A thought for Hierotheos Day

Do devils have rights? I should think they do, especially in our world, where even furry animals have rights, which can be spelt out and chartered. Apparently even polar ice shelves have rights, in the latest expositions of deep ecology. We would be wrong to melt them. And coal has the right to sleep undisturbed in its coal beds, et cetera. For we are, I’m afraid, increasingly insane: a proposition that is easily confirmed by reading posters on any university campus.

Still, “to give the devil his due” is an old concept; the “devil’s advocate” is a debating pose long honoured. But those are similetic propositions, as I think we say today. It is not the devil we are honouring, but justice, principally, in the first case, and truth in the second. We are testing propositions in a sceptical way, and verily, taking the arguments out of hiding; out of their “safe spaces.” Or, we once were.

This is what the man whom I consider the world’s greatest intellectual hero — one Thomas Aquinas — set about doing, on a big and ruthless scale. It is moreover at the root of “scholastic” philosophy, with threads dangling centuries beneath it, all the way down to Plato’s Socrates immediately below Aristotle; if not to some Pre-Socratics. The truth might set us free; but first we must find out what, or even where, it is.

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from, …

As a young man I was inflamed by this slogan, that “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Unfortunately I was taking it more from e.g. the drug-addicted S. T. Coleridge, than from Our Lord. I was willing to follow it anywhere, however; except to Source. But upon arriving there (despite my best efforts to arrive elsewhere), I found this Source to be, as it were, an infinite force multiplier.

Yet it is a saying that will survive translocation through many diverse contexts, in a universe designed to yield truth from any point. We must start somewhere. And it turns out we could start anywhere. Which is why, in the end, we tolerate, or used in principle to tolerate, open discussion in places like universities.

“Science” means “knowledge,” and as the sane discern, it will not hold still. An oxymoron is a figure of speech; but “settled science” is a flat-out, self-negating contradiction. For our knowledge has this much in common with a black hole: that it has no bottom. And what can be constructed from our practical knowledge, will never be secure. The suction is too great, one might say.

Reading Thomas Nagel the other day (Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, 2012), I was happily reminded of the overview that only philosophical reasoning can provide. Nagel is not merely refuting the old bearded wonder of Down House, and his sproo. He is showing the inadequacy of materialist naturalism, to explain anything. From a noticeably irreligious point of view, he reviews our modern, “scientific,” intellectual equipment. It can give us answers, but only to questions that can be phrased in a tedious way. It cannot cope with interesting questions.

Such as: how does matter come into being? How does life emerge from dead matter? How does consciousness emerge from life?

Now, those are interesting evolutionary questions, which materialist naturalism must necessarily funk. It simply does not have the equipment, and will not have in any future foreseeable, at least to Nagel. But he can descry the need to restore the teleological reasoning which our ancestors trashed in the soi-disant “Enlightenment.” Which suggests we are not quite through with Aristotle yet, who noticed that one cannot make sense of a function except by acquiring an understanding of its purpose. That, in effect, nothing “just happens” in our busy little monde. Not when you look into it. (See my magisterial unpublished treatise on, The Uses and Abuses of Paranoia.)

Nor can we embark on the catechistic questions, with what we have in our labs. Why is man here? What are his real options? To what end might his functions aspire? But Nagel avoids the phenomena of Faith, as beyond his philosophical jurisdiction. Having graduated from Science to Philosophy, we would have to graduate again to Theology for that. To which end, we would have to believe that it exists.

And so, to return to my original question, do devils have rights? This is an issue, because they have long been demanding something like the Internet “right to be forgotten.” They demand to be excluded from any consideration of how our world works — and in the name of their president, Settled Science. They assert some absolute right to privacy, as they get on with their daily chores. All those who mention them should, in their view, be hauled before the courts, and punished. Even Nagel appears to respect these demands: he leaves devils out of the account entirely.

But there I disagree. I want to keep them in our larger account of Nature. For I think the explanatory power of devils is yuge.