Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Summary of Pascal Lecture by Charles Rice (Part 2)

I'm continuing with my summary of what Charles Rice said. My comments are in brackets.

Next, Rice asked, "How do you know using just your reason that there always had to be an eternal being?"

He quoted a line from Rodgers & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music: "Nothing comes from nothing; nothing ever could." [But quoting music lyrics doesn't constitute a coherent argument. It seems to be that assertions like "nothing comes from nothing" are just that; assertions. In the view of modern physics, particles and anti-particles can, in fact, come from nothing.]

Finally, he revealed his deep argument for why there always had to be an eternal being: "Of course there had to be an eternal being."

Pope John Paul asked, why is the something rather than nothing? The culture where we live rejects that. The principle of our society is the dictatorship of relativism. "All things are relative": but if true, then that statement must be relative. And legal positivism is the jurisprudence of relativism. The foremost legal scholar of positivism was Austrian philosopher Hans Kelsen (1881-1973). Philosophical relativism is the philosophy of democracy. If everybody agrees, no one can tell what is right or wrong, so philosophical absolutism leads to totalitarianism. Legal positivism says that a norm of any content can be a valid law, and that justice is an irrational ideal. However, Rice disagreed with all that, saying we could pass a "John North extermination law" and we would know it is wrong. Kelsen, however, would have said "stop emoting, for we can't know what is just." After World War 2, Kelsen wrote, "Auschwitz & the Soviet concentration camps were all based on valid law". What do we give up and what have we invited if we can no longer say that Auschwitz is unjust? [It's like Rice never heard of any other legal theory. How about John Rawls and his Theory of Justice?]

The three principles of modern society are secularism, relativism, and individualism. Take the Obama health care mandate as an example: is conscience important? Oliver Wendell Holmes said "The purpose of law is to enforce the taste of the dominant group." But John Paul said that relativism is the philosophy of totalitarianism; if you don't have common reason, then all you have left is force. Natural law says you can know objective reality.

Take a pen. Can it be a battleship?

A door presents itself to me. How do we know it is a door? Because of our senses, both internal and external. The internal senses are imagination, memory, instinct, and common sense. Our active intellect abstract the essence of the door and passes it to the passive intellect which forms an idea. Idea: that by which we know. [Shouldn't our models of perception and cognition be based on what we know about neuroscience, rather than archaic 13th century views of the world?]

Judgment is the 2nd activity of intellect. Truth is the conformity of a statement with reality. If I say, "that is a geranium" while pointing at the door, that is false. There is a principle of non-contradiction. Can a pen be a pen and not be a pen? No, a thing cannot be and not be at the same time in the same aspect. [I'm not sure this is precise enough to mean anything, but even so, in modern physics, it is possible to create a system that is both vibrating and not vibrating at the same time. The real world could well be more complicated than simple Aristotelian logic might suggest.]

What is good? "The good is that which all things seek." All things, not just persons. [What good does a rock seek?]

There are 5 basic inclinations that are natural and self-evident. Choosing to prove this, he asked people what they were. Answers from the audience were empathy, trust, happiness, sex, food, and understanding. But Rice was clearly disappointed by these answers, and gave these instead, from Thomas Aquinas:
1. seek good, including the highest good, God
2. self-preservation
3. preservation of the species
4. live in community
5. to know and to choose, to use intellect and will
[Again, why should we base our reasoning & law on what some 13th century philosopher, ignorant of biology and neurophysiology, said? In modern biology the idea that a "basic inclination" of an organism is the "preservation of the species" is laughable; that's group selection.]

You can reason from all basic inclinations to understand why theft, murder, etc., is wrong.

Nevertheless, sincere people will occasionally take opposite positions on a moral issue. How can you tell who is right? We have the ability to know objective moral wrong. You are culpable only if you know it was wrong.

John-Paul said that Catholics have a great advantage in the Magisterium. It is a positive and hopeful document that provides
- dignity of the person created in the image and likeness of God
- solidarity
- subsidiarity: social tasks should be performed by individuals, families, associations, and the State (in that order). The State exists for the person, not the other way around.

Cardinal Ratzinger said, "Adolf Hitler and Stalin could be saints if they really thought what they were doing was right." Synteresis: general moral faculty. Anamnesia: remembrance imprinted in us of the way things were before the Fall.

The Magisterium is an aid recalling to a person the anamnesis of his being. Cardinal Newman said, "I will toast my conscience first and then the Pope." Conscience is whatever you decide? No, that trivializes it and the State need not respect it. The reality is that conscience is transcendent.

Every state or corporation that has ever been has either gone extinct or will go extinct. But every human being who has ever lived will live forever. [You can't base a valid legal theory on a false claim.]

Only if you are willing to say human reason can reach moral truth can you say a law is just or unjust. Rosa Parks: was she morally obliged to disobey the law that said blacks need give up their seat to a white person and move to the back of the bus?
No: if a law is contrary to common good you have an obligation to disobey it unless doing so would cause scandal. Example: income tax. It may be unjust but you have an obligation to obey it. [A little ironic that he would refer to Rosa Parks, since what gay people want is similar to what Rosa Parks fought for.]

But laws that violate the divine good must be disobeyed even at the price of your life. If a doctor in the military were ordered to perform an abortion, would he be obligated to do so?

We must affirm the transcendence of the person over the state. If you're incapable of affirming moral truth, then the state has won. If you're a relativist, you get your rights from the state. Only if you can affirm that you are endowed with rights by your Creator, as in the Declaration of Independence, can you assert these transcendent rights. You have transcendent rights because you're going to live forever.

Rice said, "I ask you to think about this and pray about it. It comes down to a question of God and the common moral code of society, founded on objective reality, and ultimately God. God is not dead; he's not even tired."

He concluded by saying that "the protesters have my admiration and respect" and we "should convey this to them". [I don't buy it. Real respect means he would have addressed some of his bigoted statements about gays, instead of ruling all questions about them out of bounds at the beginning. He could have easily "conveyed" his respect himself, in person, by going to talk with the protesters before or after his talk.]


Anonymous said...

With all due respect sir, I was there and being a queer individual and an agnostic, I had my disagreements with Prof. Rice. But, I decided to go there with an open mind. I feel as if you somehow did had already made up your mind about this issue, long before you went to the lecture.

In anycase, the only point I would like to make is that going into the lectures, I felt like, I was being judged, by my fellow-queers, professors (who showed up in large numbers)... if the protests were supposed to support queer community, I felt a bit unsafe there.

At the end, I felt, Prof. Rice did deserve some respect, and your summary of the lectures, as you point out in your first paragraph, are certainly biased.

I think my only comment to Prof Rice was,
"I may disagree with what you say but I will fight to the death for your right to say it."
- Voltaire

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Of course my mind was not open, Anonymous, because I spent many hours before the lecture actually reading Rice's writings. A man is judged not on the contents of a single lecture, but his whole body of work.

As for your Voltaire quote, you may want to know that I urged the University administration not to cancel the talk and I also urged the protesters not to try to get it cancelled.

Anonymous said...

At Anonymous: I was one of the protesters, and a queer student. I think its great you went to the talk. I think more of us should have, to show that we're open to freedom of speech. That said, I do agree that a lot of Rice's writings really do deserve the criticism that is provided in this post. If Rice respected us, he could have dialogued with us, instead of sneaking in the back.

tarobins said...

I was considering after the lecture at what point should the university not allow someone to come lecture here. I certainly think Dr. Rice was in the realm of an acceptable lecturer, even with some bigoted statements and more subtle suggestions of intolerance that he's made. However, is there a point where having someone lecture at the school damages it's reputation, either because the lecturer has made statements that are too intolerant or is lecturing on a topic that is too non-sensical?

I realize there's no answer to this question, but I'm just curious what you or anyone else thinks.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Well, Columbia University invited Iranian President Ahmadinejad to speak. That's a pretty bold move with possible negative repercussions.

There's also many attempts by creationists and other pseudoscientists to try to get invited to speak at universities (or schedule conferences at universities) to try to claim scientific legitimacy for their views.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite professors, Jeffrey Shallit, attended the recent Charles Rice lecture and wrote up a brief summary with comments.
Part I
Part II
Q/A Session

(Personally, I was amazed at the level of arguments presented by this "professor", kind of afraid of what he could be teaching in Law class...)

FYI, Jeff, I second this observation taken from

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I forgot to add to Anonymous who thinks "your summary of the lectures, as you point out in your first paragraph, are certainly biased": feel free to correct me on anything.

KeithB said...

Well, a good movie review can tell you whether *you* would like a movie or not, no matter whether the reviewer liked or disliked the movie.

John Pieret said...

Jeff ...

Thanks for the summary. While I am, as you know, not particularly hostile to the religious, this sounds rather bad.

"How can you tell who is right?"

Umm ... could Rice actually hold that we can't tell the difference between Hitler and Francis of Assisi (at least the one of legend) without reading the Bible? Is it "relativism" to acknowledge what virtually anyone who has two neurons to rub together would admit?

Rice continues in the tradition of giving "religious thought" a bad name.

Anonymous said...

Professor, I'm anonymous who quoted Voltaire.

I have taken sometime off to do some reflection, on my own, on this whole controversy and certainly I'm surprised that you only have disagreements with everything Rice said. The only positive note I found was that he looks like 65 though he is 80...which somehow doesn't sit well with me, but I suppose, I should write my own blog if I wanted to say positive things about Rice.

As a result, I shall focus on your comments.

"... Rice behaved almost as if it were an undergraduate lecture... "

By this statements, you are suggesting that professors aren't well-prepared for their undergrad lectures. If this was the first lecture of a semester course, I would certainly stop going to class.

"It's like Rice never heard of any other legal theory. How about John Rawls and his Theory of Justice?"

Let me clarify on this, as Rice did a poor job here too. Philosophy of law, an underlying theme of his talk, is concerned with philosophical issues arising in law and legal institutions. Questions like, "what is law?" and "what should it be?" are raised within the domain of philosophy of law.

John Rawls' Theory of Justice is not, as you claim it, a legal theory. Its a work in political philosophy as it relates to social justice. Questions like "what is a just society?", "how to achieve it?" are expounded here.

There are two (some say three or four) theories in philosophy of law. Natural law and legal positivism are the most important ones, and the other one is legal realism, but I personally feel that it is the same as legal positivism. I felt like Rice did provide valid arguments against legal positivism. Though, I don't believe in Rice's version of natural law, as I don't think, I can be certain of God's existence or non-existence. If anyone likes to know more about any of these theories, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a good resource, I'm certainly not an expert in this area, so I shall refrain from explaining them.

"Again, why should we base our reasoning & law on what some 13th century philosopher, ignorant of biology and neurophysiology, said? In modern biology the idea that a "basic inclination" of an organism is the "preservation of the species" is laughable; that's group selection."

Here is what I think:

First, soundness of reasoning has nothing to do with era it is from. If an argument is reasonable, it is reasonable forever. I think, this is more of a comment than an argument against your statement.

Secondly, the practice and conception of law, like it or not, is heavily based on Roman and Greek tradition more than science of present day. Aristotle is possibly one of the most influential figure, if not the most, in law. This 13th century philosopher you speak of hardly did anything more than simply comment and expand on Aristotle's work.

Every law school has at least one faculty member who specializes in philosophy of law, and usually, but not always, this faculty member holds cross-appointments with classics and/or philosophy department as they usually are interested in ancient philosophy.

" modern physics, it is possible to create a system that is both vibrating and not vibrating at the same time. The real world could well be more complicated than simple Aristotelian logic might suggest."

Correct me if I am wrong, but this is also formal logic?

"A little ironic that he would refer to Rosa Parks, since what gay people want is similar to what Rosa Parks fought for."

EXACTLY! This is what I was going to ask during question period. But, the idiot in the audience kept on asking question about God's existence and moral truth.

Thanks for posting the summary.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Thank you for your perspective, Anonymous.