The Center Does Not Hold: Bastard Christianities

If his lecture outlining his argument is any indication, Catholic intellectual Joseph Bottum’s new book, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America (Image 2014), is going to be talked about “far and wee”:

The major event that allowed this spiritualizing of our politics is the utter collapse of the Protestant mainline churches, those once central and stabilizing institutions in the American experiment. With their collapse, since the 1970s, strange entities have broken loose to find a new home in politics. There’s a reason far too many Americans think their opponents are evil. Politics has become a supernatural battleground, where we want to work out not our political problems, but our spiritual anxieties.

The disappearance of the Protestant ascendancy that defined the American new world for 300 years is a cause of enormous amounts of our current political situation, of our incivility toward one another, and of our politics of salvation.

That’s his thesis. Here he is fleshing it out a bit:

We live in what can only be called a spiritual age, swayed by its metaphysical fears and hungers, when we imagine that our ordinary political opponents are not merely mistaken, but actually evil. When we assume that past ages, and the people who lived in them, are defined by the systematic crimes of history. When we suppose that some vast ethical miasma, racism, radicalism, cultural self-hatred, selfish blindness, determines the beliefs of classes other than our own. When we can make no rhetorical distinction between absolute wickedness and the people with whom we disagree. The Republican Congress is the Taliban. President Obama is a Communist. Wisconsin’s governor is a Nazi.

We live in a spiritual age when we believe ourselves surrounded by social beings of occult and mystic power, when we live with titanic cultural forces contending across the sky, and our moral sense of ourselves, of whether or not we are good people, of whether or not we are redeemed, takes its cues primarily from our relation to those forces. We live in a spiritual age when the political has been transformed into the soteriological, when how we vote is how we are saved.

Our world is filled with bastard Christianities, on both the Left and the Right.

And here’s his take on environmentalism (which sounds like a script outline for the new Noah movie):

It is commonplace among conservative commentators to point out the ways in which environmentalism sometimes acts as though it were a religion, rather than a political or social view. But few of those commentators pursue the thought down to the actual worldview, which is almost definitively the Church of Christ without Christ.

This is a Christian story, a supernaturally charged history that would have been familiar to Augustine and Anselm. We have an Eden, a paradise of nature, until the fall, which was the emergence of sentient human beings as polluters, injuring the world as the world was meant to be. We have a long era of progressive damage, all aiming toward the apocalypse – the final injuring of the world beyond repair. Strong environmentalism offers, in essence, St. Augustine’s dark worldview without any grace or redemption for human beings. Environmentalism offers, in essence, Christianity without Christ.

And here’s Bottum’s take on another form of bastard Christian: the college-educated liberal like me. He calls me and my fellow travelers “post-Protestants”:

[P]ost-Protestants have gradually formed the core of a new and fascinating social class in America. Although not as dominant as their genuinely Protestant forebears once were, they nonetheless set the tone for much of our current political discourse. And we can recognize their origins in mainline Protestantism when we discern some of the ways in which they see the world and themselves. They are, for the most part, politically liberal, preferring that government rather than private associations address social concerns. They remained puritanical and highly judgmental, at least about health. And like all puritans, they are willing to use law to compel behavior they think right.

Nonetheless, they do not think of themselves as akin to their puritan ancestors, for they understand Puritanism as concerned essentially with sexual repression. And the post-Protestants have almost entirely removed sexuality from the realm of human action that might be judged morally.

In the poster children, this typically manifests itself in strong political support for abortion and same-sex marriage, no expressed disapproval of either divorce or the bearing of children out of wedlock, and an uneasy feeling that the eating of meat and the drinking of sugary sodas are not just unhealthy, but actually slightly shameful — minor and venial sins, perhaps, when compared with such mortal sins as obesity and smoking, but sins, nonetheless.

Their deepest awareness of sin, however, derives from their sense of a shadowy evil that lies over the past, and over much of the present as well. The language of sin and redemption is a Christian one, of course, and thus part of what these post-Protestants have explicitly left behind, but it’s hard to know what other vocabulary will convey exactly how members of this new class understand reality, for anxious they truly are. A need to see themselves as good people, a hunger for spiritual confidence in perfect parallel to the hungers that drove previous generations of American Protestants, still compels them in deeply significant ways.

In their view, the world is filled with malignant social forces – bigotry, power, corruption, mass opinion, militarism, oppression. These horrors are the constant theme of history. They have a palpable metaphysical presence in the world. And the post-Protestants believe that the best way to know themselves as moral is to define themselves in opposition to such bigotry and oppression, understanding good and evil not primarily in terms of personal behavior, but as states of mind about the social condition.

Heady, heady cultural criticism. Very astute. I’m getting the book, so probably will share more on Bottum’s ideas anon.

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Technology Bad for Thomists?

Should Thomists shun technology? At his blog, Thomist philosopher Edward Feser wrestles with the question of whether technology–playing with Promethean fire–is a good thing, and I think it’s telling that, by the end of his essay, his question shifts away from the human being’s relation to machines to whether human beings are themselves machines:

What is important to note for present purposes is that the more we modify ourselves — even when we do so legitimately — the less obvious is our status as “natural” objects in the relevant, Aristotelian sense.  We can even start to take seriously the suggestion that we are “really” just “machines” of a sort — a machine being a paradigm instance of something having a merely accidental rather than substantial form.

In other words, once you become enmeshed in technology and body reshaping (boob jobs, sex change operations, etc.), are you a contingent cyborg with a fundamentally different nature or not? Are your tools and bodily transformations extensions of you or not? The obvious implication is that you never had an essence in the first place, except insofar as your essence as a human is to be a transformer. And nature itself has no nature, except to move, like a human, from one probabilistic and dynamic energy state to another.

Technology and evolution. Evolution–including technological evolution–challenges Thomism; it suggests that all is contingent and in some sense polluted with boundary issues (think, for example, of the Panda’s “thumb” and the fact that many Europeans have at least some genes that they share with a completely different species, Neanderthals). Insofar as nature has a nature, it is grounded in God’s desire–assuming that God exists–that nature should, paradoxically, have no nature; that it should be in a state of constant flux; of evolution. There are no essences, really. There are only contingencies. As the Buddhists sometimes put it, “No flower in the flower.” All is interconnection and context–and these are ever shifting.

But this will not do for a Thomist like Feser.

Language, essence, and morality. The Thomist, in posing the question, “Who are you, really?”, does not regard the idea of essence as merely a useful tool for language users–a way to keep subjects and verbs distinctly defined in the moment so that we can talk about them in pragmatic terms. No. The Thomist comes under the spell of language itself–taking our words and the definitions we give to them as revealing something eternal about things in themselves. Take away the language and the essences are still there. Things have real essences. A penis, for example, is first and foremost an organ of reproduction. That’s not just a pragmatic definition. That is its essence. It has potency that can be actualized when used in the manner it was made for (getting a woman pregnant). And people have souls and natural purposes. God has established these. Some things are essential to a thing, others are not. Technology fogs our ability to see what’s essential, and so leads us astray:

[G]ood and bad as objective features of the world are, for natural law theory, determined by what is “natural” in the technical Aristotelian sense of what tends to fulfill the ends toward which a thing is directed by virtue of its substantial form.  To the extent that we lose sight of the “natural” in the sense of that which has a substantial form or intrinsic principle of operation — an intrinsic principle by virtue of which it is naturally directed to the realization of certain ends — we thereby also lose sight of “good” and “bad” as objective features of the world, and thus lose sight of the preconditions of an objective moral order.

Notice Feser’s emphasis on sight, as if one is always in danger, in a machine world, of losing the essence of oneself–and thus of losing one’s right direction. Feser’s Thomistic intellectual and moral dilemma surrounding technology and body shaping is thus grounded in an anxiety: Does the pervasive use of technology blind us to who we are? And can technology really be used to support conservative and traditional (read for Feser Catholic) notions of what it means to be human–or does it simply upend them?

Modernism vs. Thomism. When posed this way, we readily see that this is an old, old Jacob-wrestle between the Anglo-French Enlightenment and the anti-Enlightenment, which puts me in mind of Hans Werner Holzwarth’s definition of the modern (from his Preface to Modern Art vol. 1, Taschen 2000):

To be modern means to be innovative, forward-looking: modern technology, modern society–and Modern Art. Modernism began in the 18th century with industrialization and the French Revolution and brought fundamental change to all areas of society, causing a break with old traditions. It established itself as an explicit model of thought in the 19th century, and from that time on, the fighters in the vanguard, be it in science or the arts, had a new task: to be a motor, an avant-garde, often misunderstood by their contemporaries. They made history by dividing the normal run of things into a “before” and an “after.”

In other words, history is the new. It is the advance of industry and democratic social forms. The logic of the modern is to shun essence and “the given” for innovation, novelty, and choice. History is made by those who make surprises: new logics, new essentials, new art, new ways of speaking, of seeing, of being in the world–and these forms pass away in their turn through fresh flourishes of innovation.

No rest for the wicked. That’s Modernism. It gives history an arrow–a before and after that is assisted by relentless evolution, science, technology, and Promethean and democratic ideologies. It is not the arrow of a determinate theodicy–as provided, for example, by the Book of Revelation. It is participatory. We are not, if we are modern, watching God fight Satan from Coliseum bleachers. We are God. We are Satan. We are demiurges.

Feser preys upon Prometheus’s liver. Feser’s quixotic quest to revive Thomism with the use of Promethean technology (blogging, YouTube, the printing press, teaching at a modern college) is thus akin to trying to get history to line up in such a way that it fulfills the Book of Revelation. Not being essential, it’s simply not going to do that; it’s not going to cooperate. There are too many other interesting (and logically possible) ways for history to be. It will thus always run past the essentialist’s control. The center does not hold. Like a vampire bat or vulture, Feser can feed on the body of the Beast he would like to see destroyed, but he cannot really change its general course of existence.

The future of Thomism outside of its natural mileau. Thomistic medievalism as a revived ideology for 21st century people is highly unlikely to ever be more than a passing shadow on a much larger, more dynamic, more participatory stage because nobody modern really cares all that much what the pope, or any other essentialist-guarding authority, says about, well, anything. Technology and Modernism bear the logic of pluralism and anti-essentialism, and support it, not medievalism. Thomists are, therefore, fighting a sharply uphill battle.

So Marshall McLuhan was right–the medium is the message. You can’t readily separate the logic of a thing like medieval Thomism from its ecological context–medieval Europe–then plop it down in a very different world. If you really want to thrive as a Thomist, you’ve probably got to withdraw from the world psychologically and physically and live as the medieval scholastics and monks did, eliminating from your life the technologies of innovation and popular distraction that brought about Modernism and the overthrow of Thomism in the first place–industrialization and democracy. Good luck with that. It can be done, but narrow is that way. Feser, in combining Thomism and contemporary ways of being, is trying to have his essentialist cake and eat it too. And that’s not an essentialist, but a modern, thing to do.

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Stars Wars on a Pipe Organ

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God or the Multiverse: Who or What Banged the Big Bang?

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Physicists Andrei Linde and Alan Guth “distorted by gravitational waves.” (HuffPost image.)

__________

Cosmic background radiation has long been considered by physicists to be the smoking gun evidence for the big bang, but what about the recent discovery of bent gravity waves? Of what is that the smoking gun evidence for?

That would be cosmic inflation–the idea that, in the first moments of the big bang, space expanded faster than the speed of light (something that Einstein’s relativity permits in this limited instance only; space itself does not have to abide by the cosmic speed limit, but objects in relation to one another do).

Physicists Alan Guth and Andrei Linde, in the 1980s, predicted that if cosmic inflation is true, you’ll find that the gravity waves that pervade the cosmos as remnants of the big bang are bent or warped in a very particular way. Nothing else could likely bend gravity waves (a quantum phenomenon) except breaking the speed of light in the manner of cosmic inflation. When a team of Harvard and Stanford physicists went in search of those gravity waves, they found them curved in the robust manner that Guth and Linde predicted.

If confirmed by additional experiment later this year, cosmic inflation will be considered a discovery of science and Nobel Prizes will be in order. One implication of cosmic inflation being true (again, if confirmed) is that the cosmos is probably much, much larger than we previously thought; that our 13.7 billion-year old inflationary bubble is just one of many, many such bubbles–which may well be infinite. In other words, in the cosmic cooking pot, we took our bubble to be the whole stew, but if cosmic inflation is correct, there have likely been numerous expansions of space. It’s highly unlikely that ours is the first or the last. Indeed, if the physics is correct, cosmic inflation is the product of a vast cosmos behaving in unstable ways.

So in answer to the question, who or what banged the big bang universe that we know, cosmic inflation suggests that another inflationary universe alongside of our own did it (and our own does the same thing as well, we just can’t detect it because cosmic inflation rushes beyond light speed away from us). Physicists like Lee Smolin have speculated that these inflationary events take place on the expulsion end of black holes.

Put another way, space may keep opening up new bubble spaces, and so space may be an engine that reproduces itself. God, if God exists, may have gotten the whole process started, but our local universe–the one we know–is an inflationary bubble from another inflationary bubble.

To really learn about this, Google “Linde and Guth” (the two physicists associated with cosmic inflation). MIT physicist Max Tegmark’s brief essay for The Huffington Post (“Good Morning Inflation! Hello, Multiverse!”) is also a good place to start. Here’s a taste from Tegmark’s article (which was written on the day of the official announcement of warped gravitational waves having been detected–March 17, 2014):

I’m writing this from the Harvard press conference announcing what I consider to be one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time. Within the hour, it will be all over the web, and before long, it will lead to at least one Nobel Prize. But what precisely is it that the BICEP2 experiment has discovered during years of sky-gazing from the South Pole?

About 13.8 billion years ago, merely 400,000 years after our Big Bang, everything in our observable universe was a hot plasma not too different from the surface of the Sun. Photos of this plasma, baby pictures of our universe around its 400,000th birthday, have already revolutionized modern cosmology and triggered two Nobel prizes. Now a team of astronomers has spent three years zooming in on about 1% of the sky, taking [an] even sharper photo of this plasma, including its polarization (a property of light that bees can see and use to navigate), discovering that it’s distorted in a tantalizing way. [...]

Andrei Linde looks particularly happy today, perhaps because two numbers have now been measured that act as a sort of fingerprint of inflation, and they both agree beautifully with the specific predictions of his own favorite brand of inflation known as “quadratic”, where these numbers are 0.96 and 0.15, respectively.

Today is a great day for most scientists except multiverse skeptics — at least in this particular universe. Alex Vilenkin, Andrei Linde, Alan Guth and others have shown that inflation generically predicts a space that is not merely large but infinite, teeming with duplicate copies of our civilization living out countless variations of our lives far far away. Now it’s harder for skeptics to dismiss this by saying “inflation is just a theory”: first they need to come up with another compelling explanation for BICEP2’s gravitational waves. Today is also disappointing for the ekpyrotic/cyclic models that had emerged as the most popular alternative to inflation: they are ruled out by BICEP2’s gravitational wave detection.

So did our big bang cosmos come most immediately from God or the multiverse? At this point, at least for our local 13.7 billion-year old bubble of space, the answer appears to be the multiverse. Our cosmos, it seems, is the contingent product of an evolutionary history, not a rabbit-out-of-the-hat magician’s trick. If there was ever a free lunch–something out of nothing–it came at the very, very beginning–and our big bang cosmos was not, apparently, that beginning.

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The James Randi Documentary

An Honest Liar will be screened at the Tribeca Film Festival 2014 in April. When it goes into wider distribution, I definitely want to see the whole film, but for now here’s a taste:

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The Easter Zombie Passage in Matthew Casts Doubt on the Resurrection of Jesus

Matthew 27:51-53. Have you ever read it?

Immediately following Jesus’s death, Matthew says that there was an earthquake that exposed numerous graves on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and “many bodies of the saints which slept arose.”

Not only did many among the dead rise, but Matthew claims that they entered the city of Jerusalem, appearing “unto many.” It’s so wild a passage that I’ll quote it in full (from the King James version of the Bible):

51 And, behold, [upon Jesus's death on Friday] the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;

52 And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,

53 And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

Did you catch the phrase after his resurrection in verse 53? It suggests that, if the story is literally true, graves were exposed all around the outskirts of Jerusalem from Friday until Sunday, and if you happened to be walking among these burial places on Sunday, you would have seen many corpses of the dead coming “out of their graves.”

And those who came out of their graves may have been lying in them from Friday to Sunday alive, waiting for Jesus to be the first to actually rise from the dead! (That’s one way you could read the text–that they animated immediately on having their graves opened, then waited till Sunday to actually come out of them.)

In any event, it was one creepy Night of the Living Dead Easter weekend–if Matthew’s gospel is true.

But there are some pretty good reasons to think that the zombie story is not true. Here are three:

  1. No other ancient writer save Matthew records anything about this. It’s as if a UFO had descended on Jerusalem and no one, apart from Matthew, thought it worthy of marking the event in historical memory. The simplest explanation for why no one recorded it but Matthew is that it didn’t happen.
  2. Even if we give Matthew the benefit of the doubt about this story, and hold open the possibility that he recounted a real event, we still must ask a simple question: Where did the author get the story? The answer is: We don’t know. If Matthew believed that he was told a true story, there is no telling what evidence or testimony convinced him that it was true because he doesn’t tell us anything beyond the bare story itself. So even if Matthew believed it, there is no reason the rest of us should.
  3. Matthew tells other stories that seem similarly dubious. See, for example, Matthew 28:11-15, in which the author circulates a conspiracy theory around which Jews are said to have bribed soldiers to cover-up the resurrection of Jesus. The story, like Matthew’s Night of the Living Dead tale, provokes from us similar questions: Where did Matthew get the story? How does he know the story is true? How do we know whether Matthew isn’t just circulating a grotesque and fantastic antisemitic rumor?

Matthew’s Night of the Living Dead passage, then, is more than just implausible. If read literally, it also raises serious red flags concerning the whole of his gospel. Here are three:

  1. Matthew, by including a story in his gospel that so strains credulity, makes one doubt a lot of other things that he asserts.
  2. Matthew, as evidenced by the fact that he tells his zombie story without pointing to his sources for it, was apparently not somebody worried about establishing facts. Nor was he worried that people might spread his story without knowing anything more than what he told them. He appears to have had a very low regard for verification (either getting it for himself or providing it to others).
  3. Of course, the biggest issue that Matthew 27:51-53 raises is this: If Matthew can make a wild and unsubstantiated claim concerning many people rising from the dead, it casts doubt on his claim that Jesus rose from the dead.

To conclude, if an ancient writer spreads a fabulous story that goes unreported by any other ancient writer, it is reasonable to be suspicious of other claims that writer makes as well. It’s thus arguable that Matthew’s zombie passage, for its sheer implausibility and lack of collaboration, undermines the credibility of the Gospel of Matthew generally–and even of the resurrection of Jesus.

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Genocide Without Reflection: The Noah Movie Is Horrible

I saw the Noah movie. It’s bad. Really, really bad. It’s such a comedown from director Darren Aronovsky’s previous film, The Black Swan, which was really, really good.

Where to start with Noah? How about with the gender stereotyping and racism? The roles of the girls and women are passive and focused completely on getting husbands and becoming great with child; the men on building and fighting. The characters are all so predictable.

And every actor in the film, insofar as I could tell, is white. Through the whole movie, you can’t help but wonder: How did black and Asian people ever come to appear on Earth? They aren’t among the children of Adam and Eve, nor are they among the children of Noah. If there’s a black, Hispanic, or Asian anywhere in this film, they’re lost in crowd scenes. You wouldn’t have thought that a cosmopolitan atheist director would depict race in a way befitting Ken Ham of the creationist museum in Kentucky. But he did.

And the story. Please. Right out of the gate, it reminds one why biblical literalism is so absurd. The sudden creation of heaven and Earth, the immediate snake in the garden debacle, the god who regrets his own creation of humans, the great boat, the animals, the miracles blended arbitrarily with naturalism. It’s a world, but it’s a ridiculous world. And as the basis for a serious worldview, it’s idiotic and childish; a pre-scientific account of history from the toddler stage of our civilization.

Then there’s the Earth First! environmentalism. Noah, a vegan, thinks God has chosen him to participate in the genocide of humanity so that the planet can be in eco-balance again. Noah participates in this genocide. At no point in the film does he question (nor does any other character in the film question) this genocide. God wants people gone, Noah sees water as a cleansing, God wants a boat made to save the animals (like He can’t build his own fricken boat!), and Noah is obedient to God’s desire. If Aronovsky’s Noah was a train conductor in Nazi Germany, he would have blown his whistle and thought to himself, “All aboard, Jews, off to Auschwitz with you! It’s the Fuhrer’s will. I’m just his obedient servant. I do what he tells me. The Holocaust will be a time of cleansing. He knows best.” God says it, Noah believes it, that settles it.

Until it doesn’t. At the very, very end (caution: spoiler), Noah has a change of heart. He wants the human race to go on. Like Abraham prevented by the angel of the Lord from sacrificing Isaac, Noah relents to the entreaties of the women to not kill his grandchildren now that the flood has subsided. He decides he’ll let them multiply and have another go at being kind and eco-friendly; that God wants human beings, even though they have a history of being total assholes and egregiously huge carbon footprint leavers, to go ahead and populate the Earth again. Noah has no regrets that God wiped out all of previous humanity, but Noah’s grandchildren–well, that’s a different story. He struggles with being God’s agent in the killing of them. The very fact that he does not want his grandchildren dead at the very last minute is supposed to show that Noah has got, at bottom, a heart of gold.

I just hated this movie. And I hate it the more I write about it. If you see it, you’ll probably hate it too. But in the interest of balance, I’ll note that A. O. Scott, a film critic at The New York Times, didn’t pan the film outright. He says it is “occasionally clumsy, ridiculous and unconvincing, but it is never dull.”

But I think it’s dull and dulling, so I won’t give Scott the last word here. Like reading a bad poem and finding it throws off your ear for good poems, this movie dulls one to the possibilities of good movie making–and even to measured ecological and moral reflection. Noah is noisy and busy. It rains a lot. There’s a storm. Millions (billions?) die and not a single survivor pauses to reflect on what this means; on what this says about God. Some other noisy things happen. It’s not enough.

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Creationists Win Another Pyrrhic Victory Over Evolution

When I learned that, in South Carolina, two Republican young earth creationists recently blocked the adoption of the woolly mammoth as the state’s official fossil (all but seven states have one) because they don’t want people reminded of evolution, I thought of a stanza from Alfred Lord Tennyson, from his In Memoriam (CXXIII):

There rolls the deep where grew the tree.

O earth, what changes hast thou seen!

There where the long street roars hath been

The stillness of the central sea.

In other words, when Tennyson looked out across the sea, he imagined a time in Earth’s history when that sea had been land, and when he looked down the long thoroughfare of a great city, he imagined a time when that street scene upon the land had cupped a tranquil sea. In the next stanza, he then contemplates the transience of even the very hills:

The hills are shadows, and they flow

From form to form, and nothing stands;

They melt like mist, the solid lands,

Like clouds they shape themselves and go.

All things seemingly solid melt into thin air. Nothing lasts. Tennyson’s lines are an ode to smoke. As Robert Hill puts it in his introduction to In Memoriam in Tennyson’s Poetry: A Norton Critical Edition (second edition 1999): “In 1850 [the year of the poem's publication] the ‘night of fear’ [a phrase in CXXVI of In Memoriam] had descended. Theories of evolution were very much in the air. Sir Charles Lyell’s famous Principles of Geology (1830-1833) had made it extremely difficult for any self-respecting intelligence to take the biblical version of the Creation literally” (205).

And this is what young earth creationists seek to sublimate: the “night of fear” that geology brings us to; the chill vastness of time; the relentlessness of change. Like Oedipus, they would have people pluck out their eyes rather than face these truths and work with them; they would have us, like Peter Pan, never grow up. And they won.

File:Paul Jamin - Le Mammouth.jpg

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Drawing by Paul Jamin (1885). Image source: Wikipedia Commons.

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Peter Ward Can’t Sleep at Night

The short reason:

__________

The longer explanation (at YouTube):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPRUggIb-NI

__________

In Ward’s view, the two most urgent problems surrounding human caused climate change are the following:

  • Mass extinction. When the poles heat up (as has happened in other periods of Earth history), and they more closely match the temperature at the equator, the circulation of wind and water slows down, making for anoxic ocean conditions (water depleted of dissolved oxygen; akin to a standing pool of water in your backward). For multicellular creatures in the oceans to thrive, water has to circulate vigorously.
  • Sea level rise. Three to six feet this century. And a complete melting of Antarctica over the next several centuries would raise sea level 240 feet, putting Manhattan (for example) 100 feet underwater.
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Alan Sokal on Faith

Physicist Alan Sokal, the famed skewer of postmodernism, in an article at Massimo Pigliucci’s Scientia Salon, gives faith a well deserved towel snap:

“Faith” is not in fact a rejection of reason, but simply a lazy acceptance of bad reasons. “Faith” is the pseudo-justification that some people trot out when they want to make claims without the necessary evidence.

And he gives an example (faith as circular reasoning/question begging):

Each religion makes scores of purportedly factual assertions about everything from the creation of the universe to the afterlife. But on what grounds can believers presume to know that these assertions are true? The reasons they give are various, but the ultimate justification for most religious people’s beliefs is a simple one: we believe what we believe because our holy scriptures say so. But how, then, do we know that our holy scriptures are factually accurate? Because the scriptures themselves say so. Theologians specialize in weaving elaborate webs of verbiage to avoid saying anything quite so bluntly, but this gem of circular reasoning really is the epistemological bottom line on which all “faith” is grounded. In the words of Pope John Paul II: “By the authority of his absolute transcendence, God who makes himself known is also the source of the credibility of what he reveals.” [17] It goes without saying that this begs the question of whether the texts at issue really were authored or inspired by God, and on what grounds one knows this.

Nicely, nicely put.

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What is Information? A Three Word Definition

The three word definition. The physicist Brian Greene, in his book The Hidden Reality (Knopf 2011), gives the best definition of information I’ve ever encountered:

So, you start to ponder. What actually is information, and what does it do? Your response is simple and direct. Information answers questions. (252)

The entropy is in the details. It’s wonderful when something is homed-in on so elegantly, but what exactly does “information answers questions” really mean and imply? Green continues:

Years of research by mathematicians, physicists, and computer scientists have made this precise. Their investigations have established that the most useful measure of information content is the number of distinct yes-no questions the information can answer. The coins’ information answers 1,000 such questions: Is the first dollar heads? Yes. Is the second dollar heads? Yes. Is the third dollar heads? No. Is the fourth dollar heads? No. And so on. A datum that can answer a single yes-no question is called a bit–a familiar computer-age term that is short for binary digit, meaning a 0 or 1, which you can think of as a numerical representation of yes or no. The heads-tails arrangement of the 1,000 coins thus contains 1,000 bits’ worth of information. [...]

Notice that the value of the entropy and the amount of hidden information are equal. That’s no accident. The number of possible heads-tails rearrangements is the number of possible answers to the 1,000 questions–(yes, yes, no, no, yes, …) or (yes, no, yes, yes, no, …) or (no, yes, no, no, no, …), and so on–namely, 2 [to the power of 1000]. With entropy defined as the logarithm of the number of such rearrangements–1,000 in this case–entropy is the number of yes-no questions any one such sequence answers. (252-253)

So the implication here is startling: when we’re talking about information, we’re also talking about entropy. Information and entropy are one. In other words, the logically possible arrangement of 1000 bits of information (such as the sequence of heads and tales of a coin flipped 1000 times) is a huge number: 2 to the power of 1000. That very, very large number represents all the logically possible ways to sequence heads and tales in 1000 coin tosses, and so that number is the thousand bit system’s maximal entropy/hidden information content. You can’t get any more chaotic than to just keep flipping coins until you get every logically possible sequence that the system allows. Thus, if you want to know what maximum chaos is, enter a system where you have no information; where what you’re looking for could be in any logically possible place within the system; where all the information is hidden. Here’s Greene again:

[A] system’s entropy is the number of yes-no questions that its microscopic details have the capacity to answer, and so the entropy is a measure of the system’s hidden information content. (253)

In other words, the relationship between entropy and information is inverse: the more entropy you are presented with, the less you can definitively say at that moment about the system; the less you can map; the less you can control. There are lots of logically possible ways a system can be–that’s its hidden information content–but there’s only one way that a system is in reality–that’s its actual configuration of answers to your yes-no questions. Your mission, should you accept it, is to find out the way the world is by asking it questions.

Fog and ice. So when you know little, you are in the fog of a highly entropic/hidden information system. But once you acquire definite information about a system, and get some control over it–such as in a physical system when you turn fog into ice (a much less entropic form of water because it takes on a definite shape)–the entropy comes down, at least for you locally. You get definite answers to your yes-no questions. The intellectual fog turns to definite ice crystals; definite bits of information that can congeal with other bits of information. The data you have access to and the connections you make out of it are your life’s metaphorical snowflakes.

Cold and hot. The snowflake as a metaphor for information organized and no longer hidden is apt because, interestingly, another measure of entropy is how hot a physical system is. If it’s hot, it’s changing rapidly; your yes-no questions about the system are in flux. But if things are cooled down, the answers you’re getting to your yes-no questions are stable; they’re not like hot and shifting sand under your feet.

Apollo and Dionysus. Put in Nietzschean terms, information organized and no longer hidden is Apollonian. Likewise, a high entropy system is Dionysian. One is sculpture (it is cool certainty, definiteness, like a block of ice made into Mount Rushmore); the other is energetic and amorphous (like music or fog).

What this means for God. Let’s bring this understanding of information to the problem of God’s hiddenness–for God, like so much other information, is hidden. Indeed, God is the ultimate piece of hidden information. It’s a serious existential problem, and academic books have been written on the issue. One is titled Divine Hiddenness: New Essays (edited by Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul Mosner, Cambridge University Press, 2002).

So how does one even get started in one’s life direction if the most basic yes-no question–does God exist?–is not known? And if God exists, what sort of god is God? There are lots of logically possible ways that the cosmos could be–whether godless or created by a god of a particular sort–but there is only one way that the cosmos actually is. And it then becomes a problem of inferring from the information we have to information we don’t (induction). And this makes for difficulties.

For instance, if one were to really want to believe in God, one might become an apologist, making excuses for why this or that piece of data can still make room for the existence of God. Example: “I know the Holocaust looks bad for the thesis that God exists, but if heaven also exists, then maybe those who died in the Holocaust are enjoying a bliss right now that far outweighs the horror of their earthly experience. The problem of extreme and senseless human suffering as an argument against God’s existence is weakened if we also posit that heaven exists.” Heaven’s existence is logically possible–there are a gazillion things that are logically possible–but it may not be true. It can be argued that the apologist, in this instance, is “ad hoc-ing”–adding premises to a dicey thesis to save it from dismissal. This premise–that heaven exists–may be in accord with the way things actually are, but if so, there is no evidence that it is so, and to treat it as knowledge in the absence of evidence risks building error upon error.

The problem of information error. As the above apologetic example illustrates, human beings are in a situation where information can be easily corrupted; where what we take to be information (right answers to our yes-no questions) can, in fact, be wrong. And in those instances, we are in danger of building elaborate intellectual houses on sand. Indeed, it is troubling to think each one of us–every single one of us–has to live by acting on an ever-shifting mix of right and wrong answers to our yes-no questions. And sometimes our wrong answers in one context ironically lead us to right answers in other contexts–answers we might not have arrived at had we not started with wrong premises in the first place. False moves inadvertently bring us to true ones, and vice versa. That’s part of the absurdity of existence; of being embedded in the very system that we are trying to comprehend. We move around in it not wholly sure that our next step is firmly grounded, and we are always forced to act on information that is not complete and often wrong; where the ultimate answers to our deepest questions are hidden from us–including that of the existence of God.

Who are we? Where are we? So the best we can do, it seems, is to reason about our existential situation as best we can, and to seek evidence, make experiments, and ask questions of the cosmos. Gandhi, for example, called his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth. And Hillary Clinton is said to be fond of saying, “You don’t know how far a frog will jump till you poke it.” Thoreau in Walden quotes Confucius as saying the following: “To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.” That’s also true information. David Hume, skeptical of a priori reasoning–armchair reasoning–of any sort, put it this way (in his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding):

The existence [...] of any being can only be proved by arguments from its cause or its effect; and these arguments are founded entirely on experience. If we reason a priori, anything may appear able to produce anything. The falling of a pebble may, for aught we know, extinguish the sun; or the wish of a man control the planets in their orbits. It is only experience, which teaches us the nature and bounds of cause and effect, and enables us to infer the existence of one object from that of another.

In other words, when asking a question of the cosmos, lots of things may be logically possible, but only one thing, ultimately, is true. Don’t presume to know what that thing is before you really do; before you have a basis for induction from experience.

Put yet another way, prod the cosmos with questions, and stay for the answers. Information answers questions.

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Wikipedia Won’t Let People Post Woo On Wikipedia, And That Makes Woo Promoters Upset

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, responds to alternative medicine woo pushers seeking easier criteria for inclusion in Wikipedia articles:

Picture 2

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Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Get a Towel Snap

From Leon Wieseltier at The New Republic:

At the conclusion of his poems about the rescue of the Ghent Altarpiece [from a salt mine after WWII], Kirstein wrote: “How marble molds itself into flesh, paint kindles gold in shafts / Makes me witness salvation first in comely handicrafts . . .” This aesthete risked his life for his aestheticism. But who would cower from snipers, or crawl through a mine, to save a Damien Hirst? And if a Balloon Dog [by Jeff Koons] were one day destroyed the way 
the Mantegna frescoes in the Ovetari Chapel in Padua were destroyed, what values and what experiences would 
we lack? No philosophical reflections about the cruelties of man and time would be warranted. The treasures of our day are hardly worth plundering.

Ouch. And, of course, he’s right.

Here’s God (“The Almighty”) depicted in the Ghent Altarpiece:

File:Retable de l'Agneau mystique (2).jpg

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And here’s a Damien Hirst piece (a human skull covered with over 8000 diamonds and titled, “For the Love of God”):

File:Hirst-Love-Of-God.jpg

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Image sources: Wikipedia.

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Fred Phelps (1929-2014): The Logician Made Flesh

He’s dead, but who was Fred Phelps, really?

He was a logician; a logician made flesh; the reductio ad absurdum of the anti-gay rights movement. God hates fags. It’s right there in the Bible. Thus he believed, thus he preached, and thus he lived. He took opposition to gay rights to its logical conclusion.

So helped Mr. Phelps the gay rights cause. He showed the anti-gay rights movement to be, at base, intellectually and morally bankrupt. People looked at Fred Phelps on the street corner with his religious dadaist signage and concluded, with Shakespeare’s King Lear, “Oh, that way madness lies. Let me shun that” (4:3:23).

The reverend Phelps thus became the face of gay equality opposition, serving the very movement he fought. He was a man who sunk his own ship of fools; a man who scuppered himself.

File:Narrenschiff (1549).jpg

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“Ship of Fools” woodcut (from Germany, 1549). Image source: Wikipedia Commons.

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Cosmic Inflation? John Horgan Taps the Brakes

Science writer John Horgan (who is not a physicist) is intrigued by the recent evidence for the theory of cosmic inflation, but is also holding out for some additional confirmation, support, and explanation before he buys what some prominent physicists, such as Alan Guth and Andrei Linde, are now saying about it:

I’m intrigued by today’s news that observations of gravitational waves provide “direct proof of the theory of inflation,” as my colleague Clara Moskowitz puts it in a terrific, information-packed post. “The Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization 2 (BICEP2) experiment in the South Pole,” she continues, “found a pattern called primordial B-mode polarization in the light left over from just after the Big Bang, known as the cosmic microwave background (CMB). This pattern, basically a curling in the polarization, or orientation, of the light, can be created only by gravitational waves produced by inflation.”

“If corroborated,” Dennis Overbye writes in The New York Times, the BICEP2 study “will stand as a landmark in science comparable to the recent discovery of dark energy pushing the universe apart, or of the Big Bang itself. It would open vast realms of time and space and energy to science and speculation.”

I hope that turns out to be the case, because cosmology and physics desperately need a jolt of energy (which the anti-climactic discovery of the Higgs boson did not provide). But here is what I’d like to see: First, corroboration of the BICEP2 findings by other groups and observatories. Second, experiments from high-energy physics that provide some sort of corroborating evidence of the driving mechanism of inflation. Third, an explanation of why the Alice’s Restaurant Problem [theories that can accommodate all evidence] isn’t still a problem. Fourth, an explanation of why only inflation, and not other more conventional physical phenomena, can account for the gravity-wave findings.

Direct evidence of cosmic inflation is such a great story. I want it to be true, and there are plenty of physicists who are treating this like a done deal; a discovery. But Horgan’s caution also sounds reasonable.

On the other hand, Horgan, not being a physicist, seems to be raising the bar higher than the consensus of physicists would in terms of proof. For the physics community, the fact of inflation may be reasonably established if the recent observational results are robustly confirmed and there are no other seriously competing hypotheses to account for the curling of gravity waves. Horgan, by contrast, wants two additional things:

  • a mechanism established for inflation’s occurrence via, say, Large Hadron Collider research; and
  • a philosophical dispute settled. (If inflationary scenarios can ultimately accommodate all data, regardless of what it is, and many of them imply multiverses, and multiverses also imply nonfalsifiability, might accepting inflation as true ultimately seduce physicists down a rabbit hole of undecidable metaphysics?)

Neither of these bars is entirely reasonable to require of scientists before they treat inflation as true. At this point, in other words, Horgan is starting to reason like an intelligent design creationist about evolution: I want mechanism and metaphysical issues addressed before I’ll follow the consensus of experts that plant and animal species have changed over time!

So Horgan’s concerns about the discovery can largely be dismissed. Yes, of course, we need confirmation; and, of course, physicists need to reason to the best hypothesis; and, of course, the implication of inflation for such things as multiverse speculation and the nature of science will require ongoing debate. It’s not like these things aren’t already going on.

But once the consensus of physicists is reached that inflation is true–as is likely to happen within the next year–it will no longer belong to the realm of speculation, but of fact, and that means that those of us outside the physics community would do well to incorporate inflation into our own background knowledge as something that scientists have, like the big bang itself, reasonably established. We may not wholly understand the science of inflation, or how physicists got from uncertainty to certainty about it, but our confidence should be their confidence.

The analogy is to chess: if an expert chess player looks at the board and, making a particular move, says, “I’m sorry, but this move decides the game,” and you don’t play chess much–and the other chess experts at the table nod with agreement–then you know you’re within a few moves of being checkmated; that it’s inescapable.

If you then get a non-expert like John Horgan putting his nose in and saying, “No, keep playing, the issue is not decided,” you can pretty much ignore him.

Below is one physicist telling another physicist that his competitors are heading unmistakably for checkmate (John Horgan notwithstanding). Being experts at the physics game, they both know which moves make for checkmate with regard to the question of inflation–and which ones do not. If you’re an expert in a subject, you aren’t likely to pop corks in so public a fashion without detecting unmistakable signals in the noise–and thus knowing when the game is essentially over.

And Horgan is simply not qualified to make this call.

Also note that the intelligent design website of The Discovery Institute–Uncommon Descent–has already latched onto Horgan’s skepticism with the following announcement: “Scientific American Science writer John Horgan still doubts cosmic inflation…despite gravitational wave findings.” This is blue pipe smoke and mirrors. Better to attend to what actual physicists are saying.

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Does the Recent Discovery of Cosmic Inflation Bolster the Multiverse Hypothesis?

Apparently it does, and that considerably. This comes via Space.com:

The new research also lends credence to the idea of a multiverse. This theory posits that, when the universe grew exponentially in the first tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, some parts of space-time expanded more quickly than others. This could have created “bubbles” of space-time that then developed into other universes. The known universe has its own laws of physics, while other universes could have different laws, according to the multiverse concept. [Cosmic Inflation and Gravitational Waves: Complete Coverage]

“It’s hard to build models of inflation that don’t lead to a multiverse,” Alan Guth, an MIT theoretical physicist unaffiliated with the new study, said during a news conference Monday. “It’s not impossible, so I think there’s still certainly research that needs to be done. But most models of inflation do lead to a multiverse, and evidence for inflation will be pushing us in the direction of taking [the idea of a] multiverse seriously.”

Andrei Linde agrees:

Stanford University theoretical physicist Andrei Linde, who wasn’t involved in the new study, said at the same news conference, “It’s possible to invent models of inflation that do not allow [a] multiverse, but it’s difficult. Every experiment that brings better credence to inflationary theory brings us much closer to hints that the multiverse is real.”

When Guth and his colleagues thought up cosmic inflation more than 30 years ago, scientists thought it was untestable. Today, however, researchers are able to study light left over from the Big Bang called cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB).

In the new study, a team led by John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics found telltale signs of inflation in the microwave background. The researchers discovered a distinct curl in the polarization pattern of the CMB, a sign of gravitational waves created by the rapid expansion of space-time just after the Big Bang.

Linde, one of the main contributers to inflation theory, says that if the known universe is just one bubble, there must be many other bubbles in the cosmic fabric.

“Think about some unstable state,” Linde explained. “You are standing on a hill, and you can fall in this direction, you can fall in that direction, and if you’re drunk, eventually you must fall. Inflation is instability of our space with respect to its expansion.

“You have something growing exponentially,” he added. “If you just let it go … it will continue exponentially growing, so this [the known universe] is one possibility of something going wrong with this instability, which is very, very right for us because it has created all of our space. Now, we know that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong once and a second time and a third time and into infinity as long as it can go.”

Here’s Andrei Linde when he first got the big news that evidence of cosmic inflation had been directly detected in the cosmic background radiation:

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Bill Maher on Noah’s Ark and the New Noah’s Ark Movie

The subject is Noah’s ark and the new Noah’s ark movie. Bill Maher engaging in some sustained and gleeful–and very, very funny–blasphemy. (That is, if God and biblical literalists can take a joke.)

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The Cosmic Gun Smokes

Imagine positing a theory about the origin of the cosmos, then predicting something odd and otherwise implausible that one would find if the theory were true. Then imagine finding it. That’s what happened. This is via USA TODAY and The Des Moines Register:

[Cosmic inflation] should have magnified tiny ripples in the universe called primordial gravitational waves, which in turn left a stamp on light created some 13.5 billion years ago.

That light still pervades the cosmos today as a faint glow invisible to the naked eye called the cosmic microwave background. A team of U.S. scientists announced Monday that they’d used a telescope in Antarctica to detect a telltale “curl” in the microwaves’ orientation – a pattern that’s the fingerprint of gravitational waves.

In other words, they went looking for the curl that they predicted should be there if cosmic inflation is true, and it is there. They found it.

Six reasons the big bang theory is science and not metaphysics or faith:

  • it’s testable (and therefore capable of falsification or confirmation);
  • it makes predictions;
  • the predictions are fruitful (they pan out);
  • the theory’s confirmed predictions have scope (they explain and accord with a lot of things, not just an isolated thing);
  • the theory is conservative (it conforms with our already well-established background knowledge);
  • in comparison with other theories, it’s the simplest and best (it requires the fewest background assumptions and most naturally fits the facts as we currently understand them).

These are sometimes referred to as the criteria of adequacy, and the big bang holds up well under all of them.

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What Hillary Will Win In 2016

The Supreme Court.

A reader at Andrew Sullivan’s blog makes the point concisely:

A president Clinton will have [...] a very gray Supreme Court (FOUR octogenarians in her first term).  Think about what that means for all those Voting Rights Act cases winding their way up, for gerrymandering (hence, the makeup of the House), for a whole host of immigration issues (as they relate to the electorate).

The GOP is good at histrionics, feigned outrage, and generally vamping to the theatrical side of things, but in the midst of all that motion and energy, President Obama and the Democrats are quietly winning the politics. Domestic policy, foreign policy, the courts. They are playing for the win, and winning.

The midterm elections in 2014 won’t change this (even if Republicans achieve a drubbing of Democrats on election night, which I continue to doubt that they will). If 2014 breaks the Republicans’ way, it will be their last hurrah.

But what’s the long-term win? Domination of the next generation of politics, setting it to the position of “center” and “center-left” (akin to the politics of California).

It’s happening now. Demographic shifts, like gathering clouds, foretell a long Democratic rain on the GOP. Can you see it coming?

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Aquinas and Dante On Homosexuality

Louis Crompton. Homosexuality and History (Harvard 2003), by Louis Crompton, is by far the best general history of homosexuality yet written, and in his chapter on the medieval world, he has a fascinating discussion of Thomas Aquinas’s and Dante’s treatment of homosexuality.

Thomas Aquinas. According to Crompton, Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, classifies homosexuality under unnatural sex acts, which fall into four categories: sodomy (homosexual relations); masturbation; heterosexual intercourse that lands semen in the “wrong vessel” (the ass or mouth); and beastiality. Elsewhere, Aquinas includes a fifth category as also unnatural–marital sex that uses contraception (187).

By the logic Aquinas follows (natural law philosophy), all these acts are against nature, and therefore sins against the creator of nature. God gave us noses for smelling–that is their end–and God gave men penises and women vaginas for making babies–that is their end. All other uses of the penis and vagina are against nature and, again, an affront to nature’s creator.

Unnatural sex is thus worse than sexual sins generally, for unnatural sex harms God Himself. It is violence against God; an abuse of those organs that rightfully belong to Him. Yes, that means Aquinas believed masturbation could be seen as a worse sin than fornication, adultery–and even rape–because, at least with these, you’re not putting your sexual organs to use in a way not intended by God. There’s a chance that a baby will come of these acts.

If you must do it, do it like the animals. One way that Aquinas supports his natural law position against non-reproductive sex (homosexuality, masturbation, etc.) is by appeal to the animal kingdom. He presumed that non-reproductive sex is absent in animals. Animals, he thought, followed God’s ends for their sex organs, and thus showed the way for humans. Aquinas didn’t know, of course, what modern biology has established: that homosexuality and other seemingly unnatural acts are actually “quite common in the animal world” (188).

Dante. As for Dante, here’s Crompton:

[I]n the seventh circle of his “Inferno” Dante dramatizes the punishment of men guilty of “violence against nature,” or, as he alternatively puts, the “sins of Sodom and Cahors.” (189)

In other words, Dante, following Aquinas and Catholic teaching generally, uses natural law theory to conceptualize homosexuality as “violence against nature.”

What about Cahors? As for Cahors, it was a medieval financial center, and thus a hotbed of usury (charging interest on loans), and this too is treated by Dante as unnatural. Just as the penis is not to be used for ends other than what nature created it for, so money is not to be used for ends other than what it was created for (simple exchange). Usury breeds money unnaturally; it is forbidden, like homosexuality, in Leviticus (25:36-37); and it is therefore not its proper use. It is “violence against nature.” One is not to abuse a vessel’s right use–whether it is a place for depositing money or semen. That means no unlawful deposits or withdrawals–financially or sexually. (Crompton Ibid.) So taught the medieval Catholic priests–and so too do many imams in the Muslim world to this day.

Key passages from Dante’s “Inferno.” Dante is not directly quoted in Crompton, but below are his key passages depicting the punishment of gay people in hell (from Canto XV and XVI of “Inferno” in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation).

Canto XV: Ser Brunetto Latino. Dante begins his description of the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle of hell by speaking with Ser Brunetto Latino, a man Dante knew in Florence. Having died, Ser Brunetto is now being pummeled in hell with fire raining from the sky in a manner reminiscent of the destruction of Sodom in Genesis, and he is, along with his fellow Sodomites, forced to run forever from the rain over hot sands. This makes, of course, for a double bind of torment: he cannot escape the heat from above by ducking into cool sands below, and he cannot escape the hot sands by leaping upward, for the sky rains fire (lines 26-30):

I fixed my eyes upon his baked, brown features,

so that the scorching of his face could not

prevent my mind from recognizing him;

and lowering my face to meet his face,

I answered him: “Are you here, Ser Brunetto?”

Indeed, the unfortunate man is. And Dante knew him in life to be a good man–a man of “repute and excellence”–and so his presence in hell is disorienting. Dante inquires of Ser Brunetto: “I ask of him who are / his comrades of repute and excellence” (101-102), and Ser Brunetto replies:

In brief, know that my company has clerics

and men of letters and of fame–and all

were stained by one same sin upon the earth. (106-108)

In other words, many gay people are good and accomplished–and they might even be in heaven were it not for their unnatural sexual behavior. But sodomy is a relationship breaker with the God of Christian medievalism, and so Dante’s conversation with Ser Brunetto concludes with the damned gay man returning to his fiery ordeal:

I would say more; but both my walk and words

must not be longer, for–beyond–I see

new smoke emerging from the sandy bed. [...]

And then he turned and seemed like one of those

who race across the fields to win the green

cloth at Verona; of those runners, he

appeared to be the winner, not the loser. (115-117; 121-124)

But of course, Ser Brunetto was a loser. Big time. And so ends Dante’s Canto XV.

Canto XVI: the Gay Graces. At the beginning of Canto XVI, Dante encounters three more Florentine homosexuals (“…three shades ran, / leaving another company that passed beneath the rain of bitter punishment”), and “when they reached us [Dante and Virgil at the bridge], they formed a wheel, all three of them together” (4-6; 20-21).

In other words, these three gay men, together in their nakedness, mock the traditional Three Graces that are otherwise symbolic of such things as beauty, nature, and fertility. These men are ugly, unnatural, and unproductive, “peeled and naked” (35), and wheeling before Dante, arm in arm, in a macabre circle dance:

Ah me, what wounds I saw upon their limbs, 

wounds new and old, wounds that the flames seared in!

It pains me still as I remember it. [...]

As champions, naked, oiled, will always do, 

each studying the grip that serves him best

before the blows and wounds begin to fall,

while wheeling so, each one made sure his face

was turned to me, so that their necks opposed

their feet in one uninterrupted flow. (10-13; 22-27)

The three gay men were dancing exactly, in other words, like the traditional Graces. Dante thus depicts these men as enacting an effeminate freak show of tormented grotesqueness before him, and yet he also loves them for their honorable public lives when they were living, and would embrace and comfort them but for danger to himself:

If I’d had shield and shelter from the fire,

I should have thrown myself down there among them–

I think my master [Virgil] would have sanctioned that;

but since that would have left me burned and baked,

my fear won out against the good intention

that made me so impatient to embrace them. (46-51)

And so Dante tells the Gay Graces:

Your present state had fixed 

not scorn but sorrow in me–and so deeply

that it will only disappear slowly–

as soon as my lord spoke to me with words

that made me understand what kind of men

were coming toward us, men of worth like yours.

For I am of your city; and with fondness,

I’ve always told and heard the others tell

of both your actions and your honored names. (52-60)

Put another way, Dante sees these gay men as good people, and is struggling to reconcile their fate with what he knew of them in life. A similar cognitive dissonance is playing out in Orthodox religious believers who know out-of-the-closet gay people today.

File:Raffael 010.jpg

Image source: Wikipedia Commons. Artist: Raffael (1504-05).

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