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!

Tuesday, August 01, 2023

A Mechanical Superstition

Just a hot take regarding this short video: A Bet Against Quantum Gravity (6.75 mins).

I don't have the credentials in the field to evaluate the merits of Jonathan Oppenheim's research program. But I have a natural philosopher's gut instinct. I like very much the fact that Oppenheim's theory allows information to be destroyed. As he says of the black hole information paradox, "It's only a paradox if you believe that physics somehow has to be deterministic."

Determinism, which is a feature of physical theories that physicists became used to from Newton, seems to imply that information cannot be destroyed or created, but is just shuffled around. This feature gives physicists the idea that they have the supposedly god-like power of predicting the future for all time, at least in theory. But in actuality, the evolution of things in nature is constantly producing real and unpredictable novelty. That was one of the lessons of quantum mechanics. Quantum indeterminism is so widely known as to be proverbial. And even if nowhere else, information is constantly being destroyed in the so-called collapse of the wave function, for which we have no physical law. What we have here is a failure of many, even great physicists to take to heart the lessons of quantum mechanics, leaving just a mechanical superstition.

The philosophical point that gives me pause is Oppenheim's insistence that the resulting novelty has to be stochastic, random; whereas in nature, novelty need not be random. But I think on the low level of the natural hierarchy with which his work deals, randomness is a good approximation and appropriate. And indeed, if we're talking about heat emerging from a slowly evaporating black hole, the motions of the particles have to be random.

There's more to be said about randomness and how it is often used in modern science as a placeholder for human ignorance more than an actual statement of the reality of things. I've taken up this theme elsewhere in this blog (regarding Darwinian evolution, for example) and I'm sure I'll return to it again, but it's beyond this hot take.

Sunday, May 07, 2023

The Fright of Infinite Spaces

The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.

—Pascal, Pensées, 206

It's well known that the Milky Way in the Star Trek universe is surrounded by a barrier, as shown in the original series episodes "Where No Man Has Gone Before" and "By Any Other Name". But I recently learned that there is also a barrier around the far-away Star Wars galaxy too. But why? Why a galactic barrier?

Is this simply a storytelling trope, the modern version of Aristotle's prescription that drama have unity of place? Perhaps that's part of it, but it still seems somewhat gratuitous. Why is it hard to believe that the true barrier between galaxies is not a hard limit, but simply vast distance?

I suspect the real answer lies deep in the heart of man.

The significance of vast distances struck me at last year's Thomistic Institute Science and Christianity conference (March 4–5, 2022 at the Harvard Museum of Natural History). Some of the talks juxtaposed our modern scientific picture of the universe with passages from Scripture on creation, not just the act of creation, but also the relationship of creation to its Creator.

In particular, the beginning of Fr. Thomas Davenport's talk alluded to the way God's activity is much more immediate in the picture presented by Scripture, in contrast to the picture presented by science, in which God's activity is mediated by long chains of secondary causes (13.8 billion years, etc). This tremendous distance seems to present something of a difficulty for belief: God's Providence seems distant.

In such a universe, a gnosticism of a sort might seem reasonable. Recall that in the ancient Gnostic religions, the Creator of the universe is not the true Divinity, who lies behind the universe. Man, conceived as originally and purely spirit, is thrown or imprisoned in the material world, not a natural part of it. Nature/creation is sundered from the true God, and man must reject nature to align himself with the real God and true goodness. In the 20th century, Hans Jonas discovered the hidden parallel between ancient Gnosticism and modern Existentialism/Nihilism, which might be called neo-gnosticism. The so-called scientific picture has no place for man, such human concepts as teleology (purposes) supposedly playing no part in nature. As in Gnostic religion, humans are sundered from nature.

Akin to this gnostic alienation from the universe is the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, whose effect comes from the terror of the incomprehensible. But Lovecraft's universe is rather too malevolent (along with its denizens) to represent the apparent indifference lying in the vastness of the scientific universe. Perhaps that indifference was too horrible for even Lovecraft, though it might also be that the horror of the infinite empty quantity is simply so inarticulable that the closest neighbor is the quality of evil.

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. (H.P. Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu")

At the very least, science by itself leaves us in a state of ambiguity: does nature bespeak God or not, and where do I belong in all this ambuguous vastness?1 Pascal's Pensées elaborate:

205 When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me? Memoria hospitis unius diei prætereuntis [Wisdom 5:15, Latin vulgate: remembrance of a guest who tarried but a day].

229 This is what I see and what troubles me. I look on all sides, and I see only darkness everywhere. Nature presents to me nothing which is not matter of doubt and concern. If I saw nothing there which revealed a Divinity, I would come to a negative conclusion; if I saw everywhere the signs of a Creator, I would remain peacefully in faith. But, seeing too much to deny and too little to be sure, I am in a state to be pitied; wherefore I have a hundred time wished that if a God maintains nature, she should testify to Him unequivocally, and that, if the signs she gives are deceptive, she should suppress them altogether; that she should say everything or nothing, that I might see which cause I ought to follow. Whereas in my present state, ignorant of what I am or of what I ought to do, I know neither my condition nor my duty. My heart inclines wholly to know where is the true good, in order to follow it; nothing would be too dear to me for eternity.

Pascal stood on the cusp of modernity and the modern rethinking of the universe. It might be healthy to look back to the ancient world and take a lesson from the psalmist in reflecting on our smallness and the world's vastness:

When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars which thou hast established;

what is man that thou art mindful of him,
and the son of man that thou dost care for him?

Yet thou hast made him little less than God,
and dost crown him with glory and honor.

Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands;
thou hast put all things under his feet...

(Psalm 8:3–6)

The reality is that in complaining about the size of creation, we're complaining about the size of the dominion given to us humans. The deeper problem is that we don't appreciate the goodness of the universe. There is an infinite distance between nothing and any finite reality. Maybe it's because the need to survive has wired us to always be so occupied with the next problem that we rarely take time to contemplate the tremendous good we have, that we've been given. It's a crisis of gratitude: we don't appreciate what we've been given, so we have little sense of God's continued presence and providence.2

Science as practiced today doesn't help matters. One big limitation of science is that it projects human knowing onto an unimaginably vast world. We only know the "scientific universe" in terms of experiments in the lab. This approach originated with Galileo's insight, which Newton completed: the unification of the sublunar and translunar realms. We describe the motions of stars and planets in terms of the motions of mechanical bodies on Earth, especially those we study under the controlled conditions of the lab.

We project our own emptiness and chaos on the vast world and then recoil on beholding our reflection.


1. Collective Soul's 1993 song "Shine" asks this question, "Where do I belong and where do I find love?", poignantly.

2. A great book on this subject of God's providence and presence that I rejoice in having found though only recently is Providence by Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

The Greater Does Not Come from the Less

I've been reading Garrigou-Lagrange's Providence. Perhaps its most foundational principle, highlighted in the first paragraph:

The greater does not come from the less, the more perfect does not come from the less perfect, since the latter is incapable of producing the effect. [emphasis in original]

Now, Providence is a great book that I highly recommend. But if would be anyway it could now be improved, it is that it could tackle more squarely some of the more recent objections to Aristotle's and St. Thomas's thought about nature.

This principle in particular has been cast into doubt in the modern world most especially by the idea of the evolution of biological species following Darwin. (In the early 20th-century France in which the book was written, the significance of Darwinism may not have been fully felt.)

Many Darwinists even deny that evolution's tendency over time is to perfect species. Perhaps the need to deny a cosmological hierarchy originates in their materialist premises. But such ideological prejudices aside, most reasonable thinkers would admit that a human is greater than an ape, and an ape is greater than a fish. So the simple-minded conclusion from evolution is that the greater evolves from the less. How can we square this appearance with the principle of Garrigou-Lagrange's book?

What that mistaken conclusion ignores is that even from Darwinists principles, species don't evolve on their own. Of the two primciples of Darwinism, random mutation and natural selection, random mutation is essentially directionless. But the other principle, natural selection, strongly requires interaction with the environment, the larger universe. And the larger universe working out all its hidden potentialities is arguably more perfect than any non-rational species.

So if you look deeper, Garrigou-Lagrange's principle holds.

Additionally, I'd like to point out that "random mutation" is like a large area rug that can hide lots of (to a materialist) unseemly dirt. Randomness basically means that we, from our limited knowledge, cannot trace back the relevant lines of causation from the effect, so we just sweep this happenstance of reality under the rug of "randomness." I'm no evolutionary biologist, but it seems fair to say that it's hard, if not impossible, to distinguish the perfecting effects of natural selection from any perfecting effects that might come from "random" mutation (whether in reality directly from God or mediated by some hidden natural cause). Actually, on further reflection, it might be possible to distinguish the two. But it would require somehow detecting that the mutations that have arisen have a preferential direction. I doubt our knowledge of the fossil record could be so comprehensive or that we could observe such a process at work today with the necessary completeness.

Sunday, January 08, 2023

Intelligence in Non-human Animals

Recently re-read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I was quite fond of it when I originally read it as an adolescent. I wasn't a fan of the 1982 movie The Secret of NIMH. It was missing the wistful quality of the ending because it dispensed with the plot thread about the rats' forced departure. There's something about being temporarily let in on a vanishing secret bigger than oneself.

Reading it as an adult, it struck me that the novel is not only charming, but also an unusual mixture of science fiction and fantasy. The major drive of the story is the background of rodents being made more intelligent through experimentation by humans. But underneath that is another author choice that fades into the background: even the untreated animals are fantastically much more human-like than reality, e.g., an unaltered "wild type" mouse can understand human speech and be taught, albeit slowly, to read. But of course a novel from an animal perspective is going to have treat animals as more intelligent than they are.1 It would be difficult to have an enjoyable story otherwise. After all, it's difficult, even impossible for humans to tell what it's like to be a bat (to allude to Thomas Nagel's famous essay at the expense of introducing another mammal to our considerations): how could we humans hope to relate to the experience of an animal so different from us?

One thing as a young person I also enjoyed about the novel was the exciting thought of making animals intelligent through technology. I think I enjoyed the 1983 film Hide and Seek for similar reasons, though with machines instead of animals. My memories are hazy, but it's about a teenager who serendipitously creates an artificial intelligence from a cellular automata not unlike Conway's Game of Life.2 I recall a similar wonder, hopefully not impious, in my reaction to both.

Here's a question that I've been pondering recently. On the assumption that evolution is real, does the existence of humans on planet Earth advance or retard the development of intelligence in other animals?

I put this question to friends last summer and some of them seemed to think our presence advances the animals around us. One person thought our products give them more things to think about. Perhaps. It surprised me that octopodes and crows were prominent in the conversation.3

I tend to think of pets. It's been noted that our pets, mostly dogs, have developed quite an emotional intelligence centered around us humans. It is striking how they seem to respond to human language, sometimes going beyond mere trained stimulus-response.

I wonder how the food we give domesticated animals shapes their development. I'm thinking of how primates developed. Apparently the bodies of some of our ancestors used to synthesize their own vitamin C. But then later they gained access to a dependable source of vitamin C, and lost that ability as the necessity passed. But that loss freed up their physiology for other things. I'm not sure those other things would lead to intelligence, but I hope you can see where I'm going with this. As our physiology is freed of requirements for mere survival, it opens room to develop for less slavish activities. I wonder if the same holds true of pets. Does our supplying them with their needs free their bodies to develop intelligent thought? Or does it simply allow them to become more dependent on us, and retard their intelligence? Part of the question here is about the nature of intelligence: does it have to be independent?4

On this topic, I would be remiss not to recommend Erwin Straus's 1949 essay on "Upright Posture," about how our physical embodiment is correlative to our intelligence. The most prominent example is how walking on two limbs frees our hands to pick up things at will. It's not just any physiology that can supplely serve an intelligent soul.

Finally, I have to wonder if non-human animals gained intelligence to the point of competing with us, would we allow them to continue, or would we hunt them down to extinction? I suspect most people would say that of course we would allow them to survive and even encourage them, but in addition to their competing for resources, it's also possible our raw emotional reaction would consign them to the same uncanny valley inhabited by the human-headed dog of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).

My own instinct is that our presence here retards the development of intelligence in other animals, similar to the way that the existence of life on Earth apparently prevents the generation of a new lineage of life here (abiogenesis). We occupy an ecological niche (if such a small word can reflect such a big footprint), and there's nothing to be gained by another species trying to fill it (filling unoccupied or poorly occupied niches is one driver of evolution). We don't know how rare life and intelligence are in the universe, or even in our galaxy, but I think that if we want the Earth to flourish as the unique font of life that it seems to be, perhaps we would do well to withdraw to space and let Earth do its thing.


1. Watership Down, rather more literalistic than Animal Farm, is an interesting comparison that would take us too far afield.

2. It bears more than a passing similarity to the film WarGames, also from 1983.

3. "Octopus" is from Greek not Latin, so the correct pretentious plural is "octopodes," not "octopi."

4. That question is part of a much larger debate. The bias of 20th century research in artificial intelligence has certainly been toward intelligence being most manifest in what might be called masculine activities, such as chess playing and mathematics. That's a real problem.