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.


Notes

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.


Notes

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.

Monday, August 12, 2019

A Fascinating World

Imagine what it would be like to have been born on a planet in another galaxy to another race with its own history, physiology, and culture. In some ways it would be wildly strange, but in some ways it would have to be remarkably similar, given the universal requirements on rational animal life, but for that no less unsettlingly alien to anything you can imagine now. How fascinating it would be to explore such a world!

But for the experience to be complete, you could have no notion of what you know here and now, your present life. There would be no secondary world such as the one on which these imaginings implicitly depend. So the world you knew, the only one you would know, would seem utterly normal and complete in itself.

Now tell me this: how does the situation I've described differ from your own present situation?

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Blindness of Power

This 2017 power causes brain damage article from The Atlantic keeps popping up in my FB feed. Not a bad article by any means. But what it documents is a more general phenomenon.

Have you ever noticed that our sensory organs are among the most weak and easily damaged? They are among the first to fail as we age. Have you ever noticed that the poor and the weak are usually the most affected by any sort of change, and usually in a way that hurts them?

These are manifestations of the difference between agent and patient, between activity and receptivity. The powerful and active are better at effecting an internally determined goal, whereas the weak and receptive are sensitive to external conditions.1

A son of privileged like Ted Kennedy can drive a car off a bridge and fail to report it for nine hours, leading to the death of his female passenger, without suffering any consequences, whereas a poor schmuck like you or I would rightly be forced to acknowledge the injustice of his actions, in body if not spirit, in the penal system.

The Philosophy of Power that has prevailed since the Enlightenment emphasizes knowledge through active means. It grows from the nominalist philosophy that teaches an act of the will precedes knowledge of the world.2 Power has always been a strong motivation in politics, but today's politics is amped up on the philosophical justification of power for its own sake. When human desire becomes the principal justification of actions and policies, truth is the casualty.

This unseemly reality was on display in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. The leftist media was so busy promoting their "inevitable" candidate, that they failed to listen to broad swaths of the electorate telling them she wasn't inevitable. They created an echo chamber for themselves and swallowed their own propaganda. In short, power caused blindness. (None of this is to deny that the winner of that election has his own blindness.)

Leftists begin their considerations from desire. Whereas true conservatives and traditionalists begin their considerations from what already exists: nature and tradition. So it makes sense that leftists use bullying tactics. The result of making desire the principle is a political philosophy of Power. Decisions are made based purely who's will has the most power; might makes right. In such a regime, there is fundamentally no respect for truth. It can only breed a civilization of death.

So it should come as no surprise when dissenters are fired purely based on the positions they take, e.g.,

Gender Dissenter Gets Fired .

Some academics (mostly leftists) have recognized how bullying tactics are corrosive to finding the truth (or at least that version of the truth that's the object of the game in academic philosophy), e.g.,

Philosophers Should Not Be Sanctioned Over Their Positions on Sex and Gender .

As Solzhenitsyn put it:

And he who is not sufficiently courageous even to defend his soul—don't let him be proud of his “progressive” views, don't let him boast that he is an academician or a people's artist, a merited figure, or a general—let him say to himself: I am in the herd, and a coward. It's all the same to me as long as I'm fed and warm.

But, given the current regime of mind (which has no time for qualms about the soul or eternal reward), such protests can at best prevail in the short term. In a longer term, the regime of lies prevails.3

Western society is locked into a downward spiral. How far down the spiral do we have to descend before we bounce back?

Man when he prospers forfeits intelligence: he is one with the cattle doomed to slaughter. (Ps 49:12, cf. verse 20)

There are two ways: the "Philosophy" of Power, which leads to death, and the Philosophy of Love, which leads to life.


Notes

1. For creatures only. God paradoxically combines omnipotence with omniscience: infinite power with infinite sensitivity.

2. This error has a basic truth at its kernel: that before we can see reality truly, the will must exercise a desire for openness to reality. And, given our fallen nature, this act of the will must be continuously reaffirmed.

3. Take comfort. In the longest term, only God and truth can prevail.


Alexander Solzhenitsyn, "Live Not By Lies" (Letter published Feb. 12, 1974).

Monday, July 08, 2019

How Do We Rebuild Culture?

What if the best way to rebuild Western culture was not to rebuild culture, but rather to praise God?

Here is an excellent blog post by Rachel Fulton Brown that powerfully makes that argument. It quotes the famous passage from the "Letter to Diognetus" about Christians being in the world but not of the world, and also quotes an amplification of that same point from Remi Brague's book Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern World (2019):

For instance, there is in Judaism a Talmudic cuisine, based on the rules of Kashrut; there are Christian cooks, but there is no Christian cuisine. There is in Islam a so-called prophetic medicine, based on the pieces of advice given by Muhammed in some cases and summarized in some collections of hadith which have this name, prophetic medicine; there are Christian physicians, but there is no Christian medicine. There is in Islam an Islamic dress code, the Islamic veil for each grown-up female, the commandment that each adult male let his beard grow and trim his mustache; there are Christian tailors and hairdressers, but there is no Christian fashion.

The post links to a speech by Pope Benedict that is insightful along the same lines (and beyond). Here are the last couple sentences:

A purely positivistic culture which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences. What gave Europe’s culture its foundation – the search for God and the readiness to listen to him – remains today the basis of any genuine culture.

H/t to Dr. Scott Hahn, who posted a link to the blog post on FB.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

A Funny Thing about Rainbows

In this month in which the symbol of the rainbow has been appropriated by, shall we say, non-traditional causes, it might be good to look at rainbows as they actually are and what they actually mean.

Rainbows are a reflection phenomenon created by dispersion. Dispersion means different frequencies of light are bent different amounts in the medium (in this case usually rain) through which the light travels. So the colors that make up the white light are separated out in the various bands that make up the rainbow.

The thing I'd really like you to notice about rainbows here is how to notice them. They usually appear when the sun is low in the sky (for example, not long after sunrise or not long before sunset) and when it's raining in the part of the sky 180 degrees away from the sun. So if it's later in the day, not many hours before sunset (i.e., sun in the west) and raining in the east, you'll see the rainbow in the east.

What this means is that rainbows usually appear in the midst of rain, or near rain. The most dramatic rainbows have a dark, stormy backdrop.

There's a moral to be had from this coincidence of rainbows and dark sky. If the rainbow appears behind you, you're leaving a stormy past. You survived. If the rainbow appears in front of you, the rainbow reminds you that the storms you're about to enter will not last forever. There is hope.

Rainbows are symbols of hope.