Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Two conversions

In one corner of the internet not long ago, Leah Libresco announced that she had been swayed by argument to convert to Roman Catholicism. Apparently Libresco is, or was, in some circles, a "prominent atheist blogger"; at least that's what the first few Google hits say. (I had not heard of her until I read Amod Lele's post about her conversion, but as you can tell from how often this blog is updated, I don't spend as much time online as I used to.) What is clear from my (far from complete) reading of her blog is that she's very smart, and loves a good argument (also a good meal). (She also writes perhaps a bit too quickly, but then I am a glacier, so I don't really understand cataracts.) Libresco identifies as a virtue ethicist and a moral realist, and she eventually conceded --to oversimplify a bit -- that this position was untenable if one's presuppositions are strictly naturalist. This is an argument I find very appealing, personally; I do not understand how one can get to moral realism -- the claim that, say, stealing a dollar, or tossing your estranged spouse in front of a subway, or driving a species to extinction through willfully ignorant rapaciousness, is really wrong (if it is wrong) in a way that means more than "ewwww" -- from premises that the universe, the life within it, and the consciousness some life exhibits, arose purely as Lucretian swerves of some energy-matter. (I think the same about sentience, but then, I would.) So Libresco's conversion makes sense; she says she has been "translating" her moral arguments "out of Catholic" for a good long while; that both atheists and Christians had been telling her "convert already!", and one night, when pressed for an account of where she thought moral intuitions actually came from, she found herself spontaneously improvising that "Morality loves me," (and thus, implicitly, communicates itself.)
I believed that the Moral Law wasn’t just a Platonic truth, abstract and distant. It turns out I actually believed it was some kind of Person, as well as Truth.
I've begun to categorize the general forms of analysis of reaction to Libresco's announcement. On the Christian side, there are Christians who make gratified noises, either rejoicing over the prodigal or merrily triumphalist crowing -- an embarrassing gesture that, needless to say, persuades no one. There are Christians who say she hasn't gone far enough ("Another cafeteria Catholic, so what?" or "Catholcism isn't Christian" are the two forms this takes). At the very least, all of this seems a bit premature, if only because Libresco has only announced her intention to convert (she's still a catechumen, she's not shy about saying what she can and can't buy into, and whether she can, as it were, "suspend judgment" to the point of baptism is an open question).

On the atheist side, some are dismayed ("How can someone so smart..."), some say they saw it coming long ago ("she always did have these weird notions..."; at its extreme, this becomes the silly assertion that she was never really an atheist at all!), some are engaging on some level ("Well, but then give up moral realism instead!" or at least "OK, but Leah, how do you justify...") and some are outright dismissive ("Well, she certainly boosted her blog readership!" or even "Duh! She was dating a Catholic! Next question.") There is also the surprisingly popular theory that she's suffered a stroke.

In a different corner of the 'net, earlier this year, Tim Lavenz at fragilekeys posted an account of a number of experiences over many years: his parents' deaths, his own struggles with cancer and with drugs, his engagements with poetry, philosophy, and meditation. Partly as a culmination of these and partly as a surprising interruption of them, Lavenz found himself in a kind of crisis which culminated in a different conversion experience; on the other side of which he found himself saying things about God like
All my work in philosophy – years – has amounted to nothing compared with just a few days in prayer with Him. Why is that? Because with reading, studying philosophy, writing, you can always dwell in the realm of concepts, ideas, argumentation. You can compare and contrast, you can make theses. But before God, you can only repent (metanoia). Before God, you can only melt your heart into pieces. You can only humble yourself – infinitely.
This remark was in response to a comment I had left on his blog to the effect that his self-revelation risked putting him in the line of public ridicule. I shuddered to imagine the snide mockery of his experience as a trivial fallout from ordinary human suffering and easy-target college student stereotypes. Happily, Lavenz was not a "prominent atheist blogger," and his post has not garnered the sort of attention (negative or positive) that Libresco's has. Most responses have been long on supportiveness, and so far, anyone doing head-shaking is keeping it off the comments section.

But it's the contrast between the styles of his announcement and Libresco's that has me pondering. Lavenz's post wears its personal history on its sleeve; written not so much in arguments as in existential gestures, it would be well placed next to Shestov or Unamuno or Pascal. Libresco's post on the other hand is fraught with rationale, like Aquinas or MacIntyre. It would be a caricature to say that Libresco has thought her way to where she is now, whereas Lavenz has felt his way. Lavenz's blog is full of considered reasoning, and Libresco's narrative is after all a frankly personal one. But it strikes me that the more dismissive kinds of objections Libresco is receiving are, weirdly, easier for Lavenz to fend off than for her. Not that Libresco is remotely vulnerable to them; but she has considered them less; her energy is not directed towards that front. Whereas Lavenz, while he is not concerned about people being snide, knows that his rationale is motivated with the whole body and soul; and so while he would not need to fend off every pointless dismissal ("sure dude, you're on drugs, whatya expect?"), he is also more sensitive to where such reactions come from -- an existential recoil.

Yet oddly, this recoil projects itself outward: religion is a wish-fulfillment, an opiate flower bedecking our human chains, the echo of the infant bawling of our species. In other words, a recoil from the starkness of what is. These critiques all boil down to reducing the reasons offered for a position (or change of position) to causes. In a discussion over at Amod's blog, Sabio Lantz commented that
“we are rarely aware of what makes us decide things. we make up “just so” stories that satisfy our listeners and remain blind to the mysterious complex working of minds we are deluded to thinking we control.”
My response to this, slightly modified, was: I rather suspect that this skepticism about what lies behind our own decisions is well-founded, and there is a growing body of psychological research (not to mention What the Buddha Taught) that lends ammunition to anyone who likes to talk this way. (Christian theology of grace has never quite settled the issue of motive in conversion, either. Augustine, for instance, went back and forth on whether God persuaded the will, or simply changed it.) But there is a difficulty: what are my reasons for deciding that this is true? (Or will we insert a special distinction between 'judgment' and 'decision' here?)
What, indeed, would count as knowing why one had decided? Holding a distillate of the decision in a test-tube? Plotting a graph of all the moments that led up to the “moment” of conscious decision? A Eureka moment on a Viennese couch? Doesn’t the very act of evaluating any evidence of “what really motivated me” involve its own decision, a deciding that this is evidence? And in that case, don’t we back ourselves into a series of just-so stories– unless we grant that there is such a thing as an unconstrained evaluation of our own decision-making? But of course, if we admit that, we don’t need to open the issue of “evidence” at all.

In short, we may be as skeptical as we like about any given account of a reason, but we cannot reduce all reasons to causes.

It was only after I had posted this (in a slightly less complicated form) that I reflected on the contrast between Lavenz's and Libresco's posts and indeed the whole style of their respective blogs. I cannot, frankly, imagine the run-of-the-mill internet atheist currently engaging Libresco giving Lavenz anything like the respect they give her, because she is at least engaged in the giving and defending of reasons -- a common language between her and those outside the church. Lavenz on the other hand is writing (and I must emphasize, I am giving my impressions) a kind of poetry that wishes to demonstrate the attractiveness of where it stands but is also resigned to a kind of failure of communication. This resignation is well-founded. Reading his heartfelt spiritual autobiography (e.g. here, from a more recent follow-up to his original announcement) is a chastening experience for me:
it is important for me to tell you how I got here, so that you will not think I am living under any illusions or that I have somehow gone off the deep end. I’ve told you how my reading shifted almost imperceptibly to Christian authors and then to the Gospel, which is an important piece here. But much more important has been my sobering up before the Lord. I have been led to this revelation because, for the first time in my life, I began asking for what I’d always wanted to know: Lord, what am I to do with the vast emptiness inside of me? Lord, how am I to make sense of suffering and death? Lord, how am I to address this world that is so full of lies, deceit, hatred, and selfishness? I’ve realized that I cannot answer these questions on my own. The depth of the problem, which I spent years struggling to understand, has led me to the depth of the solution: it can only come through a pact of eternal love and the labor of love that flows from it. This pact is precisely what took place “once and for all” in the revelation of the Son of God. I cannot get in to how all the “dogmas” in the Church support and have helped me understand the mystery of this pact and the mystery of its eternal work. But I can tell you, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). If you really want the truth, it is there waiting for you. If there is one person who never lied, it was Jesus Christ. But once you understand that, and then realize that this applies to everything recorded in the New Testament (which you are now reading with the “eyes of faith”), you will see how there is no turning back
I read all this with a strong sense of recognition, and if I would phrase it differently than Lavenz in places, it's a question of nuance. But I can easily imagine a different response than my own.
One of Leah Libresco's brilliant inventions is the Ideological Turing Test, in which she posts three questions, then has a set of self-declared atheists and of self-declared Christians each post two sets of answers: one setting out their own, honest responses, and one in which they try to adopt the voice of the other side. The test here is to see whether they can aptly and persuasively argue not with but like their opponent, surely one precondition of being able to say they understand them. There are problems with this method and methodology (it can just turn into the engineering of trolls), but in general it's a thought-provoking "intuition pump," as Daniel Dennet likes to say. When I play this game with Lavenz's posts, I get something like this:

"Your discovery of the magnitude of the problem of suffering may seem like a revelation to you, but this is no reason to grasp at a "revealing" god, let alone a "church" which by your own admission you have to see "with the eyes of faith," i.e., disregarding an enormous amount of empirical and anecdotal evidence as to just how human it is. When it comes to explaining what "pact of love" means, there are some promises about the dogmas of the church again, an understanding that's in the wings if I just "ask" (but, you know, really ask) -- and then, watch out! because there will be "no turning back"-- which can only mean, you've surrendered your right to critically evaluate, to trust yourself or your own capacity to understand; you trust instead a "person who never lied", but who you don't even know existed, except that you are told so in a book (but of course, it's a holy book). As to why you believe this, you give us some stories of your own: you had questions that were "answered," you cried in a church, you "sobered up" figuratively or literally; all no doubt very good for you; but not furnishing any reason to think it is true outside of your head."

I wrote this pretty quickly and felt downright dirty after I had composed it, even after editing out the more trollish heckling. Note that there's an elision here between argument and dismissal (e.g. "oooh, a holy book," in which flippancy functions as a surrogate for a reason). But this elision is mirrored in Lavenz's paragraph that I've cited, which is fraught, and, I must emphasize, must be fraught, with a kind of deferral of articulated rationale, because the experience it names is on the far side of reasons. Not the near side -- where a reason collapses into a cause -- but the far side, where one meets The Cause (ἀρχή), The Aim (τέλος), the Beginning and the End, and where one's freedom and one's being acted upon are too inextricably bound up with each other to distinguish.

But one doesn't just jump there, or start there; one starts here. The difficulty facing Libresco is: eventually, you have to see things Lavenz's way. The difficulty facing Lavenz is: talk that way too soon and you will get dismissed without a hearing. They will just shrug you off with a remark -- polite, if you are lucky -- about a stroke, or who you were who you were dating, or what you were smoking.

Those we understand, have reasons. Those we cannot comprehend, are caused.

Philosophy as discourse is the rejection of this impasse.

Toward the beginning of this post I cited Libresco's insight about her own position:
I believed that the Moral Law wasn’t just a Platonic truth, abstract and distant. It turns out I actually believed it was some kind of Person, as well as Truth.
A simple (far too simple) reduction would be to say: Lavenz is talking about the Person; Libresco is talking about the Truth.

Beyond (and pointed to by) the discourse of philosophy is the experience which dissolves this distinction.


  1. I am a thinker rather than a feeler but I do find Libresco's account to be short on personal details. Catholicism is personal. It is God's family. It is friendship with Jesus. It is surrendering your life in worship of your Creator and Father. You can reason your way into the faith but at some point you need to fall in love. Maybe she just does not share that part of her spirituality.

  2. "Beyond (and pointed to by) the discourse of philosophy is the experience which dissolves this distinction." This is an awesome quote. I would add that the experience can lead to what has been called "Poetic Knowledge" witch could lead one to more precise philosophy. Of course precise philosophy could lead to experience and end in the greater the more heart felt wisdom of "Poetic knowledge"

  3. When an atheist with pastoral plaintiveness beats his breast and declares "we have failed Leah Libresco" then we may know that the silly season has well and truly begun. Her change may be a question of striking the outre while it's hot for all I know. If I was her father confessor with the strict compassion of Maximos (the Confessor) I should tell her to hie to a nunnery and therein allow the dust to settle.

    Of Tim Lavenz, Maximos would be more sanguine and regard him as insulated by suffering from the trifling sneers of hobbledehoys. They are not so much in another room as in another possible world very close to this one but with poor lighting.

  4. "They are not so much in another room as in another possible world very close to this one but with poor lighting."

    Om., you place a serious stumbling block in my path. Rarely have I been so tempted to type a certain three-letter abbreviation describing my mirthful reaction.