Quantum Mechanics: On What It Is Possible to Know

What follows is most likely among the wrongest wrongs a wronger ever wronged. I know little about this subject, but that won’t stop me from wielding my philosophical scimitar like a berserker. Where angels fear to tread, and so on:

The Statistician to the Stars tweeted a link to this essay in Wired, about whether quantum mechanics are probabilistic (Copenhagen Interpretation) or deterministic (Broglie-Bohm theory). This topic has been on my mind due to the fine essay about the philosophy explored in the Matrix movies in the initial issue of the Sci Phi Journal (get your copies here) by David Kyle Johnson.

In this essay, Dr. Johnson mentions that the universe is not deterministic – is not caused – at a quantum level. What he means is that, unlike the larger-scale physical world, we can’t begin from a known state and know, according to natural laws, what will happen next. For an example of a deterministic event: Galileo climbs the tower of Pisa, and drops a 1lbs lead sphere from the top. We know – meaning, we can confidently predict within a very small margin of error – that the ball will fall at 32’/sec^2, and, adjusting for wind, air resistance and the Coriolis Effect, exactly where the ball will land. We know this because the behavior of a ball dropped through the air near the surface of the earth has been Determined to our satisfaction – we have cooked up a series of mathematical models that, when applied to the motions of bodies under gravity through a gas, provide gratifyingly consistent and useful results.

This is the sort of things that gives bad scientists a big head, and tends to make even good scientists believe that the mathematics *are* the real world. No, the mathematics, in an inexplicably beautiful way, *describe* the real world. In one of his lectures, the great Richard Feynman, after filling a couple blackboards with complex math, paused to reflect that, after all, a couple of bodies were going around each other – the math seemed far more complex that the behavior is was meant to describe. The thing to keep in mind is that the ultimate referent, the thing to which our beliefs may be true, is the physical thing, and not the math that describes it.

Electrons doing spooky things. Don’t laugh – this picture has evidently frightened people right out of their minds.

Now we come to quantum measurements. Niels Bohr and a group of other brilliant men concocted some very useful formulas for describing the behaviour of sub-atomic phenomena. These formulas have been developed further into the Standard Model of physics that every student of physics learns. The Standard Model is the backbone of all current nuclear physics.

But the equations of the Standard Model are probabilistic, not deterministic. To go back to our Pisa example above, it would be like saying that there’s a 75% chance that the ball will land within a given circle 10′ in diameter, but 25% of the time, it won’t – every once in a while, it’ll even land in Florence or on Mars or somewhere in the Tadpole Galaxy. The math tells you it’s very unlikely to land in another galaxy, but you can’t entirely rule it out.

And that’s how things are said to work in the subatomic world: all you know is how likely it is that Outcome A will obtain. You just can’t determine in advance that you’ll certainly get Outcome A – you might, you might even get it 99.9% of the time, but you might not. Unlike the falling ball, it isn’t just a matter of there being other factors we just don’t know about that caused the ball to move too fast or too slow or miss its target – nope, it is the nature of sub-atomic reality that we can’t determine the outcome in advance.

Here’s where it gets logically and philosophically tricky: Dr. Johnson, along with almost all physicists, says that this means that the behaviors of, say, electrons are uncaused. It isn’t the case of the most useful math being probabilistic, but the reality being deterministic – nope, the claim is that reality really, truly is a matter of chance, that an electron, somehow, isn’t in any one place or traveling along any one particular vector, until we ‘collapse the wave function’ by measuring it.

Here we point out, as logicians as well as philosophers, that we have completely reified the math: we have let the math tell reality how it has to be. Is there an experiment or a logic exercise that would allow us to decide which, if either, of the following statements is true?

1. Events at a quantum level are uncaused.

2. Events at a quantum level may be caused, but, if so, we don’t know how.

This is the equivalent of distinguishing between “they certainly look uncaused” and “we sure are having trouble seeing the cause, if it exists.” Note that the math doesn’t figure into it.

It might be argued – I think it has been – that Occam’s Razor favors #1: what we see is what we get, we don’t see cause, therefore it isn’t there. The counter argument: contrary to old Bill Occam, you’re adding to the physical world the assumption that an additional class of beings exist, ones without cause. It would be simpler to assume one class of objects, but merely say we don’t know the causes of some of them.

Bottom line: we can’t say that we *know* even in the limited and hedged scientific sense, that quantum events are uncaused. Maybe, maybe not. To assert this is the equivalent of claiming to have proved a universal negative. As is so often the case, logically and philosophically, the right answer is: we don’t know.

The article from Wired shows that some scientists are working under the assumption that quantum events are caused, and are providing math and experimental results to show how it might work. The only interesting part, one that Kuhn predicted, is that the practitioners of Normal Science aren’t all that interested in examining their models.

On the Corruption in Parishes

Recently had an interesting discussion with a dad regarding his 3 year old daughter. She had been expelled from her preschool for biting. Now, having been father to 5 preschoolers, and having been involved in a number of preschools for a number of years, a couple things sprang to mind:

– This is probably not a single-incident thing. 3 year olds are working through a bunch of complicated social development (that’s what preschool if for, or should be for) and will do any number of inappropriate things. Experienced staff have seen it all, everything from hitting and pushing and using potty talk and refusing to keep their clothes on. So, a one-time incident of a kid biting would demand a certain amount of attention, but not usually an expulsion, unless it were take-a-chunk-outta-ya level.

– Some kids bite. If they can’t be convinced to stop, they can’t be allowed around other kids. I don’t want my kid getting bit, even if no real physical damage is done. It ruins play for everybody if the other kids have to watch out for little Suzy because she might hurt them. This is a ‘Life isn’t fair’ moment – the lesson the biter must learn, despite being too young to really understand, is that she doesn’t get to play with her friends if she bites them. No way around it.

– All kids are different, and we seem to have hit the lottery on well-behaved from a young age kids in our family, so maybe I’m wrong here, but: I’m more than a little worried about a kid who hurts other kids in this way and can’t be convinced to stop. If the screaming and crying of the other kids doesn’t discourage them, or they find the resulting adult intervention desirable, there’s a problem. For acting out older kids, it’s real clear there’s a problem. Not totally sure about 3 year olds, but I suspect it.

– Of course, in the old days, she’d have gotten decked. Moms and dads, without  much fear of repercussion, would have told their kid the victim to hit the biter in the face as hard as they could until she stopped. Probably work, and has the added advantage of not making an appeal to an outside authority.  Nowadays, there’s no hitting allowed. I don’t know this is an improvement.

Anyway, the punchline: the child in question is a ‘person of color’. The majority of the preschool staff are not. The staff voted to expel, according to her dad, along racial lines. How he knew this, I don’t know.

This happened in the Bay Area, the most enlightened, progressive place on the planet, as anyone here will tell you. The chances that the staff at a preschool are biased *against* ‘children of color’  is pretty slim.

Unless: there’s unaddressed microaggression within the preschool power dynamic! Then the issue isn’t whether or not, in the judgement of the staff, it’s safe to allow a 3 year old biter around the other little kids – no, now the issue has grown monstrous, the ‘R’ word, and the biter, rather than being a perp, is a victim. The kids who got bit – well, they don’t really have a place in the narrative, unless – well, of course! – their getting bit is a result of the power dynamic as well. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to come up with how, exactly, that would work. My head’s beginning to hurt.

He went there. Not in the colorful, yet direct, way I just did – but he went there, with a little implied ‘check your privilege’ for good measure.

Now, what has this got to do with parish life? I think sometimes we look to some sort of global mega-issues to swallow up what are in fact local, and even personal, problems. This was brought to mind by our infatuation with the recent synod. Do we really need another synod to tell us we need to be more loving, kind and gentle with each other? The 30% or so of Catholics who show up every week more or less – do we not get this? Have we not at least occasionally awakened for the readings and the homily?

Let’s take an extreme example from dear Dr. Boli. Here’s how he describes Pope Leo X’s position regarding to Luther’s issues with the selling of indulgences:

The problem with Luther’s plan was that the pope in question was Leo X, one of the Three Worldlies. Leo was not strongly motivated to reform the Catholic Church. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about the Christian religion; it was just that there were more important things that he cared about much more—things like, for example, Leo X. The corrupt and unreformed Catholic Church had been very good to him. He really had no complaints. As a lifestyle, being pope had considerable attractions. Why would he want to give up a life of luxury and set an example of monkish abstemiousness? What was in it for him? Had his father Lorenzo the Magnificent bought him a cardinal’s hat so he could live in a Motel 6 and eat celery? Had he schemed and backstabbed his way through the College of Cardinals for a bowl of lentil porridge? Was he even now making the papal military the terror of Italy so that he and his extended family could live in becoming poverty? No! “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it”—those were his words on ascending the throne of Peter. Or at least those were his reported words, though he may have said something more like “Party time!”

We should thank God with tears of gratitude in our eyes for the last 150 years or so of Popes. Saints! We’ve even had saints in the Chair of Peter! As Belloc put it, the Church is

An institute run with such knavish imbecility that if it were not the work of God it would not last a fortnight.

Amen. So, when we have bishops and a pope who can do *anything* right beyond not screwing up dogma, it is more than we deserve.

Parishes exist in a place and across time. They are incarnational yet full of human flaws.

Applied Catholic theology tends to be a bit fractal: images and duties repeat at intervals of scale. Thus, we have the Holy Family as the model for our family lives, and call each other brothers and sisters in our parishes with God as our Father and the priest as His agent – acting in the person of God, most especially in the Mass. The Bishop serves that role at the diocesan level; the Pope at the level of the Universal Church. We all have the duties of children at some levels; few of us have any other role outside our own families. .

Now look at the lamentable Leo X. We would expect, people being people, that the Church corruption he personified to likewise be fractal – that we’d see the monumental selfishness, self-indulgence and dereliction of duty repeated in bishops, priests and households. The ill effects will be seen in dioceses, parishes and homes.

It certainly doesn’t help us live better lives when the shepherds are doing ill. Two things to keep in mind: nobody makes us fail – that priests, bishops and popes fail to live holy lives doesn’t touch on our responsibilities to live holy lives; and there’s always a crowd of people who like it however it is. Dr. Boli slyly mentions the expectations of the extended family – it’s not like only Leo was corrupt, there was a regular army of people who benefited from the way things were.

Finally – and this takes a bit of effort to get my head around – a lot of bad things we see done up and down the Church’s structure are done by nice people. They think they’re helping. Leo X probably thought the Papacy having a big army was a good thing, required by the fallen world we live in; that making sure Medicis were in charge of things simple prudence – you wouldn’t want those crass Borgias running things, would you? And what’s the harm in giving indulgences to people who donate toward the new and grand St. Peter’s? It’s a good deed, indulgences are to be giving in response to good deeds, and we all get to use the nice church we get out of it. What’s the big deal? Of course, lamentable things might have to be done…

And that’s the ticket. I have come across a couple out of control egomaniacs in my dealings with my parishes – over half a century, it would be amazing if I hadn’t. But far, far more common are people who think they are merely trying to hold things together and move them forward. The innumerable parishes that purged their libraries of anything pre-Vatican II because those old books just weren’t applicable any more; the countless ‘music’ leaders who decided that we needed to sing more modern songs about us and less old hymns about all that fuddy-duddy stuff; all those religious ed instructors who felt it more important to get in touch with the god within than teach any doctrine; all those liturgists (like ‘educators’ a new species created ex nihilo to fill a new need) who just wanted to get people more actively participating; all the old ladies who got used to whatever is was Fr. X was doing – he was such a nice man! – that they make life hell for Fr. Y, who has to pick up the pieces – all these folks see themselves as doing good stuff.

That’s not even counting the people in the pews – me, for example – who fail to do what needs doing, or do things that need to not be done. A smile and a nod in greeting is a good thing; a quick catch-up conversation after mass on the steps or over donuts and coffee is a good thing; remembering people’s names is a good thing; talking to people who seem lost or new is a good thing. In other words, treating people like guests in your home – at the appropriate times and places, of course – is a good thing, and is the absolute minimum required of us sheep.

Making a spectacle of your disdain for goofy songs and practices – not good. Think of St. Thomas More, who struggled mightily to see if there were any way he could sign the King’s oath – he wanted, if at all possible, to go along. You only take your stand and get your head chopped off (and deprive your wife of a husband and children of a father) for actual martyr-worthy causes.

Singing Be Not Afraid and holding hands during the Our Father do not rise to that level.

Returning to what I thought was the point of this post when I came up with the title (funny how that works, isn’t it?) the worst attitude of all is that the problems in your parish are not the result of us people in the pews failing to be charitable and loving, but rather due to some Cosmic Issue with the Church. We become, in our minds, not the perps but the victims. Our actions are not the real problem, no, it’s what our priest told the parish council, or some goofball bishop said at some synod, or some evil Cardinal did at Vatican II, or some Pope failed to do once when somebody asked him a question.

All those bad things that happen in the church – and they can be very bad, I often imagine the millstone factory on triple shifts, just to keep ahead of demand – they just aren’t our problems. At worst, they become crosses we must bear, such as when our parish priests seem hellbent on making the Mass as much a rap session/birthday party as they can.

Our problems are the ones we can actually do something about. As part of the church, we are victims of exactly one global conspiracy – the efforts of Satan to be our master and destroy us. But even there, we are willing victims, and we do not fight, but rather cooperate with our own enslavement when we think we’re victims of the hierarchy’s knavish imbecility rather than active participants in our own sins.

Something like 30 million Catholics split from the Church for Protestantism, and Leo X – may God have mercy on his soul! – carries some large part of the blame. Some similar number of Catholics in the US today have stopped going to mass, stopped listening at all to anything the church teaches that is contrary to what their buddies say at school or work, yet see no conflict with the church except insofar as a bunch of celibate old men keep saying stupid stuff about things they don’t understand.

We don’t fix this – New Evangelization, anyone? – by whining about how we are victims of bad decisions in the church. We don’t fix it at all – God does. But we pray fervently, and love passionately, and suffer meekly – and don’t blame anybody else when we fail.

St. Monica, St. Padre Pio & St. Philip Neri, pray for us!

The Wisdom of Dr. Boli: History, cont’d

If you have not been following Dr. Boli’s wonderful recap of Western History. well, you should be.

In this installment, CHAPTER 20.—EUROPE PRESSES THE RESET BUTTON, Dr. Boli makes the following trenchant observations:

We call this flourishing the Renaissance, because even though it happened in Italy, the French somehow hijacked the name. It means “Rebirth,” because its participants thought they were rediscovering the art and culture of the classical age. Actually, they were discovering their own fantasies of what the classical age might have been if a bunch of late-medieval Italians had been in charge of it.


Chartres. C’mon, the towers don’t even match!

Architecture abandoned centuries of development to turn back to classical forms. The architects of the Renaissance hung their heads, averted their eyes, and blushed crimson with shame whenever they passed a Gothic cathedral like the monstrous pile at Chartres, or that hideous York Minster.


Interior, York Minster. Yea, those medievals and their primitive ideas of beauty.

Music at Mass Review: October 26, 2014

(Already beat this song up here, but it clawed its way out of the ground to eat more brains, so here we go again.)

So, what say you to starting a Catholic Mass with a little ditty by this fellow? From the English & Dutch (responsible for the funky Google English) Wikipedia sites:

In 1954, inspired by Che Guevara who said that churches have the potential to transform the social structure of society,[3] Oosterhuis combined his priesthood with political activism.

Che – now, there’s a guy to model one’s Christian response to the world on. Another proponent of the ever-popular theory that if you just kill enough of the flexibly-defined bad people, the world will be great! If the world isn’t great, you haven’t killed enough of the bad people – maybe the definition of ‘bad’ isn’t broad enough? This leads me to wonder about the former Fr. Oosterhuis’s level of mental acuity.

In 1969 the deleted Superior General of the Jesuits, Father Pedro Arrupe Oosterhuis from the order after conflicts of celibacy . For the same reason the suspended diocese of Haarlem him as a priest.

I think we can suss out the gist of the nub there. Whoa – imagine what you’d have needed to do to get expelled from the Jesuits in 1969. Boggles. Further,

Oosterhuis and his team decided with the vast majority of their congregation from then beyond the responsibility of the Bishop of Haarlem to proceed. In 2014, the now 80-year-old Oosterhuis still pastor within thisekklesia , albeit now in the shelter; the seven teammates when, all now ex-Jesuits, pulled out for various reasons soon off.

So our man takes a bunch of Jesuit buddies, declares himself “beyond the responsibility” of the bishop, and runs his own little parish-thing, at least until he was “in shelter”. And his buddies all left him. It’s almost like one can’t expect a Jesuit to stick to something.

He also stated that they no longer believe in interviews in a personal God, the divinity of Jesus Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, the miracles of the Gospels, the atonement and original sin.

Is that all? Well, at least he was good to the people around him, right?

On 25 April 1970 Huub Oosterhuis joined in civil marriage with the young nurse Josefien Melief . They had two children musical, composer Tjeerd and singer TrijntjeOosterhuis, who initially acted together as the duo Total Touch. The civil marriage ended in a divorce , after Oosterhuis and Melief went separately living near the children. Oosterhuis is married to journalist Colet van der Ven .

So once he escaped the evil influences of the Church, he married, bred, divorced and remarried. Not that that kind of behavior has any downside on the people involved, like say children.

Now, of course it would be mean spirited to imagine that the enormous theological, liturgical, ecclesiastical and personal tire fire the former Fr. Oosterhuis has made of his life would bleed over into his liturgical music. Nope, all that could possibly leak through would be his unbounded love of the not at all divine Jesus who stayed buried and died for no reason at all. So we should expect sweetness and light, right?

So here’s the ditty: What is This Place? We’ll intersperse comments in red: 

Verse 1

What is this place, where we are meeting?

First, if you’re at Mass, it should be pretty clear, usually, where we are meeting. So, we’re talking rhetorical question here? Why yes, yes we are: 

Only a house, the earth its floor.

Well, no. A church is a sacred space, made sacred not only by our gathering there in Christ’s name, but most especially due to His Real Presence. This sanctification of place is such a basic and inevitable outcome of the Incarnation that the liturgical calendar even has feast days for the dedications of various important churches. Places, like people, play a role in salvation history. 

Walls and a roof, sheltering people,

Windows for light, an open door.

Nothing special, an attitude evinced in almost all modern churches. 

Yet it becomes a body that lives

When we are gathered here,

It lives! As the cross vaults lumber down the alleys, seeking victims to slake its blood thirst… OK, maybe not ‘lives’ like that. But we have established to dependencies: Each time we gather, we make the church building live. Without us, it is dead. . 

And know our God is near.

A God no Unitarian would object to. 

Verse 2

Words from afar, stars that are falling.

Sparks that are sown in us like seed;

Names for our God, dreams, signs and wonders

Sent from the past are all we need.

Too much LSD in the 60s, clearly. Coherency is so overrated! But the gist of the nub: Words are all we need. That, and like totally trippy images. 

We in this place remember and speak

Again what we have heard:

God’s free redeeming word.

Trouble is, I don’t think even the Lutherans would want this guy, even with the Sola bone he throws them here. 

Verse 3

And we accept bread at his table,

Broken and shared, a living sign.

Here in this world, dying and living,

We are each other’s bread and wine.

Shockingly, it turns out to be all about us! Imagine my surprise. His rejection of the Real Presense managed somehow to sneak through! Who, oh who, could have guessed this would happen? 

This is the place where we can receive

What we need to increase:

Our justice and God’s peace.

*Our* justice? Is this a Che reference? Because God’s justice might just barely differ from ours, maybe. But hey, we acknowledge that we need God’s peace – that’s something! At least, we finally got around to admitting we need something. 

This was the entrance hymn at today’s Mass. I looked for the choir director who chooses the music, just to register my polite disagreement with using this song anywhere within a mile of Mass or anything catholic at all – but he wasn’t there this week.

Next time. Dear God, please let there not be a next time!

The Most Natural Thing in the World

Let’s get this out of the way: no, sex is not the most natural thing in the world. Next to falling down, it is about the least natural thing in the world,

Natural things are what they are and do what they do according to what they are – according to their natures, right? When we say, for example, that a forest is natural, we mean that all the trees and plants and animals that make up the forest are doing what it is that such things do: consume, grow and reproduce each in its own special way. So, both the forest and each creature in it are just being themselves – and that is what we mean by nature and natural, if we mean anything by them.

So, back to the original issue: what is the most natural thing in the world? We find, upon reflection* that different kinds of things have different natures arranged in a hierarchy. No, really. At the bottom, rocks, being rocks, fall when you drop them – but then, normally, so do petunias and elephants and heads of philosophy departments. The trick is, rocks do precious little else, and specifically *don’t* do any of the things that distinguish petunias, elephants and, one hopes, philosophy chairs from rocks.  Plants do much of what rocks do, but what distinguishes them is that they consume, grow and reproduce, something no rock does.** Animals do everything plants and rocks do, and move around and respond to stimuli in a uniquely ‘animal’ way.

Up to here, I think there’s no argument that what we mean by nature is things doing what it is that makes them what they are. Mountains and sky, oceans and forests, and all the living creatures in them, these are Natural Wonders, after all.

It’s the next step that throws people. Human beings are animals, but only in the sense that a tree is also dead matter, and an elephant consumes, grows and reproduces just like a tree (in the functional sense: the mechanics are matters of style, one could say). Human being do ‘by nature’ everything that rocks, trees and elephants do, PLUS some other things.

There’s a cottage industry (ha!) of disputing the claim that people do anything really different than what animals do. Now, if there was anything obvious to all peoples up to modern times, it was that people were different from animals. It should be noted that people everywhere before modern times had much more first hand experience with animals than modern people do – they hunted them, rode them, raised them, saw them at market and on farms every day. It is curious that those who lived each day in close contact with animals had no thought that people weren’t another order of thing entirely. Not that people didn’t have all the characteristic behaviors – the nature – of animals. Of course we do, We also have something more.

The least, most basically natural thing is what rocks do. More natural are the things that plants do. Even more natural are the things that animals do. The most natural things in the world are what people, and only people, do. How about:

Money? That pretty natural, as it works because of trade, which requires industry and planning and abstract thinking. so that’s pretty natural. But not the most natural.

Cities? Now we’re talking. Cities are made up of many things unique to people, such as laws and rational government, and justice.

How about Civilization? The highest nature of human beings is expressed in civilization, under which falls commerce and cities. Human beings building civilizations is the most natural thing in the world.

In the same manner, the most natural thing in a civilization is its churches.

So tomorrow at Mass, in addition to praising God, I’ll be admiring Nature at its finest.

* By which of course I mean ‘reading Aristotle’ – few of us, least of all me, could be this lucid left to our own devices.

** Possibly the right place to mention: the existence of twilight does not disprove night and day. Of course, we can see crystals that grow and, squinting a bit, imagine they are consuming and reproducing thereby. Some plants move around; some animals remain always in the same place. In the words of the Philosopher that I just made up – yea. so? The questions these cases raise are only raised because the general natures of rocks, plants and animals are so clear in the first place. If it were really the muddle some people want to make it out to be, classification would never have arisen in the first place.

*** One more thought: we should not confuse natural with inevitable. Just because it is possible, indeed common, for humans to try to live as animals, and civilizations often fail, does not mean that civilization isn’t natural.

Know Thyself & The Post Post Modern Age

To deny our own impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human.

– Mouse, the Matrix, right after he is correctly identified as a ‘digital pimp’

The latest newsletter from Diablo Valley School ran a piece of mine that contained a thought perhaps worth expanding on. In it I observe that the classic admonition to Know Thyself, and the classic understanding that there is no freedom for those enslaved to their passions, are considered today, if they are considered at all, a mere truism and utter nonsense, respectively.

To the modern well-schooled mind, however, the first seems a truism – how could I not know myself? – and the second simple nonsense – what am I if I am not my passions?

The human being who knows himself and controls his passions is a very difficult creature to herd.

Neo Know Thyself
Wise. Don’t buy what self-proclaimed Oracles are selling is probably on the list somewhere, too.

A wide variety of cultures have held these notions as central ideas under a variety of guises.   To live a good life, one must always evaluate one’s own self, who one is, what one has done, and what are one’s goals. Are we being truthful to ourselves? We are, after all, the first target of our own lies. As Socrates put it: the unexamined life is not worth living. Second, the idea that what we want is not who we are, that our desires must be judged and moderated by the self-knowing person, frees us from easy manipulation, in modern times both the carrot of political and advertising pandering, and the stick of being defined out of social groups.

Yet the idea that Mouse expresses above is now the gold standard of self-awareness: our impulses, so current wisdom goes, are what define us as humans. To know yourself is simply to know what you want.

We are what we want. In the Matrix, this is the wild, defiant claim made in the face of the radical determinism of the Machine World. One after the other, the programs – the Oracle, the Architect, Agent Smith, the Merovingian,  the Key Maker – tell the humans that choice is an illusion, all is cause and effect, that a program and a person both derive whatever meaning they may find in their lives from a purpose they did not make or choose.

This conclusion is inescapable if one starts from Materialism. In the material world, the only meaning  we see is cause and effect* – and it’s a mere desperate word game that makes us call mechanical inevitability ‘meaning’. So, we’re slaves in a meaningless world.

Unless… Unless we can be saved by some mysterious outside force. In the same movie, the Oracle, a character who looks like a grandmother baking cookies, tells Neo, right after telling him he is fated to make a horrible choice:

Oh, don’t worry about it…As soon as you step outside that door, you’ll start feeling better. You’ll remember you don’t believe in any of this fate crap…you’re in control of your_own_ life…remember?

But as Mouse points out, if the workings of the world are such that everything is fated – determined by the laws of nature – the only way we can have any control is if we are somehow touched by something outside the mechanistic world: it is our impulses that make us human. not just another machine.

And, weirdly, this make a certain amount of sense. We can either accept that eved our impulses are merely a manifestation of materialistic determinism, or we can cling to them as, somehow, divine messengers, as things from outside, that make *us* both divine and outsiders as well.

It’s ultimately nonsense, but if it’s all you’ve got…So, in our day, which has rejected any idea that our purpose might be a freely chosen gift from God, the only meaning left in life is to be had by deification of impulse: we are what we want.

If it weren’t for the sickening human cost of this belief, it would be amusing to watch its logical impossibility being played out. What do we do when our impulses conflict? What about my impulses to destroy? To dominate? The shrill reaction to any attempt to challenge the rightness – righteousness, even –  of a claim that anyone is whatever it is they say they are is just the first level reaction. It is getting worse. The bottom is very, very low.

* Of course, it must be mentioned that cause and effect, like math, logic and free will, is not something it is possible to derive from observations of the physical world, even in theory. Materialism turns out to be a very mystical belief system, built as it is on immaterial phantasms.


Science! And Careful Notes!

Google’s Science News feed, as usual:

1. Scientist stumbles upon spider eating a puppy

Or something like that. It’s fascinating that all the news services used exactly the same size comparison – the spider is not as big as a cat, or a cantaloupe, but just exactly as big as a puppy. Newfoundland or Dachshund? Inquiring minds want to know.

The spider's leg span is nearly 30 cm, or about one ft.  <span class=meta>(Piotr Naskrecki)</span>
I’m thinking fire ants could take ’em. Heck, looks like dessert after a Burmese python dinner.

I know bear baiting and cock fights are very much frowned upon – but what would be the harm of putting, say a dozen of these spiders loose in a room with, oh, supermodels or congressmen or the White House press corps – and then turning the lights off? Just for a minute?Nobody needs to get hurt or anything, beyond the inevitable years of therapy they’re probably already doing. And the spiders look as though they could take care of themselves.

Just an idea. Get it on film.

2. Could a tsunami destroy Hawaii?

Sure! Why not? Could insectoid space aliens devour all the pineapples? Leave it open ended enough, and what, exactly, *couldn’t* happen.

Yes, I know I’m being a little (little?) pedantic, but can’t headline writers make a little effort at capturing what’s going on? The actual science part of this story: there’s evidence that huge earthquakes have in the past caused much larger tsunamis than planners had been preparing for. So, evacuation plans need to be revised accordingly. Seems to happen about every 1,000 years. ‘Destroy’ is probably a little overstated.

But I guess that won’t drive clicks.

3.  Fishes like to play with objects: Study

So, I suppose we can’t eat them, either, now? Why can’t they discover that kale, for example, engages in some behavior that suggests it’s too much like us for us to eat it? Huh? Why does it always have to be something yummy?

Slightly more seriously, from a science perspective, we have several questionable things going on here. First, what, exactly, is play? I’m pretty sure we could reach broad agreement that fish play if they were to drag out a Monopoly board and while away the hours. But these fish attacked a weeble-style thermometer, that righted itself right after they knocked it over. Is that play?

“Play is repeated behaviour that is incompletely functional in the context or at the age in which it is performed and is initiated voluntarily when the animal or person is in a relaxed or low-stress setting,” said Burghardt.

I think this definition introduces more terms that need defining, for a net loss of understanding. Good effort, though.

I would speculate – and please note that I have not spent a couple years watching a tank of tilapia – that animals that move around and are predator, prey or both, benefit from understanding their environments. Depending on the animal, behaviors that result from this survival advantage are called ‘curiosity’, ‘play’ or maybe ‘boredom’. My son’s corn snake spends some time regularly slithering around his glass house, climbing stuff, checking every square inch of the lid to make sure it’s on good and tight. Is he playing? Curious? Bored? I don’t know, but I can easily imagine that a hunter benefits from knowing its territory, and so this behavior makes sense, given enough food and security to do it.

Another just-so story saves the day!

What if we are like tilapia? Am I delicious if prepared right? The mind boggles.

But calling stuff ‘play’ seems too anthropomorphic. We’d like to think animals play – I think they do, as every one who likes dogs or cats does. But if we’re going to put on the Sacred Lab Coat of Science, we need to be more precise and reserved in our claims. Especially when certain wackjobs enthusiasts will use this information to claim we should treat tilapia with more respect*.

* I treat tilapia with great respect as follows, and they’ve never complained:  Prepare a little cabbage slaw, dressed with mayo into which one or two finely chopped chipotle chilis have been stirred. Set aside some of the mayo mixture. Cut up some tomatoes and fresh cilantro. Warm up a nice pile of corn tortillas.

Cut the tilapia fillets into long strips, salt, pepper and apply red chile powder, then fry lightly in a little oil – only takes a minute. Now, take 4 tortillas – 2 sets of 2 – and spread a little of the mayo mixture in a strip down the middle of each set; add a strip or two of fish; apply slaw, tomatoes and cilantro. You can squeeze a little fresh lime on it if that sounds good.

Margaritas or Mexican beer go good with this.

Trying to Write

Autobiographical nonsense follows. I’d skip it if I were you. The only excuse for this wallowing: maybe if I write about them, I might actually get these projects done. One can hope.

So I’ve written a couple decent length novels in blog posts over the last couple years. And, in other venues,  I’ve cranked out a similar volume of stuff – mostly humor for an internet publication. Hundreds and hundreds of pages of often surprisingly coherent prose. So I suppose that makes me a ‘writer’ in some baseline, mechanical sense, sort of how somebody picking out a tune is ‘playing the piano’.

Meanwhile, over the last getting on towards 30 years, I’ve written the occasional short story, and even outlines and a good number of pages for a couple novels. There are also dozens of essays in there – that’s what this blog is about. I’ve started one book project – an analysis of Catholic education – that I may get to if I ever retire (no time soon, that). I’d write that book out of a sense of duty, if I do.  All the rest of it runs from utter crap to interesting ideas buried in utter crap.

Other than three, I think, letters to the editors (I’m 3 for 3 in getting them published, if I’m recalling correctly), the only things I’ve ever submitted to an editor were those humorous pieces and jokes. There was no money, but quite a bit of warm fuzzies involved in getting my stuff published. Bragging a little – I got something like 8 or 10 fan letters for stuff I wrote, which was, I think, the best of the stable of writers. But if the highpoint of one’s literary career is getting sparse fan mail for humor published for free on the internet – and that’s about it – then, ‘literary career’ is quite the reach.

I never dreamed of being a writer as a child. I didn’t even discover I liked writing until well into my 20s, and, even then, didn’t actually do much. Did once ask a writer friend (published and everything!) to read a short story I wrote, and she came back with several pages of comments – overall, encouraging, although I got the feeling she didn’t really like the story – it was insanely dark, I’m not even sure I liked it.

Anyway, these thoughts are occasioned by my now trying to finish an essay and a short story for real publication, like maybe even get paid. In doing so, I rediscovered two things I’ve long known about myself: I’m a coward, and I’m lazy.

I hate rejection. I hate failure. The options are to become insanely driven, or just to not try. I’m a coward, so I don’t try. This takes the form of wasting enormous amounts of time. Lazy.

Once, 25 years ago in business school, I made a conscious effort: I was going to do the best I possibly could in this one class. Generally – and, for business school, this is probably a sane approach – I coasted as much as I could get away with, which turns out to be a lot. But, this once, I was going to try.

It was a programming class, something I can certainly do, but have less than zero interest in. The teacher, in a classic programmer type move, published the cumulative scores for everybody in his classes on his office door, names ever so slightly encoded for privacy. So, I could see how I was doing both absolutely and relative to everyone else whenever I passed his door – which happened regularly.

So I went for it – how well can I make myself do in a subject I do not care for? By the end of the class, I was getting emotional. I almost cried when I did in fact get the highest scores. In a small, private way, I managed to put myself on the line – and it was tough.

Yes, I am insane. Was there any question? Even putting myself on the line in private like that for something I didn’t really even care about was incredibly trying.

So, imagine what it’s like to write something for real, with the intention of throwing it out there, of releasing it into the wild. No hiding behind ‘I’m just doing this for kicks, it’s not *really* writing.” The major difference: in the ensuing 25 years, I’ve almost grasped one of the major blessings of age: not giving a crap what other people think. Almost. But the problem really resides where *I* think.

I’m trying to finish the first piece tonight. Wish me luck.

Full Plate/No Time Roundup: Synod, Schooling, Climate

1. Advice to all Catholics: do not read anything about the synod. If it’s from the popular press, that goes double. What could possibly be the point, what good could it possibly do you or anyone else to get involved here? The press will get it wrong. Very few of us are in any position to understand and interpret; none are or should desire to be in a position to influence. It not our job to watchdog the bishops in synod.

They’re not done yet. When they’re done – at least a year out from now – there may or may not be a document that may or may not have much of anything new to say.

We are falling into the trap of thinking a synod is just like modern politics: white collar crime as a spectator sport. Reality TV. Just say no; just say a prayer.

2. Via a tweet from Wm Briggs, this needs looking into: New schools turn back clock to train Russia’s girls in virtues of nobility. Russians, who, based on the historical evidence, tend towards holy, stoic and insane, have decided to reinstitute a form of schooling designed to train up Russian girls to be the kind of women the Tzar would be proud of:

Two hundred and fifty years ago, in 1764, Russian Empress Catherine II (the Great) issued a decree establishing Russia’s very first Institute for Noble Maidens – the Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg. This institution was tasked with “giving the state educated women, good mothers, and useful members of the family and society,” as the decree reads.

Note: “giving the state” – not giving the individual or family what they may want, but trained up for the state. How do we know this wasn’t just benevolent career training?

The girls lived according to a regimented daily routine and could only see their relatives on weekends and holidays, and only in the presence of the headmistress.

Cults and abusive individuals always try to limit contact with family and friends, the people who can provide a reality check. Thus, Fichte argued for children to be completely removed from their families for the duration of their education. Now, since we parents have been properly educated, the schools just give our kids enough homework and extra activities to leave, effectively, no room for thought or opportunity for real inculturation.

They did not have the right to leave the institute prior to graduation, either of their own volition or at the wishes of their families. With the help of this institute, the Empress planned to snatch schoolgirls from their familiar surroundings and create a “new breed of people.”

Now, that sounds familiar. It’s always good to remember that the basic purpose of state-run school is invariable to destroy a culture and replace it with something more to their liking. Sometimes, such as in inner city schools, we don’t much object to the destruction of the existing culture. Sometimes, as in Common Core, it’s more objectionable. But whether we approve of it or not, it cannot be denied that destroying one culture and replacing it with another is the goal of state sponsored schools.

So, the Russians are going to try this again? I’ll try to look further into this when time permits.

3. Darwin Catholic talks about sin being how we hurt people. He starts thus:

In a discussion of the Church’s teaching on divorce (that leaving your spouse and attempting a second marriage is considered by the Church to be adultery) someone made the following comment:

“I find it hard to believe people think God cares about this issue this much, given all the real sin in the world (ie social injustice and war) but anyway.”

Most of us don’t need to hunt for examples of how wrong this is – how the claim that divorce isl harmless in and of itself, and the Church is a big ol’ meany for calling many things otherwise decent people do every day sins.

So, all those broken families, the breakup of which ineradicably carved misery into the hearts of children and ex-spouses – those we just deny. In addition to fragmented families in denial, for whom the cost of acknowledging that their own decisions have caused the damage now playing out in their children’s lives is just too high, there are blended families who work very hard to keep everything above board – ex spouses remain on friendly terms, the kids are shared in a friendly way, nobody overtly hushes particular lines of inquiry – and the hurt is always there, just below the surface, waiting to break out. Sure, it better for the adults to act like adults (or as much like adults as people refuse to take or honor vows can act). The kids seem a lot happier than in those families committed to pretending that this week’s boyfriend is just another normal part of our ever-changing family and you’re being unreasonable to miss that sperm donor a couple of boyfriends back who didn’t like you anyway and stop your whining.

Of course there are truly horrific situations where divorce really is the only sane option, and of course there are intact families that are far from happy. These cases are much more rare than those where the couple just ‘grew apart’ or otherwise gave up to look for greener grass. And of course, there are children who make it through broken homes and manage to live well. But all those kids and former kids carry a pain with them that kids from intact families don’t – the pain of never really believing, in their hearts, that love is forever and  promises can be kept.

4. Don’t know if this is a new low point, but this rather over the top essay is found under the Science news in a business newspaper, although it is merely an harang and, indeed, is indistinguishable from communist propaganda.  For example:

Yes, capitalism’s at war, fighting against all efforts to limit global warming and climate change. This is WWIII, the defining moment of the 21st century. Why? “One word in the latest draft report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sums up why climate inaction is so uniquely immoral: Irreversible.”

I only hope that this triggers a few synapses to fire in wherever the BS detector section of people’s brain is.

Further on, the author says that the problem is that “the Right focuses on short-term economic consequences. And the Left relies on long-term impact in moral decisions.”  One of those short term economic consequences is the impoverishment of much of the world, as cheap energy fueled activities, such as modern agriculture, travel and writing Marxist essays on a computer and publishing them on a website, are sharply curtailed. No more climate summits in Qatar, where evil capital ‘C’ Capitalism evidently forced thousands of morally upright bureaucrats  and climate scientists (but mostly bureaucrats) to fly half way around the world to meet in a luxury resort in a godforsaken desert, where everything except air and water had to likewise be flown in, to hold discussions they could have skyped in air conditioned comfort. Hell, Gore might even have to sell a house or two.

Hypocrisy is such an ugly word.

Leftist morality never seems to have to do with the actual behavior of leftists, who can do whatever they want just so long as they toe the line.

5. Diablo Valley School publishes a newsletter which, amidst the photos and student artwork, occasionally runs an essay by me. I start rambling on page 2 of the current issue.