Saturday, July 20, 2024

The Present

I may get in trouble for this, but I mean nothing heterodox. Let me hasten to clarify: God of course is complete and perfect in himself, requiring nothing outside himself. But there's a sense in which he withdraws a bit to make room for each of us creatures.

So that God plus me is a whole.

In that sense, God is my "other half," my complement. He is present like my shadow, though it would be closer to the truth to say that I'm like his shadow, being at best a limited expression of his infinite perfections.

When we say he is Present, it's not just in the sense of Gift, but also that he is the Present One, existing in the Eternal Now, but also in every now of time. Each of these moments of time is a fragment of that Eternity. And dwelling in it is our Sufficiency.

God alone is enough.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024


As he declined into dementia, my father was always asking to go home. "Home" was at first the place where he grew up, the house on Lavender Avenue in Baltimore, to which he proposed to improbably walk all the way from Texas. Eventually "home" meant just going to bed in his room.

But what he was really behind all these requests was the desire for his real home, the definitive Home, the One that all our earthly homes reflect but imperfectly, and toward which all our longings converge.

Wednesday, May 01, 2024

Take the Win, part 1

I have friends who complain about replacing "AD/BC" with "CE/BCE" (Common Era, Before the Common Era) for historical dates. True, it is ostensibly removing Jesus and Christianity from the calendar set up by Christians, the Gregorian Calendar, that is.2 But can you really blame people who aren't Christians from not wanting to say this is the year of "our Lord," which is what AD, Anno Domini, really means? The "BC" is a different matter. Saying "before Christ" isn't forcing the conscience of anyone and shouldn't be a problem.2

Still, if you take a step back and think about it: everyone is still using our Christian calendar and dating events based on Jesus. Let's just take the win, dude.


1. Based of course on the Julian Calendar, the formation of which is a tale.

2. Suprisingly agnostic Neil deGrasse Tyson uses "AD/BC," saying Christians should get the credit for the calendar that was and is no trivial matter.

Thursday, April 04, 2024

Aristotle's Toy Universe

The title might sound condescending, but "toy" is meant in a sense similar to that in a physicist's "toy model," an oversimplified version of a physical situation. Modern physics famously has its spherical cows.

In contrast with the universe of his "scientific" descendants, the cosmos of Aristotle will undoubtedly strike modern people as small. His entire cosmos had its termination in the sphere of the fixed stars that revolved not far outside the sphere of the outermost planet. The earth, of course, sat at the center, the cosmic sump at the bottom of all things; contra Enlightenment rhetoric, the earth was the least important part of the cosmos.

Another way Aristotle's cosmos was smaller was that he had only four or five elements, as opposed to our 118 (at present). Of course, what he identified as elements were probably closer to what we call phases of matter (solid to plasma). Of course we humans can only distinguish elements by their activities. But only the coarsest macroscopic activities were readily accessible to him, hence his identification of phases of matter as elements.

Aristotle was also aware of a much smaller number of plants and animals. There's only so much one can do at the beginning of science to catalog all creatures.1

But the universe we know today is also, in a way, deeper than Aristotle's cosmos. There is much more structure on the way down. It's as if the bottom of reality, the infinite division that yields featureless matter, were farther away than he estimated. But this is a constant human tendency. Well into the 20th century biologists still thought the protoplasm of the cell was structureless, homogeneous liquid, whereas nowadays we know that it has important structure at all levels down through macromolecules to its atoms.

But it's interesting to consider how much Aristotle's cosmos was very like our conception of the universe. Our universe, most especially our solar system, still has orbiting bodies, though they don't orbit in perfect circles around the earth. We do have (chemical) elements. Most fundamentally, Aristotle was right about the need of any science to distinguish the elements of its study. As he opens the Physics:

When the objects of an inquiry, in any department, have principles, conditions, or elements, it is through acquaintance with these that knowledge, that is to say scientific knowledge, is attained. (I.1.184a10, trans. Hardie and Gaye)

And for scientists (and philosophers) to know both the form and matter of their subject:

Again, matter is a relative term: to each form there corresponds a special matter. How far then must the physicist know the form or essence? Up to a point, perhaps, as the doctor must know sinew or the smith bronze (i.e. until he understands the purpose of each): and the physicist is concerned only with things whose forms are separable indeed, but do not exist apart from matter. (II.2.194b9-12)

Aristotle described a simpler universe, but many of the right distinctions are present even there. Today the best physicists openly acknowledge that our picture of the universe is much simpler than the reality. The most remarkable thing left out of our "scientific" universe is the scientists themselves, and all humans in fact: the thinking, reflecting subjects that are somehow part of the universe without being thereby constrained to the same level as the rest of it.


1. Interesting trivia: Aristotle spent two years studying animals on the island of Lesbos. An infinity of jokes is possible from this one historical fact.

Thursday, February 01, 2024

Pagan Temptations

A long time ago when I was an undergraduate, I read Thomas Molnar's The Pagan Temptation. One of the take-aways that remains with me to this day is that the pagan temptation is Gnosticism, or neo-gnosticism. That's undoubtedly an over-simplification, but it's what sticks with me decades after having lost touch with my copy of the book. My apologies to Dr. Molnar, may he rest in peace.

Molnar was undoubtedly on the conservative side of things politically; in fact he told me he was a reactionary. Since then I've also come across Eric Voegelin's Science, Politics, and Gnosticism. Voegelin's work, like Molnar's, is of course explicitly political in orientation. Above these political ponderings, the incomparable Hans Jonas's classic historical analysis The Gnostic Religion stands, its concluding chapter pointing out the parallel between ancient Gnosticism and modern existentialism in their denial of the inherent goodness and meaning of the universe.

Molnar and Voeglin are right to sound the alarm about Gnosticism. Thanks to the pervasiveness of scientism, the existential denial of meaning is the assumed background of our these days. Some of the more radical forms of Progressivism are effectively nihilistic in their rejection of nature, especially human nature. In the Progressive vision, an individual human's desire should reign supreme over every pre-existing constraint, including natural laws of all kinds, and even the obligations of piety and gratitude.

But the paganism Molnar describes (as I recall the book) is only part of the story. Even a pagan like Plotinus opposed Gnosticism. So clearly there are forms of paganism that are not Gnostic. An oversimplified view of anti-Gnostic paganism, which I'm just going to call Paganism, is that it accepts the world as wholly and entirely good.

To return to the political angle, what Paganism implies is that the powerful deserve their power, that it is largely just that the rich and the powerful have their advantages. Taken to an extreme, it means that justice is whatever is to the advantage of the strong, as Thrasymachus says in Plato's Republic. Paganism admires the powerful; think of Achilles in the Iliad.

Conversely, Gnosticism would say that the world is inherently unjust and the strong are inherently wrong. It's no accident that these statements sound like they come from Marx or the Frankfurt School. In recalling the leftist claim that the weak and victims as such are really "strong," one thinks of the Sophists who made the weaker argument the stronger.

While the left's temptation is Gnosticism, the right's temptation is the nature-worshipping kind of Paganism. Both are religious visions, broadly speaking. But notice that the left's Gnosticism requires a layer of evidence-denying faith, or at least a denial that natural strength is a form of goodness.

That religious connection can help us thread our way between the political extremes if we ask what the Christian answer is to the Pagan and Gnostic visions. For both Jews and Christians, the world is inherently good, but it is fallen. What is truly and most fully good is God the transcendent Creator of the world. God's transcendence over the world means that the world can have true goodness, but that it merely pales in comparison to the infinite goodness of God, the true measure.

So the goodness of the world God created demands we respect the world, including human nature. But human nature is limited in its goodness and in some ways dysfunctional. True justice can only find its basis not in this world, but in the transcendent goodness of God. We humans can know good and bad from the evidence of nature, even though it can be difficult to discern. God's revealed Law spells out the truth for us hard of heart and dim of mind humans.

In the Judeo-Christian vision, the world and every good thing comes from God. The basic structures of life, like the family, are willed by God for our good. But we have a tendency to pride and selfishness that inclines us to use the goods we possess to the detriment of our social life, our life with others.

Thanks for being patient with the ramblings of an old man whose eyesight may be too faded to get the details exact, but who can tell night from day and male from female.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Bridging the Infinite Strangeness

Thomas Nagel once wrote a famous paper "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?", about how we really can't know what the internal, subjective experience of another radically different being is like, for example, an animal with a strange suite of senses, such as a bat. But have you ever wondered how utterly alien it must be to be the all-powerful, all-knowing Creator and Sustainer of all being? Saying "his ways are not our ways" is putting it mildly.

One can well imagine a degree of difference that the word "eldritch" would characterize it. Why would a Being so transcendent have any regard for us who are less significant than mere ants in comparison? And somehow he loves us so obsessively that he even counts the hairs on our heads. "Creepy," Fr. John Grieco called it (tongue-in-cheek).

Not long ago, I read Stanislaw Lem's Solaris. It's a classic science fiction noval, from which there have been two motion pictures made, about a research facility orbiting a planetary life form. The life-form is the planet. The human scientists have spent decades trying to decipher the meaning of the many quasi-regular phenomena that appear around the surface of the world, but with little progress. Then strange things begin happening on the station. The scientists' lost loved ones begin manifesting. It seems that the planet has reached into the scientists' minds and incarnated these "people" from their memories, including the wife of the main protagonist, whom he lost to suicide. The purpose of these rather complete and sustained manifestations is not entirely clear, but is perhaps an attempt at communication.

What's it like to be a planet? What's it like to be God? Lem tries to deny the similarity, but it's there. How can an incomprehensibly immense being bridge the divide? Taking on the form of the beings one is trying to reach seems like the most effective expedient, one that might work when the goal is communication between creatures, or a mission of mercy from the creatures' Creator. Lovers will go to such extremes.

Tuesday, October 03, 2023

Michael F. Flynn, RIP

Alas, science fiction novelist Michael F. Flynn passed to his eternal reward on September 30. His daughter announced it through his blog on Sunday.

Ed Feser has a fitting, heartfelt tribute on his blog. For my part I can only say a couple words. I appreciated Michael's comments on this, my irregular blog. As you can see from his comments on my last post, he was an insightful commentator with a breadth of knowledge. I was blessed to have met him in person at the Society of Catholic Scientists conference a few years ago, where he received an award (link to his talk). I like to think I had a part in his presence there, as I'd recommended to Steve Barr Michael's book Eifelheim when Steve spoke at MIT on the subject of the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence.

I'm praying for him and I'm sure he would appreciate your prayers. Michael Flynn, requiescat in pace!