Conscience and Truth

Following up from the previous post on the debate between population and environment, on the grounds of women’s and reproductive rights, here comes the response of theoretical and fundamental issues. Just to enumerate some of the arguments and ideas that Goldman invoked to justify abortion and contraception:

  • Reproductive rights are about the freedom of women to decide.
  • The invocation of personal conscience to secure this freedom and of personal conviction as a source of legitimacy.
  • The right to abortion and contraception is invoked in terms of progressive vs. traditional: “All over the planet, conflicts between tradition and modernity are being fought on the terrain of women’s bodies.”
  • Those on the traditional side, including the Vatican and by extension the Pope, are labeled ‘fundamentalists’.

I think Pope Benedict, one of the so called ‘fundamentalists’ here would first of all respond that fundamentalism is indeed a problem, as I posted on another page. In his work as Cardinal called ‘Truth and Tolerance’ the Pope furthermore talks of the danger “of the pathologies of religion which are extremely dangerous and need reason as a “controlling organ”, but also of the pathologies of reason which are “an even greater threat – it suffices here to think of the atomic bomb or of man as a ‘product.’ This is why reason, too, must be warned to keep within its proper limits, and it must learn a willingness to listen to the great religious traditions of mankind”(p. 77). The Pope is willing to recognize the dangers of religion unaided by reason which lead to fundamentalism, but Goldman’s claim that basically all religious expressions that are somewhat conservative are fundamentalist because they disagree with her own ‘progressive’ agenda ring of the pathology of reason. More importantly, many answers to Goldman’s mistaken ideas are found in Cardinal’s work Conscience and Truth, which can be fully here. Below the highlights:

  • The concept of truth has been virtually given up and replaced by the concept of progress. Progress itself “is” truth. But through this seeming exaltation, progress loses its direction and becomes nullified. For if no direction exists, everything can just as well be regress as progress.
  • Conscience appears here as the bulwark of freedom in contrast to the encroachments of authority on existence… Conscience would retain, however, the final word. Some authors reduce conscience in this its aspect of final arbiter to the formula: conscience is infallible.
  • …whether the judgment of conscience or what one takes to be such, is always right, indeed whether it is infallible, is another question. For if this were the case, it would mean that there is no truth—at least not in moral and religious matters, which is to say, in the areas which constitute the very pillars of our existence. For judgments of conscience can contradict each other. Thus there could be at best the subject’s own truth, which would be reduced to the subject’s sincerity.
  • Liberalism’s idea of conscience… is the faculty which dispenses from truth. It thereby becomes the justification for subjectivity, which should not like to have itself called into question. Similarly, it becomes the justification for social conformity. As mediating value between the different subjectivities, social conformity is intended to make living together possible. The obligation to seek the truth ceases, as do any doubts about the general inclination of society and what it has become accustomed to. Being convinced of oneself, as well as conforming to others, are sufficient. Man is reduced to his superficial conviction and the less depth he has, the better for him.
  • the identification of conscience with superficial consciousness, the reduction of man to his subjectivity, does not liberate but enslaves… Whoever equates conscience with superficial conviction, identifies conscience with a pseudo-rational certainty, a certainty which in fact has been woven from self- righteousness, conformity and lethargy. Conscience is degraded to a mechanism for rationalization
  • Continue reading


Environment vs. population

Update: Part 2 of the response to this post is in the following page.

Grist magazine is a well known source of environmental news and commentary. Here is an article which serves as a perfect example of the unhealthy conflation of issues and reasons why so many people dislike, discredit and even oppose environmentalists. In this article Michelle Goldberg author of a 2009 book The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World, talks about environmentalism through the lens of  ‘women’s rights’ and reproductive rights. IN her book (I need to admit I haven’t read the whole book or am an expert, but this suffices as you will see) she says “All over the planet, conflicts between tradition and modernity are being fought on the terrain of women’s bodies.” and “[T]he conflation of women’s rights with globalization or Westernization, and the concomitant desire to limit them in the name of national or cultural integrity, is nearly universal. … women’s rights are perhaps the most visible sign of modernity and thus an obvious bête noire for flourishing fundamentalist movements.”

In the video she talks about the genesis of the spread of world contraception, describes the utilitarian mindset that spread these measures and the numerous cases of UN and international court rulings that hold the ‘right to reproduction’ over and above the right to life (not surprising outcomes considering the UN wholeheartedly supports contraception and abortion). The Grist article positions these issues even more antagonistically and conflictingly:

The culture war raging in the U.S. over abortion and reproductive rights isn’t confined within our country’s borders — it’s gone global. American Christian conservatives have teamed up with Islamic fundamentalists, the Vatican, and other religious traditionalists around the world to fight efforts to bring contraception, abortion rights, and basic equality to women everywhere…. Her emphasis is on women’s well-being rather than the health of the environment, with the understanding that the two are inextricably tied up together.

And here’s Goldberg being quoted from the video, which you can see below :

[W]omen’s rights and particularly reproductive rights are really at the heart of development, they’re at the heart of the answer to almost every pressing problem that we’re facing, whether it be environmental devastation or the persistence of global poverty or the AIDS pandemic. You can’t begin to address any of these problems until you address the oppression of women. [S]o fundamentalists all over the world, whether we’re talking about here or in Afghanistan or in India or in Africa or in South America, in their hatred of the modern world, in their desperate desire to restore some kind of lost paradise that probably never existed …, they see the key to that as restoring women to what they see as their proper place.

So the Catholic Church is lumped together with conservative politicians and other religions and called fundamentalism. I actually think these are important issues over the rights and values we hold and an intelligent conversation can be had, but these unintelligent remarks don’t help the conversation and certainly not the environmental movement. To pick one example, the invocation of the declaration of human rights and the inclusion of reproductive rights imply a contradiction unless there is a hierarchy. Article 3 states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” To just throw a claim in that reproductive rights should be included without discussing the implications is unintelligent. Anyway, there is much to talk about here. I am opposed to Grist’s ideas, via Goldberg, for factual reasons and also moral and theoretical reasons. The latter will come in the next post, for now the substantive argument.

In a recent post Roger Pielke Jr. talked about ‘post-normal’ science where the WHO (UN World Health Organization) claims 60,000 people died due to climate change. He says they are wrong and has continually showed why and how. Read the post here. In another post Roger outlines how population is invoked as the cause of climate change and hence contraception should be promoted. Finally, I think what is really underlying the discussion here is not really the invocation of environmental rights, the good and bad of abortion or contraception for the environment etc. but it is fundamentally about values. As this post suggests it is not about science but about values, as in Goldman’s case where she invokes history and ‘justice’, it is about the values we hold. The next post moves in that direction.


Biodiversity ‘weak’ deal

The saga of the UN Biodiversity talks in Nagoya has ended, and as to be expected, the agreement was considered a failure. Why is it a failure?

The meeting settled on targets of protecting 17% of the world’s land surface, and 10% of the oceans, by 2020.These are regarded as too small by many conservation scientists, who point out that about 13% of the land is already protected – while the existing target for oceans is already 10%.

A more detailed account can be seen from a journalist who saw the Nagoya meeting up close, James Fahn. Here is his message from a NYT post.

Science leads to truth about God and humanity

An excellent article by CNA gives a review of the Pope’s address to the Pontifical Academy for Science in audience at the Vatican. The group is gathered in Rome for the academy’s plenary meeting examining “The Scientific Legacy of the Twentieth Century.” Here a summary from the CNA article:

The task of science, rather, “was and remains a patient yet passionate search for the truth about the cosmos, about nature and about the constitution of the human being,” said the Pope.

The Church, he added, supports ongoing scientific research and is grateful for scientific endeavor.

The Church “is convinced that scientific activity ultimately benefits from the recognition of man’s spiritual dimension and his quest for ultimate answers that allow for the acknowledgment of a world existing independently from us, which we do not fully understand and which we can only comprehend in so far as we grasp its inherent logic,” he said.

As scientists commit their experience to observing a world they did not create and attempt to imitate it, said the Pope, they are led to “admit the existence of an all-powerful reason, which is other than that of man, and which sustains the world.”

UN Biodiversity deals headed for failure

As mentioned in the previous post, the UN Conference on Biodiversity looks more and more like Copenhagen that dealt with climate change. Once again it seems like the system and approach, a broad-based international political agreement, cannot respond to the needs and interests of participating members. In part, precisely because participating members come from such disparate places. The developed/developing countries divide seems to be once again a stumbling block.

What the BBC calls here the “chair’s text” seems very close to the empty protocol that was drafted in Copenhagen. That is my guess for the conclusion of this conference – an empty document, which will be announced as some accomplishment but will get nothing done.

“Grasp the real questions” – Part II

As promised in part I, it was important to “grasp the real questions” and learn about the classics, about philosophy and theology. Boethius was an early middle age philosopher, and also a saint, who was able to wonderfully synthesize philosophy and theology. His “Consolation of Philosophy” is a must read, as he has Lady Philosophy organize and explain all of reality. Below is a compelling section of Book III where he discusses the nature of happiness.

What has any of this to do with the environment? Boethius also has Philosophy put nature in its place, that is a part of Creation, which is good, but must not be understood as the highest Agent of the highest good. From the Stoics through the Latins like Lucretius and Cicero there was a strong Naturalistic tendency in Western thought. Augustine, using Plato, rescues the centrality of God and resist this naturalism, while Boethius nails naturalism’s coffin and puts ‘nature in its place’. Another one that got nailed by Boethius was Fortune, represented by a wheel, full of ups and downs (that’s where we get our modern ‘wheel of fortune from’). A life lived according to nature and fortune is an unhappy life, subject to the same inconsistency as nature and fortune itself.

Here an extract of the text on happiness (the whole book is available online here):

Continue reading

Paul is dead!

Paul, the Octopus, that is. Remember Paul, during World Cup, and how a crustacean was taking a leading role in divining the future, getting the masses riled up, even generating death threats. Well, Paul is gone. He passed away and the football community mourns. Nature seems to have stepped its bounds, but now it has caught up to the psychic Octopus. Here’s from a soccer website:

“Said to have been born in January 2008 in Weymouth, England, the octopus predicted the correct result of all but two of Germany’s games during Euro 2008, failing to predict the defeats to Croatia and Spain.At this summer’s World Cup, he maintained a 100% record, getting all Germany’s results right before opting for Spain to beat Netherlands in the final.The octopus would select teams by choosing a food item from one of two boxes emblazoned with the respective countries’ flags. He was given a replica World Cup trophy, garnished with three mussels, for his efforts during the tournament in South Africa.”

Now I wonder what will happen to Dirty Harry, the psychic crocodile, who isn’t that good at being psychic. I think crocs live longer…

Cruel Mistress?

Today a tsunami hit Indonesia once again, and so far over 100 people are reported dead and 500 missing. I probably know some of those people. I spent almost 2 months in Indonesia 10 years ago, most of the time in Sumatra. Some of that time I spent in Aceh which was devastated by the tsunami in 2004 which killed over 200 000 people around the Indian Ocean. The village I spent time in, Lampuu’k, was completely destroyed. But my surfing adventures were taking place most of the time fruther south, near the Mentawaii Islands, which are the one’s hit by this tsunami.

Ironically, one of the most incredible features of Sumatra, why I went there along with others was the beauty of nature, the incredible pristine beauty of these untouched atolls and islands. But now this – the powerful destructive face of nature, which uproots, destroys both the natural beauty and the wonderful people who lived there… and once housed me. Using a term my professor Ben Hale coined (I believe), we see the Cruel Mistress face of nature, what is theologically called natural evil (as opposed to moral evil). Nature, is not all beauty, harmony and goodness… it is also harsh, destructive and perhaps… cruel.

“Grasp the real questions” – Part I

“it is important to move beyond the changing questions of the moment in order to grasp the real questions, and so to understand how the answers are real answers… it is completely mistaken to start questioning their practical value by asking: Will this be helpful to me in the future? Will it be practically or pastorally useful? The point is not simply to learn evidently useful things, but to understand and appreciate the internal structure of the faith as a whole, so that it can become a response to people’s questions, which on the surface change from one generation to another yet ultimately remain the same.”

These are some of the words of Pope Benedict XVI in his special Address to the Seminarians at the end of the Year of Priests. The content though, is powerful and useful to any person interested in grasping “the real questions”. This important address also fits in well with the previous post on the importance of the ‘signs of the times’ and responding to culture. We need both, to be in tune with the issues that are important to our times, while grounded in the issues that are eternal. A deep grounding in theology and philosophy was recommended by the Pope, and this will be the subject of the next post when we look at Boethius. For now, some of the highlights, though the full speech is recommended.

  • people will always have need of God, even in an age marked by technical mastery of the world and globalization. . Where people no longer perceive God, life grows empty; nothing is ever enough. People then seek escape in euphoria and violence; these are the very things that increasingly threaten young people. God is alive.
  • For us God is not some abstract hypothesis; he is not some stranger who left the scene after the “big bang”. God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. In the face of Jesus Christ we see the face of God. In his words we hear God himself speaking to us.
  • love the study of theology and carry it out in the clear realization that theology is anchored in the living community of the Church, which, with her authority, is not the antithesis of theological science but its presupposition. Cut off from the believing Church, theology would cease to be itself and instead it would become a medley of different disciplines lacking inner unity.
  • The Movements are a magnificent thing. You know how much I esteem them and love them as a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. Yet they must be evaluated by their openness to what is truly Catholic, to the life of the whole Church of Christ, which for all her variety still remains one

Synod in 2011

So here’s the announcement of the next Synod on the New Evangelization. I am willing to bet anyone that the environment will be a prominent, though not the most important, issue in the Synod. As the New Evangelization responds to the ‘signs of the times’ with “new methods, new ardor and new expressions” the environment is bound to make an appearance. Good news for us…