Skepticism and Certainty

And this I pray, that your charity may more and more abound in knowledge, and in all understanding: that you may approve the better things.

Philippians 1:9-10

In a profoundly pertinent and provocatively penetrating essay, Gary Saul Morrison explores the wise skepticism of Leo Tolstoy.

Against those who believe that human affairs can be reduced to a science, Tolstoy’s fictional heroes demonstrate that “wisdom begins with the recognition that one cannot possibly take all contingencies into account,” and that “surprise belongs to the very nature of things.”

On the eve of the battle of Austerlitz, Russian and Austrian generals burn the midnight oil, while their commander Kutuzov dozes. He realizes that no amount of “military science” can anticipate the factors that will decide the morrow’s victory or defeat, whereas the alacrity required to see and respond to those factors may depend on “a good night’s sleep.”

Levin is “like other progressive landowners,” whose attempts to “modernize his estate according to the latest scientific methods from abroad” runs aground on the shoals of the “elemental” and unshakable habits of the Russian peasantry. Humbled by his failure, he acknowledges the wisdom of a peasant family who have prospered by adapting new techniques to “local conditions and traditional practices.”

Morrison is correct to link the futile scientism Tolstoy castigates to the totalitarian tendencies of our own age. As philosophers from Plato to Thomas More emphasized, “nothing causes more evil than attempts to abolish evil altogether.”

Where Morrison falters is in believing we can resist technocracy by rallying around the flag of resolute and unadulterated skepticism.

“Suppose a Turk were about to murder a Bulgarian baby right before your eyes,” Levin is asked. “Wouldn’t you kill him if necessary?” Morrison praises Levin’s diffident response: “He does not know. He would have to decide on the moment.”

Morrison understands that “from a philosopher’s point of view, this answer makes no sense because it fails to specify the criteria that would guide Levin’s decision.” Given the “many unforeseeable contingencies [that] might operate” in such a scenario, he insists, “it is better to trust to the spontaneous action of the moment guided by wisdom acquired over a lifetime” than to “theory.”

Taken this far, skepticism quite literally throws the baby out with the bathwater. Such “wisdom” misses the most crucial point of all: that just as sound theory recognizes the contingency of affairs, and therefore the irreducible need for prudence in human affairs, so too does prudence depend on knowing what principles to apply when variable circumstances arise.

If scientism ridiculously seeks to pick fruit from a plant with hypertrophic base and an undergrown stem, skepticism ignores the fact that no trunk grows strong, and no limbs bear fruit, without a firm and extensive root system.

This is worth pondering today, when a totalitarian technocracy behaves very much like the aforementioned Turk, slaughtering millions of our babies, and blocking the birth of millions more, in the name of an increasingly preposterous conception of progress.

What are aspiringly sane souls prepared to do in response? We can neither “abolish evil altogether,” nor remain complacent in its monstrous presence.

What we desperately need is knowledge of the first truths, and understanding of how to affirm them in the face of satanic suppression.

For this, nothing but a healthy grafting of skepticism and certainty will suffice.

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The Caring Curmudgeon

J. R. R. Tolkein, Oxford professor and author of the (pre-cinematic) Lord of the Rings trilogy, was among those Catholics deeply rooted in the traditions of their faith, who lived to see those customs violently uprooted in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council.

Years ago I was delighted to hear his grandson tell of his conduct at Mass, when the tongue had suddenly (and forcibly) changed from Latin to English. In exquisite curmudgeonly form, he “made all the responses very loudly in Latin,” human respect be damned.

It is even more satisfying, though hardly surprising, to find that the wizened Inkling, writing from the repose of his hearth or study, articulated his objections to the craze for drastic liturgical change in more discursive terms.

As Tolkein understood, changes that could hardly be justified as conducive to the spiritual health of Christ’s flock were being rationalized in terms of ressourcement: a supposed recovery of what was falsely portrayed as an older and purer form of the faith.

Acknowledging that the quest for “simplicity” in religion “contains some good or at least intelligible motives,” Tolkein nonetheless dismissed the movement as “mistaken and indeed vain.”

Borrowing the parable of the mustard seed, he noted that Our Lord intended his Church to be a “living organism,” “which develops and changes in externals by the interaction of its bequeathed divine life and history.”

This changeability, however, does not mean that the “externals” of faith are subject to whimsical modification by man.

To the contrary, though “the wise may know” that the mustard tree, great as it is, began as a tiny seed, it would be a murderously incompetent gardener who concluded that the proper care of such a plant requires clipping it down to its original dimensions.

Though a skilled caretaker, in tending the tree, will “prune it, remove cankers, rid it of parasites and so forth,” he will do even this “with trepidation, knowing how little [his] knowledge of growth is!”

In truth, Tolkein reminds us, “grave abuses were as much an element in Christian liturgical behavior from the beginning as now,” as evidenced by “St. Paul’s strictures on Eucharistic behavior.”

With time, the seed that Christ planted took on a shape subject to overgrowth, blight, and infestation, but readily able in its majestic features to lead souls to the Father through the Son, by the guidance of the Holy Ghost.

The liturgy is of course still able to accomplish this feat, but more effectively when its guardians remember their place as stewards, caring for the treasures bequeathed to humankind, with fear and trembling.

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The Benefits of Bad Fortune

St. Severinus Boethius (480-524) was no stranger to Fortune, good or bad. Having risen to fame as a preeminent scholar and statesman, he was later imprisoned and then executed for daring to defend the Roman Senate against the raging tyrant, Theodoric.

In his Consolation of Philosophy, Lady Philosophy helps Boethius to recognize the benefits of getting to know her competitor, Lady Fortuna, in both of her guises.

Strange as it is to say, “Fortune is of more benefit when she is adverse than when she brings prosperity.”

This is because “happy Fortune uses her allurements to draw men astray from the true Good, but adverse Fortune, for the most part, uses her claw to drag men back to the things that are good.”

Can this lady be serious? Sensing our disbelief, Philosophy continues:

“Do you think it should be considered a small thing that this bitter and horrible Fortune has uncovered for you the hearts of your friends who are faithful?”

How much would Boethius, wealthy and powerful, have paid to know who truly meant him well, and who was merely using him for his temporal advantages?

In the event, this information cost him every penny in his possession, and more. Since genuine friends are “the most precious form of riches,” however, the bargain turned out well, enabling him to die a truly wealthy man.

Those of us accustomed to living in an age of wealth and liberty are beginning to get acquainted with the other side of fickle Fortune. God willing, the fate of our civilization may yet prove happier than the Boethius’s earthly end.

If so, however, it will only be because we were finally disabused of certain delusions about whom to trust, and whom to regard as foes.

For teaching this invaluable lesson, we may also incur a substantial debt to our good friend, bad Fortune.

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Doubting Darwin

Discussing a trove of fossils unearthed several decades ago in Southern China, paleontologist J. Y. Chen was quite frank about its evidentiary incompatibility with “orthodox” Darwinian theory.

“In China, we can criticize Darwin, but not the government,” he observed. “In America, you can criticize the government, but not Darwin.”

That was a political eon ago, in the year 2000. Thanks to the herculean efforts of our ruling class, things have progressed to the point where neither great-uncle Charlie, nor government agents in compliance with wokeocratic principles, may safely be questioned.

Unless one is content to be ostracized by one’s indoctrinated peers, or added to the FBI’s list of probable domestic terrorists.

In Darwin’s Doubt, Stephen Meyer demonstrates why doubting Darwin is worth the hassle. Following his argument, and his example, may inspire us to take similarly courageous stands in other matters where the science of despotism has overtaken the genuine pursuit of truth.

Darwin himself was well aware that the fossil record contradicts his hypothesis that every living species is descended from a common ancestor, by a process combining random variation and the natural selection of the fittest offspring.

If Darwin is right, the geological “books” should provide evidence of a “tree of life,” beginning with fewer and simpler organisms, and branching gradually into the cornucopia of creatures, great and small, with which our planet is teeming today.

Instead, what Darwin saw was a mostly blank canvas, suddenly populated with a host of complex life forms, possessing no apparent ancestors, followed by variations within these larger groupings.

The only solution Darwin could conceive to this problem was to articulate the expectation that, someday, someone would discover the multitude of missing links necessary to render his theory plausible.

As Meyer meticulously documents, precisely the opposite has happened. Subsequent fossil finds have vastly enriched our knowledge of the history of life, but they have only accentuated the fact that Darwin’s map of biological development is drawn upside down.

Amazingly, leading scientists have responded to the mounting evidence against Darwin, not by questioning his hypothesis, much less looking for an alternative to it. Instead, they have doubled down on his claims, inventing ever more elaborate models to explain away the scandalous lack of actual evidence in support of his theory.

Darwin’s Doubt, though critical of Darwin and Neo-Darwinism, reads in part like a sympathetic history of evolutionary theory. This is because Meyer, in true Thomistic form, presents the strongest version of each succeeding theory, before exposing the gaping holes that make one after the other unseaworthy.

It is not only a matter of fossils. The book provides a painstaking review of the nature and function of DNA, as well as the “epigenetic” (non-DNA) sources of information productive of the cells, tissues, organs, and systems constituting the machinery of living organisms.

The upshot of Meyer’s infinitely patient probings is to demonstrate the statistical impossibility of such complex informational systems somehow constructing themselves by random chance; as well as the lack of any concrete and plausible mechanism in the various theories purporting to “prove” that chance could have performed such a myriad of miracles.

As a philosopher of science, Meyer does not shy away from the further question: Why do so many scientists insist on propping up a theory that has collapsed time and again?

The answer, in brief, is that scientists are human, and subject to the same propensity to prejudice and faction as anyone else.

In this case, the faction is that of an ideology that has partly succeeded in colonizing the regnant sectors of scientific societies. In their view, no theory in conflict with “methodological naturalism,” or materialism, is worthy of the name “science.”

In other words, certain persons have decided that science must assume an atheistic stance, whether or not this stance is compatible with that what actual scientists discover about the world.

In truth, one must reply, the meaning of the word science is knowledge; and by extension, the word is properly used to refer to the various methods by which human beings attain knowledge of various aspects of reality.

As Aristotle remarked, the genuinely educated man understands that the method of every science must be suited to the portion of reality on which it focuses.

If it turns out that a given facet of things—for example, the living kingdom—cannot be explained through “methodological naturalism,” then the educated man concludes that methodological naturalism, as sound as it may be for studying bridges and boulders, is unsuitable for advancing our understanding of the origins of biological beings.

Or, as Meyer diplomatically puts it, “philosophers of science generally think it much more important to assess whether a theory is true, or whether the evidence supports it, than whether it should or should not be classified as ‘science.’”

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Mercy in the Morning

It is good to give praise to the Lord:

and to sing to thy name, O most High.

To show forth thy mercy in the morning,

and thy truth in the night.

Psalm 91:1-2

Among my early morning prayers is one commissioned for daily recitation by members of the Confraternity of St. Peter.

Although I would not attribute any significance to the groggy amblings of my half-caffeinated brain, it is good to know that my offering is magnified by combination with that of a host of others, united in gratitude for the work of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.

This society of priests, devoted to the glory of God and sanctification of souls through the celebration of the traditional Catholic Mass and sacraments, was founded in 1988 under the auspices of St. John Paul II. Its very name signifies an intense filial bond to St. Peter and his successors on the Holy Throne.

The confraternity prayer asks the “Almighty and everlasting God” to “have mercy on [his] servant, Francis, our Supreme Pontiff,” directing him “in the ways of eternal salvation,” and begging that, of divine gift, “he may ever desire that which is pleasing unto [God] and may accomplish it with all his might.”

As the good priests of the Fraternity are well aware, there are ominous signs that the Holy Father for whom they faithfully pray, and recruit others to pray, is contemplating steps intended to impede the growth of their apostolate, or even (God forfend) wipe it off the map.

Unless the present train of events is mercifully modified, it seems that trumped up calumnies may be used to excuse the merciless suppression of a movement whose deepest wish is to unleash the infinite mercy of God, through the mediation of Holy Church, upon a world desperately in need of it.

To my knowledge, these hearty souls have not yet flinched. Surely they know, as the Psalmist implies, that if God’s mercy is to show forth in the morning, there must first precede a period of night.

In the darkness of night we cannot see the mercy of God, but by faith we are able to see, and show forth, his unfailing truth.

“The senseless man shall not know: nor will the fool understand,” when the faithful rejoice in the works of the Lord, before those works are manifested to all by the morning light (Ps. 91:7, 5).

In the meantime, we have God’s promise that his enemies shall one day perish. Unless they too repent and learn to beseech his mercy, the light of that approaching day will find the eyes of the just looking down upon them (Ps. 91:10, 12).

Those who desire the mercy of God must remain “planted in the house of the Lord” (Ps. 91:14). Rooted in God’s truth, they need not despair at enduring a season of darkness, for his mercy is coming as surely as the rising of the sun.

For those properly planted, those morning rays will enable us to “grow up like the cedar of Libanus,” mercifully confirming that “the Lord our God is righteous, and there is no iniquity in him” (Ps. 91:13, 15).

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How the Wicked Praise God

“Whether the world wills it or no,” God explains to St. Catherine, “it offers me glory.”

True, the intent of the wicked is to insult God. But the ways of the wicked are not wise, and the fruits of their wickedness are not as anticipated.

From day to day, the “people of the world” may observe that the earth does not open to swallow them up for their sins. Instead, it gives them food to eat, even as the sun warms them, and the sky encompasses them with its beauty.

In the conceit of their hearts, they may take this as evidence that there is no God, or that he approves of their crimes. When in truth, these gifts are signs of God’s mercy and charity.

In this life, God often bestows a greater abundance of created things on sinners than on the just, but only because he reserves for the latter a greater abundance of “the goods of heaven.”

As for the just, God sometimes shows mercy to them in a strange way: by permitting “the persecutions the world’s servants inflict on them, proving in them the virtues of patience and charity.”

When we suffer such persecutions “by offering constant humble prayer,” the virtues fostered within us by grace turn oppression “into glory and praise” for God’s name.

In this way, “whether the wicked will it or not,” they glorify God.

Let us humbly pray that those now praising God in this wicked fashion will have mercy on themselves, and learn to glorify their loving Father in a more just and profitable manner.

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Loving the Unneighborly

Not every neighbor is lovable. When our Lord commanded us, “love thy neighbor as thyself,” he was himself addressing a gathering of neighbors—the Pharisees—who regarded him as an enemy (Mt. 22:34-46).

“Hearing that he had silenced the Sadducees,” they might have paused to give thanks, but instead they took it as an opportunity to expose his deficiencies in an area they believed to be under their own masterful control: the Mosaic law.

Christ’s verbal answer to their question, “which is the great commandment in the law,” is unimpeachable: to love God first, and in like manner one’s neighbor as oneself.

Implicit in loving one’s neighbor as oneself, when one loves God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind, is the desire to see one’s neighbor love God in a similar fashion.

It follows that, if one finds one’s neighbor in a state of rebellion against God—and who has not been in such a state, at least occasionally, if not habitually?—one will seek to rescue him from that damnable predicament, if at all possible.

Our Lord is therefore demonstrating love of neighbor when he proceeds to expose the ignorance of the Pharisees, about the very identity of the God they pretend to serve.

“What think you of Christ? Whose son is he?” Easy enough, they believe: “David’s.”

“How then does David in spirit call him Lord, saying: The Lord said to my Lord, sit on my right hand, until I make thy enemies thy footstool?”

Why would David call his son Lord?

“No man,” the Pharisees included, “was able to answer him a word; neither durst any man from that day forth ask him any more questions.”

In the first instance, our Lord stumps the Pharisees by demonstrating that his claim to be the Son of God is not contrary to, but a fulfillment of the law they wrongly pride themselves in teaching.

Even more, however, Christ is reminding them what awaits those who, like these envious neighbors, make themselves his enemies. They who think to silence him by handing him over to crucifixion, will soon find themselves in the painful position of propping up his lower extremities.

The love our Lord is modelling for us here is a tough love, indeed. As Christians, we ought not to fear admonishing our brothers, for the alternative—abandoning them to a fate no one ought to wish on his worst enemy—is the opposite of charity.

At the same time, let us not forget that charity—including tough love—begins at home. Before we can assist the unneighborly neighbor staring us down, we need to examine another neighbor whose face is harder to see, but whose attitude may be even more hostile to our wellbeing: the neighbor within.

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Keeping the Constitution Alive

Among the “long train of abuses and usurpations” perpetrated under color of British authority, the Declaration of Independence lists one whose phrasing is downright curious: “the present King of Great-Britain” has “combined with others to subject us to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our Laws.”

To what constitution are the colonials referring? Certainly not the one drafted eleven years later, under the color of which we are once again being subject to a long train of execrable abuses.

No. The constitution they here invoke is not the one whose opening lines are “We the People.” In fact, it is not a written document at all. It is instead the “unwritten constitution” of the English People.

Despite their textual invisibility, these men were willing to stake their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor on the proposition that the principles of that constitution, rooted in “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” constrained their government to secure the rights of its members.

Any governor refusing to comply with these standards, they concluded, is “unfit to be the Ruler of a free People,” who therefore, following the dictates of prudence, are authorized to “dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with” such a fraudulent figure.

Fast forward a few years, to 1795. The Supreme Court of the United States, in Chisholm v. Georgia, had erroneously declared that Article III of the People’s new Constitution stripped their state governments of the “sovereign immunity” granted under common law to all legitimate governments, protecting them from nuisance lawsuits.

In the Eleventh Amendment to said Constitution, the People do not demean themselves by reinstituting a rule their highest Court had pretended to rescind. No. They simply clarify that “The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity” in violation of that inviolable principle.

In other words, they say to the Supreme Court: “Hands off our Constitution!” Sovereign immunity need not be reinstituted, since it was never abolished, the Court’s incompetent act notwithstanding.

What conclusion do I draw from these more than merely historical anecdotes?

Written or unwritten, a Constitution lives nowhere unless it lives in the hearts of its People. That life will never survive the delicate ministrations of society’s elites, unless the latter are held in check by the people themselves. And the people will not succeed at holding their leaders in check, unless they know and love their Constitution—enough to die for it if necessary.

On this Constitution Day, I ask Dear Reader: It’s September 17th, 2021—do you know where your Constitution is?

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Wreaking Holy Havoc

A certain minor celebrity, alternately smiling and scowling at us from his awkward perch atop Holy Mother Church, has repeatedly instructed us as follows, in his native Spanish: Hagan lo!

Given the tenacity with which this man has steered from one scandal into another, it’s hard to shake the impression that the kind of mess he wants the faithful to make bears a distinct resemblance to that produced by an untrained puppy.

But as our Lord said of the Pharisees (Mt. 23:1-3), Jorge Bergoglio has “sitten on the chair” of Peter, and therefore we ought (insofar as reason permits) to “observe and do” whatsoever he says—so long as we use caution before acting according to his works.

All this is to suggest that we look into a vastly underappreciated phenomenon that the Holy Father, in his curious way, may be bringing to our attention for Providential purposes: the propensity of saintly Christians, when faced with tyranny and terror, to respond by wreaking holy havoc.

Take, for instance, St. Richard Gwyn. This middle class scholar, who found Oxford not worth his while, and was booted from Cambridge for refusing to acknowledge Queen Elizabeth as Supreme Governor of the Church, was content to spend the rest of his life as “a teacher of Welsh children.”

Teaching is considered a quiet life, but Gwyn was not a bashful soul. His contempt for Anglican services, in which “in place of an altar there is a miserable table,” and “in place of Christ there is bread,” caught the attention of his local bishop, who leaned on him to go along with the crowd, despite his convictions.

After once caving in, Richard was attacked by crows and fell terribly sick. He got the memo, and never willingly offended his Lord again.

Initially, Gwyn sought to escape persecution by fleeing (with his family) from one city to another (Mt. 10:23). His first imprisonment ended with his escape, and he evaded recapture for over a year. From June of 1580 to his torturous execution in October of 1584, however, our saint was at the mercy of merciless captors.

Dragged in shackles to sacrilegious ceremonies, Gwyn made his inner convictions known by “clanking and banging his chains the entire time.” Subjected to heretical preaching, he accused the offending priest of exchanging the keys of St. Peter for keys to the wine cellar.

Repeatedly refusing to rat on his Catholic confreres, Gwyn was brutally (and illegally) tortured. He never ceased begging God to release him from his enemies, but also prayed emphatically for their forgiveness. Their cruelty only intensified.

As with many English martyrs, Richard was partially strangulated before witnessing his own disembowelment. This holy troublemaker died on October 15th, calling upon Jesus for mercy.

Dear friends, if we must make some sort of mess, my suggestion would be to study the works of St. Richard Gwyn, and like him to make the kind recommended to us by the highest of authorities (Mt. 5:10).

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Self-Evident Eloquence

In an 1852 speech celebrating the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Frederick Douglass finds himself in the awkward position of having to persuade his fellow countrymen to accept the manifest consequences of the self-evident truths proclaimed in our founding document, and so to abolish slavery.

How does one demonstrate the self-evident? “Where all is plain there is nothing to be argued,” he protests.

But his complaint is rhetorical, serving as the springboard for an eloquent exposition of the humanity of the slave, and the liberties that flow from it.

The term self-evident is not quite synonymous with the obvious. It is not only possible, but very common, for fallen men to deny principles that, when properly examined, prove themselves.

As Aristotle explained ages ago, the human mind functions according to certain basic rules, which constitute the substance of reason itself. It is only by the application of these basic principles—such as that one thing is not another thing, or that contradictory statements cannot equally be affirmed—that the mind is able to shed light on more complex particular questions.

Quite literally, we cannot think straight without resorting to self-evident truths. Conversely, whenever our thinking is crooked, it is because we have contravened one or more of these essential points.

As Socrates taught, and as Douglass well understood, it is often necessary to prove fundamental truths, not because they don’t prove themselves, but because the influence of money, pleasure, or other distracting forces has caused that proof to be overlooked.

The simplest and most powerful form such demonstration takes is the exposure of a contradiction in an opponent’s beliefs or behavior.

To those who deny the humanity of slaves, Douglass responds by citing the “seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia, which, if committed by a black man, (no matter how ignorant he be,) subject him to the punishment of death.”

“When you can point to any such laws, in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave,” he wryly concludes.

As for those who would deny that manhood confers inalienable rights, Douglass meekly inquires: what then is there to celebrate on the Fourth of July?

Where does one find such self-contradictions today? One example that comes to mind would be those decrying the loss of life they falsely assert will ensue, if laws are adjusted to discourage the murder of innocents in the womb.

Do such as these believe human life has value, or not?

For another present-day application, consider this cartoon, which explains what should be obvious more eloquently than this blogger ever could:

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