Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Letter to a Young Woman

I recently had occasion to write a letter to my daughter on the subject of happiness. I thought I might share part of it on Viewpoint.

Hi Princess,

I've been thinking a lot about the talk we had the other night on what happiness is and how we obtain it, and I hope you have been, too. I wanted to say a little more about it, and I thought that since I was going to be away, I'd put it into a letter for you to read while I'm gone.

One of the things we talked about was that we can't assess whether we're happy based on our feelings because happiness isn't just a feeling. It's more of a condition or quality of our lives - sort of like beauty is a quality of a symphony. It's a state of satisfaction we gain through devotion to God, living a life of virtue (honesty, integrity, loyalty, chastity, trustworthiness, self-discipline), cultivating wholesome and loving relationships with family and friends, experiencing the pleasures of accomplishment in career, sports, school, etc., and filling our lives with beauty (nature, music, literature, art, etc.).

One thing is sure - happiness isn't found by acquiring material things like clothes and toys. It's not attained by being popular, having good looks, or being high on the social pecking order. Those things seem like they should make us happy, especially when we're young, but they don't. Ultimately they just leave us empty.

To the extent that happiness is a feeling we have to understand that a person's feelings tend to follow her actions. A lot of people allow their feelings to determine their actions - if they like someone they're friendly toward them; if they feel happy they act happy - but this is backwards.

People who do brave things, for instance, don't do them because they feel brave. Most people usually feel terrified when in a dangerous situation, but brave people don't let their feelings rule their behavior, and what they do is all the more wonderful because it's done in spite of everything in them urging them to get out of danger. If they do something brave, despite their fear, we say they have courage and we admire them for it.

Well, happiness is like courage. You should act as if you're happy even if you don't feel it. When you do act that way your feelings change and tend to track your behavior. You find yourself feeling happier than you did before even though the only thing that has changed is your attitude.

How can a person act happy without seeming phony? Well, we can act happy by displaying a positive, upbeat attitude, by being pleasant to be around, by enjoying life, and by smiling a lot. Someone who has a genuine smile (not a Paris Hilton smirk) on her face all the time is much more attractive to other people than someone whose expression always tells other people that she's just worn out or miserable.

One other thing about happiness is that it tends to elude us most when we're most intent on pursuing it. It's when we're busy doing the things I mentioned above, it's when we're busy serving and being a friend to others, that happiness is produced as a by-product. We achieve it when we're not thinking about it. It just tags along, as if it were tied by a string, with love for God, family, friends, beauty, accomplishment, a rewarding career, and so on.

Sometimes young people are worried that they don't have friends and that makes them unhappy, but often the reason they don't, paradoxically, is that they're too busy trying to convince someone to be their friend. They try too hard and they come across to others as too insecure. This is off-putting to people, and they tend to avoid the person who seems to try over-hard to be their friend. The best way to make friends, I think, is to just be pleasant, friendly, and positive. Don't be critical of people, especially your friends, and especially your guy friends, either behind their backs or to their faces. A person who never has anything bad to say about others will always have friends.

Once in a while a critical word has to be said, of course, but it'll be meaningless at best and hurtful at worst, unless it's rare and done with complete kindness. A person who is always complaining or criticizing is not pleasant to be around and will not have good, devoted friends, and will not be happy. A person who gives others the impression that her life is miserable is going to find that after a while people just don't want to hear it, and they're not going to want to be around her.

I hope this makes sense to you, honey. Maybe as you read it you can think of people you know who are examples of the things I'm talking about....

All my love,



The Case For Bombing Iran

Norman Podhoretz makes the case in Commentary magazine for bombing Iran. It is a thoughtful and important piece regardless of what you may think about his conclusions. It should be read by every American, if for no other reason than to understand the perils which face us a few short years down the road.


Sometimes We Hear

The local Sunday paper ran my guest editorial yesterday. It's the third in the series to which I was invited to contribute. Here's the column:

Judge John Jones, presiding in the Dover Intelligent Design trial, deigned to settle the controversy surrounding ID by pronouncing it a religious belief and thus constitutionally unfit for public school consumption. Those who approve of the judge's decision have ever since been intoning the refrain, "Judge Jones said it, I believe it, that settles it." I for one, though, am not convinced that the judge has settled anything, at least in this part of his decision.

As any philosopher or theologian will acknowledge, it's notoriously difficult to determine what exactly religion and religious belief actually are; so difficult, in fact, that it's not at all clear what it is that makes ID "religious."

Sometimes we're told that ID is religious because it invokes a supernatural entity. But what does it mean to be supernatural? Is something supernatural if it is outside the natural universe? If so, what is it about being extra-cosmic that makes it a religious entity? The belief, commonly discussed in science books, that there are other universes besides our own is surely not a religious belief yet these are entities which transcend our universe. If it's not religious to believe that there are universes which reside beyond our own, why is it religious to believe that there's an intelligence which resides beyond our universe?

Sometimes we hear that ID is a religious belief because the designer must be the Christian God. What does the critic mean, however, by the term "God," and why must the Christian God be the designer? The God of traditional theism is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, eternal, necessary, omnipresent, and personal. Why must the designer who creates the universe and life possess these same attributes? Why couldn't the designer be a being of considerable power and intelligence without being the omnicompetent God of Christian belief? To insist that the designer must be God, i.e. that than which nothing greater can be conceived, as St. Anselm famously defined him, is an inappropriate and illogical attempt by ID's opponents to force religion into a theory that is not inherently religious.

Sometimes we hear that ID is a religious belief because its advocates are frequently Christians. But if the metaphysical commitments of a theory's advocates are all that are necessary to make a theory religious why is the naturalistic Darwinian view not considered to be an atheistic belief since many of its advocates are certainly atheists? Furthermore, if the naturalistic view is indeed an atheistic hypothesis why is it permitted to be taught in our schools?

Sometimes we hear that ID is a religious belief because the entity that it posits can't be detected and has to be accepted on faith. But what is meant by saying that the designer can't be detected? Does it mean that we just can't see the designer and thus have no direct evidence that there is one? Or does it mean that the designer is in principle undetectable? If it means the former, we should point out that there are dozens of entities scientists postulate which cannot be directly observed - quarks, neutrinos, and dark matter, for example - but they can be studied and their existence inferred from their effects. Likewise, there is abundant evidence of design in our world from which we can infer the existence of a designer. It may be that we can't study the designer directly right now because our technology doesn't allow it, but that doesn't mean that we'll never be able to study it.

If the above claim means that the designer, being transcendent, is in principle undetectable then we might ask how that makes it different from the multiverse which is believed to transcend our world and the existence of which scientists nevertheless hold out hope of one day being able to confirm. Or we might ask how an undetectable designer differs in this regard from sub-atomic strings which are also in principle unobservable.

A century and a half ago there was very little we could learn about atoms, the cell, or the composition of the stars because we had no good way to observe these things, nor could we imagine ever being able to do so. Since then advances in technology have made them accessible to us. Perhaps a century from now technology will enable us to observe and study the cosmic architect - that is, if it still exists.

We don't know that the designer does still exist, of course, because ID, not being a religious belief, does not identify the designer with the eternal God of traditional theism who cannot not exist. Only those who don't understand ID or who choose to misrepresent it, two groups which include almost all of its opponents, some of its advocates, and Judge Jones, do that.