Friday, 31 August 2012

What do you mean, John 3:16?

Joseph nicodemus

Today is the feast of two great saints: Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. Neither was involved in the great battles against heresy that mark the lives of so many saints nor were they believed to have been martyred, to have lead ascetic lives or to have had visions or ecstasies. Also, in all likelihood, both were married men - pillars of the Jewish community at the time. Nicodemus was a politician, judge and prominent public figure, while Joseph (believed by some to be none other than Josephus Flavius) was an aristocrat and scholar. If they had LinkedIn profiles, they would come across as regular 1%ers.

Nonetheless, these guys are great examples of following Jesus - and they had the privilege of doing so in person. Nicodemus visiting Jesus in secret at first (John 3:1-21) but then coming out in the open to help Joseph to bury him (John 19:39–42) and Joseph being the one who stepped out of the shadows to petition Pilate for Jesus’s corpse. To my mind, both have shown great courage to place themselves at Jesus’s side under risky circumstances, putting their good standing and reputation at risk by associating themselves with a convicted and executed criminal. While that may not be asked of me, I see them as examples for taking Jesus’s side also when it is uncomfortable in the eyes of society.

Nicodemus can't be mentioned without a nod to Wyclef Jean's “John 3 16,” where “pig couldn't fly straight so you die in your sleep; I stay awake only to see Nicodemus.” Here you can find the lyrics and the song itself.

Stubbornly unholy brutalist: church architecture today


Cathedral christ light som220109 th 0

Which of the above churches looks more aesthetically appealing to you? The top or the bottom one? If you answered ‘top,’ kindly move along as you will at best find offence in what follows. If, however, your answer was ‘bottom,’ please, come with me on a brief journey of ‘I can't believe they said that!’

The church at the top happens to be the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston while the bottom photo shows the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland. Now, why did I pick these two churches for the following rant? The choice was far from random and was in fact motivated by an article published two days ago by an ‘architectural theorist,’ ‘the author of many books.’ At first I hoped to learn something interesting from reading it, but instead it just made me outraged at the pure nonsense of the views it propounded.

In summary, the article’s author argues in favor of the traditional (yet to the author ‘innovative’) Houston [co-]cathedral, which provides “[h]armonious ornamentation achieved through multiple symmetries [that] nourishes our senses and creates in us a healing state.” The style is even likened to Viennese Secession! [Wagner and Olbrich are spinning in their graves ...]

Instead, the Oakland cathedral is an exercise in technocratic self indulgence, failing to provide a “traditional church volume” and opening itself to criticisms like the following: “Why are the wooden slats horizontal instead of vertical? Are we not trying to connect vertically to the universe, to transcend the materiality of this building so that our souls can rise upwards?” Aside from the obvious counter arguments of why bricks or stone slabs in churches built in the past are not positioned vertically but instead horizontally, I find the idea that the orientation of wooden slats can inhibit transcendence preposterous and trivial (reminding me of the tin foil hats worn by those afraid of having their minds intercepted). Let us take a look at the interior of the Oakland cathedral to get a first hand feel for its potential to enable a rising up of souls:


And for comparison let's also look inside the Houston Co-cathedral:

Dsc 0001

If you’ve read this far (and are not doing it just to raise your blood pressure), then the above needs no explanation.

Then there are also those “stubborn asymmetries,” “the use of brutalist concrete[, which is] fundamentally unholy [and does not] conveyed a love for the Creator,” and not being “appropriate for housing the timeless truths offered by religion.”

Wow! Not only does the author not like the Oakland cathedral, but considers it unholy and inappropriate! I couldn't disagree more and am baffled by his credentials.

First, let me get one point out of the way: I am grateful for the existence of both buildings since they provide spaces where the Church (i. e., people) can meet to build a community, celebrate mass and house the Eucharist. That is not what this rant is about.

Second, let me challenge the conclusions of the article on theological grounds. Christianity is an incarnate, living, historic religion where it's “timeless truths” are timeless in substance but very much temporally incarnate in form! Since the person of Jesus, the Church has been a body with spatio-temporal location, evolving its understanding and putting into practice of the revelation Jesus brought. How can it therefore be claimed that there are some ancient, preferred church architectures rather than a preference for using the best of contemporary architecture?! Weren't the Hagia Sophia, the Antwerp cathedral and the Sagrada Familia all children of their times? Should church architecture have stopped at the catacombs? I find this kind of thinking as incongruous as that of Catholics who want to cling onto tradition as it was in the early 20th century (but why then?!). Authentic tradition leads up to the now and is the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s continuing life in the Church.

Third, let me argue that the Oakland cathedral is aesthetically vastly superior to the Houston one. Just look at them! The former looks like the result of inspiration meeting taste, while the latter seems to me like a conveyor-belt, Disneyfied knock-off. I guess you either see that or not ...

Apologies if this was too harsh, but I couldn't let a piece like that just go. Not only are there plenty of ‘Catholic’ voices out there that make us seem like fools, but also fools without taste, like the one I tried to respond to here.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Hatred and liberty cannot coexist

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks pic 3 Copy

I have been following Lord Sacks, the chief rabbi of the Commonwealth, for a while on Twitter and have greatly enjoyed his writings ever since. Today’s post on his website is no exception and is well worth reading in full. Kicking off with a great quote by Martin Luther King:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness …
he then goes on to discuss one of the instructions Moses gives to his people: “Do not hate an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land.” (Deuteronomy 23: 8). Lord Sacks emphasizes how counter-intuitive a law this is, given the exploitation and slavery the Israelites suffered at the hands of the Egyptians, instead of a spell of hospitality that the quote may suggest. His key point though is that hatred makes us slaves of the past and allows for past wrongs to persist in us even after they occurred. This does not mean that injustice ought to be forgotten, but only that its remembrance is to serve the purpose of prevention rather than retaliation. The key paragraph from Lord Sacks’s exegesis to me is the following though:
Hatred and liberty cannot coexist. A free people does not hate its former enemies; if it does, it is not yet ready for freedom. To create a non-persecuting society out of people who have been persecuted, you have to break the chains of the past; rob memory of its sting; sublimate pain into constructive energy and the determination to build a different future.
In many ways this is similar also to what St. Augustine, whose feast it is today, said:
“[He] he shall neither hate the man because of his vice, nor love the vice because of the man, but hate the vice and love the man. For the vice being cursed, all that ought to be loved, and nothing that ought to be hated, will remain.” (The City of God, 14:6)
Here Lord Sacks’ words can be read as saying that a fault’s or wrongdoing’s ‘cure’ needs to be accelerated and that those who have been wronged can take the first step. Maybe hatred is not a feeling I have myself, but there are certainly past events that have hurt or saddened me and I will strive to apply Lord Sacks’s advice to my attitude to them.

Monday, 27 August 2012

I say polygon, you say polyhedron

When you look at the above image, what do you see? Two triangles and five quadrangles, a cube or something else? Now, let’s turn to the following thought experiment:
You are strapped into a chair, your head held firmly in place, and you see a bright, diffuse screen in front of you, showing a series of black lines. You notice that the screen can go from an only-just visible black point at its periphery, via lines cutting across it or forming triangles with its edges, to closed squares or even constellations of polygons moving and morphing across it. You also notice that there are several knobs and levers at your disposal and that you can influence the shapes seen on the screen. Your task is to work out how the patterns you see are formed.

All you have access to in this case is a sequence of experiences of a two-dimensional, bounded world, yet through painstaking experiments you come to the realization that what you are seeing is consistent with there being a wireframe cube behind the screen. All the patters, the changes from one pattern to another and the lengths of edges could be the result of a wireframe cube casting a shadow. Once you arrive at your conclusion you are released from your restraints and are free to exit the room. As you do so, another person exits the room next to you. A quick chat reveals you had the same experience, but it turns out that they are convinced that it was just a computer screen rather that the silhouette of a mesh cube. You enter each other's rooms and realize that they look identical! You believe their room shows a 3D cube’s shadow; they believe your room contains a 2D computer-driven display. You both look for a way to access what is behind the respective screens and after a while you find the rooms backing onto your two ones. Your screen and theirs were indeed driven differently: one was a display driven by a computer and the other a piece of translucent plexiglass having a backlit cube cast shadows on it. Which was which remains a secret guarded by the two of you.

Now, my question to you: who was the more rational participant in this experiment? The person postulating a 3D entity on the basis of strictly 2D evidence or the person whose theories remained firmly 2D, in line with the nature of their evidence?

I would like to argue that they were both equally rational and that the distinction between them was not along rational-irrational lines and to underline the fact that they were both deriving their world views from the same evidence.

What was the point of this whole exercise though? It was to propose that empirical evidence alone is not sufficient to constrain explanation to a solely empirical domain (even just the use of mathematics in science, with its universal quantifier is beyond the empirical) and that the exact same experiences can be held up as a basis for alternative theories.

The last exegetical point I’d like to make though is that the two protagonists of the thought experiment can learn a lot from each other. The person hypothesizing the 3D cube can lend the other means for simplification while the strictly 2D person can share a more refined understanding of 2D relationships, which also enrich the cube’s understanding.

Why is it that I am concerned by the evidence-theory relationship and try to dig into its nature? It is because this is a key stumbling block in the rapprochement between atheist scientists and the rational religious. The former don't get how the latter can transcend evidence while the latter are threatened by the former’s insights into empirical evidence. The many-to-many nature of the evidence-theory relationship also underlies inter-religious dialogue. Since the transcendent is infinite, hyper-dimensional and vastly exceeding the fragmentary insights we can have of it, also in terms of aspects we don't even know about!, it is understandable that different interpretations of its actions have been formed in different cultures and by different people. It would be short-sighted to stop at an incompatibility between the monotheism of some religions, the personal Trinitarian insight of Christianity, the polytheism of Hinduism and the apparent atheism of Buddhism (in the strict sense of atheism as opposed to its current use as anti-theism) and arrive at the erroneous conclusion that these religions talk about different things rather than differently about aspects of the same (please, don’t mis-read this as me saying that everything that all religions claim is true, that all religions are equally true or that religions can be freely intertwined and recombined. End of caveat :).

If there is a God, who is infinite, transcendent and vastly more complex than us, wouldn't his actions as experienced in our limited realm lead precisely to the variety of religions as well as agnosticism and atheism that we see today?

Just a quick hat-tip to Flatland, to the Chinese Room thought experiment and to the story of the blind men and an elephant (and surely to many others :).

Saturday, 25 August 2012

The rosary and I

A Navy SEAL (possibly previously involved in an operation closely watched by the POTUS himself) abseils from the ceiling of a small church, neutralizes and removes an old lady praying the rosary and disappears as quickly as she appeared. As commander of the unit, I judge the operation a success: mass is no time to pray the rosary. But, I am daydreaming ...

What I wanted to talk about this time is why I do pray the rosary (and instead of a [possibly reasonably] well researched piece, I'd just like to share my personal experience, on a topic well worth returning to later, with more time to spend). The rosary is my favorite prayer as it is so versatile - you can use it as a basis for reflection, repeating its words almost mechanically (along the lines of Buddhist and Hindu mantras) and leaving your mind open to listening to the Holy Spirit; you can actually meditate on its words, which take you through the incarnation to contemplating the completion of our earthly journey and which do so focusing on Jesus through the optics of Mary; you can also use it as a way to work your way through the becoming flesh, teaching, suffering and resurrection of Jesus; you can also just employ it as a way to keep your mind from getting caught up in negative and harmful thoughts or an excess of self-pity; you can also use it to give thanks for the gifts of friendship, love and providence that can be recognized in our daily lives. And this is just the beginning!

The rosary has for me also been an act of uncontrollable resistance in the face of the oppressive regime I grew up in. On my way to school I would be praying it on the bus, where any outward sign of religiosity would be illegal and risk reprisal. Silently I was turned towards Jesus while Big Brother was watching and I knew, that unlike Winston Smith, he would never win my love. Years later, I would pray it on my way to university in an environment steeped in consumerism, and here too the rosary spread its mantle around me and allowed me to relate to my neighbors for what they were and not what they had.

I apologize if this sounds exaggerated, but the rosary has played an important part in my life - and it still does. It is the basis for not getting sucked into the ever-changing whirlpools that come in my way and for keeping my eyes on what matters: to love my friends and Jesus did and to aim to make everyone a friend of mine.

It would be grossly misleading to leave even this personal confession of rosary praying without pointing briefly to what prayer is an here there is none better that Fr. Pasquale Foresi, who said:-
Prayer does not consist in dedicating time during the day to meditation, or to reading some passages from Scripture or from the writings of the saints, or in thinking of God or our ourselves with the aim of some internal reform. This isn't prayer in its essence.

Reciting the rosary or morning or evening prayers is just the same. One can do these things all day without ever having prayed even for a minute.

Prayer, to be truly such, requires above all a relationship with Jesus: to go with the spirit beyond our human condition, our worries, our prayers - no matter how nice and necessary they may be, and establishing this intimate, personal relationship with him.

Elsewhere he even says: you can pray even when you are saying prayers :). Essentially the rosary is an excuse, a basis for trying to orient myself towards Jesus and as such I am a great fan of it.

First, thanks to my dad for suggesting this topic :) and second, if you have any experience of prayer - or something else related to it - that you’d like to share, feel free to leave a comment. :)

UPDATE: For a great rosary joke, see this video by Jesuit Fr. James Martin :) - the whole “Forty Days of Funny” series is excellent …

Friday, 24 August 2012

The wedding garment

Yesterday’s gospel reading was a bit of a puzzler and as I don’t think I ever heard it convincingly explained in a homily or made satisfactory sense of it myself, I started digging a bit into it. The text is from Matthew’s gospel (22:1-14) and presents the parable of the king’s son’s wedding feast where those who are invited refuse and the king’s servants bring in whomever they can find. The parable then ends in one of the guests being expelled for wearing the wrong gear plus there is a bit of killing too. Here is the full text:
Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a feast for his son’s wedding. He sent his servants to call those who had been invited, but they would not come. Next he sent some more servants. “Tell those who have been invited” he said “that I have my banquet all prepared, my oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, everything is ready. Come to the wedding.” But they were not interested: one went off to his farm, another to his business, and the rest seized his servants, maltreated them and killed them. The king was furious. He despatched his troops, destroyed those murderers and burnt their town. Then he said to his servants, “The wedding is ready; but as those who were invited proved to be unworthy, go to the crossroads in the town and invite everyone you can find to the wedding.” So these servants went out on to the roads and collected together everyone they could find, bad and good alike; and the wedding hall was filled with guests. When the king came in to look at the guests he noticed one man who was not wearing a wedding garment, and said to him, “How did you get in here, my friend, without a wedding garment?” And the man was silent. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot and throw him out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.’

So, what does all this mean? I had a quick look at homilies over the last 2000 years and found the following:

  1. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (4th century AD) basically considers this parable self-explanatory :|

  2. St. John Chrysostom (4th century AD) gives the parable a historical reading whereby those invited are the people of Israel while the random crowd picked from the cross-roads are the Gentiles. He also focuses on the invitation to the latter being due to no merit of their own but wholly down to grace. The most interesting part if the parable to me is the poor guy who gets kicked out after he was invited at random. Here St. John focuses on the fact that he condemns himself - only after the king personally questions him about his improper attire (representing the corrupted state of his life) and he is unable to bring anything to his own defense, is he condemned. St. John also makes a point about this guest having had a clean garment given to him to begin with: “And yet the calling was of grace; wherefore then doth He take a strict account? Because although to be called and to be cleansed was of grace, yet, when called and clothed in clean garments, to continue keeping them so, this is of the diligence of them that are called.” This addresses the prima facie peculiarity of the parable: why punish someone who was invited in at random. The answer seems to be that the second cohort of guests were given appropriate attire (grace) but failed to maintain it.

  3. St. Augustine (4th-5th century AD) offers a rather convoluted explanation of this parable, spending an inordinate amount of time on evidencing that the one expelled guest actually represents a whole category (he is to be commended for his rigor though). As regards the expelled guest, St. Augustine equates the wedding garment with charity and quotes St. Paul to warn against its imperfect variants :““though I distribute all my goods for the use of the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” This then is “the wedding garment.””

  4. Martin Luther (14th-15th century AD) reiterates the historical reading of St. John and St. Augustine and, as regards the expelled guest he characterizes them as follows: “These are pious people, much better than the foregoing; for you must consider them the ones who have heard and understood the Gospel, yet they cleaved to certain works and did not creep entirely into Christ; like the foolish virgins, who had no oil, that is, no faith.” That is, Christians, who were given everything, but have squandered it. What is it that God wants instead? Here Martin Luther has the following to say: “Now, what do we bring to him? Nothing but all our heart-aches, all our misfortunes, sins, misery and lamentations.” God wants us to be open with him and give him our all - weaknesses and strengths included.

  5. Finally, Pope Benedict XVI also offers his reading of this parable in a recent sermon: “God is generous to us, He offers us His friendship, His gifts, His joy, but often we do not accept His words, we show more interest in other things, we put our material concerns, our interests first.” As far as the expelled guest, Pope Benedict says: “on entering the hall, the king sees someone who has not wanted to wear the wedding garment, and for this reason he is excluded from the feast.” again echoing St. John’s position that the wedding garment was available to the guest but that it was his choice not to wear/maintain it. Pope Benedict then quotes St. Gregory the Great, who says that “this garment is symbolically interwoven on two pieces of wood, one above and one below: love of God and love of our neighbour.”

This parable has certainly been given a lot of thought since Jesus shared it with his followers and it seems clear that it is squarely directed at those who have heard the call of God to follow him. It is a warning both to those who hear it and ignore it and to those who follow it on the surface, but don't back it up with faith and charity. In no way is this any criticism of sincere atheists/agnostics. Instead it is a rather harsh warning to those of us who claim to be Jesus’ followers, and, as St. John says “indicates [...] the strictness of the life required, and how great the punishment appointed for the careless.” So, instead of a “oh, isn’t this a bit unfair to the poor, random fella” the message is clearly: take your relationship with God seriously - it is no game.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Salve Regina

Salve, Regina, Mater misericordiæ,
vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve.
ad te clamamus exsules filii Hevæ,
ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes
in hac lacrimarum valle.
Eia, ergo, advocata nostra, illos tuos
misericordes oculos ad nos converte;
et Iesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui,
nobis post hoc exsilium ostende.
O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria.

Today is the feast of Mary, Queen of Heaven, and my first reaction was to skip this as a blog topic as monarchic themes mean nothing to me (their frequent use in theology being, to my mind, a historical aberration rather than something that tells us anything profound about God). Then I remembered the hymn Salve Regina, in its original above and in a contemporary English translation here:
Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy,
our life, our sweetness, and our hope.
To you we cry, the children of Eve;
to you we send up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this land of exile.

Turn, then, most gracious advocate,
your eyes of mercy toward us;
lead us home at last
and show us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus:
O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.

This hymn is one of the few that have emotional resonance for me both because it has been sung at important moments in my life and because it says some key things about Mary, who is the model for how to follow her son, Jesus. The hymn both sets the context of suffering and persecution that Mary was exposed to throughout her life (just think of her desolation at the foot of the cross), and that we too experience at different moments, and points to its resolution in her son. Why is it though that Mary should play this role of intercessor? Can't we just pray to Jesus? Sure! Invoking Mary's help in no way bypasses Jesus - in fact if you look at everything we know about her, it always points to God. Does this mean that she is in some way insubstantial? On the contrary! What I see when I look at Mary is a person fulfilled to the maximum since she perfectly followed God's plan for her. I believe God has a plan for each one of us (a plan that always starts in the now, regardless of what we have done before) and that fulfils us, gives us joy and makes us free.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The cowardice and weakness of good men

St. Pope Pius X, whose feast day it is today, has been a hero of mine since my childhood, when I read his inspiring biography by Wilhelm Hünermann. He grew up in a poor family and was given an education only thanks to his parish priest's charity. As he then rose through the ranks of the Church, he maintained his focus on the essential and lived in Evangelical poverty until his death. Upon being elected pope he decided to only use a small room in the Vatican and proceeded to sell off many of the papacy’s insignia (including the papal tiara - the headpiece adorned with three crowns), with the takings going to the poor. He also suffered greatly from the upheaval that culminated in WWI, saying that “[i]n our time more than ever before, the chief strength of the wicked, lies in the cowardice and weakness of good men.”

Given this great saint’s and pope’s holiness, I am just dismayed at the break-away ‘traditionalist’ group - the Society of St. Pius X - using his name in vain. I am sure it wouldn't be to his liking ...

A post about St. Pius X can’t go out without mention of a prank he pulled as a kid. When asked to look after an old lady’s house in her absence, he went on to teach her cats to fear the rosary by chasing them with a stick while rattling it. When the old lady returned and got to praying the rosary, her cats went nuts :)

Monday, 20 August 2012

The Word is near you

Today is the feast day of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a great reformer of the Church and of monasticism and co-founder of the Cistercians. He also warned strongly against antisemitism and was an outspoken critic of the corruption in the Church of the 12th century (e. g., saying “One cannot now say, the priest is as the people, for the truth is that the people are not so bad as the priest.”) In many ways he prefigured the Reformation, and while he was an outspoken critic, he remained a reformer who stayed faithful to the Church and was later proclaimed saint and Doctor of the Church. What I find most attractive about him though are his insights about how to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, with sayings like “The true measure of loving God is to love Him without measure.” My favourite though is: “You don't have to navigate seas, break through clouds or cross the Alps. The way that is being shown to you is not long. You only have to go towards God as far as yourself since the Word is near you: it is in your mouth and in your heart.”

Thursday, 16 August 2012

A self thinking thoughts that are (or, an invitation to epistemic honesty)






A much more honest kick-off to a quest for reliable knowledge than René’s “cogito ergo sum.” But where to go next? With a self thinking thoughts that are, how do we get to knowledge of a world beyond? I believe I can't, or rather, that I can't know. All I have access to is my self. How about sensory experiences though? Well, those are still only parts of me - the stream of images, sounds, smells, textures, temperatures, pressures, movements are nothing but events internal to me. Are they caused by a world beyond me? Just from what I have to go on, there is no way of telling.

You say though that you see the same moon, trees and world as I describe, so it must be other than both you and I. But, no ... I only have my own experiences of you at my disposal and you may as easily be entirely part of me as an independent inhabitant of an external universe.

And, invoking Occam’s blade won't get you anywhere either: surely a universe where only I, with my complex imagination, exist is simpler (but, I am not saying more believable) than one where myriads of entities inhabit a material world.

Admittedly, many have set out down this route (Descartes and Russell being only two of my many fellow travelers - needless to say, known to me only as parts of my self) but none, to my knowledge, have stayed true to their initial rigor.

The insurmountable epistemic chasm between the self and anything potentially beyond it is precisely that: an chasm insurmountable by knowledge. All I will ever have access to is me: whether it prima facie looks like you or an external world or not. With epistemic honesty no secunda facie is accessible and, I have to say that both René and Bertie have let themselves be blindsided by ‘reasonable’ arguments that made them fudge the chasm and build magnificent edifices of knowledge on air.

Maybe you'll want to call my bluff (à la Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, where he challenges all who truly believe life to be absurd to commit suicide) and either say: “Come on, old girl, you've had your fun. Surely you can't believe this. Look around you: how could all this just be in your head?!” to which the answer should be obvious from the above.

Or, you could try a different, more subtle, line of attack: “If you really don’t think there is anything beyond yourself, why bother doing anything. Doesn't it make progress, compassion, love and the suffering of others meaningless?” To which I’d admonish you with a quick: “Check yourself before you wreck yourself.” Why should the events that I only have access to via my own experiences be any less seriously confronted in the absence of knowledge of their origin? Experiencing what appears as someone else’s suffering is an experiencing of suffering and cries out for remedy and consolation. If anything, it makes all suffering my suffering and therefore gives its resolution heightened urgency and immediacy. All this is to address only a misinterpretation of what I have said though. Stating that nothing beyond the self can be known (since I only ever have access to myself) does not mean that beliefs cannot (or even ought not) be held about the existence of others or a shared world (or that reason cannot be applied to structuring, explaining and predicting experiences consistent with an external world). All it means is that these beliefs, if held, are not derived from experience but additional (though not contrary) to it.

I don’t see any reason to break with epistemic honesty and deny the epistemic inescapability of the self so that questions beyond the self can be addressed. All it takes is being honest about involving beliefs or at least assumptions.

UPDATE (24/09/2012): Having just listened to Antony Gormley’s talk at the latest TED conference, I am delighted to see that his approach to sculpture very much parallels the above epistemological argument. Unlike ancient Greek sculptors, who tried to get at a sculpture trapped in a block of marble, so to speak from the outside, Gormley’s approach is the opposite. He starts from the “darkness of the body,” which he invites us to explore as follows:
“Do you mind if we do something completely different? Can we all just close our eyes for a minute? Now, this isn't going to be freaky. It isn't some cultic thing. (Laughter) It's just, it's just, I just would like us all to go there. So I'm going to do it too. We'll all be there together.

So close your eyes for a minute. Here we are, in a space, the subjective, collective space of the darkness of the body. I think of this as the place of imagination, of potential, but what are its qualities? It is objectless. There are no things in it. It is dimensionless. It is limitless. It is endless.

Okay, open your eyes.

That's the space that I think sculpture – which is a bit of a paradox, sculpture that is about making material propositions – but I think that's the space that sculpture can connect us with.”
Gormley’s “darkness of the body” is where epistemic honesty needs to start and where it remains even when we open our eyes.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Sun and moon and stars

Today is the feast day of the assumption of Mary into heaven. A unique honor reserved for Jesus’ mother who was not only conceived without original sin, lived a life without sin but was also lifted up into heaven at the end of her earthly journey.

To intuit the greatness of Mary and her key role in understanding both her son and the Trinity, the following is a fragment from one of the most recent mystical visions shedding light on her - that of Chiara Lubich in 1949:
“On that day I understood Mary, perhaps through an intellectual vision, as I had never seen her before. And now twelve years have passed since that day, but I still have the clear impression of the unexpected “greatness” that this discovery of the Mother of God in the Bosom of the Father made on me. As the blue of the sky contains sun and moon and stars, so Mary appeared to me, made by God so great as to contain God Himself in the Word.

I had never had such a notion of Mary, but there her divine [by participation] greatness was impressed upon my soul in such a way that I do not know how to say it again.

I can say only that no human reasoning would be able to render the idea.

That vision produced conviction.”

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Blue skies from pain

The people around us have the capacity to lead us across the full spectrum from heavenly joy to hellish torment. And they don't even have to mean to. A word not in tune with my (to another inaccessible) interior state can be like a searing poker while a friendly gesture (whether meant with much sincerity or awareness or not) can restore faith in humanity.

A lot of how the actions of others are read by me is down to me though and a focus on what is going on right now (rather than having taken place years or even just minutes ago or being anticipated in the future) is a sure-fire way both to put the negative into perspective and to give the positive oxygen. Today I failed miserably at this challenge, crushed between a dark past and a bleak future, but tomorrow I am going to try again (stopping myself from putting the odds into numbers).

The stakes are high at the extremes: Sartre’s “hell is other people” at one and Jesus’ “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mathew, 18:20) at the other end. I'd be a fool not to try.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Victories of all kinds

Fr. Maximilian

Today is the feast of one of the most heroic saints of modern times: St. Maximilian Kolbe, who gave his life for a fellow inmate at Auschwitz. When a prisoner escaped the camp, 10 inmates were to be executed as a reprisal. One of them was the young father of a family, who pleaded for mercy. In response Fr. Maximilian offered to take his place and the guards acquiesced. After a prolonged starvation during which he supported his fellows on death row and which made his guards' patience run out, Fr. Maximilian was given a lethal injection, which killed him.

This much is generally known about him and it is indeed worthy of admiration and contemplation. Fr. Maximilian was also a person of great openness and learning, having spent many years in Japan, encountering Buddhism and Shintoism, and a person who stood up to the oppressive Nazi regime, having written articles and transmitted radio broadcasts calling for resistance, which ultimately got him sent to the death camp.

His act of heroism was not a momentary exception, but the fruit of a life dedicated to truth and love.

Here is what he has to say in his own words:
“No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hetacombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we are ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?”

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Conscience, dissent and the ex-excommunicated saints

Image pierre teilhard de chardin pere teilhard jesuite scientifique jesuit scientist point omega noosphere le phenomene humain the human phenomenon parapluie galactique galactic umbrell1

… walk into a bar. I wish I could turn that into a joke, but it happens to be deadly serious. Anyone even remotely following the life of the Church must be acutely aware of the multitude of dissenting groups both in and outside it. The spectrum ranges from the Austrian priests via the US nuns all the way to the Society of St. Pius X (who were largely responsible for the attacks on Archbishop Müller’s words on the Eucharist and Mary’s virginity that I discussed before). While it would be interesting to engage in their arguments, here I would instead like to look at the bigger picture: conscience.

What the Church teaches about conscience is, to my mind, key not only to seeking God’s will but applicable to all - believers and non-believers alike - as a basis for an honest and conscious life. Let's start with how the Catechism introduces the topic (and forgive me for keeping this brief - it is a section that I am very fond of and would love to expand on in the future):
“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment.... For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God.... His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1776)
I read this as saying that we have in us a sense of right and wrong that is not self–imposed and that Christians believe to come from God. While agnostics/atheists would hold other views on its origin, the key here is that I don’t choose what I myself consider right or wrong.

Next, the Catechism exhorts us to self–examination and reflection - very much in the tradition of philosophers ever since Socrates:
It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self-examination or introspection (CCC, §1779)
Finally, after providing numerous ways to inform one’s conscience, listing a couple of rules (never do evil so that good may result from it, the golden rule, respecting one’s neighbor) and elaborating on the fact that one’s conscience can be erroneous, the Catechism categorically states:
A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. (CCC, §1790)
In other words, if, after having scrutinized and examined your own conscience you get to a conclusion you are certain of, the Church teaches you to follow it no matter what. The conclusion you arrive at may be erroneous in the Church’s eyes and you may be admonished, gagged and even punished for your views, but under no circumstances are you to act against what your conscience, with the help of your reason (CCC, §1786), arrives at as being certain.

Seen from the perspective of an individual this is quite tricky, when their conscience leads them into conflict with the Church’s teaching. Imagine you arrive at a judgment that you are certain of but that is contrary to what the Church says. Are you to disregard your own conscience and fall into line, or are you to dissent? The Catechism warns against the former, but you may incur penalties for the latter, which would give you every right to say: ‘Hey, but you told me to follow my conscience! What gives?!’ This is how many who today are voicing their opinions must feel and I can see how that would be very frustrating.

If we look at this picture from the perspective of the whole Church and over its history, another aspect emerges though, which is that dissent, which may at first be punished, can end up being rewarded later. Often the changes that take place in the Church’s teachings are prefigured in its saints, who - being faithful to their consciences and committed to listening to God's voice - often have to pay a heavy price for sticking their necks out when most others in the Church have not yet caught on to a new impulse from the Holy Spirit. In fact, suspicion on the part of Church authorities is a pretty constant feature of the lives of the saints (e.g., St. Ignatius of Loyola being questioned by the Inquisition three times, St. John of the Cross being imprisoned by his fellow Carmelites and many others), which brings me to the most severe form of punishment at the Church’s disposal: excommunication.

Excommunication is the severest penalty the Church can impose and results in the excommunicated member being deprived from participating in the life of the Church. It ought to be used as a ‘medicinal’ penalty, meant to correct rather than punish or make satisfaction for the wrong done. Those who have over the centuries proclaimed heresies or lead to schisms in the Church have been excommunicated, but the list also includes a number of saints - in other words, people whom the Church holds up as examples of how to follow the teachings of Jesus and his Church. These saints, who at some point of their lives were excommunicated (and whose excommunications were later either declared invalid or lifted) include St. Joan of Arc (for insubordination to a bishop - declared invalid), St. Mary MacKillop (for reporting a paedofile priest and insisting he be removed - declared invalid), St. Hippolytus (the first antipope, excommunicated, but later reconciled with the pope’s successor who lifted the excommunication - incidentally all three: the two popes and Hippolytus are saints), whose feast day is tomorrow, and finally St. Athanasius, now revered as the ‘Father of Orthodoxy’ (excommunicated by a pope influenced by the Arian heresy but exonerated by his successor).

Maybe the picture emerging here is one of it being just fine to ignore Church teaching and to just go with whatever comes into one’s head. This is not where I am going at all. There is a clear tension between faithfulness to Church teaching and fidelity to one’s own conscience, where - for an individual – the latter wins in the end. However, let us not side-step the elephant in the room: certainty! If you look back at the Catechism’s teaching, it says that ‘a human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience’ [emphasis mine] - not just a hunch or even an conclusion that is gathering support or one that has good statistical chances, but certainty! And, in the process of reflecting and analyzing one’s judgment, Catholics are called to take Church teaching and a host of other factors into account. Only after having undergone a rigorous and well informed process and only if this process has lead them to interior certainty are they commanded to follow their own conscience over Church teaching. This is pretty strong stuff and certainly sorts out the wheat from the chaff. In fact, if you look at the vast majority of saints who have come under suspicion in the Church’s eyes, the way they responded to them - with humility, but with determination – was in many cases a contributor to those suspicions having been dissolved.

To conclude, let me just point to an example that to me shines most brightly - that of Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit, philosopher, paleontologist and geologist, who was one of the most radical and creative thinkers of recent centuries. His ideas (on which more at a later date) are to this day viewed with suspicion by the Church and carry a warning about being ‘offensive to Catholic doctrine’ (although Pope Benedict XVI recently referred to them favorably). The most impressive thing to me about Teilhard de Chardin though is his humility and obedience. When asked by the Church to cease his writings and teachings, he and the Jesuit order complied. This, to my mind was a tremendously selfless act and one that also demonstrated Teilhard de Chardin’s priorities: obedience and poverty before fame and glory. I believe his insights will one day be exonerated and become part of Catholic patrimony.

Friday, 10 August 2012

St. Clare’s treasure


Tomorrow is the feast day of St. Clare of Assisi - one of my all-time favorite saints. There is a lot to learn from looking at her life, but the thing that stands out to me is what she said on the night when she left the riches of her family and followed St. Francis’ example. While this event is glossed over in most of her biographies with something like: “On that very night she ran away to go follow Francis. When she got there he cut her hair and dressed her in a black tunic and a thick black veil.”

What an account like that makes me wonder about straight-away is what was said by Francis and Clare on such a sacred occasion. It seems highly unlikely that an event like this would have taken place without something precious also being put into words. As it happens, we do get a first glimpse in the account shared by Prof. Corrêa de Oliveira, the prominent Brazilian politician and intellectual, who describes it as follows: “Francis asked her what she wanted, and she answered: ‘I want the God of the Manger and of Calvary. I desire no other treasure or inheritance.’”

This lets us intuit what was on Clare’s mind, but it is only in the following words of Chiara Lubich, the Italian leader and founder of the Focolare Movement, that the full depth of Clare’s frame of mind emerges, when she says:
“I remember when my first companions and I made the choice of God as the Ideal of our lives, while ideals came crashing down all around us [during the Second World War], and I was very impressed by this saint, whose life I knew. Aged eighteen, she encountered St. Francis, and his teachings about poverty, and became captivated by them. So, she too wanted to follow this new way indicated by the Holy Spirit.

I remember the strong impression made on me by her answer to St. Francis’s question: ‘My little daughter, what do you desire?’ And she responded: ‘God.’ How marvelous! It is not like she said: ‘To follow you, Francis; poverty; to give myself to God.’ No. ‘My little daughter, what do you desire?’ ‘God.’

[…] It is the answer that we too have given at the beginning, when all ideals collapsed around us and we felt inside that one Ideal did not collapse: God. It was not the result of human reasoning, it was an inspiration, an impulse from the Holy Spirit, a thrust inside us.

We have chosen God.

But, it was not as a result of my reasoning, or that of my first companions.

Not only does Chiara Lubich elaborate on how to read Clare’s answer in its radicalness and totality, but she highlights parallels with her own experience, over 700 years later, during the Second World War. The wholeheartedness of both Clare’s and Chiara’s yeses to God is in fact a universal feature of the call many feel, to give their lives to God. It comes with a demand for everything: no holds barred.

I’d just like to draw your attention to the fantastic series of lithographs by Arthur Boyd on the life of St. Francis, from which I took the above image. Also, many thanks to NP and PM for helping me with translating the quote by Chiara Lubich from Italian (all errors are mine though :).

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Edith to Mary

Seint Edith Stein

Today is the 70th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Edith Stein, one of the great saints of the 20th century and one of the patrons of Europe. Born a Jew, turned atheist, converted to Christianity, became a nun, was a great philosopher (student of Husserl, father of phenomenology) and champion of women’s rights, she finally gave her life for her faith, choosing to remain at Auschwitz with her fellow Jewish prisoners rather than using her baptism as a get out card. She is a towering example of a true disciple of Jesus.

The following is a poem she wrote to Mary on Good Friday 1938:
Today I stood with you beneath the cross
And felt more clearly than I ever did
That you became our Mother only there.

But those whom you have chosen for companions
To stand with you around the eternal throne,

They must stand with you beneath the Cross,
And with the lifeblood of their bitter pains,
Must purchase heavenly glory for those souls
Whom God's own Son entrusted to their care.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Gang up on the green!

Temple gardens

The last week has seen a discouraging pair of shots being fired between the religious and atheists camps in the form of an article in the Catholic Herald by Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith and a response to it by the biologist Prof. Jerry A. Coyne.1

I will leave it to you to read the two articles for yourself and won’t attempt to challenge the many individual shots fired by the two sides, as tempting as that is. The problem of evil, Nietzsche’s philosophy, nihilism, alternative theories of meaning, the nature of empirical observation, inference, theoretical parsimony and (lack of) evidence for God are all used as bullets, but without any attention paid to attempting a meeting of minds and certainly without any effort made to apply the principle of charity by either side.

Instead of going into the pair of arguments point–by–point, I would just like to throw the following into the mix (one each as criticisms of the two protagonists):
  1. Prof. Coyne, isn’t it the case that a given set of empirical data can be the basis of multiple, alternative inferences? Stating that the character of our universe being the opposite of what would be expected given a loving and powerful god is an “inference from evidence” is all well and good, but I’d argue that so would be the inference that our universe is exactly what would be expected given a loving and powerful god. What is inferred from evidence does not derive from it in a causal way (seeing a dropping apple does not cause a specific theory of gravity to be posited by an observer) and neither does a given (set of) evidence only lend itself to the definition of a single, specific theory to be inferred from it. Just looking at the playing filed of contemporary physics (or probably any other field of rational enquiry) ought to be enough to settle this point. Please, don’t take this as me saying that scientific theories are feelings or that they are arbitrary. That is not what I believe at all. I have a deep admiration for science, derive great satisfaction from participating in its advancement (admittedly in a minuscule way as far as my contribution goes) and fully subscribe to its enormous value. While I wholeheartedly agree with Prof. Dawkins and you that we can all be moral without a belief in god, I would also like to suggest that the religious views you attack are caricatures, assuming no intelligence on the part of those who hold them – not a great basis for dialogue.

  2. Fr. Lucie–Smith, isn’t it the case that the feeling of indifference, the unanswered call for justice and the lack of clarity of purpose that you attribute to atheists is precisely what Jesus felt in his abandonment on the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mathew 27:45)? And isn’t it then more fitting to engage in a dialogue with atheists that seeks to tease out the common ground between what is accessible to us without the benefit of a faith, which we, Catholics, believe to be a gift (“Faith is an entirely free gift that God makes to man.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, §162)? Please, don’t take this the wrong way, but what did you seek to achieve with your article, beyond ridiculing a ridiculous interpretation of another’s words?
So, potentially having made two fresh enemies, let me suggest that we are looking at the wrong battle lines altogether! The fight ought not to be between atheists and religious but between the rational atheists and religious on the one hand and those who act without employing reason or who abuse reason for selfish and immoral ends on the other – and those come in both flavors. Let me just give two examples that shocked and saddened me recently: first the ‘Christian’ idiot who killed seven at a Sikh gurdwara in Milwaukee and second the ‘atheist’ Chinese state whose officials have performed a forced abortion on a 7–month–old foetus. And these are just two outrageous and reprehensible events picked almost at random from the last two weeks.

For us, who do clearly have differences that I don’t mean to belittle, but who subscribe to both rationality and morality, to squabble with each other is both an offense to reason and to God and I wish that we would learn from the inhabitants of Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, where “[b]lack and white lived in perfect harmony and ganged up on green.”

1 Thanks to Luke Coppen for his excellent daily ‘Catholic must-reads’ and Twitter feed, where I first read about these articles.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

I’m with Müller: Mary’s virginity

01 arcabas La Annonce faite à Marie

Somewhat reluctantly,1 I’ll now turn to the second of the three most prevalent criticisms that ‘traditionalist’ groups have leveled against Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the new prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. For the context and my take on the first criticism that relates to the Eucharist, see a previous post.

First let us review the Catholic teaching that Mary was a virgin and look at what the Catechism says:
“The gospel accounts understand the virginal conception of Jesus as a divine work that surpasses all human understanding and possibility: “That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit,” said the angel to Joseph about Mary his fiancée. The Church sees here the fulfillment of the divine promise given through the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §497)
This certainly sets the tone very clearly: the Church (and I) believes that Jesus was conceived by action of the Holy Spirit while Mary was a virgin and that this is an event that is beyond human understanding – beyond what’s considered possible (i.e., I read this as being inconsistent with the regular laws of nature). Let’s look more closely at what is said though about the nature of Mary’s virginity:
“[T]he Church confess[es] Mary’s real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man. In fact, Christ’s birth “did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.”” (CCC, §499)
Finally, let’s see how the Catechism concludes the part dedicated to Mary’s virginity:
“Mary is a virgin because her virginity is the sign of her faith “unadulterated by any doubt,” and of her undivided gift of herself to God’s will. It is her faith that enables her to become the mother of the Savior: “Mary is more blessed because she embraces faith in Christ than because she conceives the flesh of Christ.”” (CCC, § 506)
So, to sum up, I believe the Church teaches that Mary was a virgin before during and after Jesus’s birth, that this was an event clearly outside the regular running of nature and that, while her virginity was very much real, its value is not in the physiological facts that sustained it but in it being a sign of her faith.

With the above in mind, let’s turn to Müller’s words2 (note that the changes indicated below are mine, based on the German original and versus the English wording found in a multitude of blog posts):
”[The perpetual virginity of Mary] is not so much about specific physiological proprieties peculiarities in the natural process of birth (such as the birth canal not having been opened, the hymen not being broken wounded, or the absence of birth pangs), but with about the healing and saving influence of the grace of the Savior on human nature, that had been wounded by Original Sin. […] The article of faith it is not so much about physiologically and empirically verifiable somatic details.” (Katholische Dogmatik für Studium und Praxis, p. 498)
The first thing to notice is that, if anything, the English translation used (critically) everywhere is more vague than the way I read Müller in the original German. I understand him as saying that Mary’s virginity is not about physiology and about what did or did not happen to her reproductive organs, but about grace, salvation and the person of Jesus. I see it as a reaction to the tomes upon tomes of pseudo–scientific accounts of how Jesus’ birth may have taken place vis a vis Mary’s perpetual virginity. This is about as useful as mediaeval 'scientists' writing treatises about lions without ever having seen one. If anything this is even worse, as there is no way for these ‘scientists’ to ever verify their claims.

Müller is not a scientist and he makes it clear that the Church’s beliefs about Mary’s virginity are not situated in a scientific context. As the Catechism (quoted above) also states, Mary’s perpetual virginity “surpasses all human understanding and possibility” and its analysis in terms of physiological categories is an exercise in futility.

Before concluding this little excursion, let me highlight one of the things that Müller said in a part that the quote bandied about by his critics left out: “To a mother, giving birth is not limited only to being a biological process.” This, to anyone who has children, is such an obvious thing to say that it seems hardly worth saying. Yet, in the context of the analyses and criticisms of Müller’s words on Mary’s virginity, it stands out like a beacon of sense in a sea of confusion and misguided breast-beating.3 What was it that went through Mary’s head when Jesus was born? Certainly not thoughts about her own hymen or birth canal, but an immense outpouring of love for her son and an awareness of the extraordinary consequences of her “Yes” to the message brought to her by the angel Gabriel now becoming even more of a gift to the world.

1 I feel great affection for Jesus’ mum, who is not only an example in following her son, in putting others before herself, in listening and adhering to God’s call, in consoling the suffering and in stepping to the fore when most needed, but also someone with whom I feel I have a personal relationship. Having to discuss their anatomy isn’t exactly what seems most attractive to me, but I do think it is worthwhile given the spurious accusations that I’ll address here.

2 As in previous posts, here too I'll try to be careful about seeing exactly what someone has said before jumping to attack or defend it. So, the original German of Müller’s statement is: »Es geht nicht um abweichende physiologische Besonderheiten in dem natürlichen Vorgang der Geburt (wie etwas die Nichteröffnung der Geburtswege, die Nichtverletzung des Hymen und der nicht eingetretenen Geburtsschmerzen), sondern um den heilenden und erlösenden Einfluß der Gnade des Erlösers auf die menschliche Natur, die durch die Ursünde "verletzt" worden war. … Der Inhalt der Glaubensaussage bezieht sich also nicht auf physiologisch und empirisch verifizierbare somatische Details« (S. 498). And, for completeness sake, here is the original wording of the missing part referred to later in the post: »Die Geburt beschränkt sich für die Mutter nicht lediglich auf einen biologischen Vorgang.«

3 Not wanting to taint the main body of this post with reference to it, I can still not overlook some of the utter nonsense that some commentators have dragged up in the context of this topic. Let me just give one example, which goes as follows: “On this note, to deny that the Virgin Mary was not preserved from childbirthing [sic] pains is an attack on the Immaculate Conception of the same Virgin Mary.” Immaculate Conception?! They may as well bring the instructions on how Noah was to construct the ark into play! [Apologies for the outburst - for those of you not versed in Catholic theology, let me just state what the Immaculate Conception is about: “Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses.” (CCC, §491, emphasis mine) Sheesh!]

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Occam–Einstein Incongruence


No, this is not an episode of The Big Bang Theory you missed, but instead the seeming tension between two of science's best-loved heroes: William of Occam (who, incidentally, was a Franciscan friar and is revered in the Anglican Church as a saint) and Albert Einstein.

Let’s set the ground first by seeing what these two guys say about simplicity versus complexity, that is often applied also to scientific theories. Occam is almost exclusively known for his razor, which goes as follows:
“Plurality must never be posited without necessity” (which he also expressed by saying that “[i]t is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer.”)
while Einstein has, among many other things, warned that:
“Everything should be kept as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
and that
“For every problem there is a solution which is simple, obvious, and wrong.”
At first sight it may seem like Occam is arguing for simplicity, while Eistein is warning against its excessive application, but a closer reading suggests to me that Einstein is simply being cautious of simplicity in the absolute. Just looking at some theory and judging it to be complex does not automatically make it a candidate for being cut to size with Occam’s razor. Instead, it is its simplicity relative to the simplicity of the entities and events that it refers to that needs to be considered. Neither is it the case that two theories can be compared solely on the grounds of simplicity, with the conclusion that Occam would side with the simpler one. It is only when the competing theories have the same level of descriptive/predictive performance that the razor comes into play.

Bringing Occam and Einstein together, we can say that problems of varying degrees of simplicity require solutions of commensurate complexity – if a solution’s simplicity exceeds that of the problem’s, it is likely not to be a solution, while if it falls short of it, there is room for simplification and the added baggage is unnecessary.

Instead of being a battle axe, Occam’s razor looks more like a surgical implement, requiring careful deliberation both before and during application. As for our protagonists, they are more likely to star in an episode entitled ‘The Occam-Einstein Equivalency’ :).

Friday, 3 August 2012

Does science require beliefs?

Rembrandt anatomy

I am not talking about a belief in God, or anything whatsoever to do with religion. All I am asking is whether the practice of science requires the holding of beliefs or not. If you ask most scientists, engineers or even random members of the public, you are likely to get a negative answer (for a vigorously atheist answer see here). Science, after all, is about knowledge and repeatable process. The scientific method delivers predictive, explanatory models of the universe, that are derived from, and agree with, hard facts – measured data. We know there is gravity from repeatable experiments and we have models that let us make predictions about how it acts. Therefore, we have no need for beliefs to explain that an object lifted off the ground drops when let go.

That does sounds pretty convincing. Given a law of nature we can explain how the entities and events it refers to interact and we can make predictions about how they will behave under some new, future conditions. This requires no beliefs.

Or does it? If you were to ask Max Planck (yes, the Nobel prize winning author of quantum theory and the guy after whom the Planck constant is named), he’d promptly admonish you as follows:
“We have no right to assume that any physical laws exist, or if they have existed up until now, that they will continue to exist in a similar manner in the future.”
No amount of past data is grounds for expecting the same, previously observed relationships to hold into the future (whether under past or new conditions), for which – by definition – we have no data. Making predictions fundamentally relies on the belief that the laws of Nature are constant and will persist as observed and deduced previously. Now, you might argue that this is a reasonable belief to hold, and I'd agree with you, but you'd be hard pressed not to concede that it is a belief rather than a (scientific) fact. Almost as an aside, there is some evidence though that puts a question mark over the belief that the laws of nature are constant (e.g., see this article in the journal Nature or reports like the one in ABC Science).

The above is just a specific application of the more general problem of induction, whereby we “[p]resuppos[e] that a sequence of events in the future will occur as it always has in the past.” A great, more recent thought experiment to illustrate the problem has been proposed by Goodman in the form of the purpose-built predicate “grue.” “Something is grue if and only if it has been observed to be green before a certain time or blue after that time.” Therefore all emeralds that have ever been observed are not only green, but also grue and we have no basis for assuming that after some future time T we will find green but not grue emeralds. Coming back with saying that emeralds have always been green is beside the point …

As you may have noticed, the above reasoning deliberately took shortcuts and did not explore other instances of belief in science, which may well be rectified in future blog posts (we just can't tell yet).

Finally, it is worth noting that the ideas presented above are in no way an attack on science! Science, on the basis of its underlying beliefs and assumptions, sheds light on how the world around us may work, allows us to make predictions (which for some phenomena have so far always come true), lets us harness the potential of materials around us for the benefit of humanity and dramatically demonstrates the advances that human intelligence is capable of. This makes science greatly valuable and something to be proud of, but let us not delude ourselves into thinking that it is devoid of belief.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Many or all?


How do you preserve the message Jesus proclaimed two thousand years ago, when businesses and institutions struggle to get their members to know even just about the strategy and vision of the moment? I think this is quite a thorny challenge, as it can take you down at least two undesirable paths: On the one hand, you can become caught up in splitting hairs and lose sight of what Jesus wanted to communicate, while holding on to his specific words with zeal (the example of those who can recite Scripture but wouldn't think twice when walking past a homeless person comes to mind). On the other hand, there is the 'chillax, man!' kind of approach, which would argue that it doesn't matter what Jesus said exactly as we know that he just wanted us to be ‘nice’ to each other. While the latter is far less objectionable to me, it does run the risk of missing out on the richness of Jesus’ words, which we have been unpacking for two millennia (e.g., think of St. Francis’ re-discovery of poverty, St. Therese of Lisieux’s realization of the depth of everyday life, etc.).

It is in this context that the question of a single of Jesus’ word’s translations has been plaguing linguists and theologians during the last half century, leading to votes in various national Bishops’ conferences and now even to an intervention by the Pope himself. The word in question is the Latin ‘multis’ and the controversy revolves around whether it ought to be rendered as ‘many’ or ‘all.’

Coming to this question cold, you could be forgiven for saying: “Well, I googled it, and it clearly says ‘many.’ End of story.” As it happens, the Pope has arrived at the same conclusion, but what is noteworthy to me is how he did it (and, no, he didn’t just google it!) and how he then proceeded. To get the full story, see Benedict XVI’s letter to the German Bishops’ Conference, and if you’d just like my summary, read on. The text in question are Jesus’ words at the last supper, where he blesses and offers the wine to his disciples, saying:
hic est enim calix Sanguinis mei novi et aeterni testamenti, qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum
which, up until very recently was translated as:
this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven
and, which is now translated as follows (after a very recent revision of the English translation, that was also influenced by Pope Benedict’s choice):
this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins
As you can see, this is a pretty important word, since it, at first sight, sets the scope for the effects of Jesus’ sacrifice. Did Jesus offer his life for all (as the Church has been, and still is, teaching: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” - Catechism of the Catholic Church, §655) or only for some? Suggesting the latter would be outrageous, would fly in the face of everything that Christianity can be most certain of and would be entirely incongruent with the rest of Jesus’ teaching. The potential doubt that this change of translation could introduce in the minds of church goers is precisely what made both the German and Italian bishops rebel and vote massively in favor of not changing the respective translations.

This brings us to Pope Benedict’s letter, where he first proceeds to sum up the history of the argument, then to underline the validity of concerns like the above and to re-affirm the universal scope of Jesus’ sacrifice and salvation. Only after having prepared the ground does he proceed first to deliver a master class on the distinction between translation and interpretation (while acknowledging the difficult balance between the two and agreeing that the ‘for all‘ was “a well-founded interpretation then as now”) and on how the two need to go hand in hand:
“The word must be presented as it is, with its own shape, however strange it may appear to us; the interpretation must be measured by the criterion of faithfulness to the word itself, while at the same time rendering it accessible to today’s listeners.”
Benedict does not leave things at this though and at stating that “the words ‘pro multis’ should be translated as they stand”. Instead he proceeds to outline how local bishops need to prepare their congregations for the change in wording and flips the situation from a source of disagreement to an opportunity to spread the Gospel. He does this by underlining the three reasons that Jesus may have had for using the word ‘many’ instead of ‘all’:
  1. “Firstly, for us who are invited to sit at his table [i.e., participate in the Eucharist], it means surprise, joy and thankfulness that he has called me, that I can be with him and come to know him.”
  2. “Secondly, this brings with it a certain responsibility. How the Lord in his own way reaches the others – “all” – ultimately remains his mystery. But without doubt it is a responsibility to be directly called to his table, so that I hear the words “for you” – he suffered for me. The many bear responsibility for all. The community of the many must be the lamp on the lamp-stand, a city on the hilltop, yeast for all.”
  3. “Finally, [i]n today’s society we often feel that we are not “many”, but rather few – a small remnant becoming smaller all the time. But no – we are “many”: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues,”, as we read in the Revelation of Saint John (7:9). We are many and we stand for all. So the words “many” and “all” go together and are intertwined with responsibility and promise.”
Having read Pope Benedict’s letter leaves me with admiration for his method, with gratitude for the nuances of the ‘many’/‘all’ difference that he laid bare and also with an appreciation of the subtlety of his approach. After all this is ‘just’ a letter to the German bishops - not one of the formal ‘weapons’ that he has in his arsenal, such as apostolic letters, apostolic exhortations, apostolic constitutions or ‘ex cathedra,’ infallible proclamations. What we get instead is a point made with such power of reason that it does not require legal support.