Bad Catholic on Nothing

Without doubt the clearest meditation on this theme I have ever read.

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/badcatholic/2012/11/better-than-nothing.html

… the modern world sees destruction as something bold, brave and ballsy. We see sin — always destructive — as a solid in an otherwise watery universe.  The vandals, arsonists, gangsters, home wreckers, and serial killers; the self-destructive, self-righteous, and self-serving; the womanizers, tyrants, and abusers – we are most of these things, and we think at least one or two of them badass.

But if we come from Nothing and are going to Nothing, what boldness can there be in destruction? The law of entropy will kill our families, reduce our houses to dust, and slowly, steadily, bring about all the super-hardcore-ness we can imagine. There is no rebellion in hastening the inevitable. A killing spree may shock society, but it is a boredom to the universe, who ultimately kills everyone. To objectify a woman into a sex object might give men a thrill, but it is a pathetic to the universe, who is busy rendering her into a corpse.

Sin is weak. Sin is a white flag of surrender waved to the oncoming Nothingness.

[...]

Sin is always the easiest action to perform in any given situation. All it requires is Nothing.

To commit the sin of wrath or anger, a man doesn’t have to do anything, he merely has to lose something — his temper. He breaks, he snaps, he “gives in”, all of which merely points out the obvious, that he stops doing something. There is no boldness in wrath, any more than there is in rot, though they amount to the same thing, an acquiescence into Nothingness.

To commit the sin of pride, a man need not do anything. He does not know — nor can he — if his family and friends are having the same experience of life, or the same depth of thought and feeling that he is. He does not know them as selves — that is, as he knows himself — but as others. …  All Pride requires is not doing anything.

Lust is merely the absence of love in the erotic. Sloth is the simply the absence of diligence and love for life. (It requires nothing, as a man standing straight requires nothing to slouch. He only needs to stop doing something, to stop standing straight. Sloth is a spiritual slouch.) Envy is the absence of kindness. Greed is the absence of charity. Gluttony is the absence of temperance.

So to summarize: Man comes from Nothing and goes to Nothing. In the brief interval of time in which he exists, he has the free choice to give in to the Nothingness that surrounds his existence — to sin — or to fight it with joy — to practice virtue. Sin is surrender and virtue is resistance.

About John C Wright

John C. Wright is a practicing philosopher, a retired attorney, newspaperman, and newspaper editor, and a published author of science fiction. Once a Houyhnhnm, he was expelled from the august ranks of purely rational beings when he fell in love; but retains an honorary title.
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24 Responses to Bad Catholic on Nothing

  1. Zach says:

    This is something I think about a lot, namely how faith is a principle of action. LDS scripture mentions that God created things both “to act” and “to be acted upon”. Since we exist within time, which is basically entropic in nature (the future being the direction of decomposition) our faith requires constant effort to maintain. Thus the need for the rhythm of our weekly worship, our daily prayers, etc.

    Lewis, in The Great Divorce, hinted at time being the lens through which we see our choice, whether to serve God or not.

    Anyway. I appreciate the reminder. Righteousness is effort, and faith is action.

    The whole topic reminds me of what bothered me about the end of your Golden Age trilogy. Without any spoilers, I liked it for its majesty and optimism, but it felt empty as an answer to the end of time. I hope for a tremendous, glorious Fullness at the end of time in opposition to cold, black, emptiness.

    • Sylvie D. Rousseau says:

      “Righteousness is effort…”
      Not directly. If it were, Pharisees as well as devoted Leftists would be justified in their self-righteousness, for they certainly put sincere and great efforts in destroying the world, while believing they are doing good.

      What makes any fruitful work and effort possible is grace, through theological virtues (faith, hope, charity) first and, second only, through natural virtues and human will. This is true in nihilist inverted morals as well as in Christian morals, except that the “grace” comes to nihilists not from the God who is Love, but from the Emperor of this world, of course unknowingly in the great majority of people.

      “…faith is action…”
      True. Faith does not exist without charity, without active love of God and neighbor, including enemies.

  2. oddy says:

    I loved this post on bad catholic especially the part about seeing people as others and not selves. I gave it to my non believing husband to read.

  3. momofthree says:

    As a biologist I have begun to understand original sin this way. That we are always tied to our animal natures, to lust, to rape, to violence, to greed etc., because we are evolved from animals…therefore to give in to this nature is the easy way. We are called to a higher life, one of denial and self control and work.

    • Sylvie D. Rousseau says:

      Animals don’t act, they move by instinct only. They don’t have a moral life, so they don’t know pride, greed or lust, which is disorder and irrationality introduced in rational (thus good) order. Intellect, will and the rational order must exist first if irrational acts (personal sin) suggested by concupiscence (original sin) are to be chosen by free will as preferable to rational, thus virtuous, behavior (self-control, selflessness, etc.).

      • Carbonel says:

        I’m reminded of two quotes: one from Screwtape, describing the One without whom Nothing is strong. The other is from A Little Princess; that there is nothing so strong as anger: except that which holds it in.

      • momofthree says:

        “Animals don’t act they move by instinct only.” This is not technically correct, as certain primates, corvids and cetaceans have been shown to understand deceit and pass on “culture” or certain behaviors that are not entirely instinctual or “learned”.

        But…I understand what you are saying. That is, that animals do not have free will and therefore cannot really “sin”, but we have evolved enough to have an intellect capable of possessing free will, and therefore can be held accountable.

        • Sylvie D. Rousseau says:

          “…we have evolved enough to have an intellect…”
          So the more can evolve from the less? What is devoid of intellect, will and imagination can somehow evolve the three “powers” of human soul? I don’t think Darwin would have pretended such a thing.

          Biologists, as any other empirical scientists, have nothing to say from their particular point of view on metaphysics and morals, except if they are in fact able philosophers. In this case, they will speak as philosophers and follow philosophy principles, using empirical facts only as additional information or illustration.

          “…shown to understand…:
          Is there an epistemology of animal knowledge? Sounds like bad science, and a far stretch from the object of biology or zoology. What we can derive from animal behavior apart from general laws is usually guessing.

          Certain things are obvious enough and observer’s guesses might be right, but they might as well be wrong. I would wager that the less philosophically sound and ethically right the scientist is, the less reliable his conclusions on matters not pertaining to his particular field of expertise will be.

          • momofthree says:

            But then, how can you explain the whole evolutionary history of Man? We share a common ancestor with the great apes…this is clear from fossil and biochemical evidence. There are multiple “pre-modern-human” forms (hominids such as Homo habilis and H. erectus, not to mention the Australopithecenes. It seems clear there are hierarchies of the ability to reason, use tools, feel guilt etc. within the animal kingdom. Wouldn’t it be entirely compatible with Christian thinking that we evolved from lower organisms and were “given” souls the minute our reasoning capacity had reached a sufficient level?

            • Sylvie D. Rousseau says:

              I have no business as a theologian and philosopher to “explain” evolutionary history. All I can say is that, for a philosopher, man is a “rational” animal while other animals have sensitive abilities but no rational ones, and for a theologian, man is given directly by God at conception an immortal soul (not pre-existent) that no other material creature is endowed with. Also, body and soul are not two different entities artificially conjoined as Descartes thought, they are a “hylemorphic” (matter-form) composite of a determinate nature, namely human nature, as Aristotle and every classical theist philosopher after him thought.

              Now, it is theoretically possible, and not averse to reason, that we could have apes as our animal ancestors, but it remains a theory – I am not aware that the “missing link” has been found yet.

              Even if the missing link (or links between the different species, each one probably presenting a large gap with the next) were found, there would still be an immense metaphysical gap between the non-rational progenitors and the rational children. The only word I have for the gap between the animal-only progenitors and the human children with immortal souls is “unfathomable”. It is not impossible, though, as God is believed to intervene directly to create each one human soul.

              I perused Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis years ago and the main thing I recall is that people should be more prudent when drawing conclusions from hypotheses and should not treat them as dogmas, thus pretending to threaten Revelation. Such an attitude is nothing else than an encroachment on religion, theology and philosophy. Empirical science has no business to pronounce on any philosophical or theological matter, this is contrary to ethics and scientific method and undermines the quality of science itself.

            • I recommend this article because it addresses your question from that context.

              http://www.newadvent.org/library/docs_jp02tc.htm

              You may want to also check out the encyclical Humani Generis. I don’t think evolution poses a problem to religion. Not evolution strictly as a empirical collection of observed facts and theory based only on those observed facts. Some scientists take it upon themselves to base their philosophy on their science that is uncalled for, and they are unqualified for (re: Dawkins) (physicists are guilty of this too) and some philosophers extrapolate from a field they are not qualified to borrow from. I quote from Pope John Paul II’s article I linked to.

              Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person.

              There are some denominations who force blinders on themselves, refuse to even consider any evidence, and stick to a “literalist”, i.e., subjectivist, interpretation of scripture. They repudiate almost the entirety of science – the Earth is 6,000 years old, man showed up literally days after the animals, etc. Or one of my sisters who screams, “Satan put the bones there to fool us!”

              Unfortunately the field of evolution has got to be so large with so many conflicting theories (including bacterial symbiosis that is very intriguing) that it is almost beyond the layman to keep track of (sort of like physics). I just read an article yesterday in Scientific American that genome research suggests modern humans may have interbred with Neanderthals. A couple of years ago it wasn’t even considered.

              Of course, I’m a bartender, I already knew the Neanderthal was amongst us, but I digress…

              I have read enough as a layperson that I am convinced that we did evolve through some process(es), but go no further than that. And it says nothing about who we are, or what we are. All it really says is, man (fill in the theory version that wins) at his present state as a natural being came about by this process.

              And, if I were religious, I’d be all the more impressed and awed by God that he achieved this by the means of evolution.

              • Sylvie D. Rousseau says:

                LOL for the Neanderthals and Wow! for the rest.
                I’m wondering… Does your adherence to classical philosophy makes you an agnostic rather than an atheist?

                Also, condolences for having a close relative displaying such an un-poetic view of the Bible. André Frossard, a convert from atheism and member of the French Academy, wrote beautiful things about the Creation story in Genesis. My favorite quote is something like: “Instead of ‘Let there be light’, I would not be surprised if God said ‘Let energy equal mass times the velocity of light squared’”. And this one too: “Genesis could very well be a poetic shortcut for an evolution theory…”

                • Does your adherence to classical philosophy makes you an agnostic rather than an atheist?

                  No, I don’t like to straddle fences, they’re pokey.

                  Let’s put it this way. You know Richard Dawkin’s supposed barbed question, “Would you believe in a Flying Spaghetti Monster?”

                  The theist and the atheist can have the same answer (namely, no). The agnostic is committed, if he wishes to avoid contradiction, to offer no resistance to this concept or to any construct his opponent wishes to conjure. Because his is the position of a null epistemology.

                  He concludes that since he sees no evidence for God, he is free to suspend judgement, or accept it as a possibility. That is epistemologically invalid (just see yourself on trial with the prosecution and jury on that standard!) and is therefore barred logically from denying anything whatever by his own statement.

                  That is a real agnostic. There are also those that consider there to be some evidence (near death experiences, metaphysical conundrums, or whatever) but are not convinced either way. Technically this is not an agnostic. We don’t have a name for this person since it is transitory and it is more a process of weighing data than a technical stand.

                  Taking an overview, what is required, whether atheist or theist, is not a closed mind, but an active one. For myself the question of God (in the most general sense) is not a closed subject, but it is one that demands epistemological honesty, and honesty demands I be an atheist. That being based on what I honestly can grasp at this time.

                  This is in contrast to two types (that are actually the same) that I find all over; the atheist that will not touch theology and the Christian who will not touch secular ideas (I don’t know what the Jews do, and the Muslims I just want to disappear, preferably to spend eternity as Eddorian slaves). Those are closed minds, not active ones. The agnostic is an open mind, also inactive, waiting for everything and anything to be dumped in it.

                  There are things not open to question – axioms – without which even the question of God becomes meaningless (and is actually the exact process, historically, philosophers came to view the question) as everything then becomes meaningless.

                  I hope that somewhat answers your question.

                  • Sylvie D. Rousseau says:

                    Thanks for your answer. I agree. Chesterton wrote somewhere that agnosticism is spineless. I should have remembered that.

                    I thought agnostics could be reasonable people, though, like Bergson, for example. But since he was a deist, it means he was not an agnostic.

                    • Hmm. This would be more along the lines of hate the sin not the sinner. I would be remiss to judge someone as spineless or unreasonable who is a victim of our modern education, devoid of epistemological knowledge, unable to think in principles grasp them or form them, etc, etc.

                      The more someone is aware of these things and can work with concepts, the less excuse I would afford them. And, of course, as stated in the abstract, it is a spineless theory.

                      I only add this because considering another’s context is very important – vitally important if we wish to judge fairly and objectively. We couldn’t judge all agnostics equally. A teenage agnostic is quite innocent compared to a 65 year old agnostic professor of philosophy; much as a young adult attracted to socialist thought is pretty innocent by virtue of the ignorance of youth than the socialist professor of political theory.

        • DGDDavidson says:

          If it doesn’t have free will, it doesn’t “act” in the strict sense.

          The intellect is capable of abstraction. It deals in things that are not physical, and so is itself not physical. It cannot evolve biologically.

          That animals have personalities, culture, limited tool-making, etc. would not have taken the Schoolmen by surprise; they likely knew it already, as they would have spent more time around animals than most of us do. These things require no faculty higher than imagination.

          • momofthree says:

            “The intellect is capable of abstraction. It deals in things that are not physical, and so is itself not physical. It cannot evolve biologically”

            But the intellect is at least, in part, dependent upon biological structures (such as the highly convoluted and whorled cranium which increases surface area to maximize neuronal activity) which do evolve. So I don’t really get your point. Sorry.

            Are you trying to claim that the earliest humans (true modern humans…not H. habilis or some such others) had a brain identical to ours today and that there has been no evolution of man for the past half-million years or so? This seems highly unlikely.

            All I am claiming is that when Sylvie said, “So the more can evolve from the less?” I would say “YES!”…the intellect of a human is obviously much more developed than of any other primate, but clearly, since our genomes are so close, we have evolved from a common ancestor. Why is this a threat to the idea of a soul? I don’t think it is at all…we are the first creature (modern humans…Homo sapiens) that had an intellect evolved enough for a soul, and other creatures are closer to us in that regard (primates) and others are not (Cnidarians).

            • But the intellect is at least, in part, dependent upon biological structures (such as the highly convoluted and whorled cranium which increases surface area to maximize neuronal activity) which do evolve. So I don’t really get your point. Sorry.

              To say that one thing depends on another thing is not the same as saying it is that thing, completely defined, completely explained, nothing left over, no questions unanswered. A necessary precondition is not the same as a sufficient cause. An unwed bride is necessary for a marriage, but is not, with a bridegroom, sufficient. Saying what a thing is made of does not tell you what it is. A land without water would also lack ships, and a land without ships would lack sailors, but to say where the ships come from does not say where the sailor come from, or even say what they are.

              How can you not get the point? Evolution does not explain the difference between man and beast. To say we share some structural similarities, or have certain material causes in common, is like saying that since shipwrights build ships, they build sailors.

            • Sylvie D. Rousseau says:

              Evolution does not explain the difference between man and beast.
              It does not explain the difference between living and non-living things either, nor how the ones would arise from the others.

            • DGDDavidson says:

              Mr. Wright has already addressed some of the confusion here, but I’m flummoxed by some things and might like clarification:

              “Are you trying to claim that the earliest humans . . . had a brain identical to ours today . . . ?”

              I cannot answer that question and do not know if any answer is available. I do not think possession of an intellect necessarily means possession of a brain with exactly the structure of a modern human brain, and I don’t see how you could have got that from my comment.

              “Why is this a threat to the idea of a soul?”

              I did not say it was, and I can’t understand your last sentence.

              Every living being has a soul; that is to say, it is alive. We can speak of “powers” of soul such as growth, nutrition, sense, and so forth. As rational animals, humans have the powers of other animals and also intellect. I assume, because the evidence of which I’m aware strongly supports it, that humans evolved from apes and that we are closely related enough that it is proper to call us apes, but we are apes with intellect.

              • momofthree says:

                “I assume, because the evidence of which I’m aware strongly supports it, that humans evolved from apes and that we are closely related enough that it is proper to call us apes, but we are apes with intellect.”

                All the evidence points to the fact that we did NOT evolve from apes, but from a common ancestor with apes….and we are more closely related to chimps than to gorillas or orangutans.

                Let me try that last sentence again: It is my understanding that there were many hominid forms that predate modern Homo sapiens, but that modern H. sapiens was the first sentient being that evolved far enough to be deemed worthy of having a soul. There are many other animals with a form of “intellect” (again, thinking of the corvids, great apes, elephants, some parrots) but none so fully intact and complex to be worthy of an eternal soul. I guess I do not really think all living creatures have a soul….is this Catholic or mainline Christian teaching?

                Again, this is the only way to reconcile the idea that man evolved from a common ancestor with apes, and that there were many early hominid (human-like) forms that share some ape-like traits, and some humanoid traits, but that they were not really human, with the story of Adam. Man did not just pop into being several million years ago…instead he evolved over billions of years from the most simple of creatures until the point at which the Lord deemed the creature at hand to be worthy of a soul. Perhaps this is not really orthodox thinking, but it seems plausible to me that God set all the laws of physics in place at the moment of the Big Bang, and the laws of chemistry then rest upon said laws, and the mechanisms of biochemistry, rest upon that, and so on and soforth, so that at the creation of the universe God knew that a sentient being worthy of loving him and having a soul would evolve since he set up the algorithm in the first place, but that given quantum variability there could still be some wiggle room and strange and interesting forms to be created that became evolutionary dead-ends (sabre-tooth tiger). This also allows for human free will.

                Does that help?

                • Sylvie D. Rousseau says:

                  There are many other animals with a form of “intellect”…

                  They may have more sophisticated sensitive abilities and instincts, but abstractive intellect and free will are something else entirely.

  4. Pierce O. says:

    “I tell you,” went on Syme with passion, “that every time a train comes in I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and that man has won a battle against chaos. You say contemptuously that when one has left Sloane Square one must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hairbreadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out the word ‘Victoria,’ it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry of a herald announcing conquest. It is to me indeed ‘Victoria’; it is the victory of Adam.”-Gabriel Syme

    Bleak? It depends on whether we’ve the courage to face it, for existence, at the final count, is resistance. To live, to try, to make, to act, to do, to be — these give the finger to the Nothingness that surrounds us. To build a house is a contradiction. To start a family is a last stand. To get up in the morning and make breakfast is to fight a universe tending towards the absolute dissolution of all breakfasts into Nothing.-Marc Barnes

    Good to see that the honored profession of Poet of the Law has not vanished from the earth.

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