This lecture was given Oct. 26, 2001 during the Midwestern Mensa regional gathering, at the Arlington Heights Sheraton.
Introductory remarks by Dr. Mike Doyle, CEO and Founder of Eolas Technologies: I first met CJS Hayward on the MegaList about a year and a half ago. I was impressed enough by his abilities to hire him at the first opportunity, and he now works as a software developer for Eolas Technologies. Jonathan, in one year, did an independent study of calculus, programmed a four-dimensional maze, and ranked 7th nationally in the 1989 MathCounts competition. Then he turned 14 and turned his attention to deeper challenges. He has studied at Wheaton College, the Sorbonne, and the University of Illinois. Like many profoundly gifted, Jonathan moves among a wide range of interests. He is now focused on writing. He has been published in Ubiquity, Noesis, Inner Sanctum, Perfection, and nowVidya, with Religion Within the Bounds of Amusement. Please welcome him as he speaks about his experiences as a profoundly gifted individual.
Jonathan: Thank you. It is a privelege to be here; I have been looking forward to this night, a time when we can connect and share—not only through our costumes. More on my costume later. Before I begin my speech proper, I’d like to deal with a couple of preliminaries. I have a slight speech impediment; I’ll try to speak clearly, but you may have to work a little harder to understand me. Second, I’d like to review the seven points of my speech, the seven facets of the seven-sided gem:
Metaculture: a term which I coined and which I’ll explain.
Ages and cultures: by ‘ages’ I mean different temporal ages, not how old a person is.
Beyond the Binet-Simon: alternative approaches to intelligence estimation.
Inside the glass wall: a private symbol I’ll explain.
A musing life: Do I mean a life that is amusing or a life that has musing? I’ll explain that.
Thinking inside the box: lessons learned from living among IQ normals.
Mystic, Artist, Christian.
Don’t talk about the things you’re interested in with someone you’ve just met. Never mind that, to you, abstract conversation is a staple of acquaintanceship and friendship. To the other person, it may be boring, unpleasant, or a sign of unwanted romantic interest.
Never mind that you have five points of great subtlety and complexity. Pick one, and when you have simplified past the point of distortion, be ready for the other person to say, “Excuse me. Could you say that in English?”
Don’t assume that the person in authority believes, “The rules exist for the betterment of the community and are therefore negotiable when they do not contribute to that end.” Even if the rules do not consider your case, even if they end up hurting you, expect, “The rules are the rules and I am not here to make exceptions.”
Never mind that you can shift your culture at will, or that it is something you must do to connect with others. Don’t try explaining it to others, and whatever you do don’t ask them to do so. If you do, they will experience culture shock and react accordingly. Never mind that to you, foreign cultures are familiar and familiar cultures foreign. Don’t try to explain this either. It asks them to do something completely unfair.
Be very careful in sharing accomplishments, or even things you don’t think of as accomplishments, just cherished moments. To the other person, they may well be intimidating to the point of alienation.
Grieve a thousand wounds, but don’t fall prey to the worst wound of all. Don’t come to believe, “I will never connect with them, and they will never understand me.” If you do, you will find yourself in a sort of Hell—not in the world to come, but here on earth. You will be in a Hell of isolation, an alien in an alien land.
They can joke. That’s why you’re frustrated they don’t understand your humor. They can think. That’s why you’re hurt and upset when they never fathom your deepest thoughts. To those separated by the greatest chasm, is given the greatest ability to bridge chasms.
Perhaps it is harder than doing calculus in middle school or creating a language. It is still something you can do. That intellect that leaves people dazed is the intellect you can use to communicate—connect—in ways that aren’t open to them. That burning intensity that’s gotten you into so much trouble can put fire in your friendships such as many of your friends would never have otherwise known. That unique inner world, that you’ve closed the doors to, after being burned time and time again, is a place you may learn to draw people into. I cannot tell you how, but with a lot of hard work, a lot of patience, a lot of humility, a lot of forgiveness given and received, you may come to a point of synergy past the point where you wished you were not quite so gifted.
An anthropologist at this point might make the case that there is an unbridgeable chasm between the already very bright minds associated with Mensa, and the severely gifted. I’d rather say something different. I’d rather say the severely gifted experience is a crystallization of many things that make the Mensa experience distinctive, and there is a common bond of giftedness as well as the bond of being human. I’d rather say that what gap does exist is one that can be bridged. That is the premise this whole talk is based on.
A much better speaker than I am might be able to explain, in the abstract and in entirety, what the inner world and experience of the severely gifted is like. I can’t do that, but I have my sights set on a much more modest goal: to share something of my own inner world and experience, and light a candle of illumination.
When I was a student at Wheaton College, there was a chapel where students lined up and shared some of the, ahem, interesting questions they’d been asked: “You grew up in Japan? Say something in Chinese!” “Say something in African!” “What did it feel like growing up in Finland?” (Uh, I don’t know. Slight tingling sensation around the toes?) The chapel was given by missionary’s kids/third culture kids, sometimes abbreviated MK/TCK. A third culture kid is a kid who grows up surrounded by one host culture—let us say, blue—to parents who belong to another culture—let us say, yellow. They are neither properly blue nor properly yellow, but create a third culture that draws on both. This is not a simple average of the two cultures; there are common similarities, whether it’s a U.S. kid growing up in Kenya, or a Japanese growing up in the U.S. It is a different mode of experience, a different way of being human. Third culture kids tend to have a tremendous ability to adapt to new cultures, but at times a cost: the price of never being completely at home in a culture, as a fish in water. When I heard that chapel, I said, “That’s me!”
It is the characteristic of very creative minds to hit a very large nail not quite on the head. I am not literally a third culture kid; by the time I heard that chapel, I had not lived abroad. There was something deep that resonated, however. The best way I can describe it is that a third culture kid creates a third culture after being shaped by the outer forces of the host culture on one hand and his parents on the other, and a severely gifted individual is shaped by the outer forces of an IQ-normal world and an inner world from a different kind of mind: the higher you go on the IQ spectrum, there is less and less more of the same intelligence, and more and more of a different kind of intelligence altogether. I coined the term ‘metaculture’ to refer to the commonality of experience, a way of not ever being in a culture as a fish is in water. It brings pain, a sense of never fitting in, and at the same time a freedom from some of the blindnesses others can’t escape.
In talking about cultures, I’m hesitant to say that they’ve left an imprint on me, because the metaphor is deficient. It evokes an image of an active, solid, definite culture that leaves a mark on hot wax which is simply there to receive an imprint. The truth is much more interesting: the cultures are themselves, yes, but I am actively drawing, discerning, seeing what in them is of interest to me and can be drawn into myself. Anyone who knows cultures knows that conveying even one culture in five hours is impossible; I hope not to convey the cultures I visited, so much as give a sense of what sort of thing is interesting.
The summer after that chapel, I lived in Malaysia. My father spent the year teaching, and the rest of the family lived there. I got to spend the summer. I understand why my Mom said it was the best year of her life.
In American culture, there is always a clock tick-tick-ticking. It’s not just there when you look down at your watch; it may be more present when you’re not looking: when you’re visiting your friend and distracted with twenty other things to do that day, or on the road where you move faster than any human athlete can run, and one second’s needless delay is one second’s torment. In Malaysia, the clock’s constant ticking stops. This is not unique to Malaysia; those of you familiar with African cultures, or Latin American, will know something similar, but it is at any rate different from the U.S. It’s not exactly true that the Malaysians perceive time slowly where we perceive it quickly, as that the U.S. is conscious of time where Malaysians are conscious of other things. I have continued to shape my sense of time after leaving Malaysia, and come to focus not on time but on people, creation, and some work. If I try to spend a half an hour on my third novel, what will dominate is the half hour, not the novel; I try to give focused presence to what I am doing now and not have a clock cut up my emotions. It is a tremendous boon in writing, or being with people. I try to keep enough of an American time sense to not be needlessly rude by being late to appointments, but on the inside I seek a different time, and I believe my friendships and my creations are the better for it. Dost thou love life? Then do not quantize time, for numbers are not the stuff life’s made of.
Some time after that, I studied in Paris at the Sorbonne. It was a wonderful time; part of my heart is still there. During my time as a student, I acquired a taste for alcohol. One thing I realized rather quickly is that five ounces of wine is not much. If I had a glass of wine with dinner and tossed it back after my first bites, I could have another… and another… and another… and become rather quickly inebriated. Or I could simply not have any more wine. Or—there is an alternative—I could sip my wine, savor it.
In doing that, I tasted wine as I had not tasted any beverage before. Because there was so little, I learned to be present and enjoy much more than absently having a hazy awareness that something I liked was passing through my mouth. My absent awareness of sodas was not a bad thing; one thing I learned upon returning is that American soft drinks are not intended to be consumed that way. If you sip a small glass of Mountain Don’t, you will soon learn that Mountain Don’t isn’t meant to be so sipped. I learned to be present, not just to wine and non-alcoholic beverages like fruit drinks and Mocha, but also to food, and to a much broader circle. If I am in a public place, and music I like comes across the air, it is transient; it is fleeting. I cannot make it last any longer, but I can be present to it in the short time it does last. When a friend comes from out of town, in all likelihood her visit will be over before it has begun—but I can be present in that time as well. This presence has added something to my life complimentary to the time sense I acquired from Malaysia.
What’s the last culture? One that will take a bit more explaining, as I have to swim upstream against more than one thread of American culture. What is it that I have to swim up against? “This is an idea whose time has come.” “It’s the wave of the future.” “We’re entering the third millenium.”
If I were to speak of “an idea whose time has come, and gone,” or “the wave of the past,” it would be less clear that I was speaking a compliment. If I were to say, in the most reverent of tones, “We’re standing at the forty-second latitude and eighty-seventh longitude.”, you’d have every right to accuse me of a non sequitur. I believe that “We’re entering the third millenium.” is also a non sequitur, even though it is spoken as a statement of great significance.
There are two ideas closely intertwined: the doctrine of progress, which says we are better, nobler, wiser people than those who came before—a temporal version of ethnocentrism, which says that ideas like machines grow rust and need to be replaced—and period awareness, which goes beyond the historicist observation that all of us, past and present, exist in a historical-cultural context and are affected by it; period awareness fixes an unbridgeable chasm between the people who walked before and us; they are in a hermetically sealed box. The net respect is to believe that the peoples of the past cannot talk with us: we can point out how they were less enlightened times, but they certainly cannot criticize us.
My second novel, Firestorm 2034, is the story of a medieval in 21st century America. In the course of researching medieval culture, thinking about it, and trying to convey it, it left a mark on me in many ways similar to Malaysia and France. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a masterpiece of humor that is often mistaken for a reasonable treatment of medieval culture; my novel reverses it in more ways than one. Not only is it a medieval in America, but more deeply I reject the belief that the most significant difference between the medievals and us is that we have better technology. There is a wealth of culture and wisdom that has been largely lost.
What is one such area? The present issue of My Generation, the magazine of the American Association of Retired Persons, has a cover story about “Jeff Bridges: Beautiful Dreamer.” On the cover, he has black hair tinged with silver, although I would forgive you if you glanced and said it was brown. It’s a few inches longer than mine. He’s curled up, slouching, with his arms over his knees, wearing faded jeans, white socks, and tennis shoes. The man looks like a teenager. This is not an accident. I have never seen a My Generation cover with a woman who looks old enough to be admitted to the AARP, and when I first saw that periodical, I mistook it for a GenX magazine.
Why? The core idea is that there is a short period of glory—I’ll say from fifteen to twenty-five years, although some of you might place the beginning and end a little differently—and before that point, you’re only a child, meaning curiously enough that you don’t have access to adult pleasures; you can’t drink, you can’t drive—and after that point, you’re a has-been. This message is ubiquitous, present not only in children’s TV shows but equally in a magazine for retired people. And, in a certain manner, it makes perfect sense.
It makes perfect sense if there is nothing more to have in life than physical pleasure. Before fifteen, you can’t acquire as much pleasure as someone with adult resources; after twenty-five, your capacity for youthful pleasure diminishes. And so, if one starts by assuming that the whole point of life is to have pleasure, that the point of science is to create a Utopia of spoiled children, then it follows quite simply that a child is nothing much and someone past the age of thirty is a has-been. It follows quite simply for us, but the medievals saw it differently.
The medievals believed that the entire purpose of this life is as a preparation, an apprenticeship, a beginning, to an eternity gazing on God’s glory. It means that, even in this life, there is infinitely more to seek than physical pleasure. There is more to desire. There is virtue, both earthly, natural virtues, and the merry, heavenly, deiform virtues. One can begin to be a heavenly person, enjoy Heaven’s joys, and know God.
The words, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die,” voice a pessimistic philosophy: enjoy pleasure because there’s nothing more and we have a grim life. The medieval view sought much more than pleasure, and in following it, I want to grow more. I don’t believe I’m leaving the time when I can enjoy the only good in life, pleasure. I believe I have different fruits in season coming. Some people dread their thirtieth birthday. I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to turning thirty, forty, fifty, to when my hair turns tweed and then white. I’m looking forward to growing in wisdom: the interesting part of my life isn’t ending, but just beginning.
What about intelligence testing? I like Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door; it’s a children’s book with a little boy, Charles Wallace, whose IQ is “so high it’s untestable by normal means.” I like the story and Charles Wallace; I identify with him, and in reference to that passage began to wish the same were true of me, that my IQ were so high it was untestable by normal means. I even tried to convince myself, in moments of pride, that this was true.
It came as a great disappointment to learn not only was this literally true, that my IQ was literally so high as to be untestable by normal means, but that the threshold was so low. If the authors of the Binet-Simon test, paradigm example of the good IQ test, were to be told, “This test you’ve made, doesn’t really distinguish average from below average, but shows a remarkably fine discrimination at the upper strata of human intelligence,” they would have regarded the test as a failure, pure and simple. The Binet-Simon test is a test for inferiority. Sources I’ve seen differ as to why; one gently states that it was meant to identify special needs people and give them that extra boost of special education they need to function in life. Another says, less charitably, that it’s to identify certain people as inferior: exclude them; stop ‘wasting’ resources on them. In either case, it is less than clear to me that this is the model of test for organizations like Mensa.
Some other high-IQ societies use an adjusted model of test, where they take off the time limit, because they recognize that rushing people doesn’t get best behavior, and put all the problems on anabolic steroids. This can probably boost the ceiling a little, but it has its own problems. It’s a bit like taking an office where work isn’t getting done, and making everybody work twenty more hours a week: if work isn’t getting done, five more hours might help a little, but twenty won’t fix the problem. Howard Gardner, multiple intelligence theorist, spends most of Extraordinary Minds arguing for a multiplicity of genius; in the beginning, he asks if there’s anything common to all kinds of genius, and says, yes, he’d identify three things:
There is some domain of performance.
There is a community that appreciates the genius’s performance in this domain.
According to Gardner, a genius fails more, and more spectacularly, than an average person.
This notwithstanding, if you’re trying to get into Mega Society East, what counts on the test is not what you get right; it’s what you get wrong. It’s not the absolutely brilliant answers you had to questions two, five, and seven; it’s the fact that you missed something on questions one, four, and nine. Given the cognitive diversity at the upper end of the spectrum, there are limitations to even high-ceiling tests.
Is there any alternative? I would say yes, and I believe a hint of it comes from a story about a high school physics student. After the unit covering air pressure, the teacher wrote on an exam, “Explain how to use a barometer to determine the height of a tall building.” The student wrote, “Tie a rope around the barometer, lower it from the top of the building until it hits the ground, make a mark on the rope, pull it up, and measure the length of the rope. (There are other ways of doing this.)”
This put the teacher in a bit of a bind. He called in one of his colleagues, and explained what had happened. The colleague said, “In a way that demonstrates your knowledge of physics, explain how to use a barometer to determine the height of a tall building.” The student said, “Go to the top of the building with a barometer and a stopwatch. Drop the barometer, and measure the time before the barometer splatters on the ground beneath. Then use the formula y = 1/2 at2 to calculate the height of the building.” The teachers conferred and gave him almost full credit.
The teacher asked what some of the other ways were: “Go outside on a sunny day, and measure the height of the barometer, the length of the barometer’s shadow, and the length of the building’s shadows, and use ratios to determine the height of the building.” “This probably isn’t the best way, but go into the basement, knock on the superintendent’s door, and say, ‘Mr. Superintendent! I have a fine barometer for you if you will only tell me the height of the building!'”
What this story screams out to me is not just that the student is bright enough that he could see the desired answer about calculating from the difference in air pressure. I’m positive of that. It’s not just that he could give several alternate approaches. It’s that he would. It’s that he behaved like a gifted mind does when it’s been completely insulted.
That gives a hint of an indirect approach: don’t try IQ-normal-style cognitive strain questions, but look for a very different kind of thinking, and the effects of living in a world where most other people are two, three, four, five sigma below you. I wrote up the basic ideas, and e-mailed Paul Cooijmans, head of Giga and Glia. He suggested I start my own high-IQ society. I thought that was a little more ambitious than I wanted to take on now, but I did create a test. I wrote it up, gave it to heads of some high-IQ societies to distribute, received very kind responses from Gina LoSasso of the Mega Foundation and Nik Lygeros of the Pi Society… and have gotten two tests filled out, which I haven’t looked at because I want to read them together. The test may turn out to be nothing more than an interesting fizzle. Even then, I thought it might be interesting enough to share.
What about the glass wall? The symbol relates to me to three layers, or levels, of maturity in dealing with others. The first layer is not recognizing there is a difference. In childhood, even when I scored high in the MathCounts competition, I might have realized there was something called intelligence and I had more of it, but not that I thought all that differently: I treated others as if they were the same as me underneath. That is a recipe for giving and receiving hurt.
When I finally let myself see that there were differences, I tried to fit in through blending in. In the short run, that’s much better; there are far fewer incidents. Over time, it costs—the cost of a false self. There were some things in myself I wasn’t showing anyone, not even myself.
After that, I began to erect a glass wall about myself, something that would keep things out of view before I was confident people were ready, but not permanently—and would let me draw others in. I don’t think this is a final resting place—in fact, I’m almost positive itisn’t—but it seems a definite step ahead of the other two steps.
What’s inside the glass wall? Much of this speech hints at things inside the glass wall, but I’d like to give one concrete example.
In the book Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Phillip Yancey helps draw out stories and insights from Paul Brand, the doctor who discovered that leprosy ravages the body by destroying the sense of touch, and with it the ability to feel pain. In one of these stories, Dr. Brand tells how he left a speaking engagement sick, sat hunched in the corner of a train car, wishing the interminable train ride would be over, and finally staggered to his hotel room. He began to undress, and realized to his horror that there was no feeling in his left heel.
He pricked himself with a pin and felt nothing. He jabbed himself harder, watched a drop of blood form, and moaned for the pain that would not come. That night, he lay dressed on his bed. He knew that sulfone drugs would probably stop the spread of the disease quite quickly, but he still could not help imagine it spreading to his hands, his feet. As a doctor who worked with patients who’d lost their sense of touch, he cherished the feel of earth in his fingers, the feel of a puppy’s fur, the affection of a friend. His career as a surgeon would soon end. What’s more, what would become of his movement? He, their leader, had assured others that leprosy was the least contagious of all communicable diseases, and careful hygeine could almost ensure that they would not get it. What would it mean if he, their leader, was a leper? That ugly word he’d banished from his vocabulary rose like a monster with new strength.
After a long and sleepless night, Dr. Brand got up, and took a pin to face the gristly task of mapping out the affected area. He took a breath, jabbed himself—and roared in pain. Nothing had ever felt so delicious to him as that one electric jolt of pain.
He realized what had happened. He was sick, with something mundane, and as a sick traveller had forgone his usual motion. His foot had fallen asleep. Dr. Brand was for a time too ashamed to recount that dismal experience, but I’m glad he did. The experience changed his life, and the story has impacted me.
As far as perception goes, I’m not sure if my sense of touch is more perceptive than most people’s. Probably a little bit. I can say that it is integrated with other senses. There was one time I was at the supermarket, and the woman in front of me in the checkout line dropped a soda bottle a short distance. Being bored, I gently pinched the bottle, and then made a comment that seemed to me almost too obvious to be worth saying: if you pinch a soda bottle, you can tell if it’s safe to open. A bottle that can be safely opened will give slightly to moderate pressure; a bottle that’s shaken up is firm as a rock. Her reply, “Oh, is that the trick that you use?” caught me off guard. Feeling a shaken soda bottle like that is no more a trick to me than looking at the stove for dancing orange spots is a trick to see if I’ve started a grease fire.
As an American who’s lived in France, I like to give my friends hugs and kisses. I’m careful how and when I ask, particularly about a kiss on the cheek, and I listen to people with my intuition before asking those questions… but that invitation (accepted or not) is usually tied to when I pull someone inside the glass wall.
What about a musing life? Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business talks about the dark side of television’s effects on culture. Without going into a full analysis of Plato’s Allegory of the Television, I will say that television blinds the inner eye by stimulating the surface and starving the depths. A home without a television is like a slice of chocolate cake without tartar sauce.
Without television, what happens? At times, you get bored, and then more bored, and then you come to a place on the other side of boredom with renewed creativity, sensitivity, and insight. I try to live there; like my time sense and the presence learned through wine, it gives focus to musings, such as this talk was woven from. It is a sort of fast for the mind, and makes room for a considerable degree of depth.
What is my interest in thinking inside the box? There’s been a lot of homage paid to the many virtues of thinking outside the box. Perhaps many of you have stories to tell of a time when someone was extolling the many virtues of thinking outside the box, but that’s not where I’m going. The praises of thinking outside the box are sung because thinking inside and outside the box complement each other, and most people are so often inside the box that it’s hard for them to step out. With severely gifted individuals, the real challenge is not thinking outside the box, but thinking inside the box.
There are many times that it’s better to think inside the box. Driving to work, for instance. More deeply, communicating and negotiating requires one to understand and think like the other person, and for many people, this means thinking inside the box. I’d also like to give one very concrete example of where it’s important to think inside the box: manners.
Manners are an arbitrary collection of rules, and there is no unifying principle that everything else flows from. Respecting and valuing the person will not tell you why you should hold a fork like a pen instead of how a little boy wants to hold a knife. Something that meaningless may be very difficult for you and me to learn, but it is important. Why? To many people, manners are the very foundation of civilized interaction, and it presents them with a needless and pointless obstacle if you say, “I respect you and I do not feel the need to observe manners in your presence.” It’s been said, “Never offend people with style when you can offend them with substance;” if people are going to walk away from you offended, let them be offended by something of substance, not by crude manners.
And lastly: mystic, artist, Christian. Why do I group these together? Does being a mystic make one an artist and a Christian? No; nothing like that holds directly, but there is a common thread. It’s illuminated by a conversation I had with one friend, where I said that pragmatism was a philosophical disease. I learned shortly thereafter that pragmatism was quite important to her.
Why would I say something like that? In one conversation a few years earlier, at Calvin College, one of my friends asked me why I wanted something, and didn’t like my response. A little probing, and I knew why: while the words he used were, “Why do you want it?”, what he meant by it, the only thing he could mean at that time, was, “What do you find it useful for?” The item, whatever it was (I don’t remember), was not something I wanted for its usefulness in letting me get something else; it was something I valued in itself. He couldn’t see that.
So I asked him, “Do you value having that arm on your body?” “Uh, yes…” “Why?” “Because if I have an arm, I can grab an apple.” “Why do you want that?” “Because if I grab an apple, I can eat an apple.” “Why do you want that?” “Because if I eat an apple, I can live and not die!” “Why do you want that?” At that point, he gave the response I’d been waiting for: an impassioned explanation that living and not dying was not simply valued as a means to something else, but something he wanted for itself.
Pragmatism and utilitarianism have a very small circle of things that are valued outside of their usefulness to something else: the Oxford Companion to Philosophy lists only pleasure, which seems a dismally small selection to me. Franky Schaeffer’s Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts talks about the insipid banality in the Christian art tradition: the tradition that once produced Dante and Bach has now produced “John’s Christian Stores”, and a large part of that is because Christians sold their birthright to embrace pragmatism. Where pragmatism draws a small circle of things that are embraced, Christianity, mysticism, and art draw a much larger circle: there’s something there that isn’t in Dewey and Mill’s practical world.
Madeleine l’Engle, in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, tells of a time in college when her professor asked on a test how Chaucer chose a particular literary device in a passage, and she wrote in a white heat of fury that Chaucer did not “choose a literary device;” that’s not how an artist works at all! I had a loosely similar experience, if not involving anger; I was sharing something I was writing with a new acquaintance, and she complimented my use of personification at a specific point. I had to reread the passage more than once to see what she meant; she made a straightforward statement, but I had not thought in those terms. A good artist may have excellent technique, but the technique is there because the art is good; the art is not good just because of the technique. Good art comes through something much more, and much more interesting, than technique: listening to the work, serving it, cooperating with it, helping an unformed idea have a shape that others can see.
What about mysticism? There is a problem here; you might say that insofar as mysticism can be explained, it is not mysticism. I will say that the characters I identify with most in literature have been characters who’ve had a foot in another world. Charles Wallace from Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door is not the boy genius, Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory, an abstract personification of intelligence; he is a very real and believable person. He is open to another world, not surprised to think he’s seen dragons in the twins’ vegetable garden, and he kythes; that is, he has a real and present communication, something beyond communication, with others. You can read about kything in the 100 ways of kything on my webpage.
In Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Michael Valentine Smith is born as a baby boy on Mars, orphaned by all human travellers, raised on Mars by Martians in Martian culture, and brought to earth as a young man. Let’s talk about culture shock for a moment. Smith causes and receives quite a lot of it, as the story narrates his progression from a Martian with the genes and ancestry of a man to a character who is both human and Martian. There are quite a few stumbling points along the way to this. At one point, early in the story, someone asks Michael what is intended to be a very routine question, but Michael doesn’t get it. He has heard the words before, but he’s a bit like a top-notch English professor trying to decipher a math paper: even with a glossary to all the symbol, there’s a whole way of thinking that goes with the strange words, and Michael doesn’t understand it. Heinlein says that half a million years’ wildly alien abstractions raced through his mind. I don’t have half a million years’ worth of much of anything, but I do have wildly alien abstractions. I first became a philosopher as a boy, too young to touch any of my thoughts in language; one of the questions I thought of was, “Am I human?”, or, “Am I a being of the same class as those I observe around me?” I observed that my parents were linguistic creatures who moved naturally in language, that I was not linguistic in any comparable way, and concluded that I was not human. Another question I pondered was a short, simple question that could be rendered, “Can there be a perpetual motion machine, and if so, how can it be started?” The second part of the question was tied to the first; the best way I can explain it is that, given time-symmetric laws of physics, if there’s a machine that will keep on going forever, then the other side of the coin is that it has been going on forever, and there’s no way to start it. In middle school, I started French at about the age of ten, and in a few years was able to think more fluently in French than in English. My accent sounded more typical of a native Parisian French speaker than a Midwestern American English speaker. Why? There are a couple of reasons, differences in how the two languages were taught, but one of the basic ones is that English was here, French was there, and my way of thinking was way out there, and happened to be closer to French than English.
Blajeny, also from A Wind in the Door, is a Teacher from another galaxy, and the lessons he brings are sometimes difficult: not as, “Face your worst fear ever,” but as different from what they’d expect. He tells the children they will be in his class, and Meg is elated that her brother Charles will never have to go to the red schoolhouse again; then he says something that leaves her wondering where his classroom is. Blajeny retreats inside himself, and when she’s decided he won’t answer, he says, “Here, there, everywhere. In the schoolyard in first-grade recess. With the cherubim and seraphim. Among the farandolae.” I am wearing the costume you see me in because of how I identify with Blajeny, because there’s something of me that shines through him.
Last, what about being a Christian? There’s one music professor who said that, rather than thinking that we sing a song one and then it’s over, and we sing it later, and so on, we should rather thing that as long as there have been created beings, there is an eternal song rising before God, a song rising as incense that will never go out, and that when we sing we step into that song. Christianity is the foundation this whole edifice of thought is built upon, and its crowning jewel. It is the soil in which other things grow, and the thoughts I have given are an example of how Christians may think.
So now in this brief time I have shared a little bit about myself; I have answered a few questions and raised many more. Come visit my website, at CJS Hayward; it’s in your program. Of course I’d like to hear from an editor who’d like me to write something, or would like an existing manuscript, or someone who’d like to hear me speak, or someone who’d like a website built, but more than any of that I have given this talk for the same reason I’ve built my website: to connect. What have I left you wondering about?
After the speech, two hours’ worth of discussion followed. That night, after the speech, Jonathan was invited to speak at the next conference, and invited to two other engagements.
Diploma in Theology and Religious Studies, 2003
Faculty of Divinity
University of Cambridge
20 May 2003
The author suggests how the concept of ‘patterns’ in architecture and computer science, or more specifically ‘dark patterns’ / ‘anti-patterns’, may provide a helpful vehicle to explicitly communicate tacit knowledge concerning problematic thought. The author also provides a pilot study which seeks to provide a sample analysis identifying indicators for the ‘surprising cultural find’ pattern in which cultural context is misused to explain away offending Bible passages.
Introduction to Patterns, Dark Patterns, and Anti-patterns
The technical concept of pattern is used in architecture and computer science, and the synonymous dark patterns and anti-patterns refer to patterns that are not recurring best practices so much as recurring pathologies; my encounter with them has been as a computer programmer in connection with the book nicknamed ‘GoF’. Patterns do not directly provide new knowledge about how to program; what they do provide is a way to take knowledge that expert practitioners share on a tacit level, and enable them both to discuss this knowledge amongst themselves and effectively communicate it to novice programmers. It is my belief that the concept is useful to Biblical studies in providing a way to discuss knowledge that is also held on a tacit level and is also beneficial to be able to discuss explicitly, and furthermore that dark patterns or anti-patterns bear direct relevance. I hope to give a brief summary of the concept of patterns, explaining their application to Biblical studies, then give a pilot study exploring one pattern, before some closing remarks.
Each pattern consists of a threefold rule, describing:
A set of forces within that context.
A resolution to those forces.
In the contexts of architecture and computer science, patterns are used to describe best practices which keep recurring and which embody a certain ‘quality without a name’. I wish to make a different application, to identifying and describing certain recurring problematic ways of thought in Biblical or theological inquiry which may be understood as dark patterns, which often seem to be interlaced with sophistry and logical fallacy.
Two examples of what a dark pattern, or anti-pattern might be are the consolation prize, and the surprising cultural find. I would suggest that the following provide instances of the consolation prize: discussion of a spiritual resurrection, flowering words about the poetic truth of Genesis 1, and Calvin’s eucharistic theology. If you speak of a spiritual resurrection that occurs instead of physical resurrection, you can draw Christians far more effectively than if you plainly say, ‘I do not believe in Christ’s physical resurrection.’ The positive doctrine that is presented is a consolation prize meant to keep the audience from noticing what has been taken away. The context includes a text that (taken literally) a party wants to dismiss. The forces include the fact that Christians are normally hesitant to dismiss Scripture, and believe that insights can give them a changed and deepened understanding. The resolution is to dress up the dismissal of Scripture as a striking insight. Like other patterns, this need not be all reasoned out consciously; I suggest, via a quasi-Darwinian/meme propagation mechanism, that dismissals of Scripture that follow some such pattern are more likely to work (and therefore be encountered) than i.e. a dismissal of Scripture that is not merely undisguised but offensive.
In the surprising cultural find, a meticulous study is made of a passage’s cultural context to find some basis to neutralise the passage so that its apparent meaning does not apply to us. The context is similar to that of the consolation prize, if more specific to a contemporary Western cultural setting. The forces, beyond those mentioned for the consolation prize, include ramifications of period awareness and the Standard Social Science Model: there is a very strong sense of how culture and period can influence people, and they readily believe claims about long ago and far away that which would seem fishy if said about people of our time and place. The resolution is to use the passage’s cultural setting to produce disinformation: the fruits of careful scholarly research have turned up a surprising cultural find and the passage’s apparent meaning does not apply to us. The passage may be presented, for instance, to mean something quite different from what it appears to mean, or to address a specific historical situation in a way that clearly does not apply to us.
It is the dark pattern of the surprising cultural find that I wish to investigate as a pilot case study in this thesis.
The aim of this case study is to provide a pilot study of how the surprising cultural find may be identified as a dark pattern. In so doing, I analyse one sample text closely, with reference to comparison texts when helpful.
I use the terms yielding to refer to analysis from scholars who presumably have interests but allow the text to contradict them, and unyielding to refer to analysis that will not allow the text to contradict the scholar’s interests. Yielding analysis does not embody the surprising cultural find dark pattern, while unyielding analysis does. I consider the boundary to be encapsulated by the question, ‘Is the text allowed to say “No!” to a proposed position?’
Ideally, one would compare two scholarly treatments that are alike in every fashion save that one is yielding and the other is unyielding. Finding a comparison text, I believe, is difficult because I was searching for a yielding text with the attributes of one that was unyielding. Lacking a perfect pair, I chose Peter T. O’Brien’s The Letter to the Ephesians and Bonnie Thurston’s Reading Colossians, Ephesians & 2 Thessalonians: A Literary and Theological Commentary to represent yielding analysis and Craig Keener’s Paul, Women, Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul  to represent unyielding analysis. I was interested in treatment of Ephesians 5:21-33. When I use Biblical references without a book, I will always be referring to Ephesians. All three of secondary sources present themselves as making the fruits of scholarly research accessible to the layperson. O’Brien provides an in-depth, nonfeminist commentary. Thurston provides a concise, feminist commentary. Keener provides an in-depth, Biblical Egalitarian monograph. Unfortunately, the ordered copy of Thurston did not arrive before external circumstances precluded the incorporation of new materials (and may have been misidentified, meaning that my advisor and I both failed after extensive searching to find a yielding feminist or egalitarian treatment of the text). My study is focused on Keener with comparison to O’Brien where expedient.
There seems to be an interconnected web of distinguishing features to these dark patterns, laced with carefully woven sophistry, and there are several dimensions on which a text may be examined. The common-sense assumption that these features are all independent of each other seems to be debatable. One example of this lack of independence is the assumption that what an author believes is independent of whether the analysis is yielding: the suboptimal comparison texts were selected partly because of the difficulty a leading Christians for Biblical Equality scholar and I experienced trying to locate yielding feminist analyses other than Thurston in Tyndale’s library. I do not attempt to seriously investigate the interconnections, beyond commenting that features seem interconnected and less independent of each other than most scholars would assume by default.
The substance of my inquiry focuses on observable attributes of the text. I believe that before that point, observing a combination of factors may provide cues. I will mention these factors, but not develop them; there are probably others:
Is the book a monograph organised around one of today’s hot issues, or e.g. a commentary organised around the contents of a Biblical text?
If you just open the book to its introduction, do you meet forceful persuasion? Are those first pages written purely to persuade, or do they attempt other endeavours (e.g. give factual or theoretical background that is not especially polemical)? What is the approach to persuasion?
Does the book contain anything besides cultural arguments finding that Biblical texts which apparently contradict the author’s camp need not be interpreted that way?
How much does the author appear able to question our Zeitgeist (in a direction other than a more thorough development of assumptions in our Zeitgeist)?
What, in general, does the publisher try to do? The publisher is not the author, but publishers have specific aims and goals. It would seem to require explanation to say that a company indiscriminately publishes yielding and unyielding analysis because both resonate equally well with its editorial climate.
There will be a decided imbalance between attention paid to Keener and O’Brien. Part of this is due to external constraints, and part is due to a difference between O’Brien and Keener. With one major exception, described shortly, O’Brien’s analysis doesn’t run afoul of the concern I am exploring. If I were writing cultural commentary for my texts as Keener and O’Brien write cultural commentary for their texts, I would ideally spend as much time explaining the backgrounds to what Keener and O’Brien said. I believe they are both thinkers who were shaped by, draw on, and are critical of their cultures and subcultures. Explaining what they said, as illuminated by their context, would require parity in treatment. However, I do not elaborate their teachings set in context, but explore a problem that is far more present in Keener than in O’Brien or Thurston. I have more of substance to say about how Keener exhibits a problem than how O’Brien doesn’t. As such, after describing a problem, I might give a footnote reference to a passage in O’Brien which shows someanalogy without seeming to exhibit the problem under discussion, but I will not systematically attempt to make references to O’Brien’s yielding analysis as wordy as explanations of Keener’s unyielding analysis.
The one significant example of unyielding analysis noted in O’Brien is in the comment on 5:21: O’Brien notes that reciprocal submission is not enjoined elsewhere in the Bible, points out that ‘allelous’ occurs in some contexts that do not lend themselves to reciprocal reading (‘so that men should slay one another’), and concludes that ‘Believers, submit to one another,’ means only that lower-status Christians should submit to those placed above them. This is as problematic as other instances of unyielding analysis, and arguably more disturbing as it lacks some of the common indicators alerting the careful reader to be suspicious. There is a point of contact between this treatment and Keener’s: both assume that 5:21 and 5:22-6:9 are not merely connected but are saying the same thing, and it is one thing only. It is assumed that the text cannot enjoin of us both symmetrical and asymmetrical submission, so one must be the real commandment, and the other is explained away. Both Keener and O’Brien end up claiming that something is commanded in 5:21 with clarificatory examples following, without asserting that either 5:21 or 5:22-6:9 says something substantively different from the other about submission. I will not further analyse this passage beyond this mention: I consider it a clear example of unyielding analysis. This is the one part of O’Brien I have read of which I would not say, ‘…and this is an example of analogous concerns addressed by yielding scholarship.’
The introductions to O’Brien and Keener provided valuable cues as to the tone subsequently taken by the texts. Both are written to persuade a claim that some of their audience rejects, but the divergence in how they seek to persuade is significant. Keener’s introduction is written to persuade the reader of Biblical Egalitarianism: in other words, of a position on one of today’s current issues. The beginning of O’Brien’s introduction tries to persuade the reader of Pauline authorship for Ephesians, which they acknowledge to be an unusual position among scholars today; the introduction is not in any direct sense about today’s issues. O’Brien’s introduction is written both to persuade and introduce the reader to scholarly perspectives on background; while nontechnical, it is factually dense and heavy with footnotes. Keener’s introduction seems to be written purely to persuade: he give statistics concerning recent treatment of women which are highly emotionally charged, no attempt being made to connect them to the text or setting of the Pauline letters. Keener’s introduction uses emotion to bypass rationality, using loaded language and various other forms of questionable persuasion explored below; a naive reader first encountering this debate in Keener’s introduction could well wonder how any compassionate person could be in the other camp. O’Brien works to paint a balanced picture, and gives a fair account of the opposing view before explaining why he considers it inadequate. O’Brien seeks to persuade through logical argument, and his book’s pages persuade (or fail to persuade) as the reader finds his arguments to be sufficient (or insufficient) reason to accept its conclusions.
Among the potential indicators found in Keener, the first broad heading I found could be described as factual disinformation and emotional disinformation. ‘Disinformation’, as used in military intelligence ordinarily denotes deception through careful presentation of true details; I distinguish ‘factual disinformation’ (close to ‘disinformation’ traditionally understood) from ’emotional disinformation’, which is disinformation that acts on emotional and compassionate judgment as factual disinformation acts on factual judgment. While conceptually distinct, they seem tightly woven in the text, and I do not attempt to separate them.
An Emotional Plea
One distinguishing feature of Keener’s introduction is that it closes off straightforward rebuttal. Unlike O’Brien, he tries to establish not only the content of debate but the terms of debate itself, and once Keener has established the terms of debate, it is difficult or impossible to argue the opposing view from within those terms. Rebuttal is possible, of course, but here it would seem to require pushing the discussion back one notch in the meta-level hierarchy and arguing at much greater length. O’Brien seems more than fair in his style of argument; Keener loads the dice before his reader knows what is going on.
There are issues where most Biblically conservative Christians, including myself, disagree with prominent elements of the feminist movement… But there are other concerns which nearly all Christians, including myself, and nearly the whole women’s movement plainly share….
[Approximately two pages of alarming claims and statistics, including:] …Although “bride-burning” is now illegal in India, it still happens frequently; a bride whose dowry is insufficient may be burned to death so that her husband can find a new partner. There is no investigation, of course, because it is said that she simply poured cooking oil over herself and set herself on fire accidentally…. A Rhode Island Rape Crisis Center study of 1700 teenagers, cited in a 1990 InterVarsity magazine, reported that 65% of the boys and 47% of the girls in sixth through ninth grades say that a man may force a woman to have sex with him if they’ve been dating for more than six months…. Wife-beating seems to have been a well-established practice in many patriarchal families of the 1800’s….
But while some Christians may once have been content to cite proof-texts about women’s subordination to justify ignoring this sort of oppression, virtually all of us would today recognise that oppression and exploitation of any sort are sinful violations of Jesus’s commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves and to love fellow-Christians as Christ loved us. [Keener goes on to later conclude that we must choose between a feminist conception of equality and an un-Christian version of subordination.]
The text starts by presenting Keener as Biblically conservative, moves to a heart-wrenching list of wrongs against women, implicitly conflates nonfeminist Christians with those who condone rape and murder, and presents a choice crystallising the fallacy of the excluded middle that had been lurking in prior words. It has more than one attribute of emotional disinformation.
Keener both identifies himself as Biblically conservative and says that, among some Christians, the egalitarian position is the conservative one (contrast chapter 4, where ‘conservative’ means a reactionary misogynist). Why? People are more likely to listen to someone who is perceivedly of the same camp, and falsely claiming membership in your target’s camp is a tool of deceptive persuasion.
The recitation of statistics is interesting for several reasons.
On a strictly logical level, it is a non sequitur. It has no direct logical bearing on either camp; even its rhetorical position assumes that conservative, as well as liberal, members of his audience believe that rape and murder are atrocities. This is a logical non sequitur, chosen for its emotional force and what impact that emotional recoil will have on susceptibility. The trusting reader will recoil from the oppression listed and be less guarded when Keener provides his way to oppose such oppression. The natural response to such a revolting account is to say, ‘I’m not that! I’m the opposite!’ and embrace what is offered when the fallacy of the excluded middle is made explicit, in the choice Keener later presents.
Once a presentation of injustice has aroused compassion to indignation, most people do not use their full critical faculties: they want to right a wrong, not sit and analyse. This means that a powerful account of injustice (with your claims presented as a way to fight the injustice) is a powerful way to get people to accept claims that would be rejected if presented on their logical merits. Keener’s ‘of course’ is particularly significant; he builds the reader’s sense of outrage by adding ‘of course’ with a (carefully studied but) seemingly casual manner. It is not obvious to a Western reader that a bride’s murder would be left uninvestigated; adding ‘of course’ gives nothing to Keener’s logical case but adds significantly to the emotional effect Keener seeks, more effectively and more manipulatively than were he to visibly write those words from outrage.
The sentence about proof-texts and loving one’s neighbour is of particular interest. On a logical level, it is restrained and cannot really be attacked. The persuasive and emotional force—distinct from what is logically present—is closer to, ‘Accepting those proof-texts is equivalent to supporting such oppression; following the Law of Love contradicts both.’
This is one instance of a broader phenomenon: a gap between what the author entails and implicates. Both ‘entail’ and ‘implicate’ are similar in meaning to ‘imply’, but illustrate opposite sides of a distinction. What a text entails is what is implied by the text in a strictly logical sense; what a text implicates is what is implied in the sense of what it leads the reader to believe. What is implicated includes what is entailed, and may often include other things. The entailed content of ‘But while some Christians…’ is modest and does not particularly advance a discussion of egalitarianism. The implicated content is much more significant; it takes a logically tight reading to recognise that the text does not entail a conflation claiming that nonfeminist Christians condone rape and murder. The text implicates much more than it entails, and I believe that this combination of restricted entailment with far-reaching implication is a valuable cue. It can be highly informative to read a text with an eye to the gap between what is entailed and what is implicated. The gap between entailment and implicature seemed noticeably more pronounced in Keener than in yielding materials I have read, including O’Brien. Another example of a gap between entailment and implicature is found close, ‘…the secular generalization that Christians (both men and women) who respect the Bible oppose women’s rights is an inaccurate caricature of these Christians’ admits a similar analysis: the entailment is almost unassailable, while the implicature establishes in the reader’s mind that the conservative position is excisable from respect for the Bible, and that the nonfeminist position denies something basic to women that they should have. The term ‘women’s rights’ is by entailment the sort of thing one would not want to oppose, and by implicature a shorthand for ‘women’s rights as understood and interpreted along feminist lines’. As well as showing a significant difference between entailment and implicature, this provides an example of a text which closes off the most obvious means of rebuttal, another rhetorical trait which may be produced by the same mindset as produces unyielding analysis.
What is left out of the cited text is also significant. The statistics given are incomplete (they focus on profound ways in which women suffer so the reader will not think of profound ways in which men suffer) but as far as describing principles to discriminate yielding versus unyielding analysis, this seems to be privileged information. I don’t see a way to let a reader compare the text as if there were a complementary account written in the margin. Also, a careful reading of the text may reveal a Biblical nonfeminist position as the middle fallaciously excluded earlier, in which sexual distinction exists on some basis other than violence. All texts we are interested in—yielding or unyielding—must stop somewhere, but it is possible to exclude data that should have been included and try to conceal its absence. Lacunae that seem to have been chosen for persuasion rather than limitation of scope may signal unyielding analysis.
In a discussion of the haustafel’s (Ephesians 5:21 and following injunction that the husband love his wife based on Christ’s love for the Church, Keener says, ‘Indeed, Christ’s love is explicitly defined in this passage in terms of self-sacrificial service, not in terms of his authority.’ The passage does not mention that self-sacrificial service is a defining feature of Christ’s model of authority, and in these pages the impression is created that the belief in servant love is a Biblical Egalitarian distinctive, so that the reader might be surprised to find the conservative O’Brien saying:
…Paul does not here, or anywhere else for that matter, exhort husbands to rule over their wives. They are nowhere told, ‘Exercise your headship!’ Instead, they are urged repeatedly to love their wives (vv. 25, 28, and 33). This will involve each husband showing unceasing care and loving service for his wife’s entire well-being…
O’Brien is emphatic that husbands must love their wives; examples could easily be multiplied. Keener argues for loving servanthood as if it were a claim which his opponents rejected. The trusting reader will believe that nonfeminists believe in submission and egalitarians alone recognise that Paul calls husbands to servant love. I believe that this selective fact-telling is one of the more foundational indicators: some factual claims will be out of a given reader’s competence to evaluate, but so far as a reader can evaluate whether a fair picture is presented, the presence or absence of selective fact-telling may help.
Chapter 4 is interesting in that there are several thoughts that are very effectively conveyed without being explicitly stated. The account of ‘conservatives’ (i.e. misogynistic reactionaries) is never explicitly stated to apply to Christians who disagree with Keener, but works in a similar fashion (and for similar reasons) to the ‘Green Book’ which introduces the first major argument in The Abolition of Man. By the same mechanism as the Green Book leads the reader to believe that claims about the outer world are in fact only claims about ourselves, not the slightest obstacle is placed to the reader believing that Keener exposes the true nature of ‘conservatism’, and that the picture of Graeco-Roman conservatism portrayed is a picture of conservatism, period, as true of conservatism today as ever.
A smaller signal may be found in that Keener investigates inconvenient verses in a way that never occurs for convenient ones. Keener explores the text, meaning, and setting to 5:22-33 in a way that never occurs for 5:21; a careless reader may get the impression that 5:21 doesn’t have a cultural setting.
Drawing on Privileged Information
I would next like to outline a difference between men’s and women’s communication, state what Keener’s Roman conservatives did with this, and state what Keener did with the Roman conservatives. One apparent gender difference in communication is that when a woman makes a claim, it is relatively likely to mean, ‘I am in the process of thinking and here is where I am now,’ while a man’s claim is more likely to mean, ‘I have thought. I have come to a conclusion. Here is my conclusion.’ Without mentioning caveats, there is room for considerable friction when men assume that women are stating conclusions and women assume that men are giving the current state of a developing thought. The conservatives described by Keener seem frustrated by this friction; Keener quotes Josephus :
Put not trust in a single witness, but let there be three or at least two, whose evidence shall be accredited by their past lives. From women let no evidence be accepted, because of the levity and temerity of their sex; neither let slaves bear witness, because of the baseness of their soul.
This passage is introduced, “…regards the prohibition of women’s testimony as part of God’s law, based in the moral inferiority inherent in their gender.” The reader is not likely to question whether it’s purely misogyny for a man (frustrated by women apparently showing levity by changing their minds frequently) to find this perceived mutability a real reason why these people should not be relied on as witnesses when someone’s life may be at stake. Keener has been working to portray conservatives as misogynistic. Two pages earlier, he tells us,
An early Jewish teacher whose work was undoubtedly known to Paul advised men not to sit among women, because evil comes from them like a moth emerging from clothes. A man’s evil, this teacher went on to complain, is better than a woman’s good, for she brings only shame and reproach.
This, and other examples which could be multiplied, deal with something crystallised on the previous page. Keener writes,
Earlier philosophers were credited with a prayer of gratitude that they were not born women, and a century after Paul a Stoic emperor could differentiate a women’s soul from that of a man.
The moral of this story is that believing in nonphysical differences between men and women is tantamount to misogyny. This is a highly significant claim, given that the questions of women’s ordination and headship in marriage are largely epiphenomenal to the question of whether we are created masculine and feminine at every level of our being, or ontologically neuter spirits in reproductively differentiated bodies. Keener produces a conclusion (i.e. that the human spirit is neuter) without ever stating it or drawing the reader to consciously consider whether this claim should be believed. In a text that is consistently polite, the opposing view is not merely negated but vilified: to hold this view (it is portrayed) is tantamount to taking a view of women which is extraordinarily reprehensible. Either of these traits may signal unyielding analysis; I believe the combination is particularly significant.
Tacit and Overt Communication
Although the full import of tacit versus overt communication is well beyond my competency to address, I would like to suggest something that merits further study. Keener seemed, to a significant degree, to:
Tacitly convey most of his important points, without stating them explicitly.
Present claims so the opposing view is never considered.
Build up background assumptions which will produce the desired conclusions, more than give explicit arguments.
Work by manipulating background assumptions, often provided by the reader’s culture.
As an example of this kind of tacit communication, I would indicate two myths worked with in the introduction and subsequently implied. By ‘myth’ I do not specifically mean ‘widespread misconception’, but am using a semiotic term comparable in meaning to ‘paradigm’: ‘[M]yths act as scanning devices of a society’s ‘possibles‘ and ‘pensables‘ . The two myths are:
Men are powerful and violent aggressors, whilst women are powerless and innocent victims. The alarming claims and statistics mention aggression against men only in the most incidental fashion.
The accurate spokesperson for women’s interests is the feminist movement. Keener diminishes this myth’s force by disclaiming support for abortion (and presenting a pro-choice stance as separable from other feminist claims), but (even when decrying prenatal discrimination in sex-selective abortion) Keener refers to the feminist movement interchangeably as ‘the feminist movement’ and ‘the women’s movement’, and does not lead the reader to consider that one could speak for women’s interests by contradicting feminism, or question the a priori identification of womens’ interests with the content of feminist claims.As well as the emotional disinformation explored in many of the examples above, there are several points where the nature of the argument is of interest. Five argument-like features are explored:
Verses which help our position are principles that apply across all time; verses which contradict our position were written to address specific issues in a specific historical context.
X had beneficial effect Y; X was therefore purely instrumental to Y, and we may remove X if we no longer require X as an instrument to Y.
The absolute position taken in this passage addresses a specific historical idiosyncrasy, but the relative difference between this passage and its surroundings is a timeless principle across all times.
If X resonates with a passage’s cultural context, then X need not be seen as part of the Bible’s revelation.
We draw the lines of equivalence in the following manner…
‘Verses which help our position are principles that apply across all time; verses which contradict our position were written to address specific issues in a specific historical context’ is less an argument than an emergent property. It’s not argued; the text just turns out that way. Keener gives a diplomatically stated reason why Paul wrote the parts of 5:22-6:9 he focuses on: ‘Paul was very smart.’ The subsequent argument states that Paul wrote in a context where Christians behaving conservatively would diminish he perceived threat to social conservatives. Keener writes, ‘Paul is responding to a specific cultural issue for the sake of the Gospel, and his words should not be taken at face value in all cultures.’ There is a fallacy which seems to be behind this argument in Keener: being timeless principles and being historically prompted are non-overlapping categories, so finding a historical prompt suffices to demonstrate that material in question does not display a timeless principle.’The absolute position taken in this passage addresses a specific historical idiosyncrasy, but the relative difference between this passage and its surroundings is a timeless principle across all times.’ A text embodies both an absolute position in se, and a relative difference by how it is similar to and different from its surrounding cultural mainstream. 5:22-33 requires submission of wives and love of husbands; that absolute position can be understood with little study of context, while the relative difference showed both a continuity with Aristotelian haustafels and a difference by according women a high place that was unusual in its setting. The direction of Keener’s argument is to say explicitly that the verses should not be taken at face value, and to implicitly clarify that the absolute position should not be taken at face value, but part of the relative position, namely the sense in which Paul was much more feminist-like than his setting (‘[A quote from Plutarch] is one of the most “progressive” social models in Paul’s day… It is most natural to read Paul as making a much more radical statement than Plutarch, both because of what Paul says and because of what he does not say,’) is a timeless principle that should apply in our day as well as Paul’s. Without proper explanation of why the relative difference should be seen as absolute, given that the absolute position is idiosyncratic, the impression is strongly conveyed that respecting Paul’s spirit means transposing his absolute position so that a similar relative difference exists with relation to our setting.’We draw equivalences in the following manner…’ This is not a single argument so much as an attribute of arguments; I believe that what is presented as equivalent can be significant. In the autobiographical comments in the introduction, Keener writes:What Keener has been arguing is not just the relevance of culture but the implicit necessity of a piecemeal hermeneutic. The implication (beyond an excluded middle) is that using culture to argue a piecemeal, feminist modification to Paul is the same sort of thing as not literally practicing the holy kiss. The sixth of seven chapters, after emotionally railing against slavery, argues that retaining the institution of marriage while excising one dimension is the same sort of thing as abolishing the institution of slavery; ‘The Obedience of Children: A Better Model?’ explicitly rejects the claim that marriage is more like parenthood than owning slaves. While no comparison is perfect, I believe that these are examples of comparisons where it is illuminating to see what the author portrays as equivalent.In my own experience at least, this kind of argument is not purely the idiosyncrasy of one book. The idea this thesis is based on occurred to me after certain kinds of arguments recurred. Certain dark patterns, or anti-patterns, came up in different contexts like a broken record that kept on making its sound. I’m not sure how many times I had seen instances of ‘X had beneficial effect Y; X was therefore purely instrumental to Y, and we may remove X if we no longer require X as an instrument to Y,’ but I did not first meet that argument in Keener. These arguments represent fallacies of a more specialised nature than post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“after the fact, therefore because of the fact”) or argumentum ad ignorantiam (“appeal to ignorance”). I believe that they allow a persuasive, rational-seeming argument of a conclusion not yet justified on logical terms. The experience that led to the formation of my thesis was partly from repeatedly encountering such fallacies in surprising cultural find arguments.I have tried to provide a pilot study identifying indicators of unyielding analysis. These indicators are not logically tied in the sense of ‘Here’s something which, on logical terms, can only indicate unyielding analysis.’ The unyielding analysis I have met, before and in Keener, has been constructed with enough care to logic that I don’t start by looking at logic. There are other things which are not of logical necessity required by unyielding analysis, but which seem to be produced by the same mindset. I have encountered these things both in the chosen text and in repeated previous experiences which first set me thinking along these lines.It is unfortunate that my control text made little use of emotion. I believe my case study would have been better rounded, had I been able to contrast emotion subverting logic in Keener with emotion complementing logic in the control text. As it is, the case study lends itself to an unfortunate reading of “logic is good and emotion is bad”, and gives the impression that I consider the bounds of legitimate persuasion to simply be those of logic.
Directions for Further Inquiry
There were other indicators which I believe could be documented from this text with greater inquiry, but which I have not investigated due to constraints. Among these may be mentioned:
Misrepresentation of material. Recognising this would seem to require privileged information, and work better for an area where the reader knows something rather than nothing, but I believe that a reader who knows part of the covered domain stands to benefit from seeing if it is covered fairly.
Doing more than a text presents itself as doing. A certain kind of deceit, in which the speaker works hard to preserve literal truth, has a complex quality caused by more going on than is presented. I believe an exploration of this quality, and its tie to unyielding analysis, may be fruitful.
Shared attributes with a test case. A small and distinctive minority of cases qualify to become test cases in American legal practice; they possess a distinct emotional signature, and portions of Keener’s argument (i.e. ‘Would [Paul] have ignored her personal needs in favour of the church’s witness?’) are reminiscent in both argument and emotional appeal of test cases.
An Amusement Park Ride with a Spellbinding Showman. Especially in their introductions, O’Brien seems to go out of his way to let the reader know the full background to the debate; Keener seems more like a fascinating showman who directs the reader’s attention to certain things and away from others; knowing the other side to statistics cited—or even knowing that there is another side—destroys the effect. A careful description of this difference in rhetoric may be helpful, and I believe may be tied to disinformation in that there is a difference in working style; yielding persuasion suffers far less from the reader knowing the other side than does unyielding persuasion.Lastly, I would suggest that a study of sharpening and leveling would be fruitful. ‘Sharpening’ and ‘leveling’ refer to a phenomenon where people remembering a text tend to sharpen its main points while leveling out attenuating factors. For many texts, sharpening and leveling are an unintended effect of their publication, while Keener seems at times to write to produce a specific result after sharpening and leveling have taken effect. What he writes in itself is more carefully restrained than what a reader would walk away thinking, and the latter appears to be closer to what Keener wants to persuade the reader of. Combining narrow entailment with broad implicature is a way for an author to write a text that creates a strong impression (sharpening and leveling produce an impression from what is implicated more than what is entailed) while being relatively immune to direct criticism: when a critic rereads a text closely, it turns out that the author didn’t really say the questionable things the critic remembers the author to have said. I.e. the ‘Gang of Four’: Gamma, Erich; Helm, Richard; Johnson, Ralph; Vlissides, John, Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1994. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1992.Ibid., pp. 6-9; compare almost any of O’Brien pp. 4-47. A haustafel is a household code such as the one found in Ephesians; for my purposes, the Ephesians haustafel stretches from 5:21 to 6:9. Keener, p. 163; O’Brien in pp. 405-438 does not cite a non-Biblical primary source likely to be similarly repellent, and portrays opposing secondary sources as mistaken without setting them in a disturbing light, i.e. in footnote 211, page 413. My attempts to find material discussing how these things work, academic or popular, have had mixed success. If I were to write a thesis around this issue, I would initially explore works such as Michael I. Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958, and anthropological treatments of the high-context/low-context and direct/indirect axes of human communication (which suggest relevant lines of inquiry). C.S. Lewis’s account of the Un-man’s dialogue with the Lady in Perelandra (chapters 8-11, pp. 274-311 in Out of the Silent Planet / Perelandra, Surrey: Voyager Classics, 1938 / 1943), seems to represent a very perceptive grappling with the issue of tacit communication in relation to deceit.Ibid., p. 7.Ibid., p. 141. Contrast O’Brien’s comments on 6:5-9 in 447-456, seemingly the most obvious place to portray at least some of the text as parochial; O’Brien disclaims that Paul was making any social comment on slavery (p. 448), but unpacks the verses without obviously approaching the text from the same mindset as Keener. Keener, p. 170. Remember that Keener is an American. The suggestion he makes is more significant in U.S. than English culture. U.S. culture has a place for giving kisses to one’s romantic partner, to family, and to small children, but not ordinarily to friends. Because of this, culture shock affects almost any attempt to consider ecclesiastical usage. ‘Greet one another with a holy kiss.’ serves in U.S. Evangelical conversation as the standard example of a New Testament injunction which cannot be taken seriously as a commandment to follow. It seem to be often assumed as an example of cultural noise in the Bible. Keener, p. 148. Comments from Asher Koriat, Morris Goldsmith, and Ainat Pansky in ‘Toward a Psychology of Memory Accuracy (in the 2000 Annual Review of Psychology as seen in 2003 at http://www.findarticles.com/cf_0/m0961/2000_Annual/61855635/p7/article.jhtml?term=) provide a summary, with footnotes, suggesting the basic psychological mechanism. An accessible treatment of a related, if not identical, application to what I suggest here is found on pp. 91-94 in Thomas Gilovich’s How We Know What Isn’t So, New York: The Free Press, 1993.
 I.e. the ‘Gang of Four’: Gamma, Erich; Helm, Richard; Johnson, Ralph; Vlissides, John, Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1994.
 Keener, pp. 186-188; contrast O’Brien, pp. 409-438, where he elaborates the text’s analogy with Christ and the Church as a model for understanding marriage, rather than comparing to slavery (which Keener not only does but works to give the reader a reservoir of anger at slavery which may transfer when he argues that marital submission is like slavery).
Ibid., p. 4; contrast the series preface before O’Brien: ‘God stands over against us; we do not stand in judgment of him. When God speaks to us through his Word, those who profess to know him must respond in an appropriate way…’ (page viii).
More broadly, I believe there is room for inquiry into the relation between this use of patterns and that in other disciplines. The application I have made is not a straight transposition; in architecture and computer science patterns are a tool to help people communicate about best practices to follow, not identify questionable practice to criticise as I have done here. What becomes of the Quality Without a Name may be interesting. This thesis only suggests two patterns; GoF describes twenty-three computer programming patterns broken into three groups, so that they provide a taxonomy of recurring solutions and not merely a list. A taxonomy of Biblical studies patterns could be a valuable achievement.
On a broader scale, it is my hope that this may serve not only as a pilot study regarding unyielding analysis but a tentative introduction of a modified concept of ‘pattern’, or rather ‘dark pattern’ or ‘anti-pattern’ in theology. The concept of pattern was introduced by the architect Christopher Alexander and is sufficiently flexible to be recognised as powerful in computer science. I believe there are other patterns that can be helpful, and I would suggest that books like Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building are accessible to people in a number of disciplines.
At a fairly basic level, the case study is a study of a cultural dimension of communication. I believe that portions of this pilot study may be deepened by the insights of scholars from humanities which study human culture and communication. I believe that some of my remarks would be improved by a serious attempt to connect them with high-context and low-context communication as studied in anthropology. If I am doing a pilot study that cannot provide much of any firm answers, I do hope to suggest fruitful lines of inquiry and identify deep questions which for which interdisciplinary study could be quite fruitful.
In some cases, the argument types I have described are not things which must be wrong, but things which lack justification. The claim that an absolute position is parochial but the relative difference is timeless is not a claim I consider to be unjustifiable, but it is a claim which I believe requires justification, a justification which is not necessarily provided.
“But it’s part of the Bible!” I protested. “If you throw this part out, you have to throw everything else out, too.” I cannot recall anyone having a good response to my objection, but even as a freshman I knew very well that if I were consistent in my stance against using culture to interpret the Bible, I would have to advocate women’s head coverings in church, the practice of holy kisses, and parentally arranged marriages.
‘If X resonates with a passage’s cultural context, then X need not be seen as part of the Bible’s revelation.’ This is often interwoven with the previous two arguments. Apart from showing a feminist-like relative difference, Keener works to establish that Paul used a haustafel in a way that reduced Christianity’s perceived threat to conservatives. This is presented as establishing that therefore wives are not divinely commanded to submit.
‘X had beneficial effect Y; X was therefore purely instrumental to Y, and we may remove X if we no longer require X as an instrument to Y.’ Keener argues that the haustafel mitigated prejudice against Christianity, which is presented as a reason why we need not observe the haustafel if we do not perceive need for that apologetic concern.
Computer programmers often need to understand why programs behave as they do, and there are times when one is trying to explain a puzzle by understanding the source, and meets an arresting surprise. Programmer slang for this is “buried treasure,” politely defined as,
A surprising piece of code found in some program. While usually not wrong, it tends to vary from crufty to bletcherous, and has lain undiscovered only because it was functionally correct, however horrible it is. Used sarcastically, because what is found is anything *but* treasure. Buried treasure almost always needs to be dug up and removed. ‘I just found that the scheduler sorts its queue using [the mind-bogglingly slow] bubble sort! Buried treasure!'”
What I have found has me wondering if I’ve discovered theological “buried treasure,” that may actually be wrong. Although my analysis is not exhaustive, I have tried to provide two documents that relate to the (possible) “buried treasure:” one treating the specific issue, contraception, in patristic and modern times, and one commentary on the document I have found that may qualify as “buried treasure.”
How to use this document
This document is broken into two parts besides this summary page.
The first part is taken from a paper written by an Orthodox grad student, with reference to Orthodoxy in patristic times and today. It sets a broad theological background, and provides the overall argument. One major conclusion is that one paper (Chrysostom Zaphiris, “Morality of Contraception: An Eastern Orthodox Opinion,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, volume 11, number 4, fall 1974, 677-90) is important in a troubling shift in Orthodox theology.
The second part, motivated by the understanding that Zaphiris’s paper is worth studying in toto, is a relatively brief commentary on Zaphiris’s paper. If the initial paper provides good reason to believe that Zaphiris’s paper may be worth studying, then it may be valuable to see the actual text of his paper. The Commentary can be skipped, but it is intended to allow the reader to know just why the author believes Zaphiris is so much worth studying.
It is anticipated that some readers will want to read the first section without poring over the second, even though the argument in the first section may motivate one to read the second.
Why the fuss?
The Orthodox Church appears to have begun allowing contraception, after previously condemning it, around the time of an article (Chrysostom Zaphiris, “Morality of Contraception: An Eastern Orthodox Opinion,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, volume 11, number 4, fall 1974, 677-90) which may have given rise to the “new consensus.” This article raises extremely serious concerns of questionable doctrine, questionable argument, and/or sophistry, and may be worth further studying.
A broader picture is portrayed in the earlier article about contraception as it appears in both patristic and modern views, which are profoundly different from each other.
Patristic and contemporary Orthodoxy do not say exactly the same things about contraception. Any differences in what acts are permitted are less interesting than the contexts which are much more different than the differences that would show on a chart made to classify what acts are and are not formally permissible.
Much of what I attempt below looks at what is unquestionable today and asks, “How else could it be?” After two sections comparing the Patristic and modern circumstances, one will be able to appreciate that one would need to cross several lines to want contraception in Patristic Christianity while today some find it hard to understand why the Orthodox Church is being so picky about contraception, I look at how these considerations may influence positions regarding contraception.
How are the Fathers valuable to us?
I assume that even when one criticizes Patristic sources, one is criticizing people who understand Christianity much better than we do, and I may provocatively say that the Fathers are most interesting, not when they eloquently give voice to our views, but precisely when they shock us. My interest in what seems shocking today is an interest in a cue to something big that we may be missing. This is for much the same reason scientists may say that the most exciting sound in science is not “Eureka,” “I’ve found it,” but “That’s funny…” The reason for this enigmatic quote is that “Eureka” only announces the discovery of something one already knew to look for. “That’s funny” is the hint that we may have tripped over something big that we didn’t even know to look for, and may be so far outside of what we know we need that we try to explain it away. Such an intrusion—and it ordinarily feels like an intrusion—is difficult to welcome: hence the quotation attributed to Winston Churchill, “Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on.”
Understanding Church Fathers on contraception can provide a moment of, “That’s funny…”
The Patristic era
My aim in this section is not so much to suggest what views should be held, than help the reader see how certain things do not follow from other things self-evidently. I would point out that in the Patristic world, not only were there condemnations of contraception as such, but more deeply, I would suggest that there was a mindset where the idea of freeing the goodness of sexual pleasure from any onerous fecundity would seem to represent a fundamental confusion of ideas.
We may be selling both the Fathers and ourselves short if we say that neo-Platonic distrust of the body made them misconstrue sex as evil except as a necessary evil excused as a means to something else, the generation of children. The sword of this kind of dismissal can cut two ways: one could make a reductive argument saying that the ambient neo-Gnosticism of our own day follows classical forms of Gnosticism in hostility to bodily goods that values sex precisely as an experience and despite unwanted capacity to generate children, and so due to our Gnostic influence we cannot value sex except as a way of getting pleasure that is unfortunately encumbered by the possibility of generating children whether they are wanted or not. This kind of dismissal is easy to make, difficult to refute, and not the most helpful way of advancing discussion.
In the Patristic era, some things that many today experience as the only way to understand the goodness of creation do not follow quite so straightforwardly, in particular that goodness to sex has its center of gravity in the experience rather than the fecundity. To Patristic Christians, it was far from self-evident that sex as it exists after the Fall is good without ambivalence, and it is even further from self-evident that the goodness of sex (if its fallen form is considered unambiguously good) centers around the experience of pleasure in coitus. Some contemporaries did hold that sexual experience was good. The goodness of sex consisted in the experience itself. Any generative consequences of the experience were evil, to be distanced from the experience. Gnostics in Irenaeus’s day (John Noonan,Contraception: A History of Its Treatments by Catholic Theologians and Canonists, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986, 57, 64. Unfortunately, not only is there no recent work of Orthodox scholarship that is comparable to Noonan, but there is little to no good Orthodox scholarship on the topic at all!), Manichees in the days of Augustine (Noonan 1986, 124.), and for that matter medieval Cathars (Noonan 1986, 181-3.) would hold to the goodness of sex precisely as an experience, combined with holding to the evil of procreation. (I will not analyze the similarities and differences to wanting pleasure unencumbered by children today.) Notwithstanding those heretics’ positions, Christianity held a stance, fierce by today’s standards, in which children were desirable for those who were married but “marriage” would almost strike many people today as celibacy with shockingly little interaction between the sexes (including husband and wife), interrupted by just enough sex to generate children (For a treatment of this phenomenon as it continued in the Middle Ages, see Philip Grace, Aspects of Fatherhood in Thirteenth-Century Encyclopedias, Western Michican University master’s thesis, 2005, chapter 3, “Genealogy of Ideas,” 35-6.). Men and women, including husbands and wives, lived in largely separate worlds, and the framing of love antedated both the exaltations of courtly and companionate love without which many Westerners today have any frame by which to understand goodness in marriage (See Stephen Clark, Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences, Ann Arbor: Servant 1980, Chapter 18, for a contrast between traditional and technological society.).
I would like to look at two quotations, the first from Augustine writing against the Manichees, and the second as an author today writes in reference to the first:
Is it not you who used to counsel us to observe as much as possible the time when a woman, after her purification, is most likely to conceive, and to abstain from cohabitation at that time, lest the soul should be entangled in flesh? This proves that you approve of having a wife, not for the procreation of children, but for the gratification of passion. In marriage, as the marriage law declares, the man and woman come together for the procreation of children. Therefore whoever makes the procreation of children a greater sin than copulation, forbids marriage, and makes the woman not a wife, but a mistress, who for some gifts presented to her is joined to the man to gratify his passion. Where there is a wife there must be marriage. But there is no marriage where motherhood is not in view; therefore neither is there a wife. In this way you forbid marriage. Nor can you defend yourselves successfully from this charge, long ago brought against you prophetically by the Holy Spirit (source; the Blessed Augustine is referring to I Tim 4:1-3).
There is irony here. “Natural family planning” is today sometimes presented as a fundamental opposite to artificial contraception. (The term refers to a calculated abstinence precisely at the point where a wife is naturally capable of the greatest desire, pleasure, and response.) Augustine here described natural family planning, as such, and condemns it in harsh terms. (I will discuss “natural family planning” in the next section. I would prefer to call it contraceptive timing for a couple of reasons.)
There is some irony in calling “‘Natural’ Family Planning” making a set of mathematical calculations and deliberately avoiding intercourse at the times when a woman is naturally endowed with the greatest capacity for desire, pleasure, and response.
Besides the immediate irony of Augustine criticizing the form of contraception to be heralded as “‘Natural‘ Family Planning,” (remember that “natural” family planning is a calculated abstinence when a wife is capable, naturally, of the greatest desire, pleasure, and response), Augustine’s words are particularly significant because the method of contraception being discussed raised no question of contraception through recourse to the occult (“medicine man” pharmakeia potions) even in the Patristic world. There are various issues surrounding contraception: in the Patristic world, contraceptive and abortifascient potions were difficult to distinguish and were made by pharmakoi in whom magic and drugs were not sharply distinguished (Noonan 1986, 25.). But it would be an irresponsible reading to conclude from this that Patristic condemnations of contraceptive potions were only condemning them for magic, for much the same reason as it would be irresponsible to conclude that recent papal documents condemning the contraceptive mindset are only condemning selfishness and not making any statement about contraception as such. Patristic condemnations of contraception could be quite forceful (Noonan 1986, 91.), although what I want to explore is not so much the condemnations as the environment which partly gave rise to them:
[L]et us sketch a marriage in every way most happy; illustrious birth, competent means, suitable ages, the very flower of the prime of life, deep affection, the very best that each can think of the other, that sweet rivalry of each wishing to surpass the other in loving; in addition, popularity, power, wide reputation, and everything else But observe that even beneath this array of blessings the fire of an inevitable pain is smouldering… They are human all the time, things weak and perishing; they have to look upon the tombs of their progenitors; and so pain is inseparably bound up with their existence, if they have the least power of reflection. This continued expectancy of death, realized by no sure tokens, but hanging over them the terrible uncertainty of the future, disturbs their present joy, clouding it over with the fear of what is coming… Whenever the husband looks at the beloved face, that moment the fear of separation accompanies the look. If he listens to the sweet voice, the thought comes into his mind that some day he will not hear it. Whenever he is glad with gazing on her beauty, then he shudders most with the presentiment of mourning her loss. When he marks all those charms which to youth are so precious and which the thoughtless seek for, the bright eyes beneath the lids, the arching eyebrows, the cheek with its sweet and dimpling smile, the natural red that blooms upon the lips, the gold-bound hair shining in many-twisted masses on the head, and all that transient grace, then, though he may be little given to reflection, he must have this thought also in his inmost soul that some day all this beauty will melt away and become as nothing, turned after all this show into noisome and unsightly bones, which wear no trace, no memorial, no remnant of that living bloom. Can he live delighted when he thinks of that? (source)
Let no one think however that herein we depreciate marriage as an institution. We are well aware that it is not a stranger to God’s blessing. But since the common instincts of mankind can plead sufficiently on its behalf, instincts which prompt by a spontaneous bias to take the high road of marriage for the procreation of children, whereas Virginity in a way thwarts this natural impulse, it is a superfluous task to compose formally an Exhortation to marriage. We put forward the pleasure of it instead, as a most doughty champion on its behalf… But our view of marriage is this; that, while the pursuit of heavenly things should be a man’s first care, yet if he can use the advantages of marriage with sobriety and moderation, he need not despise this way of serving the state. An example might be found in the patriarch Isaac. He married Rebecca when he was past the flower of his age and his prime was well-nigh spent, so that his marriage was not the deed of passion, but because of God’s blessing that should be upon his seed. He cohabited with her till the birth of her only children, and then, closing the channels of the senses, lived wholly for the Unseen… (source)
This picture of a “moderate” view of marriage that does not “depreciate marriage as an institution” comes from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s treatise On Virginity, and allowances must be made for the fact that St. Gregory of Nyssa is contrasting virginity, not with an easy opposite today, namely promiscuity or lust, but marriage, which he bitterly attacks in the context of this passage. The piece is not an attractive one today. However, that does not mean that what he says is not part of the picture. This bitter attack is part of a picture in which contraception could look very different from today, but that way of looking at contraception is not purely the cause of a rhetoric attacking marriage to praise virginity. I present this not to analyze St. Gregory’s exact view on marriage, but to give a taste of an answer to “How else could it be?” in comparison to what is unquestionable today.
Some attitudes today (arguably the basic assumption that motivates offense at the idea that one is condemning the goodness of the created order in treating sex as rightly ordered towards procreation) could be paraphrased, “We affirm the body as good, and we affirm sex in all its goodness. It is a source of pleasure; it is a way to bond; it is powerful as few other things are. But it has a downside, and that is a certain biological survival: unless countermeasures are taken, along with its good features unwanted pregnancy can come. And properly affirming the goodness of sex means freeing it from the biological holdover that gives the good of sexual pleasure the side effect of potentially resulting in pregnancy even if it is pursued for another reason.” To the Patristic Christian, this may well come across as saying something like, “Major surgery can be a wonderful thing. It is occasion for the skillful art of doctors, in many instances it is surrounded by an outflow of love by the patient’s community, and the difficulties associated with the process can build a thicker spine and provide a powerful process of spiritual discipline. But it would be really nice if we could undergo surgery without attendant risks of unwanted improvements to our health.”
It seems so natural today to affirm the goodness of the body or sex, and see as the only possible translation of that affirmation “the goodness of the pleasure in sexual experience,” that different views are not even thinkable; I would like to mention briefly some other answers to the question, “How else could it be?” The ancient world, in many places, looked beyond the few minutes of treasure and found the basis for the maxim, “Post coitum omne animal triste” (after sex, every animal [including humans] is sad), and feared that sex could, among other things, fundamentally deplete virile energy (Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: The Use of Pleasure, New York: Random House 1985, 137): its goodness might be seen as a costly goodness involving the whole person, rather than simply being the goodness of “one more pleasure, only a very intense one, that is especially good because it is especially intense” or self-evidently being at the core of even a good marriage (Noonan 1986, 47-8).
This is not to suggest that Christians merely copied the surrounding views. Contraception, abortion, and infanticide were quite prevalent in the Roman world (Noonan 1986, 10-29). Whatever else Patristic Christianity can be criticized for in its strong stance on contraception, abortion, and infanticide, it is not an uncritical acceptance of whatever their neighbors would happen to be doing. And if St. Gregory of Nyssa holds up an example which he alleges is procreation that minimizes pleasure, it might be better not to simply say that neo-Platonism tainted many of the Fathers with a dualistic view in which the body was evil, or some other form of, “His environment made him do it.”
Modernity and “natural” family planning
In the discussion which follows, I will use the term “contraceptive timing” in lieu of the somewhat euphemistic “natural family planning” or “the rhythm method.” In my own experience, I have noticed Catholics consistently needing to explain why “natural family planning” is an opposite to contraception; invariably newcomers have difficulties seeing why decreasing the odds of conception through mathematical timing is a fundamentally different matter from decreasing the odds of conception through biological and chemical expedients. I would draw an analogy to firing a rifle down a rifle range, or walking down a rifle range to retrieve a target: either action, appropriately timed, is licit; changing the timing of an otherwise licit action by firing a rifle while others are retrieving their targets and walk in front of that gun is a use of timing that greatly affects the moral significance of an otherwise licit act. I will hereafter use the phrase “contraceptive timing.”
As Orthodox, I have somewhat grave concerns about my own Church, which condemned contraception before 1970 but in recent decades appears to have developed a “new consensus” more liberal than the Catholic position: abortifascient methods are excluded, there must be some openness to children, and it must be agreed with by a couple’s spiritual father. This “new consensus,” or at least what is called a new consensus in an article that acknowledges it as surrounded by controversy that has “various groups accusing each other of Western influence,” which is, in Orthodox circles, a good cue that the there is something interesting going on.
The one article I found on the topic was “lobbyist” scholarship that seemed to avoid giving a fuller picture (Zaphiris 1974.). This one article I found in the ATLA religion database matching the keywords “Orthodox” and “contraception” was an article that took a “new consensus” view and, most immediately, did not provide what I was hoping a “new consensus” article would provide: an explanation that can say, “We understand that the Fathers had grave reservations about contraception, but here is why it can be permissible.” The article in fact made no reference to relevant information that can (at least today) be easily obtained from conservative Catholic analyses. There was no discussion of relevant but ambiguous matter such as Onan’s sin (Noonan 1986, 34-6.) and New Testament condemnations of “medicine man” pharmakeia which would have included some contraception (Noonan 1986, 44-5.). There was not even the faintest passing mention of forceful denunciations of contraception by both Greek and Latin Fathers. John Chrysostom was mentioned, but only as support for distinguishing the good of sex from procreation: “The moral theologian par excellence of the Fathers, St. John Chrysostom, also does not stress the procreation of children as the goal of marriage.” (Zaphiris 1974, 680) Possibly, as for that matter it is possible to argue that Zaphiris does not see openness to children as something to shut off, and wrench that fact out of context to say that Zaphiris opposed contraception. St. John Chrysostom may not have written anything like the incendiary material from St. Gregory above. But “the moral theologian par excellence of the Fathers” did write:
The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers has at times a legendary bias against against Rome (let alone against the Eastern Church), and renders Chrysostom as talking about abortion and infanticide but not obviously contraception. This is deliberate mistranslation. To pick out one example, In Patrologia Graecae 60.626 (the quotation spans PG 60.626-7), “enqa polla ta atokia,” rendered “ubi multae sunt herbae in sterilitatem?” in the PG’s Latin and “Where are the medicines of sterility?” by Noonan, appears in the NPNF as “where are there many efforts at abortion?” This is a deliberate under-translation.
[St. John Chrysostom:] Why do you sow [your seed—CJSH] where the field is eager to destroy the fruit [the child—CJSH]? Where are the medicines of sterility? Where is there murder before birth? You do not even let a harlot remain only a harlot, but you make her a murderess as well. Do you see that from drunkenness comes fornication, from fornication adultery, from adultery murder? Indeed, it is something worse than murder and I do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you contemn the gift of God, and fight with his laws? What is a curse, do you seek as though it were a blessing?… Do you teach the woman who is given to you for the procreation of offspring to perpetrate killing?… In this indifference of the married men there is greater evil filth; for then poisons are prepared, not against the womb of a prostitute, but against your injured wife. (Homilies on Romans XXIV, Rom 13:14, as translated in Noonan 1986, 98.)
St. Chrysostom is not so quick as we are today to distinguish contraception from murder. Possibly, as Zaphiris writes, “there is not a defined statement on the morality of contraception within Orthodoxy.” But this is a treacherous use of words.
Let me give an analogy to explain why. People consume both food and drink, by eating and drinking. But it is somewhat strange to point out that a person has never drunk a roast beef sandwich, particularly in an attempt to lead a third party to believe, incorrectly, that a person has never consumed that food item. The Chuch has “defined” statements relating to Trinitarian and Christological, and other doctrines=, and formulated morally significant canon law. But she has never “defined” a statement in morals; that would be like drinking a roast beef sandwich. And so for Zaphiris to point out that the Orthodox Church has never “defined” a statement about contraception—a point that would be obvious to someone knowing what sorts of things the Church does not “define;” “defining” a position against murder would, for some definitions of “define,” be like drinking a sandwich—and lead the reader to believe that the Church has never issued a highly authoritative statement about contraception. The Orthodox Church has issued such statements more than once.
Saying that the Orthodox Church has never “defined” a position on a moral question is as silly and as pointless as saying that a man has never drunk a roast beef sandwich: it is technically true, but sheds no light on whether a person has consumed such a sandwich—or taken a stand on the moral question at hand. Zaphiris’s “observation” is beginning to smell a lot like spin doctoring.
I have grave reservations about an article that gives the impression of covering relevant Patristic material to the question of contraception without hinting at the fact that it was condemned. Needless to say, the article did not go beyond the immediate condemnation to try to have a sympathetic understanding of why someone would find it sensible to make such condemnations. If I were trying to marshal Orthodox theological resources in the support of some use of contraception, I doubt if I could do better than Zaphiris. However, if the question is what Orthodox should believe in reading the Bible through the Fathers, submitting to the tradition in seeking what is licit, then this version of a “new consensus” theological treatment gives me even graver doubts about the faithfulness of the “new consensus” to Orthodox tradition. The Zaphiris article, if anything, seems to be an Orthodox document with influence, and red flags, that are comparable to Humanae Vitae.
There have been times before where the Orthodox Church has accepted something alien and come to purify herself in succeeding centuries. In that sense there would be a precedent for a change that would be later undone, and that provides one ready Orthodox classification. The Orthodox Wiki provides no history of the change in Orthodoxy, and a formal statement by the Orthodox Church in America (source), without specifically praising any form of contraception, attests to the newer position and allows some use of reproductive technologies, but does not explain the change. I would be interested in seeing why the Orthodox Church in particular has brought itself into sudden agreement with cultural forces beyond what the Catholic Church has.
The Orthodox Church both affirms that Christ taught marriage to be indissoluble—excluding both divorce and remarriage after divorce—and allows by way of oikonomia (a concession or leniency in observing a rule) a second and third remarriage after divorce, not counting marriages before full reception into the Orthodox Church. However, there is a difference between observing a rule with oikonomia and saying that the rule does not apply. If a rule is observed with oikonomia, the rule is recognized even as it is not followed literally, much like choosing “the next best thing to being there,” in lieu of personal presence, when one is invited to an occasion but cannot easily attend. By contrast, saying that the rule does not apply is a deeper rejection, like refusing a friend’s invitation in a way that denies any duty or moral claim for that friend. There is a fundamental difference between sending a gift to a friend’s wedding with regrets that one cannot attend, and treating the invitation itself with contempt. The rites for a second and third marriage are genuine observations of the fact that one is observing a rule with leniency: the rite for a second marriage is penitential, the rite for a third marriage even more so, and a firm line is drawn that rules out a fourth marriage: oikonomia has limits (source). If a second and third marriage is allowed, the concession recognizes the rule and, one might argue, the reality the rule recognizes. If one looks at jokes as an anthropologist would, as revealing profound assumptions about a culture, snipes about “A wife is only temporary; an ex-wife is forever” and “When two divorced people sleep together, four people are in the bed” are often told by people who would scoff at the idea of marriage as a sacred, permanent union… but the jokes themselves testify that there is something about a marriage that divorce cannot simply erase: a spouse can become an ex-spouse, but the marriage is too permanent to simply be dropped as something revocable that has no intrinsically permanent effects. And in that sense, an ex-spouse is closer to a spouse than to a friend that has never had romance. Which is to say that marriage bears witness both to an absolute and oikonomia in how that absolute is observed.
Even with noted exceptions, the Gospels give the indissolubility of marriage a forceful dominical saying backed by quotation from the heart of the Old Testament Scriptures. If something that forcefully put may legitimately be observed with oikonomia, then it would seem strange to me to say that what I have observed as Patristic attitudes, where thinking of contraception as desirable would appear seriously disturbed, dictate not only a suspicion towards contraception but a criterion that admits no oikonomia in its observation. Presumably some degree oikonomia is allowable, and perhaps one could not rule out the oikonomia could take the form of a new consensus’s criterion allowing non-abortifascient contraception, in consultation with one’s spiritual father, on condition of allowing children at some point during a marriage. However, even if that is the legitimate oikonomia, it is legitimate as the lenient observation of grave moral principles. And, in that sense, unless one is prepared to say that the Patristic consensus is wrong in viewing contraception with great suspicion, the oikonomia, like the rites for a second and third marriage, should be appropriate for an oikonomia in observing a moral concern that remains a necessary moral concern even as it is observed with leniency.
I am left with a puzzle: why is it that Orthodox have adopted the current “new consensus”? My guess is that Zaphiris’s quite provocative article was taken as simply giving a straight account of Orthodoxy and Patristic teaching as it relates to contraception. The OCA document more or less applies both his analysis and prescriptions. But, while I hesitate to say that no one could explain both why the Fathers would regard contraception as abhorrent and we should permit it in some cases, I will say that I have not yet encountered such an explanation. And I would present, if not anything like a last word, at least important information which should probably considered in judging the rule and what is appropriate oikonomia. If Orthodoxy regards Patristic culture and philosophy as how Christ has become incarnate in the Orthodox Church, then neither condemnations of contraception, nor the reasons why those condemnations would be made in the first place, concern only antiquarians.
Would it be possible for there to be another “new consensus?”
“Morality of Contraception: An Orthodox Opinion:” A commentary
The article published by Chrysostom Zaphiris, “Morality of Contraception: An Eastern Orthodox Opinion,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, volume 11, number 4, fall 1974, 677-90, seems extremely significant. It seems a lobbyist article, and in both content and timing the 1970’s “new consensus” as articulated by the Orthodox Church in America is consistent with taking Zaphiris in good faith as simply stating the Orthodox position on contraception. (This was the one article I found in an ATLA search for keywords “Orthodox” and “contraception” anywhere, on 13 May, 2007. A search for “Orthodoxy” and “contraception” on 14 May, 2007 turned up one additional result which seemed to be connected to queer theory.) I perceive in this faulty—or, more properly, deceptively incomplete data, questionable argument, and seductive sophistry which I wish to comment on.
I believe that Zaphiris’s text is worth at least an informal commentary to draw arguments and certain features to the reader’s attention. In this commentary, all footnotes will be Zaphiris’s own; where I draw on other sources I will allude to the discussion above or add parenthetical references. I follow his footnote numbering, note page breaks by inserting the new page number, and reproduce some typographical features.
Footnote from Zaphiris’s text
Chrysostom Zaphiris (Orthodox) is a graduate of the Patriarchal Theological School of Halki, Turkey, and holds a doctorate with highest honors from the University of Strasbourg, where he studied with the Roman Catholic faculty. His 1970 thesis dealt with the “Text of the Gospel according to St. Matthew in Accordance with the Citations in Clement of Alexandria compared with Citations in the Greek Fathers and Theologians of the Second to Fifth Centuries.” Dr. Zaphiris taught canon law and New Testament courses at Holy Cross School of Theology (at Hellenic College), Brookline, MA, 1970-72. From 1972 to 1974, he was Vice Rector at the Ecumenical Institute for Advanced Studies, Tantur, Jerusalem.
* This paper was originally presented during the discussion held for doctors of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the surrounding area hosted by theologians of the Ecumenical Institute at Tantur on the question of the morality of contraception. At this point, I would like also to thank Br. James Hanson, C.S.C., for his help editing my English text.
THE MORALITY OF CONTRACEPTION: AN EASTERN ORTHODOX OPINION*
This discussion of the morality of contraception includes four basic points: the purpose of marriage as viewed scripturally and patristically, the official teachings of Orthodoxy concerning contraception, the moral issue from an Orthodox perspective, and “the Orthodox notion of synergism and its implications for the moral question of contraception.”
It is possible through inference to determine that the Scriptures and the early Christian writers considered that, within marriage, sexual activity and procreation were not the same entity and that sexuality was to be practiced within marriage. These assertions are illustrated.
The official teaching of the Orthodox Church on contraception includes five points: a denunciation of intentional refusal to procreate within marriage, a condemnation of both abortion and infanticide, an absence of any commitment against contraception, and a reliance upon the medical profession to supply further information on the issue. The author offers a theological opinion on the question of contraception allowing for contraception under certain circumstances.
Synergism is the final issue discussed. Synergism is defined as cooperation, co-creation, and co-legislation between humans and God. When people use their talents and faculties morally and creatively, they are acting in combination with God and expressing God’s will. The Orthodox view of contraception is perceived within the dimensions of synergistic activity and serves as a contrast to the Roman Catholic view.
The essay concludes with some comments about contraception as a moral issue as perceived within the Eastern Orthodox Church. Allowing for individual freedom and responsibility, and in light of synergism, Orthodoxy avoids definitive pronouncements on such moral issues as contraception.
Contraception is one of the most important aspects of human behavior and family life, and thus it is a part of life which cannot be ignored by theology itself. There can 678 be no question of treating this moral question, but only of outlining the aspects which must be considered according to the Orthodox tradition.
I don’t know an exact rule for “what must be considered for the Orthodox tradition,” but besides of Biblical witness, the Patriarch of New Rome and one of three “heirarchs and ecumenical teachers” of the Orthodox Church, St. John Chrysostom, homilectically treating something as an abomination and calling it “worse than murder” would tend to be something I would include under “aspects which must be considered according to the Orthodox tradition.”
One reaction which I would like to address in many readers, even though it is not properly commentary is, “Contraception is comparable to homicide? It’s called “worse than murder“? Is this translated correctly? Is this gross exaggeration? Is it cultural weirdness, or some odd influence of Platonic thought that the Church has recovered from? Why on earth would anybody say that?” This is a natural reaction, partly because the Fathers are articulating a position that is inconceivable today. So the temptation is to assume that this has some cause, perhaps historical, despite moral claims that cannot be taken seriously today.
I would like to provide a loose analogy, intended less to convince than convey how someone really could find a continuity between contraception and murder. Suppose that destroying a painting is always objectionable. Now consider the process of painting: a painting germinates in an artist’s mind, is physically created and explored, and finally becomes something one hangs on a wall.
Now let me ask a question: if one tries to interrupt the process of artistic creation, perhaps by disrupting the creator’s state of mind and scattering the paints, does that qualify as “destroying a painting”?
The answer to that question depends on what qualifies as “destroying a painting.” If one disrupts the artist who is thinking about painting a painting, or scatters the paints and half-painted canvas, then in neither case has one destroyed a finished painting. You cannot point to a completed painting that was there before the interruption began, and say, “See? That is the painting that was destroyed.” However, someone who is not being legalistic has good reason to pause before saying “This simply does not qualify as destroying a painting” A completed painting was not destroyed, but the process of artistic creation that produces a completed painting was destroyed. And in that sense, someone who interrupted Van Gogh and stopped him from painting “Starry Night” is doing the same sort of thing as someone today who would burn up the completed painting. The two acts are cut from the same cloth.
Now my intent is not to provide a precise and detailed allegory about what detail of the creation process represents conception, birth, etc. That is not the intent of the general illustration. My point is that talk about “destroying paintings” need not be construed only as destroying a completed painting in its final form. There is also the possibility of destroying a painting in the sense of willfully disrupting the process of an artist in the process of making a painting. And, perhaps, there is room for St. John Chrysostom’s horrified, “Indeed, it is something worse than murder and I do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation.” Now is this rhetorical exaggeration? Quite possibly; Noonan studies various penitentials, all from before the Great Schism, and although there is not always a penance assigned for contraception by potion, two assign a lighter penance than for homicide, one assigns the same penance, and one actually assigns a penance of four years for homicide and seven for contraception. Contraception could bear a heavier penance than murder.
It is somewhat beside the point to work out if we really have to take St. John Chrysostom literally in saying that contraception is worse than homicide. I don’t think that is necessary. But it is not beside the point that the Fathers seem to treat a great deal of continuity between contraception, abortion, and infanticide, and seem not to draw terribly sharp oppositions between them. Whether or not one assigns heavy-handed penalties from contraception, I can’t think of a way to read the Fathers responsibly and categorically deny that contraception is cut from the same cloth as abortion and infanticide. The point is not exactly an exact calculus to measure the relative gravity of the sins. The point is that they are all connected in patristic writing.
First, we need to study the purpose of marriage as we find it in the Scriptures and in the writings of the Greek Fathers. Second, we will reflect on the official teaching authority of the Orthodox Church on this question of contraception. Third, we will offer a moral opinion as to the legitimacy of the practice of contraception from an Orthodox viewpoint. And finally, we will discuss the Orthodox notion of synergism and its implications for the moral question of contraception.
II. THE PURPOSE OF MARRIAGE.
Although the purpose of marriage is never treated systematically in the Scriptures or in the Fathers according to our contemporary viewpoint and questions, it is possible to infer the thoughts of these classical authors on the purpose of marriage. In general, what we find is that there is the presupposition that human sexual activity within marriage and the procreation of children are not seen as completely the same reality. And furthermore, both Scripture and the Fathers consistently counsel the faithful to live in such a way that human sexuality can be expressed within marriage.
The claim in the last sentence is true; more has been argued from St. John Chrysostom. But Orthodoxy does view celibacy and marriage as more compatible than some assume today. At least by the letter of the law, Orthodox are expected to be continent on fasting days and on days where the Eucharist is received, meaning a minimum of almost half days of the year, including one period approaching two months. I don’t know what degree of oikonomia is common in pastoral application, but an Orthodox might want to drop another shoe besides saying “both Scripture and the Fathers consistently counsel the faithful to live in such a way that sexuality can be expressed in marriage.”
The Scriptures present us with a Christian doctrine of marriage most clearly in Genesis and in the writings of St. Paul. In Genesis 2:18, God said that it was not good for man to be alone, but that he should have a helpmate which he then gave to Adam in the person of his wife, Eve. Is this help meant by God to be only social and religious?
Apparently the possibility that marriage could, as in the patristic world, be not only an affective matter of what people but a union of pragmatic help encompassing even the economic is not considered.
Or is it also intended by God to be a physical help provided to a man in terms of sexual complementarity?
Does “physical help” simply boil down to the C-word, as Zaphiris seems to mean? Are there no other possibilities? And why is “physical help” just something a wife gives a husband and not something a husband gives a wife? The euphemism sounds like the wife should be kind enough to join a pity party: “It causes him so much pleasure, and it causes me so little pain.” I would like to propose a much more excellent alternative: making love.
Perhaps it is also possible that “physical help” should also include assistance with errands, or provision, or getting work done as part of a working household? Besides Stephen Clark, Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences (Ann Arbor: Servant 1980), Proverbs 31:10-31 describes the ideal helpmate who perhaps has children but is not praised for beauty or as any basic sex toy: she is praised, among other things, as a powerful and effective helpmeet. In the praises, physical beauty is mentioned only in order to deprecate its significance.
In reading Clark, it seems a natural thing to offer a wife the praises of the end of Proverbs. Zaphiris’s presuppositions make that kind of thing look strange. But the defect is with Zaphiris.
However we answer these questions, one thing is certain: the question of procreation as such is not raised by the author. Yet, procreation itself is encouraged by the author of Genesis 1:28, when God orders human beings to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Just as the author of the Pentateuch never makes an explicit connection between the creation of Eve and the practice of human procreation, so likewise St. Paul in the New Testament never makes this connection.
In the case of St. Paul, it is a question of sexual relations of continence within marriage or of marriage as opposed to virginity, but never exactly the question of procreation in any of these cases. Paul considers marriage and virginity as charisms within the life of the Church. He exhorts believers to the practice of virginity if they have this charism; if not, he encourages them to marry. This raises a subsequent question: “Does St. Paul encourage marriage first of all to promote the procreation of children or rather make up for human weakness which is experienced in sexual passion?” While I acknowledge that procreation of children is one of the reasons for marriage which Christian theology has consistently taught, it has never been the only reason for Christian marriage.
If we follow St. Paul closely, it is apparent that he encourages a man to marry, not simply to procreate children, but for other reasons, the most prominent of which 679 would be to avoid fornication (cf. I Cor. 7:2). It is because human persons have the right
I would like to make a comment that sounds, at first, like nitpicking about word choice:
Rights-based moral calculus is prevalent in the modern world, sometimes so that people don’t see how to do moral reasoning without seeing things in terms of rights. But the modern concept of a “right” is alien to Orthodoxy.
See Kenneth Himes (ed.) et al., Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretations (Washington: Georgetown University Press 2005), chapter 2 (41-71) for an historical discussion including how the concept of rights became incorporated into Catholic moral reasoning from the outside. The change was vigorously resisted as recently as Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864), today the subject of embarrassed explanations, but what Catholics apologetically explain is often closer to Orthodoxy than the modern Catholic explanation of what Catholicism really teaches. Even in modern Catholicism, officially approved “rights” language is a relatively recent development, and there are attempts to use the concept differently from the secular West.
Armenian Orthodox author Vigen Guorian’s Incarnate Love: Essays in Orthodox Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press 1987, page number not available) briefly complains about the modern idea of placing human dignity on no deeper basis than rights; I would refer the reader to my homily “Do We Have Rights?” ( http://jonathanscorner.com/no_rights/ ) for moral-ascetical reasoning that rejects the innovation.
The reason why I am “nitpicking” here is that there is a subtle difference, but a profound one, between saying that sex is good within marriage (or at least permissible), and saying that husband and wife have a right to sexual pleasure, and this entitlement is deep enough that if the sexual generation of children would be undesirable, the entitlement remains, along with a necessity of modifying sex so that the entitled sexual pleasure is delivered even if the sexual generation of children is stopped cold.
Zaphiris never develops the consequences of rights-based moral reasoning at length or makes it the explicit basis for arguing for an entitlement to sexual pleasure even if that means frustrating sexual generation. However, after asserting a married right to sex, he not only fails to discourage this reasoning, but reaches a conclusion identical with the one this reasoning would reach.
to be married and to perform sexual activity within that specific context that Jesus Christ and St. Paul have condemned explicitly the practice of fornication (cf. Mt 5:32, 19:9; Acts 15:20; I Cor. 5:1, 6, 13, 18). Thus, in our study of the Christian tradition on marriage and the possibility of contraceptive practices within marriage, we must keep clearly in view this particular function of marriage as an antidote to fornication.
We find a similar sensitivity in the writings of Paul to the human need for sexual gratification in marriage when he counsels Christian couples on the practice of continence within marriage. “The wife cannot claim her body as her own; it is her husbands. Equally, the husband cannot claim his body as his own; it is his wife’s. Do not deny yourselves to one another, except when you agree upon a temporary abstinence in order to devote yourselves to prayer; afterwords, you may come together again; otherwise, for lack of self-control, you may be tempted by Satan” (I Cor. 7:4-5). In this passage, there is no question of procreation, but only of the social union between husband and wife within Christian marriage. While, on the positive side, Paul affirms that Christian marriage is a sign of the union between Jesus Christ and the Church and that the married couple participates in the unity and holiness of this union, more negatively he also sees in marriage an antidote or outlet for the normal human sexual passions. In this context, St. Paul always counsels marriage as preferable to any possibility of falling into fornication.
In saying this, St. Paul is obviously not opposed to procreation as the end of marriage. The bearing of children was naturally expected to result from the practice of sexual intercourse within marriage as he counseled it. Abstinence from regular sexual intercourse was encouraged only to deepen the life of prayer for a given period of time. This limiting of abstinence to a specific period of time shows well Paul’s sensitivity to the demands of human sexual passions and his elasticity of judgment in giving moral counsel. Thus, from the exegesis of Genesis of St. Paul, the whole contemporary question of the explicit connection between sexual intercourse within marriage and the procreation of children was simply not raised in the same form in which it is today.
I would like to take a moment to look at the story of Onan before posing a suggestion about exegesis.
I suggest that in the Bible, especially in portraying something meant to horrify the reader, there are often multiple elements to the horror. The story of Sodom portrays same-sex intercourse, gang rape, and extreme inhospitality. There is a profoundly naive assumption behind the question, “Of same-sex intercourse, gang rape, and extreme inhospitality, which one are we really supposed to think is the problem?” In this case, it seems all three contributed to something presented as superlatively horrifying, and it is the combined effect that precedes Sodom’s judgment in fire and sulfur and subsequently becoming the Old Testament prophet’s “poster city” for every single vice from idolatry and adultery to pride and cruelty to the poor. The story of Sodom is written to have multiple elements of horror.
There is one story where contraception is mentioned in the Bible, and it is one of few where Onan joins the company of Uzzah, Ananias, Sapphira, Herod (the one in Acts), and perhaps others in being the only people named in the Bible as being struck dead by God for their sins. This is not an august company. Certainly Onan’s story is not the story of a couple saying, “Let’s iust focus on the children we have,” but a story that forceful in condemning Onan’s sin, whatever the sin properly consisted in, has prima faciae good claim to be included a Biblical text that factors into a Biblical view of contraception. The story is relevant, even if it is ambiguous for the concerns of this question.
Likewise, in something that is not translated clearly in most English translations, the New Testament (Gal 5:20, Rev 9:21) pharmakoi refers to “medicine men” who made, among other things, contraceptive and abortifascient potions, in a world that seemed not to really separate drugs from magic. English translations ordinarily follow the KJV in translating this only with reference to the occult sin, so that it does not come across clearly that the Bible is condemning the people you would go to for contraceptives. This is ambiguous evidence for this discussion: it is not clear whether it is only condemning the occult practices, condemning what the occult practices were used for, or condemning both at the same time, but the question is significant.
Granted, not every Biblical text touching marriage is evidence against contraception. There are other relevant passages like Gal 5:21-33 which discuss the love in marriage with no reference to fecundity, but if one wants to understand the Bible as it relates to contraception, it is surprising not to mention passages that directly impinge on it, ambiguously but raising the question of whether contraception is a grave sin.
1. Cf. Stromata, III, 82, 4.
Turning from the writings of Paul to those of the Greek Fathers, we will see that there is a continuity of Orthodox tradition in this understanding of the purpose of marriage. First, let us consider the statement of Clement of Alexandria who raises this problem as a theologian and as a pastor of the faithful. When he comments on I Cor. 7:2, he uses neither the allegorical nor the spiritual method of exegesis, but rather the literal interpretation of this Pauline text. Through this methodology, Clement, in spite of his usual idealism, recommends marriage over fornication and counsels sexual intercourse within marriage over the possibility of serving the temptor through fornication.
2. See H. Crouzel, Virginité et mariage selon Origène (Paris-Bruges, 1963), pp. 80-133.
679 We find a similar line of thought in his successor, Origen. Although Origen accepts procreation as the end of marriage, he also sees in marriage the legitimate concession to human weakness in its sexual passions.
Likewise Methodius of Olympus continues this interpretation of St. Paul in a very clear statement on the subject: “… The apostle did not grant these things unconditionally to all, but first laid down the reason on account of which he has led to this. For, having set forth that ‘it is good for a man not to touch a woman’ (I Cor. VII, 1) he added immediately ‘nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife’ (I Cor. VII, 2)—that is ‘on account of the fornication which would arise from your being unable to restrain your passions.’…” Afterwards the author notes that Paul speaks “by permission” and “not of command,” so that Methodius comments: “For he receives command respecting chastity and not touching of a woman, but permission respecting those who are unable to chasten their appetites.”
3. Cf. The Banquet of the Virgins, III, 12.
Methodius applies similar logic to the possibility of the second marriage, in that he permits the second marriage, not specifically for the procreation of children, but “on account of the strength of animal passion, he [Paul] allows one who is in such condition may, ‘by permission’ contract a second marriage; not as though he expressed the opinion that a second marriage was in itself good, but judging it better than burning . . .” According to Methodius, the apostle speaks here, first saying that he wished all were healthy and continent, as he also was, but afterwards allowing a second marriage to those who are burdened with the weaknesses of the passions, goaded on by the uncontrolled desires of the organs of generations for promiscuous intercourse, considering such a second marriage far preferable to burning and indecency.
4. See A. Moulard, Saint Jean Chrysostome, le défenseur du mariage et l’apôtre de la virginité (Paris, 1923), pp. 72ff.
The moral theologian par excellence of the Fathers, St. John Chrysostom, also does not stress the procreation of children as the goal of marriage. On the contrary, he adheres to the Pauline texts and to the apologists for virginity and concludes that marriage does not have any other goal than that of hindering fornication.
“The moral theologian par excellence of the Fathers” wrote the passage cited in the paper above:
“Why do you sow where the field is eager to destroy the fruit? Where are the medicines of sterility? Where is there murder before birth? You do not even let a harlot remain only a harlot, but you make her a murderess as well. Do you see that from drunkenness comes fornication, from fornication adultery, from adultery murder? Indeed, it is something worse than murder and I do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you contemn the gift of God, and fight with his laws? What is a curse, do you seek as though it were a blessing?… Do you teach the woman who is given to you for the procreation of offspring to perpetrate killing?… In this indifference of the married men there is greater evil filth; for then poisons are prepared, not against the womb of a prostitute, but against your injured wife.“
There is arguably a degree of ambiguity in the Church Fathers. However, the ambiguity is of a far lesser degree. The Fathers argued most vehemently against opponents who believed the procreation of any children was morally wrong; contraception was seen as a duty in all intercourse, and not a personal choice for one’s convenience. See Augustine as cited on page 6 above. Acknowledging that the Fathers addressed a different situation, this does not mean that, since the Fathers did not address the situation of a couple not wishing to be burdened by more children for now, the patristic arguments are inapplicable. An injunction against suicide may say something about self-mutilation even if, in the initial discussion, there was no question of mutilations that were nonlethal in character.
There is some element of something in the Fathers that can be used to support almost anything: hence Sarah Coakley’s Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy, and Gender (Oxford: Blackwell 2002) teams up St. Gregory of Nyssa with Judith Butler, who is a lesbian deconstructionist and “bad writing” award winner, in pursuing the “gender fluidity” that is greatly sought after by queer theory and feminism (157-61). For that matter, I think there is a stronger case for Arianism, from the Bible, than Zapyiris makes from the Church Fathers on contraception, and it involves less “crossing fingers.” For the record, I believe the conclusions of both arguments I have brought up are heresy, but there is a reason I brought them up. We are in trouble if we only expect the truth to be able to pull arguments from the Scripture and the Fathers, or believe that an argument that draws on the Scripture and the Fathers is therefore trustworthy. My point is not so much whether Zaphiris is right or wrong as the fact that there’s something that can be pulled from the Fathers in support of everything, either right or wrong. His argument needs to be weighed on its merits. (Or demerits.)
There is some more complexity to the discussion; I have left many things out of the shorter article, but the much even of what I have left out would make the point more strongly. Hence Noonan discusses a view that sex during pregnancy is not licit because it will not be fruitful, discusses the Stoic protest of “even animals don’t do this,” mentions a third-century dissenter from this view (Lactantius) who allowed sex during pregancy only as an ambivalent concession, and then the well-read researcher writes, “This… is the only opinion I have encountered in any Christian theologian before 1500 explicitly upholding the lawfulness of intercourse in pregnancy” (Noonan 1986, 78.). Properly taken in context, this would support a much stronger position than I have argued, and one less attractive today.
Is the issue complex? There’s a lot here to understand. Granted. But in this case, “complex” does not mean “nothing but shades of grey,” and I am at a loss for a good, honest reason to claim to provide an overview Patristic theology as relevant to contraception, while at the same time failing to mention how it condemned contraception.
III. THE OFFICIAL TEACHING OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH ON CONTRACEPTION
While there is not a defined statement on the morality of contraception within Orthodoxy,
To modify what I wrote above: I am not sure exactly what Zaphiris means by “defined.” The Church is not considered to have “defined” any position on morals in the sense of infallibly pronounced doctrines. In Orthodoxy, the Seven Ecumenical Councils may create canons that are morally binding, but irreversible doctrinal declarations are mostly connected to Christology. Under that definition of “defined”, the Orthodox Church would not have “defined” a ruling against contraception, regardless of its moral status. Neither would she have “defined” a ruling against rape, murder, or any other heinous offenses, even as she unambiguously condemns them.
This is one of several passages that raises questions of slippery rhetoric, perhaps of sophistry. Assuming that the above understanding of “defined” applies (a question which I am unsure of even if it seems that an affirmative answer would be consistent with the rest of the document), his claim is technically true. But it is presented so as to be interpreted as stating that the Orthodox Church has no real position on the matter, unlike other moral questions where the Orthodox Church would presumably have defined a position. This understandable inference is false. The Patristic witness, and arguably the Biblical witness, in fact do treat contraception as suspicious at best. If so, this is a case of Zaphiris saying something technically true in order to create an impression that is the opposite of the truth. That is very well-done sophistry.
Zaphiris continues with a small, but telling, remark:
there is a body of moral tradition which has a bearing on this question.
This short claim is also true. More specifically, there is a body of moral tradition which has a bearing on this question and tends to view contraception negatively.
First, the Church vigorously denounces any obvious case of pure egotism as the motivating force in Christian sexuality within marriage. Any married couple within the Orthodox Church who want absolutely no children sins grievously against both the Christian dispensation and against the primordial purpose of human life which includes the procreation or, as the Greek Fathers prefer, the “immortality” of the human 680 species.
It seems that Zaphiris may be, for reasons of rhetoric and persuasion, providing a limit to how much he claims, so as to be more readily accepted. Zaphiris provides no footnotes or reference to sources more specific than the “Greek Fathers” to buttress this claim, and does not provide an explanation for certain questions. One such question is why, if marriage is not morally required and celibates are never obligated to provide that specific support for the “immortality” of the human species, such obligation is binding on all married couples. Are all celibates exempt from “the primordial purpose of human life,” and if so, why is it permissible to fail to meet such a foundational purpose of human life? I do not see why Zaphiris’s logic justifies his making the more palatable claim that some openness towards children is mandatory.
This raises the question of whether he has a consistent position arising from his reading, or whether he is simply inventing a position and claiming he got it from the Greek Fathers.
According to the Greek Fathers, to refuse to transmit life to others is a grievous sin of pride in which the couple prefers to keep human life for themselves instead of sharing it with possible offspring.
5. See, e.g., Didache, II, i-3, V, 2, VI, 1-2; Pseudo-Barnabas, Epist., XIX, 4-6, Saint Justin, 1 Apolog., XXVII, 1-XXIX,1; Athenagoras, Supplic., XXXV; Epist. Ad Diogn., 5,6; Tertullian, Apolog, IX, 6-8; Ad Nationes, I, 15; Minucius Felix, Octavius, XXX, 2; Lactance, Divinarum Instutionum, VI, 20.
6. In this regard, we should stress the fact that the Greek Fathers forbid every induced abortion of a human fetus because abortion involves tampering with a human soul. In fact, the soul is not the product of the sexual act of the parents, but is rather the manifestation of the love of God or the result of a special direct or indirect action of God (cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, VI. 135, et Eclogae propheticae, 50, 1-3). A study of the means of the transmission of the soul is beyond the scope of the present paper so that we do not try to explain it here. What is important is to emphasize that the parents cannot destroy any human life—even embryonic—because the embyro carries the soul which is transmitted by God.
7. We must stress the fact that a few non-Christian philosophers took issue with the pro-abortion majority and condemned abortion. Cf. Seneca, De Consolatione ad Helviani, XVI, 3; R. Musunius, p. 77; Desimus Junius Juvenalis, Satire, VI, 595f.; Philon of Alexandria, Hypothetia, VII, 7 (apud Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica, VIII, 7, 7).
8. Among other Greek Fathers, see Clement of Alexandria, Eclogae propheticae, 50, 1-3.
Secondly, the Orthodox Church, following the teachings of the Fathers, is totally opposed to any form of the abortion of unborn children. Human life belongs exclusively to God and neither the mother nor the father of the fetus has the right to destroy that life. When the Fathers of the Church debated against the non-Christian philosophers of the first centuries, they considered abortion as murder because the life of the fetus is animate being.
(Note, for the closing claim, that the reason Zaphiris provides is articulated in a fashion which does not apply to contraception, at least not directly: destroying a painting is wrong precisely because an existing and completed painting is a work of art. What the rhetoric says, avoids saying, and leaves the reader to infer, seems to be exquisitely crafted sophistry.)
Thirdly, the Orthodox Church has universally condemned infanticide as immoral, following the same line of theological reasoning.
6. In this regard, we should stress the fact that the Greek Fathers forbid every induced abortion of a human fetus because abortion involves tampering with a human soul. In fact, the soul is not the product of the sexual act of the parents, but is rather the manifestation of the love of God or the result of a special direct or indirect action of God (cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, VI. 135, et Eclogae propheticae, 50, 1-3). A study of the means of the transmission of the soul is beyond the scope of the present paper so that we do not try to explain it here. What is important is to emphasize that the parents cannot destroy any human life—even embryonic—because the embyro carries the soul which is transmitted by God.
Fourthly, it is important to stress that the Orthodox Church has not promulgated any solemn statements through its highest synods on the whole contemporary question of contraception. In general, I think it is accurate to say that, as long as a married couple is living in fidelity to one another and not allowing an immoral egotism to dominate their sexual relations, the particularities of their sexual life are left to the freedom of the spouses to decide.
Finally, it is important to note that the Orthodox Church looks to the medical profession itself to come to some unanimity in its biological research on the effects of contraception for human health. At the moment, the world of science does not furnish the world of theology such a unanimous body of opinion as would allow the Church prudently to formulate unchangeable moral teaching on this point. 682
There is probably a higher class academic way of making this point, but there is a classic anecdote, rightly or wrongly attributed:
Winston Churchill to unknown woman: “Would you sleep with me for a million pounds?”
Unknown woman: “Would I!”
Winston Churchill: “Would you sleep with me for five pounds?”
Unknown woman: “Exactly what kind of woman do you think I am?”
Winston Churchill: “We’ve already established that. We’re just negotiating over the price.”
This claim is not a claim that the theological status of contraception is to be determined by the medical profession. The paragraph quoted above means that the theological status of contraception has already been established, with the “price” left to the medical profession to work out.
IV. A THEOLOGICAL OPINION ON THE QUESTION OF CONTRACEPTION
10. Clement of Alexandria, e.g., probably due to the influence of Greek philosophy, defines marriage as “gamos oun esti synodos andros kai gynaikos e prote kata nomon epi gnesion teknon sporai,” i.e. marriage is primarily the union of a man and a woman according to the law in order to procreate legitimate children (cf. Stromata, II, 137, 1).
From the material we have surveyed above, it should be obvious that there can be no question of entering into marriage without the intention of procreating children as part of the marriage and still remain faithful to the Orthodox moral tradition.
Pay very, very close attention to footnote 10, immediately above. When a Church Father says that marriage is for the procreation of legitimate children, Zaphiris mentions this only in a footnote and immediately apologizes for it, explaining it away it as “probably due to the influence of Greek philosophy.” Are we really talking about the same “Greek philosophy” as Zaphiris describes above as only rarely having people speak out against abortion?
11. When the patristic theologians comment on the Pauline doctrine of I Cor. 7:4-5, they consistently stress the temporary character of the sexual abstinence which was permitted by St. Paul to the marriage partners. This temporary period would be all that a husband and wife should agree to in order to avoid the temptation to evil (cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, III, 79, 1).
However, it seems to me that a different question is raised when we consider the case of a couple who already have three or four children and cannot realistically face the possibility of begetting more children and providing adequately for their upbringing and education. Either they can act fairly irresponsibly and beget more children or they can abstain from sexual intercourse with the constant threat that Satan may tempt the couple to some form of adultery.
I see plenty of precedent for this kind of heart-rending plea in Margaret Sanger’s wake. Ordinarily when I see such a line of argument, it is to some degree connected with one of the causes Margaret Sanger worked to advance. I am more nebulous on whether the Fathers would have seen such “compassion” as how compassion is most truly understood; they were compassionate, but the framework that gave their compassion concrete shape is different from this model.
I might comment that it is almost invariably first-world people enjoying a first-world income who find that they cannot afford any more children. Are they really that much less able than people in the third-world to feed children, or is it simply that they cannot afford more children and keep up their present standard of living? If this choice is interpreted to mean that more children are out of the question, then what that means is, with apologies to St. John Chrysostom, a decision that luxuries and inherited wealth make a better legacy for one’s children than brothers and sisters.
If the first practice of continued sexual intercourse is pursued, there is the likelihood of an unwanted pregnancy in which case the child ceases to be a sign of their shared love, but risks being a burden which causes only anxiety and even hostility. It is not common that people in this situation of despondency opt for the clearly immoral act of abortion. If this radical action is avoided, and the parents go through with the birth of an unwanted child, there is still the danger that they will subsequently seek a divorce.
Apart from economic or possible emotional problems which accompany economic pressures in family life, there is the equally concrete problem that the health of one of the parents or the health of the possible child might be jeopardized should conception occur.
To limit as far as possible the moral, religious, social, economic, cultural, and psychological problems which arise with the arrival of an unwanted child—both for the parents and for the larger community—I believe that the use of contraceptives would be, if not the best solution, at least the only solution we have at our disposal today. I cannot distinguish between natural and artificial means because the morality of both is the same. If someone uses either a natural or an artificial means of birth control, the intention is the same, i.e., to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. The use of contraceptives can facilitate a sexual life which enjoys a minimum of anxiety.
With these reflections on the current situation of family life and based on the above understanding of St. Paul and the Fathers, I ask myself what is better: to practice abstinence from the act of sexual intercourse, an act made holy by the blessing of God, or to practice a controlled sexual life within marriage and avoid the temptation of Satan? As we know, sexual intimacy within marriage is a very important 683 aspect of the relationship between husband and wife. With the use of contraceptives this sexual intimacy can be practiced without fear of unwanted pregnancy or without the danger of adultery which may result from the practice of abstinence.
Here contraceptives appear to “save the day” in terms of marital intimacy, and the question of whether they have drawbacks is not brought to the reader’s attention. Zaphiris is interested, apparently, in answering the question, “What can be made attractive about contraception?” There are other ways of looking at it.
There was one time I met Fr. Richard John Neuhaus; it was a pleasure, and very different from the stereotypes I keep hearing about neoconservatives here at my more liberal Catholic school, Fordham.
At that evening, over beer and (for the others) cigars I asked about the idea that I had been mulling over. The insight is that concepts ideas and positions having practical conclusions that may not be stated in any form. I asked Fr. Neuhaus for his response to the suggestion that the practice of ordaining women is a fundamental step that may ripple out and have other consequences. I said, “It would be an interesting matter to make a chart, for mainline Protestant denominations, of the date they accepted the ordination of women and the date when they accepted same-sex unions. My suspicion is that it would not be too many years.”
He responded by suggesting that I push the observation further back: it would be interesting to make a chart for American denominations of the date when they allowed contraception, and the more nebulous date when they started to allow divorce.
Fr. Neuhaus’s response raises an interesting question for this discussion. There might be greater value than Zaphiris provides in answering the question, “What are the practical effects, both positive and negative, for sexual intimacy that happen when a couple uses contraception?” There is room to argue that intimacy premised on shutting down that aspect of sharing may have some rather unpleasant effects surfacing in odd places. Fr. Neuhaus seemed to think before suggesting a connection between contraception and divorce. But this is not the question Zaphiris is answering; the question he seems to be answering is, “How can we present contraception as potentially a savior to some couples’ marital intimacy?” This is fundamentally the wrong question to ask.
12. This spiritual union and the physical union are not opposed to one another, but are complementary. As an Orthodox theologian, I cannot treat physical union and spiritual union as dialectically opposed realities, which would result from an opposition between matter and spirit. Rather than getting trapped in this typically Western problem, I follow the theological stress of Orthodoxy; this opposition between matter and spirit is resolved through the Logis, and matter and spirit are affirmed to be in extraordinary accord and synergy.
The use of contraceptives can contribute to the possibility of a couple’s having a permanent physical and spiritual union. The practice of contraception can contribute to the harmony between the man and wife which is the sine qua non of their union. Furthermore, the practice of contraception can facilitate a balance between demographic expansion on our planet and cultivation of its natural resources. This is absolutely essential if we are to prevent future misery and human degradation for future generations. Furthermore, the church itself, which always desires to promote the economic, social, educational, psychological, and religious well-being of its members and of all persons, should permit the practice of contraception among its faithful if it is to be true to its own task.
There was one webpage I saw long ago, comparing the 1950’s and 1990’s and asking whether it was still possible to make ends meet. The author, after comparing one or two of other rules of thumb, compared what was in a 1950’s kitchen with what was in a 1990’s kitchen, and concluded, “We’re not keeping up with the Joneses any more…. We’re keeping up with the Trumps.”
St. John Chrysostom was cited in an academic presentation I heard, as presenting an interesting argument for almsgiving: in response to the objection of “I have many children and cannot afford too much almsgiving,” said that having more children was a reason to givemore alms, because almsgiving has salvific power, and more children have more need for the spiritual benefit of parental almsgiving.
Besides finding the argument interesting, there is something that I would like to underscore, and it is not simply because this would be a family size with contraception forbidden. This is in the context of what would today be considered a third world economy—what we know as first world economy did not exist until the West discovered unprecedentedly productive ways of framing an economy. An hour’s work would not buy a burger and fries; a day’s work might buy a reasonable amount of bread, and meat was a rarity. Those whom St. Chrysostom was advising to give more alms since they had more children, were living in what would be considered squalor today. Or in the West the year of Zaphiris’ publication, or perhaps before that.
Why is it that today, in such a historically productive economy, we have suddenly been faced with the difficulty of providing for a large family? Why does the first world present us with the (new?) issue of providing for as many children as a couple generates? My suspicion is that it is because we have an expected baseline that would appear to others as “keeping up with the Trumps.” The question in Zaphiris is apparently not so much whether children can be fed, whether with a first world diet or with straight bread, as whether they can be given a college education, because, in a variation of Socrates’ maxim, a life without letters after one’s name is not worth living.
I would raise rather sharply the conception of what is good for human beings: as Luke 12:15 says, a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. The Orthodox ascetical tradition has any number of resources for a well-lived life. There are more resources than most of us will ever succeed in using. The Orthodox ascetical tradition is not only for people who consider themselves rich. Is contraception really justified just because the average middle-class family cannot afford to bring up more than a few children in the lifestyle of keeping up with the Trumps?
This personal theological-moral opinion which I have outlined and which suggests that we take active human measures regarding family life and the future of society does not at all imply that I reject the full importance of the action of divine providence as important—it is probably the most important factor in the human future. On the contrary, I want to suggest the cooperation of human reason with divine providence; for the Greek Fathers, human reason itself is a participation in the divine revelation. The discoveries and inventions of humankind are themselves permitted by God who governs the human spirit through the Logos without suppressing human freedom.
Furthermore, we must not forget that the physiology of the woman is itself a kind of preventative to the occurrence of pregnancy. During her menstrual cycle, as is well known, she is fertile only part of the time. On the side of the male physiology, it is only by chance, and certainly not the result of every ejaculation of semen, that one of the millions of sperm swims to the ovum with final success so that conception occurs. I believe that the physical make-up of the reproductive system of both female and male shows that God did not intend that every act of human sexual intercourse should result in a pregnancy. Consequently, I believe that the contraceptive pill does not produce an abnormal state in woman, but rather prolongs the non-fecund period which comes from God.
Having arrived at this moral opinion which would allow the use of contraceptives by Orthodox couples, it is important to conclude by underscoring several basic points. First, as an Orthodox theologian, I feel that I must respect the freedom of a married couple to ultimately make the decision themselves after I have done my best to school them in the sacredness of marriage, the importance of their union within the saving Mystery of Jesus Christ, and their role in peopling the communion of saints.
684 Secondly, it is important, from an Orthodox point of view, to recognize in the practice of sexual continence a primarily spiritual reality. That is, sexual continence should be practiced only when a couple feels that this is being asked of them by God as a moment within their mutual growth in holiness and spirituality. Any imposition of continence as a physical discipline entered into for baser motives such as fear is not the kind of continence which is counseled to us by the Gospel.
This makes an amusing, if perhaps ironic, contrast to Humanae Vitae. Here Zaphiris more or less says that “continence” for the sake of having sexual pleasure unencumbered by children is not really continence. Which I would agree with. Zaphiris says that the pill (abortifascient, incidentally, on some accounts today) is merely regulating a natural cycle, while crying “foul!” at the Catholic claim that contraceptive timing is a spiritually commendable “continence.” The Catholic position is the mirror image of this, rejecting the idea that the pill (even if it were not abortifascient) is merely regulating a natural cycle, and classifying the pill among what Catholic canon law calls “poisons of sterility.” Both Humanae Vitae and Zaphiris make a shoddy argument for one of these two methods of contraception and cry “Foul!” about shoddy argument on the other side.
Despite the fact that Zaphiris presents himself as hostile to Humanae Vitae and rising above its faults, the two documents seem to be almost mirror images, more similar than different.
13. As we know, the Encratites (e.g. Tatian, Cassien, and Carpocrates) condemned marriage because they considered every act of sexual intercourse as sinful. It was sinful because it did not come from God (cf. Epiphanius of Salamine, Adv. Haer., I, III, 46). For them, sexuality was also condemned because of its supposed relationship to original sin. The fleshly union allowed by marriage only further propagated this original sin in the offspring. Thus, because sexuality was not divine, Jesus Christ came to suppress it (cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, III, 91, 1; 92, 1). In their doctrine, through the suppression of the fleshly union, Jesus Christ opposed the Gospel of the New Testament to the Law of the Old Testament which had allowed sexual intercourse in marriage. The followers of the encratistic movement said that they did not accept sexuality, marriage, or procreation because they did not feel that they should introduce other human beings into the world and in their stead as their immediate successors in the human race since they would only endure suffering and provide food for death (cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, III, 45, 1).
14. Cf. Joseph Fletcher, Moral Responsibility, Situation Ethics at Wori, (London, 1967), especially pp. 34ff.
Thirdly, I want to make it quite clear that I am not proposing a complete and unqualified endorsement of the practice of contraception. Rather I am trying to find that same kind of middle ground which the ancient church followed in condemning both the extremes of sexual puritanism among the Encratites, who found in sex something contrary to the holiness of God, and the opposite extreme of pagan debauchery which sought to find all human meaning in the practices of sexual excess. Within this Christian context, I exhort doctors to be faithful to the individual holiness of every Christian man and woman and to shun any irresponsible practice of automatically counseling the use of contraceptives in every situation for the sake of mere convenience and dehumanizing utilitarianism. Also, I want to make it quite clear that I in no way support the “new morality” with its ethic of sexual activity outside the bounds of matrimony, which is sometimes facilitated by doctors who furnish contraceptives quite freely to the young and uninstructed.
V. THE QUESTION OF CONTRACEPTION IN RELATION TO HUMANS’ ROLE AS CO-LEGISLATORS WITH GOD IN THE WORLD
The roots of the Orthodox teaching on marriage are to be found in St. Paul’s statement about the love between Christ and the church, and St. John Chrysostom’s view that marriage should be likened to a small church which, like the great church of 684 God, is “one, holy, universal and apostolic.” The relationship between husband and wife parallels the earthly church and the eternal church, or the relationship between the visible and the invisible church. These are not two different churches; on the contrary, there is one church with two dimensions: earthly or terrestrial, and eternal or celestial. The two are inextricably linked. Similarly, marriage constitutes for the Orthodox faith both a terrestrial and a celestial reality, for marriage is both a work of human love and a sacramental means of salvation. Moreover, insofar as every divinely created being, including man and woman, is created according to the Logos, marriage reflects the Divine Logos.
For Paul, marriage is a striking manifestation (exteriorization) of the union between Jesus Christ and his church (Eph. 5:21-33). The Old Testament prophets saw marriage as a dimension of God’s covenant with the people. A husband’s relationship with his wife is the same as the creature’s relationship with the Creator; faithfulness in one is faithfulness in the other and, as with the faithfulness (cf. Hos. 1:1-3, 5; Jer. 3:1ff.; Ezek. 16:1ff., 23:1ff.; Isa. 50:1ff., 54:1ff.), so too Paul, in the New Testament, pronounced marriage a holy means (mysterion or sacrament) of Christ’s grace. The marriage of man and woman participates in the marriage of Christ and the church.
Eastern Orthodox theologians view the relationship between God and human beings as a creative collaboration. It is our freedom that makes us co-creators with God in the world, and co-legislators with God in the moral order. As creatures, we are obliged to obey the law set down by the Creator, but insofar as our obedience is an expression of our freedom, we are not passive objects of God’s law, but rather creative agents of it. Our reason is joined to God through the Logos (the Divine Reason). When we choose to exercise our reason in the moral life, we cooperate with God’s creative work on earth. This cooperation or collaboration the Greek Fathers spoke of as synergism (synergeia). The person and work of Jesus Christ is the fullest embodiment of this synergistic union of God and humanity.
It is in the light of the synergistic union between God and humanity that the Eastern church understands and resolves the problems of contraceptives, especially the use of the pill.
I could interrupt more to ask many more questions like, “Is this what the Eastern Church should teach to be faithful to her tradition, or what Zaphiris wants the framing metaphor for the Eastern teaching to be as a change to its prior tradition?”
The question we should ask now is: Does our freedom to devise and employ contraceptives, including the pill, violate “natural law” as Roman Catholic teaching states? We are compelled to answer that the encyclical of Pope Paul VI (Humanae vitae) is lacking because it does not acknowledge the role of man and woman as God’s co-creators and co-legislators on earth. The Eastern Orthodox view of contraception, unlike that of the Latin church, is that our capacity to control procreation is an expression of our powers of freedom and reason to collaborate with God in the moral order. A human being is viewed not only as a subject which receives passively the “natural law,” but also as a person who plays an active role in its formulation. Thus the natural law, according to Eastern Orthodox thinkers, is not a code imposed by God on human beings, but rather a rule of life set forth by divine inspiration and by our responses to it in freedom and reason. This view does not permit the Eastern Orthodox Church to conclude that the pill, and artificial contraceptives generally, are in violation of natural law.
There are a couple of things that are significant here.
First the argument being made about being co-legislators is a point of cardinal importance and one that should ideally be supported by at least one footnote. There is an absolute lack of footnotes or even mention of names of authors or titles of text in this section’s quite significant assertions about the Eastern Church. (This raises to me some questions about the refereeing here. My teachers usually complain and lower my grade when I make sweeping claims without adding footnotes.)
Second, to employ a Western image, Christian freedom is comparable to a sonnet: total freedom within boundaries. Hence, in a slightly paraphrased version of one of the sayings of the Desert Fathers, “A brother asked an old monk, ‘What is a good thing to do, that I may do it and live?’ The old monk said, ‘God alone knows what is good. Yet I have heard that someone questioned a great monk, and asked, “What good work shall I do?” And he answered, “There is no single good work. The Bible says that Abraham was hospitable, and God was with him. And Elijah loved quiet, and God was with him. And David was humble, and God was with him. Therefore, find the desire God has placed in your heart, and do that, and guard your heart.”‘” (http://jonathanscorner.com/christmas_tales/christmas_tales10.html , as seen on 14 May, 2007) There is great freedom in Orthodoxy, but freedom within bounds. Things such as “Do not murder,” “Do not commit adultery,” and “Do not steal,” are boundaries absolutely consistent with the Desert Fathers saying above. There is great freedom within boundaries, and in fact the boundaries increase our freedom.
What Zaphiris presents is a great, stirring, poetic hymn to our cooperation with the Creator as co-creators, presented as a reason not to require a certain bound. (It is my experience that sophistry is often presented more poetically than honest arguments.) Perhaps this would be a valid move if there were no serious issues surrounding contraception, but as it is, it follows the logical fallacy of “begging the question”: in technical usage, “begging the question” is not about raising a question, but improperly taking something for granted: more specifically, presenting an argument that assumes the very point that it is supposed to prove. It is begging the question to answer the question, “Why is contraception permissible?” by eloquently proclaiming, “Contraception is a magnificent exercise of Orthodox freedom, because Orthodox freedom is magnificent and contraception is permissible within the bounds of that freedom.” The whole point at issue is whether contraception is permissible; to argue this way as a way of answering that question is sophistry.
(I might suggest that it is an “interesting” exercise of our status as co-creators with God to try hard to shut down the creative powers God built into sex. Perhaps the suggestion is not indefensible, but it is in need of being defended, and Zaphiris never acknowledges that this interpretation of our status as co-creators needs to be defended, or buttress his specific interpretation.)
686 The conception of natural law in Humanae vitae contains a deterministic understanding of human marital and sexual life. According to this understanding, any and every human (or artificial) intervention into the biological processes of human being constitutes a violation of God’s law for humanity. Hence, contraception as an artificial interruption or prevention of the natural event of procreation is inherently a violation of God’s law. Humanae vitae, moreover, goes on to state that each act of coitus is, according to the law of nature, an “actus per se aptus ad generation.”
While the Eastern Orthodox Church fully acknowledges the role of procreation in the marital sexual act, it does not share the deterministic understanding of this act as expressed by Humanae vitae, which ignores love as a dimension of great value in sexual intercourse between husband and wife. Indeed, this love is viewed by the Eastern church as the marriage partners’ own response to the love of God for human beings, a human love as the marriage partners’ own response to the love of God for human beings, a human love which is also a paradigm of Christ’s love for the church. Finally, one must say that the deterministic Roman Catholic conception of marital sexuality, rooted as it is in scholastic medieval teaching, cannot very well deal with crucial contemporary problems such as over-population, food shortage, poverty, and insufficient medical resources.
The Roman Catholic position on human sexuality and procreation is based on the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, and these in turn are decisively influenced by Aristotle’s philosophy. Aristotle’s view was that every object in the physical universe possesses an intelligible structure, a form which is composed of an intrinsic end and the means or “drive” to realize that end. When a thing is behaving, or being used, according to its end—as a frying pan used to fry fish—then that thing is acting properly or “naturally”; however, when a thing is not acting, or being used, according to its intrinsic end—as when a frying pan is used to prop open a faulty window—then that object is acting, or being used, improperly or “unnaturally.”
There is a much bigger problem than a singularly unflattering illustration of the distinction between natural and unnatural use.
Unless one counts Zaphiris’s example above of a theologian saying that marriage is intended for procreation, with footnoted clarification that this is “probably due to the influence of Greek philosophy,” the surrounding passage (about Thomas Aquinas’s discussion of whether contraception is unnatural) is the first time that Zaphiris mentions a theologian presenting an argument against contraception. And it is a Latin after the Great Schism interpreted in terms of Scholastic influence.
The following inference is not stated in so many words, but the trusting reader who is trying to be sympathetic will naturally draw an understandably wrong conclusion: “Arguments that contraception enter the picture when Aquinas as a Latin Scholastic imported Aristotelian philosophy.” Again, this is not stated explicitly, but much of sophistry, including this, is the impression that is created without technically saying anything false. (This is how sophistry works.)
This will lead the trusting reader to expect another further conclusion: since (so it appears) arguments against contraception,and especially the idea of contraception being unnatural, enter the picture with Latin Scholasticism, any Orthodox who brings such argument against contraception is under Western influence. People who have fallen under Western influence should perhaps be answered gently and charitably, but the Western influence is not something one should listen to and accept. Again, this is not stated in so many words, but it is precise the rhetoric appears to be aimed at.
Incidentally, whatever Aquinas may have gotten from Aristotle, the Greek Fathers had ideas of unnatural vice without the help of Latin Scholasticism. There is a firmly embedded concept of unnatural vices, including witchcraft as well as “unnatural vice.” Jude 7 charges the men of Sodom with unnatural lust (sarkos heteras). The salient question is not whether the Greek Fathers have an understanding of some sins as unnatural, but whether contraception is a sin and, if so, whether it is among the sins classified as unnatural. But it is not automatically due to Western influence for an Orthodox to make claims about unnatural sin.
St. Thomas attempted to synthesize Aristotle’s logic of means-ends with the biblical story of the divine creator of the universe. For Aquinas, God is the author of the intelligible structure present in each finite or earthly object. When a finite being behaves according to its intrinsic end, it acts “naturally” as Aristotle thought, but according to Aquinas it also acts in accord with the divine will for that creaturely being. So it is with human sexuality and procreation. Aquinas believed that the intrinsic end of all sexuality (human and non-human) is procreation. Procreation may not necessarily result from each act of coitus, but this does not mean that the sexual (human) partners have disobeyed God for, if their aim in sexual union was procreation, they have behaved in accord with the divine will governing this creaturely reality. But if that intrinsic aim of sexuality-procreation is subverted, either by substituting pleasure for procreation as the aim, or by introducing artificial devices or means to inhibit or prevent procreation, then sexuality is practiced “unnaturally” or sinfully, and God is disobeyed.
The wedding of Aristotle’s means-ends logic to the biblical Creator meant for Aquinas that sexuality, as every other earthly vitality, is governed by laws setting forth God’s intention for each creaturely being, which are knowable to every creature for 686 the proper conduct of its life on earth. When the law governing sexuality and procreation is disobeyed, then, according to Aquinas’ theology, the Creation itself is undermined and God’s own creative will is defied.
* * *
If a fuller anthropological understanding of human beings is advanced, such that people are viewed as free, rationally and spiritually, as well as biologically, a different judgment on contraception must then be made, one certainly different from that of the Roman Catholic Church.
Zaphiris is driving his persuasive effect further. He is driving home further the impression that if a misguided fellow Orthodox tells you that contraception is sin, he is presumably one of those poor saps, an Orthodox who has fallen under Western influence, and if this misguided fellow Orthodox perhaps specifies that this is because contraception frustrates the purpose of sex, this is someone under the spell of the Roman Church, who is to be dealt with as one ordinarily deals with the pseudomorphosis of Western influence yet again corrupting Orthodoxy.
It is the belief of Eastern Orthodox theology that only such an anthropology is consistent with the dignity the Bible bestows on humans as imago Dei.
Note that earlier some of what Zaphiris said earlier was presented as a “theological opinion,” not necessarily binding on the consciences of other Orthodox Christians even if he was trying to make a case for it. But here we seem to have shifted to something that is binding on all Orthodox Christians: “It is the belief of Eastern Orthodox theology that only such an anthropology,” apparently meaning the anthropology implied in the last section which makes at least one sweeping claim without footnotes or even the name of an author or text, that is binding on the consciences of Orthodox Christians. Earlier, perhaps the view of St. John Chrysostom might have been acceptable, at least as a theological opinion. Here it begins to look like a blunt declaration implying that Chrysostom’s position is heretical. Is the implication, “If anybody disagrees with this, let him be anathema?” Is the author specifically anathematizing his own patron saint?
This dignity is revealed afresh by Jesus Christ who, as both divine and human in freedom, reason, spirit, and flesh, incarnates the complex anthropology of all human beings.
Speaking from this anthropological conception of humanity, we should distinguish three principle aspects in the use of contraceptives—the psychological, the medical, and the moral. From the psychological point of view, contraceptives are permissible only when their use is the result of a common decision reached by both partners. The imposition of contraceptives by one partner in the sexual act must be regarded as immoral inasmuch as it abridges the freedom and possibly violates the conscience of the other partner. Any use of contraceptives which does not respect the psychological condition of both partners and of the sexual act itself must be judged immoral. What should guide sexual partners in the use or non-use of contraceptives is their freedom and reason, their spiritual dignity as creatures of God.
15. [Footnote not recorded in my copy.]
From the medical point of view, we have mentioned above the conditions under which contraceptives are permissible. It is important to emphasize here that moral questions are not part of the technical judgments made by medical doctors about the use or non-use of contraceptives. As we have said, the use of the pill is not a permanent sterilization but a temporary state of sterility induced for reasons that may be social or economic or psychological or demographic or physiological.
Contrary to Roman Catholic teaching, the pill does not violate natural law. Its function is not to bring about a permanent state of sterilization but rather a temporary suspension of fertility. And this decision to suspend fertility, when made by both marital partners with reason and freedom and spirit, is a decision made perfectly consistent with God’s will for human beings on earth.
* * *
688 There is an authentic moral question in the use and non-use of contraceptives. It is no less true that marriage as a sacramental mystery contains a powerful moral dimension. When marital partners engage in contraception, the Orthodox Church believes that they must do so with the full understanding that the goal God assigns to marriage is both the creation of new life and the expression of deeply felt love.
Note: Love is something you deeply feel. I do not find this notion in the Bible nearly so much as in the literature of courtly love. This conception of love is (one infers from Zaphiris) not only permissible but mandatory.
Moreover, the Orthodox Church believes that the relationship of man and woman in marriage is essentially a relationship of persons. This means that sexual life must be guided by the meaning of relationship and personhood.
Though it is obvious that procreation is a physical phenomenon, the Eastern church understands the decision of the married couple to have a child to be a moral, even more, a spiritual decision. The Pope’s encyclical, Humanae vitae, in our judgment, committed a significant error. The authors of the encyclical sought to distinguish our procreative power from all other powers that make us human but, in fact, they isolate our procreativeness and set it apart from the human personality. Such an isolation does little justice to the complexity. If conjugality has as its goal per se aptitude for procreation, then this is a virtual denial that sexual is permissible during a woman’s unfertile periods. We have said, and now repeat, that conjugality can and ahould[sic] continue, whether or not procreation is a practical possibility. In contrast to Humanae vitae, Orthodox thinkers do not believe that human beings are subjects bound by “natural law” in the deterministic Roman Catholic sense, but rather persons living and acting freely in the natural world.
It now appears, at least to the uninitiate or those liable to misconstrue things, that existentialist personalism is the teaching of the Orthodox Church. And apparently not just a theological opinion: one is bound to subscribe to it.
* * *
16. For one Orthodox discussion of the question of insemination, see the excellent book of Prof. Chrysostomos Constantinidis, Technete Gonipoiesis kai Theologia in Orthodoxia, XXXIII (1958), 66-79, 174-90, 329-335, 451-468; XXXIV (1959), 36-52, 212-230.
Eastern Orthodoxy recognizes that men and women can only truly be God’s co-creators on earth through the responsible use of freedom and reason. The question of responsibility becomes crucial in such cases as permanent sterilization, artificial insemination, and euthanasia. The Eastern Orthodox Church cannot and will not legislate vis-à-vis the enormously important and complicated questions raised by these cases.
I’m at this point imagining the Battle Hymn of the Republic playing in the background: “Glory, glory, Hallelujah! His truth goes marching on!” This is very stirring rhetoric, but sits ill with some of my sources and seems to be something he doesn’t document well.
These questions are regarded by the Orthodox Church as theologoumena, that is, theologically discussable issues. The Eastern church seeks always to respect one’s freedom of decision, but it also seeks through its own ethical inquiry to guide people in making responsible decisions.
There is a lot of great rhetoric for this perspective in Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes. I am suspicious of this rhetorical version of growing to autonomous adult responsibility in its Catholic forms, and I don’t see why it needs to be incorporated into Orthodoxy.
The Eastern church’s refusal to provide specific answers to some concrete moral questions is based on a fundamental theological principle—the belief that no one can specify where human freedom ends and divine will begins.
Notwithstanding that Zaphiris has done precisely that, not by forbidding contraception altogether, but by specifying multiple lines which contraception may not pass. And, apparently, specified a line where Orthodox condemnation of contraception may not pass. But this is impressive rhetoric none the less.
Synergism means the collaboration of human beings with God in the continuing creation of the world. We must struggle to understand the right and wrong uses of our freedom, guided by the divine spirit. Our freedom is a mystery of God’s own will and freedom. Therefore, no theologian—Eastern Orthodox 689 or otherwise—can specify what finally constitutes the divine-human collaboration. Practically speaking, we can know when any given act, having taken place we can never be certain of the responsible and creative use of our freedom. We cannot determine a priori the movement of the human spirit any more than we can determine a priori the movement of the divine spirit. It is certain that, unless we recognize continually the Lordship of God in the world—the Creator judging all the actions of the creatures, we cannot speak truly of a divine-human synergism.
The church is an instrument of the work of the Holy Spirit on earth, and must seek to relate the scriptural revelation of God to the moral situation in life which we constantly confront. When the church accepts this responsibility, it enables the participation of human beings in the on-going history of salvation. In this fashion, the church witnesses simultaneously to the sacred will of God and to the urgency of human moral life. Thereby the church avoids both antinomianism on the one side and the moral reductionism of “situation ethics” on the other side.
Many ethical approaches are presented as meant to steer a middle course between problematic extremes, including ones we might like and ones we might like. See an attempted middle road between forcing queer positions onto the Biblical text and forcing conservative positions onto the Biblical text in Patricia Beattie Jung, “The Promise of Postmodern Hermeneutics for the Biblical Renewal of Moral Theology,” in Patricia Beattie Jung (ed.), Sexual Diversity and Catholicism: Toward the Development of Moral Theology, Collegeville: Liturgical Press 2001. I haven’t seen this phenomenon before in Orthodoxy, but it is common in the liberal Catholic dissent I’ve read. The dissenter adopts a rhetorical pose of being eager to seek a measured middle course that doesn’t do something extreme, and does not give unfair advantage to any position. But this is done in the course of agitating for change on a point where the Catholic teaching is unambiguous. Jung, for instance hopes for a versions Catholic ethics more congenial to lesbian wishes, but she always takes the rhetoric of moderate and reasonable efforts that will respect Scripture and Catholic Tradition. (Again, I am comparing Zaphiris to Catholic dissent because I have not seen what he is doing here in Orthodoxy before, but have seen it repeatedly in liberal Catholic dissent.)
17. This is an expression used by Nicholas Cabasilas, an Eastern Orthodox theologian of the Byzantine era. The notion of God’s maniakos eros is discussed by Paul Evdokimov, L’amour fou de Dieu (Paris, 1973).
We must conclude here by saying that God’s fantastic love for human beings—maniakos eros—has divinised all creation. With this divinisation, God achieves the purpose of bringing all beings to God’s own self. We play a role in this great work of salvation through the creativeness and freedom which God has bestowed on us. These dynamic capacities of our being cannot finally be identified and understood outside the scope of the Christian doctrines of humanity (anthropology), of Christ (Christology), and of salvation (soteriology). The ultimate purpose of our synergistic relation to God is our own regeneration, as the New Testament states (cf. Rom. 8:28;Phil. 2:13; I Cor. 3:9).
Moreover, synergism has an ecclesiological dimension, and secondarily a moral dimension. Our role as co-legislators on earth with God can only fully be exercised in relationship to the church, which is the instrument of the communication of the Holy Spirit to humans in their creativeness. This means for Eastern Orthodoxy that the legislative and creative actions of men and women are a liturgy of the church itself. When we live in relation to the church’s body, we live within “God’s wisdom: a mysterious and hidden wisdom framed from the very beginning to bring us to our full glory.” The ecclesio-anthropo-soteriological value of this human liturgy is contained in the relation which exists between God’s revelation and our activity. The harmonious cooperation between God and humans makes it possible for our legislative and creative acts to be “what is good, acceptable, and perfect.”
We have offered these remarks in the hope that they can contribute to a common basis for an ecumenical discussion on the contemporary human problem of contraception.
Orthodox who are concerned with ecumenism may wish to take note of this statement of authorial intent.
Study and discussion questions
What view concerning marriage and sexuality do we find in the Scriptures? In the early Christian writers?
Discuss the author’s interpretation of the biblical and patristic views of marriage, sexuality, and procreation.
What implication concerning contraception can be derived from biblical and patristic concepts of marriage, sexuality, and procreation?
What are the official teachings of the Orthodox Church on contraception?
How do these teachings compare with Protestant and Roman Catholic teachings?
Under what circumstances does the author believe contraception to be theologically permissible? Discuss.
What is synergism?
How is contraception linked with synergism?
How is the resulting view of contraception within Orthodoxy a contrast to the Roman Catholic view?
Why does the Eastern Orthodox Church avoid concrete and decisive answers to problems such as contraception?
I have never seen Bible study/”The Secret”/book discussions questions posed like this in a refereed journal before. I suspect that these will lead people to say things that will help cement the belief that the truth is more or less what has been presented in this account. This seems in keeping with other red flags that this is doing more than just providing a scholarly account of what Orthodox believe. Perhaps this is part of why this paper’s label as a “theological opinion”—about as close as Orthodoxy gets to the idea of “agreeing to disagree” on spiritual matters—has been accepted as a statement of what the Orthodox Church believes, period.
I believe this document has problems, and if as I expect it is a major influence in the “new consensus” allowing some contraception in the Orthodox Church, this constitutes major reason to re-evaluate the “new consensus.”
There could conceivably be good reasons to change the ancient tradition of the Orthodox Church from time immemorial to almost the present day. Maybe. But this is not it. (And if these are the best reasons Zaphiris found to change the immemorial tradition of the Church, perhaps it would be better not to do so.)
Models of Computation: The Church-Turing Thesis and Geometric Construction
The Church-Turing Thesis posits that the equivalence class that includes the Turing machine, and is also the basis for modern digital computing, is the most powerful model of computation. And it hasn’t been proven, but when people have checked out other models of computation, every one has turned out to either be equivalent to the Turing machine, or become lesser.
Quite probably it may be impossible to construct some useful computer by this model; quite possibly for that matter its greatest usefulness may come through simulations by digital computer, in which case its simulations will automatically not exceed Turing machines or digital computer by its power. However, even if is a failure at scaling some of the highest peaks, it seems an interesting and provoking possibility to explore.
Standard Euclidean geometric construction is a model of computation. It is not usually presented as such, but you start with a diagram and all that may be inferred from it, and you have two tools, a compass and straightedge, as well as a pen or other implement to draw with. And the solution to a construction is to come back with an algorithm that will go through computational steps that start with its initial state represented in a diagram, and use your three tools to create the desired end result.
Both models figure into the model of computation discussed here, but the model of computation is different.
The model of computation described here is like a blacksmith’s forge. I have read that one of the first things a blacksmith makes, is a pair of real tongs. And a blacksmith is not just turning out nails and other things for other people, but tools used in the forge. The core insight here is that a blacksmith can create tools, much as a computer programmer may make customized tools for their own work. This is at its core a geometric model of computation, with a more obvious debt to geometry, although the tools should be sufficient to implement a Turing machine. One person made the interesting suggestion that it is applying recursion to geometric construction.
The blacksmith’s forge
The main tools the blacksmith’s forge works with are as follows; the first three are taken from geometric computation:
A compass, that can be used to draw circles.
A marking implement.
A jigsaw. The geometric plane is conceived not to be one point thin, but a uniform distance thick. When the blacksmith’s forge has constructed the closed outline of the shape, the shape can be cut out.
Pins, equal in length to two or more (whole) times the thickness of the plane. If one pin goes between two shapes one on top of the other, and the shapes are not otherwise constrained, they will be able to pivot around the pin with respect to each other. If two or more pins go through, then the two positions will be rigid in how they are joined.
Pieces cut out with the jigsaw, possibly joined by pins.
Idealized Physics in the Blacksmith’s Forge
The blacksmith’s forge has an idealized physics. The pin and jigsaw are parts of this idealized physics, but another part of the physics is that pieces do not tip over: any number of stackings that would immediately fall over in the real world are assumed to simply stand upright, the pieces resting on top of any other piece immediately beneath them for some positive areas. There is friction, and pieces pushed to where one entity crosses another, for instance, will immediately stop moving if they are no longer being pushed. Items touching each other can be pushed past each other, but only so far as they are pushed. This does not exhaust the physics, but if you think of the physics of ordinary geometric construction, you should be close to the mark.
Three Classic Problems
Trisecting an Angle
Consider the following diagram:
That is half of it. Take another one, rotate it by one notch and pin it to the bottom one, and you have forced equality for the angles between adjacent arms:
Take this constructed device, rotate it so point A is at an angle’s vertex, B is in the angle’s clockwise side, and expand or contract the accordion-like device so that C is at the angle’s other side. Angle DAB is now one-third of the (trisected) original angle.
Doubling the Cube
Consider the following modification of the previous diagram:
Take a circle, and draw a concentric circle at twice the radius. Then place the constructive device so point A is at the center, and expand out or collapse in so that B is on the initial circle. Then collapse or expand the device so that it is on the the new “double radius” circle. Point E will have a distance to the center equal to the original radius times the cube root of two.
Squaring the Circle
Cut out two circles, and a tall, thin rectangle. Put the circles snugly and squarely so that the line between them and the rectangles is perpendicular to the rectangles’ long dimension. Put pegs through the circles’ centers through the perpendicular rectangle, and mark (A) both the first circle and the rectangle where they meet. While holding the first circle squarely, push on the outer circle until it wraps the long rectangle around the first circle, and mark on the tall rectangle where it touched the circle’s mark.
You now have a distance marked out on the tall rectangle that is 2π times the radius of your circle. Getting the square root of π is not terribly difficult; you can draw two subsegments of a line segment, one equal to the original circle’s diameter in length and one equal to circle’s circumference, and then draw a long line segment perpendicular to the first segment starting where the two meet. Take one of the corner-like squares above, place it so that it touches both endpoints of the line segment, and while continuing to hold it tight to the ends of the segment, move it so its inner corner lies on the perpendicular line segment. The distance from that point along the line segment to the center is equal to the square root of π times the length of the original circle’s diameter:
(And though this would be laborious, I see no reason why such calculations could not emulate a Turing Machine.)
You’re Using Extra Privilege!
I am indeed using extra privilege, but may I point something out?
There is a bit of a historical difference between now and ancient Greece. We now have a number of branches of mathematics, and though there may be likes and dislikes, it is something of an outsider’s question to ask, “Which is right: real analysis or modern algebra?” There is a general sense that as with board games, if you want to play chess you play by the rules of chess and if you want to play go you play by the rules of go.
The three questions neatly and easily answered are the standard three famous problems which it was subsequently proven to be impossible to construct with Euclidean geometry. And these were not simply mathematical chess problems; I don’t know the stories for all of them, but legend has it that there was a plague killing many people and an oracle stated that the plague would be stopped if a cubic altar were built that was twice the volume of an original cubic altar. This was not one where people only used Euclidean construction because they decided they could only play by the rules of Euclidean geometry. This was a “by any means necessary” matter, and it should be understood as much. The attitude of “This is the set of rules for this particular game” is anachronous; people would be very glad to have an extension to Euclidean construction that would allow solution of at least one of these problems.
And it is not clear to me whether this is any sense of useful model of computation. (I personally think, out of my second master’s thesis, that the human brain can do things no Turing-approximant style of computers can do. Some people have said, “A year spent in artificial vision is enough to make one believe in God,” and there are some basic things, like making sense of an I can read book, that most humans do well but are so far insurmountable to computers; one writer wrote of an embodied AI robot “Cog,” “The weakness of Cog at present seems to be that it cannot actually do very much. Even its insect-like computer forebears do not seem to have had the intelligence of insects, and Cog is clearly nowhere near having human intelligence.”
But I think this model of computation is interesting, whether or not it proves useful.
Does Augustine Return to the Interpersonal Image of Love as Representing the Trinity, or Does He Abandon This in Favour of the Psychological Image? Behind this question may lurk another question that is both connected and distinct from it: ‘Does Augustine have a relational understanding of the image, or is his understanding ultimately solipsistic?’ I take Rowan Williams as an example of a scholar writing from a mindset which fails to adequately distinguish the two questions. He opens with quotes that read Augustine as almost Sabellian, and ends his opening paragraph with a spectacular strawman:
Augustine stands accused of collaborating in the construction of the modern consciousness that has wrought such havoc in the North Atlantic cultural world, and is busy exporting its sickness to the rest of the globe, while occluding the vision of the whole planet’s future in its delusions of technocratic mastery — a hugely inflated self-regard, fed by the history of introspection.
Williams is building up to a rescue operation. He offers a careful study which either counterbalances Augustine’s apparent meaning or replaces it. He brings up quotations like, ‘In the West, especially since the time of Augustine, the unity of the divine being served as the starting point of Trinitarian theology’, as examples of the reading he doesn’t like. Williams’s presentation of Augustine’s text does not bring up Augustine’s claim that all three persons of the Trinity speak in Old Testament theophanies. This claim is significant because Augustine rejects the Patristic claim that Old Testament theophanies are specially made through the immanent Son. Williams seems to be fighting an obvious reading so he can rescue relationality in Augustine. I would argue that the psychological image is relational from the beginning, and that Augustine’s image is psychological.
We’re looking for relationality in the wrong place if we look for it in where Augustine stood in the controversies of his day. The deepest relationality does not lie in i.e. his writing against Arianism, but something that was so deeply ingrained in the Church that he would never have thought it necessary to explain. The very individualism he is accused of helping construct had not come together. In the Reformation-era Anabaptist/Zwinglian controversy over infant baptism, the issue was not whether faith precedes baptism. Both sides believed that much. The issue was whether that faith was reckoned along proto-individualist lines, or whether the faith of a community could sanctify members too young to embrace faith on terms an individualist would recognise. Augustine lived over a thousand years before that controversy. His tacit theory of boundaries was that of a community’s bishop, not a counselor imparting the ‘value-free’ boundaries that flow from atomist individualism. I mention these examples to underscore that Augustine’s understanding of where one person ends and another begins is much less articulate, much less thorough, much less basic, much less sealed, and in the end much less focal than ours. The difference is like the qualitative difference between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Bible, and what either Arian or a Trinitarian did with what is present in the Bible. One is tacitly present, something you can’t explain (‘That’s just the way things are!’), and the other is articulate, the sort of thing you can at least begin to explain and give reason for. In the end Augustine’s understanding of how one person can meet another arises from a very different mindset from a setting where scholars argue that communication is impossible. This means that combining passages with individualist assumptions gives a very different meaning from combining the same passages with Augustine’s patristic assumptions. It is the latter which represents Augustine’s thought. I believe that Augustine did plant proto-modernist seeds. These seeds became a vital ingredient of modernism with many thinkers’ successive modifications. However, the fact that they have become modernism today with the influence of a millenium and a half of change does not make Augustine an early modernist. His beliefs were quite different from atomist individualist modernism.
What is most important in Augustine’s thought, and what he believed most deeply, includes some of what would never occur to him to think needed saying. These things that leave less obvious traces than his explicit claims. With that in mind, I would like to look more closely at Augustine’s interiority:
But it [the mind] is also in the things that it thinks about with love, and it has got used to loving sensible, that is bodily things; so it is unable to be in itself without their images. Hence arises its shameful mistake [errus dedecus ], that it cannot make itself out among the images of things it has perceived with the senses, and see itself alone…
What is interesting is what Augustine doesn’t say here. A materialist would see bodily things as including other people, but Augustine did not think from that starting point. Would he have included people? That’s a little less clear-cut. People are equal to oneself, and purely sensible objects are inferior. One is trying to go upwards, and Augustine does not seem to include equal people with inferior objects. Perhaps he does not raise this question. Augustine does go on to give a primacy to ‘Know thyself,’ but this is a matter of means,not of final end. Augustine is telling us to start with what is near at hand. The distinction between what Augustine called ‘interior’ and what we would call ‘private’ is significant. It contains not only phantasms (sense impressions) but the res ipsa (the realities themselves) of intelligible things, and is where the soul meets intelligible truth. God is in the interior, and is shared between people. Furthermore, when we unite with God, we are united with others united with God. Where there is privacy, this is darkness caused by the Fall.
II. Is the psychological image relational?
I would suggest that the psychological image is relational. Furthermore, I would suggest that the deepest relationality comes before making God the object of the vestigia (divine shadows or traces in Creation) of memory, understanding, and will. Augustine comments:
Even in this case [I Cor. 8:2], you notice, he [Paul] did not say “knows him”, which would be a dangerous piece of presumption, but “is known by him.” It is like another place where as soon as he said, But now knowing God, he corrected himself and said,Or rather being known by God…
Before we worry if God is the object of our love, he must be the Subject behind it. And that does not mean we need to worry about orienting the vestigia (traces of God imprinted in Creation) so we add relationality as something external; relationality is there in the beginning, as God knowing us.
Is remembering, understanding, and willing oneself a relational activity? If it’s sought on the right terms, it is. That means that it is not the pre-eminent goal , but a means, the bridge that must be crossed to gain access to other places. That means that remembering, understanding, and willing have God as their goal even before he is their object. Augustine comments in another draft of the psychological image:
This word is conceived in love of either the creature or the creator, that is of changeable nature or unchangeable truth; which means either in covetousness or in charity. Not that the creature is not to be loved, but if that love is related to the creator it will no longer be covetousness but charity. It is only covetousness when the creature is loved on its own account.
Augustine’s discussion of use and enjoyment forbids the psyche to enjoy itself: regardless of immediate object, God is the goal or goal of ‘Know thyself.’
In regard to the rest of Creation, it is much easier to read a psychological image as non-relational. His enjoyment/use distinction is not utilitarian but helped make utilitarianism. Whilst he chose Christianity over Manicheanism and Platonism, these other beliefs left a lasting imprint; Augustine rejected their claims that matter was evil, but his conversion to believing in the goodness of created matter was less thorough than one could desire. At one point Augustine considered sex a major to reject marriage; later he acknowledged sex an instrumental good when it propagates the people of God. Augustine’s much-criticised views on sex were in continuity with his understanding of creation, especially material creation. The created order that is neither called evil nor fully embraced as good, even fallen good: ‘Cleansed from all infection of corruption, they are established in tranquil abodes until they get their bodies back—but incorruptible bodies now, which will be their guerdon [beneficial help], not their burden.’ This negative view of our (current) bodies is not a view of something one would want to be in relation with, and that is part of who we are created to be. From these, one could argue a continuity, if perhaps not parity, with a mindset that would support an individualistic psychological image. The argument has some plausibility, but I believe it is not ultimately true.
The biggest difference between a person and mere matter is that a person has spirit. Augustine can say, ‘Now let us remove from our consideration of this matter all the many other things of which man consists, and to find what we are looking for with as much clarity as possible in these matters, let us only discuss the mind,’ and abstract away a person’s body to see the mind. I did not find a parallel passage abstracting away a person’s mind to see body alone. Even if we assume he remained fully Manichean or fully Platonist, both Manicheanism and Platonism find some people to be above the level of matter. Augustine was free enough of Platonism to forcefully defend the resurrection of the body in De Civitate Dei (The City of God). His belief in community is strong enough to make the interpersonal image important in his discussion. As argued in ‘Mindset Considerations’, he was quite far from individualism to begin with.
If community is important, why have a psychological image? Let me give one line of speculation. Augustine may be trying to put community on a proper ground. The Trinity turns outwards, not in an attempt to remedy any kind of defect, to try to get the creation to fill some need that it can’t fill itself. The Trinity turns outwards out of abundance and fulness. Augustine may not want half persons seeking other half persons to try and create fulness. I believe he wants whole persons turning outwards out of the fulness within. In other words, a psychological image lays the ground for robust interpersonal relationship. Leaving this speculation aside, community was deeply ingrained in the patristic mindset, so that it didn’t need saying. A psychological image could be explored without Augustine needing to add constant footnotes saying, ‘But I still believe in community.’
III. What understanding does Augustine hold in the end?
Augustine explores a number of possible images of the Trinity before settling on one. He starts with an interpersonal image of lover, beloved, and love representing Father, Son, and Spirit respectively. Then he explores a ‘psychological’ image of mind, mental word, and will, which he revises into memory, understanding, and will.  Besides these images there are others not explored in this essay, such as thing seen, sense impression formed, and will. I would like to show which image Augustine chooses.
I would also like to make a distinction which makes sense of his choosing one image from several candidates. The distinction is the distinction between images that are ‘built in’ and ‘after the fact’. The difference between an image that is ‘after the fact’ and one that is ‘built in’ is the difference between a portrait which resembles a person, and a cloud in which a resemblance is found. Is the image something prior to anything observable, something around which other things are shaped, or is the image what we can find when we find things that look like a trinity?
This is arguably latent in Augustine’s discussion of enigmas, and in remarks like ‘It is true of all of his creatures, both spiritual and corporeal, that he does not know them because they are, but that they are because he knows them.’ The discussion of enigmas discusses things mysteriously hidden and then brought forth: Augustine mentions the story of Hagar and Sarah and then Paul drawing out their hidden symbolism. He wrote, ‘As far as I can see then, by the word “mirror” he wanted us to understand an image, and by the word “enigma” he was indicating that although it is a likeness, it is an obscure one and difficult to penetrate.’ Augustine has looked through any number of images ‘after the fact.’ Now Augustine is trying to find out which of these plausible ‘after the fact’ candidates holds its plausibility precisely because it is the image ‘built in’. He wants to know which of the resemblances to the Trinity is there precisely because the Trinity created it to be ‘after our likeness’.
What, at heart, is the distance between an image ‘built in’ and ‘after the fact’? An ‘after the fact’ image is an ‘after the fact image’ because the behaviour and properties it shows, whilst a ‘built in’ image is such by its internal logic. An early draft of the psychological image compares the mind to the Father, its word to the Son, and the will joining them together to the Holy Spirit. Augustine, conscious of Arianism, says that a human mental word is equal to the mind that begot it. Even if he did not say this, and the word was described as inferior to the mind, there would be reason to see the mind/word/will psychological image as a ‘built in’ image. A person looking for an ‘after the fact’ image would look for the property that word and mind are equal because Father and Son are equal; if we look at ‘built in’ logic it is possible that uncreated God can beget a Word equal to himself, but a creaturely mind lacks the stature to beget a word that is its equal. Then the image would lack the property of equality, but it would have the internal logic of begetting what word one can beget, and reflect the Trinity at a deeper level.  This is like the difference between a literal translation and a dynamic equivalent. A literal translation tries to faithfully represent the text word for word; a dynamic equivalent tries to faithfully represent the text’s impact, and it may give the text much more breathing room than a literal translator feels is respectful. A literal translation preserves details, but only a dynamic equivalent can render a poem into something that breathes as poetry. This may be part of why Williams writes, ‘Growing into the image of God, then, is not a matter of perfecting our possession of certain qualities held in common with God… It is for us to be at home with our created selves…’ Growing into the image of God is not to look as if we had not been created, a literal rendering of God’s attributes, but a creaturely dynamic equivalent in which a glimpse of the Trinity is rendered in creaturely idiom. This is inadequate; the creaturely idiom isn’t powerful enough to capture the divine original, regardless of how it is rendered. Yet Augustine does settle on one image, one translation, not just as bearing ‘after the fact’ resemblance, but as having been constructed to have a ‘built in’ resemblance.
At the end of XV.3, Augustine quotes Wisdom 13:1-5 on recognising creation as the work of the Creator, and comments:
I quote this passage from the book of Wisdom in case any of the faithful should reckon I have been wasting time for nothing in first searching creation for signs of that supreme trinity we are looking for when we are looking for God, going step by step through various trinities of different sorts until we arrive at the mind of man.
This sets the programme for much of book XV. This program has subtleties of various sorts, and Augustine says far more than merely settling on the psychological image. The mind is the genuine image of the Trinity in that God has projected his own likeness downwards, but if we try to project anything in creation upwards—even the image God himself has fashioned—it must fall immeasurably short. The most faithful photograph captures at best a glimpse of the living person it portrays. So while Augustine settles with the psychological image, he is careful to portray its fundamental incompleteness. The psychological image may hold a unique privelege. Of all the ‘after the fact’ images surveyed, it alone bears apparent ‘after the fact’ resemblance because it was built to be image. In the end, this privelege of place underscores the book’s apophasis all the more powerfully. Not only do the various apparent ‘after the fact’ images which we see fail to accurately convey the Trinity, but theimage which the Trinity itself has built into us, itself falls fundamentally short of God’s transcendence. This is a far greater testimony to the divine transcendence: if an ‘after the fact’ image breaks down on closer observation, that only says that one specific ‘after the fact’ image breaks down on closer inspection. When the one ‘built in’ image, created by the Trinity itself, also breaks down, this says that the Trinity utterly transcends anything the creation can contain. The bigger it is, the immeasurably harder it falls, and the more we can learn from its failure.
But is this a failure of the created image?
Let’s look more specifically at Augustine settling on the psychological image. In book X, Augustine writes:
These three, then, memory, understanding, and will, are not three lives but one life, not three minds but one mind…. Are we already then in a position to rise with all our powers of concentration to that supreme and most high being of which the human mind is the unequal image, but image nonetheless? [emphasis added]
This is an important distinction. Augustine is not looking for a perfect and uncreated image of the Trinity, as the Son is the perfect and uncreated image of the Father. This is stated here, but I am not sure that this is a basic insight which informed his thought. He writes,
Again, there is this enormous difference, that whether we talk about mind in man and its knowledge and love, or whether about memory, understanding, and will, we remember nothing of the mind except through memory, and understand nothing except through understanding, and love nothing except through will. But who would presume to say that the Father does not understand either himself or the Son or the Holy Spirit except through the Son…
This is an observation that the ‘built in’ image he has chosen does not have what one would seek in a ‘after the fact’ image. In the surrounding text, Augustine doesn’t explicitly state that the differences are failings. However the long discussion of how much of the Trinity is not captured in this image does not seem a verbose way of saying that this image functions along ‘built in’ rather than ‘after the fact’ lines. It seems to be criticising the ‘built in’ image for failing to demonstrate ‘after the fact’ properties. If so, Augustine made something like a category error. This would suggest that the meticulous Augustine, so careful in accounting for the details of Bible verses, didn’t conceive this as something to be meticulous about. The impression I receive from reading Augustine is that Augustine probably had thoughts like the ‘built in’/’after the fact’ distinction I drew, but they were probably tacit, much less developed and much less prominent, and in particular not an organising principle or winnowing tool Augustine used in deciding which of many trinities he would rest with.
And there are other texts which show a psychological image:
So the trinity as a thing in itself is quite different from the image of the trinity in another thing. It is on account of this image that the thing in which these three [memory, understanding, and love] are found is simultaneously called image…
IV. Directions for further enquiry
The distinction between ‘built in’ and ‘after the fact’ appears to be significant. It would be interesting to study more specifically what is the relation between Augustine and this concept. There are quotations one could piece together to argue that Augustine thought in these terms, but other passages make this somewhat less clear. I have raised a question, but I believe more work needs to be done. My comments about that distinction in regard to Augustine’s choice of image may be treated more as a question than an answer.
People who read Augustine as overly unitarian seem to find a psychological image, and people who read him as a balanced Trinitarian seem to find an interpersonal image. Reading the psychological image as relational may suggest an alternative placement with regard to these basic positions.
The earliest Church Fathers, writing more or less systematic theological treatises, generally didn’t write about the Church. Was this because it was not important or not believed? To the contrary, it was air they breathed so deeply that they would never have thought of that as needing saying. Augustine was a Church Father and had the mindset of a Church Father. He chose a psychological image and did not try too hard to make it relational because he never thought it was the sort of thing that needed to have relationship added.
I have chosen an obvious reading which people may give people pause because it appears individualistic and not relational; this reading is that Augustine chose memory, understanding, and will as the ‘built in’ image of the Trinity. Of things raised in this essay that could merit further study, the most interesting is probably the concept of ‘built in’ images as contrasted with ‘after the fact’ images.
Ayres, Lewis, ‘The Discipline of Self-Knowledge in Augustine’s De Trinitate Book X’, in ed. Ayres, Lewis, The Passionate Intellect, Rutgers University Studies in the Classical Humanities, vol. 7, Brunswick: Transaction, 1995, pp. 261-96
Bourassa, F., ‘Théologie trinitaire chez s. Augustin’, Gregorianum 58, 1997
Brown, Peter, Augustine of Hippo (revised edition), London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1967, 2000
Cavadini, John, ‘The Structure and Intention of Augustine’s De Trinitate,’ Augustinian Studies 23, 1992
Fitzgerald, Allan D. (ed.), Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1999
Hill, Edmund (tr.), The Trinity, New City Press: Hyde Park, 1991.
MAXIMOS O PLANOUDHS, AUGUSTONOU PERI TRIADOS BIBLIA PENTEKAILEKA APER EK TES LATINON DIALEKTOU EIS THN ELLADA METENEGKE, AQENAI: KENTRON EKDOSEWS ERGWN ELLHNON SUGGRAFEWN, 1995 (Maximus the Traveler, Augustine’s On the Trinity, Fifteen Books From the Latin Translated to [medieval] Greek Brought Together [in parallel translation], Athens: Center For Giving Greek Work and Collaborative Writing, 1995)
 ‘The mind you see is not told Know thyself in the same way as it might be told “Know the cherubim and seraphim”; of them, as absent beings, we believe what they are declared to be, that they are certain heavenly powers.’ (X.12)
 These latter observations in the same paragraph are taken from Fitzgerald 1999, 454-5.
‘Memory’, ‘understanding’, ‘will’, and (mental) ‘word’ are all understood very differently in Augustine from their meanings today. I can give a bare hint at the nature of difference by saying will is not a Neitzchian Übermensch‘s power to domineer, crush, and persevere in lonely selfishness, but something whose nature is to incline towards the other in love, and something that holds things together even inside a person. Beyond that, it would be at least another essay to try to explain these different concepts. I’m going to have to content myself with saying there are significant cultural differences that I can’t fairly explain. A good understanding of Augustine’s memory, for instance, is suggested by reading Confessions X, complemented by Yates’ (1966, 1-49) treatment of memory in relation to ancient rhetoric.
 I have thought of this distinction out of discussion of universalia ante rem and universalia post rem that I had read, and I had originally used the more precise, if less vivid, terminology of ‘ante rem‘ and ‘post rem‘ for ‘built-in’ and ‘after the fact’ respectively. So far as I know, this usage is original to me.
This piece represents my first serious study as an Orthodox Christian. The gist of it, by which I mean a critique of the artificial intelligence and cognitive science movement whose members are convinced of its progress for reasons unrelated to any real achievement of its core goal, is one I would still maintain. Artificial intelligence, over a decade after the thesis was written, remains “just around the corner since 1950”. The core pioneer John von Neumann’s The Computer and the Brain‘s core assertion that the basis of human thought is “add, subtract, multiply, and divide” remains astonishingly naïve to the point of being crass.
With that much stated, there are things that don’t belong. The “I-Thou” existentialism is not of Orthodox origin and its study of occult aspects is simply inappropriate. I do not say inaccurate, only wrong. I believe there is probably some truth to some suggestion that the artificial intelligence endeavor represents a recurrence of age-old occult dreams dressed in the clothing of computer science and secular rationality. Such things should still not have been studied, or at very least not by me.
For those still interested, my dissertation is below.
AI as an Arena for Magical Thinking Among Skeptics
Artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and Eastern Orthodox views on personhood
I explore artificial intelligence as failing in a way that is characteristic of a faulty anthropology. Artificial intelligence has had excellent funding, brilliant minds, and exponentially faster computers, which suggests that any failures present may not be due to lack of resources, but arise from an error that is manifest in anthropology and may even be cosmological. Maximus Confessor provides a genuinely different background to criticise artificial intelligence, a background which shares far fewer assumptions with the artificial intelligence movement than figures like John Searle. Throughout this dissertation, I will be looking at topics which seem to offer something interesting, even if cultural factors today often obscure their relevance. I discuss Maximus’s use of the patristic distinction between ‘reason’ and spiritual ‘intellect’ as providing an interesting alternative to ‘cognitive faculties.’ My approach is meant to be distinctive both by reference to Greek Fathers and by studying artificial intelligence in light of the occult foundations of modern science, an important datum omitted in the broader scientific movement’s self-presentation. The occult serves as a bridge easing the transition between Maximus Confessor’s worldview and that of artificial intelligence. The broader goal is to make three suggestions: first, that artificial intelligence provides an experimental test of scientific materialism’s picture of the human mind; second, that the outcome of the experiment suggests we might reconsider scientific materialism’s I-It relationship to the world; and third, that figures like Maximus Confessor, working within an I-Thou relationship, offer more wisdom to us today than is sometimes assumed. I do not attempt to compare Maximus Confessor’s Orthodoxy with other religious traditions, however I do suggest that Orthodoxy has relevant insights into personhood which the artificial intelligence community still lacks.
Some decades ago, one could imagine a science fiction writer asking, ‘What would happen if billions of dollars, dedicated laboratories with some of the world’s most advanced equipment, indeed an important academic discipline with decades of work from some of the world’s most brilliant minds—what if all of these were poured into an attempt to make an artificial mind based on an understanding of personhood that came out of a framework of false assumptions?’ We could wince at the waste, or wonder that after all the failures the researchers still had faith in their project. And yet exactly this philosophical experiment has been carried out, in full, and has been expanded. This philosophical experiment is the artificial intelligence movement.
What relevance does AI have to theology? Artificial intelligence assumes a particular anthropology, and failures by artificial intelligence may reflect something of interest to theological anthropology. It appears that the artificial intelligence project has failed in a substantial and characteristic way, and furthermore that it has failed as if its assumptions were false—in a way that makes sense given some form of Christian theological anthropology. I will therefore be using the failure of artificial intelligence as a point of departure for the study of theological anthropology. Beyond a negative critique, I will be exploring a positive alternative. The structure of this dissertation will open with critiques, then trace historical development from an interesting alternative to the present problematic state, and then explore that older alternative. I will thus move in the opposite of the usual direction.
For the purposes of this dissertation, artificial intelligence (AI) denotes the endeavour to create computer software that will be humanly intelligent, and cognitive science the interdisciplinary field which seeks to understand the mind on computational terms so it can be re-implemented on a computer. Artificial intelligence is more focused on programming, whilst cognitive science includes other disciplines such as philosophy of mind, cognitive psychology, and linguistics. Strong AI is the classical approach which has generated chess players and theorem provers, and tries to create a disembodied mind. Other areas of artificial intelligence include the connectionist school, which works with neural nets, and embodied AI, which tries to take our mind’s embodiment seriously. The picture on the cover is from an embodied AI website and is interesting for reasons which I will discuss below under the heading of ‘Artificial Intelligence.’
Fraser Watts (2002) and John Puddefoot (1996) offer similar and straightforward pictures of AI. I will depart from them in being less optimistic about the present state of AI, and more willing to find something lurking beneath appearances. I owe my brief remarks about AI and its eschatology, under the heading of ‘Artificial Intelligence‘ below, to a line of Watts’ argument.
Other critics argue that artificial intelligence neglects the body as mere packaging for the mind, pointing out ways in which our intelligence is embodied. They share many of the basic assumptions of artificial intelligence but understand our minds as biologically emergent and therefore tied to the body.
There are two basic points I accept in their critiques:
First, they argue that our intelligence is an embodied intelligence, often with specific arguments that are worth attention.
Second, they often capture a quality, or flavour, to thought that beautifully illustrates what sort of thing human thought might be besides digital symbol manipulation on biological hardware.
There are two basic points where I will be departing from their line of argument:
First, they think outside the box, but may not go far enough. They are playing on the opposite team to cognitive science researchers, but they are playing the same game, by the same rules. The disagreement between proponents and critics is not whether mind may be explained in purely materialist terms, but only whether that assumption entails that minds can be re-implemented on computers.
Second, they see the mind’s ties to the body, but not to the spirit, which means that they miss out on half of a spectrum of interesting critiques. I will seek to explore what, in particular, some of the other half of the spectrum might look like. As their critiques explore what it might mean to say that the mind is embodied, the discussion of reason and intellect under the heading ‘Intellect and Reason‘ below may give some sense of what it might mean to say that the mind is spiritual. In particular, the conception of the intellects offers an interesting base characterisation of human thought that competes with cognitive faculties. Rather than saying that the critics offer false critiques, I suggest that they are too narrow and miss important arguments that are worth exploring.
I will explore failures of artificial intelligence in connection with the Greek Fathers. More specifically, I will look at the seventh century Maximus Confessor’s Mystagogia. I will investigate the occult as a conduit between the (quasi-Patristic) medieval West and the West today. The use of Orthodox sources could be a particularly helpful light, and one that is not explored elsewhere. Artificial intelligence seems to fail along lines predictable to the patristic understanding of a spirit-soul-body unity, essentially connected with God and other creatures. The discussion becomes more interesting when one looks at the implications of the patristic distinction between ‘reason’ and the spiritual ‘intellect.’ I suggest that connections with the Orthodox doctrine of divinisation may make an interesting a direction for future enquiry. I will only make a two-way comparison between Orthodox theological anthropology and one particular quasi-theological anthropology. This dissertation is in particular not an attempt to compare Orthodoxy with other religious traditions.
One wag said that the best book on computer programming for the layperson was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but that’s just because the best book on anything for the layperson was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. One lesson learned by a beginning scholar is that many things that ‘everybody knows’ are mistaken or half-truths, as ‘everybody knows’ the truth about Galileo, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and other select historical topics which we learn about by rumour. There are some things we will have trouble understanding unless we can question what ‘everybody knows.’ This dissertation will be challenging certain things that ‘everybody knows,’ such as that we’re making progress towards achieving artificial intelligence, that seventh century theology belongs in a separate mental compartment from AI, or that science is a different kind of thing from magic. The result is bound to resemble a tour of Wonderland, not because I am pursuing strangeness for its own sake, but because my attempt to understand artificial intelligence has taken me to strange places. Renaissance and early modern magic is a place artificial intelligence has been, and patristic theology represents what we had to leave to get to artificial intelligence.
The artificial intelligence project as we know it has existed for perhaps half a century, but its roots reach much further back. This picture attests to something that has been a human desire for much longer than we’ve had digital computers. In exploring the roots of artificial intelligence, there may be reason to look at a topic that may seem strange to mention in connection with science: the Renaissance and early modern occult enterprise.
Why bring the occult into a discussion of artificial intelligence? It doesn’t make sense if you accept science’s own self-portrayal and look at the past through its eyes. Yet this shows bias and insensitivity to another culture’s inner logic, almost a cultural imperialism—not between two cultures today but between the present and the past. A part of what I will be trying to do in this thesis is look at things that have genuine relevance to this question, but whose relevance is obscured by cultural factors today. Our sense of a deep divide between science and magic is more cultural prejudice than considered historical judgment. We judge by the concept of scientific progress, and treating prior cultures’ endeavours as more or less successful attempts to establish a scientific enterprise properly measured by our terms.
We miss how the occult turn taken by some of Western culture in the Renaissance and early modern period established lines of development that remain foundational to science today. Many chasms exist between the mediaeval perspective and our own, and there is good reason to place the decisive break between the mediaeval way of life and the Renaissance/early modern occult development, not placing mediaeval times and magic together with an exceptionalism for our science. I suggest that our main differences with the occult project are disagreements as to means, not ends—and that distinguishes the post-mediaeval West from the mediaevals. If so, there is a kinship between the occult project and our own time: we provide a variant answer to the same question as the Renaissance magus, whilst patristic and mediaeval Christians were exploring another question altogether. The occult vision has fragmented, with its dominion over the natural world becoming scientific technology, its vision for a better world becoming political ideology, and its spiritual practices becoming a private fantasy.
One way to look at historical data in a way that shows the kind of sensitivity I’m interested in, is explored by Mary Midgley in Science as Salvation (1992); she doesn’t dwell on the occult as such, but she perceptively argues that science is far more continuous with religion than its self-understanding would suggest. Her approach pays a certain kind of attention to things which science leads us to ignore. She looks at ways science is doing far more than falsifying hypotheses, and in so doing observes some things which are important. I hope to develop a similar argument in a different direction, arguing that science is far more continuous with the occult than its self-understanding would suggest. This thesis is intended neither to be a correction nor a refinement of her position, but development of a parallel line of enquiry.
It is as if a great island, called Magic, began to drift away from the cultural mainland. It had plans for what the mainland should be converted into, but had no wish to be associated with the mainland. As time passed, the island fragmented into smaller islands, and on all of these new islands the features hardened and became more sharply defined. One of the islands is named Ideology. The one we are interested in is Science, which is not interchangeable with the original Magic, but is even less independent: in some ways Science differs from Magic by being more like Magic than Magic itself. Science is further from the mainland than Magic was, even if its influence on the mainland is if anything greater than what Magic once held. I am interested in a scientific endeavour, and in particular a basic relationship behind scientific enquiry, which are to a substantial degree continuous with a magical endeavour and a basic relationship behind magic. These are foundationally important, and even if it is not yet clear what they may mean, I will try to substantiate these as the thesis develops. I propose the idea of Magic breaking off from a societal mainland, and sharpening and hardening into Science, as more helpful than the idea of science and magic as opposites.
There is in fact historical precedent for such a phenomenon. I suggest that a parallel with Eucharistic doctrine might illuminate the interrelationship between Orthodoxy, Renaissance and early modern magic, and science (including artificial intelligence). When Aquinas made the Christian-Aristotelian synthesis, he changed the doctrine of the Eucharist. The Eucharist had previously been understood on Orthodox terms that used a Platonic conception of bread and wine participating in the body and blood of Christ, so that bread remained bread whilst becoming the body of Christ. One substance had two natures. Aristotelian philosophy had little room for one substance which had two natures, so one thing cannot simultaneously be bread and the body of Christ. When Aquinas subsumed real presence doctrine under an Aristotelian framework, he managed a delicate balancing act, in which bread ceased to be bread when it became the body of Christ, and it was a miracle that the accidents of bread held together after the substance had changed. I suggest that when Zwingli expunged real presence doctrine completely, he was not abolishing the Aristotelian impulse, but carrying it to its proper end. In like fashion, the scientific movement is not a repudiation of the magical impulse, but a development of it according to its own inner logic. It expunges the supernatural as Zwingli expunged the real presence, because that is where one gravitates once the journey has begun. What Aquinas and the Renaissance magus had was composed of things that did not fit together. As I will explore below under the heading ‘Renaissance and Early Modern Magic,’ the Renaissance magus ceased relating to society as to one’s mother and began treating it as raw material; this foundational change to a depersonalised relationship would later secularise the occult and transform it into science. The parallel between medieval Christianity/magic/science and Orthodoxy/Aquinas/Zwingli seems to be fertile: real presence doctrine can be placed under an Aristotelian framework, and a sense of the supernatural can be held by someone who is stepping out of a personal kind of relationship, but in both cases it doesn’t sit well, and after two or so centuries people finished the job by subtracting the supernatural.
Without discussing the principles in Thomas Dixon’s 1999 delineation of theology, anti-theology, and atheology that can be un-theological or quasi-theological, regarding when one is justified in claiming that theology is present, I adopt the following rule:
A claim is considered quasi-theological if it can conflict with theological claims.
Given this rule, patristic theology, Renaissance and early modern magic (hereafter ‘magic’ or ‘the occult’), and artificial intelligence claims are all considered to be theological or quasi-theological.
I will not properly trace an historical development so much as show the distinctions between archetypal scientific, occult, and Orthodox worldviews as seen at different times, and briefly discuss their relationships with some historical remarks. Not only are there surprisingly persistent tendencies, but Lee repeats Weber’s suggestion that there is real value to understand ideal types.
I will be attempting to bring together pieces of a puzzle—pieces scattered across disciplines and across centuries, often hidden by today’s cultural assumptions about what is and is not connected—to show their interconnections and the picture that emerges from their fit. I will be looking at features including intentionality, teleology, cognitive faculties, the spiritual intellect, cosmology, and a strange figure who wields a magic sword with which to slice through society’s Gordian knots. Why? In a word, all of this connected. Cosmology is relevant if there is a cosmological error behind artificial intelligence. There are both an organic connection and a distinction between teleology and intentionality, and the shift from teleology to intentionality is an important shift; when one shifts from teleology to intentionality one becomes partly blind to what the artificial intelligence picture is missing. Someone brought up on cognitive faculties may have trouble answering, ‘How else could it be?’; the patristic understanding of the spiritual intellect gives a very interesting answer, and offers a completely different way to understand thought. And the figure with the magic sword? I’ll let this figure remain mysterious for the moment, but I’ll hint that without that metaphorical magic sword we would never have a literal artificial intelligence project. I do not believe I am forging new connections among these things, so much as uncovering something that was already there, overlooked but worth investigating.
This is an attempt to connect some very diverse sources, even if the different sections are meant primarily as philosophy of religion. This brings problems of coherence and disciplinary consistency, but the greater risk is tied to the possibility of greater reward. It will take more work to show connections than in a more externally focused enquiry, but if I can give a believable case for those interconnections, this will ipso facto be a more interesting enquiry.
All translations from French, German, Latin, and Greek are my own.
Artificial intelligence is not just one scientific project among others. It is a cultural manifestation of a timeless dream. It does not represent the repudiation of the occult impulse, but letting that impulse work out according to its own inner logic. Artificial intelligence is connected with a transhumanist vision for the future which tries to create a science-fiction-like future of an engineered society of superior beings. This artificial intelligence vision for the future is similar to the occult visions for the future we will see below. Very few members of the artificial intelligence movement embrace the full vision—but I may suggeste that its spectre is rarely absent, and that that spectre shows itself by a perennial sense of, ‘We’re making real breakthroughs today, and full AI is just around the corner.’ Both those who embrace the fuller enthusiasm and those who are more modestly excited by current project have a hope that we are making progress towards creating something fundamentally new under the sun, of bequeathing humanity with something that has never before been available, machines that genuinely think. Indeed, this kind of hope is one of magic’s most salient features. The exact content and features vary, but the sometimes heady excitement and the hope to bestow something powerful and new mark a significant point contact between the artificial intelligence and the magic that enshrouded science’s birth.
There is something timeless and archetypal about the desire to create humans through artifice instead of procreation. Jewish legend tells of a rabbi who used the Kaballah to create a clay golem to defend a city against anti-semites in 1581.Frankenstein has so marked the popular imagination that genetically modified foods are referred to as ‘Frankenfoods,’ and there are many (fictional) stories of scientists creating androids who rebel against and possibly destroy their creators. Robots who have artificial bodies but think and act enough like humans never to cause culture shock are a staple of science fiction.  There is a timeless and archetypal desire to create humans by artifice rather than procreation. Indeed, this desire has more than a little occult resonance.
We should draw a distinction between what may be called ‘pretentious AI’ and ‘un-pretentious AI.’ The artificial intelligence project has managed technical feats that are sometimes staggering, and from a computer scientist’s perspective, the state of computer science is richer and more mature than if there had been no artificial intelligence project. Without making any general claim that artificial intelligence achieves nothing or achieves nothing significant, I will explore a more specific and weaker claim that artificial intelligence does not and cannot duplicate human intelligence.
A paradigm example of un-pretentious AI is the United States Postal Service handwriting recognition system. It succeeds in reading the addresses on 85% of postal items, and the USPS annual report is justifiably proud of this achievement. However, there is nothing mythic claimed for it: the USPS does not claim a major breakthrough in emulating human thought, nor does it give people the impression that artificial mail carriers are just around the corner. The handwriting recognition system is a tool—admittedly, quite an impressive tool—but it is nothing more than a tool, and no one pretends it is anything more than a tool.
For a paradigm example of pretentious AI, I will look at something different. The robot Cog represents equally impressive feats in artificial hand-eye coordination and motor control, but its creators claim something deeper, something archetypal and mythic:
But how close is Cog to being human? Watts writes,
The weakness of Cog at present seems to be that it cannot actually do very much. Even its insect-like computer forebears do not seem to have had the intelligence of insects, and Cog is clearly nowhere near having human intelligence.
The somewhat light-hearted frequently-asked-questions list acknowledges that the robot ‘has no idea what it did two minutes ago,’ answers ‘Can Cog pass the Turing test?’ by saying, ‘No… but neither could an infant,’ and interestingly answers ‘Is Cog conscious?’ by saying, ‘We try to avoid using the c-word in our lab. For the record, no. Off the record, we have no idea what that question even means. And still, no.’ The response to a very basic question is ambiguous, but it seems to joke that ‘consciousness’ is obscene language, and gives the impression that this is not an appropriate question to ask: a mature adult, when evaluating our AI, does not childishly frame the question in terms of consciousness. Apparently, we should accept the optimistic impression of Cog, whilst recognising that it’s not fair to the robot to ask about features of human personhood that the robot can’t exhibit. This smells of begging the question.
Un-pretentious AI makes an impressive technical achievement, but recognises and acknowledges that they’ve created a tool and not something virtually human. Pretentious AI can make equally impressive technical achievements, and it recognises that what it’s created is not equivalent to human, but it does not acknowledge this. The answer to ‘Is Cog conscious?’ is a refusal to acknowledge something the researchers have to recognise: that Cog has no analogue to human consciousness. Is it a light-hearted way of making a serious claim of strong agnosticism about Cog’s consciousness? It doesn’t read much like a mature statement that ‘We could never know if Cog were conscious.’ The researcher in Figure 2 wrote an abstract on how to give robots a theory of other minds, which reads more like psychology than computer science.
There’s something going on here that also goes on in the occult. In neo-paganism, practitioners find their magic to work, not exactly as an outsider would expect, by making incantations and hoping that something will happen that a skeptic would recognise as supernatural, but by doing what they can and then interpreting reality as if the magic had worked. They create an illusion and subconsciously embrace it. This mechanism works well enough, in fact, that large segments of today’s neo-paganism started as jokes and then became real, something their practitioners took quite seriously. There’s power in trying to place a magical incantation or a computer program (or, in programmer slang, ‘incantation’) to fill a transcendent hope: one finds ways that it appears to work, regardless of what an outsider’s interpretation may be. This basic technique appears to be at work in magic as early as the Renaissance, and it appears to be exactly what’s going on in pretentious AI. The basic factor of stepping into an illusion after you do what you can makes sense of the rhetoric quoted above and why Cog is portrayed not merely as a successful experiment in coordination but as Robo sapiens, the successful creation of a living golem. Of course we don’t interpret it as magic because we assume that artificial and intelligence and magic are very different things, but the researchers’ self-deception falls into a quite venerable magical tradition.
Computers seem quite logical. Are they really that far from human rationality? Computers are logical without being rational. Programming a computer is like explaining a task to someone who follows directions very well but has no judgment and no ability to recognise broader intentions in a request. It follows a list of instructions without any recognition or a sense of what is being attempted. The ability to understand a conversation, or recognise another person’s intent—even with mistakes—or any of a number of things humans take for granted, belongs to rationality. A computer’s behaviour is built up from logical rules that do certain precise manipulations of symbols without any sense of meaning whatsoever: it is logical without being rational. The discipline of usability is about how to write well-designed computer programs; these programs usually let the user forget that computers aren’t rational. For instance, a user can undo something when the computer logically and literally follows an instruction, and the user rationally realises that that isn’t really what was intended. But even the best of this design doesn’t let the computer understand what one meant to say. One frustration people have with computers stems from the fact that there is a gist to what humans say, and other people pick up that gist. Computers do not have even the most rudimentary sense of gist, only the ability to logically follow instructions. This means that the experience of bugs and debugging in programming is extremely frustrating to those learning how to program; the computer’s response to what seems a correct program goes beyond nitpicking. This logicality without rationality is deceptive, for it presents something that looks very much like rationality at first glance, but produces unpleasant surprises when you treat it as rational. There’s something interesting going on here. When we read rationality into a computer’s logicality, we are in part creating the illusion of artificial intelligence. ‘Don’t anthropomorphise computers,’ one tells novice programmers. ‘They hate that.’ A computer is logical enough that we tend to treat it as rational, and in fact if you want to believe that you’ve achieved artificial intelligence, you have an excellent basis to use in forming a magician’s self-deception.
Artificial intelligence is a mythic attempt to create an artificial person, and it does so in a revealing way. Thought is assumed to be a private manipulation of mental representations, not something that works in terms of spirit. Embodied AI excluded, the body is assumed to be packaging, and the attempt is not just to duplicate the ‘mind’ in a complete sense, but our more computer-like rationality: this assumes a highly significant division of what is essential, what is packaging, and what comes along for free if you duplicate the essential bits. None of this is simply how humans have always thought, nor is it neutral. Maximus Confessor’s assumptions are different enough from AI’s that a comparison makes it easier to see some of AI’s assumptions, and furthermore what sort of coherent picture could deny them. I will explore how exactly he does so below under the heading ‘Orthodox Anthropology in Maximus Confessor’s Mystagogia,‘ More immediately, I wish to discuss a basic type of assumption shared by artificial intelligence and the occult.
The Optimality Assumption
One commonality that much of magic and science share is that broad visions often include the assumption that what they don’t understand must be simple, and be easy to modify or improve. Midgley discusses Bernal’s exceedingly optimistic hope for society to transform itself into a simplistically conceived scientific Utopia (if perhaps lacking most of what we value in human society); I will discuss later, under various headings, how society simply works better in Thomas More’s and B.F. Skinner’s Utopias if only it is re-engineered according to their simple models. Aren’t Utopian visions satires, not prescriptions? I would argue that the satire itself has a strong prescriptive element, even if it’s not literal. The connection between Utopia and AI is that the same sort of thinking feeds into what, exactly, is needed to duplicate a human mind. For instance, let us examine a sample of dialogue which Turing imagined going on in a Turing test:
Q: Please write me a sonnet on the subject of the Forth Bridge.
A: Count me out on this one. I never could write poetry.
Q: Add 34957 to 70764.
A: (Pause about 30 seconds and then give as answer) 105621.
Q: Do you play chess?
Q: I have K at my K1, and no other pieces. You have only K at K6 and R at R1. It is your move. What do you play?
Turing seems to assume that if you duplicate his favoured tasks of arithmetic and chess, the task of understanding natural language comes along, more or less for free. The subsequent history of artificial intelligence has not been kind to this assumption. Setting aside the fact that most people do not strike up a conversation by strangely requesting the other person to solve a chess problem and add five-digit numbers, Turing is showing an occult way of thinking by assuming there’s nothing really obscure, or deep, about the human person, and that the range of cognitive tasks needed to do AI is the range of tasks that immediately present themselves to him. This optimism may be damped by subsequent setbacks which the artificial intelligence movement has experienced, but it’s still present. It’s hard to see an artificial intelligence researcher saying, ‘The obvious problem looks hard to solve, but there are probably hidden problems which are much harder,’ let alone consider whether human thought might be non-computational.
Given the difficulties they acknowledge, artificial intelligence researchers seem to assume that the problem is as easy as possible to solve. As I will discuss later, this kind of assumption has profound occult resonance. I will call this assumption the optimality assumption: with allowances and caveats, the optimality assumption states that artificial intelligence is an optimally easy problem to solve. This doesn’t mean an optimally easy problem to solve given the easiest possible world, but rather, taking into the difficulties and nuances recognised by the practitioner, the problem is then assumed to be optimally easy, and thenit could be said that we live in the (believable) possible world where artificial intelligence would be easiest to implement. Anything that doesn’t work like a computer is assumedly easy, or a matter of unnecessary packaging. There are variations on the theme of begging the question. One basic strategy of ensuring that computers can reach the bar of human intelligence is to lower the bar until it is already met. Another strategy is to try to duplicate human intelligence on computer-like tasks. Remember the Turing test which Turing imagined, which seemed to recognise only the cognitive tasks of writing a poem, doing arithmetic, and solving a chess problem: Turing apparently assumed that natural language understanding would come along for free by the time computers could do both arithmetic and chess. Now we have computer calculators and chess players that can beat humans, whilst natural language understanding tasks which are simple to humans represent an unscaled Everest to artificial intelligence.
We have a situation very much like the attempt to make a robot that can imitate human locomotion—if the attempt is tested by having a robot race a human athlete on a racetrack ergonomically designed for robots. Chess is about as computer-like a human skill as one could find.
Turing’s script for an imagined Turing test is one manifestation of a tendency to assume that the problem is optimally easy: the optimality assumption. Furthermore, Turing sees only three tasks of composing a sonnet, adding two numbers, and making a move in chess. But in fact this leaves out a task of almost unassailable difficulty for AI: understanding and appropriately acting on natural language requests. This is part of human rationality that cannot simply be assumed to come with a computer’s logicality.
Four decades after Turing imagined the above dialogue, Kurt VanLehn describes a study of problem solving that used a standard story problem. The ensuing discussion is telling. Two subjects’ interpretations are treated as problems to be resolved, apparently chosen for their departure from how a human ‘should’ think about these things. One is a nine year old girl, Cathy: ‘…It is apparent from [her] protocol that Cathy solves this problem by imagining the physical situation and the actions taken in it, as opposed to, say, converting the puzzle to a directed graph then finding a traversal of the graph.’ The purpose of the experiment was to understand how humans solve problems, but it was approached with a tunnel vision that gave a classic kind of computer science ‘graph theory’ problem, wrapped up in words, and treated any other interpretation of those words as an interesting abnormality. It seems that it is not the theory’s duty to approach the subject matter, but the subject matter’s duty to approach the theory—a signature trait of occult projects. Is this merely VanLehn’s tunnel vision? He goes on to describe the state of cognitive science itself:
For instance, one can ask a subject to draw a pretty picture… [such] Problems whose understanding is not readily represented as a problem space are called ill-defined. Sketching pretty pictures is an example of an ill-defined problem… There have only been a few studies of ill-defined problem solving.
Foerst summarises a tradition of feminist critique: AI was started by men who chose a particular kind of abstract task as the hallmark of intelligence; women might value disembodied abstraction less and might choose something like social skills. The critique may be pushed one step further than that: beyond any claim that AI researchers, when looking for a basis for computer intelligence, tacitly crystallised intelligence out of men’s activities rather than women’s, it seems that their minds were so steeped in mathematics and computers that they crystallised intelligence out of human performance more in computer-like activities than anything essentially human, even in a masculine way. Turing didn’t talk about making artificial car mechanics or deer hunters any more than he had plans for artificial hostesses or childminders.
Harman’s 1989 account of functionalism, for instance, provides a more polished-looking version of an optimality assumption: ‘According to functionalism, it does not matter what mental states and processes are made of any more than it matters what a carburetor or heart or a chess king is made of.’ (832). Another suggestion may be made, not as an axiom but as an answer to the question, ‘How else could it be?’ This other suggestion might be called the tip of the iceberg conception.
A ‘tip of the iceberg’ conception might reply, ‘Suppose for the sake of argument that it doesn’t matter what an iceberg is made of, so long as it sticks up above the surface and is hard enough to sink a ship. The task is then to make an artificial iceberg. One can hire engineers to construct a hard shell to function as a surrogate iceberg. What has been left out is that these properties of something observable from the surface rest on something that lies much, much deeper than the surface. (A mere scrape with an iceberg sunk the Titanic, not only because the iceberg was hard, but because it had an iceberg’s monumental inertia behind that hardness.) One can’t make a functional tip of the iceberg that way, because a functional tip of an iceberg requires a functional iceberg, and we have very little idea of how to duplicate those parts of an iceberg that aren’t visible from a ship. You are merely assuming that one can try hard enough to duplicate what you can see from a ship, and if you duplicate those observables, everything else will follow.’ This is not a fatal objection, but it is intended to suggest what the truth could be besides the repeated assumption that intelligence is as easy as possible to duplicate in a computer. Here again is the optimality assumption, and it is a specific example of a broader optimality assumption which will appear in occult sources discussed under the ‘Renaissance and Early Modern Magic‘ heading below. The ‘tip of the iceberg’ conception is notoriously absent in occult and artificial intelligence sources alike. In occult sources, the endeavour is to create a magically sharp sword that will slice all of the Gordian knots of society’s problems; in artificial intelligence the Gordian knots are not societal problems but obstacles to creating a thinking machine, and researchers may only be attempting to use razor blades to cut tangled shoelaces, but researchers are still trying to get as close to that magic sword as they believe possible.
Just Around the Corner Since 1950
The artificial intelligence movement has a number of reasonably stable features, including an abiding sense of ‘Today’s discoveries are a real breakthrough; artificial minds are just around the corner.’ This mood may even be older than digital computers; Dreyfus writes,
In the period between the invention of the telephone relay and its apotheosis in the digital computer, the brain, always understood in terms of the latest technological inventions, was understood as a large telephone switchboard, or more recently, as an electronic computer.
The discoveries and the details of the claim may change, and experience has battered some of strong AI’s optimism, but in pioneers and today’s embodied AI advocates alike there is a similar mood: ‘What we’ve developed now is effacing the boundary between machine and human.’ This mood is quite stable. There is a striking similarity between the statements,
These emotions [discomfort and shock at something so human-like] might arise because in our interactions with Cog, little distinguishes us from the robot, and the differences between a machine and its human counterparts fade.
The reader must accept it as a fact that digital computers can be constructed, and indeed have been constructed, according to the principles we have described, and that they can in fact mimic the actions of a human computer very closely.
What is interesting here is that the second was made by Turing in 1950, and the first by Foerst in 1998. As regards Turing, no one now believes 1950 computers could perform any but the most menial of mathematicians’ tasks, and some of Cog’s weaknesses have been discussed above (“Cog… cannot actually very much. Even its insect-like forebears do not seem to have had the intelligence of insects…”). The more artificial intelligence changes, the more it seems to stay the same. The overall impression one receives is that for all the surface progress of the artificial intelligence, the underlying philosophy and spirit remain the same—and part of this underlying spirit is the conviction, ‘We’re making real breakthroughs now, and full artificial intelligence is just around the corner.’ This self-deception is sustained in classically magical fashion. Artificial intelligence’s self-presentation exudes novelty, a sense that today’s breakthroughs are decisive—whilst its actual rate of change is much slower. The ‘It’s just around the corner.’ rhetoric is a longstanding feature. For all the changes in processor power and greater consistency in a materialist doctrine of mind, there are salient features which seem to repeat in 1950’s and today’s cognitive science. In both, the strategy to ensure that computers could jump the bar of human intelligence is by lowering the bar until it had already been jumped.
The Ghost in the Machine
It has been suggested in connection with Polanyi’s understanding of tacit knowledge that behaviourists did not teach, ‘There is no soul.’ Rather, they draw students into a mode of enquiry where the possibility of a soul is never considered.
Modern psychology takes completely for granted that behavior and neural function are perfectly correlated, that one is completely caused by the other. There is no separate soul or lifeforce to stick a finger into the brain now and then and make neural cells do what they would not otherwise. Actually, of course, this is a working assumption only….It is quite conceivable that someday the assumption will have to be rejected. But it is important also to see that we have not reached that day yet: the working assumption is a necessary one and there is no real evidence opposed to it. Our failure to solve a problem so far does not make it insoluble. One cannot logically be a determinist in physics and biology, and a mystic in psychology.
This is a balder and more provocative way of stating what writers like Turing lead the reader to never think of questioning. The assumption is that the soul, if there is one, is by nature external and separate from the body, so that any interaction between the two is a violation of the body’s usual way of functioning. Thus what is denied is a ‘separate soul or lifeforce to stick a finger into the brain now and then and make neural cells do what they would not do otherwise.’ The Orthodox and others’ doctrine of unified personhood is very different from an affirmation of a ghost in the machine. To affirm a ghost in the machine is to assume the soul’s basic externality to the body: the basic inability of a soul to interact with a body creates the problem of the ghost in the machine. By the time one attempts to solve the problem of the ghost in the machine, one is already outside of an Orthodox doctrine of personhood in which spirit, soul, and body are united and the whole unit is not an atom.
The objective here is not mainly to criticise AI, but to see what can be learned: AI seems to fail in a way that is characteristic. It does not fail because of insufficient funding or lack of technical progress, but on another plane: it is built on an erroneous quasi-theological anthropology, and its failures may suggest something about being human. The main goal is to answer the question, ‘How else could it be?’ in a way that is missed by critics working in materialist confines.
What can we say in summary?
First, artificial intelligence work may be divided into un-pretentious and pretentious AI. Un-pretentious AI makes tools that no one presents as anything more than tools. Pretentious AI is presented as more human than is properly warranted.
Second, there are stable features to the artificial intelligence movement, including a claim of, ‘We have something essentially human. With today’s discoveries, full artificial intelligence is just around the corner.’ The exact form of this assertion may change, but the basic claim does not.
Third, artificial intelligence research posits a multifarious ‘optimality assumption,’ namely that, given the caveats recognised by the researcher, artificial intelligence is an optimally easy assumption to solve. The human mind is assumed to be the sort of thing that is optimally easy to re-create on a computer.
Fourth, artificial intelligence comes from the same kind of thinking as the ghost in the machine problem.
There is more going on in the artificial intelligence project than an attempt to produce scientific results. The persistent rhetoric of ‘It’s just around the corner.’ is not because artificial intelligence scientists have held that sober judgment since the project began, but because there’s something else going on. For reasons that I hope will become clearer in the next section, this is beginning to look like an occult project—a secularised occult project, perhaps, but ‘secularised occult’ is not an empty term in that you take all of the occult away if you take away spellbooks. There is much more to the occult than crystal balls, and a good deal of this ‘much more’ is at play even if artificial intelligence doesn’t do things the Skeptical Enquirer would frown on.
Occult Foundations of Modern Science
With acknowledgment of the relevance of the Reformation, the wake of Aristotelianism, and the via moderna of nominalism, I will be looking at a surprising candidate for discussion on this topic: magic. Magic was a large part of what shaped modernity, a much larger factor than one would expect from modernity’s own self-portrayal, and it has been neglected for reasons besides than the disinterested pursuit of truth. It is more attractive to our culture to say that our science exists in the wake of Renaissance learning or brave Reformers than to say that science has roots in it decries as superstition. For reasons that I will discuss below under the next heading, I suggest that what we now classify as the artificial intelligence movement is a further development of some of magic’s major features.
There is a major qualitative shift between Newton’s development of physics being considered by some to be a diversion from his alchemical and other occult endeavours, and ‘spooky’ topics today being taboo for scientific research. Yet it is still incomplete to enter a serious philosophical discussion of science without understanding the occult, as as it incomplete to enter a serious discussion of Christianity without understanding Judaism. Lewis points out that the popular understanding of modern science displacing the magic of the middle ages is at least misleading; there was very little magic in the middle ages, and then science and magic flourished at the same time, for the same reason, often in the same people: the reason science became stronger than magic is purely Darwinian: it worked better. One may say that medieval religion is the matrix from which Renaissance magic departed, and early modern magic is the matrix from which science departed.
What is the relationship between the mediaeval West and patristic Christianity? In this context, the practical difference is not yet a great one. The essential difference is that certain seeds have been sown—such as nominalism and the rediscovered Aristotelianism—which in the mediaeval West would grow into something significant, but had not in much of any practical sense affected the fabric of society. People still believed that the heavens told the glory of God; people lived a life oriented towards contemplation rather than consumption; monasteries and saints were assumed so strongly that they were present even—especially—as they retreated from society. Certain seeds had been sown in the mediaeval West, but they had not grown to any significant stature. For this discussion, I will treat mediaeval and patristic Christianity as more alike than different.
Renaissance and Early Modern Magic
Magic in this context is much more than a means of casting spells or otherwise manipulating supernatural powers to obtain results. That practice is the token of an entire worldview and enterprise, something that defines life’s meaning and what one ought to seek. To illustrate this, I will look at some details of work by a characteristic figure, Leibniz. Then I will look at the distinctive way the Renaissance magus related to the world and the legacy this relationship has today. Alongside this I will look at a shift from understanding this life as a contemplative apprenticeship to Heaven, to understanding this life as something for us to make more pleasurable.
Leibniz, a 17th century mathematician and scientist who co-discovered calculus, appears to have been more than conversant with the occult memory tradition, and his understanding of calculus was not, as today, a tool used by engineers to calculate volumes. Rather, it was part of an entire Utopian vision, which could encompass all knowledge and all thoughts, an apparently transcendent tool that would obviate the need for philosophical disagreements:
If we had this [calculus], there would be no more reason for disputes between philosophers than between accountants. It would be enough for them to take their quills and say, ‘Let us calculate!’
Leibniz’s 1690 Ars Combinatoria contains some material that is immediately accessible to a modern mathematician. It also contains material that is less accessible. Much of the second chapter (9-48) discusses combinations of the letters U, P, J, S, A, and N; these letters are tied to concepts ranging from philosophy to theology, jurisprudence and mathematics: another table links philosophical concepts with numbers (42-3). The apparent goal was to validly manipulate concepts through mechanical manipulations of words, but I was unable to readily tell what (mathematico-logical?) principle was supposed to make this work. (The principle is apparently unfamiliar to me.) This may reflect the influence of Ramon Lull, thirteenth century magician and doctor of the Catholic Church who adapted a baptised Kaballah which involved manipulating combinations of (Latin) letters. Leibniz makes repeated reference to Lull (28, 31, 34, 46), and specifically mentions his occult ars magna (28). Like Lull, Leibniz is interested in the occult, and seeks to pioneer some new tool that will obviate the need for this world’s troubles. He was an important figure in the creation of science, and his notation is still used for calculus today. Leibniz is not trying to be just another member of society, or to contribute to society’s good the way members have always contributed to society’s good: he stands above it, and his intended contribution is to reorder the fabric of society according to his endowed vision. Leibniz provides a characteristic glimpse of how early modern magic has left a lasting imprint.
If the person one should be in Orthodoxy is the member of Church and society, the figure in magic is the magus, a singular character who stands outside of the fabric of society and seeks to transform it. What is the difference? The member of the faithful is an integrated part of society, and lives in submission and organic connection to it. The magus, by contrast, stands above society, superior to it, having a relation to society as one whose right and perhaps duty is to tear apart and reconstruct society along better lines. We have a difference between humility and pride, between relating to society as to one’s mother and treating society as raw material for one to transform. The magus is cut off from the common herd by two closely related endowments: a magic sword to cut through society’s Gordian knots, and a messianic fantasy. In Leibniz’s case the magic sword is an artificial language which will make philosophical disagreements simply obsolete. For the artificial intelligence movement, the magic sword is artificial intelligence itself. The exact character of the sword, knot, and fantasy may differ, but their presence does not.
The character of the Renaissance magus may be seen as as hinging on despair with the natural world. This mood seems to be woven into Hermetic texts that were held in such esteem in the Renaissance and were connected at the opening of pre-eminent Renaissance neo-Platonist Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man. If there is good to be had, it is not met in the mundane world of the hoi polloi. It must be very different from their reality, something hidden that is only accessible to an elite. The sense in which this spells out an interest in the occult means far more than carrying around a rabbit’s foot. The specific supernatural contact was valued because the occult was far hidden from appearances and the unwashed masses. (The Christian claim that one can simply pray to God and be heard is thus profoundly uninteresting. Supernatural as it may be, it is ordinary, humble, and accessible in a way that the magus is trying to push past.) This desire for what is hidden or very different from the ordinary means that the ideal future must be very different from the present. Therefore Thomas More, Renaissance author, canonised saint, and strong devotee of Mirandola’s writing, himself writes Utopia. In this work, the philosophic sailor Raphael establishes his own reason as judge over the appropriateness of executing thieves, and describes a Utopia where society simply works better: there seem to be no unpleasant surprises or unintended consequences.  There is little sense of a complex inner logic to society that needs to be respected, or any kind of authority to submit to. Indeed, Raphael abhors authority and responds to the suggestion that he attach himself to a king’s court by saying, ‘Happier! Is that to follow a path that my soul abhors?’ This Utopian vision, even if it is from a canonised Roman saint, captures something deep of the occult currents that would later feed into the development of political ideology. The content of an occult vision for constructing a better tomorrow may vary, but it is a vision that seeks to tear up the world as we now know it and reconstructs it along different lines.
Magic and science alike relate to what they are interested in via an I-It rather than an I-Thou relationship. Relating to society as to one’s mother is an I-Thou relationship; treating society as raw material is an I-It relationship. An I-Thou relationship is receptive to quality. It can gain wisdom and insight. It can connect out of the whole person. The particular kind of I-It relationship that undergirds science has a powerful and narrow tool that deals in what can be mathematically represented. The difference between those two is misunderstood if one stops after saying, ‘I-It can make technology available much better than I-Thou.’ That is how things look through I-It eyes. But I-Thou allows a quality of relationship that does not exist with I-It. ‘The fundamental word I-Thou can only be spoken with one’s whole being. The fundamental word I-It can never be spoken with one’s whole being.’ I-Thou allows a quality-rich relationship that always has another layer of meaning. In the Romance languages there are two different words for knowledge: in French,connaissance and savoir. They both mean ‘knowledge,’ but in different ways: savoir is knowledge of fact (or know-how); one can sait que (‘know that’) something is true. Connaissance is the kind of knowledge of a person, a ‘knowledge of’ rather than a ‘knowledge that’ or ‘knowledge how.’ It can never be a complete knowledge, and one cannot connait que (‘know-of that’) something is true. It is personal in character. An I-It relationship is not just true of magic; as I will discuss below under the heading of ‘Science, Psychology, and Behaviourism,’ psychology seeks a baseline savoir of people where it might seek a connaissance , and its theories are meant to be abstracted from relationships with specific people. Like magic, the powers that are based on science are epiphenomenal to the relationship science is based on. Relating in an I-Thou rather than I-It fashion is not simply less like magic and science; it is richer, fuller, and more human.
In the patristic and medieval eras, the goal of living had been contemplation and the goal of moral instruction was to conform people to reality. Now there was a shift from conforming people to reality, towards conforming reality to people. This set the stage, centuries later, for a major and resource-intensive effort to create an artificial mind, a goal that would not have fit well with a society oriented to contemplation. This is not to say that there is no faith today, nor that there was no technology in the middle ages, nor that there has been no shift between the early modern period and today. Rather, it is to say that a basic trajectory was established in magic that significantly shapes science today.
The difference between the Renaissance magus and the mediaeval member of the Church casts a significant shadow today. The scientist seems to live more in the shadow of the Renaissance magus than of the member of mediaeval society. This is not to say that scientists cannot be humble and moral, nor that they cannot hold wonder at what they study. But it is to say that there are a number of points of contact between the Renaissance magus’s way of relating to the world and that of a scientist and those who live in science’s shadow. Governments today consult social scientists before making policy decisions: the relationship seems to be how to best deal with material rather than a relationship as to one’s mother. We have more than a hint of secularised magic in which substantial fragments of Renaissance and early modern magic have long outlived some magical practices.
Under the patristic and medieval conception, this life was an apprenticeship to the life in Heaven, the beginning of an eternal glory contemplating God. Magic retained a sense of supernatural reality and a larger world, but its goal was to improve this life, understood as largely self-contained and not as beginning of the next. That was the new chief end of humanity. That shift is a shift towards the secular, magical as its beginning may be. Magic contains the seeds of its own secularisation, in other words of its becoming scientific. The shift from contemplation of the next world to power in this world is why the occult was associated with all sorts of Utopian visions to transform the world, a legacy reflected in our political ideologies. One of the tools developed in that magical milieu was science: a tool that, for Darwinian reasons, was to eclipse all the rest. The real magic that has emerged is science.
Science, Psychology, and Behaviourism
What is the niche science has carved out for itself? I’d like to look at an academic discipline that is working hard to be a science, psychology. I will more specifically look at behaviourism, as symptomatic within the history of psychology. Is it fair to look at behaviourism, which psychology itself rejected? It seems that behaviourism offers a valuable case study by demonstrating what is more subtly present elsewhere in psychology. Behaviourism makes some basic observations about reward and punishment and people repeating behaviours, and portrays this as a comprehensive psychological theory: behaviourism does not acknowledge beliefs, for instance. Nonetheless, I suggest that behaviourism is a conceivable development in modern psychology which would have been impossible in other settings. Behaviourism may be unusual in the extreme simplicity of its vision and its refusal to recognise internal states, but not in desiring a Newton who will make psychology a full-fledged science and let psychology know its material with the same kind of knowing as physics has for its material.
Newton and his kin provided a completely de-anthropomorphised account of natural phenomena, and behaviourism provided a de-anthropomorphised account of humans. In leading behaviourist B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two (1948), we have a Utopian vision where every part of society seems to work better: artists raised under Skinner’s conditioning produce work which is ‘extraordinarily good,’ the women are more beautiful, and Skinner’s alter ego expresses the hope of controlling the weather, and compares himself with God. Skinner resemble seems to resemble a Renaissance magus more than a mediaeval member: society is raw material for him to transform. Skinner is, in a real sense, a Renaissance magus whose magic has become secularised. Quite a lot of the magus survives the secularisation of Skinner’s magic.
Even without these more grandiose aspirations, psychology is symptomatic of something that is difficult to discern by looking at the hard sciences. Psychological experiments try to find ways in which the human person responds in terms comparable to a physics experiment—and by nature do not relate to their subjects as human agents. These experiments study one aspect of human personhood, good literature another, and literature offers a different kind of knowing from a psychological experiment. If we assume that psychology is the best way to understand people—and that the mind is a mechanism-driven thing—then the assumed burden of proof falls on anyone saying, ‘But a human mind isn’t the sort of thing you can duplicate on a computer.’ The cultural place of science constitutes a powerful influence on how people conceive the question of artificial intelligence.
Behaviourism offers a very simple and very sharp magic sword to cut the Gordian knot of unscientific teleology, a knot that will be discussed under the heading of ‘Intentionality and Teleology‘ below. It removes suspicion of the reason being attached to a spiritual intellect by refusing to acknowledge reason. It removes the suspicion of emotions having a spiritual dimension by refusing to acknowledge emotions. He denies enough of the human person that even psychologists who share those goals would want to distance themselves from him. And yet Skinner does more than entertain messianic fantasies: Walden Two is a Utopia, and when Skinner’s alter ego compares himself with God, God ends up second best. I suggest that this is no a contradiction at all, or more properly it is a blatant contradiction as far as common sense is concerned, but as far as human human phenomena go, we have two sides of the same coin. The magic sword and the messianic fantasy belong to one and the same magus.
There is in fact an intermediate step between the full-fledged magus and the mortal herd. One can be a magician’s assistant, clearing away debris and performing menial tasks to support the real magi.  The proportion of the Western population who are scientists is enormous compared to science’s founding, and the vast majority of the increase is in magician’s assistants. If one meets a scientist at a social gathering, the science is in all probability not a full-fledged magus, but a magician’s assistant, set midway between the magus and the commoner. The common scientist is below the magus in knowledge of science but well above most commoners. In place of a personal messianic fantasy is a more communal tendency to assume that the scientific enterprise is our best hope for the betterment of society. (Commoners may share this belief.) There is a significant difference between the magus and most assistants today. Nonetheless, the figure of the magus is alive today—secularised, in most cases, but alive and well. Paul Johnson’s Augustinian account ofIntellectuals includes such eminent twentieth century scientific figures as Bertrand Russell, Noam Chompsky, and Albert Einstein; the figures one encounters in his pages are steeped in the relationship to society as to raw material instead as to one’s mother, the magic sword, and the messianic fantasy.
I-Thou and Humanness
I suggest that the most interesting critiques of artificial intelligence are not obtained by looking through I-It eyes in another direction, but in using other eyes to begin with, looking through I-Thou eyes. Let us consider Turing’s ‘Arguments from Various Disabilities’.Perhaps the people who furnished Turing with these objections were speaking out of something deeper than they could explain:
Be kind, resourceful, beautiful, friendly, have initiative, have a sense of humour, tell right from wrong, make mistakes, fall in love, enjoy strawberries and cream, make some one fall in love with it, learn from experience, use words properly, be the subject of its own thought, have as much diversity of behaviour as a man, do something really new.
Kindness is listed by Paul as the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22) in other words, an outflow of a person living in the Spirit. Disregarding the question of whether all kindness is the fruit of the Spirit, in humans kindness is not merely following rules, but the outflow of a concern for the other person. Even counterfeit kindness is a counterfeit from someone who knows the genuine article. It thus uses some faculty of humanity other than the reasoning ability, which classical AI tries to duplicate and which is assumed to be the one thing necessary to duplicate human cognition.
The artificial intelligence assumption is that if something is non-deterministic, it is random, because deterministic and pseudo-random are the only options one can use in programming a computer. This leaves out a third possibility, that by non-computational faculties someone may think, not merely ‘outside the box,’ in a random direction, but above it. The creative spark comes neither from continuing a systematic approach, nor simply picking something random (‘because I can’t get my computer to turn on, I’ll pour coffee on it and see if that helps’), but something that we don’t know how to give a computer.
Beauty is a spiritual quality that is not perceived by scientific enquiry and, given our time’s interpretation of scientific enquiry, is in principle not recognised. Why not? If we push materialist assumptions to the extreme, it is almost a category error to look at a woman and say, ‘She is beautiful.’ What is really being said—if one is not making a category error—is, ‘I have certain emotions when I look at her.’ Even if there is not a connection between physical beauty and intelligence, there seems to be some peasant shrewdness involved. It is a genuine, if misapplied, appeal to look at something that has been overlooked.
True as opposed to counterfeit friendliness is a manifestation of love, which has its home in the will, especially if the will is not understood as a quasi-muscular power of domination, but part of the spirit which lets us turn towards another in love.
Remarks could easily be multiplied. What is meant to come through all this is that science is not magic, but science works in magic’s wake. Among relevant features may be mentioned relating as a magus would (in many ways distilling an I-It relationship further), and seeking power over the world in this life rather living an apprenticeship to the next.
Orthodox Anthropology in Maximus Confessor’s Mystagogia
I will begin detailed enquiry in the Greek Fathers by considering an author who is foundational to Eastern Orthodoxy, the seventh century Greek Father Maximus Confessor. Out of the existing body of literature, I will focus on one work, his Mystagogia, with some reference to the Capita Gnosticae. Maximus Confessor is a synthetic thinker, and the Mystagogia is an anthropological work; its discussion of Church mystagogy is dense in theological anthropology as the training for a medical doctor is dense in human biology.
Orthodox Christians have a different cosmology from the Protestant division of nature, sin, and grace. Nature is never un-graced, and the grace that restores from sin is the same grace that provides continued existence and that created nature in the first place. That is to say, grace flows from God’s generosity, and is never alien to nature. The one God inhabits the whole creation: granted, in a more special and concentrated way in a person than in a rock, but the same God is really present in both.
Already, without having seriously engaged theological anthropology, we have differences with how AI looks at things. Not only are the answers different, but the questions themselves are posed in a different way. ‘Cold matter,’ such as is assumed by scientific materialism, doesn’t exist, not because matter is denied in Berkeleyan fashion but because it is part of a spiritual cosmology and affirmed to be something more. It is mistaken to think of cold matter, just as it is mistaken to think of tepid fire. Even matter has spiritual attributes and is graced. Everything that exists, from God and the spiritual creation to the material creation, from seraphim to stone, is the sort of thing one connects to in an I-Thou relationship. An I-It relationship is out of place, and from this perspective magic and science look almost the same, different signposts in the process of establishing a progressively purer I-It relationship.
Intellect and Reason
Maximus’ anthropology is threefold: the person is divided into soul and body, and the soul itself is divided into a higher part, the intellect, and a lower part, the reason:
[Pseudo-Dionysius] used to teach that the whole person is a synthesis of soul and body joined together, and furthermore the soul itself can be examined by reason. (The person is an image which reflects teaching about the Holy Church.) Thus he said that the soul had an intellectual and living faculty that were essentially united, and described the moving, intellectual, authoritative power—with the living part described according its will-less nature. And again, the whole mind deals with intelligible things, with the intelligible power being called intellect, whilst the sensible power is called reason.
This passage shows a one-word translation difficulty which is symptomatic of a difference between his theology and the quasi-theological assumptions of the artificial intelligence project. The word in question, which I have rendered as ‘authoritative power,’ is ‘exousiastikws,’ with root word ‘exousia.’ The root and its associated forms could be misconstrued today as having a double meaning of ‘power’ and ‘authority,’ with ‘authority’ as the basic sense. In both classical and patristic usage, it seems debatable whether ‘exousia’ is tied to any concept of power divorced from authority. In particular this passage’s ‘exousiastikws‘ is most immediately translated as power rather than any kind of authority that is separate from power. Yet Maximus Confessor’s whole sense of power here is one that arises from a divine authorisation to know the truth. This sense of power is teleologically oriented and has intrinsic meaning. This is not to say that Maximus could only conceive of power in terms of authority. He repeatedly uses ‘dunamis,’ (proem.15-6, 26, 28, etc), a word for power without significant connotations of authority. However, he could conceive of power in terms of authority, and that is exactly what he does when describing the intellect’s power.
What is the relationship between ‘intellect’/’reason’ and cognitive faculties? Which, if either, has cognitive faculties a computer can’t duplicate? Here we run into another difficulty. It is hard to say that Maximus Confessor traded in cognitive faculties. For Maximus Confessor the core sense of ‘cognitive faculties’ is inadequate, as it is inadequate to define an eye as something that provides nerve impulses which the brain uses to generate other nerve impulses. What is missing from this picture? This definition does not provide any sense that the eye interacts with the external world, so that under normal circumstances its nerve impulses are sent because photons strike photoreceptors in an organ resembling a camera. Even this description hides most teleology and evaluative judgment. It does not say that an eye is an organ for perceiving the external world through an image reconstructed in the brain, and may be called ‘good’ if it sees clearly and ‘bad’ if it doesn’t. This may be used as a point of departure to comment on Maximus Confessor and the conception of cognitive faculties.
Maximus Confessor does not, in an amoral or self-contained fashion, see faculties that operate on mental representations. He sees an intellect that is where one meets God, and where one encounters a Truth that is no more private than the world one sees with the eye is private.
Intellect and reason compete with today’s cognitive faculties, but Maximus Confessor understands the intellect in particular as something fundamentally moral, spiritual, and connected to spiritual realities. His conception of morality is itself different from today’s private choice of ethical code; morality had more public and more encompassing boundaries, and included such things as Jesus’ admonition not to take the place of highest honour so as not to receive public humiliation (Luke 14:7-10): it embraced practical advice for social conduct, because the moral and spiritual were not separated from the practical. It is difficult to Maximus Confessor conceiving of practicality as hampered by morality. In Maximus Confessor’s day what we separate into cognitive, moral, spiritual, and practical domains were woven into a seamless tapestry.
Intellect, Principles, and Cosmology
Chapter twenty-three opens by emphasising that contemplation is more than looking at appearances (23.1-10), and discusses the Principles of things. The concept of a Principle is important to his cosmology. There is a foundational difference between the assumed cosmologies of artificial intelligence and Maximus Confessor. Maximus Confessor’s cosmology is not the artificial intelligence cosmology with a spiritual dimension added, as a living organism is not a machine modified to use foodstuffs as fuel.
Why do I speak of the ‘artificial intelligence cosmology’? Surely one can have a long debate about artificial intelligence without adding cosmology to the discussion. This is true, but it is true because cosmology has become invisible, part of the assumed backdrop of discussion. In America, one cultural assumption is that ‘culture’ and ‘customs’ are for faroff and exotic people, not for ‘us’—’we’ are just being human. It doesn’t occur to most Americans to think of eating Turkey on Thanksgiving Day or removing one’s hat inside a building as customs, because ‘custom’ is a concept that only applies to exotic people. I suggest that Maximus Confessor has an interesting cosmology, not because he’s exotic, but because he’s human.
Artificial intelligence proponents and (most) critics do not differ on cosmology, but because that is because it is an important assumption which is not questioned even by most people who deny the possibility of artificial intelligence. Searle may disagree with Fodor about what is implied by a materialist cosmology, but not whether one should accept materialism. I suggest that some artificial intelligence critics miss the most interesting critiques of artificial intelligence because they share that project’s cosmology. If AI is based on a cosmological error, then no amount of fine-tuning within the system will rectify the error. We need to consider cosmology if we are to have any hope of correcting an error that basic. (Bad metaphysics does not create good physics.) I will describe Maximus Confessor’s cosmology in this section, not because he has cosmology and AI doesn’t, but because his cosmology seems to suggest a correction to the artificial intelligence cosmology.
At the base of Maximus’s cosmology is God. God holds the Principles in his heart, and they share something of his reality. Concrete beings (including us) are created through the Principles, and we share something of their reality and of God. The Principles are a more concrete realisation of God, and we are a more concrete realisation of the Principles. Thought (nohsis) means beholding God and the Principles ( logoi) through the eye of the intellect. Thinking of a tree means connecting with something that is more tree-like than the tree itself.
It may be easier to see what the important Principles in Maximus Confessor’s cosmology if we see how they are being dismantled today. Without saying that Church Fathers simply grafted in Platonism, I believe it safe to say that Plato resembled some of Church doctrine, and at any rate Plato’s one finger pointing up to God offers a closer approximation to Christianity than Aristotle’s fingers pointing down. I would suggest further that looking at Plato can suggest how Christianity differs from Aristotelianism’s materialistic tendencies, tendencies that are still unfolding today. Edelman describes the assumptions accompanying Darwin’s evolution as the ‘death blow’ to the essentialism, the doctrine that there are fixed kinds of things, as taught by Plato and other idealists. Edelman seems not to appreciate why so many biologists assent to punctuated equilibrium. However, if we assume that there is solid evidence establishing that all life gradually evolved from a common ancestor, then this remark is both apropos and perceptive.
When we look around, we see organisms that fit neatly into different classes: human, housefly, oak. Beginning philosophy students may find it quaint to hear of Plato’s Ideas, and the Ideal horse that is copied in all physical horses, but we tend to assume Platonism at least in that horses are similar ‘as if’ there were an Ideal horse: we don’t believe in the Ideal horse any more, but we still treat its shadow as if it were the Ideal horse’s shadowy copy.
Darwin’s theory of evolution suggests that all organisms are connected via slow, continuous change to a common ancestor and therefore to each other. If this is true, there are dire implications for Platonism. It is as if we had pictures of wet clay pottery, and posited a sharp divide between discrete classes of plates, cups, and bowls. Then someone showed a movie of a potter deforming one and the same clay from one shape to another, so that the divisions are now shown to be arbitrary. There are no discrete classes of vessels, just one lump of clay being shaped into different things. Here we are pushing a picture to the other end of a spectrum, further away from Platonism. It is a push from tacitly assuming there is a shadow, to expunging the remnant of belief in the horse and its shadow.
But this doesn’t mean we’re perfect Platonists, or can effortlessly appreciate the Platonic mindset. There are things we have to understand before we can travel in the other direction. If anything, there is more work involved. We act as if the Ideas’ shadows are real things, but we don’t genuinely believe in the shadows qua shadows, let alone the Ideas. We’ve simply inherited the habit of treating shadows as a convenient fiction. But Maximus Confessor believed the Principles (Ideas) represented something fuller and deeper than concrete things.
This is foundational to why Maximus Confessor would not have understood thought as manipulating mental representations in the inescapable privacy of one’s mind. Contemplation is not a matter of closing one’s eyes and fantasising, but of opening one’s eyes and beholding something deeper and more real than reality itself. The sensible reason can perceive the external physical world through the senses, but this takes a very different light from Kant’s view.
Maximus Confessor offers a genuinely interesting suggestion that we know things not only because of our power-to-know, but because of their power-to-be-known, an approach that I will explore later under the heading ‘Knowledge of the Immanent.’ The world is not purely transcendent, but immanent. For Kant the mind is a box that is hermetically sealed on top but has a few frustratingly small holes on the bottom: the senses. Maximus Confessor doesn’t view the senses very differently, but the top of the box is open.
This means that the intellect is most basically where one meets God. Its powerful ability to know truth is connected to this, and it connects with the Principles of things, as the senses connect with mere things. Is it fair to the senses to compare the intellect’s connection with Principles with the senses’ experience of physical things? The real question is not that, but whether it is fair to the intellect, and the answer is ‘no.’ The Principles are deeper, richer, and fuller than the mere visible things, as a horse is richer than its shadow. The knowledge we have through the intellect’s connection with the Principles is of a deeper and richer sort than what is merely inferred from the senses.
The Intelligible and the Sensible
Maximus Confessor lists, and connects, several linked pairs, which I have incorporated into a schema below. The first column of this schema relates to the second column along lines just illustrated: the first member of each pair is transcendent and eminent to the second, but also immanent to it.
holy of holies
practical wisdom (5.13-15)
Old Testament (6.4-6)
spiritual meaning of a text
literal meaning of a text (6.14-5)
bishop’s seating on throne
bishop’s entrance into Church (8.5-6, 20-21)
Christ’s return in glory
Christ’s first coming, glory veiled (8.6-7, 18)
Maximus Confessor’s cosmology sees neither a disparate collection of unconnected things, nor an undistinguished monism that denies differences. Instead, he sees a unity that sees natures (1.16-17) in which God not only limits differences, as a circle limits its radii (1.62-67), but transcends all differences. Things may be distinguished, but they are not divided. This is key to understanding both doctrine and method. He identifies the world with a person, and connects the Church with the image of God. Doctrine and method are alike synthetic, which suggests that passages about his cosmology and ecclesiology illuminate anthropology.
One recurring theme shows in his treatment of heaven and earth, the soul and the body, the intelligible (spiritual) and the sensible (material). The intelligible both transcends the sensible, and is immanent to it, present in it. The intelligible is what can be apprehended by the part of us that meets God; the sensible is what presents itself to the world of senses. (The senses are not our only connection with the world.) This is a different way of thinking about matter and spirit from the Cartesian model, which gives rise to the ghost in the machine problem. Maximus Confessor’s understanding of spirit and matter does not make much room for this dilemma. Matter and spirit interpenetrate. This is true not just in us but in the cosmos, which is itself ‘human’: he considers ‘…the three people: the cosmos (let us say), the Holy Scriptures, and this is true with us’ (7.40-1). The attempt to connect spirit and matter might have struck him like an attempt to forge a link between fire and heat, two things already linked.
Knowledge of the Immanent
The word which I here render ‘thought’ is ‘nohsis‘, cognate to ‘intellect’ (‘nous‘) which has been discussed as that which is inseparably the home of thought and of meeting God. We already have a hint of a conceptual cast in which thought will be understood in terms of connection and contemplation.
In contrast to understanding thought as a process within a mind, Maximus describes thought in terms of a relationship: a thought can exist because there is a power to think of in the one thinking, and a power to be thought of in what is thought of. We could no more know an absolutely transcendent creature than we could know an absolutely transcendent Creator. Even imperfect thought exists because we are dealing with something that ‘holds power to be apprehended by the intellect’ (I.82). We say something is purple because its manifest purpleness meets our ability to perceive purple. What about the claim that purple is a mental experience arising from a certain wavelength of light striking our retinas? One answer that might be given is that those are the mechanisms by which purple is delivered, not the nature of what purple is. The distinction is important.
We may ask, what about capacity for fantasy and errors? The first response I would suggest is cultural. The birth of modernity was a major shift, and its abstraction introduced new things into the Western mind, including much of what supports our concept of fantasy (in literature, etc.). The category of fantasy is a basic category to our mindset but not to the patristic or medieval mind. Therefore, instead of speculating how Maximus Confessor would have replied to these objections, we can point out that they aren’t the sort of thing that he would ever think of, or perhaps even understand.
But in fact a more positive reply can be taken. It can be said of good and evil that good is the only real substance. Evil is not its own substance, but a blemish in good substance. This parallels error. Error is not something fundamentally new, but a blurred or distorted form of truth. Fantasy does not represent another fundamentally independent, if hypothetical, reality; it is a funhouse mirror refracting this world. We do not have a representation that exists in one’s mind alone, but a dual relationship that arises both from apprehending intellect and an immanent thing. The possibility of errors and speculation make for a longer explanation but need not make us discard this basic picture.
Intentionality and Teleology
One of the basic differences in cosmology between Maximus Confessor and our own day relates to intentionality. As it is described in cognitive science’s philosophy of mind, ‘intentionality’ refers to an ‘about-ness’ of human mental states, such as beliefs and emotions. The word ‘tree’ is about an object outside the mind, and even the word ‘pegasus’ evokes something that one could imagine existing outside of the mind, even if it does not. Intentionality does not exist in computer programs: a computer chess program manipulates symbols in an entirely self-enclosed system, so ‘queen’ cannot refer to any external person or carry the web of associations we assume. Intentionality presents a philosophical problem for artificial intelligence. Human mental states and symbol manipulation are about something that reach out to the external world, whilst computer symbol manipulation is purely internal. A computer may manipulate symbols that are meaningful to humans using it, but the computer has no more sense of what a webpage means than a physical book has a sense that its pages contain good or bad writing. Intentionality is a special feature of living minds, and does not exist outside of them. Something significant will be achieved if ever a computer program first embodies intentionality outside of a living mind.
Maximus Confessor would likely have had difficulty understanding this perspective as he would have had difficulty understanding the problem of the ghost in the machine: this perspective makes intentionality a special exception as the ghost in the machine made our minds’ interaction with our bodies a special exception, and to him both ‘exceptions’ are in fact the crowning jewel of something which permeates the cosmos.
The theory of evolution is symptomatic of a difference between the post-Enlightenment West and the patristic era. This theory is on analytic grounds not a true answer to the question, ‘Why is there life as we know it?’ because it does not address the question, ‘Why is there life as we know it?’ At best it is a true answer to the question, ‘How is there life as we know it?’ which people often fail to distinguish from the very different question, ‘Why is there life as we know it?’ The Enlightenment contributed to an effort to expunge all trace of teleology from causality, all trace of ‘Why?’ from ‘How?’ Of Aristotle’s four causes, only the efficient cause is familiar; a beginning philosophy student is liable to misconstrue Aristotle’s final cause as being an efficient cause whose effect curiously precedes the cause. The heavy teleological scent to final causation is liable to be missed at first by a student in the wake of reducing ‘why’ to ‘how’; in Maximus Confessor, causation is not simply mechanical, but tells what purpose something serves, what it embodies, what meaning and relationships define it, and why it exists.
Strictly speaking, one should speak of ‘scientific mechanisms’ rather than ‘scientific explanations.’ Why? ‘Scientific proof’ is an oxymoron: science does not deal in positive proof any more than mathematics deals in experiment, so talk of ‘scientific proof’ ordinarily signals a speaker who has more faith in science than understanding of what science really does. ‘Scientific explanation’ is a less blatant contradiction in terms, but it reflects a misunderstanding, perhaps one that is more widespread, as it often present among people who would never speak of ‘scientific proof.’ Talk of ‘scientific explanation’ is not simply careless speech; there needs to be a widespread category error before there is any reason to write a book like Mary Midgley’s Science as Salvation (1992). Science is an enterprise which provides mechanisms and has been given the cultural place of providing explanations. This discrepancy has the effect that people searching for explanations turn to scientific mechanisms, and may not be receptive when a genuine explanation is provided, because ‘explanation’ to them means ‘something like what science gives.’ This may not be the only factor, but it casts a long shadow. The burden of proof is born by anyone who would present a non-scientific explanation as being as real as a scientific explanation. An even heavier burden of proof falls on the person who would claim that a non-scientific explanation—not just as social construction, but a real claim about the external world—offers something that science does not.
The distinction between mechanism and explanation is also relevant because the ways in which artificial intelligence has failed may reflect mechanisms made to do the work of explanations. In other words, the question of ‘What is the nature of a human?’ is answered by, ‘We are able to discern these mental mechanisms in a human.’ If this is true, the failure to duplicate a human mind in computers may be connected to researchers answering the wrong question in the first place. These are different, as the question, ‘What literary devices can you find in The Merchant of Venice?’ is different from ‘Why is The Merchant of Venice powerful drama?’ The devices aren’t irrelevant, but neither are they the whole picture.
Of the once great and beautiful land of teleology, a land once brimming in explanations, all has been conquered, all has been levelled, all has been razed and transformed by the power of I-It. All except two stubborn, embattled holdouts. The first holdout is intentionality: if it is a category error to project things in the human mind onto the outer world, nonetheless we recognise that intentionality exists in the mind—but about-ness of intentionality is far less than the about-ness once believed to fill the cosmos. The second and last holdout is evolution: if there is to be no mythic story of origins that gives shape and meaning to human existence, if there cannot be an answer to ‘Why is there life as we know it?’ because there is no reason at all for life, because housefly, horse, and human are alike the by-product of mindless forces that did not have us in mind, nonetheless there is still an emaciated spectre, an evolutionary mechanism that does just enough work to keep away a teleological approach to origins questions. The land of teleology has been razed, but there is a similarity between these two remnants, placeholders which are granted special permission to do what even the I-It approach recognises it cannot completely remove of teleology. That is the official picture, at least. Midgley is liable to pester us with counterexamples of a teleology that is far more persistent than the official picture gives credit for: she looks at evolution doing the work of a myth instead of a placeholder that keeps myths away, for instance. Let’s ignore her for the moment and stick with the official version. Then looking at both intentionality and evolution can be instructive in seeing what has happened to teleology, and appreciating what teleology was and could be. Now Midgley offers us reasons why it may not be productive to pretend we can excise teleology: the examples of teleology she discusses do not seem to be improved by being driven underground and presented as non-teleological.
Maximus’s picture, as well as being teleological, is moral and spiritual. As well as having intentions, we are living manifestations of a teleological, moral and spiritual Intention in God’s heart. Maximus Confessor held a cosmology, and therefore an anthropology, that did not see the world in terms of disconnected and meaningless things. He exhibited a number of traits that the Enlightenment stripped out: in particular, a pervasive teleology in both cosmology and anthropology. He believed in a threefold anthropology of intellect/spirit, reason/soul, and body, all intimately tied together. What cognitive science accounts for through cognitive faculties, manipulating mental representations, were accounted for quite differently by an intellect that sees God and the Principles of beings, and a reason that works with the truths apprehended by intellect. The differences between the respective cosmologies and anthropologies are not the differences between two alternate answers to the same question, but answers to two different questions, differently conceived. They are alike in that they can collide because they are wrestling with the same thing: where they disagree, at least one of them must be wrong. They are different in that they are looking at the same aspect of personhood from two different cultures, and Maximus Confessor seems to have enough distance to provide a genuinely interesting critique.
Maximus Confessor was a synthetic thinker, and I suggest that his writings, which are synthetic both in method and in doctrine, are valuable not only because he was brilliant but because synthetic enquiry can be itself valuable. I have pursued a synthetic enquiry, not out of an attempt to be like Maximus Confessor, but because I think an approach that is sensitive to connections could be productive here. I’m not the only critic who has the resources to interpret AI as floundering in a way that may be symptomatic of a cosmological error. It’s not hard to see that many religious cosmologies offer inhospitable climates to machines that think: Foerst’s reinterpretation of the image of God seems part of an effort to avoid seeing exactly this point. The interesting task is understanding and conveying an interconnected web. So I have connected science with magic, for instance, because although the official version is that they’re completely unrelated, there is a strong historic link between them, and cultural factors today obscure the difference, and for that matter obscure several other things that interest us.
This dissertation falls under the heading of boundary issues between religion and science, and some readers may perceive me to approach boundary issues in a slightly different fashion. That perception is correct. One of the main ways that boundary issues are framed seems to be for Christian theologians to show the compatibility of their timeless doctrines with that minority of scientific theories which have already been accepted by the scientific community and which have not yet been rejected by that same community. With the question of origins, there has been a lot of work done to show that Christianity is far more compatible with evolutionary theory than a literal reading of Genesis 1 would suggest. It seems to have only been recently that gadflies within the intelligent design movement have suggested both that the scientific case for evolution is weaker that it has been made out to be, and there seems to be good reason to believe that Christianity and evolution are incompatible at a deep enough level that the literal details of Genesis 1 are almost superfluous. Nobody conceives the boundary issues to mean that theologians should demonstrate the compatibility of Christianity with that silent majority of scientific theories which have either been both accepted and discredited (like spontaneous generation) or not yet accepted (like the cognitive-theoretic model of the universe). The minority is different, but not as different as people often assume.
One of the questions which is debated is whether it is best to understand subject-matter from within or without. I am an M.Phil. student in theology with a master’s and an adjunct professorship in the sciences. I have worked to understand the sciences from within, and from that base look and understand science from without as well as within. Someone who only sees science from without may lack appreciation of certain things that come with experience of science, whilst someone who only sees science from within may not be able to question enough of science’s self-portrayal. This composite view may not be available to all, nor is it needed, but I believe it has helped me in another basic röle from showing religion’s compatibility with current science: namely, serving as a critical observer and raising important questions that science is itself unlikely to raise, sometimes turning a scientific assumption on its head. Theology may have other things to offer in its discussion with science than simply offering assent: instead of solely being the recipient of claims from science, it should be an agent which adds to the conversation.
Are there reasons why the position I propose is to be preferred? Science’s interpretation of the matter is deeply entrenched, enough so that it seems strange to connect science with the occult. One response is that this perspective should at least be listened to, because it is challenging a now entrenched cultural force, and it may be a cue to how we could avoid some of our own blind spots. Even if it is wrong, it could be wrong in an interesting way. A more positive response would be to say that this is by my own admission far from a complete picture, but it makes sense of part of the historical record that is meaningless if one says that modern science just happened to be born whilst a magical movement waxed strong, and some of science’s founders just happened to be magicians. A more robust picture would see the early modern era as an interlocking whole that encompassed a continuing Reformation, Descartes, magic, nascent science, and the wake of the Renaissance polymath. They all interconnect, even if none is fully determined. Lack of time and space preclude me from more than mentioning what that broader picture might be. There is also another reason to question the validity of science’s basic picture:
Artificial intelligence doesn’t work, at least not for a working copy of human intelligence.
Billions of dollars have been expended in the pursuit of artificial intelligence, so it is difficult to say the artificial intelligence project has failed through lack of funding. The project has attracted many of the world’s most brilliant minds, so it is difficult to say that the project has failed through lack of talent. Technology has improved a thousandfold or a millionfold since a giant like Turing thought computer technology was powerful enough for artificial intelligence, so it is difficult to say that today’s computers are too underpowered for artificial intelligence. Computer science has matured considerably, so it’s hard to say that artificial intelligence hasn’t had a chance to mature. In 1950, one could have posited a number of reasons for the lack of success then, but subsequent experience has made many of these possibilities difficult to maintain. This leaves open the possibility that artificial intelligence has failed because the whole enterprise is based on a false assumption, perhaps an error so deep as to be cosmological.
The power of science-based technology is a side effect of learning something significant about the natural world, and both scientific knowledge and technology are impressive cultural achievements. Yet science is not a complete picture—and I do not mean simply that we can have our own private fantasies—and science does not capture the spiritual qualities of matter, let alone a human being. The question of whether science understands mechanical properties of physical things has been put to the test, and the outcome is a resounding yes. The question of whether science understands enough about humans to duplicate human thought is also being put to the test, and when the rubber meets the road, the answer to that question looks a lot like, ‘No.’ It’s not definitive (it couldn’t be), but the picture so far is that science is trying something that can’t work. It can’t work because of spiritual principles, as a perpetual motion machine can’t work because of physical principles. It’s not a matter of insufficient resources available so far, or still needing to find the right approach. It doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing which could work.
We miss something about the artificial intelligence project if we frame it as something that began after computer scientists saw that computers can manipulate symbols. People have been trying to make intelligent computers for half a century, but artificial intelligence is a phenomenon that has been centuries in the making. The fact that people saw the brain as a telephone switchboard, when that was the new technology, is more a symptom than a beginning. There’s more than artificial intelligence’s surface resemblance to alchemists’ artificial person (‘homunculus’). A repeated feature of the occult enterprise is that you do not have people giving to society in the ways that people have always given to society; you have exceptional figures trying to delve into unexplored recesses and forge some new creation, some new power—some new technology or method—to achieve something mythic that has simply not been achieved before. The magus is endowed with a magic sword to powerfully slice through his day’s Gordian knots, and with a messianic fantasy. This is true of Leibniz’s Ars Combinatoria and it is true of more than a little of artificial intelligence. To the reader who suggests, ‘But magic doesn’t really work!’ I would point out that artificial intelligence also doesn’t really work—although its researchers find it to work, like Renaissance magi and modern neo-pagans. The vast gap between magic and science that exists in our imagination is a cultural prejudice rather than a historical conclusion. Some puzzles which emerge from an non-historical picture of science—in particular, why a discipline with modest claims about falsifying hypotheses is held in such awe—seem to make a lot more sense if science is investigated as a historical phenomenon partly stemming from magic.
If there is one unexpected theme running through this enquiry, it is what has emerged about relationships. The question of whether one relates to society (or the natural world) as to one’s mother or as to raw material, in I-Thou or I-It fashion, first crept in as a minor clarification. The more I have thought about it, the more significant it seems. The Renaissance magus distinguished himself from his medieval predecessors by converting I-Thou relationships into I-It. How is modern science different? To start with, it is much more consistent in pursuing I-It relationships. The fact that science gives mechanisms instead of explanations is connected; an explanation is an I-Thou thing, whilst a bare mechanism is I-It: if you are going to relate to the world in I-It fashion, there is every reason to replace explanations with mechanisms. An I-Thou relationship understands in a holistic, teleological fashion: if you are going to push an I-It relationship far enough, the obvious approach is to try to expunge teleology as the Enlightenment tried. A great many things about magus and scientist alike hinge on the rejection of Orthodoxy’s I-Thou relationship.
In Arthurian legend, the figure of Merlin is a figure who holds magical powers, not by spells and incantations, but by something deeper and fundamental. Merlin does not need spells and incantations because he relates to the natural world in a way that almost goes beyond I-Thou; he relates to nature as if it were human. I suggest that science provides a figure of an anti-Merlin who holds anti-magical powers, not by spells and incantations, but by something deeper and fundamental. Science does not need spells and incantations because it relates to the natural world and humans in a way that almost goes beyond I-It; it relates to even the human as if it were inanimate. In both cases, the power hinges on a relationship, and the power is epiphenomenal to that relationship.
If this is a problem, what all is to be done? Let me say what is not to be done. What is not to be done is to engineer a programme to enlist people in an I-Thou ideology. Why not? ‘I-Thou ideology’ is a contradiction in terms. The standard response of starting a political programme treats society as raw material to be transformed according to one’s vision—and I am not just disputing the specific content of some visions, but saying that’s the wrong way to start. Many of the obvious ways of ‘making a difference’ that present themselves to the modern mind work through an I-It relationship, calculating how to obtain a response from people, and are therefore tainted from the start. Does that mean that nothing is to be done? No; there are many things, from a walk of faith as transforming communion with God, to learning to relate to God, people, and the entire cosmos in I-Thou fashion, to using forms of persuasion that appeal to a whole person acting in freedom. But that is another thesis to explore.
I look back at this piece six years later, and see both real strengths and things I wince at. This was one of my first major works after being chrismated Orthodox, and while I am enthusiastic for Orthodoxy there are misunderstandings. My focus on cosmology is just one step away from Western, and in particular scientific, roots, and such pressure to get cosmology right is not found in any good Orthodox theologian I know. That was one of several areas where I had a pretty Western way of trying to be Orthodox, and I do not blame people who raise eyebrows at my heavy use of existentialist distinction between I-Thou and I-It relationship. And the amount of time and energy spent discussing magic almost deterred me from posting it from my website; for that reason alone, I spent time debating whether the piece was fit for human consumption. And it is possibly theology in the academic sense, but not so much the Orthodox sense: lots of ideas, cleverly put together, with little invitation to worship.
But for all this, I am still posting it. The basic points it raises, and much of the terrain, are interesting. There may be fewer true believers among scientists who still chase an artificial intelligence pot o’ gold, but it remain an element of the popular imagination and belief even as people’s interests turn more and more to finding a magic sword that will slice through society’s Gordian knots—which is to say that there may be something relevant in this thesis besides the artificial intelligence critique.
I am posting it because I believe it is interesting and adds something to the convesation. I am also posting it in the hope that it might serve as a sort of gateway drug to some of my more recent works, and provide a contrast: this is how I approached theology just after being received into Holy Orthodoxy, and other works show what I would present as theology having had more time to steep in Orthodoxy, such as The Arena.
I pray that God will bless you.
Augustine, In Euangelium Ioannis Tractatus, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series I, Volume VII, Edinburgh: T & T Clarke, 1888.
Bianchi, Massimo Luigi, Signatum Rerum: Segni, Magia e Conoscenza da Paracelso a Leibniz, Edizioni dell’Ateneo, 1987.
Buber, Martin, Ich und Du, in Werke,Erster Band Schriften zur Philosophie, Heidelberg: Kösel-Verlag, 1962, 79-170.
Caroll, Lewis, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Cambridge: Candlewick Press, 2003.
Dixon, Thomas, ‘Theology, Anti-Theology and Atheology: From Christian Passions to Secular Emotions,’ in Modern Theology, Vol 15, No 3, Oxford: Blackwell 1999, 297-330.
Dreyfus, Hubert L., What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason, London: MIT Press, 1992.
Edelman, Gerald, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, New York: BasicBooks, 1992.
Fodor, Jerry, In Critical Condition: Polemical Essays on Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Mind, London: MIT Press, 1998.
Foerst, Anne, ‘Cog, a Humanoid Robot, and the Question of the Image of God,’ in Zygon 33, no. 1, 1998, 91-111.
Gibson, William, Neuromancer, New York: Ace, 2003.
Harman, Gilbert, ‘Some Philosophical Issues in Cognitive Science: Qualia, Intentionality, and the Mind-Body Problem,’ in Posner 1989, pp. 831-848.
Hebb, D.O. Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory, New York: Wiley, 1949.
Johnson, Paul, Intellectuals, New York: Perennial, 1990.
Layton, Bentley, The Gnostic Scriptures: Ancient Wisdom for the New Age, London: Doubleday, 1987.
Lee, Philip J., Against the Protestant Gnostics, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
VanLehn, Kurt, ‘Problem Solving and Cognitive Skill Acquisition,’ in Posner 1989, pp. 527-580.
Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm, Frieherr von, Ars Combinatoria, Francofurti: Henri Christopher Cröckerum, 1690.
Lewis, C.S., The Abolition of Man, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1950-6.
Lewis, C.S., That Hideous Strength, London: MacMillan, 1965.
Lewis, C.S., The Chronicles of Narnia, London: Harper Collins, 2001.
Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess Worshippers and Other Pagans in America Today (Revised and Expanded Edition), Boston: Beacon Press, 1986,
Maximus Confessor, Capita Gnosticae (Capita Theologiae et OEconomiae), in Patrologiae Graeca 90: Maximus Confessor, Tome I, Paris: Migne, 1860, 1083-1462.
Maximus Confessor; Berthold, George (tr.), Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings, New York, Paulist Press,, 1985.
Maximus Confessor, Mystagogia, as published at Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/inst/browser?uid=&lang=eng&work=2892049&context=21&rawescs=N&printable=N&betalink=Y&filepos=0&outline=N&GreekFont=Unicode. Citations from the Mystagogia will be referenced by chapter and line number as referenced by Thesaurus Linguae Graecae.
Midgley, Mary, Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning, London: Routledge, 1992.
Norman, Donald, The Invisible Computer, London: MIT Press, 1998.
Norman, Donald, Things That Make Us Smart, Cambridge: Perseus 1994.
Von Neumann, John, The Computer and the Brain, London: Yale University Press, 1958.
Polanyi, Michael, Personal Knowledge, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.
Posner, Michael I. (ed.), Foundations of Cognitive Science, London: MIT, 1989.
Pseudo-Dionysius; Luibheid, Colm (tr.), Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, New York: Paulist Press, 1987.
Puddefoot, John, God and the Mind Machine: Computers, Artificial Intelligence and the Human Soul, London: SPCK1996.
Read, John, ‘Alchimia e magia e la ”separazione delle due vie”,’ in Cesare Vasoli (ed.), Magia e scienza nella civilté umanistica, Bologna: Societé editrice il Mulino 1976, 83-108.
Sacks, Oliver, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Basingstroke: Picador, 1985.
Searle, John, Minds, Brains, and Science, London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1984.
Searle, John, The Mystery of Consciousness, London: Granta Books, 1997.
Shakespeare, William, The Merchant of Venice, as seen on the Project Gutenberg archive at http://www.gutenberg.net/etext97/1ws1810.txt on 15 June 2004.
Skinner, B. F., Walden Two, New York: Macmillan, 1948.
Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, Letchworth: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.
Turing, Alan M., ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence,’ in Mind 49, 1950, pp. 433-60, as seen at http://cogprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/archive/00000499/00/turing.html on 25 Feb 04.
Watts, Fraser, ‘Artificial Intelligence’ in Psychology and Theology, Aldercroft: Ashgate, 2002.
Webster, Charles, From Paracelsus to Newton: Magic and the Making of Modern Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Yates, Frances A., The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, London: Routledge, 1979.
Yates, Frances A., Selected Works, Volume III: The Art of Memory, London: Routledge, 1966, as reprinted 1999.
 These neural nets are modelled after biological neural nets but are organised differently and seem to take the concept of a neuron on something of a tangent from its organisation and function in a natural brain, be it insect or human.
Cog, http://www.ai.mit.edu/projects/humanoid-robotics-group/cog/images/cog-rod-slinky.gif, as seen on 11 June 2004 (enlarged).
 Searle 1998, Edelman 1992, etc., including some of Dreyfus 1992. Edelman lists Jerome Brunner, Alan Gauld, Claes von Hofsten, George Lakoff, Ronald Langaker, Ruth Garrett Millikan, Hilary Putnam, John Searle, and Benny Shannon as convergent members of a realist camp (1992, 220).
 ‘Intentionality’ is a philosophy of mind term for the ‘about-ness’ of mental states.
 By ‘teleology’ I understand in a somewhat inclusive sense that branch of theology and philosophy that deals with goals, ends, and ultimate meanings.
 ‘Cognitive faculty’ is a philosophy of mind conception of a feature of the human mind that operates on mental representations to perform a specific function.
 The spiritual ‘intellect’ is a patristic concept that embraces thought, conceived on different terms from ‘cognitive science,’ and is inseparably the place where a person meets God. Augustine locates the image of God in the intellect (In Euangelium Ioannis Tractatus, III.4), and compares the intellect to Christ as illuminating both itself and everything else (In Euangelium Ioannis Tractatus, XLVII, 3).
 C.S. Lewis critiques this project in The Abolition of Man (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1965). He does not address the question of whether this is a possible goal, but argues that it is not a desirable goal: the glorious future it heralds is in fact a horror compared to the present it so disparages.
 Without submitting to the Church in the usual way, the magus is equal to its highest members (Webster 1982, 57).
 George Mason University’s Modern & Classical Languages, ‘Pico della Mirandola: Oratio de hominis dignitate,’ http://www.gmu.edu/departments/fld/CLASSICS/mirandola.oratio.html, as seen on 18 May 2004. See Poim 27-9, CH7 1-2 in Bentley 1987 for texts reflecting an understanding of the world as evil and associated contempt for the hoi polloi.
 References will be to the online Greek version at Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/inst/wsearch?wtitle=2892+049&uid=&GreekFont=Unicode&mode=c_search, according to chapter and line. Unless otherwise specified, references in this section will be to the Mystagogia.
 5.1-10. ‘Intellect’ in particular is used as a scholarly rendering of the Greek ‘nous,’ and is not equivalent to the layman’s use of ‘intellect,’ particularly not as cognate to ‘intelligence.’ The ‘reason’ (‘logos‘) is closer to today’s use of the term, but not as close as you might think. This basic conceptualisation is common to other patristic and medieval authors, such as Augustine.
 ‘Punctuated equilibrium’ is a variant on Darwin’s theory of (gradual) evolution. It tries to retain an essentially Darwinian mechanism whilst acknowledging a fossil record and other evidence which indicate long periods of stability interrupted by the abrupt appearance and disappearance of life forms. It is called ‘punk eek’ by the irreverent.
 I.82. Material from the Capita Gnosticae, not available in Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, will be referenced by century and chapter number, i.e. I.82 abbreviates Century I, Chapter 82.
Someone said that a memo is written, not to inform the reader, but to protect the sender.
There is something wrong when employees receive so much allegedly mandatory reading material that if they were actually to sit down and read it as told, they wouldn’t get other work done. And it is entirely inappropriate to demand that people without significant legal acumen claim to have read and understood a contract. Really, contracts are rightly understood only if you understand the tradition surrounding how they are interpreted. That means that unless (or possibly even if) you are a lawyer (or else a hobbyist who may not legally be licensed to practice but who is fascinated at learning how law works), you don’t understand the contract. This is, incidentally, why there’s the website tosdr.org (“Terms of Service – Didn’t Read“).
That much I still believe. However, I believe there was some nasty pride in expecting the business world to meet what I consider reasonable. The normal way of dealing with things is to not read, or to read just enough. And that is why in my first job with over a quarter inch of daily allegedly mandatory reading, I should just have listened to a colleague gently tell me that I didn’t have to read that.
I’ve worked on humility a little bit since then.
Once upon a time, there was a new employee, hired fresh out of college by a big company. The first day on the job, he attended a pep rally, filled out paperwork concerning taxes and insurance, and received a two page document that said at the top, “Sexual Harassment Policy: Important. Read Very Carefully!”
So our employee read the sexual harassment policy with utmost care, and signed at the bottom indicating that he had read it. The policy was a remedial course in common sense, although parts of it showed a decided lack of common sense. It was an insult to both his intelligence and his social maturity.
Our employee was slightly puzzled as to why he was expected to read such a document that carefully, but soon pushed doubts out of his mind. He trotted over to his new cubicle, sat down, and began to read the two inch thick manual on core essentials that every employee needs to know. He was still reading core essentials two hours later when his boss came by and said, “Could you take a break from that? I want to introduce you to your new co-workers, and show you around.”
So our employee talked with his boss — a knowledgeable, competent, and understanding woman — and enjoyed meeting his co-workers, trying to learn their names. He didn’t have very much other work yet, so he dutifully read everything that the administrators sent him — even the ones that didn’t say “Important — please read” at the top. He read about ISO 9001 certification, continual changes and updates to company policy, new technologies that the company was adopting, employee discounts, customer success stories, and other oddments totalling to at least a quarter inch of paper each day, not counting e-mails.
His boss saw that he worked well, and began to assign more difficult tasks appropriate to his talent. He took on this new workload while continuing to read everything the administration told him to read, and worked longer and longer days.
One day, a veteran came and put a hand on his shoulder, saying, “Kid, just between the two of us, you don’t have to read every piece of paper that says ‘Important’ at the top. None of us read all that.”
And so our friend began to glance at the first pages of long memos, to see if they said anything helpful for him to know, and found that most of them did not. Some time after that, he realized that his boss or one of his co-workers would explicitly tell him if there was a memo that said something he needed to know. The employee found his workload reduced to slightly less than fifty hours per week. He was productive and happy.
One day, a memo came. It said at the top, “Important: Please Read.” A little more than halfway through, on page twenty-seven, there was a description of a new law that had been passed, and how it required several jobs (including his own) to be done in a slightly different manner. Unfortunately, our friend’s boss was in bed with a bad stomach flu, and so she wasn’t able to tell him he needed to read the memo. So he continued doing his job as usual.
A year later, the company found itself the defendant in a forty million dollar lawsuit, and traced the negligence to the action of one single employee — our friend. He was fired, and made the central villain in the storm of bad publicity.
But he definitely was in the wrong, and deserved what was coming to him. The administration very clearly explained the liability and his responsibility, in a memo very clearly labelled “Important”. And he didn’t even read the memo. It’s his fault, right?
Every communication that is sent to a person constitutes an implicit claim of, “This concerns you and is worth your attention.” If experience tells other people that we lie again and again when we say this, then what right do we have to be believed when we really do have something important to say?
I retold the story of the boy who cried wolf as the story of the administrator who cried important, because administrators are among the worst offenders, along with lawyers, spammers, and perhaps people who pass along e-mail forwards. Among the stack of paper I was expected to sign when I moved in to my apartment was a statement that I had tested my smoke detector. The apartment staff was surprised that I wanted to test my smoke detector before signing my name to that statement. When an authority figure is surprised when a person reads a statement carefully and doesn’t want to sign a claim that all involved know to be false, it’s a bad sign.
There is communication that concerns the person it’s directed to, but says too much — for example, most of the legal contracts I’ve seen. The tiny print used to print many of those contracts constitutes an implicit acknowledment that the signer is not expected to read it: they don’t even use the additional sheets of paper necessary to print text at a size that a person who only has 20/20 vision can easily read. There is also communication that is broadcast to many people who have no interest in it. To that communication, I would propose the following rule: Do not, without exceptionally good reason, broadcast a communication that concerns only a minority of its recipients. It’s OK every now and then to announce that the blue Toyota with license place ABC 123 has its lights on. It’s not OK to have a regular announcement that broadcasts anything that is approved as having interest to some of the recipients.
My church, which I am in general very happy with, has succumbed to vice by adding a section to the worship liturgy called “Announcements”, where someone reads a list of events and such just before the end of the service, and completely dispels the moment that has been filling the sanctuary up until the announcements start. They don’t do this with other things — the offering is announced by music (usually good music) that contributes to the reverent atmosphere of the service. But when the service is drawing to a close, the worshipful atmosphere is disrupted by announcements which I at least almost never find useful. If the same list were printed on a sheet of paper, I could read it after the service, in less time, with greater comprehension, with zero disruption to the moment that every other part of the service tries so carefully to build — and I could skip over any announcements that begin “For Married Couples:” or “Attention Junior High and High Schoolers!” The only advantage I can see to the present practice, from the church leadership’s perspective, is that many people will not read the announcements at all if they have a choice about it — and maybe, just maybe, there’s a lesson in that.
As well as pointing out examples of a rampant problem in communication, where an administrator cries “Important!” over many things that are not worth reading, and then wonders why people don’t believe him when he cries “Important!” about something which isimportant, I would like to suggest an alternative for communities that have access to the internet. A web server could use a form to let people select areas of concern and interest, and announcements submitted would be categorized, optionally cleared with a moderator, and sent only to those people who are interested in them. Another desirable feature might let end receivers select how much announcement information they can receive in a day — providing a discernible incentive to the senders to minimize trivial communication. In a sense, this is what happens already — intercom litanies of announcements ignored by school students in a classroom, employees carrying memos straight from their mailboxes to the recycle bins — but in this case, administrators receive clear incentive and choice to conserve bandwidth and only send stuff that is genuinely important.
While I’m giving my Utopian dreams, I’d like to comment that at least some of this functionality is already supported by the infrastructure developed by UseNet. Probably there are refinements that can be implemented in a web interface — all announcements for one topic shown from a single web page, since they shouldn’t be nearly as long as a normal UseNet post arguing some obscure detail in an ongoing discussion. Perhaps other and better can be done — I am suggesting “Here’s something better than the status quo,” not “Here’s something so perfect that there’s no room for improvement.”
In one UseNet newsgroup, an exchange occurred that broadcasters of announcements would be well-advised to keep in mind. One person said, “I’m trying to decide whether to give the UseNet Bore of the Year Award to [name] or [name]. The winner will receive, as his prize, a copy of all of their postings, minutely inscribed, and rolled up inside a two foot poster tube.”
Someone else posted a reply asking, “Length or diameter?”
To those of you who broadcast to people whom you are able to address because of your position and not because they have chosen to receive your broadcasts, I have the following to say: In each communication you send, you are deciding the basis by which people will decide if future communications are worth paying attention to, or just unwanted noise. If your noise deafens their ears, you have no right to complain that the few truly important things you have to tell them fall on deaf ears. Only you can prevent spam!
I’m leaving this work up as a spectacular example of my barking up the wrong tree.
Some time centuries past, it was fashionable as a sort of rite of passage to create your “own art of memory,” as there were other times when it was fashionable to produce a new proof to a particular well-known theorem (the Pythagorean theorem). And this marks a spectacular effort to resurrect that dead fashion, even if I’m not sure it’s learnable enough to be useful. It also represents, to my knowledge, the first art of memory specifically optimized to work gracefully with abstractions, a point on which I have found little competition.
It also falls entirely into Barlaam’s domain, where in one defining moment for the Orthodox Church, the champion of Orthodox hesychasm St. Gregory Palamas engaged the champion of Renaissance man secular learning Barlaam, and the Orthodox Church decisively recognized that the hesychastic or silent tradition still living in the East was its norm, and the Western book learning that puts logic behind the wheel has no place in living Orthodoxy.
I am leaving this up as an example of my being wrong, and as a point of hope that someone wrong may still be brought to saving grace.
Abstract. Author briefly describes classic mnemotechnics, indicates a possible weakness in their ability to deal with abstractions, and suggests a parallel development of related principles designed to work well with abstractions.
Frances Yates opens The Art of Memory with a tale from ancient Greece:
At a banquet given by a nobleman of Thessaly named Scopas, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a lyric poem in honor of his post but including a passage in praise of Castor and Pollux. Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him half the sum agreed upon for the panegyric and that he must obtain the balance from the twin gods to whom he had devoted half the poem. A little later, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him. He rose from the banquet and went out but could find no one. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the guests beneath the ruins; the corpses were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial were unable to identify them. But Simonides remembered the places at which they had been sitting at the table and was therefore able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead.
After his spatial memory in this event, Simonides is credited with having created an art of memory: start with a building full of distinct places. If you want to remember something, imagine a striking image with a token of what you wish to remember at the place. To recall something naval, you might imagine a giant nail driven into your front door, with an anchor hanging from it; if you visualize this intensely, then when in your mind’s eye you go through your house and imagine your front door, then the anchor will come to mind and you will remember the boats. Imagining a striking image on a remembered place is called pegging: when you do this, you fasten a piece of information on a given peg, and can pick it up later. Yates uses the terms art of memory and artificial memory as essentially interchangeable with mnemotechnics, and I will follow a similar usage.
There is a little more than this to the technique, and it allows people to do things that seem staggering to someone not familiar with the phenomenon. Being able to look at a list of twenty items and recite it forwards and backwards is more than a party trick. The technique is phenomenally well-adapted to language acquisition. It is possible for a person skilled in the technique to learn to read a language in weeks. It is the foundation to some people learning an amount of folklore so that today they would be considered walking encyclopedias. This art of memory was an important part of the ancient Greek rhetorical tradition, drawn by medieval Europe into the cardinal virtue of wisdom, and then transformed into an occult art by the Renaissance. Medieval and renaissance variations put the technique to vastly different use, and understood it to signify greatly different things, but outside of Lullism and Ramism, the essential technique was the same.
In my own efforts to learn the classical form of the art of memory, I have noticed something curious. I’m better at remembering people’s names, and I no longer need to write call numbers down when I go to the library. I was able, without difficulty, to deliver an hour-long speech from memory. Learning vocabulary for foreign languages has come much more quickly; it only took me about a month to learn to read the Latin Vulgate. My weaknesses in memory are not nearly so great as they were, and I know other people have been much better at the art than I am. At the same time, I’ve found one surprise, something different from the all-around better memory I suspected the art would give me. What is it? If there is a problem, it is most likely subtle: the system has obvious benefits. To tease it out, I’d like to recall a famous passage from Plato’s Phaedrus:
Socrates: At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis was sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days Thamus was the king of the whole of Upper Egypt, which is in the district surrounding that great city which is called by the Hellenes Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he went through them, and Thamus inquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. There would be no use in repeating all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; for this is the cure of forgetfulness and folly. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, he who has the gift of invention is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance a paternal love of your own child has led you to say what is not the fact: for this invention of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters. You have found a specific, not for memory but for reminiscence, and you give your disciples only the pretence of wisdom; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome, having the reputation of knowledge without the reality.
There is clear concern that writing is not what it appears, and it will endanger or destroy the knowledge people keep in memory; a case can be made that the phenomenon of Renaissance artificial memory as an occult practice occurred because only someone involved in the occult would have occasion to keep such memory after books were so easily available.
What kind of things might one wish to have in memory? Let me quote one classic example: the argument by which Cantor proved that there are more real numbers between 0 and 1 than there are counting numbers (1, 2, 3…). I paraphrase the basic argument here:
Two sets are said to have the same number of elements if you can always pair them up, with nothing left over on either side. If one set always has something left over after the matching up, it has more elements.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there are at least as many counting numbers as real numbers between 0 and 1. Then you can make a list of the numbers between 0 and 1:
Now make another number between 0 and 1 that is different at every decimal place from the number just computed:
Now, remember that we assumed that the list has all the numbers between 0 and 1: every single one, without exception. Therefore, if this assumption is true, then the latter number we constructed must be on the list. But where?The number can’t be the first number on the list, because it was constructed to be different at the first decimal place from the first number on the list. It can’t be the second number on the list, because it was constructed to be different at the second decimal place from the second number on the list. Nor can it be the third, fourth, fifth… in fact, it can’t be anywhere on the list because it was constructed to be different. So we have one number left over. (Can we put that number on the list? Certainly, but the argument shows that the new list will leave out another number.)
The list of numbers between 0 and 1 doesn’t have all the numbers between 0 and 1.
We have a contradiction.
We started by assuming that you can make a list that contains all the numbers between 0 and 1, but there’s a contradiction: any list leaves numbers left over. Therefore, our assumption must be wrong. Therefore, there must be too many real numbers between 0 and 1 to assign a separate counting number to each of them.
Let’s say we want to commit this argument to memory. A mathematician with artificial memory might say, “That’s easy! You just imagine a chessboard with distorted mirrors along its diagonal.” That is indeed a good image if you are a mathematician who already understands the concept. If you find the argument hard to follow, it is at best a difficult thing to store via the artificial memory. Even if it can be done, storing this argument in artificial memory is probably much more trouble than learning it as a mathematician would.
Let me repeat the quotation from the Phaedrus, while changing a few words:
Jefferson: At the Greek region of Thessaly, there was a famous old poet, whose name was Simonides; totems seen with the inner eye were devoted to him, and he was the inventor of a great art, greater than arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts. Now in those days Rousseau was a sage revered throughout the West, and they called the god himself Rationis. To him came Simonides and showed his invention, desiring that the rest of the world might be allowed to have the benefit of it; he went through it, and Rousseau inquired about its several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. There would be no use in repeating all that Rousseau said to Simonides in praise or blame of various facets. But when they came to inner writing, This, said Simonides, will make the West wiser and give it better memory; for this is the cure of forgetfulness and of folly. Rousseau replied: O most ingenious Simonides, he who has the gift of invention is not always the best judge of utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance a paternal love of your own child has led you to say what is not the fact; for this invention will create forgetfulness in the learner’s souls, because they will not remember abstract things; they will trust to mere mnemonic symbols and not remember things of depth. You have found a specific, not for memory but for reminiscence, and you give your disciples only the pretence of wisdom; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome, having the reputation and outer shell of knowledge without the reality of deep thought.
It is clear that if we follow Thomas Aquinas’s instructions on memory to visualize a woman for wisdom, we may recall wisdom. What is less clear is that this inner writing particularly helps an abstract recollection of wisdom. It may be able to recall an understanding of wisdom acquired without the help of artificial memory, but this art which allows at times stunning performance in the memorization of concrete data is of more debatable merit in learning abstraction. It has been my own experience that abstractions can be forced through the gate of concreteness in artificial memory, but it is like forcing a sponge through a funnel. While I admittedly don’t have a medieval practitioner’s inner vocabulary to deal with abstractions, using the artificial memory to deal with abstractions seems awkward in much the same way that storing individual letters through artificial memory is awkward. The standard artificial memory is a tool for being reminded of abstractions, but not for remembering them. It offers the abstract thinker a seductive way to recall a great many concrete facts instead of learning deep thought.
The overall impression I receive of the artificial memory is not so much a failed attempt at a tool to store abstractions as a successful attempt at a concrete tool which was not intended to store abstractions. It is my belief that some of its principles, in modified form, suggest the beginnings of an art of memory well-fitted to dealing with abstractions. The mature form of such an endeavor will not simply be an abstract mirror image of a concrete artificial memory, but it is appropriate enough for the first steps I might hazard.
Consider the following four paragraphs:
Physics is like music. Both owe something of substance to the Pythagoreans. Both are aesthetic endeavors that in some way represent nature in highly abstracted form. Both are interested in mechanical waves. Many good physicists are closet musicians, and all musical instruments operate on physical principle.
Physics is like literature. Both are written in books that vary from moderately easy to very hard. Both deal with a distinction between action and what is acted on, be it plot and character or force and particle, and both allow complex entities to be built of simpler ones. Practitioners of both want to be thought of as insightful people who understand reality.
Physics is like an adventure. Both involve a venture into the unknown, where the protagonist tries to discover what is happening. Both have a mystique that exists despite most people’s fear to experience such things themselves. To succeed in either, one is expected to have impressive strengths.
Physics is like magic. Both flourished in the West, at the same time, out of the same desire: a desire to understand nature so as to control it. Both attract abstract thinkers, are practiced in part through the manipulation of arcane symbols, and may be found in the same person, from Newton to Feynman. Magical theory claims matter to be composed of earth, air, fire, and water, while physics finds matter to be composed of solid, liquid, gas, and plasma.
What is the merit of these comparisons? They recall a story in which a literature professor asked Feynman if he thought physics was like literature. Feynman led him on with an elaborate analogy of how physics was like literature, and then said, “But it seems to me you can make such an analogy between any two subjects, so I don’t find such analogies helpful.” He observed that one can make a reasonably compelling analogy even if there’s no philosophically substantial connection.
The laws of logic and philosophy are not the laws of memory. What is a liability to Feynman’s implicit philosophical method is a strength to memory. The philosophical merit of the above comparisons is debatable. The benefit to memory is different: it appears to me that this is an abstract analogue to pegging. A connection, real or spurious, aids the memory even if it doesn’t aid a rigorous philosophical understanding. In pegging, it is considered an advantage to visualize a ludicrously illogical scene: it is much more memorable than something routine and sensible. Early psychological experiments in memory involved memorization of nonsense syllables. The experimenters intentionally chose meaningless material to memorize. Why? Well, if the subject perceived meaning, that would provide a spurious way for the subject to remember the data, and so proper Ebbinghausian memory study meant investigating how people investigate memory material which was as meaningless as possible. Without pausing to develop an obvious critique, I’d suggest that this spurious route to memory is of great interest to us. Meaningful data is more memorable than meaningless, and this is true whether the meaning perceived is philosophically sound or obviously contrived. I might suggest that interesting meaning provides a direct abstract parallel to the striking, special-effect appearance of effective images in pegging.
I intentionally chose not to compare physics to astronomy, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, metaphysics, or statistics, because I wanted to show how a different concept can be used to establish connections to a new one. Or, more properly, different concepts. Having a new concept connected to three very different ones will capture different facets than one anchor point, and possibly cancel out some of each other’s biases. A multiplicity of perspectives lends balance and depth. This isn’t to say similar concepts can’t be used, only that searching for a partial or full isomorphism to a known concept is easier than encoding from scratch. If memorable connections can be made between physics and adventure, music, English, and magic, what might be obtained from comparison with mathematics, chemistry, and engineering? A comparison between physics and these last three disciplines is left as an exercise to the reader, and one that may be quite fruitful.
Is this a desirable way to remember things? I would make two different comments on this score. First, when learning Latin words, I would first peg it to an English word with a vivid image, then later recall the image and reconstruct the English equivalent, then recall the image and remember the English, then the image would drop out so I would directly remember the English, and finally the English word would drop out too, leaving me with a Latin usage often different from the English equivalent used. Artificial memory does not circumvent natural memory; instead it streamlines the process and short-circuits many of the disruptive trips to the dictionary. Pegs vanish with use; they are not an alternate final product but a more efficient route for concepts more frequently used, and a cache of reference material. Therefore, even if remembered comparisons between physics and adventure/music/English/magic fall short of how one would desire to understand the concept, a similar flattening of the learning curve is possible. Second, I would say that even if you fail to peg something, you may succeed. How? In trying to peg a person’s name, I hold that name and face in an intense focus—quite the opposite how I once reacted: “I’ll never remember that,” a belief which chased other people’s names out of my mind in seconds. That focus is relevant to memory, and it has happened more than once that I completely failed to create a peg, but my failure used enough mental energy that I still remembered. If you search through your memory and fail to make even forced connections between a new concept and existing concepts, the mental focus given to the concept will leave you much better off than if you had thrown up your hands and thought the self-fulfilling prophecy: “I will never remember that!”
Certain kinds of emotional intelligence are part of the discipline. Learning to cultivate presence has to do with an emotional side, and I have written elsewhere about activities that can help to cultivate such presence. We learn material better if we are interested in it; therefore consciously cultivating an interest in the material and seeing how it can be fascinating is another edge. Cultivating and guarding your inner emotional state can have substantial impact on memory and learning abstractions. Much of it has to do with keeping a state of presence. Shutting out abstractions is one obvious way to do this; another, perhaps less obvious, is to avoid cramming and simply ploughing through material unless it’s something you don’t really need to learn. Why?
If there is a sprinkler that disperses a fine mist, it will slowly moisten the ground. What if there’s a high-volume sprinkler that shoots big, heavy drops of water high up in the air? With all that water pounding on the ground, it looks like the ground is quickly saturated. The appearance is deceptive. What has happened is that the heavy drops have pounded the surface of the ground into a beaten shield, so there really is water rolling off of a very wet surface, but go an inch down and the soil is as parched as ever. This sort of thing happens in studying, when people think that the more force they use, the better the results. Up to a point, definitely, and perseverance counts—but I have found myself to learn much more when I paid attention to my mental and emotional state and backed off if I sensed that I was leaving that optimal zone. I learn something if I say “This is important, so I’ll plough through as much as I can as quickly as I can,” but it’s not as much, and keeping on task needs to be balanced with getting off task when that is helpful.
In the inns of certain Himalayan villages is practiced a most civilized and refined tea ceremony. The ceremony involves a host and exactly two guests, neither more nor less. When his guests have arrived and have seated themselves at his table, the host performs five services for them. These services are listed in order of the nobility which the Himalayan attribute to them: (1) Stoking the Fire, (2) Fanning the Flames, (3) Passing the Rice Cakes, (4) Pouring the Tea, and (5) Reciting Poetry. During the ceremony, any of those present may ask another, “Honored Sir, may I perform this onerous task for you?” However, a person may request of another only the least noble of the tasks which the other is performing. Further, if a person is performing any tasks, then he may not request a task which is nobler than the least noble task he is already performing. Custom requires that by the time the tea ceremony is over, all the tasks will have been transferred from the host to the most senior of the guests. How may this be accomplished?
Incomprehensible appearances notwithstanding, this is a very simple problem, the Towers of Hanoi. Someone who has learned the Towers of Hanoi may still solve the tea ceremony formulation as slowly as someone who’s never seen any form of the problem. A failure to recognize isomorphisms provides one of the more interesting passages in Feynman’s memoirs:
I often liked to play tricks on people when I was at MIT. One time, in a mechanical drawing class, some joker picked up a French curve (a piece of plastic for drawing smooth curves—a curly, funny-looking thing) and said, “I wonder if the curves on this thing have some special formula?”
I thought for a moment and said, “Sure they do. The curves are very special curves. Lemme show ya,” and I picked up my French curve and began to turn it slowly. “The French curve is made so that at the lowest point on each curve, no matter how you turn it, the tangent is horizontal.”
All the guys in the class were holding their French curve up at different angles, holding their pencil up to it at the lowest point and laying it along, and discovering that, sure enough, the tangent is horizontal. They were all excited by this “discovery”—even though they had already gone through a certain amount of calculus and had already “learned” that the derivative (tangent) of the minimum (lowest point) of any curve is zero (horizontal). They didn’t put two and two together. They didn’t even know what they “knew.”
What is going on here is that Feynman perceives an isomorphism where the others do not. There may be a natural bent to or away from perceiving isomorphisms, and cognitive science suggests most people have a bent away. The finding, as best I can tell, is not so much that people can’t look for isomorphisms, as that they don’t. The practice of looking for and finding isomorphisms has something to give, because something can be treated as already known instead of learned from scratch. I might wonder in passing if the ultra-high-IQ rapid learning and interdisciplinary proclivities stem in part from the perception and application of isomorphisms, which may reduce the amount of material actually learned in picking up a new skill.
The classical art of memory derives strength from a mind that works visually; a background in abstract thought will help one learn abstractions. It has been thought that people can more effectively encode and remember material in a given domain if it’s one they have worked with; I would suggest that this abstract pegging also creates a way to encode material with background from other domains. An elaborate, intense, and distinct encoding is believed to help recall. Heightening of memorable features, in what is striking or humorous, should help, and mimetics seems likely to contain jewels in its accounts of how a meme makes itself striking.
Someone familiar with artificial memory may ask, “What about places (loci)?” Part of the art of memory, be it ancient, medieval, or renaissance, involved having an inner building of sorts that one could imagine going through in order and recalling items. I have two basic comments here. First, a connection could use traditional artificial memory techniques as an index: imagine a muscular man with a tremendous physique running onto the scene, grabbing an adventurer’s sword, shield, and pack, sitting down at a pipe organ which has a large illuminated manuscript on top, and clumsily playing music until a giant gold ring engraved with fiery letters falls on the scene and turns it to dust. You have pegged physics to adventure, music, literature, and magic; if you wanted to reconstruct an understanding of physics, you could see what it was pegged to, and then try to recall the given similarities. Second and more deeply, I believe that a person’s entire edifice of previously acquired concepts may serve as an immense memory palace. It is not spatial in the traditional sense, and I am not here concerned with the senses in which it might be considered a topological space, but it is a deeply qualitative place, and accessible if one uses traditional artificial memory for an index: these adaptations are intended to expand the repertoire of what disciplined artificial memory can do, not abolish the traditional discipline.
Symbols are the last unexplored facet. Earlier I suggested that a chessboard with mirrors along its diagonal may be a good token to represent Cantor’s diagonal argument, but does not bring memory of the whole proof. Now I would like to give the other side: an abstraction may not be fully captured by a symbol, but a good symbol helps. A sign/symbol distinction has been made, where a sign represents while a symbol represents and embodies. In this sense I suggest that tokens be as symbolic as possible.
Why use a token? Aren’t the deepest thoughts beyond words? Yes, but recall depends on being able to encode. I have found my deepest thoughts to not be worded and often difficult to translate to words, but I have also found that I lose them if I cannot put them in words. As such, thinking and choosing a good, mentally manipulable symbol for an abstraction is both difficult and desirable. My own discipline of formation, mathematics, chooses names for variables like ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’ which software engineers are taught not to use because they impede comprehension: a computer program with variable names like ‘x’ and ‘y’ is harder to understand or even write to completion than one which with names like ‘trucks_remaining’ or ‘customers_last_name’. The authors of Design Patterns comment that naming a pattern is one of the hardest parts of writing it down. The art of creating a manipulable symbol for an abstraction is hard, but worth the trouble. This, too, may also help you to probe an abstraction in a way that will aid recall.
To test these principles, I decided to spend a week seeing what I could learn of a physics text and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I considered myself to have understood a portion of the physics text after being able to solve the last of the list of questions. I had originally decided to see how quickly I could absorb material. After working through 10% of the physics text in one day, I decided to shift emphasis and pursue depth more than speed. In reading Kant, the tendency to barely grasp a difficult concept forgotten in grasping the next difficult concept gave way, with artificial memory, to understanding the concepts better and grasping them in a way that had a more permanent effect. I read through page 108 of 607 in the physics text and 144 of 669 in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.
The first day’s physics ventures saw two interesting ways of storing concepts, and one comment worth mentioning. There is a classic skit, in which two rescuers are performing two-person CPR on a patient. Then one of the rescuers says, “I’m getting tired. Let’s switch,” and the patient gets up, the tired rescuer lies down, and the other two perform CPR on him. This was used to store the interchangeability of point of effort, point of resistance, and fulcrum on a lever, based on an isomorphism to the skit’s humor element.
The rule given later, that along any axis the sum of forces for a body in equilibrium is always zero, was symbolized by an image of a knife cutting a circle through the center: no matter what angle of cutting there was, the cut leaves two equal halves.
These both involved images, but the images differed from pegging images as a schematic diagram differs from a computer animated advertisement. They seemed a combination of an isomorphism and a symbol, and in both cases the power stemmed not only from the resultant image but the process of creation. The images functioned in a sense related to pegging, but most of the images so far developed have been abstract images unlike anything I’ve read about in historical or how-to discussion of the art of memory.
The following was logged that night. The problem referred to is a somewhat complex lever problem given in three parts:
In reviewing the day’s thoughts at night, I recognized that the problems seem to admit a shortcut solution that does not rigorously apply the principles but obtains the correct answer: problem 12 on page 31 gives two weights and other information, and all three subproblems can be answered by assuming that there are two parts in the same ratio [as] the weights, and applying a little horse sense as to which goes where. It’s a bit like general relativity, which condenses to “Everything changes by a factor of the square root of (1 – (v^2/c^2)).” I am not sure whether this is a property of physics itself or a socially emergent property of problems used in physics texts.
I believe this suggests that I was interacting with the material deeply and quite probably in a fashion not anticipated by the authors.
In reading Kant, I can’t as easily say “I solved the last exercises in each section” and don’t simply want to just say, “I read these pages.” I would like to demonstrate interaction with the material with excerpts from my log:
…I am now in the introduction to the second edition, and there are two images in reference to Kant’s treatment of subjective and objective. One is of a disc which has been cut in half, sliced again along a perpendicular axis and brought together along the first axis so that the direction of the cut has been changed. The other is of a sphere being turned out by [topologically] compactifying R3 [Euclidean three-space] by the addition of a single point, and then shifting so the vast outside has become the cramped inside and the cramped inside has become the vast outside. Both images are inadequate to the text, indicating at best what sort of thing may be thought about in what sort of shift Kant tries to introduce, and I want to reread the last couple of pages. Closer to the mark is a story about three umpires who say, in turn, “I calls them as they are,” “I calls them as I see them,” and “They may be strikes, they may be balls, but they ain’t nothing until I calls them!”
Having reread, I believe that the topological example is truer than I realized. I made it on almost superficial grounds, after reading a footnote which gave as example scientific progress after Copernicus proposed, rather than that the observer be fixed and the heavens rotate, the heavens are fixed and the observer rotate. The deeper significance is this: prior accounts had apparently not given sufficient account to subjective factors, treating subjective differences as practically unimportant—what mattered for investigation was the things in themselves. Thus the subjective was the unexamined inside of the sphere. Then, after the transformation, the objective was the unexaminable inside of the new sphere: we may investigate what is now outside, our subjective states and the appearances conformed to them, but things in themselves are more sealed than our filters before: before, we didn’t look; after, we can’t look. What is stated [in Kant] so far is a gross overextension of a profound observation.
The below passages refer to pp. 68-70:
Kant’s arguments that space is an a priori concept can be framed as showing that there exists a chicken-and-egg or bootstrapping gap between them and sense data.
What is a chicken-and-egg/bootstrapping gap? In assisting with English as a Second Language instruction, I was faced with a difficulty in explanation. Assuming certain background, it is possible for a person not to know something while there is a straightforward way of explaining—perhaps a very long way of explaining, but it’s obvious enough how to explain it in terms of communicable concepts. Then there is the case where there is no direct way to explain something: one example is how to explain to a small child what air is. One can point to water, wood, metal, stone, food, and a great many other things, but the same procedure may not yield understanding of air. It may be possible with a Zen-like cleverness to circumvent it—in saying, for example, that air is what presses on your skin on a windy day—but it is not as straightforward as even an involved and difficult explanation where you know how to use the other person’s concepts to build the one you want.
In English as a Second Language instruction, this kind of gap is a significant phenomenon in dealing with students who have no beginning English knowledge, and in dealing with concepts that cannot obviously be demonstrated: ‘sister’ and ‘woman’, when both terms refer to an adult, differ in a way that is almost certainly understood in the student’s native tongue but is nonetheless extremely difficult to explain. When I first made the musing, I envisioned a Zen-like solution. Koans immortalize incidents in which Zen masters bypassed chicken-and-egg gaps in trying to convey enlightenment that cannot be straightforwardly explained, and therefore show a powerful kind of communication. That is what I envisioned, but it is not how English is taught to speakers of other languages. What happens in ESL classes, and with younger children, is a gradual emergence that is difficult to account for in the terms of analytic philosophy—a straightforward explanation sounds like hand-waving and sloppy thinking—but with enough repetition, material is picked up. It may have something to do with a mechanism of learning outlined in Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge, which talks about how i.e. swimmers learn from coaches to inhale more air and exhale less completely so that their lungs act more as a flotation device than a non-swimmers, even though neither swimmer nor coach is likely aware of what is going on on any conscious level. People pick things up through at least one route besides grasping a concept consciously synthesized from sense data.
Kant’s proof that a given concept is a priori essentially consists of argument that the concept that cannot be synthesized from sense data through the obvious means of central route processing. He is probably right in that the concepts he classifies as a priori, and presumably others as well, cannot just be synthesized from sense data through central route processing. It does not follow that a concept must be a priori: there are other possibilities besides the route Kant investigates that one can acquire a belief. I do believe, though, that we come with some kind of innate or a priori knowledge: the difficulties experienced in visualizing four dimensional objects suggest that our dealing with three-dimensional space is not simply the result of a completely amorphous central nervous system which we happen to condition to deal with three dimensions; there is something of substance, comparable in character to a psychologist’s broader understanding of memory, that we are born to. An investigation of that would take me too far afield.
P. 87. “Now a thing in itself cannot be known throu[g]h mere relations; and we may therefore conclude that since outer science gives us nothing but mere relations, this sense can contain in its representation only the relation of an object to the subject, and not the inner properties of the object in itself.”
There is a near-compatibility between this and realist philosophy of science. How?
Recall my observation about chicken-and-egg gaps and how they may be surmounted (here I think of Zenlike short-circuiting of the gap rather than the vaguely indicated gradual emergence of concepts which haven’t been subject to a detailed and understood explanation). What goes on in a physics experiment? The truly famous ones since 1900—I think of the Millikin oil-drop experiment—include a very clever hack that tricks nature into revealing herself. People, not even experimental physicists, can grab a handful of household items and prove that electric charge is quantized. Perhaps that was possible in Galileo’s day, but a groundbreaking experiment involves a brilliant, clever, unexpected trickery of nature that is isomorphic to a Zen short-circuiting in a chicken-and-egg gap, or a clever hack, and so on and so forth. Even a routine classroom experiment uses technology that is the fruit of this kind of resourcefulness. People do something they “shouldn’t” be able to do. This is possibly how we might learn intuitions Kant classifies as a priori, and how experimental scientists cleverly circumvent the roadblock Kant describes here. It might be said that understanding this basic problem is prerequisite to a good realist philosophy of science.
‘Hack’, in this context, refers to the programming cleverness described in Programming Pearls. I analyzed that fundamental mode of problem solving and compared it with its counterpart in “Of Technology, Magic, and Channels”. There are other observations and interactions with the text, but I believe these should adequately make the point.
I chose Kant because of his reputation as an impenetrable analytic philosopher. With the aid of a good translation and these principles, I was at times surprised at how easy it was to read. By the end of the week, I had another surprise when I decided to reread George MacDonald’s Phantastes, a work which I have greatly enjoyed. This time, my experience was different. I felt my mind working differently despite a high degree of mental fatigue. The evocative metaphor fell dead, and I found myself reading the text as I would read Kant, thinking in a manner deeply influenced by reading Kant, and in the end setting it down because my mind had shifted deeply into a mode quite different from what allows me to enjoy Phantastes. I was surprised at how deeply using abstract memory to read Kant had affected not only conscious recall of ideas but also ways of thought itself.
I do not consider my recorded observations to be in any sense a rigorous experiment, but I believe the experience suggests it’s interesting enough to be worth a good experiment.
Here are twelve proposed principles, or rules of thumb, of abstract memory:
Be wholly present. Want to know the material. Make it emotionally relevant and connected to something that concerns you. Don’t take notes.
Encode material in multiple ways. Some different ways to encode are: analogies to different abstractions, list distinctions from similar abstractions, paraphrase, search for isomorphisms, use the concepts, and create visual symbols.
At least in the beginning, mix a little bit of reading material with a lot of processing. Don’t plough through anything you want to remember. Work on drawing a lot of mist in, not pounding with heavy drops that will create a beaten shield.
Don’t read out of a desire to finish reading a text. Read to draw the materials through processed thought.
Process in a way that is striking, stunning, novel, and counter-intuitive: in a word, memorable.
Process material on as deep a level as you can.
Search for subtle distinctions between a concept under study and its near neighbors.
Converse, interact with, and respond to the abstractions. What would you say if an acquaintance said that in a discussion? What questions would you ask? Write it down.
Know how much mental energy you have, and choose battles wisely. Given a limited amount of energy, it is better to fully remember a smaller number of critical abstractions than to have diffuse knowledge of many random ideas.
Guard your emotions. Be aware of what emotional states you learn well in, and put being in those states before passing your eyes over such-and-such many pages of reading material.
Review material after study, seeking to find a different way of putting it.
Metacogitate. Be your own coach.
Committing these principles to memory is left as an exercise to the reader.
What can I say to conclude this monograph? I can think of one or two brief addenda, such as the programmer’s virtue of laziness, but in a very real sense I can’t conclude now. I can sketch out a couple of critiques that may be of interest. Jerry Mander critiques the artificial unusuality of television and especially advertising, in a way that has direct bearing on traditional mnemotechnics. He suggests that giving otherwise uninteresting sensation a strained and artificial unusuality has undesirable impact on how people perceive life as seen outside of TV, and the angle of his critique is the main reason why I was hesitant to learn artificial memory. There may be room for similar critiques about why making ridiculous comparisons to remember ideas creates a bad habit for someone who wishes to think rigorously. There is also the cognitive critique that the search for isomorphisms will introduce unnoted distortion. One thinks of the person who says, “All the religions in the world say the same thing.” There is a common and problematic tendency to be astute in perceiving substantial similarities among world religions and all but blind in perceiving even more substantial differences. That is why I suggest comparing with multiple and different familiar concepts, rather than one. I could give other thoughts about critiques, but I’m trying to explain an art of memory, not especially to defend it.My intention here is not to settle all questions, but open the biggest one and suggest a direction of inquiry by which an emerging investigation may find a more powerful way to learn abstractions.
Yates, Frances A., The Art of Memory, hereafter AM, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966, pp. 1-2. The text is a treasure trove on the development of mnemotechnics, also referred to here as artificial memory or the art of memory. Back
Trudeau, Kevin, Kevin Trudeau’s Mega Memory, hereafter KTMM, New York: William Morrow & Co., 1995 is one of several practical manuals for someone who thinks the classical art of memory interesting and would like to be able to use it. Back
Jowett, B., The Dialogues of Plato, Vol. III, hereafter DP, New York: National Library Company, pp. 442-443. Back
AM, pp. 112ff describes one popularizer whose somewhat debased form advocated memorizing individual letters. This practice is awkward, much as it would be awkward to record the appearance of a room by taking a notepad and writing one letter on each sheet of paper. Back
Feynman, Richard, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, hereafter SYJMF, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1985, pp. 338ff and other places in the text. He began his famous “Cargo Cult Science” address by talking about his occult diversions from scientific endeavors, and it is arguable that Newton’s groundbreaking work in physics and optics was a scientific diversion from his main occult endeavors. I find it revealing that, even with Feynman’s occult forays left in the book, the index shows curious lacunae for “ESP”, “Hallicunation”, “New Age”, “Reflexology”, “Sensory deprivation”, etc. Back
100 Ways of Kything, hereafter 1WK, by CJS Hayward, at CJSH.name/kything describes a number of activities which can embody presence and focus. Back
Hayes, J.R., and Simon, H.A., “Understanding Written Problem Instructions”, 1974, in Gregg, L.W. ed., Knowledge and Cognition, hereafter KC, Hillsdale: Erlbaum. Quoted in Posner, Michael I. ed., Foundations of Cognitive Science, hereafterFCS, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1989, pp. 534-535. Back
“A Picture of Evil”, hereafter APE, by CJS Hayward, at CJSH.name/evil/ provides an example of communication which is striking in this manner. Back
Gamma, Erich; Helm, Richard; Johnson, Ralph; Vlissides, John, Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, hereafter DP, Reading: Addison-Wesley, p. 3. The book describes recurring good practices that are known to many expert practitioners, but often only on a tacit level—and tries to explain how this tacit knowledge can be made explicit. The book is commonly called ‘GoF’ (“Gang of Four”) by software developers. Thanks to Ron Miles for locating the page number. Back
February 9-15 2002. Testing abstract artificial and honing this article were juggled with other responsibilities. Back
Black, Newton Henry; Davis, Harvey Nathaniel, New Practical Physics: Fundamental Principles and Applications to Daily Life, hereafter NPP, New York: Macmillan, 1929. Given to me as a whimsical Christmas gift in 2001. At the time of beginning, I was significantly out of practice in both physics and mathematics. Back
Smith, Norman Kemp tr., Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, hereafter IKCPR, London: Macmillan, 1929. I had not previously read Kant. Back
I knew that science doesn’t deal in proof; experiments may corroborate a theory, but not establish it as something to never again doubt. I was thinking at that point along another dimension, to convey a quality of physics experiments today. Back
Bentley, Jon Louis, Programming Pearls, hereafter PP, Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1986. Back
Hayward, Jonathan, “Of Technology, Magic, and Channels”, in Gift of Fire, June 2001, number 126. Back
MacDonald, George, Phantastes, hereafter P, reprinted Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999. Back
Despite widespread endorsement of this practice, taking notes taxes limited mental energy that can better be used to understand the material, and acts to the mind as a signal of, “This can safely be forgotten.” KTMM, very early on, makes a point of telling readers not to take notes (p. 5). The purpose of attending a lecture or reading a book is to make internal comprehension rather than external reference materials. Back
Tulving, Endel; Craik, Fergus I.M., The Oxford Handbook of Memory, hereafter OHM, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, refers on p. 98 to the picture superiority effect, which states that pictures are better remembered because of a dual coding where they are encoded as image and words and therefore have two chances at being stored rather than the one chance when material is presented only as words. Back
OHM mentions on p. 94 the “levels of processing” view, a significant perspective which states that material is retained better the more deeply it is processed. Back
Wall, Larry; Christiansen, Tom; Schwartz, Randal L., Programming Perl, Second Edition, hereafter PP2, Sebastopol: O’Reilly, pp. 217ff and other places throughout the book. Known by the affectionate nickname of “the camel book” among software developers. (This book is distinct from PP). Back
Mander, Jerry, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, hereafter FAET, New York: Morrow Quill, 1978, pp. 299ff. Back
I would like to thank Robin Munn for giving me my first serious introduction to the art of memory, Linda Washington and Martin Harris for looking at my manuscript, William Struthers for valuable comments about source material, and Chris Tessone, Angela Zielinski, Kent and Theo Nebergall, and people from Wheaton College and International Christian Mensa for prayer. I would also like to thank those who read this article, apply it, perhaps extend it, and perhaps tell others about them. Back