Americans’ Failure to Grow Up

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Greuze, Jean-Baptiste - The Spoiled Child - lo...

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A seventy-year-old man spouts off moral relativism like a college sophomore. A forty-year-old woman throws a temper tantrum at a store. Young people demand pay and benefits but are unwilling to do the job for which they were hired. Marriages break up under the strains of self-centeredness of one or both partners, a self-centeredness that is so extreme that it rivals that of a six-year-old. Teenagers demand, and permissive parents allow, them near total freedom to engage in destructive behavior such as alcohol and drug abuse as well as sexual promiscuity.

Since the end of World War II, the United States has produced multiple generations of spoiled, lazy children who grow up to become spoiled, lazy adults. One reason that it is unlikely that federal spending will not be controlled is adults’ lust for government handouts and benefits. The baby boomers and their successors are so self-centered that they do not care what happens to their children or grandchildren. All that matters is “me, me, me, now, now, now.” Is it any surprise when these selfish people reach old age that their children, reared in the image of their parents, cart their parents off to a nursing home and have little to do with them? Is it a surprise when schools cannot discipline unruly children because their parents threaten to sue the school if such discipline takes place? Even though there remain millions of people in the United States who have not bowed down their knees to the Ba’al of self-centeredness, enough people are self-centered that the country has been severely damaged, perhaps irreparably, by their irresponsiblity. The steel and auto industries, caring only about profits in the present, did not spend money to upgrade their facilities, and either went under or outsourced much of their work forces to other countries.

Probably the worst product of self-centeredness is moral relativism, a denial of any objective moral values above the individual self, or in the case of a less radical relativism, above the level of the culture. Moral relativism poisons a society, making it unable to make basic moral distinctions once taken for granted. A woman gets pregnant and murders her child through abortion–she wants the joy of sex (as does the man) without the responsibility. A man desires to have sex with a man; instead of making the effort to refocus his sexual desires on women, he fulfills his immediate desire and claims that it is normal and morally right. A couple want to spice up their sex lives and get involved in swinging, “threesomes,” and orgies. A Wall Street banker justifies misusing others money by his view that morality should suit him, not others. Egoism is the brother of relativism, especially subjectivism, for people who locate moral standards only in the individual self will only be concerned for their supposed self interest. I have seen how the poison of subjective moral relativism has reduced some students to blithering idiots in any discussion of morality–“well, this is just my opinion;” “there’s no real right or wrong answer here,” “morality depends on what you think it is, but somebody else might think something different, and that’s okay, too.” Such ignorance should be called out for what it is: spoiled children wanting to be promiscuous or get drunk or do other unethical activities without anyone “judging” them for their behavior. The problem with the United States is not only economic; it is moral and spiritual. Unless the main problems can be solved the economy will, in the long run, fail. Community will fail if people only follow their individual standards and seek only their own self-interest. The end state of the current course of American’s spoiled adults will be anarchy, Hobbes‘ state of nature, in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” A dictator may restore order, but without any transcendent vision above the will to power this will only be a short-term “solution” to the problem of people who believe themselves to be atomistic individuals. Once John Locke’s vision of government was secularized, the inevitable logic of his atomistic view of people led to mass relativism, mass egoism, and extended childhood. There is always hope that people will see the emptiness of a life based only on a child-like self-assertion and that people will return to a mature view in which they are responsible for themselves and for other people dependent on them,  and in which they base their values on something that transcends their own selfish desires. If that does not happen, then God help the United States of America.

Does Thomism Really Avoid the Lockean Epistemological Gap between Idea and Thing?

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Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller...

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John Locke thought of himself as a realist (not in the Medieval sense of accepting the reality of universals, but in the modern sense of believing in a mind-independent world). Yet it seems that his philosophy leaves no room for any knowledge of that alleged world, as Berkeley and Hume pointed out. Locke believed that all knowledge comes by means of sense experience (thus he is an empiricist, as opposed to being a rationalist such as Descartes–it is ironic that in his hierarchical classification of knowledge Locke lists intuitive knowledge as first, demonstrative knowledge as second, and sensory knowledge as the lowest form of knowledge, barely to be called knowledge). Locke believes that knowledge arises by means of ideas in the mind. Whether these ideas are images or something else remains a subject of debate among Lockean scholars. In any case, Locke believes that that a quality is the power to produce an idea in the mind. Primary qualities are actually in the thing-in-itself, and our ideas of primary qualities are isomorphic with the actual structure of the physical substance we perceive. Primary qualities are measurable, and include size, shape, and mass. Secondary qualities are not in the thing itself; our ideas of secondary qualities are not isomorphic with the actual structure of the material substance. However, the primary qualities interact with human sensory organs and with the human brain to produce ideas of particular colors, odors, sounds, and tastes. Thus, secondary qualities have a partial basis in the thing-in-itself despite the lack of isomorphism between idea and thing.

The classic problem with this view is that Locke claims that we are only aware of our own ideas. We do not have any direct access to the material substance, to the thing-in-itself. In fact, substance is just that which underlies the qualities, a “something-I-know-not-what.” But if we lack access to the thing-in-itself, there is no way to compare our ideas to the actual object allegedly causing those ideas to determine which qualities are primary and which ones are secondary. Access to knowledge of extramental reality seems impossible, and a trip down the phenomenalist brick road of Berkeley, Hume, and the sense data theorists of the early twentieth century. Such an idealistic journey is not what Locke wanted to make. Idealism has serious difficulties; the source of the ideas (our own minds? the mind of God) remains a mystery, and the orderly nature of the phenomena we experience is left unexplained unless a person takes the Berkeleian route of positing God to explain natural laws. Direct realism is another option; the label of “naive realism” is a pejorative and is a blatant attempt to beg the question regarding the truth or falsity of direct realism. As for the straw men critics of direct realism try to knock down, no direct realist has denied the possibility of illusion. It is Berkeley and Hume’s phenomenalism that cannot distinguish between illusion and reality except by taking Hume’s route of more vivid ideas (which he calls impressions) being the most “real.”

Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas were both direct realists. Aquinas accepted the idea that knowledge comes through the “phantasm,” or sensory image, from which the mind extracts the intelligible content from a material substance. Thomists today often say that the difference from Locke’s view is that Locke believed we have access to ideas, not the thing in itself–it is the ideas that we know. In contrast, Aquinas believes that it is through the phantasm that a person gains some knowledge, albeit limited, of the thing-in-itself. But does this really avoid Locke’s problem or does it evade it by a kind of word game?

After reading more of how contemporary Thomists deal with the epistemological gap, I must back away from my earlier position that Thomism does not avoid an epistemological gap between mind and thing. Contemporary Thomists believe that humans have evolved as part of their environment, not as creatures separate from their environment. Even thought knowledge is of “external” things, there is a communication of intelligible content from object to subject–agent causation is not limited to human agents. The phantasm contains the information that human beings extract to help them to live in the environment in which they are embedded, to the point that the person becomes “intentionally one” with the thing-in-itself. While Duns Scotus posited intuitive knowledge of an object as existing in addition to a rather traditional Aristotelian account of knowledge, I am not sure that such an intuitive knowledge is necessary for human beings to get by in the world. If such intuitive knowledge exists (perhaps in the form of psi), such knowledge could speed up our apprehension of a thing and determine whether or not it is dangerous. But if the mind is not considered a container, but as one way of an organism’s acting in the world, that seems to eliminate the Lockean gap between idea and thing. The phantasm becomes that “by which” a person apprehends some aspects of the being of a thing.