Tuesday, December 12, 2006

On the importance of "truthiness"

Yeah, yeah, I know that long blog entries are the kiss of death. But it's my blog, and I'll do what I wanna, write what I wanna, be as long-winded as I wanna... you might write too if leisure happened to you.

I picked up a book called Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine by Archbishop M. Sheehan on my book-hunting travels. This morning I started to list in for sale on my amazon seller account. Discovering that this 238-page paperback book published in 1955 was worth $55 on amazon, even in its beat-up condition, I cracked it open to satisfy myself as to why it was priced so high. Catholic apologetics from the pre-Vatican II days are currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity, I already knew. Frank Sheed's wonderful Catholic Evidence Training Outlines, first introduced to me by Marty Helgesen who was part of Sheed's Catholic Evidence Guild in the 1950's, has become hard to find and goes from anywhere from $30 - $100 in either its original or re-printed edition.

I see why. There is much beauty in the attempt to prove from reason the divine authority of the Catholic Church. Reason is beginning to make a comeback from its eclipse during the touchy-feely last half of the 20th-century.

But consider this passage:

The youthful reader, too much impressed perhaps by the methods he has seen employed in mathematics and physical science, must be warned against the assumption that, outside the sphere of exact calculation and experiment, absolute certainty is unattainable. On reflection he will realize that in the most important affairs of life truth is, as a fact, established by quite different methods. For instance, a man claims an estate by virtue of a will naming him as the heir; witnesses whose word cannot be questioned testify to the genuineness of the will; and the judge decides, saying, "It is clear that the witnesses have spoken the truth. He has proved that he is the heir." The judge is absolutely certain that his decision is correct, because it is based on the word of men whose truthfulness and whose knowledge of the facts to which they testify cannot be doubted; and if far greater issues were at stake, -- if, e.g., there were question of the lawful election or authority of a King, a President, or a Parliament, a question affecting the welfare of millions, -- a bench of judges with similar human evidence before them, i.e., the evidence of living witnesses and authentic documents, would be equally certain of their decision. The certainty at which one arrives in such cases resembles the certainty which is given to us in Apologetics. In apologetics we prove the divine authority of the Catholic Church by proving that we have God's word for it; He makes His mind known to us through the language of miracles, and His miracles are attested by men whose truthfulness and impartiality, and whose knowledge of the facts they report, exclude all reasonable doubt and give us the absolute certainty we require. The reader will therefore understand that human testimony, properly checked, is a most certain means of arriving at the truth. (emphasis mine.)

I was brought back from the innocence of pre-Vatican II Catholic "'tude" to the current situation by the words, "if, e.g., there were question of the lawful election." My brother Mark is currently investigating and asking others to investigate the testimony of Clinton Eugene Curtis, a former programmer for NASA and Exxon has come forward to testify before the US Judiciary that he was enlisted by Republicans to create a program which could guarantee Bush's presidential election victory. You can read about Curtis' allegations in Wikipedia as well as on various polemical sites.

The apologetics book describes the way a just society can arrive at truth based on physical evidence and the testimony of persons of integrity. Ideally, we should be able to follow the path of evidence and testimony laid like breadcrumbs from the YouTube video that first caught Mark's interest to the truth of this particular election fraud case.

But it seems to me that what we have a dearth of in our current national discussion is faith in the existence of "testimony of persons of integrity." In a world in which video and audio evidence is easily manipulated and altered, and where people become so suspicious of anyone who falls outside of their preferred political, ideological or religious POV, nobody believes anybody. Conspiracy theories abound. Reason is used on all sides as a means for persuasion, not discovery of truth. One is reluctant to believe spokespersons for corporations, and just as reluctant to believe whistle-blowers. Everyone has an agenda, and finding out if publicity is more of an agenda than truth seems an impossible task.

Or, as the apologetics book says, a valid proof may be conclusive, so that a reasonable person ought not to question it, but it is not coercive and has little defense against prejudice or folly:

Thus, it is a waste of time to argue with one who refuses to listen, or with one who seriously defends an absurdity, who maintains, e.g., that a great work of literature is a mere chance arrangement of words, or that thieving and drunkenness are not vices. Folly is mere imbecility, mere incapacity of understanding, while prejudice acts like a brake on the reason, impeding its natural movement. Manifestly, then, a perfect valid proof may not carry conviction to all. It deserves, but does not receive, universal assent.

I think my own personal weakness is more one of prejudice than folly. And in that I am not alone. But these are halcyon times for folly, also. And the folly starts in the Academy, where much recent literary theory does indeed seem to be defending the absurdity that a great work of literature is a mere chance arrangement of words.

Thieving and drunkenness too have had a good romp for the money -- from Steal This Book to the 60's siren call of "sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll."

Stephen Colbert is right. We need a return to truthiness.

Friday, December 08, 2006

"Scrubs" takes on the "A" word

The television sitcom "Scrubs" regularly pushes the envelope without fanfare and without offensiveness. Two weeks ago, J.D. (Zach Braff)and his new urologist girlfriend Kim (Elizabeth Banks) found themselves in a family way even though they had never "gone all the way" -- possibly the first time a situation comedy ever dealt with the possibility of splash pregnancy.

Last night on "Scrubs", Carla and Turk had their baby amidst the usual wackiness while J.D. and Kim debated whether to have their baby, give it up for adoption, or have an abortion. Dr. Cox, meanwhile, spent the episode talking straight to his three year old son, telling Jordan he wasn't about to lie to him like adults do to kids. So we have a kid who runs up to an overweight woman chanting "Fat lady, fat lady" as Perry explains "I teach my son to be a straight shooter" and Jordan rolls her eyes in despair at his fathering skills.

When the "A" word (abortion) is first mentioned, Nurse Laverne overhears and says, "Did somebody say 'abortion'?"

Kim replies, "With all due respect, Laverne, this is none of your business," and Laverne shoves her statue of Jesus at Kim saying, "Tell that to him!"

J.D. has one of his fantasies. The statue morphs into life and Jesus tells him, "No abortion, none." J.D. argues, "Well what if the parents were crack addicts and the baby would grow up abused?"

Jesus says, "Oh well, in that case it's okay." J.D. brightens up until Jesus shows he was just being sarcastic: "No, J.D., what did I say? No abortion! None. Never!"

J.D. and Kim then solicit advice from various people. Jordan says, "I had an abortion", and her son says to Dr. Cox, "Daddy, what's an abortion?" and then we see the little brat going around saying "My mommy had an abortion, my mommy had an abortion." Jordan explains the circumstances -- she was nineteen -- and says that it really was probably for the best, it would have been a big mistake to have the baby, but her face sort of crumples and she looks sad.

Carla meanwhile needs a C-section because the umbilical cord is prolapsed. Suddenly everything turns serious. The baby is born, but they rush him off to NICU and all the characters stop talking and look scared. J.D. and Kim are horrified and grab each other's hand.

A moment later, Turk comes in holding his newborn daughter and smiling from ear to ear. The room breaks into laughter and cheers. J.D. and Kim look at each other, faces wreathed in smiles, and say, "We can do it. Let's do this thing." They kiss. Fade to black.

Now that's cutting edge television.