Sunday, March 29, 2020

Apocalypse, Hold the Zombies

The other day I bought some peanut butter at the upscale grocery story where it's surprisingly cheaper. The atmosphere was far from normal. "It's like the zombie apocalypse," observed the young woman with the purple highlights checking out my purchases. I looked at her quizzically. She hastened to add, "But without the zombies." I suspect the word she was reaching for was "apocalypse."

Indeed it's like the apocalypse: an uncovering, a revelation. Do you get the sense that we as a country, whether observing Lent or not, are in a period of forced penance?

Then tidings reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he made proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them cry mightily to God; yea, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not?” (Jonah 3)

May we find forgiveness for our sins soon, very soon.

Monday, December 09, 2019

The Coffee Must Flow

Do you ever wonder how the small but pervasive details we take for granted, such as foods, subtly shape our lives and our world? I've been thinking about coffee lately. How much is it responsible for the modern world? How much of the modern world is it responsible for?

This page claims that it was discovered in Ethiopia in the 11th century. Wikipedia puts that discovery before the 15th century, and says it was introduced to Europe in the 16th century. Of course that time frame is the rise of the so-called Enlightenment.1

Caffeine is known to boost cognitive function and alertness. So people before the advent of coffee were less alert and functioned on a lower cognitive level. My question is: to what extent is that "lower" level of performance more essential to what it means to be human? To what extent does we humans being little lost dummies put us more in touch with the reality of our status as interdependent social beings, creatures dependent on God? To what extent does the improvement of focus that caffeine enables foster the illusion that we are autonomous masters of our own destiny?

For that matter, which cognitive faculties does caffeine promote? And which, by comparison, does it weaken? And how do these faculties compare with the list of human characteristics that have taken command since the Enlightenment?


1. Cf. Peter Ramus (1515-1572), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Rene Descartes (1596-1650).

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Butlerian Jihad and Humanae Vitae

It may not be immediately clear what connection could possibly exist between a ban on artificial intelligence in the Dune universe and a letter by a Pope on contraception, but let me explain.

One of the founding myths of the universe of Dune by Frank Herbert is the Butlerian Jihad . The Jihad was a conflict 10,000 years before the events of the novels whose effect was to ban the creation and use of artificial intelligences.

To replace the function of the banned "thinking machines", humans develop "human computers," known as Mentats, whose training, aided by the ingestion of "Sapho juice," allows them to exceed the performance of machines. Other orders of specialized humans also develop in the wake of the jihad. Most notable is the Spacing Guild, whose members use of the drug "melange," a.k.a. "the spice," to safely navigate enormous starships through space. Similarly the Bene Gesserit order owes its superhuman powers to use of melange.

It is interesting that this novel, published in 1965, envisions a world built on the use of chemicals to make up for the loss of mechanical means.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI published the encyclical Humane Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth) . The encyclical was written in the wake of the availability of hormonal birth control pills starting around 1960. The basic argument against chemical contraception is that it is wrong to do anything to interfere with the natural ends of sexual intercourse. (Abstinence of course is a different matter, because abstaining from a good but not obligatory thing is not the same thing as doing a bad thing.1) Mechanical contraception, like condoms and diaphragms, had long been unacceptable for Catholics. So, starting in 1968 both mechanical and chemical interference were taught to be equally wrong.

One of the early developers of chemical contraception, Dr. John Rock, was in fact a Roman Catholic, and he had campaigned for the invention to be accepted by the Church. Once Humane Vitae was published, he withdrew from the Church in disappointment. I haven't read his 1963 book The Time Has Come: A Catholic Doctor's Proposals to End the Battle Over Birth Control justifying his position, but I found this article that includes a summary:

In his book, Rock argues that since the pill functioned by suspending ovulation, it did not violate the Church’s edict that no one be permitted to deliberately suppress reproductive function. He contends that the rhythm method actually suppresses reproductive function, since by avoiding insemination the ovum cannot be fertilized; by contrast, if ovulation is suspended there is no egg to be fertilized, and he reasons that the contraceptive pill fulfilled the edict better than the rhythm method does.

Assuming his argument is conveyed fairly here, it is problematic in terms of any sort of traditional human morality. He seems to be focusing on the nature of the ovum (a part of a human), rather than the nature of the human persons, female and male, involved. It's kind of a crazy argument, in that it would seem to assume that it's somehow wrong to allow an ovum to go unfertilized, a position that if followed consistently would make women's lives (and secondarily those of their husbands) rather inconvenient! In reality it is not an ovum (or any human organ by itself) that exercises "reproductive functions" but whole organism, the human person, that does so, and the latter do right or wrong by respectively living or denying through their voluntary actions the nature that their Creator gave them.

To exercise will power in abstaining from intercourse for a good reason is an exercise of a natural human faculty that requires virtue and builds up and morally improves the human person. Avoiding conception in this case works with nature. On the other hand, taking a chemical contraceptive, no less than employing a mechanical contraceptive, to block the natural purpose of sexual intercourse (the conception of children) is a violation of human nature. Using chemistry rather than mechanism to manipulate nature doesn't somehow make a violation good, but just as much degrades the humanity of the people involved.2 And that's not even mentioning all the evidence of the physiological harm of chemical contraceptives.

To bring this back to Dune, humanity turns to chemicals to augment human abilities that would have been exercised by machines. The idea is that we humans don't want to give machines control over us, but want to keep power in the hands of humans. But it's not clear that these chemically modified humans are entirely aligned with the interests of human beings in general. Indeed, the (Spacing) Guild navigators, whose bodies have been mutated by exposure to the spice, don't even look human any longer. An argument could be made that the intrigue of the competing interests of the Dune universe is largely due to the respective differences of the orders/guilds, whose post-human identities were delineated by chemical manipulation.

That argument could be made, but I think a more powerful argument is that the source of the strife in that world is the lack of a single, unified vision of what defines humanity, human nature, and thus human rights and responsibilities. So each faction of post-humans is striving for a disparate vision for the future of "all humanity." But ultimately the same post-Darwinian nominalism that denies a single human nature also fails to recognize how chemical interventions could spawn a new species... and indeed denies that "species" is even a coherent concept.

There's a sense that Frank Herbert's depiction of the strife in the Dune universe was a prophetic warning against the use of chemical interventions to attempt to preserve humanity, but it's also true that he himself succumbed to the conceptual errors behind that mistake in his portrayal of the possibilities of a post-human universe. John Rock was no less a victim of the reductive nominalism that has infected the cultural atmosphere in our modern age.


1. Oh and by the way, to bat down a common misconception: natural family planning (NFP) is not the same as the "rhythm method." The former takes its cues from physiological changes that signal the phase of a woman's cycle, while the latter is understandably ineffective because it simply counts the days under the assumption that all women have the same periodicity.

2. Will power works in and through human nature (the human being a whole: an embodied spirit or an ensouled body), whereas mechanical and chemical interventions insert themselves into nature from outside as it were. The latter treat the human body as if it were a machine to be manipulated at will, rather than a whole whose integrity needs to be respected.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Who Are the Monsters?

There are many kinds of monsters that appear in history and fiction. A few categories, some overlapping, come to mind. There are moral monsters (like Dr. Mengele and Mr. Hyde), supernatural monsters (like vampires and werewolves), physiological monsters (like plague victims and zombies), and parasites (like the xenomorphs of Alien). What these all have in common is that they oppose nature in some way—usually our human nature.

Consider Harvey Dent in the 2008 film The Dark Knight. His injury and his transformation from a noble character into the villain Two-Face comes from a disordered love and someone else's crime that results in half his face being burnt off. His monstrous appearance comes from an injury.

Consider the Pale Man from the 2006 film Pan's Labyrinth. He has no eyes in his head. When the film's protagonist Ofelia encounters him, he sits dormant and his eyes sit like grapes on a plate on the table before him. When Ofelia eats the forbidden food that also rests on the table, the Pale Man awakens, inserts his eyes into their slots in the palms of his hands (signifying greedy vision), and then begins grabbing the living beings around him to devour.

What makes these figures terrifying is their deformity. But on reflection, these deformities actually make them weaker. In real life, a man missing half his face would easily have succumb to an infection. A creature with separable organs is, well, easy to separate from his organs. And having eyes in one's hands makes it difficult to both see and hold something at the same time. Injuries and deformities don't make something stronger, but actually weaker. Even "stronger" parasites tend to kill off their hosts more quickly and thus be less virulent.

So often the ugliness we identify with monsters is an indication of illness, injury, or deformity, that is to say, of weakness. And weak people deserve sympathy.

But we humans have an evil tendency to demonize such weakness. As psychologist Julia Shaw writes:

Yet we know that humans have long abused people who look different. Why does this happen? Well, there is the basic evolutionary argument that deformities and asymmetry can be signs of genetic disease and weakness. We are naturally averse to disease — an aversion to which we partly owe our survival — so we gravitate to those who look fertile and healthy and we shy away from those who might infect us. But while this might help explain why we avoid certain people, it doesn’t explain why we might also act cruelly towards them.

There's a saying that's been going around for a while: "Knowledge is knowing Frankenstein is not the monster. Wisdom is knowing that Frankenstein is the monster." In other words, school-book education will teach you that Frankenstein was the name of not the monster but the monster's creator. Understanding the story will teach you that the monster's creator was a moral monster: for creating life against nature and then for cruelly abandoning his misshapen creation.

We say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There are real monsters, but too often monstrosity is merely in the soul of the beholder. Let us treat "monsters" with compassion, lest we become monsters ourselves.

Julia Shaw, "What makes a person creepy? And what purpose do our creep detectors serve? A psychologist explains"

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Everybody Has an Age

No one is ageless. Everyone has an age. Which is to say that each of us in this time, this present, through which our minds now meet, exists at a particular stage and season of life, having lived through the previous stages, and, unless an untimely event occurs, evolving through the remaining stages of the human life cycle before passing into the Great Mystery.

But life can play a trick on us if we focus on the spotlight that naturally highlights those in the most active period of adulthood, the rosy center of life. We can come to think that humans have no beginning and no end. That our lives are eternal, and we can continue this vibrant existence forever. Certain modern entertainments exacerbate this unhealthy tendency by portraying the lives of the characters without respect to the natural arc of their human existences. And education these days overemphasizes the God-like activity of human beings at the cost of minimizing their creaturely limitations.

But the idea of an eternal life here is an illusion. Life itself, in itself (an only in itself), is indeed eternal. But we are only bit players in the drama of Human Life. We say our lines and then exit right.

All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. (Isaiah 40:6)

Everybody has an age.

Monday, September 16, 2019

The Supposed Black Hole Information Paradox and the Idolatry of Mechanism

For a while now, physicists have been talking about their perplexity at what they call the black hole information paradox. The paradox comes about when you combine general relativity with quantum mechanics.

Matter, composed of particles, falls into a black hole. Theoretically speaking, you can trace the particles' paths as they enter the back hole. These positions and momenta represent information that, according to a classical theory like general relativity, should be preserved; if you could look inside the black hole, you should in theory be able calculate the particles' original paths from their present state (positions, momenta). Since we can't see inside black holes (light cannot escape), this naïve belief can't apparently be falsified.

But then enter Stephen Hawking. He famously used quantum mechanics to show that black holes slowly radiate their mass/energy away, which is to say that we can, after a fashion, "see inside" black holes. What we see come out of black holes is a thermal radiation field (i.e., black body spectrum). The radiation is the same no matter what falls into the hole (depending only on bulk parameters of the hole like its mass), so the "information" about the particles that went into the black hole has apparently been destroyed. The paradox is, as Sabine Hossenfelder puts it, "If you combine gravity with quantum theory, it seems you get a result that's inconsistent with the quantum theory you started from." Well, as we'll see, "inconsistent with the quantum theory you started from" is not that simple and requires some explanation.

To any normal person looking at this situation, the idea of the particles' paths being preserved inside the black hole sounds ridiculous. Even from the classical paradigm, everything that goes in to a black hole ends up at the singularity at the center, a place of infinite pressure and density: how can any "information" survive that? But then you add in quantum theory, with its famous uncertainty principle that makes it impossible to know both position and momentum with exact precision in principle, and then you expect to be able to know how to trace the particles' paths backward? Absolutely ridiculous!1

In reality there are two parts to quantum theory. First there's the "unitary" part described by Schrödinger's equation and the like that describes how the wavefunction evolves deterministically. Secondly, there's the "reductive" part that happens during a measurement; we have no mathematical description of how this works, but this is the part that appears "random"; out of all the possible outcome states the wavefunction describes, only one is the outcome after the measurement. Since many states are (apparently without deterministic cause) reduced to one state, our science won't allow us even in principle to figure out the pre-measurement state. So even according to quantum mechanics, we can't figure out the particles' original paths given their present state: "information" is lost.

Roger Penrose describes how many physicists for some reason still believe the information is preserved (the "store" and "return" alternatives), when the information "loss" alternative is more reasonable:

The reader might wonder why people feel the need to go to the lengths required for store or return, when the most obvious alternative would appear to be loss. The reason is that loss seems to imply a violation of unitarity, i.e., of the operation of U. If one's philosophy of quantum mechanics demands that unitarity is immutable, then one is in difficulty with loss. Hence we have the popularity, among many (and apparently most) particle physicists of the possibilities of store or return, despite the seemingly contrived appearance of these alternatives.

Penrose is right. The reason so many physicists are still hung up on the unitary part of QM is a philosophical commitment. It is in fact part of the founding, extra-scientific (in fact scientistic) faith of Cartesian, Galilean physics given birth by Newton: that reality is completely intelligible and controllable by human reason. At core this commitment, the mechanical philosophy, is the assumption that the human mind stands over and distinct from the world of matter in a transcendent, God-like posture. Laplace precisely stated the metaphysical commitment this way:

We ought to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its antecedent state and as the cause of the state that is to follow. An intelligence knowing all the forces acting in nature at a given instant, as well as the momentary positions of all things in the universe, would be able to comprehend in one single formula the motions of the largest bodies as well as the lightest atoms in the world, provided that its intellect were sufficiently powerful to subject all data to analysis; to it nothing would be uncertain, the future as well as the past would be present to its eyes. The perfection that the human mind has been able to give to astronomy affords but a feeble outline of such an intelligence.

Physics will continue to fail in its quest to understand nature as long as it abides by this disproven idea.


1. It sounds as if there's a sort of hidden-variable assumption behind the idea that position and momentum information is preserved.

Roger Penrose The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), § 30.8, 840.

Pierre Simon de Laplace, Théorie analytique des probabilités (1812).

Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Theology of Game of Thrones

Despite its gratuitous sex and violence, the universe of the Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin is a moral, religious universe. And one that in some aspects might even be mistaken for a Christian universe.

There are a number of different religions in the Game of Thrones universe:

  • The Faith of the Seven – the modalist version of Christian Trinitarianism that dominates Westeros
  • The Old Gods – the religion of the First Men of Westeros, centered around ancient trees
  • The Drowned God – honored in the Iron Islands

These are more eastern, centered in Essos:

  • The Lord of Light – centered around fire, rather like Zoroastrianism
  • The Many-Faced God – the assassin cult of the Free City of Braavos
  • The Great Stallion – religion of the Dothraki cavalry hordes

This diversity of religions makes it hard to pinpoint a single "theology" behind the series. Still there are some recurring themes among the religions that underscore important aspects of the story.

The Faith of the Seven and the cult of the Many-Faced God have in common that the Divinity or Divine Principle appears under different guises. And of course Bran's warging and greensight, which seems allied to the Old Gods, brings out this theme of a single underlying center with diverse appearances. With each chapter of the series told from a different character's perspective, warging and multiple faces are arguably the central theme of the books, if only subconsciously. One might say they constitute the cosmic view of the series.

In contrast, Christian orthodoxy specifically rejects modalism, the idea that the Persons of the Trinity are simply different appearances, roles, or "offices" of the one God.

The religions of the Lord of Light and the Drowned God both emphasize death and rebirth/resurrection. The priests of the Lord of Light are actually able to bring people back from the dead. Further the religion of the Drowned God adds an element of redemption: consider the refrain of the Drowned God: "What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger." I argue that this principle of redemption through suffering and death represents the moral theology, or soteriology (theory of salvation) of the series.

Consider the arcs of the protagonists and the antagonists, the good and the bad characters, and how justice is meted out. There is a strong tendency for the good characters to have been victims of the abuse (e.g., Tyrion, Sansa, Bran, Arya, Davos, Jon, Brienne, and somewhat Dany and Jaime) at the hands of the bad characters. It's an apt observation that difficulties can produce moral growth. On the other hand, the bad characters more often than not come from a background of power and privilege without suffering, e.g., Joffrey, Tywin, Cersei, Walder Frey.1

So suffering and dying, whether figuratively or literally, leads to moral redemption. And wealth and power are sources of moral corruption. It sounds a lot like Christianity.

Where this conception falls short of Christianity is that it fails to realize the possibility of sin. There are two ways to receive suffering: either one can accept it as a source of truth and humility, or one can become bitter and spiteful. Martin's universe seems to recognize only the first possibility, or at least to presume that people who suffer overwhelmingly rise into the first camp. (Meanwhile privilege almost deterministically makes people evil and selfish.) For this reason, the universe of Martin seems to reflect the current secular notion of victimization—in which membership in a victim class automatically assures one's righteousness and innocence—much more than it reflects Christianity.

Perhaps some of the popularity of George R.R. Martin's series can be attributed to its riff off Christian cosmic and moral beliefs, or at least off the aspects of Christianity that have yet to be completely effaced from culture in the West.


1. Not sure where to put Ramsay Bolton in this scheme. Were his story fleshed out more, he might have even been a counter-example to my argument.