From the Neuron to the Coffee House to the Internet: Steven Johnson’s TED Talk on How Ideas Have Sex

Great, great TED talk. From the neuronal network in your skull to the coffee house to the Internet, the idea world is rhizomatic.

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Is God a Person or The Ground of Being?

As an agnostic, I find the argument between intellectual Christians over whether God is a person or the Ground of Being interesting. On one side are Protestants like Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne (God is a person, not merely some abstract Ground of Being). On the other are Catholics like Edward Feser and Thomas Aquinas (God is prior to personhood). Here’s Feser framing the debate:

The God of classical theism — of Athanasius and Augustine, Avicenna and Maimonides, Anselm and Aquinas — is (among other things) pure actuality, subsistent being itself, absolutely simple, immutable, and eternal.  Critics of classical theism sometimes allege that such a conception of God makes of him something sub-personal and is otherwise incompatible with the Christian conception.  As I have argued many times (e.g. hereherehere, and here) nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, to deny divine simplicity or the other attributes distinctive of the classical theist conception of God is implicitly to make of God a creature rather than the creator.  For it makes of him a mere instance of a kind, even if a unique instance.  It makes of him something which could in principle have had a cause of his own, in which case he cannot be the ultimate explanation of things.  It is, accordingly, implicitly to deny the core of theism itself.  As David Bentley Hart writes in The Experience of God (in a passage I had occasion to quote recently), it amounts to a kind of “mono-poly-theism,” or indeed to atheism.

Never mind that in the above passage Feser, in a bit of incoherence, repeatedly refers to God as he. Instead, focus on what Feser is arguing. He’s saying that if you think of God as literally a person–the greatest of ghost persons, with or without a ghost dick–who prefers and makes in the way that you prefer and make, you basically have a notion of God indistinguishable from a demiurge (a god like Zeus or Baal):

Theistic personalists are, as I have said, explicitly or implicitly committed to regarding God as an instance of a kind.  Their core thesis, to the effect that God is “a person without a body” (Swinburne) or that “there is such a person as God” (Plantinga), seems to give us something like the following picture: There’s the genus person and under it the two species embodied persons and disembodied persons.  Disembodied persons is, in turn, a genus relative to the species disembodied souls, angelic persons, and divine persons.  And it’s in the latter class, it seems, that you’ll find God.

And from here, Feser goes on the attack, his critique of personalistic theism ironically adopting the ridiculing tone–and even argumentative form–of new atheists like Richard Dawkins:

For the theistic personalist, then, the biblical assertion that “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” seems to amount to something like “a certain instance of a species within the genus disembodied persons acquired a body.”  Now, when you think about it, that’s essentially the plot of Ghostbusters II.  Not as bad as the critics took it to be, I suppose, but hardly the Greatest Story Ever Told. [...] What you’ve got then is [...] the Incarnation as a movie pitch: [...]  I think we can get Anthony Hopkins, though maybe he’ll worry about typecasting after the Thor movies.  Anyway, God’s an Intelligent Designer too, like Downey, Jr. in Iron Man but with angels.  We’ll show him making bacterial flagella and stuff — CGI’s pretty good now, so it’ll look realistic.  Now, here’s the twist: He takes on a human body and comes to earth!  It’s The Ten Commandments meets Brother from Another Planet.

This is coming, recall, from a Catholic. And Feser continues:

Well, we’ve seen that movie a hundred times.  Horus was incarnate in the Pharaohs, Zeus changed into a swan, the Marvel Comics version of Thor took on the human guise of Donald Blake, and so on.  If God were, as theistic personalism claims, “a person” and “a being” alongside all the other persons and beings that populate the world, then he would differ only in degree from these other gods.

Okay, that’s ridiculous. If God really exists, God is not like that. But what’s the alternative? Here’s Feser again:

Now for the classical theist, God is not “a being” — not because he lacks being but on the contrary because he is Being Itself rather than something which merely “has” or “possesses” being (in “every possible world” or otherwise).  Nor is he “a person” — not because he is impersonal but on the contrary because he is Intellect Itself rather than something which merely “exemplifies” “properties” like intellect and will.  (As I have put it before, the problem with the sentence “God is a person” is not the word “person” but the word “a.”)  Describing God as “a being” or “a person” trivializes the notion of God, and it thereby trivializes too the notion of God Incarnate.

For the classical theist, what the doctrine of God Incarnate entails is that that which is subsistent being itselfpure actuality, and absolutely simple or non-composite, that in which all things participate but which itself participates in nothing, that which thereby sustains all things in being — that that “became flesh and dwelt among us.”  That is a truly astounding claim, so astounding that its critics often accuse it of incoherence.

And that’s the problem. You’ve got a child’s conception of God–which Feser ably dismantles–or you’ve got accusations of incoherence.

I see this very debate as yet another example of theism in a state of serious intellectual crisis in the 21st century. You have intellectual Catholics summing up Protestantism as (at best) demiurgic polytheism and at worst atheism, and you’ve got intellectual Protestants summing up Catholicism as (at best) incoherent and at worst atheism (because the Ground of Being promoted by Thomists like Feser is simply too abstract a peg on which to hang a truly personal God). Both sides are highly, highly educated and well-versed in the issues at stake. Both sides have thought about God’s nature a lot. And they can’t agree, dismissing one another’s view of God as ultimately a subtle form of atheism.

What if they’re both right?

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The 2008 Financial Crisis Will Happen Again (Probably In The 2020s)

Forty reasons:

  • Risk-taking alpha males.
  • Coke using.
  • Hookers.
  • Nihilism.
  • Amorality.
  • The rich will turn their backs on society.
  • Emotional blackmail: “You need us! Without us the economy will crash!”
  • Abusers of the financial system will have well-prepared lawyers.
  • The culture rewards risk-takers and impulsivity.
  • Shell games.
  • Technology, as it complexifies still more, will tend to even greater levels of mystification and obfuscation than in 2008.
  • Gambling.
  • Never enough. More.
  • People tend to outsource their critical thinking to authority figures: “Things are under control–trust us!”
  • Those in power will make claims without supports under cover of authority.
  • Motivated reasoning and financially rewarded reasoning will continue to guide decision-making.
  • Regulators won’t be looking. They will deliberately not look. They will be asleep at the wheel. And what they do identify, they will not wholly understand.
  • Disinterested experts will not be sought out, and will be ignored if they speak out.
  • There will be no lobbying money on the other side to provide push-back against the financial sector.
  • Not risking their own money, financial sector workers will risk other people’s money, and there will be no penalty to them for the losses they incur.
  • The big money players will call what they’re doing “risk adjusted performance,” but it will actually be “more performance for more risk.”
  • Regulators will befriend those they are regulating. There will be a revolving door between Washington and Wall Street. There will be conflicts of interest.
  • People will be paid off for their silence.
  • People responsible for policing the financial sector won’t be talking or consulting with one another.
  • Dubious investment instruments will be given a high investment grade (AAA) by investment rating agencies.
  • Because of greed, the masses of people will be made complicit with the financial sector, and will thus be vulnerable to impulsive sales techniques: “Are you missing the real estate boom?” Selling will be driven by emotion, not reason.
  • Someone or something will be too big to fail.
  • Fraud. Bullshit. There will be no moment where regulators say to the financial sector’s leadership, “No bullshit, what’s the data?” False signals will be sent to investors.
  • Statements made in public will not be those made in private. People will thus invest based on false information and misleading statements.
  • Powerful people will make themselves inaccessible to scrutiny and contact. They will be untouchable. They’ll hire the best lawyers. You won’t even see photos of them. They will move about like phantoms.
  • The financial industry will donate to and lobby both parties in Washington, providing carrots and sticks to elected officials to look the other way. For every congressperson, there will be multiple lobbyist-lawyers assigned to them.
  • Academic experts will be for hire. Bright intellectuals will run cover for the financial industry, making money sitting on boards and writing reports. Economics, as a discipline, will go on being corrupted by money.
  • Bureaucracy–federal and corporate–will make buck-passing easy. There will be no lines of direct accountability. When the catastrophe hits, no one will claim to have had their hands on the wheel.
  • What regulatory agencies exist will be slowly starved for funds.
  • New ideologies will emerge to support the greed and corruption, and old ones will be trotted out and given a contemporary retread (Atlas Shrugged 2.0, etc.).
  • People will believe they can create something from nothing.
  • It will be hard to speak against the new banking shenanigans. Whistle blowers will be severely punished (as will politicians who support regulation). It will be very, very expensive to speak–both personally and financially. Those with a conscience will know bullying and isolation.
  • There will be no separation of powers balancing one another. It will all be incestuous. A free-for-all. A form of store-front looting on a global scale.

The script writes itself, doesn’t it?

I made this list, by the way, while watching Inside Job. None of the behaviors in that film have really changed. None of them. Things other than critical thinking and public spiritedness are aligning for a financial crisis replay.

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Absent Good Reasons and Evidence, Trust No One

I don’t like this t-shirt. It cheer-leads obfuscation, mystification, authority. A better statement would be, “I’m a professor. If I make a claim, doubt it and ask for the reasons and evidence I have in support of the claim. I may be completely full of shit.” A bit wordy, but better.

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Lawrence Krauss on the Recent Direct Evidence for Cosmic Inflation–and What It Might Mean for God Belief

At The New Yorker, physicist Lawrence Krauss gives his take on the recent direct evidence that cosmic inflation is real. Money quote:

At rare moments in scientific history, a new window on the universe opens up that changes everything. Today was quite possibly such a day. At a press conference on Monday morning [March 17, 2014] at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, a team of scientists operating a sensitive microwave telescope at the South Pole announced the discovery of polarization distortions in the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, which is the observable afterglow of the Big Bang. The distortions appear to be due to the presence of gravitational waves, which would date back to almost the beginning of time.

This observation, made possible by the fact that gravitational waves can travel unimpeded through the universe, takes us to 10-35 seconds after the Big Bang. By comparison, the Cosmic Microwave Background—which, until today, was the earliest direct signal we had of the Big Bang—was created when the universe was already three hundred thousand years old.

If the discovery announced this morning holds up, it will allow us to peer back to the very beginning of time—a million billion billion billion billion billion times closer to the Big Bang than any previous direct observation—and will allow us to explore the fundamental forces of nature on a scale ten thousand billion times smaller than can be probed at the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator. Moreover, it will allow us to test some of the most ambitious theoretical speculations about the origin of our observed universe that have ever been made by humans—speculations that may first appear to verge on metaphysics. It might seem like an esoteric finding, so far removed from everyday life as to be of almost no interest. But, if confirmed, it will have increased our empirical window on the origins of the universe by a margin comparable to the amount it has grown in all of the rest of human history. Where this may lead, no one knows, but it should be cause for great excitement.

And here’s a bit more from Krauss:

Even for someone who has been thinking about these possibilities for the past thirty-five years, the truth can sometimes seem stranger than fiction. In 1979, a young particle physicist named Alan Guth proposed what seemed like an outrageous possibility, which he called Inflation: that new physics, involving a large extrapolation from what could then be observed, might imply that the universe expanded in size by over thirty orders of magnitude in a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, increasing in size by a greater amount in that instance than it has in the fourteen billion years since. [...]

[O]n Monday, [a] probe of the microwave background—one that measures how the light generated at the time the C.M.B. was created might be “polarized,” as space is alternatively compressed and stretched by gravitational waves—apparently sees precisely the signal expected from Inflation. Moreover, the amplitude of the effect is indeed more or less expected if the scale of Inflation is the scale expected for Grand Unification.

And what’s one of the key implications of this discovery? Krauss explains:

If it turns out to be confirmed by other experiments, think about what this discovery implies for our ability to explore the universe (besides the other remarkable implications for physics): when we use light to look out at the distant universe, we can only see back as far as three hundred thousand years after the Big Bang, when the universe cooled sufficiently to become transparent to light. But gravitational waves interact so weakly that even waves produced less than 10-35seconds after the Big Bang can move through space unimpeded, giving us a window on the universe at essentially the beginning of time.

And what about God? Here’s Krauss one last time:

For some people, the possibility that the laws of physics might illuminate even the creation of our own universe, without the need for supernatural intervention or any demonstration of purpose, is truly terrifying. But Monday’s announcement heralds the possible beginning of a new era, where even such cosmic existential questions are becoming accessible to experiment.

There are lots of logically possible ways that the cosmos could have been at the beginning of creation, but there is only one way that the cosmos actually was. Science is closing in, by experiment, on what that was. In comparison with arm chair metaphysics and theology, science shows us the money.

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I Like This Line from a Terantino Film (Django Unchained)

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The Case for Doubt in a Single Paragraph

If you already believe something, should you attend to the opinions of naysayers, complexifiers, and qualifiers? It depends on whether you’re coming to an issue for therapy or truth. And the quality of the second opinion matters. Every liberal should read the neoconservative journal Commentary, and every conservative should read The New York Times. Otherwise, you’re in danger of falling into epistemic closure and confirmation bias. Even though I’m emotionally invested in many (all?) of the things I believe, I know that I better give a fair hearing on a regular basis to the best arguers and arguments on the other side. Every theist should read Dawkins; every atheist William Lane Craig. Orwell wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant effort.” It’s an effort because there is always the temptation to come to an issue for therapy, not truth; to, like Oedipus, pluck out your eyes because you can’t face the truth. Every person should actively seek out disconfirming evidence and opinions when truth is the goal, though this is very, very hard because we are human and don’t want to be like Hamlet, unable to make up our minds and act (“To be or not to be; to do or not to do, to think or not to think.”) But shunning Hamlet is a danger, for certainty and an excess of confidence are temptations of hubris (a theme of classical Attic tragedy). So on any question where you want the right answer, it’s wise to ask, “Have I really and fairly weighed alternative explanations about this matter, and come to the best explanation?” Sometimes we cannot do this because we are frightened, and frightened people too frequently outsource their thinking to people they trust or to experts they trust, ignoring the other side. They don’t want to think about it. But it’s good to think. And to doubt. Doubt is a good thing.

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Yellow Moon

That would be Io orbiting Jupiter (NASA image taken in 1999 by the Galileo spacecraft):

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Vivian Maier: The Emily Dickinson of Photography

I’m super interested in seeing this documentary.

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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?


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


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):


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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