Friday, March 30, 2007

The Heart of Creation

With all the strife over the meaning of Genesis with respect to the neo-Darwinian model of creaturely origins, it is easy to lose track of the central Truth that Scripture seeks to pass on to us. In 1981, before he ascendended to the papacy, Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger) gave a series of four Lenten homilies (sermons) on creation. These homilies recollect our attention to the core purpose of the creation accounts:

And so it came to be understood that this God of Israel was not a God like the other gods, but that he was the God who held sway over every land and people. He could do this, however, because he himself had created everything in heaven and on earth. It was in exile and in the seeming defeat of Israel that there occurred an opening to the awareness of the God who holds every people and all history in his hands, who holds everything because he is the source of all power.


I just said how, gradually, in confronting its pagan environment and its own heart, the people of Israel experienced what "creation" was. Implicit here is the fact that the classic creation account is not the only creation text of sacred Scripture. Immediately after it there follows another one, composed earlier and containing other imagery. In the Psalms there are still others, and there the movement to clarify the faith concerning creation is carried still further: In its confrontation with Hellenistic civilization. Wisdom literature reworks the theme without sticking to the old images such as the seven days. Thus we can see how the Bible itself constantly readapts its images to a continually developing way of thinking, how it changes time and again in order to bear witness, time and again, to the one thing that has come to it, in truth, from God's Word, which is the message of his creating act. In the Bible itself the images are free and they correct themselves ongoingly. In this way they show, by means of a gradual and interactive process, that they are only images, which reveal something deeper and greater.

That something deeper and greater is the touchstone of Christianity and the standard by which we judge any interpretation of Scripture. At the beginning of his second homily, Ratzinger summarizes the unified Message that God has been trying to communicate from the beginning:

In our first encounter with the Bible's and the church's faith in creation, two realizations became particularly clear. We can sum up the first in this way: As Christians we read Holy Scripture with Christ. He is our guide all the way through it. He indicates to us in reliable fashion what am image is and where the real, enduring content of biblical experssion may be found. At the same time he is freedom from a false slavery to literalism and a guarantee of the solid, realistic truth of the Bible, which does not dissipate into a cloud of pious pleasantries but remains the sure ground upon which we stand. Our second realization was this: Faith in creation is reasonable. Even if reason itself cannot perhaps give an account of it, it searches in faith and finds there the answer that it had been looking for.

Above the fray of the evolution wars, the Truth stands serene.

Joseph Ratzinger, trans. Boniface Ramsey, In the Beginning...: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman's Publishing Company), 11-12, 14-15, 21.

See also: Pius XII, Humani Generis (12 August 1950).

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Peril of "Beauty"

Lately I've been reading The New Story of Science by Robert Augros and George Stanciu. It's an excellent book so far—the second chapter on "Mind" is enough for me to HIGHLY recommend the whole book—but the third chapter mightily aggravates a pet peeve of mine.

The idea of the chapter is that beauty has re-entered our picture of the universe through developments of modern science. While Augros and Stanciu are writing from the realist tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas, the situation of the discussion in the shifting sands of mathematical physics lures them into an over-abstracted account of beauty insufficiently grounded in objective reality. The error in which Augros and Stanciu find themselves mired is rather subtle, but for that reason especially important to recognize.

Before I get started, let me note the worthwhile truth at the core of Augros and Stanciu's praise of beauty: we moderns have a nasty tendency to deny the truth in beauty and to revel in the ugly as if it were the mark of truth. We get wrapped in our own wills and our power to create that we forget that goodness is largely something that we receive from a world much bigger than ourselves.

To return to the over-abstracted notion of beauty, the authors write, "In physics, beauty reigns supreme. Experiment often errs, beauty seldom" (41). It would better read "experiments often err": while individual experiments can err, experiment in the universal sense is the touchstone of modern science, including theory. In 1919, when his assistant asked Einstein about the possibility that experiment had not supported general relativity, Einstein reportedly said, "Then I would feel sorry for the good Lord. The theory is correct anyway." Einstein's statement was probably justified in regard to a single experiment or perhaps even a small number of experiments, but not for a large number of well-conducted experiments. Real science ultimately has to be grounded in objective reality. Forgetting this fact is the basic error of the chapter.

As we all know, beauty in general is no sure-fire window on truth and goodness. Although one can always pick out the protagonist of a movie by looks, real life is not so simple. Famous are the fables of the femme fatale. Even more apparent these days is the divergence between beauty and goodness evident in the lives of modern celebrities. Should I emulate Liz Taylor or Britney or Paris just because she is attractive? So much for the evidential power of beauty.

Even otherwise solid philosophers are not immune from the mania for beauty, albeit to a lesser extent. Many of them have an unreflective tendency to elevate beauty to stand among the "big three" transcendental perfections synonymous with Being: the True, the Good, and the One—sometimes displacing the last, Oneness or Unity.1 As Fr. Ashley points out, beauty is only "a particular goodness of truth": "truth as we desire its contemplation" (174, 328). And all too often its essential relation to the (imperfect) knower makes it but an apparent goodness. It is perilous to exalt "beauty" with insufficiently context.

Augros and Stanciu educe from the words of many prominent physicists that beauty comprises "simplicity, harmony, and brilliance" (42). Similarly Aquinas speaks of beauty as the splendor of truth or of form thusly in the Summa:

For beauty includes three conditions, "integrity" or "perfection," since those things which are impaired are by the very fact ugly; due "proportion" or "harmony"; and lastly, "brightness" or "clarity," whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color. (ST I, Q 39, a 8)

So according to Aquinas, harmony is synonymous with proportion, and brilliance (or brightness) with clarity. But equating simplicity with integrity or perfection is a bit harder to understand. Augros and Stanciu write, "The principle of simplicity implies two things—completeness and economy.... A theory beautiful by this standard must take into account all the facts and must include only what is necessary" (42-43)— in other words, it must possess a wholeness validly described as integrity or perfection. Harmony, the authors write, requires not only that a theory harmonize with previously established theories, but also implies symmetry. Augros and Stanciu are manifestly writing in the Thomistic tradition.

Unfortunately any discussion of mathematical physics necessarily tends toward mathematical abstraction, which is a human construct, a human creation.2 The slippery sand sneaks in through the mathematical notions of completeness and simplicity (along with symmetry). Abstracted from actually existing reality, "completeness" takes on arbitrary boundaries. Modern scientific theories necessarily omit parts of that reality. Newton's Laws of Motion, for example, leave out the fact that bodies are composed of parts which interact separately; you could never come up with the laws of thermodynamics purely from Newton's Laws. Mathematical abstraction methodologically ignores some facts: Newton's law of inertia ignores the fact that no body exists untouched by outside forces. Theoretical completeness in modern science contains a large dose of arbitrariness (for lack of a better word).

Taken with the arbitrariness of completeness, "simplicity" in the context of mathematical abstraction becomes a weird perfection: the more complicated a thing becomes or the more parameters it requires for its description, the less of the perfection of simplicity (economy) it apparently possesses. (Symmetry is similar in that it increases simplicity.) One atom is simple, but a molecule is comparatively complicated. Life, and in particular human life, is a messy affair, very unsimple. Apparently unbeautiful too. But there's little doubt that a human has more being and goodness than an atom. What could be simpler than a perfect, sterile sphere? The world itself is messy. While the laws of nature have a symmetrical generality, applying "always" and "everywhere" the same, there's no avoiding the asymmetry of the particular, the scandal of the concrete reality in front of you: why does this exist and not something else?3 The unfortunate side-effect of elevating simplicity in this context is a tendency to see all existence is a wart on the perfect symmetry of Nothing.

These days what we call good or beautiful follows the lead of physics in consisting simply in what is easy or useful, or conveniently meets our purposes, and in willfully shutting out the less pleasant bits. The world would be more beautiful (simple) if no children were born with birth defects, but not every way of achieving that end is good. The world would certainly be more democratic (symmetrical) and simpler if there were no moral absolutes, since everyone regardless of behavior would have an equal claim to goodness, but its apparent simplicity doesn't make such an idiotic idea true. Likewise, the history of mathematical physics is littered with the remains of theories that appealed to their authors as beautiful, but which turned out to have zero bearing on physical reality.4 Truth is a correspondence between the mind and (extra-mental) reality; in place of truth, the modern world settles for consistency, e.g., harmony with preceding theory.

Conversely truth and goodness are often ugly, or at least appear under the guise of the ugly. Sometimes the good that the truth requires is repellent, like sacrificing ourselves for family or country. Francis of Assisi is a saint because he was able to find the beauty in a leper. Teresa of Avila is a saint because she was able to find God in the emptiness of spiritual purgation. What could be more horrifying than a crucified man? What could be more asymmetrical than a people who lay unique, historical claim to the Absolute?

The problem with the modern world is not our lack of attraction to beauty, but our failure to recognize what is truly beautiful. Just as everyone desires the good, everyone finds beauty attractive. The controversy is the content to attribute to the perfection (beauty, goodness), and the challenge is how to know it.5

The world has forgotten true beauty, so there's great value in its exaltation, Augros and Stanciu are writing for that worthy end, and its difficult to blame them for missing the subtle error to which they fall prey in this single chapter of an otherwise excellent book. Examining the results of mathematical physics can broaden our minds to recognize the beauty of the world. Unfortunately, taking the example of mathematical physics as a guide for discovering beauty only more firmly shuts us up within our uneducated tastes. The way out of our morbid fascination with the ugly is not so much allowing whatever chances within our tortured definition of beauty to guide us, as in training our hearts to recognize what is truly good and beautiful. What our hearts perceive as beautiful, they inevitably follow.


1. Fr. Dubay's The Evidential Power of Beauty merely elevates beauty without displacing unity (p. 45-7), apparently based on the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Dubay doesn't seem to clearly distinguish goodness and utility (a common modern confusion), at least on p. 46. Goodness, unlike unity and truth, has no entry in Dubay's index.

2. Cf. "The expressions ‘the order of nature’ and ‘the biological order’ must not be confused or regarded as identical; the ‘biological order’ does indeed mean the same as the order of nature but only insofar as this is accessible to the methods of empirical and descriptive natural science.... The ‘biological order’, as a product of the human intellect which abstracts its elements from a larger reality, has man for its immediate author." (Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, pp. 56–57)

3. The scandal of the particular is the source (philosophically speaking) of the need for probability in quantum mechanics, the so-called collapse of the wave-function in some versions of the Copenhagen interpretation, as well as the alternative "many worlds" interpretation.

4. Contrary to Augros and Stanciu's claim that "If occasionally a supremely elegant theory does not fit one group of facts, it inevitably finds application elsewhere" (41). But I suppose the wiggle room is in the word "supremely."

5. That naive acknowledgment of lovely appearance was easier in pagan times, before the centrality of the Cross laid bare the inner contrariety of our created existence. Maybe the Misfit was right: "Jesus thrown everything off balance." More likely Jesus exposed what had always been lying behind the "beautiful" face of the world, and what we ignored to our own destruction.

Robert M. Augros and George N. Stanciu, The New Story of Science (New York: Bantam Books, 1986).

Benedict Ashley, The Way Toward Wisdom: An Interdisciplinary and Intercultural Introduction to Metaphysics (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 2006).

Monday, March 19, 2007

Salvo Magazine Update

You may recall the review of the premier issue of Salvo. I had obtained the issue without charge by sending in a complimentary issue card.

When I notified the publication's editors about the review, I offered to review the second issue, though I pointed out that I wasn't about to plunk down my own hard-earned cash after such an unimpressive first issue.

Last week I got a notice from the Salvo circulation department demanding payment for my subscription to the publication. I never asked to subscribe! This is the second or third such notice I've received.

My evaluation of the magazine was mixed, but my evaluation of its business practices is decidedly sour. What a shame that a group of well-intentioned people who are obviously trying to promote a culture that values people are so thoughtless!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Interesting Items

Personal Note: Just got back from a trip. My travel preparations kept me from posting beforehand, and then for some reason Blogger wouldn't work on the computer where I was staying.

Steve Barr has a provocative piece "Faith and Quantum Theory" in the March First Things (subscription required for access). I was hoping to have something substantive to post on it, but then realized I'm still struggling with Steve's explanation of quantum weirdness: I have not come to a coherent understanding of his notion of decoherence (transition from quantum wave-like behavior to particulate classical behavior). Perhaps I'll put together something later.

Cardinal Schönborn has a well-considered piece, "Reasonable Science, Reasonable Faith," in the April First Things. Apparently, it is a condensed version of a talk he gave last month in New York ("Fides, Ratio, Scientia: On the debate over Evolution"). It will be interesting to see if Barr publishes a response, in light of his previous exchanges with the Cardinal!

Friday, March 02, 2007

Discovering Purpose in the World

This is a revision of a talk I gave last night to a general audience.

Have you ever bought or received a gadget that didn’t come with instructions? Depending on how complicated the thing is, trying to figure out how to make it work can be pretty frustrating. Tonight we’re going to look at the “instructions” for the most complicated thing in the world: the human being. We’re going to examine how discerning the purposes built into our human nature can help us find fulfillment both as individuals and as a society.

Aristotle’s Physics and his entire philosophy recognize the purpose and order already present in the world independent of us; to achieve happiness we need to work with these existing purposes. It is important to note that what Aristotle means by purpose is not something consciously chosen, but simply regularity. That particular things happen “always or for the most part” indicates an ordering toward those ends. Scientific laws like the law of gravity actually testify to the order of the world. We choose to ignore this ordering at our peril. Modern science actually assumes that purpose and order exist in the world—it takes them for granted. Why else would scientists bother investigating, if there weren’t an order to be investigated? But because science doesn’t deal directly with purpose and order [i.e., with purpose as purpose and order as order], many people assume science has disproven their existence in nature. So, they reason, purpose and order must be unnatural: arbitrary human creations. This erroneous thinking has grown into an ideology. Happiness according to this ideology has nothing to do with our normal, natural maturation as human persons, but is entirely up to us: something that we have to find apart from our nature and to a large extent in opposition to it. Nature is a great chaos on which we must impose order and meaning. This ideology sees nature as a slave to be dominated, whereas Aristotle sees nature as a spouse to be engaged in dance.

All things, but especially all living things have purposes for which they strive. It’s pretty clear that all living things must at least strive to grow and reproduce, or else they wouldn’t be around for long. Think about an apple tree. The tree grows leaves in order to collect the energy of the sun, and it collects this energy to sustain its life processes… and grow apples! The maturation of the apple—its turning red—is the culmination and purpose of the apple tree. The tree finds its fulfillment in bearing fruit that will yield the next generation of apple trees.

As we ascend the scale of being, purposes not only persist, but they actually increase. Though we often forget, we humans have natures with purposes too, and it is in fulfilling the purposes inscribed in our natures that we find fulfillment. We neglect this truth to our harm. In our very wealthy country, we have a massive problem (quite literally) with overeating and its consequent diseases, and I think the root of this problem is our confusion over the purpose of eating. We see enjoyment as the purpose, with nourishment as a byproduct. In actuality, the pleasure we take from eating is merely one of the incentives that nature provides to encourage us to eat and sustain our lives. Food and its enjoyment are for the sake of sustaining life. The problem runs deeper than lack of awareness and is rooted in our assumptions about satisfaction in general. The constant bombardment of advertisements constantly vies for our money by telling us to pamper ourselves. Whether or not we buy a particular product, we all end up buying the idea that pleasure is the ultimate goal of our activities, when actually pleasure fills the supporting role of drawing us to what is good.

Keeping the natural purpose uppermost in mind illuminates other areas of life as well, like forming future members of society. Human children aren’t born with spines or fangs or fast legs. Unlike other animals who know what to do by instinct, human behaviors are largely learned. The child is born into the world tiny and defenseless, but nature has provided the community it needs to sustain its life in the persons of its parents. The presence of both parents is the optimal setting for the child’s maturation. (Please note that I’m not saying that it’s impossible to raise good children without these, or that people without them are inadequte; I'm just talking merely about what is optimal: goals toward we need to strive.) Studies show, for example, that children from two-parent families have higher educational achievement and lower dropout rates. Studies also show that the presence of both a mother and a father is important, that they fulfill complementary roles in child development. A child’s emotional bond with its mother builds its capacity for intimacy and empathy, and its sense of self-worth. Children whose fathers are involved in their upbringing have better emotional health, academic achievement, and, on growing up, higher job status. Daughters especially benefit from their fathers by learning that they are loveable and how to appreciate their own femininity. The presence of both parents models for the children interactions between the sexes. Marriage is the way that human culture provides for the upbringing of children, and this is the reason that societies with even the most exotic moral beliefs and practices have treasured marriage.


As we have seen, the world is teeming with purposes. Sun and moon rise and set at regular intervals. Crops begin growing in the spring and bear fruit in the fall. Children are born utterly dependent on their parents and only after a couple decades (often longer!) do they reach maturity. It’s so obvious that we often miss it. If we wish for a good harvest, we plant in the spring in a place with ample sun and water. If we wish for good adults, we nurture our children with love and protect them from influences that will keep them from growing straight and tall.

Whereas Aristotle’s philosophy deals with purposes directly, science merely assumes their reality. Science is a very powerful way to see the world, but it is very limited. We need to see science as part of a larger philosophy of nature. Aristotle provides a comprehensive way of thinking about the world, and limits science to its proper bounds. If we can look beyond modern science’s constrained view and learn to appreciate the broad panorama of nature, we can learn to work with the purposes alive in the world and in ourselves and find true happiness.

Marriage and Child Wellbeing: A Publication of The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and The Brookings Institution. This is a collection of essays on the subject. The sponsoring institutions had to satisfy their liberal obligations by including a piece that glosses over the problems with homosexuals raising children, but the fact that even liberals recognize the indispensible role the marriage and family play in society is significant.

Kay S. Hymowitz, “Marriage and Caste,” City Journal (Winter 2006).

Brudget E, Maher, “The Benefits of Marriage,” Family Research Council Website. The following are the relevant references from this document:

Brenda Hunter, Ph.D., The Power of Mother Love (Waterbrook Press: Colorado Springs, 1997) 104.

Mohammadreza Hojat, "Satisfaction with Early Relationships with Parents and Psychosocial Attributes in Adulthood: Which Parent Contributes More?" The Journal of Genetic Psychology 159 (1998): 203-220, as cited in The Family in America New Research, The Howard Center (October 1998).

Jay Teachman, et al., "Sibling Resemblance in Behavioral Cognitive Outcomes: The Role of Father Presence," Journal of Marriage and the Family 60 (November 1998): 835-848.

Timothy J. Biblarz and Greg Gottainer, "Family Structure and Children's Success: A Comparison of Widowed and Divorced Single-Mother Families," Journal of Marriage and the Family 62 (May 2000:) 533-548.

David Popenoe, Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence That Fatherhood and Marriage Are Indispensable for the Good of Children and Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996) 143-149.

Also of interest: Dwight Duncan's 1997 Amicus Curiae Brief on Homosexual Marriage