Sunday, April 30, 2017

An Enigma on Man - Part I, Verse 8



Thus ends part I of "An Enigma on Man", and the last of these posts. My hope was to provoke a thought of yours—if only to be more conscious, and, consequently, more ecumenical in how complicated and confusing our understanding of life and reality is.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Freeman Dyson


Today, I heard an interview on the radio with Freeman Dyson.  He's quite a remarkable man.

Freeman Dyson has worked in the field of physics since 1943.  He was a professor of physics for the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton from 1953 to 1994.  He is still associated with the institute where he is a professor emeritus.  Along the way, he has known all the giants.  He has worked with Hans Bethe and Richard Feynman, and he knew Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer and Niels Bohr.

According to Dyson, Hans Bethe was "an extraordinarily good [mentor]. He was amazing with students. He had a lot of students and he always found the right problem for each student, just difficult enough but not too difficult. He was an ideal person to have as a mentor."

Of Oppenheimer Dyson said, "I had very mixed feelings. He was my boss. He was a very temperamental, unpredictable kind of character. He would suddenly blow hot or cold and you never knew which one you had to deal with."

Feynman was a "genius."  "He never wrote down equations. Most people in physics write down an equation and then find the solutions, but that wasn’t the way Feynman did it. Feynman would just write down the solutions without ever writing the equations. It seemed like a sort of magic because he thought in terms of pictures instead of equations. He had these little pictures in his head...."

Einstein "didn’t encourage young people to get to know him."  "He didn’t enjoy teaching. There were two important things for him. There was his own work, which he always continued, and there was his public activity as a politician, which he did extremely well."

As for Bohr:  "Bohr was about the same age as Einstein, but much more in touch. He talked to everybody. He was interested in everything and was well-informed and he gave us good advice. He was definitely part of the community. He came to seminars. He also came to lunch. We had a lot of interaction with him."

He also said some interesting things about science.  The divide between classical physics and quantum physics doesn't bother him:  "For me, it’s something to rejoice in. I like it better to have two universes rather than one. I think the classical world is real and the quantum world is real, too. The beautiful thing is how well they fit together even though they are so totally different. I like the difference. I always hope they won’t be unified, but of course nature will decide in the end."

And what leads to scientific breakthroughs?  "First of all, it helps to be ignorant. The time when I did my best work was when I was most ignorant. Knowing too much is a great handicap. Especially if you’ve been teaching for some years, things get so fixed in your mind and it’s impossible to think outside the box. I was in the lucky position of jumping into physics without ever having taken any courses in physics. I’d only been a pure mathematician up to that point."

Even great people have faults.  Heidegger was an anti-semite.  Dyson is a climate change skeptic.  See The Danger of Cosmic Genius.

Anyway, here is the entire interview, if you have about 35 minutes.



An edited transcript can be found here:  My Life with the Physics Dream Team.




Friday, April 14, 2017

Donnie Darko and Lent

I realize it's the end of Lent, but I hope you'll agree with me that there is always room for an article that brings Donnie Darko into the conversation.

https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/04/donnie-darko-is-the-perfect-movie-for-lent/522951/

Mostly I was reminded of seeing the first re-release of this in the theater in Carlisle with Myk and Sue (not sure if either of you remember, but this was clearly a big moment in my life since it has stuck with me for almost fifteen years). And since the author of this article first saw the movie in central PA, I felt like it was particularly interesting- or at least coincidental. Lent, Donnie Darko, Central PA. It's all a bit strange, don't you think? Anyway, if you're looking for a good and, evidently relevant movie to watch this Easter, at least according to Nick Ripatrazone, Donnie Darko is the must-see of the season.

Happy Good Friday!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

An Enigma on Man - Part 1, Verse 4

A whirling, cognitive gyre looms before us. To successfully navigate this unusually challenging three-page expanse, let’s review a couple of crucial concepts. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to provide the concepts as definitions of two words found in the poem. Both words are adjectives.
1. ontic [on-tik] — relating to what is, concerned with what actually exists or noumena, as opposed to phenomena. It comes from ontology or the nature of Being.
2. epistemic [ep-uh-stee-mik] — relating to what is known or understanding, concerned with phenomena as opposed to noumena. It comes from epistemology (TOK for Obama Academy fans) or the nature of knowledge.

These are often useful notions, responsible for instant replay in sports and surveillance devices in court proceedings. Obviously, dividing the world this way makes some sense.

We generally say science deals in the ontic, while philosophy with the epistemic. So the underlying ontic reality of the atom stays the same, despite its changing epistemic forms from Thomson’s plum pudding model to Bohr’s electrons-as-planets model to Schrodinger’s probability cloud model.

Further complications arise, however, when modern science places heavy bets “on point particles and fields”, which are well-nigh completely mathematically defined—an almost totally epistemic domain, albeit one supported and tested by what we believe is real ontic evidence. But then science further furiously fans this whirling vortex when it found that, at the atomic level, it appears that ontic reality is inextricably entangled with the epistemic known.

One further term:
Decoherence is the process by which a quantum system’s superposition changes from what can be explained by quantum mechanics to that which can be explained by classical mechanics. Feel free to review the double slit experiment. And don’t forget to look up “god-trick” when encountered.

As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk, 
Our Being runs forward and back
For the ontic’s uncovered by thinking, 
And each thought leads us back to that fact.




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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

When a trailer becomes an art form in itself

I probably should not post this, viewer discretion is advised for strong language throughout. This is the trailer for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a picture directed by Martin McDonagh of In Bruges fame. Normally, a trailer entices one to watch the movie, but this one is so good it just stands on its own. How could the movie be better than the trailer? It's a fricking masterpiece.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

An Enigma on Man - Part 1, Verse 3

So we've seen how the notion of God changed with the rise of science and is often thought of now as an extension of science.



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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Charles Edward Anderson "Chuck" Berry (October 18, 1926 – March 18, 2017)

"Maybeline" was Chuck Berry's first song and set the rhyme and rhythm for what will probably be the next hundred years. And "Johnny B. Goode" is perhaps the classic of classics. But I always have been partial to "Nadine", here from the movie, “Hail, Hail Rock 'n' Roll".

"I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back
And started walkin' toward a coffee colored cadillac
I was pushin' through the crowd to get to where she's at
And I was campaign shouting like a southern diplomat"

(turn it up…that's enough)
 

An Enigma on Man - Part 1, Verse 2

Remember last time the god of gaps was discussed as well as the importance of science to explain the world. We ended with our current confusion in a "god-tasked-to-explain". We now delve into the history of that god.



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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Theories of Atonement VI

Anselm of Canterbury

1.  The Big Switch

In prior posts, we discussed to varying degrees three different atonement theories that arose in the patristic period.  The first – the notion that Jesus’s death was a ransom paid to the devil for the release of humankind – is called, not surprisingly, the ransom theory.  The second – the view that Christ achieved humankind’s salvation by invading the devil’s kingdom and achieving a military victory – is called by the name that Gustave Aulen gave it: the Christus Victor theory.  And the third theory – that Christ healed mankind by uniting human nature with his Divine Nature and then destroyed death through his own death on the cross – is called the recapitulation theory, in that Christ restored humanity to its original holiness.  As Irenaeus said, “God recapitulated in Himself the ancient formation of man, that He might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify man” Irenaeus, Against Heresies.     

As you may have figured out from the last post, among the ancient Christians, the recapitulation theory ended up prevailing over other views, having been adopted by such early Church luminaries as Gregory of Nyssa, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Irenaeus and Gregory of Nazianus.  And, for about a millennium, the recapitulation view remained the dominant theory.  

I suspect that, despite its long endurance, the patristic view of atonement probably is alien and unfamiliar to many Catholics and Protestants today.  It certainly wasn’t included in my catechism growing up.  The reason for its current strangeness is that here in the West the recapitulation theory was almost totally abandoned following the publication in 1098 of Anselm of Canterbury’s seminal work, Cur Deus Homo (Literally, why God man or more accurately, why God become man).  This view, or variations on it, has been adopted across the board by both the Catholic and Protestant establishments.  Indeed, the online Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that, “the appearance of St. Anselm's Cur Deus Homo made a new epoch in the theology of the Atonement.”

The beginning of the preface of Cur Deus Homo; the 12th century manuscript is preserved in Lambeth Palace Library, London.

It is puzzling how such a total revolution occurred, especially at a date so far removed from the original founding of Christianity.  Indeed, the American theologian, George Cadwalader Foley, suggests that the theory arrived too late in the day to be valid:  “The fact that the Church had to wait a thousand years for such a philosophy of the Atonement suggests the strongest doubt of its truth….”  Our Eastern Orthodox cousins, however, still hold to the recapitulation theory and have not embraced Anselm.  Some Orthodox writers go so far as to call Anselm a heretic.  

We can guess why this change occurred.  Perhaps, the classic Greek thought that so infused the patristic theory that it no longer had much meaning for the Christians of Anselm’s day, now waist-deep in the medieval world.  Or, perhaps the great schism between the Eastern and Western churches – reaching its culmination in 1054, just 44 years before Anselm’s work was published – created a distaste in the West for all things Greek.  No doubt some scholar has studied this and has some answers, but to date I have seen no word on the subject.  In any event, the change was, as far as I can tell, sudden (by historical standards) and total.

The statue of Anselm in Canterbury Cathedral, holding a copy of Cur Deus Homo in its right hand

2.  Anselm on God’s Honor

Cur Deus Homo was written as a dialogue between Anselm and one of his students and later an abbot, Boso, and purports to make a purely rational argument without resort of Scripture for the necessity of the Christ’s death as a means of atonement.  Boso is Anselm’s straight man in the dialogue, being a bit slow on the uptake and requiring regular correction by Anselm.

So, what was Anselm’s groundbreaking proposal that changed everything? First, he points out the inadequacy of the patristic view.  He characterizes the classical theory as the notion that Christ died in order to defeat the devil and free humankind from his clutches – Aulen’s description of the patristic view.   Anselm rejects the theory, stating that, since the devil is one of God’s creatures over which God had complete dominion, there was no reason for God to become human to defeat him:
As to what you say of his [Christ’s] coming to vanquish the devil for you, with what meaning dare you allege this? Is not the omnipotence of God everywhere enthroned? How is it, then, that God must needs come down from heaven to vanquish the devil?
Anselm, Cur Deus Homo (hereafter, all quotes will be from Cur Deus Homo unless otherwise indicated).  

From our own study of patristic thought, we can see that Anselm had not exactly done his homework on the Greek fathers, and appears to know nothing of the recapitulation theory.  In any event, however, Anselm does not see our separation from the divine and the menace of death as humankind’s problem; rather, for Anselm our problem was with God.

God, as the supreme sovereign, if nothing else, must receive the honor that is His due.  By our rendering honor to God, all things “hold their own place in this universe and maintain the beauty of its order.”  The way humans and angels render to honor to God is by being obedient His will.  Failure to follow God’s will, even in the slightest, dishonors Him.  “He who does not render this honor which is due to God, robs God of his own and dishonors him; and this is sin.”  

With Anselm, there are no mortal or venial sins.  The smallest act contrary to the will of God is a betrayal and an utmost serious matter.  To give an example, he asks Boso, “If you were to see yourself in the sight of God, and someone were to say to you, ‘Look over there,’ and God were to interject, ‘It is totally against my will that you should look,’” on what account should you look in the direction that God forbid?  When Boso answers that he can’t think of any motive that would make it right, Anselm ups the ante:  “What if the whole universe, except God himself, was going to perish and fall back into nothing if you didn’t do this small thing against God’s will?”  Boso, as Anselm later confirms, answers correctly, “When I think of the action itself, it seems very slight; but when I view it as contrary to the will of God, I realize there is nothing so grievous, and no loss that would compare with it. I must confess that I ought not to oppose the will of God even to preserve the whole of creation.”  Thus, the slightest disregard of God’s will dishonors Him beyond measure.   

The honor and respect we owe God, however, is not for the sake of God:  even when we sin, we “cannot injure or tarnish the power and majesty of God.”  Rather, honor must be paid to God to preserve the order and beauty of the universe.  In the proper ordering of things, God, the lord and ruler of all, must receive his deserved honor.  Otherwise, deformity is introduced into God’s perfect order.

3. The Impossible Situation  

It is not hard to see that, given the high bar, everyone has dishonored God in some way or another, and has played some part in introducing distortion into the universe.  Thus, some corrective measure must be taken against us all if balance and order are to be maintained.  For Anselm, this can be done in two ways:  satisfaction or punishment.  Satisfaction restores God's honor through the individual's payment to God of what he has taken, and directly restores the imbalance.  Punishment repairs the universe through God’s assertion of his sovereignty and rule in the face of the dishonor.  

Any failure to either make restitution or receive punishment for our sins would be so disgraceful as to be unimaginable to Anselm.   
It is therefore necessary that either the honor abstracted shall be restored, or punishment shall follow; otherwise, God were either unjust to Himself, or were powerless for either, which it is a shame even to imagine.
Anselm emphasizes the calamitous results if God were not to insist on satisfaction or punishment:
If Divine Wisdom did not insist upon these things [satisfaction or punishment] when perversity attempts to disturb the regular order of things, there would be caused in that universe, which God should rule, a certain deformity from this violated symmetry of its order, and God would seem to fail in His government. Which two consequences, being inconsistencies, are therefore impossibilities, and hence it is necessary that all sin be followed by satisfaction or penalty.
But making recompense is not so easy.  One cannot restore God’s honor by simply correcting his or her behavior.  He must also make payment for the injury from sin already inflicted on God’s honor, something all tort lawyers understand:   “For as one who imperils another's safety does not enough by merely restoring his safety, without making some compensation for the anguish incurred; so he who violates another's honor does not enough by merely rendering honor again, but must, according to the extent of the injury done, make restoration in some way satisfactory to the person whom he has dishonored.”

Consequently, we face an insurmountable barrier.  We already owe God total obedience, so there is no act of obedience by which we can compensate God for his lost honor that is above and beyond what we already owe.  “When you render anything to God which you owe him, irrespective of your past sin, you should not reckon this as the debt which you owe for sin.”  Indeed, “[i]f in justice I owe God myself and all my powers, even when I do not sin, I have nothing left to render to him for my sin.”  So, we simply cannot make satisfaction ourselves.  Unfortunately, man’s inability to make the payment does not excuse him:  “But if there is any guilt in that inability, it neither lightens the sin nor excuses him when he fails to pay his debt.”  So, it appears that the only possible outcome is punishment – everlasting torment for the entire human race.

Some of you may be asking, why doesn’t God simply forgive the dishonor?  Jesus at least seems to think that God is boundlessly merciful, particularly if we show mercy to others.  For a few examples, see Matthew 5:7, 6:14, 18:23-35; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:37, 7:44-50, 15:11-32; John 8:1-11.  Unfortunately, however, according to Anselm, this is not an option.

As we have already noted, for Anselm, “Nothing is less tolerable in the order of things than for a creature to take away the honor due to the Creator and not make recompense for what he takes away.”  It follows that, “if it is not fitting for God to do anything unjustly or without due order, it does not belong to his freedom or kindness or will to forgive unpunished the sinner who does not repay to God what he took away.”  And thus, not only do God’s honor and justice remain intact by His insisting upon either satisfaction or punishment, but also all things “hold their own place in this universe and maintain the beauty of its order.”

4.  How Christ the God-man Achieved our Salvation

Luckily for us, failure – in this case, the ruination of the entire human race – is not an outcome desired by God.   According to Anselm, God had willed and initiated a plan to build a holy nation.  He started with holy angels who were “perfect in number.”  As we know, however, some of the angels fell.  So, to ensure the completion of his plan, God decreed the creation of humankind to replace the fallen angels.  As Anselm says, “It was fitting for God to fill the places of the fallen angels from among men … otherwise they who fell will not be restored, and it will follow that God either could not accomplish the good which he begun, or he will repent of having undertaken it; either of which is absurd.”   

So, now, God must find a way to for humanity’s debt to be paid so that the fallen angels can be replaced:  “the heavenly kingdom must be filled with men,” but “this cannot happen unless the satisfaction is made for sin.”  

As it so happens, God devised a way to get humankind out of hock.  While there is no debt forgiveness in heaven, someone else could pay the debt for us.  Although the debt is great – according to Anselm, “human sin is greater than everything that exists, except God” – it could be paid by God himself, who is also greater than everything that is not God.  Indeed, “no one but God can make the satisfaction.”  Anselm also adds, however, that “no one ought to make it [the satisfaction] except man; otherwise man does not make satisfaction."

So, in Anselm's view, the only possible way of repaying the debt was for a being of infinite greatness, acting as a man on behalf of men, to repay it. Because the debt was incurred by humanity, the debt to God’s honor must be made through an action of a man (or woman).   On the other hand, only God can pay such debt since it is only God who does not already owe God.  Here, God can do what a man cannot do.  So, we needed a Redeemer who was both truly God and truly man: one, as Anselm says, "who is God-man." 

And how did Christ restore God’s stolen honor?  Christ paid the debt by an moral achievement beyond anything that could have been expected of him:  He stood firm in obedience to God even unto death:  “he bore with gentle patience the insults put upon him, violence and even crucifixion among thieves that he might maintain strict holiness….”  God, as a matter of justice could not require an innocent person – Jesus was without sin after all – to suffer death.  “No man except this one ever gave to God what he was not obliged to lose, or paid a debt he did not owe. But he freely offered to the Father what there was no need of his ever losing, and paid for sinners what he owed not for himself.”  Jesus in effect went far beyond the call of duty, and in doing so paid a tremendous tribute to God.  Thus, by showing God honor beyond what was required, Jesus re-paid to God the honor that humankind has stolen from Him by sin.  

One thing that should be said here, Anselm makes a big point of saying that God did not order Jesus to submit to death.  God wished Jesus to do so, because that would pay humankind’s debt and God could proceed with building His heavenly kingdom.  But he never ordered it.  Had he required Jesus to die, there would have been no honor flowing to God since it would have simply fulfilled an existing obligation.  

Anselm went so far as to explain exactly how Christ’s death became a benefit for us humans. By performing such an excellent deed, justice required that a reward be given to Christ.  But, the Son already has everything that God has, so he has no use for a reward.   Says Anselm, “How then can a reward be bestowed on one who needs nothing, and to whom no gift or release can be made?”   He adds:  “The reward then must be bestowed upon some one else, for it cannot be upon him [the son].”  

The solution is not hard.  Since Christ earned the reward, “the gift should be given by the Father to whomsoever the Son wished.”   Well, the point of this whole exercise was humanity’s salvation, so Christ willed that the reward that He earned be passed on to us.

And that, according to Anselm, is how Christ’s death saved us from eternal punishment.

5. Casting about for Truth

As we pointed out at the beginning of this post, Catholicism presently endorses and teaches Anselm’s theory of atonement.  What will not escape notice by even the most casual reader, however, are the striking differences between the recapitulation theory of atonement and Anselm’s thinking.   It is fair to say there appears to be no resemblance whatever between the two theories.  The Patristics saw Jesus’ life and death as healing the sickness in the human soul and nullifying the power of death, while Anselm saw Christ’s death as a way of honoring God, thus, inducing Him to act favorably toward humankind. 

The differences in the approaches cannot be reconciled.  Much of what Anselm advocates as central points in his theory had been anticipated and expressly rejected by the Church fathers.  For example, Gregory of Nazianzus dismisses the notion that Jesus died to confer a benefit on the Father:  
Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this [Christ’s Body and Blood] offered, and for what cause?...  [I]f to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father…?   
Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 45 ‘For Easter.’

And then, Athanasius makes it clear that God can forgive our trespasses where there is repentance.  At one point he argues that the incarnation was necessary to heal us because sin is more than a transgression of the law, but involves a sickness of the soul.  He says, “Had it been a case of a trespass only [failure to follow the will of God], and not of a subsequent corruption [illness], repentance would have been well enough.”  Athanasius, On the Incarnation.  In other words, God could have forgiven our trespasses upon our repentance, but because sin is also a sickness, we also needed to be healed by Christ.  This notion, of course, is directly contrary to Anselm’s contention that God cannot forgive sin. 

And, one last example, Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE) has a view of the role and purpose of divine punishment that is incompatible with Anselm.  As we discussed earlier, Anselm claimed that, in order to maintain his sovereignty, God was required to punish those who did not repay God for taking his honor.  The sinner must pay his debt by his own will, “or else God subjects him to himself by torments...” By doing so, God “shows that he is the Lord of man...”  So, “as man in sinning takes away what belongs to God, so God in punishing gets in return what pertains to man.”  Accordingly, God must exact torment from people who offend his honor in order to make it unmistakable that he is in charge.   I think it fair to say the Anselm saw God’s punishment as retributive and not rehabilitative.

Clement, however, wholly rejects Anselm’s notion of punishment, and claims, instead, that God’s punishment “is for the good and advantage of him who is punished.”   Clement, The Instructor.  Indeed, Clement cites Plato in support of his argument:  “For all who suffer punishment are in reality treated well, for they are benefited; since the spirit of those who are justly punished is improved.”  Id.  So, “as children are chastised by their teacher or their father, so are we by Providence.”  Clement, The Stromata (“Patchwork”).  Says Clement, “So he [God] saves all; but some he converts by penalties, others who follow him of their own will…”  Clement, Fragments-Comments on the First Epistle of John.  Clement then goes on to expressly condemn Anselm’s view of divine punishment:  “but I will not grant that He [God] wishes to take vengeance.  Revenge is retribution for evil, imposed for the advantage of him who takes the revenge.”  Clement, The Instructor.

As I say, there is no reconciling the patristic writers with Anselm.

Some time ago, I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Ross Douthut (“The Pope and the Precipice”), which argued that, if the Catholic Church abandons its position on banning divorced Catholics from receiving communion, the authority of the Catholic Church will be irreparably damaged, everything will unravel and the Church will go into a death spiral.  No doubt many have heard this argument in other forms.  Of course, there are several well-known examples of the Catholic Church changing its pronouncements:  on slavery (the Catholic Church did not condemn slavery until 1888, only after every Christian nation had already outlawed it), usury (Christians can now become bankers!), and religious freedom (“error has no rights” became in 1965 “the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person.”)  But, here is a change concerning something much more fundamental:  the meaning of the central tenet of Christianity, God’s redemptive act of Christ’s death and resurrection.  And, it has not altered slightly, but dramatically, as we have seen.

So, the notion that the Church has a tight hold of eternal truths cannot itself be true.  Either the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ infused humankind with divine spirit and extinguished death or it satisfied the debt we owed to God.  Either way, the Church was wrong about the atonement for about a millennium.

But, if we step back for a minute and recall my first post in this series, this should not be so surprising.  The inconsistency about how Christ’s life and death reconciled us to God only matters if the point of religion is to identify and peg down ultimate truths.  As we have already discussed, however, according to thinkers like Michael Polanyi and James Carse, the value of religion lies not its ability to encapsulate final unalterable truths.  Religion, rather, endures and has meaning for us because it is engaged in the endless pursuit of and debate about the deeper matters – issues whose answers continue to elude the faithful.  Religion doesn’t end thinking; it pushes it beyond old boundaries.  As Polanyi says, religion “is like an obsession with a problem known to be insoluble, which yet follows, against reason, unswervingly, the heuristic command: 'look at the unknown!' ”  These two theories are simply points in an ongoing discussion about the meaning of the cross and the empty tomb.

But it does not end here.  We will continue to explore other theories of atonement.  And if our automobile doesn't turn upside down, and break my ice cream cone, next time I’ll tell you about Peter Abelard. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Warranty over Wonder

From the "me" to the "millennials", have we forsaken surprise for safety?
I've talked about this before, now Tyler Cowen speaks.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Wonder what Banksy has been doing since Dismaland?

Since 2015, he's been working on "The Walled Off Hotel", a real hotel located in Palestine, 500 meters from the checkpoint to Jerusalem. You may make reservations beginning next week. I was going to post pictures and text, but to get a fuller impact I'm going to just post some links. Here is a description with pictures. Here is Banksy's website. And, if you never heard of Dismaland, check it out here.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

QUIZ: What Should You Give up for Lent?

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

An Enigma on Man - front pieces




The perfect penance for Lent

As I’ve mentioned many times, for me the main purpose of Lent is not prayer and fasting for our sins, nor sacrifice so that we may grow in virtue. (That was taken from The Catholic Company, “world’s #1 Catholic store”.) It is to change your normal routine, reminding us that God is surprise, and that we should be wary of staying comfortable. 

However, that attitude toward Lent is dwarfed by the penance meme. To support the majority (and allow me to change, staying uncomfortable), I have the perfect penance for Lent:
I have decided to post the poem, “An Enigma on Man” on the blog. What better time than Lent? Reading this will most likely void any purgatory time you may have. It is religious, as well as philosophic and scientific, but it is certainly not orthodox. I would not recommend reading for anyone under 21, or without a healthy, mature grasp of science and religion. Because it is not trivial in either length or depth, I will be posting one 2-page chapter at a time—once a week. Tell your friends or enemies.

The message may be heavy but medium’s kept light.
Alliterative meter with more rhymes than I might cite,
And though what’s said may hurt your head or poetry be flawed,
A fool is all you’ll find, please don’t condemn me as a fraud,
But try to read aloud somehow as sense and sound sinks in,
And soon enough you’ll grasp the stuff and want to read again.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Another "Just Stand in Awe of My Power" video



I am almost never impressed with these. I know, the awesome music, the awesomeness of vastness beyond any human scale—what is wrong with me?

Well, for one, we've seen these since we were little kids. The universe hasn't grown much since when I saw my first space comparison in a children's book or saw my first TV video about the "billions and billions" of the immeasurable immensities of space. A nice reminder, but it should be commonplace by now.

For two, as impressive as the size increases are, there is actually more size decrease when you travel down in space to the smallest sizes. As usual we're just about in the middle. How boring.

And three. here's the text that typically goes along with these things:

"You want to talk about human insignificance? If Betelgeuse, one of the largest stars shown in the video, were in the Sun’s place, it would nearly reach the orbit of Jupiter, from which light takes 43 minutes (on average) to reach the Earth."

My response is, "You want to talk about insignificance? What would you choose to be or choose as more significant, Betelgeuse or a human?"

Maybe this is why I post these. Not because space seems so vast and we seem so insignificant. On the contrary—because space or Betelgeuse seem relatively insignificant compared to whomever wrote the music, made the video, and also had the humility to think they were insignificant.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Into the Woods

This latest Thanksgiving the family did something a little different at dinner.  Unfortunately, I don’t really recall the details, due to my fading ability to remember anything.  But, it somehow involved our specially designed place cards and required each one of us to read a different fairy tale, and then give a brief summary.  Finally, we were to share our thoughts on how the fairy tale somehow related to whoever was giving the summary (or something like that).  I thought that it turned out to be a more interesting exercise than I expected and was pretty enjoyable all around.  If nothing else, it reminded me of how curious and in some ways profound fairy tales are.

A recent viewing of the Steven Sondheim and James Lapine’s play Into the Woods revived my memory of our Thanksgiving exercise. The play is essentially a fairy tale mash up (one small example:  Jack returns to the Giant’s castle in the sky to retrieve the magic harp because Red Ridinghood doesn’t believe his story), with some new elements thrown in.  I had never seen the play or the 2014 Disney movie, and didn’t know what to expect.  So, I was pleasantly surprised by a terrific play that was both fun and fairly profound at the same time.

The curious thing about Into the Woods, which debuted on Broadway in 1987, was the source for its inspiration.  Of course, it used elements of a number of fairy tales.  But, mostly it is based on a book that tells no story at all:  The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim, a psychological study of fairy tales and their importance to childhood development.  Bettelheim’s book, was published in 1976, and enjoyed a brief period of popularity.  It won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976 and the National Book Award in 1977.


We begin with Bettelheim's premise:  “The child intuitively comprehends that, although these [fairy] stories are unreal, they are not untrue. ...”  Bettelheim makes the case that fairy tales present in story form essential childhood dilemmas – the fear of growing up, desire to live forever, fear that one is alone – in a way that a child can understand.   It assures them that, like fairy tale heroes, they can overcome obstacles.  In Bettelheim’s view, fairy tales guide children through the process of development, teaching them to go out into the world independent of their parents, find themselves, find their partner, and live “happily ever after,” knowing that by “forming a true interpersonal relation” they can live a fulfilled life.  Bettelheim explains, “This is exactly the message that fairy tales get across to the child in manifold form: that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence -- but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.”  As G.K. Chesterton notes, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

The woods play a particular role in these stories. The woods are threatening and perilous.  They represent the transition between childhood and maturity. Like adolescence, they are scary and filled with angst, emerging sexuality, self-discovery and definition, and even death.  As Bettelheim says, the woods are “the place in which inner darkness is confronted and worked through, where uncertainty is resolved about who one is; and where one begins to understand who one wants to be.”   In the woods is where children learn to overcome childhood traumas and to form adult bonds.

And so, as the play begins:    

You go into the woods,
Where nothing's clear,
Where witches, ghosts
And wolves appear.
Into the woods
And through the fear,
You have to take the journey.
Into the woods
And down the dell,
In vain perhaps,
But who can tell?

Into the woods,
Into the woods,
Into the woods,
Then out of the woods—

Throughout the play, the characters learn to overcome their fears, learn about themselves and the world, mature and learn to form bonds with others.

But the journey is never over.  There are still more things to meet and overcome.:

So into the woods you go again,
You have to every now and then.
Into the woods, no telling when,
Be ready for the journey.
Into the woods, but not too fast
Or what you wish, you lose at last.
Into the woods, but mind the past….

The way is dark,
The light is dim,
But now there's you, me, her, and him.
The chances look small,
The choices look grim,
But everything you learn there
Will help when you return there…

Into the woods--you have to grope,
But that's the way you learn to cope.
Into the woods to find there's hope
Of getting through the journey....



Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Now things are getting interesting

Is science really discovering the secrets of the universe or are we just following our science-fiction masters on how we should interpret reality. It's hard to argue with science, but things are just getting crazy.

Now two separate teams of scientists, one led by Norman Yao at the University of California, Berkeley and the other led by Harvard University’s Mikhail Lukin, have made time crystals, which were first theorized by MIT physicist and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek. Read all about it here and, for theory, here. Can the TARDIS be far behind?

Monday, January 30, 2017

Help Me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're My Only Hope

Experiments attempting to collect evidence that our universe is a 2-D hologram keep re-surfacing. Back in 2014, Fermilab's Craig Hogan designed an experiment to test the theory. Well, he did not find evidence that he was looking for. This article on that experiment is not too long and not too technical, so you may find it curiously refreshing. As the article says, he has not given up and is continuing with his next experiment. I seem to recall that his experiment, which is not much described in the article, was measuring background radiation from the Big Bang. (By the way, I'm baffled by that name as there was no Bang.)

Today scientists from Canada, England and the U.S. report that they have some evidence that revives the 2-D hologram theory of the universe. I, of course, don't understand this stuff, and all I can find is that small abstract of the paper (apart from goofy news reports about it), but it sounds like their "evidence" is more statistical appropriateness of the holographic model compared to the Standard Model.

Maybe this is why we have landed in the realm of alternative facts. Science keeps pushing us to leave "true" in favor of statistically appropriate.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Huge Women's March Addendum

Some of these signs are effective only as visuals.  Hence the new post instead of a comment.







New Yorl City March

London March







Game of Thrones eventually finds its way into everything.















Huge women's march

I watched much of it on the NYT website. Perhaps Renée (Washington), Lisa (Washington), Ellen (New York) and others can help me out, but here are the best signs I saw:

• Fight like a girl
• Make love not wall (Paris, France)
• Resistance is fertile (Kolkata, India)
• Respect existence or expect resistance
• Keep the mitts off the lady bits
• Make America think again (Florence, Italy)
• Don't forget to set your clocks back 300 years
• No hate, no fear, everyone is welcome here (Berlin, Germany)
• Keep calm and smash fascism (Helsinki, Finland)
• Hasta la vista sociedad machista (San Jose, Costa Rica)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Reasons to Look Forward to 2017

Things are looking pretty bleak these days, no?  Trump's election, Brexit. the Orlando shooting, the tragedy of Aleppo, global warming, and the collapse of Venezuela.  It’s been a rough year.  But, before you decide that the world  is going to hell in a handcart, think again.  On New Years eve, retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield laid out a series of tweets identifying 46 positive things that have happened in the last year -- some of them quite spectacular, like halving the number of veterans in the US who are homeless in the past 5 years, with a nearly 20% drop in 2016, or having the fewest per capita deaths in aviation of any year on record, or India planting 50 million trees in a single day.  And many of them I knew nothing about.  He concludes with "There are countless more examples, big and small. If you refocus on the things that are working, your year will be better than the last."  See Looking Up (You'll need to keep hitting the "Show More" button to read them all.)

Hadfield is not the only one looking up these days.  Swedish writer Johan Norberg argues in his new book Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future that the doom and gloom forecast is not just incorrect, but is directly the opposite of what is actually happening in the world.  See Why 2016 Is Actually the Best Time in All of History to Be Alive; also Better and better.   Norberg says that we misperceive what is happening in the globe because of the unrelenting parade of negative news stories promoted in the media -- if it bleeds it leads -- and we have been duped into believing the worst.  Norberg says that the problem with advocating that "everything is going downhill" is that this message is exactly what feeds populist politics like Trump and Brexit.  The world is in turmoil and we must circle the wagons.  I also worry that all this talk of impending catastrophe will discourage people laboring in the field improving the world, since its all pointless, and the doom prediction becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And, by the way, other remarkable things are happening.  As I discussed with Lainie at our New Years Eve gathering, the costs of renewable energy sources are steadily dropping and will soon undercut the cost of fossil fuels.  Consequently, as a matter of economics, renewables will end up being the preferred choice.  Renewables are already cheaper than coal, and wind energy (with tax credits) narrowly beats out natural gas.  There is every reason to believe that the cost of renewables will continue to drop.  Trump Can't Stop the Energy RevolutionFossil fuels are dead – the rest is just detailWind and solar energy to be cheaper than fossil fuels by 2018 People are worried Trump will stop climate progress. The numbers suggest he can’t.

Meanwhile, the World Bank has announced that, for the first time in known history, less than 10 percent of the global population now lives in extreme poverty (i.e., earning less than $1.25 a day).  According to the The Economist, "Between 1990 and 2010, [the number of people in extreme poverty] fell by half as a share of the total population in developing countries, from 43% to 21%—a reduction of almost 1 billion people.  Towards the end of poverty.  The UN has targeted 2030 as the year that we eliminate all extreme poverty in the world.  Here's the progress so far:

More people than ever are being fed around the world.  Famine deaths are increasingly rare and the proportion of the world’s population that is undernourished slipped from 19 percent to 11 percent between 1990 and 2015.  Add to that the fact that global child mortality from all causes has more than halved since 1990. That means 6.7 million fewer kids under the age of five are dying each year compared to 1990.  Worldwide life expectancy is also shooting up:  


Likewise, the world's children are becoming better educated.  We've seen the lowest-ever proportion of kids out of primary school according to the UN—less than one in 10. The number of kids out of school has fallen from 100 million in 2000 to 57 million in 2015. Consequently, literacy is rising.  Almost 90% of the world's population can now read:

And girls are not being left out of education:



And finally, if you are worried about overpopulation, fertility rates are dropping.  Go forth and multiply a lot less.

From where I stand, the future's looking mighty good.



The latest medical science advance astounds and grounds

Friday, January 13, 2017

Practical Benefits of Philosophy - technology edition

A number of years ago Myk presented the “Practical Benefits of Philosophy” in which he compared psychologist Carol Dweck’s ideas about growth and fixed mindsets to the philosophies of existentialism and essentialism. We had some fun (i.e. worthwhile) discussions on the topic (in my humble opinion). In spite of the fact that many family members support the study of philosophy as important to providing practical benefits in life, many others, like much of the world, see philosophy as a waste of time at best, and word manipulation at worst. Well, we all have our predilections and proper experiences. I’d like to give a totally different example of the “Practical Benefits of Philosophy”.

Unfortunately, it involves the world of programming, a world no one who reads this blog has any interest (unless big Dave gets some time off from work and chasing after kids to read).

Apple Corp. created a new, very well received language a few years ago called Swift. It was created by a very intelligent person named Chris Lattner. Mr. Lattner, as a graduate student, designed LLVM (Low Level Virtual Machine), an innovative infrastructure for optimizing compilers. A compiler is code that creates machine code from the code programmers write in. Practically all languages now use Lattner’s LLVM to complie code. 

Anyway, he was hired by Apple, did fantastic work with LLVM and other creations which form the core of Apple’s development environment. Then he created the new language Swift. Lattner announced a few days ago he is leaving Apple for a new challenge at Tesla. The person taking over Lattner’s responsibiilties at Apple and head of the Swift language is Ted Kremenek. Lattner admits that for some time now Kremenek has been more or less running the show, so it will be a smooth transition. 

Ted Kremenek has a doctorate in Philosophy from Stanford.