|are pro-choice with respect to schooling, health care, retirement savings, gun ownership, expression of religious faith — just about everything except abortion.||are anti-choice with respect to schooling, health care, retirement savings, gun ownership, expression of religious faith — just about everything except abortion.|
|are more conservative than they are religious.||are more liberal than they are religious.|
|believe in the Rule of Law.||believe in the Rule of Lawyers.|
07 November 2000
06 November 2000
One of my college classmates, call him Steve, had a girlfriend we'll call Lori, who went to another school. Despite their passion, they took their responsibility seriously, and used birth control every time. But she still got pregnant.
There was no question of having the baby. They were at critical junctures of their lives, in which continuing their educations was a make-or-break endeavor to escape poverty. They could not stay in college without help from their families, who would have insisted that they drop out and get married.
Instead, Steve managed to raise some money, and they flew secretly to a nearby state where Lori could get an abortion. They returned the same day, to make it look like a long, but ordinary date. The abortion was legal and safe, except for their rushing in, having the procedure, and rushing out to catch the plane. At the clinic, Lori was fine. On the plane, she hemorrhaged.
She bled for days. She felt weak, and hid her paleness with make-up. She knew she needed medical help, but she waited, hoping to keep her secret. By the Grace of God, the bleeding finally stopped.
Steve felt guilty for risking Lori's life, and for killing the life that would have been their child. He tried to believe in reincarnation — that somehow, the kid would get another chance. Not long after that, his relationship with Lori died, too. They haven't communicated in almost 30 years.
There is a lesson in this for both those pro-choice and pro-life. For the pro-choice it is this: According to the founding documents of our republic, we are endowed with rights by our Creator, including the right to life. To any thinking person of faith, it is blasphemy to assert that our Creator gives us the right to kill the lives that would otherwise become our children. Abortion is not a right — it's a wrong. It may be a need, given the state of human nature. As long as we guarantee access to abortion, it is a freedom. But it's still wrong. The pro-choice cause is hurt by pretending otherwise.
For the pro-life the lesson is this: Given the tragic state of human nature, good people — people more moral than most — are going to get abortions, with or without Roe v. Wade. It's just that without it, more middle-class girls will become injured or dead, more poor girls will become mothers, and more unwanted children will be neglected and abused. I know a conservative Christian who became pro-choice after working with abused children who had been made wards of the court.
Both sides need to admit that human nature is such that we knowingly do wrong, we deny that we know it, and we develop wrong-headed solutions to stop ourselves. Defending a woman's freedom to choose abortion will no more make you a good person than denying her that freedom. We cannot by our own efforts perfect ourselves — all attempts by societies to do so have ended horrendously, from gas chambers of National Socialism, to the Cambodian killing fields — and you know it.
I hope that bit of rhetoric pissed you off. You pro-choice and pro-life people out there might just drop your attacks on each other for a moment, and for the love of God, listen to each other. Give the other side its due when it tells the truth. Consider what reasonable limits we might place on the freedom to choose abortion — because all freedoms must have limits. Stop playing a single-issue politics that gives us is a corrupted judiciary and a demeaned public discourse. We ask our politicians, "Are you pro-choice or pro-life," when we should ask, "What is Justice?" and "How do you plan to lead us closer to achieving it?"
The freedom to choose abortion is the freedom to kill while you can still convince yourself that you're not killing your child. It's a freedom the majority of us grant to increase your odds (or your partner's odds) of surviving what some of you would probably do anyway. It is our way of helping our prodigal sons and daughters survive to return someday. But preserving the freedom to choose abortion is evil, and it is doubly evil to assert otherwise. It's just that letting girls like Lori die would be evil, too.
And for those who have had abortions, there is Forgiveness. It's free for anyone who knows they need it.
Old Testament Message
As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.
My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God?
When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me: for I had gone with the multitude, I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday.
Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted in me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance. — Psalm 43:1-5
New Testament Message
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good report. Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear. By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh. By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God. — Hebrews 11:1-5
And he went out from thence, and came into his own country; and his disciples followed him. And when the sabbath day was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him.
But Jesus, said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house. And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them. — Mark 6:1-5
Not just once or twice, but continually in our Old Testament lesson skeptics challenge the psalmist, "Where is thy God?" He (or she) makes them no answer. Instead, as a matter of faith, he addresses the God who is nowhere to be found. Theologians call this aspect of God Deus Absconditus, the Hidden God.
The psalmist addresses Deus Absconditus in tones of sorrow and confusion, apparently believing that his faithfulness will eventually earn him God's presence. Modern believers often pass off experiences like this as a temporary condition, The Dark Night of the Soul, described by St. John of the Cross. But for some, the night never ends, and they become skeptics.
Modern skeptics challenge believers, in tones of anger and fear. Anger, because if God exists, then God has cruelly abandoned us, leaving us to our own worst impulses, and to the all manner of misfortune in an indifferent universe. Fear, because if God were to appear, He might take the ruling of our world away from us. Instead of, "Where is thy God?" modern skeptics say, "There are no gods." They believe that we run our own world, to the extent that it does not run us, and that, as Camus proved in The Myth of Sisyphus, existence (without God) is pointless and absurd.
"If God exists," one friend asked me, "then why the charade? Why not show us openly that He exists, and tell us openly what He wants of us?" Clearly the theophany at Sinai, in which God spoke to Moses and all Israel assembled at the foot of the mountain, will not suffice for my friend. He wants God to appear to everyone, not just a chosen few, and not just once or twice, but continually.
But if God did that, this would be God's Universe, and not the Universe He gave to us. We would be living in Our Father's house, without having had the chance to make our own way in the world, and in so doing, to become our adult selves. That is to say, we are forced to have free will, whether we want it or not, by God's seeming absence. (As Issac Bachevis Singer put it, "We have to believe in Free Will — we have no choice.")
We are left with only the occasional appearance to remind us that we only feel that we are entirely alone. Even God, in the person of Jesus, knew that feeling, speaking the words, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" as He was dying on the cross. For God so loved the world that, in the person of Jesus, He let us humans act out our anger on Him.
For we are angry that so much of life is so hard. It is out of that anger and its accompanying despair that some of us challenge, "There are no gods." That there is no evolutionary value whatsoever in the enjoyment of a sunset, makes no impression on someone who cannot enjoy anything because of some trauma or affective disorder. That we can perceive awsome beauty in so much of the Universe makes no impression on those who have been oppressed by a false, distorted, demonic mental image of God, whether it is of their own or someone else's invention.
And yet, most of us do have the the ability — the gift — to perceive order and beauty in so many things: ripples on the surface of a pond, water as it freezes into ice, flowers, soap bubbles.
Now imagine that, spiritually speaking, you are a soap bubble — a thin, transparent, shiny film. Imagine that the air in which you float is the breath of God, and that the air inside you, that inflates (inspires) you into a soap bubble instead of a drop of soapy water, is also the breath of God. If you explore beyond yourself, or inside yourself, you encounter God. The only way to turn away from God (to become evil), is to confine your attention to stay absurdly on your own surface, going neither beyond yourself nor into your own depths. You'll only succeed in going around in circles, and your experiences will be superficial, but you can postpone the Divine encounter until your bubble bursts.
The physical Universe is like a soap bubble, too. If we refuse to look deeply within it to see God's imanence in His creation, or beyond it to see God's transcendence of His creation, then we see only the surface of existence, and ignore its heights and depths. Of course it seems empty, for we focus our spirit only on the container and ignore the messages it contains.
So how do we look? We must be open to surprise, willing to see all things anew. We must trust. Or to put it another way, we must loosen up and give in to our natural inclination to have faith. Not faith in miracles or miracle workers, but faith in extraordinary nature of ordinary things. This can leave us vulnerable to seeing patterns where there are none, but we can use our reason to check things out later. First, we just need to let go.
For, as in our Gospel lesson, God generally chooses not to overwhelm us against our will. God, in order that we have free will, generally chooses to be powerless in the face of our willful doubt. At least on the surface of things. Which means that in order to find, seek. In order to seek, be ready for surprise. "There are no gods," is the negative restatement of the positive, "I have yet to encounter anything I would recognize as a god." This last statement is tautologically true for skeptics. But then, "what I would recognize" is a statement of expectation, which is limited by one's imagination, which means that one may be looking for something limited and unsurprising. Which means that one may be looking for something other than God, and being either relieved or bitter (or both) at not finding it.
Well, that was convoluted. Just be ready for surprise. God has you surrounded, inside and out, and at your beginning and your end.
Of course, you are neither at the beginning nor the end of your life's journey, but in somewhere in the middle, or you wouldn't be reading this message. You might try being intentionally in the middle — in the here and now. So many of us live in constant remembrance of the past and constant expectation of the future, with our thoughts jumping constantly between them, that we seldom live in just the present moment. Focusing your attention on nothing but the present moment is a mental health giving part of most meditative disciplines. If you try it, you may find that you have never been and will never be truly abandoned.
Now may God make his countenance to shine upon you, and keep you forever in his grace.
Lord, hear our prayer…
In thanksgiving for the gift of laughter and the light of a smile,
Lord, hear our prayer…
In thanksgiving for the changing seasons and the challenges that bring day into night,
Lord, hear our prayer…
For truth, justice, and sincerity in our every word and thought and deed,
Lord, hear our prayer…
For those whom God calls in ways different from our own,
Lord, hear our prayer…
For those who seek direction and then follow with their hearts,
Lord, hear our prayer…
For peace of mind and confidence in Your decisions,
Lord, hear our prayer…
And, for those who will remain behind,
Lord, hear our prayer...
Kay writes: In the Catholic church daily Mass, the priest dishes out a few canned petitions and then asks for the petitions of the people. Some petitions are so negative that they set me on edge. What I have written here (I hope) countermands some of that negativity and narrow mindedness.
But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the almighty
We forward in this generation
All I ever had, is songs of freedom
Won't you help to sing, these songs of freedom
Cause all I ever had, redemption songs
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
Have no fear for atomic energy
Cause none of them can stop the time
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look
Some say it's just a part of it
We've got to fulfill the book
Won't you help to sing, these songs of freedom
Cause all I ever had, redemption songs
Redemption songs, redemption songs"
- Bob Marley, Redemption Song
Gourevich describes the aftermath of a massacre, one of many in a planned genocide perpetrated by the Hutus against the Tutsis in Rwanda. Upon flying into this village in Rwanda, Gourevitch is exposed to the aftermath of death — of murder, of brutality, of ... the product of human action."We went on through the first room and out the far side. There was another room and another and another and another. They were full of bodies, and more bodies were scattered in the grass, and they were stray skulls in the grass, which was thick and wonderfully green. Standing outside, I heard a crunch. The old Canadian colonel stumbled in front of me, and I saw, though he did not notice, that his foot had rolled on a skull and broken it. For the first time at Nyarubuye my feelings focused, and what I felt was a small but keen anger at this man. Then I heard another crunch, and felt a vibration underfoot. I had stepped on one, too." (p.20)
Initially I wasn't sure why the paragraph I quoted struck me, why it got me thinking. Then it hit me - Gourevich unconsciously stepped on a human skull too. He had become angry with the Canadian colonel for accidentally desiccated a kind of sacred space, a grotesque and macabre combination of graveyard and slaughterhouse. Then, Gourevich found himself committing the same transgression - desecrating the remains of the dead.
Twenty-seven pages into We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families, I had to put it down and stop for a while since it had become too hard for me to read. It made me feel sick to my stomach. Why? The incident in Rwanda is nonunique. By now, with our history, you'd think I would be fairly nonplused by massacres. After all, how many have there been in the twentieth century alone? How much exposure have we, as a culture, and as individuals, had to this kind of violence? For starters, there was the Holocaust during World War II.
Art Spiegelman brings Auschwitz tortures to life in Maus:
If Spiegelman's account doesn't move you, there's always Eli Wiesel's Night or perhaps Speilberg's Schindler's List."But after a few weeks I got too sick even to eat ... Typhus! I got very hot fever and I couldn't sleep. Typhus! Every night people died of this. At night I had to go to the toilet down. It was always full, the whole corridor, with the dead people piled there. You couldn't go through... You had to go on their heads, and this was terrible, because it was so slippery, the skin, you thought you are falling, and this was every night. So now I had Typhus, and I had to go to the toilet down, and I said, 'Now it's my time. Now I will be lying like this ones and somebody will step on me!'"
Yet it goes on. The Killing Fields of Asia. The Scorched Earth Campaign in El Salvador. But this is nothing new, considering our blood littered history. Cortés and the conquistadors. The Spanish Inquisition. The Crusades. Violence seems to be the brutal and inescapable reality.
Considering the intrinsic nature of violence in our world overwhelms me. In our culture, we constantly immerse ourselves in violence. We entertain ourselves with violence: Our movies - Full Metal Jacket, Braveheart, The Godfather, to name a few (I have intentionally listed movies I count among my favorites); Our television; And our high culture, even the Immortal Bard - are infused with violence. One of my favorite works of western literature, Hamlet, has, at it's base, an act of violence. Even our children's toys. Thinking about it, almost all of my toys as a boy involved violence in some way shape or form, from the obvious G.I. Joe to my Legos. Even chess is, at the most basic level, a war game.
At this point all the pop culture sermons about the inculturation of violence are knocking around inside of my head. And I've decided to ignore them. Let me explain.
I am a pacifist.
I have chosen to live my life without intentionally committing an act of violence against another human being. This however, becomes something of a pragmatic and philosophical problem for me. As an American who is physically ineligible for police and military service (necessary violence?) and who does not own a gun — the odds of me killing someone intentionally are pretty slim. Besides, if worse comes to worse, I have no qualms about turning tale and running. Yet it's relatively easy for me to commit an act of violence against someone unintentionally or indirectly. I can easily do physical or psychological harm to someone I've never met by buying clothing made in a sweat shop and thus perpetuating the exploitation of an oppressed group of fifteen year old girls. I can say something in jest that does psychological harm to someone around me. I can ignore the cry of someone for help and commit an indirect act of violence by allowing violence to happen.
It seems violence is inescapable. Unless I choose to make all my own cloths from material I wove myself, never say a wrong word, and run to the aid of anyone who might remotely stand the risk of being in physical danger, I can't escape violence. And if I managed to accomplish all of those things, I'd be a mute Martha Stewart meets Ghandi meets Superman. That's not something I would choose to be, though I wouldn't mind being a little more like Ghandi.
I am therefore left with the inescapable, so what now?
Micah 6:8 says, "He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"
As with most things scriptural, the interpretation of this passage is up for grabs. I feel comfortable in saying four people I hold in the highest regard, all Saints in their own right, would each say something different about the passage. Roman Catholic Arch-Bishop Oscar Romero demonstrated his as he turned against the oppressive structure he had his origins in, and eventually was martyred for his (our) cause. Episcopal Arch-Bishop Desmond Tutu demanded justice on a global level for his (our) people. Mother Theresa lived her interpretation in the streets of Calcutta. St. Benedict had an intense personal understanding of humility.
I have chosen those four because each represents a different aspect of Micah 6:8 for me. Archbishop Romero and Archbishop Tutu demonstrated what it was to do justice. I chose them because they did not exhibit justice as most Americans today think of it. Their justice was not one in which individuals received due punishment or reward for their actions. On the most basic level, if we all got what we really deserved, based on our individual sins, we'd be in a lot of trouble. Romero and Tutu had a concept of peace making justice. Instead of demanding the blood of those who oppressed them, they demanded compassion and equity for everyone. Most importantly, they put themselves on the line for justice. Tutu marched countless times in protests and spoke out directly and clearly against the oppressive power of Apartheid. Romero celebrated the Eucharist with peasants after being stripped and humiliated by soldiers and was eventually martyred for his pursuit of justice.
Mother Theresa understood, on a level much deeper than I ever may, what it was to love kindness. She gave intense and personal care to the sick and dying that no one else would touch. If picking up a disease infested, maggot ridden, starving, smelly, dying beggar out of shit strewn sewers doesn't show what it means to love kindness, nothing does.
Benedict knew what humility meant. The first word of his Rule is "Listen." The Rule of Benedict teaches us to listen to others, and to defer to others without letting go of who we are and our own needs. We are taught balance and inner peace. These are the things we need for humility.
Yet these are not the only valid interpretations of Micah 6:8. Each of us must come to terms with our own world views. Each individual must come to terms with what being human means. Each of us must come to terms with what it means to cope with violence in our world.
I offer a few caveats though. It is not possible to shut ourselves off from the world. Just because something involves violence does not mean it looses its value. Exempla gratia, the movies I listed earlier. They all have tremendous value as cinema and art. As for Hamlet, anybody who tries to convince me that because it involves violence it has no value might as well take up arguing with brick walls. Violence is indeed a part of our culture, yet we are indeed called to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.
Sometimes, violence is inescapable for the oppressed. What options do the victims of a genocide campaign have but to try to defend themselves lest their race be wiped off the face of the earth? Can we say, in all fairness, that the Hitler should have been fought with only non-violent means?
Realistically, there is no way we will ever be rid of violence as long as humans run the world. Does pacifism then become an exercise in futility?
Not in the least.
Pacifism and peacemaking are no more futile in the dealing with violence than medicine is in fighting disease and death. Everyone will inevitably get sick and die. This does not make medicine useless or invaluable. Medical science keeps us healthy and improves our quality of life, it helps to advance us and to preserve us. Medicine makes whole what was broken. Peacemaking and pacifism do no less.
Those that choose to respond to violence with peace, with justice, mercy, kindness, and listening, are the brokers of healing in a world ridden with violence. When somebody has lost everything - family, home, land, worldly possessions, faith, and identity, the only thing left is a story that nobody can take away. A little over a year ago I got to spend a considerable amount of time with six massacre survivors from El Salvador. These folks experienced a whole sale exodus from their home to another country, across the mountains and back again. What they had to give were their stories. And the telling of these stories was a healing experience for them. The act of telling the story is an act of peacemaking.
Peacemakers are the recipients and the tellers of these stories. Yet to receive a story is not the end. There is a call to act on the story. Ask Desmond, Oscar, or Theresa.
It is painfully clear that peace does not immediately come from these stories; look to Northern Ireland. But they give us a starting point. Once we come to grips with the stories, we have a road map of sorts to follow. We know where the injury is and where the healing begins.
Gourevitch and Speigleman gave us stories. This is the way peace is made, by the telling of stories and by listening. How does this solve my pacifist dilemma? I accept that violence is a part of my world and de facto a part of my life. I choose to not directly perpetrate violence against others. I choose to avoid perpetrating indirect violence against others when it is in my power to do so. I choose to listen. I choose to act on what I hear. I choose to share what I hear with the masses, speaking truth to power. I choose to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with my God.
Pax domini semper tecum sit.
05 November 2000
The Reality and Unreality of Calculus
We're going to make the lie true. - Maggie in Tennesee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1955
At a web site devoted in large part to the ethics of honesty over and against the ethics of moral purity, it is only fair to acknowledge the limits of honesty itself. After all, complete honesty requires complete self-insight, which none of us has unless it is a gift of God. Besides, sometimes something less than honesty can have great practical value, especially in applied mathematics.
Now mathematics itself can't lie, because it is its own context. It is a language that, if you follow its grammatical rules, guarantees truth, because it only talks about itself. The lie comes in the misapplication of mathematics to real-world situations. Or as Disraeli once said, "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics." But let's skip statistics and get right to the root of it all - calculus, the subject I think every college freshman should study.1
Calculus, especially differential calculus, is used to model almost all the physics we know. This modeling is based on the idea that we can evaluate a function of position and time at points that are arbitrarily close to each other. Suppose for example that we do not know the value of a function at point B, but we do in the region around B. We simply keep picking points A closer and closer to point B, and note the trend in the value of the function we're interested in. This is called taking the limit of our function as point A approaches point B.
To be concrete about this, suppose you wrote down the times you passed certain distance markers as you drove down the highway. For our function we could take the distance between any two markers (in miles or kilometers) and divide by the time (in hours) it took you to drive between the markers, giving your speed in either miles or kilometers per hour. That would give us your average speed between the markers. To get your instantaneous speed, we would have to measure your position at two points infinitesmally close together and divide by the infinitesmally small time interval it took you to go between them. While this may present a problem for actual measurement, it's no problem for mathematics.
Now, as long as we have gone this far, we could take the difference between your instantaneous speeds at two infinitesmally close points along the road, divide by the infinitesmally small time interval it took you to pass from one to the other and get your instantaneous acceleration - the instantaneous change in your instantaneous speed (in miles or kilometers per hour per hour). It is this instantaneous acceleration that Newton was referring to when he wrote "F=ma," or "force equals mass times acceleration," the equation upon which all our physics, directly or indirectly, is based.
The problem is that these limits as one point gets infinitesmally close to another don't really exist. The existence of such a limit presupposes that space and time have no gaps - that they are continuous - which means that you can go smoothly from point A to point B without encountering any holes in the "fabric" of space and time. In fact, the requirements are more stringent: also disallowed are creases, kinks, knots, edges, passageways like the holes in a sponge, etc. For the notion of limits (on which calculus depends) to be valid, the ride from A to B must be much smoother that it possibly can be.
Of course, you don't notice rough spots in space and time while driving your car or walking down the street, because they are quite small, much smaller than an atomic nucleus, or even a sub-atomic particle. But we suspect they're there, because of the probable existence of quantum gravitational zero-point oscillations, the so-called "spacetime foam" mentioned in a previous essay.2 Such a foam may seem smooth to say, a sub-atomic particle, but would be far too rough for calculus to be valid all the way down to infinitesmally small scales.
Another reason I suspect the calculus of being invalid is macroscopic, the so-called Einstein-Poldosky-Rosen paradox,3 which begins like this. Suppose you had a sub-atomic particle that had no intrinsic angular momentum, or spin. Further suppose the particle decays into two more "daughter" particles, each of the same mass, that move apart because of the energy released by the decay. Conservation of linear momentum guarantees that the particles move in opposite directions at equal speeds. And conservation of angular momentum guarantees that each particle would spin in the direction opposite that of the other, so that the two spins would cancel each other out if the particles could be brought back together.
Now, according to our understanding of quantum mechanics, the axis about which the daughter particles spin does not come into existence until a measurement of the spin is made. (This is also a statement about the isotropy of the universe - since space is the same in all directions, there is no preferred axis about which the particles will spin.) The spin of the particle is a potential quantity, which gets made actual by the act of measurement.
And here is the paradox: The other particle, whose axis of spin is also undetermined, instantaneously assumes an equal and opposite spin about the same axis as the first particle measured, regardless of how far away the measurement was made. This appears to violate the principle of Special Relativity that no signal can travel faster than the speed of light.
The paradox is resolved by claiming that neither of the particles by itself forms a complete quantum mechanical system. The system is non-local, which means that until the measurement is made, the two particles are actually one quantum mechanical object. After the measurement, they are each a separate and complete system.
This non-locality is a nice bit of philosophical reasoning, and it's well supported by theory (the work of John S. Bell, among others) and experiment (particularly those of Alain Aspect and co-workers). But in order to make quantum mechanics conform rigorously to Special Relativity I think we need to go further.
In particular, a principal (albeit largely esthetic) tenet of the so-called "Einstein Programme" for theoretical physics is that all physics is local physics, and that all interactions are local interactions. This "locality principle" implies that there must be some sense in which the distance between the two particles in the "non-local" state is actually zero. Allow me to leap from science into speculation.
The particles in the "non-local state" are clearly separated by some distance in three-dimensional space (actually four-dimensional space-time). Perhaps the non-local state of the particles itself creates a bridge between them in one or more other dimensions, which collapses when a measurement is made on either one of them. The total separation between them would then have to be reckoned according to a five- or higher-dimensional formula, which would give zero, even though the three-dimensional part that we're currently aware of is much greater than zero. Figure 1 below shows a cartoon image of this concept. 4
Figure 1. Diagram illustrating a speculative interpretation of the EPR thought experiment. When the spin of either particle of the pair is observed, the quantum mechanical state "collapses" and the higher-dimensional zero-length topological connection between them is broken. The curved "strip of paper" in the figure is meant to represent three-dimensional space. Time is represented by the tracks of the particles, positions since their emission from the parent-particle decay process.
The existence of such a bridge would mean that little higher-dimensional pathways spring up and disappear all the time in our universe, which brings us back to the calculus. The universe may be too swiss-cheesy with sub-microscopic higher-dimensional holes for the smoothness requirments of calculus to be met. In other words, the idea that calculus actually describes reality is a lie.
But it's a good one, because it's so very nearly true that we didn't notice any problems with it for three hundred years. For the most part we still don't notice. We can calculate orbits that get people to the moon and back with calculus. We figured out electromagnetism with it, which gave us radios, televisions, computers, Walkmans, and so much more. And I guarantee that a more accurate theory will be much harder (if not impossible) to use for solving the problems for which calculus works well.
In conclusion, I can say that our mathematics is not so much a map of reality as a metaphor for it. Our current metaphor, the calculus, has such a grip on our imaginations that we physicists will do almost anything to save it, including inventing Supersymmetric String Theories.5 But for practical purposes thus far, calculus is extremely powerful and convenient. If it is ultimately a lie to describe physical reality with it, it is the best and most useful one ever told.
- See, Teach Your Children.
- See, Science and Faith.
- The most complete discussion I know of this "thought experiment" is in John S. Bell's Speakable and unspeakable in quantum mechanics, Cambridge University Press, 1987. Since most of the discussions are somewhat technical, I recommend you check it out of the library rather than buy it, unless you've already taken an undergraduate course in quantum mechanics.
- For the physicists in the readership, this means that I think that the "collapse of the wavefunction" may be linked to topology change for the case of non-local states. The dimensionality of the "bridge" is equal to the number of non-local quantum numbers describing the state. Janet B. Jones-Oliviera pointed out to me that this type of topology change is fundamentally irreversible. I wonder if any of this might imply altering current methods for calculating Feynman diagrams.
- String theories were invented because taking the limit as point A goes to point B causes certain physical quantities like the self-energy of a point-like particle to become infinite. Although there are mathematically well established ways to handle these infinities in most field theories, they don't work with gravity. Therefore the current rage in physics is to do away with the notion of point-like particles and to pretend that all fundamental particles are closed loops, or strings. This fixes the immediate problem of the infinities, but still hasn't yielded a practical theory. I think this is because the "foaminess" of spacetime at this level has yet to be addressed with a mathematics that has no "points" (or point-substitutes) at all unless some physics makes them happen. Actually, space-time may be "foamy" (multiply connected) even at the macroscopic level, if my speculation regarding the Einstein-Poldosky-Rosen thought experiment has any substance to it.
03 November 2000
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand. O'erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely I love you and would be loved faine,
But I am betroth'd unto your enemie:
Divorce mee, untie, or break that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish mee.
This is Donne's poetic explication of the Christian confession "we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves." It was also the inspiration for naming the Trinity Test Site where the world's first atomic bomb was exploded. When clergy abuse their parishoners, this is the sensibility that gets damaged.
- When I know who I am and believe in myself,
- every breath of life is sacrament.
- When I know who I am and believe in myself,
- every human being is filled with God.
- When I know who I am and believe in myself,
- only things of beauty exist.
- When I know who I am and believe in myself,
- music speaks with the soft and gentle beauty that is silence.
- When I know who I am and believe in myself,
- words become positive and reinforcing.
- When I know who I am and believe in myself,
- feelings are as strong as God, who created them for me.
- When I know who I am and believe in myself,
- silence becomes the golden strength of hearing.
- When I know who I am and believe in myself,
- the sacrament of life is hearing the silence, and,
- When I know who I am and believe in myself,
- every breath of silence is the sacrament of life.
Since contributing this piece, Kay has come out as a survivor of clergy abuse. These affirmations are for all those who have been forced or seduced into doubting their own worth, judgment and experience.
A little philosophy inclineth men's minds to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds to religion. - Francis Bacon
Process Theology arises from an attempt to integrate insights from both religion and science in a unified understanding of God, the Cosmos, and our relationship to them, ourselves, and each other. Nature is viewed as having multiple levels of organization and complexity, which offers multiple opportunities for a patient God to act as the chief Creative Participant in the ongoing self-creation of the Universe by a multiplicity (an ecological community) of agents — among them, ourselves. The God of Process Theology is therefore self-limited in both foreknowledge of the future, and power to direct it. This absolves God from the necessity rescuing us from catastrophe, whether brought on by natural processes or human malevolence, thus solving the age-old Problem of Evil.
This transforms the question of the ultimate triumph of Good over Evil at the End of Time — the traditional subject of Eschatology — into a purely technical question of whether the Universe will end in a Final Crunch or a featureless, uniformly cold bath of low-energy radiation. Moral victory is beyond the Process Theologian's planning horizon.
But what of personal salvation? Barbour's presentation of Process Theology is friendly toward the idea, and Christ appears as the chief instance of God's evocative power of love and persuasion. Of Christ, Barbour says (p 326),
Several themes in Christian thought support the portrayal of a God of persuasion. Christ's life and death reveal the transformative power of love. We have the freedom to respond or not, for grace is not irresistible. In the last analysis, I suggest, the central Christian model for God is the person of Christ himself. In Christ it is love, even more than justice of sheer power, that is manifest. The resurrection represents the vindication rather than the denial of the way of the cross, the power of a love stronger than death. Process theology reiterates on a cosmic scale the motif of the cross, a love that accepts suffering. By rejecting omnipotence, process thought says that God is not directly responsible for evil. Whereas exponents of kenotic self-limitation hold that the qualifications of divine onmipotence are voluntary and temporary, for Whiteheadians the limitations are metaphysical and necessary, though they are integral to God's essential nature and not something antecedent or external to it.
The other inputs for Barbour's Process Theology are insights from physics, astronomy, and evolutionary biology. I think the omission of input from psychology, sociology, and cultural anthropology might account for some of the sterility of Process Theology — for the omission of these insights is the omission of ourselves, except as physico-biological entities and philosophical abstractions.
In short, Barbour's theology is really an outline. It is waiting to be filled in by a Christology based on the scripture, literature, history, and ongoing experience of the Christian community. And yet, its place for Christ is circumscribed by the need to accomodate a systematic set of metaphysical categories that attempts to span both religion and science. I think it is unsuccessful, in part because its notions of religion and science are circumscribed.
I suggest that a Christology should be informed by the best of modern knowledge and thought (including process thought), but should be mindful that it is an answer to Christ's question, "Who do you say that I am?" In order to maintain faith with the Christian community, past and present, Christology needs to be saturated with Christ as necessary, rather than burdened with Christ as optional. And, in keeping with the witness of the New Testament, it must radically affirm Christ as human and divine, crucified and resurrected, necessary and sufficient for salvation.
Affirming Christ as human is easy — he is man born of woman, child raised by parents, and participant become renegade leader in his community. He is physically, biologically, psychologically, sociologically, culturally, politically, religiously human. Affirming Christ as divine is less obvious in a largely innumerate culture, because such affirmation is perhaps best informed by mathematics.
In mathematics, an infinite set can be mapped member for member (one-to-one) onto a proper (smaller) subset of itself. For example, the integers can be mapped one-to-one onto the even integers: just take each integer and multiply it by two. One maps onto two, two maps onto four, three maps onto six, and so on forever. And yet, the even integers are only half of all the integers. Mappings that are one-to-one are also reversible — dividing the even integers by two recovers the whole set of all the integers. Now, I could just as well have proposed to multiply each integer by a billion, mapping the entire infinite set of integers one-to-one onto a set only a billionth as big as itself. Perhaps similarly, God chose to become the human Christ, a mapping of the Infinite God onto a human being, infinitely smaller than God, but still infinite (which may be part of what it means to say we are made in God's image). That God could also still be God, that Christ had to communicate with his larger self through prayer just like the rest of us, should present no problem. The Author of Space is not bound by space, the Author of Time is not bound by time. If God can be everywhere, why not also somewhere in particular? If God can be everywhere, why not two places at once?
The crucified-resurrected duality also has an easy first part. We know the Romans routinely crucified non-citizens for a variety of crimes, real or imagined. There is no reason to suppose they did not crucify a charismatic cult leader who refused to recognize the Emperor's divinity, and who therefore refused to acknowledge the theological/moral right of the Roman Empire to rule the world. Affirming Christ's resurrection, however, requires a leap of faith, which is most easily enabled by religious experience involving personal encounter with the Risen Christ. (I must admit, that my own rather non-specific experiences could easily be dismissed as wishful thinking. I have no inspiration beyond the "light that lights everyone who comes into the world.") On the other hand, Jesus never wrote a book, never held office, and never went more than 200 miles from his birthplace — yet 2000 years later, he is still a force in human history. Something astounding must have happened.
But now we come to what it all means — the bit about Christ being "necessary and sufficient for salvation." This has to do with our ultimate concern, which the Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich identified with God. The problem is that, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said (God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, Noonday Press, 1955, p127), "Only saints are ultimately concerned with God. What concerns most of us ultimately is our ego." We are turned away from God and toward ourselves in a twisted way which we ourselves cannot straighten out. This estranges us from God, but also estranges us from ourselves (we create a self-image which we use to have a relationship to ourselves — we observe ourselves acting as ourselves — instead of just being ourselves. Not surprisingly, we also are estranged from each other and the natural world, as well. These four basic estrangements are Sin, and make it impossible for us to have completely honest relationships with anyone or anything, including God.
As long as we are in the world God gave us, we can manage. We even use our estrangements to survive. By compulsively distinguishing between self and other, we avoid danger, and seek the reward of food and shelter. But in God's world, the world to come, estrangement is dysfunctional. By clinging to estrangement we condemn ourselves to flee God's Presence (Heaven), rather than to seek it. In God's world, the absence of God is the Outer Darkness (Hell). Fortunately God helps us with our problem.
God goes all the infinite way to rescue us. God becomes one of us (Jesus), not just to preach at us, but to live among us. God as Jesus shows us the depth of our estrangement by teaching us the error of our ways, and then letting us kill him out of our fear and rage at him. God as Jesus bestows on us the ultimate pardon — he undoes our murder of him by coming back to life. God as Jesus then promises to come for us when we enter God's world, to meet us person-to-person, to guide us to Himself as God.
Now for a Christian, the above two paragraphs sketch out the necessity and sufficiency of Christ for our salvation. But what of other faiths? Traditionally Christians have a model of salvation that works like a room with many doors. Pick the one with Jesus in front of it, and he will take you to Heaven. The rest lead to Hell. This creates tension with people of religions other than Christian. I prefer a model that works like a room with many doors, but with Jesus, in many different guises, opening every one of them. Hell is refusing to go through any door at all.
But the categories of Process Theology cannot be found in Barbour's book, that can accomodate a discussion of Christ as Redeemer. The God of Process Theology seems to me an idol of philosophers, and not the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Jesus.
Editor's Note: Process theology is an ongoing attempt to reconcile theology with modern science. Here is a definition from its adherents. It offers some interesting insights, but ultimately tries to stuff God into a box. It's different Fundamentalist's box, but it's still a box.
02 November 2000
Problems with Problems with Christianity
If personality resides in the soul, then how can drugs and brain damage affect it?
We do not have souls — we are souls. We are not our personalities. Our personalities are mental constructs that we build in order to relate to each other and to ourselves. If your personality is destroyed you will survive in a state of "flat affect" until you build another one. I know. I've been there. So, I am unimpressed with your point about personality. Similarly, we are not our temperament, which is largely biochemically and neurologically determined, and which in turn strongly influences personalities we build around it.
A stronger and more fundamental point is that our phenomenal consciousness (our basic awareness of the phenomena in the world around us) can be severely affected by brain disorders or damage. For example, a stroke can literally take away not only one's ability to perceive anything in the left part of one's visual field, it can take away the very concept of left, and the memory that one once had the concept. Some stroke patients must turn 270 degrees to the right in order to get into a position they once would have managed by turning 90 degrees to the left. (See The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks.) To me, that is a much stronger argument that our consciousness resides in our material brains.
On the other hand, perhaps our brains are "quantum switchboards" between our souls and our bodies, as argued in detail by neurophysiologist J. C. Eccles. (See for example, "Brain and Freewill," and "How Dogmatic can Materialism Be?" both by J. C. Eccles, in Consciousness and the Brain, Globus, Maxwell and Savodnik, eds., Plenum, New York, 1976.) Perhaps we just get so hooked into perceiving, thinking, and feeling with our wetware, that when it gets damaged, we get stuck working with a faulty interface. This suggests that the early stages of the after-life experience could be rather minimalist (including, suggestively, three days of unconsiousness), as portrayed in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Of course, that begs the question of what is a soul. My current guess is that since spacetime undergoes quantum oscillations on scales smaller than the so-called Planck Length, the quantum spacetime foam may sustain patterns complex enough to be called alive (our souls), just as much larger and less complex atoms can form structures complex enough to be called alive (our bodies).
Still, I must admit that since you are not attempting to give a proof, but are merely arguing from the weight of the evidence, you have the last word on this: The weight of the evidence points to our doom. Religion has an "in spite of" quality in this regard, called trotsdem by the German theologians.
Gods were invented by people to explain the universe. Science does that for us now, so we no longer need gods.
Science has also begun to realize the limits to which it can go. Goedel's theorem states that any non-trivial, self-consistent, finite set of axioms must be incomplete — i.e., within the confines of any such system, it is always possible to construct propositions whose truth or falsehood cannot be established. The implication for science is that there will always be unknowns, no matter how large a body of self-consistent, experimentally verified theory we construct. We can't "know it all" through the methods of science.
On the other hand, I need God for companionship rather than physics lessons. I recognize the the astrophysical account of cosmogenesis as factually true, but for my soul that truth is empty compared to the mythic truth of the Biblical account. That is, while I know that God did not make Man from the clay with His own hands, I feel that all of us were individually called into existence by God for his delight and suffering in us. Perhaps this is because I need to be desired by God, if only as his fool.
[BTW - Goedel's theorem also applies to morality: Within the confines of any finite set of moral laws, it will always be possible to put the moralist in a situation in which his or her actions will be morally ambiguous, at best. For me, this is why Forgiveness and Reconciliation are necessary for Justice.]
Science has shown the stories of creation and the flood to be false.
Science has shown them to be false as history, not as myth. The truth of myth is in its meaning for us, in the messages in its metaphors, that can stir in us a level of awareness that no other form of interpersonal communication can. That is to say, the truth of myth is not in the myth itself, but in the truth it awakens in the hearers or readers. And so I say that the accounts of the creation and the flood are true, just not literally so. Besides, the universe began with a "Let there be light" BIG BANG, and one school of paleobiologists believe that life began when certain kinds of clay with repeating layers served as a substrate on which primitive amino acids assembled into RNA-like self-replicating proteins (God making us from clay, as it were). Moreover, it seems that about 10,000 years ago there was a catastrophic refilling of the dry Mediterranean basin as the Atlantic spilled over the widening cliff that is now the Strait of Gibraltar (possibly giving rise to the Sumerian flood story). Coincidences perhaps, but kinda spooky, eh guy?
Why was demon possession common in Jesus' time, but hardly known in the Old Testament, and replaced today by the DSM-IIIR?
I don't feel it necessary to believe in demons in order to believe in God. What I do find interesting though, is that Jesus seemed to be an effective faith-healer. Whatever the problems of the people whom he encountered, he seemed to be able to relieve them of quite a few of them, which is impressive to me, even if their problems were psychosomatic. See, however, James Randi's The Faith Healers, and Monty Python's "The Life of Brian," for additional commentary. See also Delbanco's The Death of Satan, for what we lose when we lose the sense of evil.
There is no justification for eternal punishment in hell. Hell as described in the Bible is sadism.
Hell is not described in the Bible. It is alluded to. As for eternal punishment, I would like to be a Universalist — one who claims that EVERYONE will wind up with God in Heaven, no matter what. But without some special revelation to that effect, claiming so is as arrogant as the Fundamentalists who claim that nobody but themselves will go to Heaven (also not described in the Bible). So, I compromise and take the way out given by C. S. Lewis in his book, The Great Divorce. The people in hell choose to be there because they can't stand to fully know who they are before God. Therefore, they flee God's Presence, or at least their own awareness of it, and that flight is hell.
How can people be happy in heaven with loved ones in hell?
C. S. Lewis has an explanation in The Great Divorce, which I don't buy. You've got me on this one. It's why I am tempted to be a Universalist.
Christianity asserts that more than 50% of all people will go to hell.
Where the hell did you get that number? Christians assert all kinds of things, but the Bible is vague and contradictory about the number of the saved. I like to think it is because the numbers or percentages are "above our pay grade" to worry about. But it is easy to work oneself into so twisted up a state of personality that it would be painful to know oneself before God, i.e., to confess. I suspect that is the condition of the majority of the human race. I also suspect that in the end, we get a lot of help with that problem.
The Bible is vague and contradictory on the one point that should be most important: how to be saved.
Yes, Amen! "With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible." Salvation would have to be a rather paltry thing to be reducible to a simple formula. For me as a Christian, it reduces to the moment in which Jesus says, "Follow me." Well, what does that mean? In the case of the disciples, the reaction was spontaneous and physical — they got up and went where Jesus went. For me in this latter day, it is something that is taking me a lifetime to understand and practice. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Cost of Discipleship gives the best explanation I know. [You may recall that Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who returned to Germany after the Nazi takeover, publicly opposed them, and was martyred in the concentration camps for doing so.]
The plan of redemption makes no sense. There are several theories about why Christ had to die, and all of them are unintelligible.
They all meet some psychological need on the part of some group of believers, however. See Freud's provocative but flawed, Moses and Monotheism for some roundabout hints concerning this one. In particular, considering how hard and painful this life can be, and that it is God's will that it be so, let us mention the idea that in Christ, [warning: heresy!] the current of atonement may flow both ways: as a man, he atones for humanity's capacity for evil, while as God, he atones for the hardness of our lives. The at-one-ment, the reconciliation of humanity and God, is that in Christ, God died for humanity and a man died for God. The reconciliation is completed by the resurrection — the forgiving and undoing of Christ's death, and the reuniting of humanity and divinity in him. I think that the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection are a powerful message of salvation that proclaim the possibility of a common and good destiny for all of humanity. And the obligation on our part is as it always was, "to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God." But rather than thinking of it as obedience to an external power as the price of a ticket to paradise, I think of it as a spontaneous response to being loved and desired by God. And, unlike orgasms, if you don't feel it, there is no need to fake it.
The stories of the resurrection are inconsistent.
The eyewitness stories of any event immediately just past are usually inconsistent. Given that the Christian community didn't think to write their stories down until they were at least second-hand, what else would you expect? And yes, they didn't start writing anything down until the Apostles started dying off, because they thought that the world would end before the Apostles died. Only then did they realize that there might be descendants who would benefit from a written record.
It is unfair that some people got to witness physical proof of miracles while the rest of us are commanded to believe on hearsay.
Absolutely. I agree with Tom Paine that you need not believe hearsay. I side with Paul Tillich in asserting that there is an existential, experiential component of faith. And if you are not called to faith, maybe you are called to atheism.
Why did God design the world so that some animals have to eat other animals, why did he make gross and disgusting parasites, and why did he let the majority of all species that ever existed go extinct?
The world is such that a rational creature can figure out how to survive in it without having to propitiate God to make the sun rise every day. A rational, rather than a magical, world is a tough world, where God doesn't run to fix things for you whenever they don't go your way. As the Tao-Te Ching says, "Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat all creatures like straw dogs." We get to live in a world in which we can do what we want without reference or deference to God, constrained only by physical reality —- by our needs, and prodded only by our pains. And since we seem to have evolved from prior living things, I make bold to state that evolution seems to be part of God's will, and with evolution come creatures that exploit every available ecological niche, (including parasitic and carniverous ones) and extinction of creatures when those niches change.
Jesus and his followers thought the end of the world was coming in one generation.
Indeed they did. So what? Jesus was God living life as an ordinary guy, with one or two extraordinary talents. One would hardly expect an ordinary guy to know the future.
There is no good reason to believe the canon while rejecting the apocrypha.
Whoa! Please see the introductions to the canonical books of the Bible and to the apocryphal books in the New Oxford Annotated Study Bible.
If one and only one religion is true why didn't God make it obvious to everyone which one it is.
Is one and only one religion true? I think all religions, as well as atheism, are contaminated with both truth and falsehood. I believe we are surrounded by truth too great to be contained in a finite number of dogmatic statements. I believe we cannot escape from the truth. I feel called to explore that truth as a Christian, but that doesn't prevent me from encouraging someone else to know the truth by a different, but effectively parallel path.
If God wanted us to have free will, why does he threaten us with hell? It isn't free will if you've got a gun at your head.
Isaac Bashevis Singer said, "We have to believe in free will — we have no choice." Let me ask you, would it be heaven for you if some really nasty evil son-of-a-bitch gets in and insists on remaining one? I think heaven is the presence of God, and the really nasty evil SOBs avoid it. Wherever else they go, that's hell.
God deliberately hardened Pharoah's heart against Moses and the Israelites. Why would God cause someone to sin? Why would God order the Israelites to commit genocide against the Canaanites?
Hardening Pharoah's heart is a pious turn of phrase. That's how the writers of Genesis and Exodus saw it. As for the order for genocide against the Canaanites — see the news accounts of the Kahane Chai party for how that one got started. I think that is the record of the self-righteous bigotry of the chosen people. The archeological evidence indicates that the surviving Canaanites managed to promulgate idol-worship among the Hebrews. And if you want to attain purity of a fledgling faith, you eliminate the non-believers, especially if you are a war-like and undiciplined tribe to begin with, and they are lovely ladies who want to raise the kids they have with you in their own religion. Otherwise stated: "The Jews are God's Chosen People, which is no great honor considering the competition."
There is evidence internal to the Bible that much of the pentateuch was a pious fraud conveniently discovered by priests in the time of King Josiah.
See Who Wrote the Bible by Richard Elliot Friedman for the full story on this one. One can go further — noting that Chronicles seems to be a whitewashed version of Kings, and the list goes on and on. So what? The Bible is not a single book — it is a library. It is the story of a people's attempt to be the people of God. It chronicles their failures as well as their successes, and their vain interpretations, as well as their inspired insights. It's all meant to be there for us in its wretchedness and in its glory. While many people debate the historical or scientific truth of this or that part of the Bible (and some parts bear up well in the light of recent archeological discoveries, while others do poorly), what really matters is the living Truth that the Bible can awaken in its readers and hearers.
Problems with Why I Believe there are no Gods
You have most definitely not defined God out of existence. (See The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams for how to do this with a Babel Fish.) What you have done is to amass a convincing weight of evidence that the god you expected (and at one time in your life wanted) does not exist. On the other hand, the god you once wanted was a concoction of the inner Freudian/Jungian "demons" haunting your former Christian community mixed with a few of your own. I think that we are both glad that that particular god is a fiction of fevered imagination. But you have yet to convince me, a former atheist, that there are no gods at all, including the God who is beyond all our imaginings and who comes to us as a complete surprise.
Rich Daniel, former Skeptic in Residence at VCBC, committed suicide in the early fall of 2000 A.D. In his memory, I reposted at VCBC two pieces he had sent me from his now defunct website, and with which I profoundly disagree. Here I post a rebuttal to those pieces that I emailed to Rich in 1996. My synopses of Rich's points are in italics, below which I state my counter-arguments. Occasionally, I first point out how he could have supported his position more strongly. Rich said he would think about these points. His fatal depression prevented his reply.
Our technology is about to give us the power to change human nature. If we do, then what happens to Natural Law as a basis for public policy? And will we even care?
At the most superficial level, they will transform human knowledge. The internet will soon give nearly everyone instant access to the world’s knowledge. At the same time, computers are shrinking from laptops to palmtops to miniature belt-glove-glasses-and-earphones affairs worn by computer engineering students who call themselves "cyborgs." Access to knowledge is becoming not only instant, but constant, which is changing the very meaning of knowledge. Printing changed knowledge from memorization to remembering where something was written. The web is changing knowledge into knowing how to ask questions — how find out what you want without finding all the stuff you don’t.
To assist in this quest entrepreneurs are now selling "intelligent agents," software robots that roam the web in search of just the relevant bits of information. As computers and programming techniques grow more powerful, librarians and even teachers may be replaced by intelligent agents that guide each child into mastery of its computer enhanced world. The risk is that the "agents" will construct a biased view of human knowledge — biased by software writers, their employers, or their governments — of which the users are unaware. Even if such biases can be managed, and if users can maintain some commonality of worldview despite fragmenting into non-interacting online communities, the existential risk is the despair that comes from having knowledge without meaning.
Imagine being able to know any fact that has been discovered, but having no reason to know anything at all. Remember that Albert Camus in his Myth of Sisyphus proved that life without reference to God is absurd. He found meaning by reveling in absurdity, but that is cold comfort for the mass of humanity. To make the limit of human knowledge accessible to everyone, but without a sense of purpose, of destiny — of anything beyond — is to invite decadence, decline and despair.
Computer networks may also transform human communication. Even now a laptop computer gives voice to the paralyzed physicist Stephen Hawking. If neurologists seeking to "cure" blindness have their way, then computers may transform from wearable to implantable and interact directly with one’s visual cortex. That is, if scientists can ever understand the workings of the brain well enough for them to enable a computer to put images directly into the visual cortex, enabling a person to "see" without eyes, then they will be able to make a computer take images directly from the cortex as well. Add wireless computer-to-computer networking to this capability, and we have the possibility of people being able to transmit their mental imagery directly into each other’s brain. The same might be true for the auditory cortex, and other parts of the brain as well (including, for a doubtless illicit fee, its pleasure centers).
Using implanted computers and wireless networks, each person may someday be able to connect his or her mind directly to all the world’s knowledge and the minds of all the world’s people, even the recorded thoughts of the post-twenty-first century dead. If computer-enhanced people gain the ability to communicate by thought itself, speech as a time series of symbols (words) may disappear. People might communicate by exchanging much richer content, such as daydreams, instead. And if words disappear, so will all the world’s previous literature, including its scriptures.
As if transforming knowledge and communication were not enough, genetic engineering may transform our bodies and minds. People may want their children to be taller, more athletic, or smarter, and humanity may acquire the techniques to make them so. But genes tend to travel in groups, which means altering one gene may have unintended consequences. Just as breeding dogs for large size compromised their longevity, breeding kids for high IQ or some other cognitive ability may compromise them emotionally or spiritually. As a trivial example, suppose humanity decides to give itself the genes to sense one’s orientation and location continuously, like homing pigeons. How would a Christian Fundamentalist witness about being "saved" to those who are incapable of experiencing or imagining being "lost"? How will humanity sense the despair of having knowledge without meaning if it’s brains are genetically engineered to feel just fine?
Finally I must point out a consequence of John Archibald Wheeler’s realization that the Universe is pervaded by a "quantum foam" made up of so-called zero-point (or vacuum) oscillations of space-time itself. These oscillations take place on a scale so tiny that sub-atomic particles like protons and neutrons would seem enormous in comparison. Moreover, the intensity of these tiny oscillations is so great that a proton passing by would seem not only large, but insubstantial, like a vast cloud. Indeed, Wheeler and others have hypothesized that sub-atomic particles may be no more that standing patterns of these space-time oscillations. Now if quantum oscillations of empty space-time can be organized into standing patterns that comprise solid matter, might they not also be organized into other, less detectable, standing patterns that support some aspects of our consciousness? If so, then some future science may enable us to manipulate aspects of our souls.
Whether or not this last possibility is ever realized, one thing is certain: in the coming centuries human nature will be subject to unprecedented forces of change. Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of 3001 may have been too timid — people a millennium hence might seem alien to us if we could meet them, and we might seem subhuman to them. How in the midst of such change are we to preserve our human nature? How are we to affirm that we should do so? How shall we even answer the question, "What is our human nature?"
Scientific naturalism can give only trivial answers to the latter question. Human is what carries the human genome. But will we still be human if we change that genome? Scientific naturalism will only be able to ascertain our ability to breed with unaltered humans, if there are any left. To the questions of whether and how to preserve our human nature, scientific naturalism gives no answer at all. Scientific naturalism, which is no more than unaided reason, gives knowledge without meaning, technique without teleology.
Hence we must turn to faith. We take it on faith that we must preserve and build on our essential human-ness, rather than undermine it. We find that, as in the title of the feminist health manual, Our Bodies, Our Selves, what we collectively do to our material bodies, we do to our spiritual selves. The theological-moral debates over sexuality, fertility control, abortion, euthanasia, and execution are the first skirmishes of the gathering battle for human nature. People of faith, both liberal and conservative, must consider their participation in these debates not only in the context of keeping the commandments so as to build a wall around the scriptures, but of using ethics to build a fortress around human nature, a redoubt for the soul.
The core question in all these debates has been, "Is human life an essential good, or only a contingent good, to be discarded under certain circumstances when unwanted?" The value we place on human life ultimately reflects the value we place on human nature. If we devalue a violent criminal so much that we permit ourselves to execute him or her, will we devalue aggression so much that we engineer away part of our drive for achievement? If we devalue our fetuses so much that we perform abortion until the end of pregnancy, will we devalue childhood dependency so much that we engineer away part of our capacity to love?
In these and other debates, people of faith will steer humanity’s voyage into the 3rd millennium. The more conservative will witness against certain kinds of change by preserving traditional ways of being human. They will become God’s sea-anchor to slow humanity’s (and liberal religion’s) tendency to drift toward an abyss of meaninglessness. The more liberal faithful will witness within the changing culture, and become God’s rudder to guide its transformations. They will translate scripture into whatever form is necessary for it to remain a living cultural reality. The future may yet be bright.
For if our future is fraught with risk, it also brings hope. Consider that if people become enabled to exchange their thoughts and sensations, it may be more difficult to harm one’s neighbor. "I feel your pain," may become transformed from a political platitude to an immediate sensation. Thus, if the Word of God ceases to be written in our books, it may be because it will become written on our hearts.