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Posts Tagged ‘reason’

I managed to get a ticket for the very last day of the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum on Sunday.

At one level, the works are extraordinary. To stand in front of a 40,000 year old Lion Man carved in ivory; to see a flute from the same period made from the bone of a griffon vulture, with six carefully spaced holes waiting to be fingered; to pass from one exhibition case to the next, a succession of statues, figurines, etchings, carvings, tools, weapons, most of them with some form of figurative imagery, thousands and thousands of years old. And to think that for some reason it was in this period in Europe that figurative art first developed.

At another level, it’s extraordinarily ordinary. These are images and carvings that could have been created yesterday, in the local art college, or even the local school. They clearly have a huge and unknown symbolic value, but as examples of figurative art they are simply very graceful and well-kept examples of the human urge to represent what is real.

This is what the human mind does. It produces images of what is out there in the real world (an etching of a lion jumping). It forms imaginary creations by playing with these images mentally and combining and recreating them (the head of a lion on the body of a man). It makes tools (a carefully carved stone core), weapons (a small pouch to launch an arrow), and musical instruments (the vulture bone flute). The mind or imagination works symbolically, and this is what allows us to transform the world, because the symbols don’t just stay in the mind – they change how we relate to the world and what we do in and with it.

It’s the lack of distance between then and now that is so extraordinary. If we could meet these ancestors of ours, and have just a few weeks of contact, perhaps just a few days, we would have learnt their language, and they ours, and we would be communicating as neighbours, as brothers and sisters. And yes, we would be working out whether they were friends or enemies, and the whole of human history would unfold once more…

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Fr Philip Miller has an article about Faith and Science in this month’s edition of the Pastoral Review, going over some of the basic history, theology and scientific theory.

Einstein's blackboard

Einstein’s blackboard

In the section on cosmology he writes about the anthropic principle: the way the universe is tuned in such a precise way as to allow the possibility of human life. I’m not sure about this. I’m not saying it’s untrue, I just haven’t done enough to think through whether I find the argument convincing or not.

What speaks to me more is the simple argument from order: that an ordered universe requires some transcendent foundation for its own order (i.e., outside space and time); and that scientific explanation presupposes that the universe can, at least in theory, be explained, and it therefore assumes that the ultimate explanation for the universe has a foundation which is outside the universe itself (at the metaphysical level – that the universe cannot contain the foundation of its own laws; and at the epistemological level – that science cannot justify the foundations of its own scientific principles).

This is how Fr Philip puts it:

The fundamental question remains, for a multiverse just as for a single universe: what is the underlying, unifying cause? The answer is that there must be a necessary being, that is, some sort of ‘God.’ Universes, being complex, law-governed entities, are not simple, and so cannot be metaphysically necessary (since ‘something’ must cause/explain the underlying unity of the complex whole).

Some of Professor Stephen Hawking’s work has been on the nature of the Big Bang, the proposed initial moment of the universe. Some of his more recent hypotheses have been to provide solutions to the complex physics of the early universe that avoid any suggestion that the Big Bang is, in effect, a creation ex nihilo. Hawking’s collaborator, physicist Neil Turok, developed the idea of the ‘instanton’ model of the Big Bang, which has, in simple terms, ‘no beginning.’ And yet, it is highly instructive to note Turok’s own words about their modelling of the universe’s initial expansion phase, termed ‘inflation’:

“Think of inflation as being the dynamite that produced the Big Bang. Our instanton is a sort of self-lighting fuse that ignites inflation. To have our ‘instanton’ you have to have gravity, matter, space and time. Take any one ingredient away and the ‘instanton’ doesn’t exist. But if you have an ‘instanton’ it will instantly turn into an inflating infinite universe.” [Turok, N., commenting online on his own work]

In other words, even in their attempt to define a universe with no beginning, they still have to assume that there is a pre-existing framework of physical laws just sitting there, which the material universe must obey. The universe clearly doesn’t invent its own laws: it requires a law-giver, and that law-giver has to be outside the universe of matter, space and time; it must be spirit, God Himself.

Which raises the child’s question, ‘But who made God?’ To which the answer is: God is not the kind of thing that needs to be made. Or, to put it in the positive: God is precisely that one ‘thing’ that is not made by another thing; God is eternal (outside time), spirit (outside space and matter), simple (outside the complexity of secondary explanations), and necessary (outside the chain of secondary causes).

What do you think?

You can read the full article here.

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It’s Ash Wednesday – another excuse, if any were needed, to post about human origins. After all the festivities of Shrove Tuesday / Mardi Gras, we approach the priest on this first day of Lent to have our foreheads marked with ashes. The traditional words spoken at this point are: ‘Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.’ (The priest standing next to me this morning as we distributed the ashes, a former Carthusian monk of a venerable age, used the Latin phrase that was still lodged in his memory: ‘Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris’.)

I was connecting this with last week’s philosophical anthropology lecture about human origins. Much is still unclear, scientifically, but one of the fascinating discoveries is that human beings who are anatomically modern emerged in pre-history many thousands of years before there is any evidence of characteristically modern human behaviour.

So you can find homo sapiens skeletons from about 200,000 years ago, and in terms of their anatomy there is hardly any difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’. If a crowd of such homo sapiens came towards you on a summer’s afternoon you’d say, ‘Look, there are some human beings’.

Dame de Brassempouy: le visage haut de 3,6 centimètres (reproduction)  by fredpanassac.

The "Dame de Brassempouy", perhaps the first representation of the human face, from about 25,000 years ago

But the evidence for modern human behaviours comes much later, sometime between about 100,000 and 50,000 years ago (we are not sure exactly). Only in this period do we begin to see the cognitive leap that gives us our name (homo sapiens, wise-rational man), so that by the time of our Cro-Magnon ancestors in the upper paleolithic period (about 40,000 years ago to about 10,000 years ago) there is an astounding proliferation of new behaviours. The pattern of intermittent innovation is gone, replaced by revolutionary advances: sophisticated hunting and fishing tools; elaborate architectural designs constructed with mammoth bones; kilns that could bake clay statuettes to 800 degrees Farenheit; decorated bone tools; elaborate burial sites filled with grave goods; the well-known cave art from central France; and – my favourite – a multi-holed bone flute from some 30,000 years ago.

The question is: What happened? And why is there this lag between the emergence of anatomically modern humans and what we think of as modern intelligence and creativity? There are three possibilities: (1) The intelligence was there in potential, but some other factor needed to develop in order for it to be released; (2) the intelligence was working away, gradually, as human culture developed and human wisdom accumulated, and the revolutionary consequences of this would only become apparent, with their archaeological evidence, over a hundred thousand years later; or (3) something else happened to allow the emergence of creatures we would recognise, behaviourally as well as anatomically, as full-blown homo sapiens – people we could call our brothers and sisters.

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World Youth Day 2008 Concert (#458) by Christopher Chan.

World Youth Day - Sydney, 2008

I did a recent post about the religious identity of young Catholics and their desire for a sense of belonging and purpose. John Allen explains how the emergence of a certain brand of ‘evangelical Catholicism’ reflects a broader sociological reality that can be seen across different religions. He draws on the work of the French sociologist Olivier Roy:

It’s not just Catholics passing through an evangelical phase. In fact, the revival of traditional identity and the push to proclaim that identity in public is a defining feature of religion generally in the early 21st century.

In Europe, Roy points to the vigorous defense of the public display of crucifixes by Catholics, the insistence of Muslim women upon wearing veils, and a trend among younger Jewish men to wear the kippah at school and in the workplace. On the Christian side of the ledger, he also includes the massive crowds drawn by the World Youth Days instituted under Pope John Paul II, and the more recent “Christian Pride” festivals organized in some European cities as a self-conscious response to “Gay Pride” rallies. Globally, Roy notes the explosive growth of Evangelical and Pentecostal forms of Christianity, the success of Salafism, Tablighi Jamaat and neo-Sufism within Islam, the comeback of the Lubavich movement inside Judaism, as well as the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India and the popularity of Sri Lankan theravada Buddhism.

Though highly distinct, Roy argues that these evangelical strains within the world’s major religions share certain defining features: “The individualization of faith, anti‐intellectualism, a stress on salvation and realization of the self, [and] rejection of the surrounding culture as pagan.”

One can debate the merits of certain items on that list, but in the main Roy’s observation is indisputable: The reassertion of traditional markers of religious identity, interpreted in a personal and evangelical key, is part of the physiognomy of our times far beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church.

I’m not sure all this works as a description of the sources of renewal I have met within British Catholicism, but there is plenty to think about here.

Interestingly, Roy doesn’t see this as a comeback for religion, but a sign that mainstream religion is becoming more and more detached from the broader cultural and political environment. So it is a sign of the success of secularism.

[It’s] a body blow, or at least a serious challenge, for religions such as Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, which historically have emphasized the integration of religion with cultural, national and ethnic identity. Certainly the heavy losses Catholicism has suffered to Pentecostals in Latin America, and more recently in parts of Africa, seem to lend credence to that view.

But Allen counters that this might be just the moment for Catholics to re-engage with the culture and show the possibility of integrating faith and reason.

One could argue that Catholicism is uniquely positioned to do justice to the legitimate aspiration for identity expressed in today’s evangelical push, while ensuring that it does not become so thoroughly disengaged from, or antagonistic to, the surrounding culture that it ends in the extremist pathologies Roy describes. That seems to be what Benedict XVI has in mind when he talks about contemporary Christianity as a “creative minority” – clear about what makes it different, but aiming to renew the broader culture from within, not forever warring against it.

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Bullying by aeneastudio.I’d heard about these schemes that bring criminals face to face with their victims. I’d never given them much thought.

Gavin Knight writes about the work of David Kennedy, an academic at Harvard who helped to develop Operation Ceasefire in the US. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Boston was gripped by an epidemic of gang-related violence. The instinct of the police and courts was to come down as heavy as possible on those who were caught.

Kennedy suggested a different approach: talk to them; make them think about the reasons for their actions; show them the consequences of their behaviour — for their own lives and for the lives of those they had harmed; and help them to see that deep down they wanted something else, something better.

It’s an Aristotelian approach to moral reasoning: look at the ‘end’, the consequences — above all the consequences for you as a person — and reflect on whether this is what you really want. In the hard-edged context of gang violence it sounds idealistic and even naive. But apparently it worked:

He summoned gang members to face-to-face forums—“call-ins”—which they could be compelled to attend as a condition of parole. The first was in Boston in May 1996, with a second in September that year. In the call-ins, gang members were not treated like psychopaths but rational adults. It was businesslike and civil. The object was explicit moral engagement. They were told what they were doing was causing huge damage to their families and communities and that the violence must stop. The police said that any further violence would result in the whole group being punished. In emotional appeals, members of the community, victims’ relatives and ex-offenders spoke about the consequences of gang violence. And youth workers said that if they wanted out of the gang life they would be given help with jobs, housing, training and addiction problems…

In the call-ins Kennedy aimed to show that the street-code was nonsense. Gang members were challenged about using violence to avenge disrespect. They were told about a drive-by shooting where a 13-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet. “Who thinks it is OK to kill 13-year-old girls?” they were asked. To counter the belief in loyalty they were given examples of gang members fighting among themselves. They were asked: “Will your friends visit you in prison? How long will it take your friends to sleep with your girlfriend when you’re in jail?” One gang member called out: “Two days. And it was my cousin.” One by one, the rules of the street were dismantled…

Ceasefire challenged the orthodoxy of traditional enforcement. It questioned whether enforcement and criminal justice were effective deterrents. Old-school cops were stunned that a group of drugged-out killers could be influenced by moral reasoning. Criminologists were confounded that homicide, a personal crime often committed on impulse, could be stopped simply by asking. It sparked a vigorous discussion amongst academics who could not believe the results.

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John Allen – always worth listening to – thinks that Christians in Europe overemphasize the global significance of secularization [Go to the final section of the article – ‘I was in Spain this week…’].

ze New Atheism by ~C4Chaos.

He agrees that Europe is becoming increasingly secular, but argues that this can hide a more important truth: that the primary challenge facing the Catholic Church outside the West is the diversity and vibrancy of the religious alternatives. It’s worth a long quotation:

Seen exclusively through a European prism, it could perhaps seem as if secularism is the chief, if not the only, pastoral and cultural challenge facing the faith. The truth, however, is that Europe is really the only zone of the world where secularism has an especially large sociological footprint. In the United States, there are influential pockets of secularism among our cultural elites — in the faculty lounges of our universities, for example, and on our newspaper editorial boards — but at the grassroots we remain an intensely religious society. Outside the West, one has to look long and hard to find real secularists.

In most of the rest of the world, the primary pastoral challenge facing Catholicism isn’t secularism but the competitive dynamics of a bustling religious marketplace. In Africa, Asia and Latin America, the main competitors to Catholicism are Christian Pentecostalism, or Islam, or revived forms of indigenous religion. As a result, to craft future strategies for Catholicism based largely on defending ourselves against secularization risks misreading the social situation. Most people in the world, most of the time, aren’t seriously tempted by secular agnosticism, but rather by one or another option on the contemporary spiritual smorgasbord — and that smorgasbord is, therefore, where at least some share of your energy and imagination ought to be directed, not just pondering secularism.

Let me offer one practical implication. To the extent we define secularism as our main problem, Catholicism inevitably ends up looking defensive, forever building walls around a tradition we believe to be under assault. When the term of comparison is no longer secularism, however, but rather some forms of Pentecostalism or Islam, or quasi-magical currents in indigenous belief, that change of context positions Catholicism differently, as an alternative to religious movements that at times veer toward fundamentalism, extremism, or thaumaturgy. The capacity of Catholicism to integrate reason and faith, to uphold tradition while at the same time engaging modernity, emerges with greater clarity.

In other words, given what’s actually on offer in today’s religious marketplace, Catholicism often seems a balanced, moderate, and sophisticated option. For the record, this is how most people on the planet right now actually see the Catholic church, in light of what else they see around them.

That realization ought to have consequences not only for our missionary and pastoral strategies, but also for our own attitudes about the church.

I agree with most of this. But I’d add a few comments: (1) Yes, secularization might be a predominantly Western ‘problem’, but as the influence of Western culture increases (and it seems to be doing so), then so will the global challenge of secularization.

Atheism is... by JohnConnell.(2) Despite my appreciation of the deep faith of many Americans, I think that secularism has spread well beyond the cultural elites of university faculties and newspaper editorial boards and at least into the suburbs.

(3) Allen concludes that the ‘defensive’ form of Catholicism that emerges in opposition to secularism is not an appropriate response to the challenge of fundamentalist religious movements. So globally, as an alternative to these competing forms of religion, the Church needs to show an engagement with modernity and an ability to integrate faith and reason. But in my view, both secularism and religious fundamentalism require a similar response: the call to reason, the invitation to faith, the presentation of the transforming beauty of the tradition, and of the continuing newness of revelation. So I’m not sure if this is the wedge issue that Allen thinks it is.

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Writing is hard – for most of us. I remember reading a biography of the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. Whenever he went on holiday he would take a huge pile of books with him to review. Most days he would get through one of these substantial works and dash off an article of two or three thousand words without notes or pause for thought.

Writing words.. by _StaR_DusT_.

At the other end of the scale is Don DeLillo, one of my favourite novelists. He is so meticulous in the process of writing that he gives every paragraph its own sheet of paper, as if to say: You are important; I’m going to take you seriously; I’m going to give you space to breathe. I’ve always wanted to try it…

I mention all this because I’ve just come across Hugh Trevor-Roper’s ‘Ten Commandments of Good Writing’, a summary of some of the advice the renowned historian would give to his young students to foster their clarity of expression. I’m not sure if it is in copyright or not – the printed copy I have says that it had formerly been circulated only in samizdat. You can see the whole version online here. Here are the first four commandments – and the ones I need to remember most often:

(1) Thou shalt know thine own argument and cleave fast to it, and shalt not digress nor deviate from it without the knowledge and consent of the reader, whom at all times thou shalt lead at a pace which he can follow and by a route which is made clear to him as he goeth.

(2) Thou shalt respect the autonomy of the paragraph, as commanded by the authority and example of the prophet Edward Gibbon, for it is the essential unit in the chain of argument. Therefore thou shalt keep it pure and self-contained, each paragraph having within it a single central point to which all other observations in it shall be exactly subordinated by the proper use of the particles and inflections given to us for this purpose.

(3) Thou shalt aim always at clarity of exposition, to which all other literary aims shall be subordinated, remembering the words of the prophet commandant Black, “clarté prime, longueur secondaire.” To this end thou shalt strive that no sentence be syntactically capable of any unintended meaning, and that no reader be obliged to read any sentence twice to be sure of its true meaning. To this end also thou shalt not fear to repeat thyself, if clarity require it, nor to state facts which thou thinkest as well known to others as to thyself, for it is better to remind the learned than to leave the unlearned in perplexity.

(4) Thou shalt keep the structure of thy sentences clear, preferring short sentences to long and simple structures to complex, lest the reader lose his way in a labyrinth of subordinate clauses; and, in particular, thou shalt not enclose one relative clause in another, for this both betrays crudity of expression and is a fertile source of ambiguity.

And the last one can’t be left out:

(10) Thou shalt carefully expunge from thy writing all consciously written purple passages, lest they rise up to shame thee in thine old age.

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