Hey, Kids! Now You Can Play the Slots Too!

Friday, 10-09-2015

In my grandparents’ day, cigarettes were sold to children.  By my day that was mostly a thing of the past, but I am old enough to remember how groceries and other merchants used to hawk candy cigarettes to children in the check-out lines.  Think of sugary little Camels, Marlboroughs, and Lucky Strikes.  What’s the big deal?  They were only candy, right?  Right, but the purpose was to generate future cigarette users.  For the grocery stores, and for the tobacco companies which allowed candy manufacturers to use their trademarks, it was an investment.

Eventually public opinion turned against the sale of candy cigarettes, and most grocery stores stopped carrying them.  But the stores have adapted.  For example, the H.E.B. grocery store chain encourages children to play the lottery instead.  Hey, kids!  Now you can play the slots too!

Children don’t actually use money; they use “buddy bucks” which their mommies and daddies get along with their grocery receipts.  Think that makes it harmless?  Think again:  Like candy cigarettes, this too is an investment.  H.E.B. and other merchants get kickbacks from the state for selling lottery tickets to adults.  The more children they suck into the idea that throwing away money is wonderful fun, the more future customers they have for this racket.  Maybe Mom and Dad haven’t thought of that.  Count on it, the company executives have.

I am not a Puritan.  I don’t think it is a sin to place a little wager.  This is not about placing a little wager.  Perhaps it doesn’t bother many people any more that an amoral government colludes with greedy merchants to prey upon the poorest and most foolish adults of the community by encouraging them to throw away their money in games of chance which are rigged against them.  But must they make it glamorous to children?  For shame.


Reviewing the Reviews

Thursday, 10-08-2015

I wasn’t planning to post today, but some of you may be interested in the new review of my book On the Meaning of Sex, just published online in Humanum Review, the journal of the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and the Family.  This joins previous reviews in Catholic Culture, in CatholiCity, and in other places.

It’s a highly intelligent review, and an author is always happy when the reviewers understand what he is trying to do.  Matthew and Michelle Kuhner do seem to think I say too little about God, which is interesting because another reviewer, in The Public Discourse, criticized me for saying too much about God.  Though he was gracious and generally favorable, he was concerned that no one longs for God except believers.  So by mentioning Him, I tempt today’s young people to tune me out.

I guess I would rather be criticized in the former way than in the latter.  It seems to me that today’s young people have the same Godward longing that everyone does, but many of them resist thinking about it because they have so badly abused their consciences.  The art is to get past their defenses.  So although the book is based mostly on natural law, I leave a trail of bread crumbs.

Something else needs to be said too.  How can we expect natural law to be plausible to people who experience only the humiliation of their nature, and not the touch of grace?  The philosophical method of our day is minimalist.  It assumes that people can consider propositions about reality only in small doses, one dry pill at a time.  But at least sometimes, the very opposite is true.  The reason the pill goes down so hard is that it is only a pill, for the mind, in its hunger, desires a meal.



Wednesday, 10-07-2015

A certain school of scholars is devoted to seeking out esoteric teachings the great political philosophers supposedly concealed behind a glossy surface of conventional opinions that only a few insiders could see through.  Far be it from me to suggest that no thinkers ever conceal their meanings, but the search for esoterica is taken a bit too far.

Once, at a conference, I presented two talks. The gentleman assigned to comment on the talks, himself of the esotericist school -- an erudite man whom I like very much, and whom I have been teasing about this for years -- drew the entirely mistaken conclusion that since I had made nine claims in the talk on liberalism, but only eight in the talk on conservatism, I must have been hinting that the most important thing I wanted to say about conservatism was hidden between the lines of claims four and five.

Why would I hide it?  Because, he reasoned, it must not be stated openly.  He then proceeded to tell us all what he took it to be.


Cornering the Market

Monday, 10-05-2015

Mondays are for letters from students and young people.


I first heard of natural law from Patrick Madrid’s show on my local Catholic radio station.  Though I was very interested, I did not want to read a Catholic book about it, since I’m not familiar with Catholic theology, and most of my Christian learning has been Assembly of God (Protestant).  When I asked the Christian Research Institute (also Protestant) to recommend a book on natural law, they recommended your What We Can’t Not Know.  I understand the book well, and assumed that you were Protestant, but you’re not.

My question:  Why do Catholics have a corner on natural law?  Your book is great.  I'm just curious why non-Catholics don't deal with this issue.  It's kind of important if you ask me.  Do you have a thought about this?


Good question.  Protestants ought to believe in natural law; in fact, Martin Luther and John Calvin did believe in it, and said so.  However, later Protestants have tended to deny or at least neglect it, partly for various reasons I’ve discussed in other posts, and partly just because of fear of anything that came from age-old Christian tradition, which seemed to them “too Catholic.”

Once the idea of natural law was forgotten, there was also the further difficulty that it had to be relearned, and hostile critics described natural law theory in inaccurate and misleading ways. On the other hand, recent years have shown a welcome resurgence of interest in natural law in several branches of Protestantism, including Lutheran, Evangelical, and Calvinist.

It’s true that Catholics have the longest, most continuous, and most richly developed tradition of inquiry into natural law, but I don’t think anyone has a “corner” on it, since it is rooted in the created nature which we all share.  Natural law thinkers are found in a number of traditions, including Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim, as well as among the Greek and Roman pagans.  It can be considered purely in the light of unaided reason, although of course Christians think it can be understood more deeply with the help of the extra light shed by revelation.

Since you were surprised that I’m Catholic, I might mention that although I am a Protestant-friendly Catholic, when I wrote the first edition of What We Can’t Not Know I was a Catholic-friendly Protestant.  A determined ecumenist, I continue to do quite a bit of work with Protestants who are interested in natural law.



Thursday, 10-01-2015

I’ve been thinking about Monday’s letter.  People tend to assume – have you noticed? -- that since people are no longer inhibited about discussing sex, people have fewer misconceptions about it.

Not true.  What people spread with all that talk is their misconceptions.  Probably they have more misconceptions about the subject – but different ones, like these:

•  Continuously jumping from bed to bed will not affect my capacity for romantic intimacy and trust.

•  The more sexual partners I have, the more I will enjoy sex.

•  The popularization of contraceptives reduces the number of out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

Each notion is contrary to experience.  Each one is demonstrably false.  Each one is believed without question.

The Fitting

Monday, 09-28-2015


I’m a law student.  I also have some background in theology.  Though I haven't studied natural law before, I’ve been reading On the Meaning of Sex and have enjoyed it (I haven't quite finished it yet).  You talk in the book about the natural procreative and unitive purposes of the sexual powers, and that brings me to a problem I’ve had in conversation.

I was wondering how to talk with people who argue that the nature of our bodies, the difference of the sexes, and the reason why we have sexual powers in the first place don’t matter.  Their main argument is that most things can have a multitude of uses.  “What’s ‘natural’ anyway?  We do ‘unnatural’ things all the time, like using mouths for kissing instead of eating!  Any part of the body can be used for almost anything.  So what’s the problem?”

Such arguments frustrate me because they seem to be mostly about warping definitions.


I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the book.  I see why it seems to you that your friends are warping definitions, because they seem to have fallen for the non sequitur that since words are just names, we may call anything whatever we want.  But I can think of several other reasons for the conversational problem you describe.  Here are a few of them.

The first problem is that your friends are attacking straw men.  No natural law thinker in history has ever suggested that the mouth is made only for eating and that any other use of it is unnatural; go ahead and kiss your wife.  Rather the argument is that any use of our natural powers which undermines, degrades, and dishonors the purposes of our natural powers is inappropriate.  So if you get angry, don’t bite her.

The next problem is that your friends can’t see any difference between objective purposes of their natural powers and their own subjective purposes in using them.  But this distinction shouldn’t be difficult either.  I might use my respiratory powers for the purpose of sniffing glue, but the inbuilt purpose of the power is to oxygenate my blood.

Third, they don’t understand the relationship of the ‘fitting’ – they deny that anything could be naturally fitting or unfitting, appropriate or inappropriate, to anything else.  But this idea shouldn’t be difficult either.  Surely there would be something disordered if Grandma encouraged her Thanksgiving guests to eat until they were bursting, purge, then return to the table for the pleasure of another four courses.  Surely there would be something wrong with us if we didn’t get it.  Yet wouldn’t this also be a “use of the mouth”?

The final problem is that when the disordered ways in which we live give us something that we want -- perhaps pleasure, perhaps the approval of our friends -- we resist recognizing even what should be obvious.  To justify ourselves to our consciences, we do violence to our grasp on reality.  I mentioned that the points I made above should be difficult to us -- yet they become difficult for us because we work so hard to make them that way.

One can correct the first, second, and third problems by argument, because they lie in the intellect.  But one cannot correct the fourth problem that way, because it lies not in the intellect but in the will.  Moreover, the fourth problem causes us to resist the correction of the other three.  So I have several suggestions for you.

Focus on the good and the beautiful.  We more readily recognize the bad from the good than the good from the bad; we more easily identify the ugly through the vision of the beautiful than the beautiful through the nightmare of the ugly.  Despite all they may do to destroy the loveliness of truthful order in their lives, your friends do long for it.  It is impossible not to.

Learn to distinguish when it is useful to speak with someone and when it isn’t.   Some people ask questions to find out the answers; others ask questions to avoid them.  Some people engage in conversation to explore what may be true; others engage in it to be clever.  Talking with people who are in the wrong state of mind to gain by conversation may do more harm than good.

Try to stay in relationship with misguided friends.  In the lives of each of us, there come times when our evasions and rationalizations begin to wobble, when slivers of light pierce through to our eyes despite all the shrouds we use to shut them out.  These are the times conversation can accomplish the most good.

And pray for them.  I don’t think it is possible to love truth without loving the persons who resist it.


You Can’t Get Something from Nothing

Friday, 09-25-2015

One of the classical arguments for the existence of God is the Argument from the Governance of the World, which works like this.  The universe is not a hectic, buzzing confusion in which nothing makes sense and nothing hangs together.  On the contrary, we see that things have purposes, and they nearly always act in such a way as to bring these purposes about.  For example, hearts exist for the purpose of pumping blood, and they nearly always do pump it.  But such things as hearts cannot direct themselves according to their purposes, because they have no intelligence. Therefore, however long it may have taken to do so, some being with intelligence must have arranged the purposeful order that we see in nature, and we call this being God.

One of the main objections to the Argument from the Governance of the World is the supposed discovery that purposeful order can arise spontaneously, without any need for directive intelligence.  In each field of study, this claim takes a different form.  One mechanism of spontaneous order is proposed for markets, another for the origin of biological processes, another for the flocking of birds, yet another for the crystallization of molecules.

But a distinction is needed.  If the hypothesis of spontaneous order means that contingent forms of order – forms of order that might not have been – can come to pass without continuous, interfering micromanagement, it is certainly true.  But if it means that such order can come to pass without prior order, that it can be altogether spontaneous, then it is certainly false.

To see this, consider what happens if I toss nine three-inch-square blocks into a nine-inch-square box, then jostle the box.  The blocks will spontaneously arrange themselves into a symmetrical three-by-three block grid.  But they will do so only because they are just the right number, shape, and size to fit, a set of features unlikely to arise by chance.

In general, the more elaborate the spontaneous order, the more prior contrivance is necessarily to make it come to pass “on its own.”  Evidently the maxim that you can’t get something from nothing applies not only to the matter and energy embodied in an arrangement, but to the order embodied in it too.

Now if each instance of contingent order does require prior order, then we must ask whether the prior order is also contingent.  If it is, then we must ask whether its prior order is also contingent.  To avoid an infinite regression of forms of order, we must assume a First Principle of Order, the existence of which is not contingent .  So we still come back to God.