Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Ascension in a Scientific Universe

The Catholic (universal and unified, as opposed to sectarian) confession of Christianity teaches that Jesus ascended into heaven. How is this belief tenable in a modern vision of the world, post-Copernicus, in which the heavens have been "dethroned"? Can there be any significance to rising into the sky if the sky has no significance? How are we to understand the Ascension in our modern scientific world?

John Henry Newman writes,

First, Christ's Ascension to the right hand of God is marvellous, because it is a sure token that heaven is a certain fixed place, and not a mere state. That bodily presence of the Saviour which the Apostles handled is not here; it is elsewhere,—it is in heaven.

He continues,

This contradicts the notions of cultivated and speculative minds, {208} and humbles the reason. Philosophy considers it more rational to suppose that Almighty God, as being a Spirit, is in every place; and in no one place more than another. It would teach, if it dare, that heaven is a mere state of blessedness; but, to be consistent, it ought to go on to deny, with the ancient heretics, referred to by St. John, that "Jesus Christ is come in the flesh," and maintain that His presence on earth was a mere vision; for, certain it is, He who appeared on earth went up from the earth, and a cloud received Him out of His Apostles' sight. And here again an additional difficulty occurs, on minutely considering the subject. Whither did He go? beyond the sun? beyond the fixed stars? Did He traverse the immeasurable space which extends beyond them all? Again, what is meant by ascending? Philosophers will say there is no difference between down and up, as regards the sky; yet, whatever difficulties the word may occasion, we can hardly take upon us to decide that it is a mere popular expression, consistently with the reverence due to the Sacred Record.

And thus we are led on to consider, how different are the character and effect of the Scripture notices of the structure of the physical world, from those which philosophers deliver. I am not deciding whether or not the one and the other are reconcileable; I merely say their respective effect is different. And when we have deduced what we deduce by our reason from the study of visible nature, and then read what we read in His inspired word, and find the two apparently discordant, this is the feeling I think we ought to have on our {209} minds;—not an impatience to do what is beyond our powers, to weigh evidence, sum up, balance, decide, and reconcile, to arbitrate between the two voices of God,—but a sense of the utter nothingness of worms such as we are; of our plain and absolute incapacity to contemplate things as they really are; a perception of our emptiness, before the great Vision of God; of our "comeliness being turned into corruption, and our retaining no strength;" a conviction, that what is put before us, in nature or in grace, though true in such a full sense that we dare not tamper with it, yet is but an intimation useful for particular purposes, useful for practice, useful in its department, "until the day-break and the shadows flee away," useful in such a way that both the one and the other representation may at once be used, as two languages, as two separate approximations towards the Awful Unknown Truth, such as will not mislead us in their respective provinces. And thus while we use the language of science, without jealousy, for scientific purposes, we may confine it to these; and repel and reprove its upholders, should they attempt to exalt it and to "stretch it beyond its measure." In its own limited round it has its use, nay, may be made to fill a higher ministry, and stand as a proselyte under the shadow of the temple; but it must not dare profane the inner courts, in which the ladder of Angels is fixed for ever, reaching even to the Throne of God, and "Jesus standing on the right hand of God."

I will but remind you on this part of the subject, that our Lord is to come from heaven "in like manner" as He went; that He is to come "in clouds," that {210} "every eye shall see Him," and "all tribes of the earth wail because of Him." Attempt to solve this prediction, according to the received theories of science, and you will discover their shallowness. They are unequal to the depth of the problem.

Along similar lines, Pope Benedict writes:

The New Testament, from the Acts of the Apostles to the Letter to the Hebrews, describes the "place" to which the cloud took Jesus, using the language of Psalm 110:1, as sitting (or standing) at God's right hand. What does this mean? It does not refer to some distant cosmic space, where God has, as it were, set up his throne and given Jesus a place beside the throne. God is not in one space alongside other spaces. God is God—he is the premise and the ground of all the space there is, but he himself is not part of it. God stands in relation to all spaces as Lord and Creator. His presence is not spatial, but divine. "Sitting at God's right hand" means participating in this divine dominion over space.


Because Jesus is with the Father, he has not gone away but remains close to us. Now he is no longer in one particular place in the world as he had been before the "Ascension": now, through his power over space, he is present and accessible to all—throughout history and in every place.

He is gone, but, now transcending time and space, he is still with us in a way that our science cannot fathom.


Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem To The Resurrection (Ignatius Press, 2011), pp. 282-3, 284.

John Henry Newman, "Mysteries in Religion," Parochial and Plain Sermons 2:18, no. 1.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The God Gene and Other Powers

Even though New Atheists seem to have shouted themselves hoarse some time ago, Deo gratias, I still remember them fondly. One of the sillier ideas of that age was the idea of a genetic pre-disposition to belief in God. For some reason it doesn't seem to have cross their minds that such a "God gene" is just as likely (according to their naturalistic lights) a good thing—a positive ability—as a handicap. One of their hobby horses, after all, is the denunciation of "the naturalistic fallacy," the idea that nature contains norms, or as more commonly enunciated: that you can "get an 'is' from an 'ought.'"

Of course the reality is that they are the unfortunate blind, unable to see the sun, puffing out their chests for their disability.1 This realization made me aware that this sort of handicap pride, so to speak, is part of a larger societal trend. These days it's the fashion for all sorts of unfortunates to come out of the woodwork, band together, and to announce that their impairment is an actual superpower. At the apex of the power-pyramid at the moment seems to be a group of people who can't manage to synchronize their minds with the configuration of their bodies. Our society's elites are flexing their muscles by molding our institutions around the delusions of these poor people. But every child has to get a trophy.

In so many ways, we're letting the inmates run the asylum. But if you think about it a little, thus has it always been, although in far less obvious ways.


1. I say "are," but poor Hitchens, may he rest in peace, has passed on and been cured of his atheism.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Making Absolute Time Compatible with Relativity

In my last post I mentioned having read Lee Smolin's Time Reborn. I wanted to mention a couple highlights.

In chapter 4, Smolin introduces a great piece of terminology: "Doing Physics in a Box." By this he means "the method of restricting attention to a small part of the universe" (p. 38). This is a more colloquial way of talking about the "Newtonian paradigm." As Smolin points out, timelessness is baked into the method.

Another valuable contribution is in chapter 14, when Smolin introduces the theory of shape dynamics. He points out that cosmology on the largest scales gives a preferred cosmic clock and a preferred state of rest. These are the local standards of rest, for which the cosmic microwave background radiation is isotropic (a red or blue shift to one side or the other would indicate motion with respect to the local standard). But on smaller scales, the temporal free-for-all of general relativity obtains.

General relativity, it turns out, can be reformulated in a beautiful way as a theory with a preferred notion of time. This reformulation is just another way to understand general relativity, but it reveals a physically preferred synchronization of clocks throughout the universe. Furthermore, the choice of that preferred synchronization depends on the distribution of matter and gravitational radiation throughout the universe, so it is not a throwback to Newton's absolute time. Nor can it be discovered by any local measurements, so it is completely compatible with the relativity principle for small subsystems of the universe.

The theory that enables this reversal of perspective is called shape dynamics. Its main principle is that all that is real in physics is connected with the shapes of objects, and all real change is simply changes in those shapes. Size means nothing, fundamentally, and the fact that objects seem to us to have an intrinsic size is an illusion. (pp. 167-168)

"Intrinsic size is an illusion" seems a high price to pay! But it turns out that the theory is only claiming that objects that aren't close by each other can't be compared in size, similar to how in relativity theory, events that are far apart have no unique ordering in time. The example he gives is of a mouse and a box: it doesn't make sense to ask if the mouse is smaller than the box if they exist in different galaxies, since there's no way to try to fit the mouse into the box.

Names Smolin associates with shape dynamics: Julian Barbour, Niall Ó Murchadha, Sean Gryb, Henrique Gomes, and Tim Koslowski.

Lee Smolin's Time Reborn: From the Crisis of Physics to the Future of the Universe (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).

Henrique Gomes, Sean Gryb, and Tim Koslowski, "Einstein Gravity as a 3D Conformally Invariant Theory," arXiv:1010.2481v2 [gr-qc] (2011).

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Lee Smolin and Time

I recently finished Lee Smolin's Time Reborn: From the Crisis of Physics to the Future of the Universe (2013). Smolin is my favorite among the prominent theorists who write for a popular audience. He's an excellent writer, nearly as good as Leonar Susskind (The Cosmic Landscape) at explaining, though at the end of the day, the string theories Susskind explains so well are nonsense. (Smolin made the latter point so well in his The Trouble with Physics, which I also enjoyed.)

Time Reborn was a worthwhile, educational read. What sets Smolin head and shoulders above the rest is that he's an iconoclast and doesn't mind taking an unpopular view. So among other causes, he's sympathetic to Bohmian mechanics(!), and (much more importantly) very clear that there must be a universal reference frame and a single time that unifies the entire cosmos.

Smolin is full of good insights and clearly sees some of the great weaknesses of modern physics, and especially with the field of cosmology and fundamental forces. Smolin sees very clearly that time has been flattened to a spatial dimension, or even a mere parameter, in physics. His discussion here is excellent.

While Smolin is the most philosophical of any physicist who writes for a popular audience, he's definitely not a philosopher. The major problem with the book is that he doesn't consistently apply his own critique to himself—not that that has stopped any modern philosopher from being a philosopher. (Come to think of it, maybe Smolin is a philosopher!) Smolin's ambition is to restore the meaningfulness of time back to physics. A great ambition! But he baffles himself by not having a clear philosophical account of what time is, so he cannot know what it means to restore time, still less can he know whether his ambition is even possible.

His idea is to do away with "timeless" physical laws, so he posits that cosmic laws are evolving and over time come to assume an habitual form. Thus earlier on, things are less determined and they grow more determined as the universe gets older. But if you take a step back, you notice that that this principle is itself a "law" and somehow it escapes Smolin's ban on "timeless laws." He grudgingly acknowledges as much in a later chapter, but doesn't (and can't) do anything to fix the problem.

Actually Smolin's quest for timeless laws is something of a fool's errand. (Not that Smolin is a fool; I think he's just working with a diminished set of principles since he's constrained to the twelve-tone system, so to speak, of modern philosophy, and simply lacks the full pallet of expression.) The point of our thinking philosophically/scientifically is to come up with laws that are always true, that is to say, timeless. But they're timeless in a way that's different from the timelessness that Smolin rightly rails against.

Modern thought patterns itself after Descartes, so without abandoning the sandbox of modern thought, one simply lacks the tools to think about time in the right way. That would be to come to conclusions about time that are always true (i.e., in a properly timeless way), but while capturing time's true nature, a way that is true to the "becoming" of time and the unfolding of real novelty in the universe. Tragically Smolin, as great as he is, is like the proverbial fish who can't notice the medium in which he swims.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A Different World

Imagine a world in which water, instead of being transported as invisible vapors, was floated from oceans back to the land as fluffy, white aggregations of vapor. Imagine a world in which the sky during the day wasn't black or gray, but a lovely azure. Imagine a verdant world teaming with life: with stationary green plants, and crawling beasts.

What a wonderful world! And it is ours!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Ugliness Will Save the World

It's become a cliché among my set to declare that "Beauty will save the world" (to paraphrase Dostoyevsky). The way it's invoked has some truth, but ignores the subtleties of beauty and its opposite, and how the beauty we recognize doesn't map simply to goodness in a fallen world.

I say further: Ugliness Will Save the World.

I say this not merely rhetorically, but phenomenally. Ontologically speaking, ugliness as such has no existence; it adheres as a privation in things that have a positive existence. But we do not experience evils as simple privations, negations. Rather we experience evil as positive a reality—something we encounter. This experience can repel us from ugliness to seek beauty—it is one of the ways that from evil the Almighty draws good.

True beauty is not a superficial matter. As then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his August 2002 speech at Rimini,

So it is that Christian art today is caught between two fires (as perhaps it always has been): it must oppose the cult of the ugly, which says that everything beautiful is a deception and only the representation of what is crude, low and vulgar is the truth, the true illumination of knowledge. Or it has to counter the deceptive beauty that makes the human being seem diminished instead of making him great, and for this reason is false.

Further, at times we experience as ugly what is in fact beautiful in itself but so greatly beyond us that we fail to recognize it. This is an additional category of the ugliness that will save us. I think this is similar to what Cardinal Ratzinger was talking about in the discussion of Christ's beauty that wounds us.

To take the contrapositive, as it were, of the quoted paragraph, we must promote the notion of beauty as the radiation of truth and goodness, and we must not hide from the ugliness that bursts the circle of man's self-contentment and moves him to look Beyond.

There's a lot more to the talk and I recommend reading it entirely. The last paragraph is a great reminder of the critical context of the Dostoyevsky maxim.

Another insightful discussion of beauty: Beauty: So Much More Than We Think

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Soulless Sex... and Consent

I'm not sure what I think of the overall argument here yet, but the author makes a number of important distinctions on the way to this deeply insightful passage:

But what we see on college campuses, I believe, is not so much "rape culture" as hookup culture. Hookup culture confuses everyone, because all the normal cues, such as love, commitment, and mutual trust and knowledge, are gone. Empty seduction is the norm. Hence the state of mind of the two people involved becomes unknown, one to the other. They behave like rutting animals, setting aside the higher human functions and all that mankind has added to sexuality that raises it above the animal level, and then they are shocked, shocked to find that consent, the one distinctively human trait they want to retain, is only ambiguously present, if present at all.

"Soulless, sordid, drunken sex with a drunken stranger is not rape" by Lydia McGrew