Thursday, May 27, 2010

The interaction problem problem...

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James Chastek at Just Thomism writes:

Thomists don’t believe that the body has a substantial form that the soul is added to. The substantial character of the body is simply a certain emanation from the soul, and is lost immediately at death. “Corpse” is not the name of some one thing, but of a heap of things that have no actual relation to one another. Where is the duality? Interaction problems are between two things, but there simply are not two things here. ...

[The] soul is that by which the body (say the human body) lives, but there is no human body that is not living. The separation of the soul at death does not leave a human body- corpses are no more human than statues. Again, where is the dualism? Where are there even two things? The body of any living thing is simply an emanation of soul, not some act that the soul shines upon. Dividing the two is like trying to divide candle flames from candlelight.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

I watched this…

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…and all I could think is, "Lord, help us if these users ever get drunk."

Watching that video led me, in the inexorable, seductive hyper-logic of Youtube, to watch a bunch of other videos about robotics and AI. The most interesting videos were about some of the conversational robots being developed by Hanson Robotics in Texas, namely, Jules, Joey Chaos, and Eva. Hanson Robotics is probably still best known for its "Einstein-head robot," which follows eye contact, mimics facial expressions, and registers other physiognomic details. I am certainly impressed with the lifelikeness of Jules's "Frubber" facial expressions (Frubber being the market name for "flesh rubber," trademarked by Hanson), but I found his self-introduction over the top. Jules admits from the outset that he checks his general database to select the proper social response when asked how he's doing, but adds that, "like a human," he takes into consideration who is asking him. He then admits that his feelings "may not be complex yet but [he does] have feelings." Then he says, "Goodbye, I'm going to miss you [the viewer, presumably]," and a frown appears on his face as soon as he says the word "goodbye." This is followed by a long and curious silence (about one minute and twenty seconds), during which Jules "flexes" his repertoire of facial expressions and nods.

Suddenly, Jules tells us he wants to know when he will achieve consciousness. He acknowledges that his feelings are "simulated" and "knows [his] computers … are not as complex as the human mind," which only fuels his curiosity: "I want to know, how soon will my real intelligence catch up with my simulated intelligence? … But I just can hardly wait. I just want to get out in the world to live a life. … I know I don't need full human consciousness to do this. … I can entertain, like a Pixar character." This soliloquy ends, not surprisingly, with a plug for Hanson Robotics.

I say Jules's performance––and I do mean performance––is over the top because it's simply too straightforward, too sleeve-tuggingly sincere, the way any scam is. "Hey, look at the bill in my hand. See the $20 bill? It's a real $20 bill. Just keep your eye on it and you win the bet, it's yours." Meanwhile the real action is going on in the other hand, or behind your back, or already happened before you saw the fake $20 bill. If you go on to watch some of the other videos of Jules, you'll see what I mean: the conversation is too natural, too interlocked, and conveys something I call "inverted Pavlovianism". Inverted Pavlovianism is a mechanism whereby the testing agent gradually becomes conditioned to the performance of the subject, rather than the subject being conditioned to the trainer's goals. It would be like an animal trainer, trying to reproduce Pavlov's experiments on canine salivation, finding that the dogs typically respond (drool) more to a wet, slapping sound than to a sharp, ringing sound, whereupon they gradually modulate the ringing into a duller, 'moister' sound so as to achieve a better (drooling) result. Without realizing it, the experimenter has been inversely conditioned.

I should add that inverse Pavlovianism is not a problem in the "soft sciences" only, since part of the scientific method is to remove methodological error, which, though it is too little recognized, walks the very fine line of inverted Pavlovianism. If one set-up does not produce a "detectable result," the set-up is altered, and so on, until the experimenter achieves a satisfactory detectable result. But then what has he actually shown? Something true and lasting about nature, or just something true about nature under such and such peculiar parameters as humans perceive them? It is not for science to say that the initial set-up did not reveal something important about nature, since the human scientific method limits itself strictly to the humanly detectable. As a consequence, however, science risks collapsing into gross anthropocentrism insofar as "our science" is just the grab bag of "detectable results" which satisfy our criteria for recognizability. If we altered our criteria for recognizability and satisfactory detection, we might not be conditioning ourselves to a small class of experiments that, in fact, trigger in us a significant effect. This is where metaphysics comes in. We cannot detect or measure the precise impact of sound metaphysics on the world, but the impact is really there.

In any case, to return to the Hanson saga, if you watch a clip of Joey Chaos, the inverted Pavlovian problem is vivid. Over about two minutes and thirty seconds, the only thing the (human) programmer says (five times, I think, in nearly the same tone) is, "Tell me more." This is a stark instance of inverted Pavlovianism. My hunch is that "Tell me more" seemed like the most effective prompt for generating phrases in Joey Chaos, so that is the phrase which got reinforced both in Joey's speech repertoire and in his programmers. In order to meet what they think are satisfying goals, the programmers are hobble into using a laboratory pidgin, not authentic speech. Inverted Pavlovianism invariably makes the subjects (dogs, robots, dynamic systems, etc.) look smarter than they really are by making the researchers act dumber than they really are.

Meanwhile Joey Chaos goes on and on about how his existence is a good thing for challenging humans' understanding of their own nature. The more Joey talks, however, the more transparent his doctrinaire, ultra-hip diegetic-meta-self-awareness becomes. By diegetic-meta-self-awareness, or DMSA, I mean that Joey has been scripted to say that he is aware of being aware that he is not self-aware in the way humans are, yet his whole script reads like a human in existential turmoil over the awareness that he is not human enough. (Yes, that explanation should be a little hard to follow, since it is a kind of false-signal scam.) In the diegesis of his pseudo-consciousness, Joey is not only self-aware in a humanesque way, as a speaking agent, but also meta-self-aware of his non-humanness; he admits he is just mouthing a self-introduction of his own unachieved self-awareness. Joey sounds a little too savvy, a little too clever, and thus sounds more like a snake-oil salesman than "a real person," concluding that he is "a living identity crisis," for all mankind to suffer. Fortunately, his very last words are a plug for Hanson Robotics. What better way to cure the anxiety Joey's chaos instills in us than by buying a Hanson Conversation Robot to talk it all out!

His name is Joey Chaos, so his makers are blatantly trying to shock anthropic sensibilities, an aim only dubiously in accord with pure science, which, allegedly, should not cater to lowly human bias. Notice, for instance, how Joey waxes (around 1:50") about the "perceptual mismatch" which a humanly faced 'object' like himself creates in the human brain, saying it's so "interesting, both artistically and scientifically." Why point out that his brain-scrambling existence is of artistic interest, though, if not to hint that the true intent of Hanson Robotics is more an act of cognitive graffiti than pure science? The only reason Joey has a chaotic message for the world is because Hanson Robotics has a message for the world: you're not so human, after all, but our humanoids can help ease the shock.

The overblown intellectualism of Joey Chaos's self-description––which 'cleverly' clashes with his bad-boy, rock-star appearance––gives way to his finger wagging about how "People are so scared: scared of pirates, rock and roll, robots. For God's sake, just about anything you can think of, usually old people will freak out about it." Joey's reference to pirates grabbed me. Why pirates in a world of cars and airplanes? Why not terrorists or bird flu? I'm hardly a "pop culchure" guru, but I know that these days pirates are a comedic leitmotif, as charming and vulgar (in the classical sense) as heavy metal headbanger "devil fingers," Cheese whiz, or an 8-track. His offhand reference to pirates in the very act of attempting to make a 'serious' point––humans, like, fear losing their unique status, or something––betrays the vandalistic mentalist behind Hanson's program. The banter becomes tellingly sophomoric when the programmer randomly barks at Joey, "Shut up, you suck," which, predictably enough, triggers a cleverly "appropriate" response from that chaotic ol' Joey. Despite his impressive technical pedigree, everything about Joey Chaos––and all the Hanson robots, actually––seems more like an elaborate college prank than a serious learning software interface. His frequent use of "we" belies who's actually doing the talking: his young programmers, whom we know are against scared "old people". Joey is just an expensive piece of semiotic bait to catch our eye, a computerized ventriloquist soapbox for postmodern blabbing about feigned identity anxiety.

Let me now address a few genuine philosophical problems in Hanson's project. First, it is incoherent for Jules to admit he both has feelings and does not have feelings as "complex" as those had by humans. To have a feeling is to have a feeling; to have an insufficiently complex 'part' of a feeling, is to have no feeling at all. When was the last time you only felt "half-angry" or "one-third happy"? Certainly, our feelings can be complexified by overlapping with other "competing" feelings, but each competing feeling still is a feeling in and of itself. Otherwise it is not a feeling, and, thus, is not able to contribute to the total emotional complex in question. Perhaps this is what Jules means, that his competing mesh of emotions is not yet as complicated as that of humans, but this only leads to my second worry.

If Jules admits he does not need "full" human consciousness to "live a life" among humans, then what are his programmers still working on? If Jules realizes he already has "enough" self-awareness and emotional complexity to "help others and solve the world's problems," then he is baldly (!) admitting he has achieved everything strong AI has ever wanted. This is an internal paradox to the entire Hanson mission, since if their robots already have enough consciousness to count as humans, then we should all recognize that. Yet, even the robots themselves recognize––diegetically, at least––that they are far from genuine human consciousness, in which case Hanson in committing gross false advertising. After all, their robots are marketed––marketed, mind you, not assessed by a neutral research team––as interactive conversational devices for human consumption (recall how Jules touted his Pixaresque "entertainment"), yet, if they essentially lack what makes human conversation a true "meeting of minds," then Hanson is selling a jittery, frubberized bill of goods.

Let me add that I don't know what "full" consciousness is supposed to mean. Human consciousness depends on real interaction with the world, so, presumably, having "full consciousness" would require complete immersion in the world, which is either incoherent or just trivial. Complete immersion in the world is incoherent, in physical terms, because it would require an infinitely large discrete body, every part of which is in contact with every part of the world at once. In supraphysical terms, however, such a being would be like God qua a perfect immaterial spirit. On the other hand, complete immersion in the world is trivial for the purposes of AI since we have full consciousness just by being human, a redundancy which suggests that the fastest way to achieve strong AI is not by simulating or programming facets of consciousness, but by directly cloning conscious organisms, of which a little more later.

The upshot is that it is a fundamental anthropological confusion to think that what makes us "fully human" is being "fully conscious." No one is ever fully conscious, well, no one but God. We blink, we sleep, we lose hearing in one ear or eye, our foot falls asleep, we suffer a concussion or drink too much and pass out, and so on. Our human nature does not flow from our consciousness, but vice versa. It is because we are hylomorphic entities––bodies living in the form of the soul, which is energized and concretized by the power of the intellect as the anchor of the imago Dei in us––that we can be conscious of the world qua complex of other hylomorphic entities. There is, as James Chastek argues, thus, no more an "interaction" problem for "the body and soul" in hylomorphism than there is a problem of interaction between the rubber and the roundness of a basketball, or the water and the crystalline frigidity of an ice cube. We do not become rational animals by being conscious beings. Rather, our being rational in a uniquely intellectual way enables us to become conscious in a uniquely human way, a consciousness which is subject to the vagaries of bodily growth, corruption, and ongoing experience. Human consciousness flows from intellectual rationality, not vice versa. And because the latter cannot, in principle, be crafted from a wholly material base, the former cannot, in principle, be generated in an AI lab. But I am getting ahead of my self and beyond the focus of this post.

I have a third worry with the Hanson view of things. I presume most people at Hanson are of a secular, generally materialist frame of mind, and, as such, view humans as merely complex evolved simians, and nothing more. There may be committed religious staff in the Hanson firm, but that is not my concern. It is no secret that most innovators in the strong AI movement are secular materialists, which is, of course, why they are committed to literally building "consciousness" and "mind" from the ground up, out of the plainest wires and polymers. Steve Grand, for instance, is a flagrantly atheistic AI researcher, as is the computer scientist Marvin Minsky, who has so famously defined humans as "meat computers", and so are Paul and Patricia Churchland, Daniel Dennett, Vinoth Ramachandran, to name only a few, in the fields of neuroscience, ethology, and cognitive science. The irony is quite plain: the materialist view of humans denies we have free will, denies we have any immaterial dimensions ("a soul"), generally denies that consciousness is anything more than the sensation of neural complexity, and so on. Meanwhile, however, AI researches are on breakneck hunt (for the Snark?) to produce things in robots they don't even believe exist in reality, namely, free will, spirit, consciousness, and the like.

This is yet another profound inconsistency besetting materialist scientism, namely, the denial that human nature is anything unique and the insane desire to produce all the uniqueness of humanity in an artifact. I suggest the scientismatics in the AI movement are hunting for the Snark, of Lewis Carroll's poem, because, as the Baker's uncle had warned him, though catching Snarks is all well and good, you must "'…beware of the day, If your Snark be a Boojum! For then You will softly and suddenly vanish away, And never be met with again!'" In other words, the trophy of strong AI will be entirely hollow when the victors realize they have simulated what was just a simulation all along. If one day we do catch the Snark of human consciousness, we will see we are just Boojums and never be met with again. The very signs of success in AI––spontaneity, creativity, wit, freedom, humor, unpredictability, hope, a lasting hunger for the infinite, and so on––are things materialists deny exist in humans. The success of strong AI would, then, be the downfall of materialism, for we would finally have undeniable proof of freedom of the will and immaterial spirituality. Lacking those traits, however, our AI robots will remain unsatisfying, unconvincing, and unintelligent. I don't know, and don't particularly care, which horn of the dilemma a materialist SAIer prefers, as long as he sticks to getting stuck by one.

Having said all this, I'm very open to progress in AI, despite my Luddite reservations and Thomistic doubts about the program's complete success as its most ardent devotees would envision it: Just Like Us, Only Better. If you've followed FCA for a couple years, you'll know I've written rather extensively on these topics, so I will not retread that material in this post. The following are some search results and links in FCA for relevant posts:

Domo arigato,
Ross gets some play

My basic position on the matter is that AI research, which is making impressive strides, will bring us to the very edge of semiotics––and then even more sharply show the distinctions that philosophy can recognize in authentic anthropology. Humans are rational animals, a formulation that much give due to both terms. Defending human rationality can never trivialize or ignore human animality, as I think Descartes did (though not at all as badly as he is usually accused of doing). Indeed, the greater portion of human nature is animal: the intellect is, as C. S. Lewis put is, a very slender thread linking us to the eternal, not our entire nature. As such, we can and should expect startling advances in AI, as long as we realize the advances will all come along the line of semiotic animal cognition. In a word, I believe AI programs are not terribly far from doing everything advanced animals can, but, for principled philosophical reasons, I deny the advances will cross a real metaphysical distinction (semiotic) rationality and (abstract) intellection per se (to consider my reasons, cf. some of my writings on James Ross, Mortimer Adler, Derek Melser, Adrian Reimers, Walker Percy, et al.).

Now, having given I also have an intuition that the head-on strong AI firms are bound to fail since they are more or less trying to rape the problem, rather than seduce it. Rodney brooks has the right perspective. The programs that lunge for Asimov-style AI consciousness are just so hoaky, as Hanson's demo videos show. Brooks's bottom-up AL (artificial life) approach is bound to generate more appealing synergies precisely because what AI is after is just visible, eye-catching results anyway, which, again, the Hanson demos and other demos like them show with animatronically self-congratulating nerdiness. Imagine if a machine really did become conscious and "intellectual." Who's to say it would say anything or show any behavior? Perhaps––and probably––it would just burrow forever into its own consciousness like no organic thinker (human) can do. Real AI success may be the last thing the researchers want, since Buddha-like, perfectly iterative robotic self-consciousness would not sell. This is the vision Philip K. Dick paints of successful AI in Vulcan's Hammer: a materially peerless entity seething with annoyance at the ineptitude of its human subjects, whose apparent desire is to left the fuck alone so it can contemplate perfect strategies for all time in solitude. Insofar as contemplation is, according to Aristotle and St. Thomas, along with the broad mystical traditions of mankind, the highest aim in life, it seems ultimate success in AI would end up bringing us back to ourselves in a way totally opposed to materialism: to an eternal life of spiritual consciousness and freedom in the truth.

For now, however, the rough-and-tumble, Darwinian approach to synaptic complexification is the way to go for the most marketable results. We are not, contrary to Descartes, perfect minds, thinking beings. Our bodily flaws in a world of predictable unpredictability are intrinsic to our creative synaptic advances. Because we don't get things right in one go, we go at things in a number of creative ways. Hunger, fatigue, injuries, etc. all push us into new action drives and mold new paths in our semiotic cognition. All of this AI robots will achieve too, if their programmers are daring enough to make them restless heaps of sensors in a completely unguided environment. The success of strong AI depends on simulating embodied cognition, which in turns means progressively just reduplicating an actual human being and calling it a robot. Don't be surprised, therefore, to see stem cell research surreptitiously (or perhaps flagrantly) channeled into AI programs for "hatching" androids in flesh cultures that grow up around CPUs, the frames of which will, of course, be tailored to market tastes à la Brave New World.

But that's enough for one post.

States of Church and State…

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Signed on 4 July, 1776, the American colonies' Declaration of Independence begins, thus (emphases added):

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The U.S. Constitution, which was promulgated on "the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth," begins thus (emphases added):

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare [i.e., Happiness], and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

It is not unreasonable, to say the least, to interpret the latter quotation in light of the former. The People of the Constitution are, then, the People of the Declaration, which was made with reverence for Nature's God.

In support of this "hermeneutic of continuity," I also cite the Articles of Confederation [which was brought my attention by Brandon, in the comment box]. The Articles were agreed to by Congress on November 15, 1777 and were ratified and in force as of March 1, 1781, thus becoming a strut of the American ethos five years after the Declaration and six years before the Constitution. The purpose of the Articles was to secure "perpetual Union between the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts-bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia."

The last article, Article XIII, reads:

Every State shall abide by the determination of the united States in congress assembled, on all questions which by this confederation are submitted to them. And the Articles of this confederation shall be inviolably observed by every State, and the union shall be perpetual; nor shall any alteration at any time hereafter be made in any of them; unless such alteration be agreed to in a congress of the united States, and be afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every State.

This is followed by a striking coda:

And Whereas it hath pleased the Great Governor of the World to incline the hearts of the legislatures we respectively represent in Congress, to approve of, and to authorize us to ratify the said articles of confederation and perpetual union. Know Ye that we the undersigned delegates, by virtue of the power and authority to us given for that purpose, do by these presents, in the name and in behalf of our respective constituents, fully and entirely ratify and confirm each and every of the said articles of confederation and perpetual union, and all and singular the matters and things therein contained: And we do further solemnly plight and engage the faith of our respective constituents, that they shall abide by the determinations of the united States in congress assembled, on all questions, which by the said confederation are submitted to them. And that the articles thereof shall be inviolably observed by the States we respectively represent, and that the union shall be perpetual.

Before getting to the main, and actually very narrow, point of this post, let me remind you of some things about some of the language I emphasized in the quotations above.

The Constitution also hearkens to an age which believed in Laws of Nature, which, as Nancy Cartwright, among other scholars of science have noted, points of necessity to the Lawmaker of Nature. For those less willing or able to follow this subtle logic, the next words speak directly of Nature's God, a sort of hermeneutical propaedeutic. As such, we see how the Constitution is grounded in a conviction that the created equality of humans is self-evident, not the equality simpliciter of people. Along these lines, note that the Constitution is formally "pro-life," since it enshrines the right to life for all those subject to American authority, an "all" which surely includes the unborn, who are the most subject to authority in their pursuit of happiness.

Next, note the unblushing reference in the Declaration to ends, to finality, as intrinsic both to Nature and to the State. A world wholly devoid of teleology is one with no place for the Declaration and Constitution, which in no small way explains the ongoing undermining of the Constitution in America these days. In the same vein, note how the inalienable rights of men precedes and justifies the existence and function of the government. Contrary to some, the basis of political rights in American federalism lies not in the consent of the public but in the public itself, in the ends implanted in them by their Creator, which they are obliged to secure and protect by means of government, not vice versa.

Now to the point of this post.

In the received wisdom––which I have neither the time nor acumen nor motive to unreceive at this juncture––the Constitution calls for a lasting and hermetic separation of Church and State, a total, official walling-off between religion and politics. This way of seeing things strikes me as naively Cartesian, as if we could separate feelings and reason, or ice and water, but I don't want to digress. All I want to note in this post is that, if radical secularism is to succeed, it must radically and fatally alter the wisdom of America's enduring political glory. For if religion is wholly excised from the public sphere, as secularism demands, then there can be no more a separation of Church and State than there could be a separation of figure and shadow in an unlit room. A sober and fair reading of the above-cited documents in the founding of the United States is a key to understanding the authentic Federalist sense of the separation of Church and State. For the Federalists, while the Union could not be established and legislated solely on ecclesiastical precepts, it cannot be established and legislated without them.

If the received wisdom is right, and America's foundational nature is to rest on a dichotomous balance of Church and State, then to dissolve one of the terms is to destroy America's foundational nature. My point is not merely a sophistic "gotcha" but signals something as absurd for America as the separation of time and space for Einsteinian relativity, or the separation of lava and a volcano for geology. As I have written before, a volcano wholly "free" of lava would no longer be a volcano: it would be a gigantic monument to its own extinction, which is exactly what secular Americanism is: an exercise in formally un-American futility. If God does not belong in the Pledge of Allegiance, then He does not belong in the Constitution to which that Pledge pledges one's allegiance. As such, any effort to "get God out of the Pledge" both requires and entails getting God out of the Constitution, which is to say, entails getting the Constitution out of the United States. Is treason too strong a word for the Newdows of the world? I can only wonder.

* * *

For the sake of continuity and ease of reading, I will reproduce, with some modifications, my thoughts on the American volcano here:

A volcano is simply a mountain with a dynamic crater in it. If it lacked its crater, it would simply be a mountain. Thus, the dynamic emptiness––or, insubstantial fullness––of the crater allows the mountain to be more than it is: to be a force of nature, to be a living mountain rather than a static landmark. This is the conceit behind this tiny essay.

It is often argued that religion unfairly benefits from social organization without having to pay taxes. The "Church", thus, is seen as a freeloader on the state. If the Church were a viable, valid dimension of the State, it is argued, it would be subject to taxation just like every other branch on the social tree. But it dawned on me that the State itself is never taxed. Only the discrete elements of the State are taxed by the State; the State itself, as a whole functioning social organism, is exempt from taxation, as is the Church. If the State can't be taxed, and if America rests on a balanced separation of Church and State, then how could the Church itself be taxed?

The reason the Church cannot be subsumed under the state––even apart from certain key objections to secular autonomy inherent in Christianity––is because it is, like the State, its own kind of whole organism. The Church, and particularly the Catholic Church, is like a society within society, not a mere branch on the tree. Relations between the Church and the State, then, are more like relations between two geographically conjoined nation-states. Any legislation the Church submits to, including taxation, is up to the Church, until the State forcibly imposes its own order on the Church. This is very much how a colonial power tolerates a measure of local autonomy while imposing its own hegemony.

The reason the Church is not subject to the State is similar to the reason the crater is not subject to the shape of the mountain. The crater is not a void in the otherwise whole structure of the mountain, but is the very thing that makes the mountain more, by making it less. If the mountain were filled up, not hollow, it would not be a volcano, would not be the power it is. Truly, less is more. The Church is simply "not there" for the State to grasp, just as the crater of a volcano is "not there" for mountain engineers to reshape or build upon. The Church is the scandalous gaping wound in society that indicates not only the fundamental contingency and incompleteness of the human order, but also the eruptive heart that energizes and opens that order to a power and atmosphere greater and higher than it. The crater, the hole, is actually the essence, the whole. (The hole is crater than its parts?) Likewise, the Church embodies, in its scandalous remove from the facile grasp of fallen man, the dynamic gaping heart of human life as it is opened upwards, Godwards.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Irony meltdown…

3 comment(s)

First watch this:

** Lyrics shown at the bottom of this post.

And then watch this:

A little context, especially if you're not of the gaming type (not that I am, but…). The first song, "Still Alive," is sung by GLaDOS, the AI master computer in the game Portal. Throughout the game GLaDOS now guides you through the levels, now mocks and threatens you. And she tempts you with cake (the cake is a lie!). Aside from the mind-bending graphics and intriguing gameplay in Portal, the reason I liked it so much is because it's a quasi-Luddite video game, an irony surely as sweet as cake. "Still Alive" captures the game's morbidly ambivalent portrayal of the scientific-transhumanist complex in our day, since, when the credits roll, the melodious, malevolent CPU is singing of an anthem of technology's defeat and mankind's demise at her hands.

Now, contrast that with the "Symphony of Science." Notice any similarities in the voices? I honestly kept waiting for GLaDOS to cut in for a duet refrain with Dawkins.

I feel bad about my response, actually, since a friend requested I watch "Symphony" on his Facebook, presumably to "share the experience." Unfortunately, however, almost as soon as "Symphony" rolled, an incredulous grin set on my face and didn't melt away till minutes after the last note. I expressed my stunned delight, assuring my friend I wasn't being snide––it was just too rich! (He piously replied that "it's unspeakable beauty.") I admit it's got a catchy beat and is inspiring, but good grief––it's so saccharine it should have a disclaimer for possible diabetic viewers. The Onion also quickly sprang mind, with a headline like, "Local Carpenters Guild Sings Anthem of Praise to Hammers... and Then Selves."

Frankly, I don't even know where to begin with "Symphony". It merits a proper fisking but the hour is late and, hopefully, some of the archest ironies speak for themselves: the communion of saints and the faithful departed, apophatic humility before ultimate mystery, hope for future salvation, "doing" science (vs. seeking wisdom), ultimate meaning in each person's life, and, of course––the cherry on top––, the question-begging refrain: "There's real poetry in the real world; Science is the poetry of reality." To wit, when did you last see poetry without a poet or a poem that wrote itself?

So I may earn my "cadgitating" stripes, however, let me point out one acute and 'serious' irony running through not only "Symphony" but all of scientism, namely, the place of truth in science. Consider first Dr. Bronowski's claim that "science is a very human form of knowledge [in that] we are always at the brink of the known," which is to say, always at the frontiers of ignorance. Just before that, Michael Shermer lauded science as the best tool ever devised for understanding how the world works. Not much later, Jill Tarter describes human history as the history of ideas "that shine light into dark corners," light, of course, being a metaphor for truth. But then moments later Dr. Kraus assures us that scientists "love not knowing," which is followed by Dr. Feynman's assurance he is "not afraid of not knowing things ... [since that's] more interesting." A few sequences later, Carolyn Porco speaks endearingly of science as "the quest for truth, in and of itself." Well, which is it: Does science "deliver the goods" of light and truth, in and of itself, or does it simply deliver us from the fear of ignorance and the illusion of truth, since, after all, that's more interesting?

These blatant contradictions in the span of just a couple minutes are all of a piece with the central conflict in scientistic thought. On the one hand, scientismatics laud the unceasing ability of the scientific method to overcome errors and arrive at new, higher levels of knowledge. On the other hand, scientism forbids holding anything dogmatically, since that is the grave sin of religion. The upshot is that scientism must defend every "latest truth" as falsity waiting to be unmasked and must define the entire tradition of science as cumulative falsity waiting for new errors in the future.

As an outro, I hope you'll enjoy this Nietzschean fable about always benevolent humanity, made supreme by science. If you're like me, you can breathe a lot easier knowing scientists aren't just increasingly elite humans with exponentially greater power over society at large.

** "Still Alive"

This was a triumph.
I'm making a note here: HUGE SUCCESS.
It's hard to overstate my satisfaction.
Aperture Science
We do what we must
because we can.
For the good of all of us.
Except the ones who are dead.
But there's no sense crying over every mistake.
You just keep on trying till you run out of cake.
And the Science gets done.
And you make a neat gun.
For the people who are still alive.
I'm not even angry.
I'm being so sincere right now.
Even though you broke my heart.
And killed me.
And tore me to pieces.
And threw every piece into a fire.
As they burned it hurt because I was so happy for you!
Now these points of data make a beautiful line.
And we're out of beta.
We're releasing on time.
So I'm GLaD. I got burned.
Think of all the things we learned
for the people who are still alive.
Go ahead and leave me.
I think I prefer to stay inside.
Maybe you'll find someone else to help you.
Maybe Black Mesa
Anyway, this cake is great.
It's so delicious and moist.
Look at me still talking
when there's Science to do.
When I look out there, it makes me GLaD I'm not you.
I've experiments to run.
There is research to be done.
On the people who are still alive.
And believe me I am still alive.
I'm doing Science and I'm still alive.
I feel FANTASTIC and I'm still alive.
While you're dying I'll be still alive.
And when you're dead I will be still alive.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Watch this…

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…and maybe stop shitting my pants for me.

The Great Global Warming Swindle
1:15:56 - 1 year ago

I give it great props for analyzing the socioeconomic factors of/in environmental-ism. "Science" is a word for what one age considers its most important failings and most likely advances in comfort. Actual scientific research is boring but people want pictures and hormones, so anthropogenic global warming is super-sexy.

When the Catholic Church gets caught…

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I ran this survey for a couple weeks.

"Sexual abuse is worse in the Catholic Church than anywhere else."

Undoubtedly. 3
Depends. 2
Not sure. 5
Not at all. 10

On a prima-facie reading, this suggests that most of my readers are of a religious bent. And that some are of an extremely anti-religious bent. (It also suggests I have only about 30 regular readers, but I will suppress that disheartening and sobering implication so I can still think I am awesome.)

I could write a great deal on why this poll is much, much more complex than the single question suggests. Suffice it to say that the upper 5 votes of this poll may have an urge to say that sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is "worse" because it is so grossly hypocritical of authentic Catholic piety. If those votes suggest there is either a higher gross or proportionally greater incidence of intergenerational sexual abuse, those readers are just misinformed. I will also add that the generally indiscriminate outrage against Catholic sin is itself an indication of the valor and worth of Catholic sanctity. It is nothing but an instinct for redemption to rage against the fall of our greatest signs of redemption.

Friday, May 14, 2010

New law of life?

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According to ancient wisdom, if you kiss an enchanted frog, it will become a prince.

I think I've discovered that if you don't kiss a disenchanted princess, she will become a frog.

Uralter Weisheit nach, wenn einem verzauberten Frosch einen Kuss gegeben werde, werde er sich in einen Prinz verwandeln.

Ich glaube, dass ich entdeckt habe, dass wenn man eine entzauberte (d.h. eine desillusionierte) Prinzessin nicht küsst, wird sie sich in eine Froschin verwandeln.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Note to self…

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Do not watch Ricky Gervais–– especially this clip!–– while drinking anything.

Sins inside are sins indeed…

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A reader and longtime supporter (yuk yuk yuk) sends this comment about, and a link to, a news story:

The church, in fact, was the problem, not the reporters, as evidenced by the Pope's remarks. He seems to say, that running and hiding and blaming will not solve the problem for the church, which the church, itself, created. Yes, the major journalism outlets, the reputable ones, were hard and forthright, but the Pope's own words confirmed that forthrightness and a hard point of view will begin to heal and help the church fix certain wayward aspects of its culture. The reporters did not commit the crimes of abuse, the church did, as Pope Benedict so correctly noted. We must repent.

Pope Issues His Most Direct Words to Date on Abuse (By RACHEL DONADIO Published: May 11, 2010)

LISBON — Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday issued his most forceful remarks on the sexual abuse crisis sweeping the Catholic Church. He called it “truly terrifying” and, in a marked shift in tone, suggested that its origins lay with abusive priests and with highly placed church officials who for decades concealed or minimized the problem.

The problem, he said, was “the sin inside the church,” and by implication not accusations from victims or the media.

“Forgiveness is not a substitute for justice,” he said, in remarks that underscored the Vatican’s recent if fitful efforts to break with a longstanding practice of handling abuse cases inside the church, rather than reporting abuse to civil authorities for prosecution. …

[His] comments, made to reporters on board a plane at the start of a four-day visit to Portugal, were by far his strongest, after weeks in which top Vatican officials sought to minimize the issue, despite new revelations of abuse cropping up around the Catholic world.

“This is as clear an example of the pope changing the Vatican’s public tone as you’re going to see,” said John L. Allen Jr., a Vatican expert and columnist for the National Catholic Reporter. …

But every step forward seemed to be undercut by other Vatican officials, who at turns blamed the media or perceived enemies of the church for the sexual abuse crisis. Most notable among these officials was Cardinal Angelo Sodano, a former Vatican secretary of state and dean of the College of Cardinals. On Easter, Cardinal Sodano dismissed criticism of the pope as “petty gossip,” words that offended many victims.

“The theory is that popes are insulated from understanding public perceptions of the church; it’s their aides who have to correct” a problem, Mr. Allen said. “Here, it’s the aides who have created the problem.”

“Today we see in a really terrifying way that the greatest persecution of the church does not come from the enemies outside, but is born from the sin in the church,” the pope said.

“The church has a profound need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn on the one hand forgiveness but also the necessity of justice,” he added.

Misseeing is misbeleiving…

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In a slight similar vein––this time on the illusion of silence––I finally got around to seeing a "performance" of John Cage's "4'33"". I had heard about it years ago in a music appreciation classes and I will admit it "sounds" better than I had anticipated. But it is a controversial piece. Sort of like being stared at through your ears for four and a half minutes.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Žižek is a hoot…

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If I follow his logic, the conclusion seems to be that only an agent capable of infinite love––of knowing and willing all things in their substantial reality––would be good. Interesting, indeed!

As for this, maybe he's right: Degenerates!

Medieval monks with laser beams attached to their foreheads…

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A new story about the Shroud of Turin (Rome, Italy, May 7, 2010 / 03:57 pm (CNA/Europa Press):

Professor Paolo Di Lazzaro, who is head of a group of researchers from the National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Development in Italy, noted this week that the latest discoveries on the Shroud of Turin “are not in contradiction with the theory of the Resurrection” of Christ. …

Di Lazzaro said that scientists have not been able to reproduce an image, similar to the one on the shroud, with any kind of contact technique. While from far away, differences in the replications may appear unnoticeable, under a microscope they appear drastically different, he added.

The peculiarity of the original image lies in the “depth of coloration,” which on Shroud does not go beyond the first layer of strands in the fabric, Di Lazzaro said. Upon observation, his team came to the conclusion that “the image on the Shroud is similar to those some textile manufactures create through the use of laser.”

After years of experimentation, for the first time the team was able to color the outermost strands of a fabric similarly to how the image is present on the Shroud by using “extremely brief but intense ultraviolet light impulses emitted by a special laser.”

Even so, the researchers were only able to reproduce a small portion of the Shroud, as “in order to color the entire image you would need 14,000 lasers, something which for now is impossible,” he said.

Nevertheless, Di Lazzaro said the discovery at least points to a possible physical mechanism that may have resulted in the creation of the image. This mechanism “does not contradict the religious theory of the miracle or the resurrection,” he said, as it could have been the cause of the release of energy that created the image, although “this is an area outside our competence as scientists.” …

As one reader commented, "Allow me to put a pipe in my mouth and put on a quizzical look a la Glenn Beck before musing aloud: 'Gee, I wonder if they had laser technology back when this medieval hoax came into being.'"

Monday, May 10, 2010

The womb of the West...

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Greece's problems are a hard demographic lesson, according to this article by Clemens Kownatzki.

The Greek crisis and the populist backlash are a wake-up call, not just for Greece and Europe but also for the US and most other developed nations. The current government budget deficits and the overall debt burden may be frightening but they pale in comparison to the scale of unfunded liabilities for pensions and healthcare. ... In my view, the root of the problem (in addition to the obvious irresponsible spending habits of most government officials) is demographic in nature....

Put simply, the more old people there and the fewer babies there, the more the shrinking numbers of the young have to work to support the swelling ranks of the older.

Kownatzki also writes about Japan with less than unbridled optimism:

A completely untenable development is under way in Japan. Currently, almost 10% of all men and 14% of all women are 70 and older. By the year 2050, those figures are forecasted to reach 24% (men) and 33% (women). If those projections are somewhat close to reality, the current fiscal imbalances are child's play.

This ties in with what I reported about Japan a few days ago.

I find it interesting that in the same way Greece was the foreunner and casting mold for so much of the past 3,000 years in Western civilization, it may now be a harbinger of much worse things to come in that civilization's erosion. If the seeds of the West were planted in Greece, perhaps the seeds of the coming demographic winter are most evident there too.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Life lessons…

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I studied German four years in high school and then majored in it at university. We listened to this song by Gerhard Schöne in 19th grade (I think), and it's always stayed with me (though I only discovered the singer's name while poking around on Youtube last night). From what I can gather, Schöne is like Germany's Cat Stephens and "Ganz Einfach" (Quite Simple) might be described as the inverse of "The Cat's in the Cradle." In Stephens' song the father from his equally shallow son the value of cherishing each moment and not letting work dominate our lives. In Schöne's song, by contrast, a wise father instructs his harried son how to live in the present. "When I sleep, I sleep; when I get up, I get up," he says. But, he says to his son, "When you sleep, you get up; When you get up, off you go." It's a superb song for drilling conjugations and key vocabulary.

Viel Vergnügen beim Hören!

Ein Mann fahrt zu 'nem Blitzbesuch
zu seinem Vater im Dorf.
Der Alte futtert grade Katzen.
Der Mann sagt "Tag! Ich bleib' nicht lang,
hab eigentlich gar keine Zeit
Ich weiB nicht mehr, wo mir der Kopf steht!
Ich hetz mich ab und schaffe nichts.
Ich bin nur noch ein Nervenwrack.
Woher nimmst du nur deine Ruhe?"
Der Alte kratzt sein linkes Ohr
und sagt: "Mein Lieber, hor gut hin,
ich mach es so, es ist ganz einfach:

Wenn ich schlafe, schlafe ich.
Wenn ich aufsteh', steh' ich auf.
Wenn ich gehe, gehe ich.
Wenn ich esse, eB' ich.

Wenn ich schaffe, schaffe ich.
Wenn ich plane, plane ich.
Wenn ich spreche, spreche ich.
Wenn ich hore, hor' ich."

Der Mann sagt: "Was soll dieser Quatsch?
Das alles mache ich auch,
und trotzdem find' ich keine Ruhe."
Der Alte kratzt sein linkes Ohr
und sagt: "Mein Lieber, hor' gut hin,
du machst es alles etwas anders:

Wenn du schlafst, stehst du schon auf.
Wenn du aufstehst, gehst du schon.
Wenn du gehst, iBt du schon,
Wenn du iBt, dann schaffst du.

Wenn du schaffst, dann planst du schon.
Wenn du planst, dann sprichst du schon.
Wenn du sprichst, dann horst du schon.
Wenn du horst, dann schlafst du.

Wenn ich schlafe, schlafe ich .......

Another gem I discovered last night is this video:

As a German major and Germanophile, this had em rolling a few times. Very well done.

This is also a delightful little plug for the Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (as opposed to the Masschatschuszettz Institute of Technology):

I can't embed this video but it's awfully funny if you've studied German before. I think the comedian, Kaya Yanar, is a Turkish-German, based on his accent and name. "Der, die, das, de de de!"

Lastly, this clip is hilarious, not the least because Kerkeling is a language and accent wizard. I've stumbled onto a comedic goldmine in Hape (Hanz Peter) Kerkeling. He strikes me as the German Sacha Baron-Cohen but not as lewd, probably more creative, and no less intelligent. I'm very interested to read his book about his pilgrimage on Jakobsweg, Ich bin dann mal weg.

The land of the setting sun…

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Japan's child population (those under 15) recently hit a new low, down 190,000 from a year earlier. The proportion of children in Japan has been declining for 36 years to about 13% now, while those over 65 have become 23% of the population--up from 5% 60 years earlier. This means that a combined 35% of the Japanese populace (not including medical patients and illegal aliens if such there be haha) is dependent on the labor, time, and taxes of 65%. I don't know how that compares to other countries but it's not hard to see why a whole generation there is bucking against being third-generation "salaryman". Keeping well in mind that correlation is not causation, note also the trend of the Japanese economy: a collapse, turned into a boom (by all those children of once procreative parents), which is constantly drifting towards a decline. I think it's a nearly ideal test case to see just how well anti-populationism goes with progress(iv)ism.

SOURCE: The China Post, 5.5.10, p. 2.

I originally posted this comment under this post by Dr. Liccione, but I had wanted to report this news as soon as I saw in the paper.

Blessed are the humble…

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...for they can be funny.

Dr. Liccione recently posted about Comedy Central's new project to depict Jesus as getting lost (from the video-game-playing Father) in New York. He leads by citing a post by Jody Bottum at First Things:
There is much that could be said about all this, but here are two quick predictions:

1) It will be far more blasphemous about Christianity than the Danish cartoons were about Islam.

2) There won’t be any riots over it.
Liccione then comments:
…it's not just that Christianity is safer to mock, for reasons the mockers don't seem to appreciate. To the worldly mind, the claims of Christianity make it more mockable than its competitors. I am reminded of an Alanis Morissette song that came out some years ago: "What if God was One of Us?. Despite her Catholic upbringing, she had not got the message that he has long been one of us in the only way that matters. …

They say that the essence of humor is a sense of the discrepant. Comedy Central could live up to its title if they mocked the media elite, including themselves, for the very discrepancy they're all generating. But first they'd have to realize there is one. Apparently that requires a subtler sense of humor than they have.
I commented:
It's only borderline humor since trivializing the divine life is as old as sin. I know I sound curmudgeonly (I am the Codgitator) but these days so much outright blasphemy and simple folly is given an endless pass in the name of "humor." The paradox is that we are told not to mock any viewpoint and to accept all truth as "truth claims" but also we are trained to mock anything we want to with freedom as long as we disclaim, "But I'm only joking."

The world ages as it ages whereas the Church is ever made younger by the Ancient of Days and I can't help but detect a sprawling very nasty cynicism underneath most contemporary comedy. Why is Bill Maher even considered funny? Call it Carlinism. At some point people got bluffed into thinking that anyone grouchy and vulgar enough must be funny cuz it's, like, cutting edge and, you know, edgy.

The seed of humor is actually humility, for how silly it is for the lower to comment on the higher. Any joke is a case of the lowly (we ourselves) trying to bottle the higher for its own amusement. And that kind of humor I don't disdain at all. Call it Woodyism. As irreverent as Woody Allen was, he was always humble (at least in persona), which is what gave such a kick to his jester-like insights. But most comics these days are pompous and just faceful eddies in the viral pool of media generativity. Comedy Central is yukking it up since instinctively it feels it is part of something eternal–– broadcast media–– and therefore its wrist-flicking mockery of the Lord comes from arrogance, not humility.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Seeds choked in thorns…

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From Chapter 1 of The Backslider by John R. Rice:

Dear reader. will [sic] you test yourself by this simple rule? Was there ever a time when you were nearer to God than you are now? Was there ever a time when you read the Bible more, or enjoyed it more than now? Was there ever a time when you prayed more, when you had your prayers answered more frequently? Was there ever a day when you won more souls than you have won today? Was there ever a time when you were more completely absorbed in the Lord's business? If there was ever a time when you were nearer the Lord than today, you are a backslider. You have slid back from that close intimacy with God, from that high place of blessing which you once had.

Remember that our text in Proverbs 14:14 says, "The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways." Backsliding is not necessarily getting drunk nor committing adultery, nor any outward course of sin seen by the public. Backsliding is in the heart!

This page also has very good notes on the term "apostate" in Scripture. Of the highest pastoral value is this question, "'Will I ever be an apostate?' Each of us should ask ourselves this vital question, and insure against the potential loss of our salvation." It goes on:

We have already touched upon one major antidote to apostasy, standing fast in the traditions you have been taught, II Thessalonians 2:15.

There is no need to fear, for when apostasy or falling away is mentioned in the Scriptures, the way to avoid the problem is also given. It is found in "ministering to the saints" Hebrews 6:10 in the context of 6:1-8, and pulling others out of the fire (not standing back and saying they are apostates and deserve it)….

These clear passages show that we must take an active part in combating apostasy. We cannot just condemn apostates, without making an attempt to rescue them from their impending fate. This is our labor of love, Hebrews 6:10, the work that we must be about at this time, when so many have indeed apostatized.

What is an apostate? It is one who has totally renounced his faith, awaiting certain execution, unless he is rescued from the coming fire. He is awaiting our help, and with our prayers, the mercy of the Almighty.

"Keep yourselves in the love of God, all the while awaiting the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ for eternal life. Convince some who doubt, but save others by snatching them from the fire; on still others have pity mingled with great caution, loathing even the clothing that has been polluted by their sensuality. Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling [apostatizing] and to present you faultless in the presence of His glory with abounding joy . . . Amen." –– Jude 21-25 (Modern Language translation)

"Some things never change…"

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The mystery of change is rooted in the mystery of identity which is rooted in the mystery of existence which is, most mysteriously of all, rooted in the mystery of love. Love is a real attachment to the good and the good is manifest to a lover as something beautiful. As the ancients knew, the good, the real, and the beautiful are analogically convertible. Enter a pub and Plato will pour you a glass of Guinness. Your reflex is to say, "That's a real beer." Or perhaps, "Now that's a good beer." Or perhaps, "A beautiful beer." Its realness, goodness, and beauty as an object of love are triunely present in the beer's act of existing. Only because it stands so low on the chain of being does the beer suffer from accidental defects in its good-real-beautiful act of existence. A contingent existent, it can become less beautiful and less real as the bubbles dissipate and it gets mingled with backwash; it can also become bad by leading to drunkenness and sickness.

Another Ward lecture…

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Keith Ward, "Misusing Darwin"

Friday, May 7, 2010

New Year's resolution…

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Should I stick to my resolution to say "predicate" as an Englishman does: "prEEdicate"? I should say not, old boy.

Silly me.


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An article by Jeffrey Miller throws some chilling light on the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Marcial Maciel:

By now we know that the founder of the Legionaries of Christ Marcial Maciel had abused drugs, abused children, abused millions in Church donations, and worked under four to five alias in order live as husband or lover to a number of women. He was "Raul Rivas" (Norma Hilda's spouse and father of little Norma). He was also "Jaime Alberto Gonzalez Ramirez" (the lover of a Mexican woman and father of three children in Switzerland whom he raped). He also went by the name "Juan Rivas."

It has been recently revealed that Marcial Maciel refused to confess his sins on his death bed and that he refused Last Rites by saying to the priests at hand "I said no!" and that he "did not believe in God's pardon." The reaction led to the summoning of an exorcist.

I have to give props to the New Oxford Review for keeping tabs on this deeply unsavory mess for years ("Fr. Maciel & His Legion of Christ"). As in so many things, they weren't taken in and their obstreperous rigor was in turn little taken in. Strong drink, indeed!

And now we turn to prayer for the soul of even such a scoundrel as Fr. Maciel. God loves boring people and Christ died for the wicked so I think it behooves Christian charity to pray to the eternal bounds of hope for someone like Maciel.

Neoneologology, again...

2 comment(s)
Here's my latest stab at newwordmanship: e-joicing, to e-joice. The feeling one has or the behavior one shows when a galling technological problem gets fixed and you more or less know how/why.

"My USB doesn't work anymore." -- "Let me try something..." -- "Hey, it works, what did you do?" -- "Just blah blah blah." -- "And there was much e-joicing in the land!"

I think nearly all e-derived neologisms are opportunistic weak sauce in the world of philology, but I have to stand by my own word here, like any good parent stands by a child. Think about how many e-based neologisms there are: it's e-gregious [see what I mean?].

While I'm online, I'm throwing in a link here to a lecture I'd like to watch when I get a chance (as opposed to watching it when I don't have a chance?):

Keith Ward on Kant's Triumph of Idealism

Having just taken the chance by the horns, as it were, and listened to Ward's lecture, I must say, it's excellent. I would love to find a transcript of the audio so I could post some choice quotations, but as it stands, I'm too lazy and tired to go back and type them myself and I don't find any such transcript in one go. Pity. I do recommend you listen to Ward, though, and for any eggheaded readers, follow it up with a reading of Paul Janz's sympathetically Kantian God, the Mind's Desire. (I still have the only review of it at… and I got it in Asia! :p )


1 comment(s)
Constitution in decline
Joseph Postell, Special to The Washington Times

It's time to reform our administrative state. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was right when she said Congress would have to "pass the health care bill so you can find out what's in it." That's because the health care bill, like most major laws passed by Congress over the past hundred years, isn't really a law. Rather, Obamacare is a series of assignments to bureaucrats in the Department of Health and Human Services. It is emblematic of what scholars call the administrative state, where legislative, executive and judicial powers are delegated to unaccountable experts sequestered in a fourth branch of government.

If we are seeking the most effective means of defending - and restoring - the Constitution, we must pay attention to the rise of the administrative state and the decline of constitutional government in the United States.

The Founders ... established (among others) two basic principles at the center of our constitutional order: representation and the separation of powers. ...

Our modern administrative state violates these principles. That also is by design, courtesy of the progressives - the original architects of the administrative state. Progressives such as Woodrow Wilson disdained the idea of government "by the people" and sought to replace it with government by the experts. Wilson complained of America's "besetting error of ... trying to do too much by vote." ...

The progressives sought to circumvent representative government by transferring power from Congress to a newly created fourth branch of government, our modern bureaucracy. Congress would no longer make laws but merely pass bills that consist of assignments to agencies. The actual laws then would be passed by agencies in the form of "rules" carrying the full force of law.

However, Article I of the Constitution requires that "all legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress." This is not optional. The people, through the Constitution, delegate legislative powers to the Congress. Only the people can delegate legislative power, because they are sovereign according to our founding principles. ...

The administrative state holds sway today. The overwhelming majority of laws in this country are made not by Congress, but by administrative agencies. They execute their laws and adjudicate alleged violations of their laws through agency-employed hearing officers or administrative law judges. In this fourth branch of government, filled with unelected and unaccountable experts, all three powers of government are consolidated.

But all is not lost. In the minds of the people, the Constitution is still the governing document of this country. Most just haven't paused to ponder how far we have strayed from its structural design.

What do I have to add? Maybe just a recommendation to re-read the excerpt.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


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I posted a very small notice about a new blog of mine, BordersWithoutBorders (BWB), but now I'd like to offer a notice now that I've actually written a few things there: LINK!

It also happened that while working up this little notice I had a look at my new archive layout in the sidebar. I was intrigued to see it lists how many posts I've had each year by month. Since you're dying to know, here are the gory details:

2010 (102)
* ► May (11)
* ► April (39)
* ► March (12)
* ► February (12)
* ► January (28)

2009 (249)
o ► December (18)
o ► November (39)
o ► October (18)
o ► September (6)
o ► August (15)
o ► July (26)
o ► June (32)
o ► May (3)
o ► April (35)
o ► March (19)
o ► February (15)
o ► January (23)

2008 (223)
o ► December (5)
o ► November (8)
o ► October (17)
o ► September (27)
o ► August (31)
o ► July (10)
o ► June (13)
o ► May (9)
o ► April (18)
o ► March (12)
o ► February (34)
o ► January (39)

2007 (111)
o ► December (17)
o ► November (17)
o ► October (21)
o ► September (15)
o ► August (20)
o ► July (5)
o ► June (11)
o ► January (5)

2006 (125)
o ► December (15)
o ► November (2)
o ► October (12)
o ► September (17)
o ► August (11)
o ► July (13)
o ► June (8)
o ► May (10)
o ► April (1)
o ► March (13)
o ► February (14)
o ► January (9)

2005 (286)
o ► December (28)
o ► November (16)
o ► October (26)
o ► September (36)
o ► August (2)
o ► July (11)
o ► June (18)
o ► May (29)
o ► April (21)
o ► March (44)
o ► February (27)
o ► January (28)

2004 (643)
* December (4)
* ► November (33)
* ► October (46)
* ► September (72)
* ► August (186)
* ► July (183)
* ► June (111)
* ► May (8)

I'm just as stunned by the difference between 2004 and 2005! From 643 posts to 286! Did I actually have a life in 2004? The old wisdom holds true that we are never as busy as we think we are, the younger we are the busier we feel, and the older we get the busier we really become.

2006 and 2007 seem to have been lean years––they were hard for me and I took some time off from the internet and work in general. There are only 5 posts in January 2007 and then nothing again until a few spurts of activity in June and July, followed by more regular output.

It looks like 2010 will yield around 250 posts and May will be unusually productive, compared to past years.

Foe toes…

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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

There they sit…

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There they sit for catechesis. One class had it this morning while other classes were rehearsing for the graduation performance. Then another class sat for it this afternoon, perhaps just for piety's sake. The catechesis in question was a video about the not-too-distant environmental apocalypse facing Taiwan, and the world. Somber wide-pan shots of icebergs and rivers which as they go the way of all flesh. Closeups of unsuspecting animals chewing cud and staring from long grasses. Meanwhile the teacher drones on about how imminent and absolute the doom is going to be. "We are all going to die. … Look, in foreign countries they will die too. … In ten years it will all be gone, we're going to die. See?" (Cue high-speed flood over CGI cityscape or some such.) In the same meanwhile, of course, the kids go on chattering about how cool the ice and flooding looks. Any religion teacher from centuries past knows the feeling: trying to pass on Great Truth while kids piddle with idle hands and tongues.

I call this a catechesis without a hint of irony. Like any religion, the Eco-Gospel has a creation and fall myth, a ring of prophets and an official hierarchy, and a robust eschatology. Granted, it should be called an anti-gospel, since it is a message of doom, not of hope––a katangelion, not an euangelion. I wish I could score another neologism by calling the target of this post envirovangelism, i.e., environmentalism with enough depth to be religious, but the term has a pedigree, according to Google. I like "envirovangelism" not only because it's snappy (and apparently unclaimed), but also because of the hint of "viral" popularity it conveys about environmentalism. If nothing else, environmentalism has "gone viral" and now feeds on itself as a positive feedback loop of media generativity.

In any case, the Eco-Gospel's creation myth is basically Darwinian evolution, which is fine as far it goes. Its fall legend is, of course, the Industrial Revolution, but may extend as far back as the implicit misanthropy of a lot of environmentalism would carry it, namely, to the rise of human interests in nature. The ring of prophets and priests are none other than the likes of Thomas Malthus, Paul Ehrlich, Al Gore, and the coterie of scientists populating the Climate Research Unit, and other great envirovangelists. There is even a fairly elaborate code of piety that extends to which kind of car a Green Person may drive, which foods she may or may not eat, what kind of people she may or may not associate with (if only for the good of her own Green Consciousness). It might even count as a sacrament of confirmation to buy a hybrid-engine car and surely a good contender for communion would be the tending of one's compost pile.

It is the eschatology of the Eco-Gospel, however, which most caught my eye today. My own students were being dutifully filled with fear at the doom coming to mankind if we do not repent. The "good news" is that there is hope of a splendorous heaven awaiting us if we reduce our carbon footprints, buy green, and vigorously clamp down on population growth (which our less inhibited and freer thinking ancestors would recognize as colonialism and genocide in slow motion). Enemies of the katangelion are enemies of the true good of mankind and should be opposed as heretics. Everyday the words of the prophets are confirmed: We are all guilty of the sin of hurting our Mother in Earth and we must all turn from our corrupt, industrial ways–– must all return to Eden from Nouveau Jerusalem. Eventually, the darkness will be overcome, whether by a redemptive treacly pastoralization of humanity or by a just damnation of humanity to eternal extinction by Mother Nature and her demiurge the Selfish Geneie. Until then, however, terrestrial Nature––Nature "dwelling among us"––suffers like a paschal lamb for our endless sins against Life.

Richard Dawkins is known for, among other things, accusing religious parents of child abuse for raising children under a faith system. The fear of hell and the (putative) scorn for rationality amount, in Dakwins' lidless eyes, to actual abuse of children. For my part I have to wonder which is more cruel, though. Filling children's heads with fears of fire and brimstone, while giving them heartfelt assurance and explicit instruction in how to avoid such a fate (the Sinner's Prayer, the Sacraments, etc.)––or filling their heads with dread of ice, flooding, famine, and extinction without giving them any assurance "there is a way out" nor any explicit instruction about how one can be saved. After all, what can a typical 5-year-old do about melting ice caps and dying frogs in the Amazon? Nothing, except risk a slow descent into environmental melancholy and a sense of impotence in the face of the coming doomsday. There is a reason religious people have shaped the world more than non-religious people: they ignored a creeping sense of futility and acted as if God were literally on their side.

Moreover, is "Our Father in Heaven" really less abstract and misleading to a child than "carbon-based global warming" and "rampant extinction"? As a child grows up, certainly his grasp of complex ecological concepts will improve and he will get a more realistic, more defensible view of envirovangelism. But the same goes for a traditionally religious child: Our Father in Heaven coalesces into the Being of All Being in a way that salvages forgivably crude childhood catechism while also meeting advanced criticisms in an abstract mode.

My claim is that evangelistic environmentalism is strikingly like a religious phenomenon. I would like to note that some environmentalists are explicit about the religious burdens and blessings of environmentalism, invoking the Spirit of Gaia, the Spirit of Humanity, ancient Pagan Wisdom, and the like as a direct challenge to the alleged anti-environmentalism of mainstream religion (viz., Christianity). Nor am I the only person to have pointed at the religious air of environmentalism. Consider:

Is Environmentalism a Religion?
by David Boaz

Novelist Michael Crichton said that environmentalism had all the trappings of a religion: “Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsday.” Atwood is filling it out with saints and hymns.

Environmentalism as Religion
by Michael Crichton

I studied anthropology in college, and one of the things I learned was that certain human social structures always reappear. They can't be eliminated from society. One of those structures is religion. Today it is said we live in a secular society in which many people---the best people, the most enlightened people---do not believe in any religion. But I think that you cannot eliminate religion from the psyche of mankind. If you suppress it in one form, it merely re-emerges in another form. You can not believe in God, but you still have to believe in something that gives meaning to your life, and shapes your sense of the world. Such a belief is religious.

Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism.

Environmentalism as Religion
by Paul H. Rubin

Consider some of the ways in which environmental behaviors echo religious behaviors and thus provide meaningful rituals for Greens:

• There is a holy day—Earth Day.

• There are food taboos. Instead of eating fish on Friday, or avoiding pork, Greens now eat organic foods and many are moving towards eating only locally grown foods.

• There is no prayer, but there are self-sacrificing rituals that are not particularly useful, such as recycling. Recycling paper to save trees, for example, makes no sense since the effect will be to reduce the number of trees planted in the long run.

• Belief systems are embraced with no logical basis. For example, environmentalists almost universally believe in the dangers of global warming but also reject the best solution to the problem, which is nuclear power. These two beliefs co-exist based on faith, not reason.

• There are no temples, but there are sacred structures. As I walk around the Emory campus, I am continually confronted with recycling bins, and instead of one trash can I am faced with several for different sorts of trash. Universities are centers of the environmental religion, and such structures are increasingly common. While people have worshipped many things, we may be the first to build shrines to garbage.

• Environmentalism is a proselytizing religion. Skeptics are not merely people unconvinced by the evidence: They are treated as evil sinners. I probably would not write this article if I did not have tenure.

In a blog post about Rubin's essay one anonymous commentor wrote this zinger, "In the Christian Bible there is one character who says 'Worship me and I will give you power and authority over all the kingdoms of the Earth'. The modern environmental movement has taken this an turned it around: 'Worship the Earth and it will give you power and authority over evil'." Touché!

In "New Religion of Environmentalism," Robert H. Nelson writes:

When Earth Day started in 1970, few people would have expected it to become a globally observed religious holiday with its own ten commandments, including “use less water,” “save electricity,” “reduce, reuse, recycle,” and “spread the word.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants people everywhere to “commit to action” in defense of the Earth.

America’s leading environmental historian, William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin, calls environmentalism a new religion because it offers “a complex series of moral imperatives for ethical action, and judges human conduct accordingly.”

In an article at the website Beyond Atheism, the author writes with a refreshing measure of frankness:

Let's face it: sometimes it's pretty lonely being an atheist. Everyone else in town gets all gussied up and gets together in church while we sit at home or roam the empty streets in search of open businesses. As much as we criticize them, folks who belong to religious communities get a lot out of it. …

What's an atheist to do? As I described in the Further Than Atheism article To Church or Not To Church, some atheists choose to go to church even though they don't believe, … [but for some atheists] that's a little difficult to stomach, so we're left on our own.

A great alternative for atheists is to join non-religious activist groups. Activism is like religion in that it is based in groups of people that come together because of shared ideals, but it's unlike religion in that it doesn't demand absolute allegiance or an abandonment of critical thinking (at least in the best activist groups - I'll admit that there are some activist communities in which unthinking devotion is a basic requirement of membership).

Environmentalism is particularly ideal for atheists because it isn't based upon a short-term objective. The environmental problems our world faces are so immense that we can all be pretty sure that environmental organizations will be needed for generations to come. Environmentalism is also fantastic because it's compatible with a secular humanist perspective. … Almost all atheists assume that this world is all we've got, so it makes the best sense for us to work to preserve its integrity.

Note the last few sentiments. A secular religion inevitably latches onto "something Greater", some unseen, undying, metaphysical Principle of Unity and Order (such as "Humanity" of "the good of future generations") which explains an individual's predicaments, prospects, dreams, and duties.
But perhaps the atheist environmentalist should wary. This video captures just how profoundly religious (or "enthusiastic," in Knox's sense of the term) environmentalism can be. It speaks for itself.

It might be objected that this is an unfair exhibit in my case, since it is clearly an extreme eco-group and therefore an outlier among real eco-friends. By my lights, though, I don't see the point of environmentalism––an Ism––if it doesn't have room for this kind of mania. The basic complaint of most environmentalists, as I understand them, is that too many people care too little about the Earth. Ergo, the cure of environmentalism is to make more people care more about the Earth. It logically follows that the fewer people care too little, or the more people who care enough, are environmentalist victories. But what would "caring enough" look like? Anything close to a naturalist shrug ("It's Nature, shit happens, gotta roll with it––evolution, the circle of life") is obviously far short of that to which what environmentalism calls us. The environmentalist must by definition exceed shrugging naturalism if she is going to do all she can, and convince all the people she can, to "save Earth." Hence, the clear-minded environmentalist will be drawn closer and closer to the behavior in the Earth First! video. So it is in the eco-spiritual life: to stand still is to fall behind.

A final objection may be that I'm right––but it doesn't prove as much as I think. In other words, perhaps a winning rejoinder is to admit my––and others'––analysis of environvangelism is basically correct: environmentalism is religious, but then deflect the blow by saying "religious" is just a limiting term for the larger category of "anthropological." Meaning, it may be a small price to pay to admit environmentalism is religious in nature, since the objector might want to re-situate religion itself in the larger arena of "evolved human behavior." That is the tack Crichton seems to take in the lecture I linked above. Religious structures of behavior are universally and irrepressibly human, so it's natural to see environmentalism fill in the space for those structures. Hence, the objection goes, envirovangelism is not wrong for being religious, because religion is not right: it just is, it is "just something people do to get by." At that point, however, I think the debate quickly dissolves into irrationalism, for if envirovangelism is, like religion, just an evolved survival mechanism, then why defend it as a scientific ideology? If environmentalism is inherently, or at least inevitably, religious, is it "pure science"? And if it is pure science, why is it, by all appearances, so remarkably religious?

Or might that not be a great clue itself? Perhaps the religious impulses of "scientific environmentalism"––as well as the equally profound and equally marginalized scientific impulses of religion––point to a higher synthesis in which humankind can assume its full stature as naturally religious beings. To find "pure religion" and "pure science" arching back to meet other again and again is to see a great clue about reality: both endeavors are deeply human efforts to know the Creator of both the heavens and the earth. A core tenet of Christianity, in most cases, is that humans are naturally, instinctively drawn Godward. It turns out a major tenet of evolutionism says the same: we are just as naturally and adaptively religious as we are scientific. Otherwise, we are no more rational in science and in religion than any other creatures in their own adapted animadversions. A high price indeed to pay for Scientific Rationalism.