Nature and teleological principles

I finished Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World today, and want to share this final excerpt. There’s a lot in this relatively short bit:

Any reasonable monotheism will understand God not merely as transcendental, but as related to the world in the “space of reasons,” rather than in the continuum of causes. He is the answer to the question “why?” asked of the world as a whole. You may well say, with the atheists, that the question has no answer. But if you say this because you think that there are no cogent “why?” questions other than those that seek for causes, then you are merely turning aside from the argument. The teleological foundation of the world is not perceivable to science, or describable in scientific terms. Hence it can be neither proved nor disproved by scientific method. It can be established only through the web of understanding, by showing, as I have tried to show in this book, that accountability lies in our nature. …

I pointed out that the science of the human being, which sees the seat of all activity and thought in the brain, will not find, in the organism that it explores, the thing that we address in the space of reasons. The “I” is transcendental, which does not mean that it exists elsewhere, but that it exists in another way, as music exists in another way from sound, and God in another way from the world. The search for God often seems hopeless; but the usual grounds given for thinking this imply that the search for the other person is hopeless too. Why not say, rather, that we stand here on the edge of a mystery? In these concluding thoughts I want to approach as near as I can to that edge.

The God of the philosophers has been defined in ways that seem to set him entirely outside the sphere in which we exist and where we hope to encounter him. He is the “necessary being,” the “causa sui,” “that than which no greater can be conceived,” the “final cause” of a world “ordered toward” him, and so on. All these expressions define some part of the enormous metaphysical burden that has been placed on God’s shoulders by the philosophical attempts to prove his existence. I don’t say that these attempts are wasted, or that they do not present us with interesting puzzles for which the postulate of God is one among the possible solutions. But the God to whom they point is outside the envelope of causes, while our God-directed thoughts demand an encounter within that envelope, an encounter with the “real presence.” God himself demands this, we believe, since he requires us to enter into a covenant with him. I cannot answer the question how it is possible that one and the same being should be outside space and time, and yet encountered as a subject within space and time. But then I cannot answer the question asked of you and me, how one and the same being can be an organism, and also a free subject who is called to account in the space of reasons. The problem of personal identity suggests that the question may have no answer. Indeed, the unanswerable nature of questions like this is part of what cognitive dualism commits us to. Many monotheistic thinkers, from Tertullian through al-Ghazālī to Kierkegaard and beyond, have suggested that faith flourishes on absurdity, since by embracing absurdity we silence the rational intellect. I say, rather, that faith asks that we learn to live with mysteries, and not to wipe them away—for in wiping them away we may wipe away the face of the world. Christians believe that they can reconcile the transcendent God with the real presence, through the doctrine of the Incarnation. But I regard that doctrine as another story, which does not explain the mystery of God’s presence but merely repeats it.

The laws of physics are laws of cause and effect, which relate complex conditions to the simpler and earlier conditions from which they flow. Teleological principles can therefore leave no discernible mark in the order of nature, as physics describes it. Nevertheless, it is as though we humans orientate ourselves by such principles, rather as some animals orientate themselves by the earth’s magnetic field. In the order of the covenant we are pointed in a certain direction, guided by reasons whose authority is intrinsic to them. If we look for the foundation of these reasons and meanings, we look always beyond the physical horizon, just as we do when we look into the eyes of another person, and ask him “why?”

Georgetown Wawa opens

I’ve been watching Washington’s second Wawa take shape over the past few weeks near M Street in Georgetown. Here’s a photo from this afternoon:

When I mentioned to a Washington friend a few weeks ago that Wawa was expanding here, and that its second location was to be in Georgetown, he scrunched his face in genuine confusion and asked, “Wawa? They’re putting a gas station in Georgetown?” Wawa Food Markets didn’t generally have gas stations until about 15 years ago, but I guess its expansion has shaped most people’s experiences at this point. Anyway, as a Pennsylvanian at heart, I was thrilled to see this Wawa—which did not bring a gas station to the neighborhood—officially open today:

The Georgetown location will offer free coffee for customers through its first weekend of business. …

To commemorate Wawa’s arrival near Georgetown, a new Bulldog Double Shot latte (iced or hot) is available at its touchscreen ordering counters. The themed drink is filled with salted caramel, a double shot of espresso, whipped cream, and blue and silver sprinkles. It will be available during the store’s first three months of operation. 

The 7,000-square-foot convenience store is open 24/7 and sports Wawa’s new urban interior design. Free Wi-Fi encourages study sessions. 

The first 200 customers through the door at 8 a.m. get free T-shirts, and Wawa’s charitable arm will announce a new community partnership with MedStar Medical/Surgical Pavilion at the Georgetown Lombardi Cancer Center.

Every-day moral excellence

John Cuddeback writes on a virtue for the Holy Days, reflecting on Aristotle:

“Now we have said generally that the man with this virtue will associate with people in the right way [in gatherings and in social life]; but it is by reference to what is honorable and expedient that he will aim at not giving pain or at contributing pleasure. For he seems to be concerned with the pleasures and pains of social life; and wherever it is not honorable, or is harmful, for him to contribute pleasure, he will refuse, and will choose rather to give pain…” —Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

The virtue he calls ‘friendliness’ has always stood out for me in Aristotle’s treatment of various virtues. Here is a virtue that concerns how we speak in social situations. This in itself says something fascinating about human life and the importance of our social gatherings.

The man with this good habit knows what to say, as well as when and to whom to say it, always with an eye to the comfort, pleasure, and edification of the people present. Feelings really matter; yet feelings don’t reign unchallenged by the discerning eye of reason. The ‘friendly’ man is willing even to cause discomfort in view of the greater good.

If Aristotle is right, in every gathering in which we find ourselves, from intimate family events to broader social ones and even chance encounters, we should see ourselves as capable and called to make a palpable contribution. This won’t always involve words—it could be a warm smile or attentive listening—but it often will be verbal. We can serve others by comforting, amusing, challenging, informing, even gently rebuking—all as appropriate to the circumstances. In the end this is a central way we treat others as persons, exercising our common humanity. …

In light of Cuddeback’s complete reflection, I’m wondering for the first time if it’s not the case that so many of us are uncomfortable around the holidays precisely because we intuitively sense that they’re the sort of moments that challenge us to practice the sort of “every-day moral excellence” Aristotle and Cuddeback outline. And in classical thought, it’s in developing our moral excellence that we become, as Cuddeback points out, “our truest self.” And becoming more (or simply other) than what our less excellent instincts would lead us to become can be damned uncomfortable.

Ancient Colophon

I’m reading Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World. He writes about Colophon, a mythical Greek city presently occupied and desecrated by hostile forces who have obliterated ancient Colophon with “high-rise towers devoted to the inscrutable bureaucracy” of the new forces and this has oppressive spiritual and physical domination has “replaced the free life of the Greek polis.” Archeanassa, a survivor of the ancient Colophon, is asked by a young woman to explain “how the old city of Colophon was built”. Here’s a bit of Archeanassa’s response:

Now there is much to be learned from gardens, and especially from gardens of the kind that I am describing. In such places the plants, buildings, and furniture have no special use. There is a purpose to the farmer’s fields and the merchant’s storehouse, but not to the lawns and statues in a garden. Each object is there for no purpose but itself. And we too, when we visit the precinct, leave our purposes behind. We wander in the shade, refresh our spirits with the sight of clear water sparkling over amber stones, and listen to the birds as they sing above us. And all for no purpose other than our delight in these things. Moreover, the garden is a social place. People cross each other’s path, fall into conversation, perhaps play games together or sit side by side at peace. And these ways of being in a garden are of peculiar significance, Perictione; for they too are free from purpose. People in a garden are beyond purpose, in a side-by-sideness that is also an alertness to the world …

There, in our municipal garden, we were at peace with each other and the world. And it is from peace that the city was built. …

And perhaps this is what I most dislike in this Colophon of yours—that it has no streets. Oh, I grant you, there are thoroughfares and boulevards, carved through the city like swathes through a field of corn. But these thoroughfares are not lined by houses standing side by side and leaning against each other. They are not overseen by dwellings, and their borders are not thresholds between public and private space.

Nothing stands along them in a posture of repose, and even the air above them is lashed and torn by wires.

To my way of thinking a true street is like a garden—not a means but an end. It is a place where you linger and take stock; where you meet and converse; where you stand beside objects that stand beside you. The new thoroughfare is not an end but a means: it is a conduit from one place to another. The buildings that occur along its edges are merely dumped there, offending both earth and sky by their inability to connect to either.

No sooner did houses arise in ancient Colophon, than streets arose along with them. For those old houses stood side by side, facing in the same direction. And people stood at the gates conversing. Soon, in front of each row of houses, a public space came into being, a space that was every bit as consecrated as the garden beside the temple. The citizens, in order to express their pride in the city, and to mark out the land not as mine or yours or his, but as ours, began to provide this public space with furnishings. They paved it with cobbles, lined it on each side with flagstones of polished slate, and erected little shrines of porphyry or marble, in order that the gods should be at home there, which was the home of everyone. Those streets stitched the town together, and provided arteries through which its life could flow. And so pleased were the Colophonians with their appearance that they discussed in the assembly how best to conserve them, and how to ensure that this public space should remain always ours, and never his or hers.

But I have not identified the real difference between ancient and modern Colophon, or the real way in which we shape and are shaped by our buildings. These things cannot be understood, it seems to me, in secular terms. Our architecture derives from the temple, for the reason that the city derives from its god. The stone of the temple is the earthly translation of the god’s immortality, which is in turn the symbol of a community and its will to live. The temple, like the liturgy, is forever, and the community contains not the living only, but also the dead and the unborn. And the dead are protected by the temple, which immortalizes them in stone. This is what you understand instinctively, when you see religious architecture. And it is the sentiment from which cities grow—the tribe’s will to permanence…

Everything we build can be built with a spirit that is at least friendly toward the sacred and transcendent. In other words, we can build in such a way that human structures are not purely instrumental and utilitarian, but are instead places that allow human beings to encounter one another and build community in unanticipated and organic ways, and even recognize themselves as members of a community in time.

Nearing Christmas

It’s nearing Christmas, but doesn’t feel like it this year. Struggling to feel like it’s Advent, let alone Christmastime.

Christina Rossetti’s “Advent”:

Earth grown old, yet still so green,
Deep beneath her crust of cold
Nurses fire unfelt, unseen:
Earth grown old.

We who live are quickly told:
Millions more lie hid between
Inner swathings of her fold.

When will fire break up her screen?
When will life burst thro’ her mould?
Earth, earth, earth, thy cold is keen,
Earth grown old.

A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theatre

I saw A Christmas Carol for what was probably the first time in person this past Thursday. It was also my first time inside Ford’s Theatre. It’s a small, comfortable playhouse. The cast of A Christmas Carol was great. Craig Wallace played the role of Ebenezer Scrooge and Rayanne Gonzales played the Ghost of Christmas Present, and were my two favorites. Rick Hammerly delivered as Mr. Fezziwig, one of my favorite bit characters.

Join the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future as they lead the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge on a journey of transformation and redemption. Originally conceived by Michael Baron, this music-infused production captures the magic and joy of Dickens’s Yuletide classic. Acclaimed actor Craig Wallace returns to play Ebenezer Scrooge in a production heralded as a “rich visual and vocal treat” (TheaterMania) and “infectiously jolly” (Washington Post).

I grew up watching Brian Henson’s The Muppet Christmas Carol before graduating to George C. Scott’s A Christmas Carol. What makes A Christmas Carol timeless is that we encounter a man breaking out of what Bishop Robert Barron describes as “the black hole of self regard and really to want the good of the other.”

Steady rain showers

It has been steady rain showers all today; not a downpour, but just consistent wetness. It’s still early enough in winter that it’s the sort of rain accompanied by a petrichor in the earthier parts of the neighborhood.

Walked along M Street, grabbed a Chipotle burrito, walked down to the Canal, and up Potomac through the neighborhood before returning home.

Amazon Books

I checked out the Amazon Books store on M Street around Thanksgiving, mainly for novelty’s sake. It’s the sort of bookstore that I can see doing better than the older book retailers (maybe) because it doesn’t have a lot of depth in its titles. The books there are popular/consensus titles that are popular on Amazon, and so it’s a good place to see a physical version of the literary spirit of the moment, grab a coffee, browse, etc. Abha Bhattarai wrote on the opening of this Amazon Books earlier this year:

The online behemoth, which has helped drive a number of traditional bookstores out of business, is hoping its loyal online following will translate into in-store customers on Georgetown’s M Street NW, in the same building that Barnes & Noble once inhabited before shutting in 2011.

At 10,000 square feet, the store is among the largest of Amazon’s 15 bookstores. It includes 5,600 book titles — all of which are displayed with their covers facing out — as well as dozens of tablets and smart-home devices on display for customers to test. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

Instead of price tags, each book comes with a review card that shows its star rating on and includes a snippet of a customer review.

Signs of social trust

I was walking through Georgetown around Thanksgiving last month, heading north from M Street when I passed this home. What’s the most surprising thing about this scene?

Those packages on the front stoop. They’re just sitting there, liable to be stolen or tampered with or who knows.

What a great sign of social trust, when you’re someplace that allows for this sort of habit. Packages sitting out, waiting for their people to arrive home, are characteristic of a lot of Georgetown—this was just the house I happened to notice on this walk.

There are lots of things about this neighborhood that aren’t true of plenty of other neighborhoods, but the point is that living in a way that requires faith in those around you is powerful. Along the lines of the old habit of leaving the keys in the visor of the car—where hypothetically anyone could take your car for a joy ride, but you’re trusting they won’t—I think these are the sort of practices that are visible signs of a healthy community. When everything needs to be locked up and secured, you haven’t created a culture of security as much as you’ve created a culture of timidity or fearfulness or frailty.

Early December scenes

A few recent scenes from a few different days in and around Georgetown. It still looks like autumn in the first photo on Dumbarton Street, and much less so in the final rain-drenched scenes.

I’ve been using my Capitol Bikeshare membership less lately; still have to get my first ride in this month at some point.