139th Annual Richard T. Merrick Debate

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With springtime finally upon us after a winter that just wouldn’t quit, the Society festively gathered with friends, alumni, and benefactors to celebrate its most important event of the year: the 139th Annual Richard T. Merrick Debate. This year, we considered questions of history, science, theology and philosophy as we debated Resolved: Certainty is a worthwhile pursuit.

In keeping with tradition, the Society elected four of its most eloquent members to keynote this special debate.

On the affirmation:

  • Mr. Jacob Arber (SFS ’14) of Illinois
  • Chancellor Peter Prindiville (SFS ’14) of Illinois

On the negation:

  • Mr. Patrick Spagnuolo (SFS ’14) of New York
  • Ms. Amanda Wynter (COL ’14) of Florida

Our four keynoters competed for the Merrick Medal, awarded to the speaker who best exemplifies the Society’s motto of Eloquentiam Libertati Devinctam – “Eloquence in Defense of Liberty”. To award the medal we proudly welcomed our esteemed judges:

  • The Reverend Stephen Fields, S.J, Professor of Theology and winner of the 2013 Dorothy M. Brown Award for Excellence in Teaching.
  • Mr. David Grosso (L ’01), At-large Councilman of the District of Columbia and former Chief Counsel to Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.
  • Mr. T. Michael Kerr, Assistant Secretary at the United States Department of Labor and Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration
  • Ms. Erin Matson (COL ’02), Editor-at-Large of RH Reality Check  and former Vice President of the National Organization for Women

After introducing these outstanding judges, President Christopher DiMisa called on Mr. Arber to begin.

Engaging as ever, Mr. Arber invited the crowd to ponder the idea of certainty. What is it? He stressed that for the purposes of this debate, certainty means the Truth, with a capital “T”. Pointing to the obviously quicker speed of a car relative to a jogger, he claimed that simple instances of certainty can be used to build an entire system of complex knowledge through much effort and testing – the scientific method. Mr. Arber then painted a picture for us of a shipwrecked sailor, rowing his way home based on the stars above. When clouds roll in and block the cosmos from view, the sailor stays the course, certain that his heading is true. But after a time, he begins to doubt. What is the sailor to do? His only choice is to stay the course, for even if the sailor cannot reach certainty, the quest to achieve it is his best chance of getting home. Certainty focuses people on the right heading. To abandon it is to settle, to not strive for the real and absolute. Like a lost sailor, we ought to be constantly rowing over the waves blocking our view, seeking what lies beyond the horizon.

Getting off to a daring start, Mr. Spagnuolo claimed that certainty cannot exist. Dropping his pen on the dais, he asked the audience how we knew it would not explode or turn into a pink elephant. The short answer is: we don’t. Based on prior observations we can make predictions, but even gravity is not truly “certain.” Ever the historian, he brought up the problem of conflicting certainties. Some people are certain that gay marriage is an abomination while others consider denying it to be profound bigotry. How do we square that circle? What about the Aztec’s certainty when they sacrificed humans or Pol Pot’s certainty when he murdered millions? What about the Southern slaveholder certain in his own righteousness? Time and time again, actions in pursuit of certainty cause massive destruction. In the words of Voltaire, “Doubt is unpleasant, but certainty is absurd.” Calling certainty “limiting, totalizing, and dangerous”, Mr. Spagnuolo urged us to take comfort in the profound humanness of doubt.

A stately and dignified presence, Chancellor Prindiville began by quoting Christ, “You shall know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free.” He argued that that passage from the Gospel of John speaks to the intrinsic link between the yearning of the mind to wonder and the desire of the soul for liberation. A desire for certainty is thus an innate part of our being, at the heart of our human dignity. Socrates recognized the importance of this quest for the Truth, calling it the fundamental eros of the mind. The chancellor maintained that when we are faced the problem of evil “the quest for certainty is humanity’s only way to fight the malaise.” Justice lies in the quest for certainty because Truth is its own standard – inviting doubt that is not skeptical and dogma that is not dogmatic. While Aesop may have been right when he said that tyrants will find a pretext for their tyranny, Chancellor Prindiville maintained that the quest for certainty charges us to overcome those perversions and allows human dignity to prevail.

Ms. Wynter strongly contested the idea that certainty is about wonder. She argued that certainty is much more about the attitude we take when we search for the Truth. While we absolutely should seek the Truth in realms as varied as science and politics, we cannot not do so with an attitude of certainty, which stagnates progress and seduces us to settle on final answers. With verve, Ms. Wynter accused the quest for certainty of destroying the human dignity that Chancellor Prindiville held so dear. “We human beings, boundless in this world – we are not certainty. We are mired in mystery, wonder, and uncertainty.” Even if certainty offers comfort and stability, we must strive for something better: for happiness and sorrow and God and sin and love and poetry. These things are not certain, and neither are we.

As the huzzahs died down, President DiMisa read the house rules and opened the floor debate. Harkening back to Mr. Spagnulo’s speech, Mr. Gregory Miller noted that the negation had given a “laundry list” explaining the dangers of certainty. But the pursuit of certainty avoids the absolutism of certainty itself. Disagreeing with gusto, Ms. Heather Regen reminded us that each week we debate about a world mired in uncertainty. The quest for certainty crushes that dialogue, leaving us “alone on a silent and empty shore.” Mr. Dennis Quinn accused Ms. Regen of again conflating the pursuit with certainty itself. The quest for Truth has kept us from being passive, reckless beings.

Sgt. Warren Wilson argued that the negation does stand for the quest for Truth, but not certainty. The Truth that sets us free cannot be finite, exact, or explained. Freedom is always undefinable. Nevertheless, Mr. Dustin Walker maintained that injustice can only be destroyed in pursuit of certainty but Ms. Emily Coccia countered his vision of a single Truth with the words of Whitman, “I am large, I contain multitudes”.

Ms. Julia Christensen said that even if that is the case, the quest for certainty makes us better but Mr. Michael Mouch questioned whether we really WANT to search for certainty in deeply personal emotions like love. Chancellor Nicholas Iacono exclaimed, “Have courage, Mr. Mouch!” as he took the floor to argue that we abrogate our responsibilities when we stop pursuing certainty.

Painting a useful mental picture, Mr. Luke Young urged us to imagine two mountains – Mt. Certainty and Mt. Uncertainty – separated by a valley. The question is whether that valley is worth encountering. In Mr. Young’s view the trek is worth it. Mr. Kevin Diasti agreed, noting that certainty gives us the capacity to make judgments.

After waxing poetic about being a senior, the spirited Ms. Wynter addressed the affirmation through the lens of opera. When Wagner wrote his prelude, critics went crazy because they had no idea what was going on, but the symphony was still beautiful. Uncertainty lent itself to appreciation. Always a philosopher, Ms. Wynter appealed to Plato, who wrote in the Republic that it doesn’t matter if there is a frame above as long as we tend to it. In other words, we must deal with the uncertainty of the everyday world to embrace our humanness. If all we seek is certainty, we are like the farmer who is so busy harvesting his wheat that he fails to see the wildflower in full bloom. In the words of Adorno, “The only truth about harmony is dissonance.”

Chancellor Prindiville attacked the idea that certainty is an attitude. He claimed that far from arguing for hubristic absolutism, the affirmation simply argues that we should pursue. Using Mr. Young’s mountain metaphor, the base, and not the peak, is where the affirmation stands ready to climb. The chancellor stressed the importance of doubt but insisted that doubt exists to be questioned. The quest to alleviate that doubt is profoundly human, and radically pragmatic. Chancellor Prindiville saw his side of the debate as part of a great American quest, following in the footsteps of Truth-seekers like King, Johnson, and Lincoln who have struggled for equality. Ending with the Ignatian prayer for generosity, he reiterated that the Truth shall set us free.

With his characteristic dynamism, Mr. Spagnuolo struck back against the siren song of certainty. He levelled a charge of equivocation against Chancellor Prindiville, since certainty necessarily requires us to push away doubt. Using the affirmation’s argument against them, he wondered how the pursuit of certainty can be so valuable when certainty itself is either unattainable or not worth attaining. Mr. Spangnuolo stridently insisted that success comes through doubt, for “the just man is aware that he is ignorant.” To be the best humans we can be, we should strive, seek, and find, but never for a second assume that we’re going in the right direction.

Turning that argument on its head, Mr. Arber announced, “I don’t know. And I’m comfortable with that.” He reaffirmed that the pursuit of certainty if not dogmatic and that those seeking it can handle the slings and arrows of another’s opinion. In fact, people who seek certainty are comfortable with having their minds changed because that is what the quest for certainty is all about – finding the Truth. Like Cavil in Battlestar Galactica we may distress at our imperfections, but we still have something more: a human dedication to transcend and strive. Going back to Ms. Wynter’s wheat field, Mr. Arber asked what drives that person into the field in the first place. A quest for beauty. A quest for Truth. A quest for certainty.

As the Society marveled at the day’s display of eloquence, the judges were excused to deliberate. Before they returned to announce the result, President DiMisa thanked his Officer Corps for their service (Aw shucks, it was my pleasure Chris) and especially singled out Vice President Anna Hernick and Treasurer Abigail Grace for their tremendous donation of time and talent to the Society organizing the debate and reception. They put on a great show and deserve much more than the hearty huzzah that I can give them here.

In keeping with Merrick tradition, the keynoters convened after the debate to select one of the floor speakers to receive the prestigious Father Ryder Gavel, designed to recognize the most outstanding extemporaneous floor speech of the Merrick Debate. The deserved winner of this award was our illustrious Sergeant-at-Arms Warren Wilson. Huzzah!

When our judges returned, they announced the winner of the 2014 Merrick Medal. It was none other than my own grandmentor, the one and only Ms. Amanda Wynter! I speak for the whole Society when I congratulate her on this fantastic achievement and thank her for philosophical insight, oratory excellence, and earnest friendship during her time in Philodemic.

And a congratulations is also due to our other keynoters, each of whom could have received this medal. Mr. Spagnuolo with his brilliant wit, Mr. Arber with his emotional resonance, and Chancellor Prindiville with his moral wisdom have each given to this Society in unique and vital ways. Like all the seniors, they will be sorely missed!

And finally, President DiMisa announced that “with 29 affirming, 2 abstaining, and 26 negating, this resolution is affirmed!” With a bang of the gavel he closed the proceedings to let the picture-taking and friend-hugging begin.

ELD,

Michael Whelan

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