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Initial Thoughts on Reading in Philosophy

I haven’t posted anything here for a long time. I will have to learn to dictate if I am to revive this blog.

I have struggled with faith more than I ever have before. I don’t know to what extent I will document my struggles.

Yesterday, I read portions of Thomas Nagel’s The View from Nowhere and John Frame’s History of Western Philosophy and Christian Thought — just starting both books. One is secular; the other Christian. Neither purports to be neutral with regard to theism, which is refreshing. John Frame’s review and taxonomy of western philosophy are very standard.  He says, in his introduction, that he does not challenge the consensus presentation of these philosophers, though he plans to evaluate them unconventionally; that is, from a distinctively Van Tilian standpoint. Although I find John Frame generally very helpful — his Doctrine of God is one of the best books on theology proper I have read — I don’t get his perspectivalism, his obsession with triads, or his verbose descriptions of his diagrams. There is just something about his perspectivalism (seeing/knowing/defining/etc. all things from three different perspectives, situational, normative, and existential — held in tension) that just doesn’t click for me, yet it seems to be critical for his philosophy. He says it will be important for his presentation of metaphysics and epistemology. It also applies to “value theory” though that is barely treated in this volume.

Thomas Nagel’s book also argues that perspectives held in tension drive philosophy. His perspectives are subjective and objective “in the primary sense;” that is, subject and object. He argues that the failure to maintain this tension leads either to skepticism and solipsism or to a scientism and physicalism that fails account for mental events.  So, for Nagel perspective is critical for metaphysics, epistemology, and value theory as well.

Nagel’s perspectives somehow seem more natural for me than Frame’s, even though his arguments and conclusions are more foreign. However, Nagel’s philosophy depends on an unsupported supposition, “there is a connection between objectivity and reality — only the supposition that we and our appearances are parts of a larger reality makes it reasonable to seek understanding by stepping back from the appearances in this way.” (4) For Frame, and for me, this supposition is grounded in divine revelation. Some may argue that this is no better than being unsupported — divine revelation adds nothing. That would be true only if divine revelation were not more extensive, providing an entire worldview rather than supplementing our reason with needed suppositions.

Although, I will probably agree with Frame’s conclusions more frequently, I’m enjoying Nagel more.

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Three Steps

I still haven’t read the opinions from yesterday’s SCOTUS decision yet. (My printer is out of ink and my eyes go cross-eyed if I try to read too much on-line.) However, it appears that Justice Clarence Thomas’s dissent is the one that saw through to the heart of the matter: the court’s eccentric definition of ‘liberty,’ a definition so bizarre that the court only invokes it in very select cases. Otherwise, it would break the back of the rule of law if applied consistently.

Liberty is complete individual autonomy, the freedom to do anything one thinks will give his life dignity. Any law that curtails such ‘liberty’ is unconstitutional. It violates due process, the protection that a citizen cannot be ‘deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.’ The court has argued (in very select cases) that a law that deprives one of liberty is no law. (Common sense might say that administering such a law justly would be ‘due process of law,’ but our justices abandoned common sense long ago.)

Using that definition, it took three simple steps to get to yesterday’s decision:

1) Anthony Kennedy established this definition of ‘liberty’ as precedent in the seminal anti-sodomy-law case, Lawrence v. Texas, quoting from a previous abortion case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “These matters [homosexual behavior], involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

As Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent asserted, this is poetry, not legal reasoning. What law has ever been passed regulating a person’s right to define anything? But if a person has the completely unfettered right to act according to her own definitions, then “this is the rule that ate the law.”

2) Anthony Kennedy then used this definition to argue that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional in a sham case that should never have been taken up by SCOTUS, United States v. Windsor. You may remember that Eric Holder and Obama announced that the Executive would not in this case fulfill their oath of office by not defending the law of the land. So it was actually No one v. Windsor, who had already won her case in two lower cases anyway. Kennedy argued that Windsor was deprived by DOMA of her ‘liberty’ in violation of the due process clause in the Fifth Amendment, which applies to the federal government. “Liberty” and “dignity” are virtually synonyms in this opinion.

3) Now, Anthony Kennedy uses this same eccentric definition of ‘liberty,’ citing his own two precedents, to argue that state bans on same-sex marriage violate the Fourteenth Amendment due process clause. The Fourteenth Amendment does apply to states. No state may deprive an individual of ‘liberty.’ Period. If any law that deprives one of such ‘liberty’ is unconstitutional, then the further words ‘without due process of law’ become meaningless. There is no just administration of such a law that could be considered ‘due process.’

Kennedy appears to believe not only that he has protected LGBTers from the deprivation of dignity, but that he has actually conferred dignity upon them. Robe-clad humans can do no such thing. God confers dignity on human beings. (Pure secularists may say evolution has done so.) Dignity inheres in human beings. Kennedy bestowed nothing! But his reasoning delegitimizes this court.

We will see what definition of ‘liberty’ is at play in the religious liberty cases to come.

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Liberty Redefined — The Conflict Between Religious and Sexual Freedom

Why does the reaction to Indiana’s RFRA law alarm me? The reaction of celebrities and liberals was predictable, but the knee-jerk reaction of so many other individuals and institutions–including the NCAA–has surprised me. Few GOP candidates, even, have come to Mike Pence’s defense.

But what is most alarming is that the shoddy moral reasoning of the majority on the Supreme Court has now affected the culture at large. For decades now, the Court has decided social issue cases–abortion and same-sex marriage–as due process cases. The Fifth Amendment says that no person “shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” They have held logically that any law that violates this due process clause is therefore unconstitutional. Reasonable enough. However, in these social issue cases, the Court has appealed to relatively recent precedent for its definition of “liberty.” They have cited what is known as “the sweet mystery of life” passage from Planned Parenthood v. Casey, an abortion case, to supply the definition.

The “sweet mystery of life” passage says, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define for oneself one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” (Think about that for a minute, especially as a basis for law. Does it not remind you of the Book of Judges, where “everyone did what was right in his own eyes?” Our justices are saying we have a right to this and any law that circumscribes that right is unconstitutional. Wow!) Justice Antonin Scalia bitingly, sarcastically, but correctly, responds to this passage, “I have never heard of a law that attempted to restrict one’s ‘right to define’ certain concepts; and if the passage calls into question the governments right to regulate actions based on one’s self-defined ‘concept of existence, etc.’ it is the passage that ate the rule of law.”

At first blush, this sweet mystery of life passage could even be read as protecting religious liberty. However, it has only been applied to those who challenge traditional or religious morality. Even the DOMA case, in which the plaintiff’s complaint was that the Treasury was withholding over $300,000 in tax relief from her same-sex spouse’s estate, the Court eagerly found not that Edith Windsor had been deprived of her property, but that she was deprived of her “liberty.” Edith Windsor has defined her existence such that same-sex marriage gives her meaning and that, now, is the heart of liberty.

So now the balancing test that the courts will make will be between the right to religious expression and the right to liberty, as defined by SCOTUS in the “sweet mystery of life passage. Liberty is no longer simply freedom from confinement; it has become this vague thing that if taken seriously would declare all laws unconstitutional. When the right to religion conflicts with the right to unfettered sexual freedom, I’m afraid religion will lose.

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