Reflections on Reason: Response to Schindler, part 1

I started reading this week D.C. Schindler’s The Catholicity of Reason (2013). It is an excellent work of philosophy that profoundly challenges our modern notions of reason and truth. It is a difficult read (I can only process a few pages at a time and I have to re-read many paragraphs), but far worth the effort. Since most of the people that read this blog will never pick up the book, I would like to share and interpret some of its important ideas with you. Doing so will help me digest and internalize what I am reading by explaining it in my own words.

Schindler uses “catholic” in the sense of universal, or “according to the whole.” Reason is a way of knowing universal truths, a way of knowing that extends beyond our immediate perceptions in space and time. Through reason we make inferences – logical conclusions from truths we know to truths we didn’t know. Through reason we discern coherence, which is an essential quality of meaning. Through reason, we make generalizations from experience so that we can learn from our experiences across time.

Historically, reason as a way of knowing is associated with the Enlightenment, which is commonly called the Age of Reason. The philosophers of this era hoped that reason would lead to certain knowledge of all things. This modern optimism toward reason has been countered in the 20 and 21st century with postmodern skepticism, which emphasizes the limitations and even liabilities of reason. Postmodern thought characteristically rejects the possibility of knowing universal truths and is suspicious of the “totalizing” (imposing artificial absolutes on the world) effects of the primacy of reason. It criticizes the “arrogance” produced by the belief that reason can lead to absolute certainty.

Schindler argues, surprisingly, that the problem with modernism is not that it put too much faith in reason, but too little; not that it made reason too expansive, but not expansive enough. Contra post-modernism, he argues that the only way to resist “totalizing” is not to limit reason’s excesses, but to embrace its “wholeness.”

According to Schindler, there are four senses in which reason is catholic:

(1) It is defined by its relation to being as a whole, and (2) it involves the whole person in its specific operation, (3) it always grasps the (whole as) universal, on the one hand and (4) the (whole as) concrete, composite being or individual thing in each particular act, on the other hand.

I will close this post commenting why these principles are especially important to grasp in our cultural moment.

(1). In spite of being more connected via technology to the rest of the world, we see ourselves more and more as atomistic individuals, and less and less as members of a community. We live moment to moment, historically disconnected, not understanding our relation to the whole of time. We need to recover a sense of how we are related to the whole of reality; reason enables us to do this.

(2). Our internal lives are fragmented. Reason is divorced from emotion; the mind from the heart.  We associate the rational with public life and science, but our private lives and religion are the domain of the irrational. Matters of faith, beauty, meaning are cutoff from matters of fact/truth. We need to recover sense of how all aspects of our being are involved in engaging with reality.

(3) We are skeptical about the possibility of knowing universal truths and are even ashamed to claim to know them, believing that it is offensive to those who do accept our claims, and fearing that such claims threaten diversity. We need to recover confidence in human capacity for knowing universals, for the progressive search for them brings meaning to human existence.

(4) We do have to reckon, though, with a cultural history that has devalued concrete particulars and diversity in the pursuit of universals, whether that be from religious or secular totalitarianism, from the right or the left, seeking to impose a monolithic view of reality and squash dissent. We need to recover a way of knowing that affirms unity (universals) and differences (particulars)

Why Tough Teachers Often Have a Tough Time – part 1

Private schools can be the hardest places for tough teachers. I know of a teacher, lets call him Mr. White, who taught science and math at a religious private school (that will go unnamed to protect the reputation of the school – this is a true story). He came to the school worn down by some of the typical trials of a public school (unmotivated students, regular behavior disruptions, etc.), expecting things to be different. And they were. With involved parents (most of them) in mostly stable family situations, the students were much more respectful and studious than those in the public school from which he came.

He also expected that these students would achieve more academically, be more diligent and embrace a higher level of rigor. A private school, after all, was free from the shackles of AYP (annual yearly progress), which measures a high school’s success by such metrics as graduation rate, which at his public school had led to persistent pressure not to fail students in classes required for graduation. There would be a freedom to evaluate students more honestly by the criteria set by the school, and fewer failures because the parents were directly paying for the education.

Some of these expectations turned out to be wrong. While the private school students did, on average, work harder, and while fewer failed, there was even more scrutiny of the grades, but by parents more than administrators, and more complaining by the students. The scrutiny was not focused on failures but whether the children were making As and Bs. Cs, and sometimes even Bs, were regarded as unacceptable grades by many, and teachers often had to defend these marks to parents in the presence of administrators. The complaining was not only about the grades, but also about methods of instruction. “She’s not teaching us!” was the common refrain. They said this because the teacher was employing novel, pedagogically sound methods when the students were used to being spoonfed facts which they would then regurgitate on tests. By the middle of the year, the exhausted teacher was spending hours each week in parent-teacher conferences and in consultations with administration.

Mr.White drew inspiration, though, from the many students that were flourishing because they were responding to the challenges set before them with a persevering attitude. These students quietly brought Cs up to Bs and Bs up to As, and were building confidence in their ability to master difficult subjects. Meanwhile, he was struggling with her 2nd year advanced chemistry students who could not master higher level chemistry because their foundation was so weak. These were among the top students and had earned As in first year chemistry under the previous teacher. He was confident that the students earning As in her first year course were acquiring a much stronger foundation.

This proved to be the case the following year. In spite of the trouble with parent and student complaints, Mr. White returned for a 2nd year, enjoying strong support from the principal. Her advanced, 2nd year students were far more capable, and he was excited to build on this foundation with them so that they could earn college credit for Chemistry (last year’s advanced students earned no credit). Unfortunately, midway through the year, he was fired, even though he was under contract (private schools have more freedom to do that). The reasons were not made plain to him, except that students continued to complain (though not the advanced chemistry students) and certain, influential parents wanted him gone. The decision had nothing to do with the demonstrable academic results her students were achieving. On the Monday after Thanksgiving break, he was told to move his things by the next day; he would not be allowed to finish the year.

Private schools, especially newer ones that are not well established and therefore are not financially secure, can become hostile places for tough, demanding teachers to work for the simple reasons that grades are influenced by money. Administrators are anxious to lose students because of the resulting loss of revenues, so there is financial pressure to give students the grades they and their parents expect. So the relationship is not direct, e.g. parents paying more for their students to get better grades, but the possibility for administrator’s judgment of teachers to become biased by dollar signs is very real.

This story raises the question: are public schools different from private schools concerning the impact of money on grades? Theoretically, they should be free from such influence because parents are not paying directly for the education. But are there ways that public funding and other factors can corrupt grading and make things difficult for tough teachers in public schools? These are questions I will explore in subsequent posts.

My Letter to Indiana Governor Mike Pence

Dear Gov. Pence,

As a former IN resident, and concerned Christian and constitutionalist, I have been watching with keen interest the news this week about the response to your state’s passing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. For what it is worth, I am writing to encourage you to stand your ground against the forces that are aligned against you.  The firestorm you are facing should come as no surprise, as it is created by forces in this culture that are maligned against the kind of religious freedom envisioned by the U.S. Constitution.  Your opponents on this issue believe that religion convictions are fine, so long as they are kept private.  They oppose those who would seek to act on their convictions in public.  But their opposition is not principled; it is discriminatory, selective: it supports the expression of moral convictions based on religious beliefs that they agree with (for all moral convictions are manifestation of some kind of religious faith), but seeks to suppress those they do not.  More grievously, they want to use the state to enforce their own convictions on the rest of us.  They seek to trump the first freedoms of the Constution with a presumed freedom to act out one’s desires without having to worry about being judged or offended by anyone who disagrees with them.

So, please sir, take the patient and long view here.  The opposition will soon fade but in the end you can rest assured that the citizens of Indiana will be freer in the truest sense of the word.

Kind regards,

Jeremy Noonan

Can State Governments Impose Religious Beliefs on Private Business Owners? – Arlene’s Flowers v. Ferguson


A news report out of Washington State reenergized my interest in writing about the threats to First Amendment Rights in this country, largely from those who hold to the doctrine that sexual freedom is an ultimate right.  According to the Daily Signal, a Washington judge ruled this week that a 70 year old florist was guilty of violating the states anti-discrimination laws when she refused to make floral arrangements for a gay wedding. In his 60-page opinion, the judge writes: “No court has ever held that religiously motivated conduct, expressive or otherwise, trumps state discrimination law in public accommodations. Religious motivation does not excuse compliance with the law.”

It is worth nothing in this case that the florist, Mrs. Barronelle Stutzman, gladly serves gay customers, and the man who filed the lawsuit was a long-time customer of hers.  But when he asked her to provide services for his wedding, she declined on grounds of conscience informed by her Christian faith.  She recalls: “I put my hand on his and said, ‘I’m sorry Rob, I can’t do your wedding because of my relationship with Jesus Christ. We talked a little bit, we talked about his mom [walking him down the aisle]…we hugged and he left.”

The court ruling ignores the difference between moral discrimination and amoral discrimination.  To “discriminate” simply means to recognize a distinction between.  Thus moral discrimination means to recognize the difference between good and evil.  Every human being does this; it is a function of the human conscience.  The kind of discrimination that has come to give the word such a toxic connotation is of an amoral nature.  It is a prejudicial judgment of a person’s worth based on characteristics that lack moral properties. The reason while racial discrimination is generally unjust is because it, as MLK Jr. famously said, judges someone “by the color of their skin, not the content of their character.” Other amoral characteristics that may be a basis for discrimination include gender and age.

As an aside, it is highly questionable whether the government ought to regulate even amoral discrimination in the first place, especially over private businesses. The oft quoted liberal aphorism (used in relation to eliminating anti-abortion and anti-sodomy laws) that it is not the government’s job to legislate morality applies here. Our country has a tradition of upholding private business owner’s freedom of association (i.e. freedom to refuse business on any grounds they see fit).  Thus, even if a business owner discriminates on amoral grounds, and such behavior is morally objectionable, why should the government get involved in the first place? People should be able, normally, do to business with whom they please.  The free market will punish those who turn away business and thus lose market share or refuse to hire the most qualified employees based on such characteristics.

But this ruling in Washington goes beyond such discrimination and attempts to regulate moral discrimination of private citizens. That is it seeks to use the force of the state to coerce people into suppressing moral judgments the state disagrees with, and act according to those moral judgments the state approves of.

In this case, Mrs. Stutzman, on religious grounds, finds gay marriage to be objectionable. This is not some fringe, cultish religious conviction, but one that is held by tens, if not hundreds, of millions of U.S. Citizens, and represents consensus across all major religious traditions. It is firmly grounded in widely and sincerely held religious belief. She believes that she would be sinning against God if she supported a gay wedding by providing services for it. You may disagree with her moral convictions, and her religious basis for them, but the U.S. Constitution constrains the state from using its power to suppress the expression of them. Clearly, the state of Washington’s anti-discrimination laws are prohibiting her free exercise of religion.

But they are doing even more than that. I argue that such rulings interpret anti-discrimination laws in such a way as to establish religious belief. This is because they are forcing people to accept an certain concept of marriage which is not and indeed cannot be religiously neutral. The state of WA is in effect saying, “You cannot express publicly this religious-based belief that marriage should only be between one man and one woman; instead, you can only express publicly the state sanctioned belief that marriage is whatever arrangement two adults please.” These beliefs about marriage are themselves derived from faith commitments concerning the purpose of human existence, the meaning of life, the nature of man, etc. And in instances like these throughout the country, state and local governments are punishing those that disagree with these doctrines and express disagreement publicly.

Friends, such actions are a threat to our fundamental freedoms. I urge you to fight for our First Amendment rights to differentiate between right and wrong on religious grounds and act publicly on such judgments. Without this first freedom, other freedoms will gradually be eroded.

The Hobbit and the Problem of Disordered Affections: Thematic Analysis of The Battle of the Five Armies


The final installment of the Hobbit films (and of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien-based movies) opened this weekend.  While I concur with the critical voices of the Hobbit trilogy that the story was strung out artificially out of corporate greed and that the violence of these films was excessive, betraying the essence of the Hobbit as a children’s story, I commend Peter Jackson for continuing to portray faithfully Tolkien’s vision of the nature of evil and understanding of the corruptibility of human nature.

The newest Hobbit film tells the story of the aftermath of the dwarfs’ recapture of the Lonely Mountain. Having driven the dragon Smaug from their ancestral home, the dwarfs can now reclaim the hordes of gold and other treasure that were guarded by the dragon.  Thorin, the heir to the dwarf throne and leader of the company, soon succumbs to “dragon-sickness” – an psycho-spiritual condition, akin to greed, induced by the gold.  The “dragon-sickness” manifests itself in stubborn pride (Thorin refuses to listen to the council of friends) and in self-centered obsession with his treasure (he also refuses to give over any of it to those making legitimate claims on it).  Though Thorin is the rightful king, he is not sovereign:  the gold is sovereign over him to the point where he will sacrifice both his integrity and his friends to it.  He sacrifices his integrity by not honoring his promises to the men of Lake Town, promises he made publicly to reward them for their help after his people were originally invaded and exiled by Smaug.  He is willing to sacrifice his friends by plunging them into an unnecessary war against the men and elves making claim on the treasure.

The story makes Thorin’s folly clear:  he is taking something that ought to be valued more (integrity and friends) and subordinating it to something that ought to be valued less (treasure).  The consequences are unmistakably disastrous.  Renowned 4th century theologian Saint Augustine understood that all humans participate in Thorin’s folly.  He understood that human’s hearts are profoundly sick with disordered loves:  that is things we ought to love less, we love more, and vice versa. Augustine writes that we need to re-order our loves:

But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally. (On Christian Doctrine, I.27-28)

In other words, an objective economy of things exists (integrity and friends are really more important than material riches) and our personal valuing of things (our loves) ought to be in harmony with this moral order.  When our loves are not aligned with this objective order, they are disordered.  This disordering is the essence of sin and it inevitably unleashes destructive forces into our world:  our hidden disordering in our hearts results inevitably in the disordering of our lives. As C.S. Lewis observed, when our loves our disordered it destroys our enjoyment of everything:

The woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping.

The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication.

It is a glorious thing to feel for a moment or two that the whole meaning of the universe is summed up in one woman—glorious so long as other duties and pleasures keep tearing you away from her. But clear the decks and so arrange your life (it is sometimes feasible) that you will have nothing to do but contemplate her, and what happens?

Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice is made.

. . . You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.

Of course, God occupies the highest place of this order; people follow.  This is why integrity (who we are before God’s all knowing eye) and friendship is more important than material things. Only we order our loves rightly can we relate to God, people, and things as we ought.  C.S. Lewis again echoes Augustine’s theme:

To love you as I should, I must worship God as Creator. When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. In so far as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.

Ordering our loves rightly is an ongoing struggle won by repentance.  This is what Thorin has to do: turn from regarding his gold as most important and put his integrity and friends in their proper place.  Only then is his will enabled to do what is right. May God help us do likewise!

When Rights Conflict, part 2: How to Determine which Rights are Natural

The question of how to determine which rights are natural seems difficult to answer conclusively.  My attempt to establishing some guiding principles here are not informed by a proper education in law or moral philosophy, so I expect and invite critique.  I will begin with what I think is intuitively obvious: a right is natural if it is derived from what is ‘natural’ in man or an innate characteristic of human nature.

An innate characteristic of human nature would be, by definition, universal:  applying to humans across time and space. It would not be contingent, therefore, on when or where one lives and thus not vary with factors that change with space and time. An example would be the possession of a moral conscience.  Humans by nature are moral agents, having a moral sense by which we judge ourselves and others’ actions.  While some moral standards may vary among cultures present and past, the presence and execution of moral standards does not: to be human is to possess a sense of oughtness. Hence, a right to freedom of conscience, being derived from this innate quality, is a natural right.

Conversely, a socially-constructed right would be derived from some quality that is ‘unnatural’ – a characteristic that is not innate but contingent on circumstances (and can therefore be ‘alienated,’ i.e. separated from us).  Abilities (what we are capable of doing) are such a characteristic.  Abilities vary from culture to culture, across space and time, because of technology.  For instance, we now have the ability to control birth artificially – an ability that has increased dramatically in the last 100 years.  This ability has given rise to the idea that we have a right to contraception, and not just the freedom to practice it but the expectation that the state enable it by forcing the public to pay for it.  This cannot be a natural right, though, for the simple reason that cannot be had by nature of being human:  it can only be had by humans who live at a time and place where they have a certain ability.

The conflict between these two rights was the issue in the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case.  The Court had to decide whether to uphold freedom of conscience against claims to a right to contraception.  I’ll look at this case more in depth in my next post.

When Rights Conflict, Part 1: Natural Rights versus Socially-Constructed Rights

First Amendment rights increasingly collide with other rights in our courts.   The right to equal protection under the law clashes with the right to exercise one’s conscience freely when Christian business owners refuse to service gay marriages.  A right to health care conflicts with the free expression of religion when a religious school refuses to cover certain contraceptives in its health insurance plans.  When rights conflict, how do we know which rights should take precedent?

This question may be too complex to take on in the medium of a blog.  It’s a question that I recently raised in the Ethics portion of my Theory of Knowledge class. Answering it requires an exploration of the nature of rights.

The Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution is based on the Enlightenment notion of natural rights.  A belief in natural rights is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Rights are described as “unalienable,” a term borrowed from property law.  James Rogers explains, “An “alienable” right over property means that the property can be sold or given away by the owner. Property that is “inalienable” cannot be transferred by the owner (First Things, “Rights You Can’t Give Away,” June 2012).” Hence, “unalienable” signifies something that cannot be given or taken away.  A natural right is unalienable because it is not foreign or external to human nature (such that it could be given away), but inherent in human nature (and thus cannot be given away since it is inseparable from us).  So while I can give my time and treasure to the State (alienable), I cannot give away my conscience (inalienable).

In contrast to natural rights, which the State recognizes and secures, socially-constructed rights are invented and conferred by the State.  They are not inherent to human nature, but are contingent on the power of the State.  Simply, natural rights are discovered while socially-constructed rights are created.  Thus, natural rights are the same for all humans everywhere, transcending time and space, whereas socially-constructed rights vary with time and space.

This distinction may help resolve conflicts in rights.  If the conflict (meaning that protecting legally one right requires violating another) is between a natural right and a socially-constructed right, , the natural right should upheld first Natural rights should take precedent because they constrain the power of the state, setting limits on what demands the state can make of us. Rights that originate with State power cannot by nature restrain State power:  if the State creates them, the State can violate them.

This argument requires, of course, that one can discern which rights are natural: a question I will explore in my next post.