June 29, 2005 § 3 Comments
In the discussion below we are hashing out various (real or perceived) difficulties in the notion that man’s body is descended from apes. I don’t think that is the key issue in making what we know of natural history coherent with theological doctrine, though. The key issue, in my view, is death. Death entered the world through sin. If man (through whatever mechanisms or miracles) came after other life forms that lived and died, then how is it that Adam’s sin can be the cause of death entering the world? Was Eden literally in a different plane or dimension of existence with a timeline orthogonal to our own? Did Adam’s sin occur in this physical world but have a temporally retroactive effect?
My answer – you are waiting for my answer, right? Well here it is: I don’t know. But not knowing doesn’t bother me. No really, it doesn’t bother me. There are lots of things I don’t know, even though in some circles (hard to believe as this may be) I am thought of as a know-it-all.
Through the miracle of too much youthful indiscretion or over-exposure to science fiction or whatever, I can see that there are many, many questions to which I don’t know the answer; and that there are many, many possible answers. And they are usually quite surprising.
June 24, 2005 § 20 Comments
The Fifth Column has an interesting post up on science, faith, and reason. This is the second of two articles, the first of which is here. The idea that science is irreligious, or a-religious, or that it makes and requires no metaphysical commitments, is becoming increasingly untenable. And the idea that science understood as the dispassionate search for the truth about the physical world is in any sense at odds with Roman Catholicism, the idea that Western Christendom has impeded science rather than providing the necessary grounds for the development of science, is sounding ever more shrill.
In the life sciences in particular ideological Darwinism has held that legitimate science cannot entertain the idea of design or purpose. Design and purpose are intrinsically unscientific concepts in this odd view. Vitalism, the belief that a “vital force” animates life, has been long dead and buried by the objective results of biochemistry, according to the currently accepted Darwinian orthodoxy.
But the belief that vitalism is dead represents a misunderstanding of what it is. The “vital force” that animates life is not one of the three fundamental forces of physics (gravity, strong, and electroweak). The vital force that animates life is (loosely) software: it is information with a purpose. Information is real: there is a whole branch of mathematics dedicated to studying it, and there are ways of quantifying it and analyzing it which are quite rigorous in application.
I recently read an interesting comment by a software engineer taking the pro-Darwinian position. He made the point that 98% of the genome is (presently) inactive, and that he would fire anyone who worked for him who produced that much dead code. Thus, he claims, DNA does not encode software.
If we stipulate that 98% of the genome is in fact inactive at the present time, though, his supposed reductio still collapses under the weight of its own assumptions. If an engineer came to me and proposed that we eliminate the hard drive and the RAM from a computer system because the activity all takes place in the level-II cache, he would quickly join the ranks of engineers I have fired for incompetence.
Richard Dawkins, the poster boy for ideological Darwinism, makes his living writing books based on computer simulations of evolution. His methodology is virtually identical to the methodology used by the author of The Bible Code. The Bible Code, if you are not familiar with it, takes the text of a particular translation of the Bible and extracts patterns from it. The patterns seem (eerily and Nostradamus-like) to produce postdictions of things which have actually happened. It turns out that it doesn’t really matter what text you use, though. The text is just a random input to an algorithm that constructs the kind of result it was designed to construct. Dawkins uses similar methods to produce verses of Shakespeare using random inputs into a software program that is designed to produce verses of Shakespeare from random inputs; and he declares, hey presto, that this demonstrates that there need not be design in the universe.
Ideological Darwinism is one of those wonderful human ironies. It presents itself as the pinnacle of the dispassionate search for scientific truth, but in reality it is one of the most head-in-the-sand ideologies around. Ideological Darwinism and young-earth creationism are two sides of the same coin: in mindset they are almost identical, but with different content for their actual beliefs.
June 17, 2005 § 14 Comments
When we look at the world around us we process it based on the notion of cause and effect. I’m going to handwave over the Aristotlean difference between efficient and final cause by not worrying about infinite chains of causes. Right now I just want to look at cause and effect in a local sense: we can explain that me punching Nick in the teeth caused him to become angry without befuddling ourselves over what caused me to have a fist and a hankering to punch with it in the first place. The fact that I don’t explain everything comprehensively about the situation doesn’t mean that I can’t talk legitimately about a particular cause-effect relationship. (And you Humeans can go jump in a lake, though what would cause you to do that I can’t say. You know who you are).
So when we think about cause and effect it is the case that something occurs, and that it causes something else to occur. From a basic metaphysical perspective there are at least three distinct sorts of causes: chance, necessity, and agency.
Necessity is when something follows based on some necessary law, and agency is when an intelligent agent chooses to do something. Suppose the cue impacting the eight causes the eight to sink into the pocket, and so Nick loses the game by scratch and says something inappropriate about a female relative of mine. The kind of metaphysical cause that sinks the eight ball once the cue is in motion is necessity. The kind of metaphysical cause that produces utterances about a lovely and graceful female is agency. Just so.
But what about chance? Can chance be a kind of cause? I would argue that, perhaps counterintuitively, it can be. Now there are two sorts of chance: there is the sort where the thing that takes place does not really occur at random, but we don’t know the outcome. That sort is epistemic chance, and it doesn’t really interest me here. True chance is different from epistemic chance. It is a chance that is real, it is not simply the result of not knowing what an outcome will be.
There are two sorts of people who tend to rebel against chance as a true metaphysical cause: scientists and religious people. Einstein famously said “God does not play dice” because he could not believe that quantum processes could be actually random. Einstein always believed that there must be hidden variables: that the randomness in quantum mechanics was only an apparent randomness. He was eventually proved wrong via Bell’s Theorem and the empirical results of quantum experiments. It has been determined that quantum processes are indeed randomly caused: that there is no hidden-variable solution to the standard model which matches the actual results of quantum experiments.
But isn’t that odd? It has been determined that quantum processes occur by chance (even though the probabilities of occurrence can be definitely determined). How can this be?
Some perspective can be brought to bear by realizing that the chance processes which occur do not occur in a metaphysical vacuum. Chance is indeed a metaphysical cause, but when large numbers of events occur the overall outcome can still be predicted with virtual certainty. As a technical person I designed things that used randomness as an input to produce an output that I determined by design specification. Chance does not preclude purpose, and in fact it can lead to a richer design than one that does not make use of it in the causal chain.
Positivists, particularly the Darwinian variety, have long been comfortable with chance as a metaphysical cause (though they would reject the “metaphysical” qualifier because their whole deal is to claim that what everyone else says isn’t strictly wrong, it is just meaningless, and that there ain’t no such thingamajigger as metaphysics, or if there is it ain’t relevant). Darwinian positivists are happy to include randomness in their explanations. The thing they like to leave out – indeed that they demand must be left out – is agency. Chance and necessity they are happy with, agency they reject. But leaving off one of the legitimate metaphysical causes isn’t a form of intellectual hygiene, it is something that will make you invent outlandish impossible explanations rather than confessing ignorance. Leaving out agency in your explanations – including your scientific explanations – is chancy.
Religious people should not be afraid of chance as a metaphysical cause. If God wants to play dice I am quite certain that He can.
June 14, 2005 § 3 Comments
“Charity is strictly voluntary, by definition”, the usual objection goes. Well, sort of, I respond.
Most things that human beings do are volitional. It won’t happen unless someone chooses to make it happen. In that sense taking care of the poor and the sick is indeed a voluntary act.
But then, so is choosing not to commit a murder.
“But it isn’t charity to take money away from Bob and give it to Mary. It is only charity to give your own money to Mary.”
On the contrary, we are stewards, we are not little gods. What is more, the truly needy have a rightful claim to a portion of those things that you say are yours, if their need is legitimate. And we are all part of a community, of a whole heirarchy of communities. We are not the radically autonomous self-created free and equal supermen that the modern world would require us to be. We are, even in this temporal realm, one body with many parts.
The modern conception of welfare is an abomination. We use tax money to enable the destruction of the natural dependencies of family life in the name of the gilded calf we call “equality”, and we do it for welfare queens (and the narcissistic men who use them for no-strings gratification) who live with luxuries of which Cleopatra could not have dreamed. That isn’t charity, it is civilizational suicide.
But don’t buy into the idea that we are off the hook just because the modern world has perverted the concept of community and charity in the pursuit radical individualism, radical equal freedom. There is nothing inherently wrong with the government taking “your” money and giving it to the poor. In fact there is something very right about it: especially if the recipients of the charity of our community have genuine need and are required – for their own benefit – to provide concrete assurances that our money is not going to fund inchastity, wantonness, lawlessness, and the destruction of the family.
It seems to me that it is immoral to strangle the good of the community with the safety net by subsidizing immoral behavior. But by the same token “get rid of the safety net” is an immoral position for a wealthy community to take (and, lets face it, as a community we enjoy historically unprecedented wealth).
June 14, 2005 § 13 Comments
Hah! Made you look!
There isn’t one. (A formula for salvation, that is). We aren’t saved by a procedure or a formula. We are saved by the person of Christ: by His love and sacrifice for us, and our own loving, sacrificial response to His invitation.
I am sure it reflects a personal failure of some sort, but arguing over salvation-formulae strikes me as tedious and pointless. I feel like a groom standing in front of his future bride arguing with my friends about what minimal procedure I need to follow, formula X and no more, in order to guarantee that she will love me.
June 7, 2005 § Leave a comment
June 7, 2005 § Leave a comment
From the “we must not do evil in the pursuit of the good” files. Sometimes those of us who have plenty of experience being moral cowards are in the best position to discern true heroism. A true hero never does evil in the pursuit of the good. A true hero does what is good no matter the cost.
(HT: Relapsed Catholic)
June 2, 2005 § 49 Comments
In the ongoing dispute over whether burying a statue of St. Joseph is categorically superstitious, a few people have suggested rules for how to tell the difference between a superstitious act and a non-superstitious one. I don’t know that I have a general rule that applies in all cases, but I do have an idea for a heuristic in the present controversy: if the person performing the act views it as a devotional act pleasing to the saint, intended as a concrete act of devotion in conjunction with asking for the saint’s intercession, it is not superstitious. If the person performing the act views it as something that compels the saint to grant a wish like a genie summoned from a bottle, it is superstitious.
If my daughter draws me a picture of a cookie because she thinks I will find it cute enough to actually get her a cookie, she is not being superstitious. If she thinks that drawing me a picture of a cookie magically compels me to get her a cookie, she is being superstitious.
In other words, if you are treating a saint as a fellow human being – albiet one in an exalted state – and asking for a favor through word and deed, you are not being superstitious. If you think you are magically summoning a saint’s help like a genie from a bottle, you are being superstitious. The difference between asking for a favor and reciting a magical incantation is not a small one.
I’m not deeply attached to this heuristic at this point, but it makes sense to me. It seems to me that “superstitious” as a qualifier can apply (or not apply) equally to lighting candles and burying statues.