Friday, December 25, 2020

The coming of the Light

In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us. (Lk 1:78)

Friday, December 18, 2020

Your time is known

Over the course of many years, I've been pondering the classic Doctor Who episode "Full Circle" (first aired in late 1980). You may recall it as the episode that inroduces the Doctor's companion Adric. I'll summarize the essential plot points, but will have to reveal a spoiler or two in the following paragraphs. So the fourth Doctor and his companion Romana end up in a parallel universe and land on a planet called Alzarius inhabited by a group of humanoids who have been working for generations on a grounded spaceship. It seems that their ship, the Starliner, crashed long ago and they have been repairing it for return travel to their home planet Terradon. A phenomenon called mistfall begins to occur and two groups of creatures begin to emerge. First, venemous spiders hatch from the river fruit, and then marsh creatures, which walk upright and rather look like the creature from the black lagoon, rise out of the river. The humans retreat to the ship, and the marsh creatures begin to attack the ship.

There are a couple interesting reveals/plots twists (spoilers begin). First, the Doctor announces to the human's leaders that the ship isn't being repaired, but simply maintained and that it could actually depart the planet at any time. They respond that their problem is that none of the "system files" left by their ancestors has instructions for how to pilot the ship. The second and last reveal is that it turns out that the spiders, marsh creatures, and humanoids have "the same DNA", so they're actually three subspecies of the same species. And the colonists have never been to Terradon, but are native to Alzarius; the story about the grounded ship was a convenient myth perpetuated by the leadership.

The titular "full circle" is complete when marsh creatures start to overrun the ship. It turns out that what's been happening for 40,000 generations is that the marsh creatures have been attacking the ship at mistfall (every 50 years or so?), killing the humans, and evolving to replace them.1 But this time, the Doctor manages to repel the creatures and the ship ascends to the stars.

The basic situation contains inconsistencies that beg for resolution. For example, how was the ship first built? But let's ignore such questions for now. I found the story off-putting at first because I thought it was impugning the Garden in Genesis as one of those convenient myths. I haven't been able to watch the full episde in decades, so I forget why I thought that. Maybe it was the invocation of "evolution" to undermine a story about the past. But the deeper part that's begun to resonate with me after all these decades is the way the mythical past (not mythical in the sense of false, but mythic in the sense of bigger than ordinary life) was really a vision for and of the future.

There is a sense in which our destiny is written from the beginning of our lives, a sense one has of what the arc of one's life is going to be like. In a lot of ways my life has turned out unexpectedly. But in other ways, I probably should have expected all this weirdness. What I really need is courage—courage bolstered by the knowledge that the future is not completely unknown, but is part of the created whole that is my life, my being, which, though divided by time, persists through time. As Guardini writes,

[In this unknown region of the future] everyone must make the venture in the confidence that the future is not a chaos or a totally strange thing. Rather, his own character, the ordering power within him, will make a way so that it is really his own future into which he moves.

This also forms the natural basis for the message of Christ about the Providence which guards every man—the messge that the future, although unknown, is not strange, not hostile, but is arranged for him by God; that existence, although it extends far beyond our ken, is not a chaos, but ordered by God for him.

To believe this and live accordingly may be difficult for a person who is of a hesitant or timid disposition. But here the courage to live coincides with trust in the divine guidance.


Notes

1. Technological progress and apocalyptic recurrence is vaguely reminiscent of A Canticle for Leibowitz.


Romano Guardini, Learning the Virtues that Lead You to God (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1992), 102.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

A talent for fooling ourselves

Not too long ago I came across a demo video (about 2 mins.) created in real-time by a physics/ray-tracing engine for a gaming system. It's pretty amazing how realistic everything in this virtual world looks, and how convincing the movement is—aside from the superhuman abilities required of the avatar (pretty usual in gaming). In the name of entertaining each other, we've developed a singular talent for fooling ourselves with our amazing technology.

On that theme of fooling ourselves, a contrast sprang to mind. Warning: there are spoilers below for the two works mentioned.

On the one hand, we have The Twilight Zone episode "The Lonely" (first aired November 13, 1959) in which a convict imprisoned on an asteroid is given a convincingly female robot as his companion in loneliness. After many years in her company, he nearly gives up his chance to return to Earth because of his attachment to her. But he realizes his mistake after the policemen who is his friend takes drastic action to demonstrate that she is not real. In the end, he returns to Earth and relationships with real people.

On the other hand, we have the recent Star Wars installment by Disney, Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), in which the young Lando Calrissian has a thing for his "female" robot co-pilot. Actually the robot is only vaguely even humanoid, let alone like a woman, and "her" femininity consists of (1) a female voice, and (2) wide "hips." Spoiler: the robot "dies" near the end of the movie and the event is accented as the loss of twu wuv for poor Lando.1 In reality, fascination with a female-themed machine amounts to a fetish. And it's not as if Solo is unique here. It's just one example that springs to mind among countless others in which a dash of femininity in an artifact is sufficient to motivate a love story, or at least sub-plot.

Notice the historical movement. In sixty years we've gone from recognizing that a mere machine, no matter how convincing, cannot truly replace a woman, to saying that an animate anything, man or machine, donning the figurative wig and dress is really and truly a woman.

But in a larger context, it's not as if we shouldn't have expected this growth in confusion with the rise of technical prowess. The technology that gives us control over nature, also gives us control over each other2. You may recognize this quotation: as C.S. Lewis wrote, “What we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”3

The godfather of the modern world, Francis Bacon (1561–1626), predicted as much in his utopian novel "New Atlantis." Bacon uses the device of European sailors who chance upon the island of Bensalem in the Pacific to describe the utopian society that has developed there, with reason and science as priorities. The research institute of Salomon's House exercises control over much of the island's affairs, and it's pretty clear, if one reads between the lines, that this control is not entirely open and honest. For example, the entire New Testament is said to have been introduced miraculously to Bensalem under a pilar of light in 50 A.D. (decades before the New Testament was completed), and later Salomon's House is revealed to be skilled at creating illusions of light. You can read more in the Wikipedia article on New Atlantis.


Notes

1. I'm still wondering what it means for any mechanical device to die. Since every artifact is assembled by outside agents, presumably it can be reassembled. But Hollywood.

2. As well as extrinsic control over ourselves, that is to say, control outside our intrinsic, co-natural control through our wills (that is, self-control). For example, technology allows people to take diet pills or to use contraceptives instead of controlling their appetites.

3. The Abolition of Man, chapter 3.

Thursday, December 03, 2020

The Ultimate Power of Truth

I ran across a powerful quotation from Romano Guardini that's appropriate to this time of year when we're thinking about the Last Things, and the coming of Jesus:

In this world, the truth is weak. A trifle suffices to hide it. The stupidest persons can attack it. But someday the time will come when things will change. God will bring it about that truth will be as powerful as it is true; and this will be the judgement.

Judgement means that the possibility of lying ceases because omnipotent truth penetrates every mind, illumines every word, and rules in every place. Then falsehood will be revealed as what it is. However expedient, clever, or elegant it may have been, it will be exposed as an illusion, as a nonentity.

We should let these thoughts occupy our minds, our understanding, and our hearts. Then we shall perhaps sense what truth is, its steadfastness, its calm radiance, and its nobility. Then we will enter into union with it, through all that is most intimate and loyal within us. We will accept responsibility for the truth and expend our efforts in its behalf.

All this will suffer opposition and trials, because we are human. But our lives must testify to the fact that truth is the basis of everything: of the relation of man to man, of man to himself, of the individual to the community, and above all, of man to God—no, of God to us.


Romano Guardini, Learning the Virtues that Lead You to God (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1992), 22-23.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Gratitude

It's been a tough year, but there are still many reasons to be grateful. Actually there are reasons to be grateful no matter how bad things get.

Gratitude is the most important virtue, and our most important duty, both to God and to other people, as you can read in more depth thanks to "Reading Cicero on Thanksgiving " by Jim Tonkowich.

Here's a short (under 7 minutes) video on the beauty of the world and all we have to be grateful for:

Gratitude: The Short Film by Louie Schwartzberg from ecodads on Vimeo.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The magic is back!

Existential Comics had a funny and funnily true Facebook post a couple years ago that's worth remembering:

Science has been the slow process of showing that the exciting magical world we believed in doesn't exist, and there is nothing but boring reality. Well, except for quantum mechanics, which showed boring reality doesn't exist, and everything is basically magic. (December 13, 2018)

That's actually a strong theme among Thomistic-Aristotelian philosophers these days: the vindication of Aristotle's natural philosophy in quantum mechanics. The world needn't be the disenchanted drudge modernity has made it. Instead we have back the world of possibility and meaning.

Some references:

Edward Feser, Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science (Editiones Scholasticae, 2019).

Robert C. Koons, “Hylomorphic Escalation: An Aristotelian Interpretation of Quantum Thermodynamics and Chemistry,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly (2018) 92:159-78.

Adam Schulman, Quantum and Aristotelian Physics (Harvard University dissertation, 1989).

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Baptizing aliens?

There was an online dispute recently about whether we would be able to baptize intelligent extraterrestrials. Many of the participants in this forum said no, of course not: God took on human flesh to save humans, he became a child of Adam to save the descendants of Adam. My response is: how do we know he didn't become a rational creature to save rational creatures? One can point to Scripture to argue agsinst my point, but I think it requires assuming that statements about whom Jesus died to save are meant not just positively, but also restrictively (he didn't die to save those others).

It's certainly a valid question whether we could baptize extraterrestrials. But I also think there's a certain naiveté about it. One big assumption is that whatever intelligent life we meet out there will have a biology relatively similar to our own, rather like in science ficton TV series, all the extraterrestrial life looks like us, except for maybe a few modifications to the face (looking at you Star Trek). I'm not talking about being carbon based or breathing oxygen, although those are relatively assured, based on what we know. I'm talking about the life cycle and the organization of its society.

Would you baptize a xenomorph from Alien or one of the hunters from Predator? Perhaps the latter, which are at least rational, if you could get them to put their weapons down long enough to talk. All sorts of forms of intelligent life are possible. One needn't go as weird as the creatures in H.P. Lovecraft's twisted meaningless universe (e.g., "The Color from Space," the Great Old Ones) to see that there might be beings for whom Christian faith would just make no sense.

Say there were an intelligent species that organized itself as a hive consciousness; what would salvation even mean to them? Or what if the life cycle of the intelligent species required that one mate to kill the other and lay eggs in its corpse? Actually the latter would be a relatively easy sell for the Gospel, despite being rather weird. There are possibilities far beyond our imaginings, possibilities that would go beyond just making us uncomfortable, but actually appear to us as violations of the integrity of persons.

None of this is to say that we wouldn't be able to baptize extraterrestrials, just that we may find fewer candidates out there than we in our earth-centric view anticipate.

In Fiction

Some time ago, I wrote a review of The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, which was a sort of liberal Protestant imagining of aliens who wanted to hear about Jesus for their own odd purposes, but without any need for salvation from sin.

A much better book on baptizing extraterrestrials was Eifelheim by Michael Flynn. Insect-like (but also somewhat humanoid) aliens crash-land on Earth in the Middle Ages. A pastor and well educated priest befriends a group of them and evangelizes them. The second half of the book is a detailed imagining of the aliens' realization that they need salvation from sin (not just physical death), and their acceptance of faith in Jesus. I found it moving.