Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Halloween Horror Special VIII: The Materialist Magician

For today's Halloween Horror Special we've got something truly horrific: the rise of the "materialist magician." And what is a "materialist magician," you ask? We'll explain. A materialist magician is someone who uses "magical thinking" in a setting in which faith or reason — or faith and reason — apply, or misuses faith or reason in the wrong sphere. C. S. Lewis used the term to describe someone who rejects the spiritual world, but tries to manipulate it to his or her advantage, anyway. As Lewis conceived it, the materialist magician believes in neither God nor Satan. Thus, the magician gets involved in the spiritual world on the worst possible terms, because he or she rejects the safeguards that belief in God or fear of Satan build in.

That's oversimplified, but you get the idea. For today's Horror Special, we're expanding the term to include both naturalists and supernaturalists (a bad way of putting it, but we're trying to get our daily posting up, and don't really have time to think up or find better words) who use magical thinking in a situation where faith or reason apply. Obviously, we're rejecting James Frazier's theory that humanity moves from magic, to religion, to science. (Don't look for that in those specific words in The Golden Bough — it's from a different work, although that's the theme.)

In particular, we're talking about the materialist magicians who try to change a thing's substantial nature by changing its definition. In both faith and reason, if you can define something, you're well on your way to understanding it. Pursuit of the truth is the thing. Whether you're a scientist or a theologian, you keep studying and investigating the object of your study, and try to discern what is true about it.

In magic, however, things work a little differently. Defining something — naming it, or knowing its true name and nature — allows you to control it. You can even change one thing into another if you can control it to the extent of being able to re-define it. Pursuit of power over others, not truth that gives you power over yourself, is the goal in magic.

The quest for power over others drives both believers and non-believers. In economics, for example, we find it in Keynesian thought as a fundamental principle. In Keynesian theory, the authoritarian State, with total power over the economy, is the ideal. As might be expected, total power is achieved by seizing control of language and re-defining the substantial nature of things, primarily the natural rights of liberty (freedom of association/contract) and property (of which money and credit are applications). As Keynes put it,

"It is a peculiar characteristic of money contracts that it is the State or Community not only which enforces delivery, but also which decides what it is that must be delivered as a lawful or customary discharge of a contract which has been concluded in terms of the money-of-account. The State, therefore, comes in first of all as the authority of law which enforces the payment of the thing which corresponds to the name or description in the contract. But it comes in doubly when, in addition, it claims the right to determine and declare what thing corresponds to the name, and to vary its declaration from time to time — when, that is to say, it claims the right to re-edit the dictionary. This right is claimed by all modern States and has been so claimed for some four thousand years at least. It is when this stage in the evolution of money has been reached that Knapp's Chartalism — the doctrine that money is peculiarly a creation of the State — is fully realized. (John Maynard Keynes, A Treatise on Money, Volume I: The Pure Theory of Money. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1930, 4.)

Keynes was an atheist, but atheists do not have a monopoly on this sort of thing. In fact, those atheists who make a sincere effort to base everything on reason are actually better able to see the errors in Keynes's claims than theists who dismiss Keynesian thought on the grounds of his atheism . . . or accept it without question — little realizing that certain types of theists are wide open to this same error.

Atheists, for example, are in little danger of accepting something simply because the pope, the local imam, your rabbi, the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, or anyone else "said so." This, however, is a trap into which theists fall all too frequently. It is all too easy for a theist to impose his or her private understanding on something said by a religious leader he or she accepts or venerates, and assume that what the theist understands by that something must be exactly what the religious leader meant.

In the Catholic Church the promulgation of the doctrine of papal "infallibility" was (in part) supposed to stop this sort of flawed rationalization. Infallibility doesn't mean that the pope cannot commit an error or sin (that would be "impeccability"), or that something is necessarily true "because the pope said so." Rather, papal infallibility means that the pope is protected from teaching error; it's not that something is true because the pope said so, but that the pope said so because something is true.

Here's the catch: the pope, when teaching as pope, cannot teach error. There is, however, nothing to stop his listeners from filtering what he says through their flawed understanding and hearing error — and promoting it in all sincerity as absolutely infallible.

This, in fact, happens all the time. It's very easy to spot. In general (although not always), when someone responds to a concern expressed by someone who has reached the age of reason with, "Because the pope said so!" (or words to that effect) — without attempting to reason things out — chances are, yes, the pope said something that sounded like that to the one making the declaration. Chances are equally good, however, that the one making the ipse dixit (literally, "He himself said it," an assertion unsupported by evidence or reason; the logical fallacy of "appeal to authority") has no real understanding of what the pope actually meant — or he or she would have been able to explain it, rather than insinuate that the listener was lacking in faith, reason, or both.

At least in Christianity, this is rooted in the great 12th century debate between the followers of Thomas Aquinas, and the followers of John Duns Scotus. Thomists base their understanding of the "natural law" on God's Nature, self-realized in His Intellect, and reflected in the nature of His "special creation," humanity. Thus, by observing human nature (whether or not you believe in God or gods) you can discern "right" and "wrong" through the use of reason alone. Faith is useful to illuminate and broaden your understanding but, with respect to the natural law, is not essential. No one, believer or non-believer, is exempt from the precepts of the natural law. This is a matter of Catholic doctrine, as explained by Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis ("Concerning Some False Opinions Threatening to Undermine the Foundations of Catholic Doctrine") in 1950: "human reason by its own natural force and light can arrive at a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, Who by His providence watches over and governs the world, and also of the natural law, which the Creator has written in our hearts." (§ 2)

The followers of Duns Scotus distorted Duns Scotus's emphasis on the primacy of the Will, and began asserting that the natural law itself is based on the Will . . . or, more usually (as happened with Michael of Cesena, William of Ockham, Martin Luther, etc., etc.), the believer's faith that something he or she accepts as a revelation of God's Will is to be understood as the believer understands it, and everyone else is to be consigned to perdition. Only believers in a particular revelation can understand it or even accept it, but everyone else is required to abide by it, even though it may go against his or her conscience. Thomists thought this position so flawed and unreasonable that "Dunce" — from Duns Scotus — came to mean someone who is very stupid.

Aquinas himself blasted those who tried to base their arguments on faith instead of reason. According to G. K. Chesterton, this was the second of only two times in Aquinas's life that he became genuinely angry. As Chesterton related the story,

"So, in his last battle and for the first time, he fought as with a battle-axe. There is a ring in the words altogether beyond the almost impersonal patience he maintained in debate with so many enemies. 'Behold our refutation of the error. It is not based on documents of faith, but on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves. If then anyone there be who, boastfully taking pride in his supposed wisdom, wishes to challenge what we have written, let him not do it in some corner nor before children who are powerless to decide on such difficult matters. Let him reply openly if he dare. He shall find me there confronting him, and not only my negligible self, but many another whose study is truth. We shall do battle with his errors or bring a cure to his ignorance.'

"The Dumb Ox is bellowing now; like one at bay and yet terrible and towering over all the baying pack. We have already noted why, in this one quarrel with Siger of Brabant, Thomas Aquinas let loose such thunders of purely moral passion; it was because the whole work of his life was being betrayed behind his back. . . . And yet, even in this isolated apocalypse of anger, there is one phrase that may be commended for all time to men who are angry with much less cause. If there is one sentence that could be carved in marble, as representing the calmest and most enduring rationality of his unique intelligence, it is a sentence which came pouring out with all the rest of this molten lava. If there is one phrase that stands before history as typical of Thomas Aquinas, it is that phrase about his own argument: 'It is not based on documents of faith, but on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves.' . . . At the top of his fury, Thomas Aquinas understands, what so many defenders of orthodoxy will not understand. It is no good to tell an atheist that he is an atheist; or to charge a denier of immortality with the infamy of denying it; or to imagine that one can force an opponent to admit he is wrong, by proving that he is wrong on somebody else's principles, but not on his own. After the great example of St. Thomas, the principle stands, or ought always to have stood established; that we must either not argue with a man at all, or we must argue on his grounds and not ours." (G. K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The "Dumb Ox." New York: Image Books, 1956, 94-95.)

"The reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves" indeed! Faith cannot do the work of reason, any more than reason can do the work of faith. Both must go together, but neither one can replace the other — no matter how devoutly the materialist magicians of today want it to be so.



Cloyd Taylor said...

Faith and reason are different but not contrary. The last statement implies that (or could easily be taken to do so). Healthy Christian/Jewish faith must be reasonable; thoughts, actions, etc. that are "of faith" must follow logically from the premises of Christian/Jewish reality/faith.
Joseph was merciful to put away Mary quietly. He was rational to take her as his wife once the angel told him the fuller story AND he believed it. On the other hand, if someone (erroneously) believes God wants Jayne to marry him his behavior could easily, and would likely, become irrational. It is not the faith that makes things rational but faith in reality in its fullest sense, the reality of God, or REALITY. Faith is demanding in many ways-including that we must strive to know the ways and will of God, not as a mere intellectual exercise but, in order to follow his ways and will.

Cloyd Taylor said...

Oh, by the way, I wrote a book "The Materialist Magician" which is in the process of being published by Tate Publishing.
As of 6/30/14 we are working on cover design.

Michael D. Greaney said...

I disagree — by saying that faith and reason go together, but one cannot replace the other, is only to respect the complementary roles of each. The fact that they go together necessarily rules out contradiction. Check out some of the more recent discussions (May-June 2014) of this subject ... and my own book, due out as soon as I finish it. Or not, depending on the editors.