, of more-ness and less-ness, man starts counting things and measuring things, and before you know it, he's calculating the distance to the moon.

As another example, scientific thought rests upon the unproven assumption that the stuff of our universe behaves in a predictable and reliable manner, that there are physical laws at work. Man sees things fall, comes to recognize and formulate the law of gravity, and before you know it, he's explaining how the moon orbits Earth. The assumption isn't as obvious here; it must be taken almost on faith that the universe behaves according to certain laws. There's no particular reason that this should be so; the universe could just as well behave in a haphazard and capricious manner. As Albert Einstein once remarked, "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible".

Well, then, are the principles of science worthless because they are based upon an unprovable assumption? Of course not. Having begun with an act of faith in the reliability of physical laws, we eventually come to have tremendous evidence to bolster this faith. The accumulated wealth of knowledge serves us very well, and does a wonderful job of explaining how things work. The pieces fit together, it all makes sense, there is internal consistency, and it seems to conform remarkably to reality as we experience it. We may therefore with good reason assume that the original assumption was valid.

Now consider the various systems of theological thought, also based upon unprovable assumptions. Oh, there are proofs for the existence of God, but these rest upon the a priori assumption that there is such a thing as provable truth. The nihilist rejects this assumption, and so he sees no proof. Of course, the nihilist is likewise starting from an a priori position which defies proof. There seems to be no other way; you have to start with an assumption of some kind, and forget (for now) about proving it.

So i begin with some assumptions, then see where that takes me, what system of thought can be built upon the assumptions; that will be my proof. I might start with the atheistic assumption that there is no god, and build a system of thought upon that assumption. In such a case, i find myself forced into a purely materialistic and nihilisitic system, one that does not explain or even consider such spiritual concepts as justice, love, or good vs. evil.

If i try the theistic assumption, that God exists and cares for us, i can at least begin to build a system that explains something of the meaning of life, that also incorporates the idea of good and evil, and the moral dimension of human life. Because this results in a better system of thought, i think that the starting assumption must be more sound.

At this point i would like to know more details about this God, and more about how we ought to live. This calls for a creedal system, in which the details are fleshed out. Of the major creedal religions, Christianity stands out for a couple of reasons. First, because it confirms and completes another major creedal system, that of Judaism. Secondly, it makes the fantastic claim that God has been here in person. This claim must either be debunked or be recognized as the most complete revelation possible. More on that shortly.

Likewise, within Christianity, one particular system stands out, that of Catholicism. Firstly, it possesses the most credible historic claim to being the one church going back to the Apostles, founded by Jesus Himself. Secondly, because it has the most trustworthy epistemology, the most solid authority.

The epistemology of Bible-based Christianity is pretty solid, and fairly trustworthy in its adherence to the authority of the Bible, but there are some problems here. For one thing, the existence of several thousand denominations, all claiming to be Bible-based, is evidence that this approach is prone to errors. Like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:31), how can the believer know which interpretation of Scripture is the correct one, unless there is some reliable authority to guide him? Secondly, the Bible itself doesn't teach the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, that Scripture alone is all you need. Indeed, it points to the Church as the 'pillar and bulwark of truth' (1 Tim 3:15 RSV). And even if Scripture did proclaim Scripture as the only source of revelation, that would be circular reasoning, wouldn't it? No, the one fundamental doctrine that the Fundamentalists left out is that Christ built His Church upon the Apostles, and that He gave His authority to them, which remains a clear mark of His Church today.

Note that this authority does not preclude the obvious sinfulness of many priests, bishops and popes throughout history. Authority does not depend upon sanctity. (Indeed, the fact that the Church survived all her corrupt popes and bishops, and never lost the Gospel, can be seen as evidence of divine protection.)

So, i start with these assumptions: God exists, and reveals Himself to us in the person of Jesus who gives authority to men, thus establishing the Church. This produces a system of thought that answers an amazingly wide berth of life's questions, and answers them in an internally consistent way that makes sense of life, and corresponds extremely well to the realities around me. The Catholic system addresses not only specifically religious questions, but also issues of economics, politics and other things touching the demands of faith and morals. If anyone can come up with a more complete system of thought, i would truly love to hear about it. For now, this seems to be by far the best game in town, and explains why i am Catholic.

To return now to the startling assumption that forms the basis for all Christian faith - that Jesus is, in fact, God in the flesh - what to say about that? The veracity of this claim would seem to be tied to the Resurrection. If that man who was crucified really did rise victorious from the grave, then he must be taken seriously indeed, and not merely as a good teacher. Power over death would certainly seem to indicate a superhuman nature. If Jesus didn't really rise, then he was just a man, the whole thing is fool's work, and i would have to reject the Christian way, probably reverting to a creedless theism. I would be left to explain why the early disciples were all so willing to suffer death by martyrdom for a hoax, and i would still have to admit that the Christian system of thought blows the theistic system out of the water. But it needs to be said that, without the Resurrection, the Christian Faith makes no sense at all.

It comes down, then, to this: I have very strong intellectual reasons for embracing the Catholic Faith; other systems of thought simply pale by comparison. But in the final analysis, it still has to be a step of faith. I believe Jesus really rose from the dead, and so i am Catholic.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Best and Brightest

With all the humility proper to my low estate, i hold our elected representatives in the highest esteem, vested as they are with the responsibility and nearly divine burden of shaping the texture of our lives with their decisions of public policy. Did i say nearly divine? Surely an understatement, since they so readily assume power over human life itself.

On that note, i just contacted my representatives in Congress via and, to let them know that, in my humble opinion, funding embryonic stem cell research was going too far. (See my previous post below.) These websites let me navigate to a particular senator or representative, for example to contact my senator Russ Feingold. Then, using that form, i can generate an email directed to the senator. Certain fields must first be filled in with my name, address, email address, etc., both to verify that i am a real constituent and to make responses. If i don't supply the required fields, no message is generated. Fair enough. I filled in all those fields, and sent my email.

Not surprisingly, i soon received an email from Senator Feingold in response, sent to the email address i had supplied. The text read, in part,

Thank you for taking the time to e-mail me... If you did not include an e-mail and mailing address, I encourage you to resend your original message... No kidding; it really said that. Or, as Dave Barry would say, I'm not making this up!

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Stem cell research

They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters...
   Ps. 106:37-39
For some time now, the debate has raged over stem cell research. Of course, there are huge differences, both scientifically and ethically, between embryonic stem cells - those taken from living human embryos, and stem cells taken other sources such as bone marrow and cord blood. (See this link and also this one).

Despite the lack of promise shown by the embryonic stem cells, legislators like Tom Harkin (D - Iowa) have been insisting that federal tax money should be poured into this research. The use of non-embryonic stem cells is not good enough; we just have to use embryonic stem cells. Evidently, the prospects for success are too slim to attract venture capital, so we also have to fund it with tax dollars.

Now comes the news that embryonic stem cells can more easily be obtained from amniotic fluid (see this article in the Washington Times), in a process which is harmless to both mother and child. These embryonic stem cells seem to actually show some promise.

Does this news affect our newly elected legislators? Not in the least. The push for research that destroys living human embryos moves forward boldly. The bill is scheduled in both houses (HR 3, S 5) for later this week.

It is becoming more and more difficult to rationalize or to find nuanced explanations. I can only conclude that this is intimately connected with abortion rights. Were it not for this connection, the liberals in Congress would be rejoicing in the new scientific finding, and would be eager to avoid the ethical and ideological divisiveness of the avenue they are pursuing. As it is, they reveal more and more just where their hearts are.