Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Cabin from Nothing

The argument from design can be an intriguing argument for the existence of God, but it’s also an intriguing way to explain unbiased reasoning.

Imagine you were walking in a deep forest with a friend when you both stumbled upon a log cabin. You would naturally assume that something with intelligence created it (presumably a person or a group of people), even if there was no empirical evidence of a builder other than the cabin itself. Unless you had more evidence, you will NOT presume a specific builder by name, but the assumption of intelligence will become a base premise that is non-negotiable.
Now suppose your traveling companion said the cabin is just a result of the random forces of nature, matter and energy coming together over time to form the cabin. You would not only disagree, but perhaps also steer your friend toward some psychiatric help. Even if your friend could recite astonishing details about the forces of nature, matter and energy to prove his sanity, you might then conclude that he is so smart, he has become stupid. To accept your friend’s conclusion would be not only unreasonable, but also irresponsible.
  • Now, just begin to increase the physical size of the cabin. Suppose it was the size of a mountain. You would have the same conclusion about “intelligence”. You will not presume the builder must specifically be Paul Bunyan, but the same impartial assumption about an intellect remains.
  • Now, increase the size of the cabin to the size of planet earth…same conclusion about intelligence, although you might drop the part about the source of it being human.
  • Now, keep increasing the size of the cabin to the size of the universe…same conclusion.
  • Now consider our minds, our bodies, our planet and the finely tuned universe we live in that are all much more complex than a log cabin… same conclusion. Intellectual honesty tells us that it’s all beyond what random mindlessness can do for itself.

The science of the past took reason seriously with a premise like this, “We know the creator is intelligent, so we must go forward assuming the universe is intelligible.” This is similar to our approach about the cabin. If you desired to learn more about the construction details, you would do so under the assertion that there is “thinking” behind it all. Today, many hold the backwards, upside down and non-negotiable premise of, “We know the universe is intelligible, so we must go forward assuming there is NO intelligence behind it.”
“It is truly glorious for a religion to have such unreasonable men as enemies.”
- Blaise Pascal

All this might sound very similar to Paley’s watchmaker analogy, which may in turn remind some of the rebuttals offered by philosopher David Hume. For example, very complex self-order is observed in nature regularly, such as the process of snowflake generation from water molecules. This is true, but assuming intelligence behind it is still reasonable. Observing an application running on a computer may give the appearance that the computer is a self-ordered thing, but we know there is a programmer, not to mention a host of other precise, intelligent conditions needed for a computer to run.
Here is another; who designed the designer? If a well-ordered natural world requires a special designer, then this great designer requires an even greater designer and so on and so on ad infinitum. If we can accept a mysteriously self-ordered intelligence as an explanation for the natural world, why not just accept a mysteriously self-ordered natural world by itself?

The problem is the reality we observe in the natural world; the data and the logic. Nothing in the natural world is really self-ordered. The order everything has is contingent upon the order of something else that came before it, until you trace back to some final reality that requires no other condition for its order. Why the need for a final reality? Why not just keep tracing conditions back to infinity? The reason is that an infinite succession of past conditions presents us with a contradiction.
  • Premise #1:Infinity as applied to an accumulating succession is always more than can be ever achieved. It is unachievable.
  • Premise #2: For something to exists, all the conditions needed for its existence must be achieved.
  • Conclusion: Anything that exists cannot come from an infinite succession of conditions because it would depend upon an unachievable number of past conditions being fulfilled. To say it can is like saying the unachievable has been achieved, which is a contradiction. This is true for an infinite succession of intelligent designers as much as anything else.
(see formal proof for an unconditioned reality).

An unconditioned intelligent “something” that transcends the natural world is the reasonable and responsible position to hold using reason alone, and we would all do well to ponder what a curious “something” that would be. Nothing in this post definitively proves all the Catholic theology there is about God, but to say the universe and everything in it, from the stars in the sky to the love in your heart, is a mindless accident that magically happens by itself is truly wishful thinking for the non-believer who wishes to avoid the reality of things. In terms of believing in fairytales, never was the shoe so firmly on the other foot.
“Man does not explain himself to himself without the odd suspicion that he is missing something.”
 - James V. Schall, S.J.



Friday, April 4, 2014

Illusion of the Day

This is not a GIF file. Nothing is moving. The more your eyes wander, the worse it gets. Remain calm! It helps to keep your eyes focused on one point; then everything starts to slow down.

NOTE: The illusion may not be so effective on a small screen like on a smart phone.

Rotating Snakes Illusion by Kitaoka Akiyoshi
The graphic is called "rotating snakes" and it can be a symbol for the spiritual life. Note the snake-like tongues. How well does Lucifer keep us distracted (fools us) with things that are NOT real. Stay focused on one point, the light of Christ, and see the reality that does not change.

There's a Faith & Reason lesson in there somewhere; I know it.

• Don’t always trust what you see… Yes, but more than that.

• Perception is not reality. Perception informs your response to reality… That’s better.

• Growth in faith is growth in the right perception of all reality… THAT'S IT!!!
- Thomas Keating

See also “The Medieval Wheel of Fortune” post as it also relates to a focus point via a Christ centered life.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Joke of the Day

Not to confuse or offend anyone, but this is fun. An evangelization technique like this would only make sense on a day like today…

One of the great things about being Catholic is that not only do we get to worship statues, but even our statues get to worship statues!!!

April Fools'!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Contemplating the Savior of Science

Have you ever stopped to think about why modern science first arrived on the scene in Europe around the middle of the last millennium with scientists like Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Descartes and Pascal? Why not from other great cultures of the past? This question is explored with piercing detail in a book called “The Savior of Science” by Fr. Stanley Jaki. It was recommended to me by writer and scientist, Stacy Trasancos. It’s not the easiest read in the world if one is not familiar with certain scientists throughout history and their theories, but some parts of the book are easy to follow.

It’s very understandable as to why some cultures would not be so concerned with the great “whys” of the physical universe if they were constantly struggling for food, water and shelter or continually fending off attacks from their neighbors. Who cares how the sun goes up and down every day if I’m just trying to stay alive every day, but what about the peoples of cultures like ancient China, Japan, India, Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, Greece and Rome? They all lived in organized societies with infrastructure; they had long periods of peace and talented citizens. They were also not greatly influenced by one another, as if we could say the superstitions about nature spread from one culture to all the rest like a virus. Of course, they had their achievements, like gun powder, papermaking and fixed-type engraved printing coming from China. How about the great architectural achievements of ancient Egypt, or the logic of the Greeks, but modern science never took root in any of these places. Why?

 Like any good problem solving, one should compare the place of interest (like Europe) and the characteristic of interest (like the birth of modern science) to other places that lack that characteristic. From here we can look for distinctions. By their fruits you shall know them, provided that scientific fruit or fruitlessness is looked for.

 The great non-Judeo-Christian cultures of the past had their premises about nature, existence and the universe. Perhaps it was the belief in eternal cycles that left a hopeless feeling when at the bottom, or a sense of complacency when on top (learn about Fortuna). How about the view of the universe as a kind of huge wild animal whose dangerous irrationalities needed to be appeased by some kind of human ritual? Others kept a wall of division between celestial and terrestrial matter that could never be penetrated. Given these kinds of worldviews, it’s easy to see why modern science could never take root. There also was no confidence in the abilities of a limited human mind to grasp the laws of nature, because nature was not subject to any rational mind or lawgiver that transcended it. King Brihadratha, the last ruler of the Mauryan dynasty, sums it up well for his culture as well as many others when he said “In the cycle of existence, I’m like a frog in a waterless well.” These kinds of mind sets seem to cry out for salvation.

So what was different about Europe? Fr. Jaki suggests that it was Christ that saved science from yet another “stillbirth” in Europe. The culture which grew out of Christendom was the distinction that provided the premises by which man could finally have a rational worldview, and the premises came from Catholic doctrine.
Now this is a hard teaching; who could accept it? Didn’t S.J. Gould get it right when he said, “Nothing is more dangerous than a dogmatic worldview - nothing more constraining, more blinding to innovation, more destructive of openness to novelty.”  Isn’t the scientific progress that we still build onto today the result of the European enlightenment? Isn’t this when men shook-off their pious little fairy tales about god or gods? This finally freed men to use logic & reason for the very first time to explain the world around them, right?

Well, the Greeks and other cultures were known for their logic, but science was stillborn in those places. Additionally, the famous forefathers of modern science like Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Descartes and Pascal were all Christian. So if atheism or just raw logical does not explain the birth of modern science, what might explain it?

Fr. Jaki argues that salvation finally came for science because Christ and His Church built a Christian worldview with the following types of convictions….
  • God is a rational being that is orderly and reliable; therefore, his creation is also rational, orderly and reliable.
  • All matter, celestial & terrestrial, can be placed on the same basic level, since it was all created out of nothing (ex nilhilo). A pebble is no different than the earth, the sun, the moon, or a cow in terms of being a created thing that can be studied and dissected.
  • Man is made in the image and likeness of God, therefore we can have confidence in human rationality to understand creation because our intellect was fashioned by God in his own image.
  • Man can have full trust in a rational creator. This fosters the intellectual courage that can drive us to learn more about creation.

Regrettably, this intellectual courage also leads men to the sin of pride. In the book, Fr. Jaki cleverly compares the sin of Eve in the book of Genesis to the sin of atheistic scientists today who view the world as only material. After being tempted by the serpent, Eve became “scientific”, looking at the tree of life in a materialistic way. “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eye, and desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it…” (Gen 3:6). The illicitness of the fruit and the tree was forgotten along with the Creator.

Many of today’s scientists seem to have flipped one of the Catholic based premises on its head. The science of the past may have said “We know the creator is intelligent, so we can go forward assuming the universe is intelligible.” Today it’s more like “We know the universe is intelligible, so we can go forward assuming there is no intelligence behind it.” It’s like saying we can see sunlight, but we should assume that there is no sun. This kind of dimming down of the intellect was expressed well using a paradox, “we are smarter than we are”.

“We are smarter than we are” is meant to express the notion that our minds have evolved much faster than our bodies. The human brain appeared on the scene in a geological instant and it seems to be evolutionary “overkill” in terms of only needing to survive and reproduce. S.J Gould was also quoted in the book as saying, “It does reinforce an ego that we do well to deflate.”

The statement is not about the Christian virtue of humility; it’s more about convincing you not to look any deeper than the material surface; we should forcibly deflate that natural part us that looks for spiritual truth. Paradoxes are normally meant to awaken the mind; in this case it is meant to suppress the mind. The mind’s eye is meant to see further and deeper than the physical eye, but we are told to deflate the part of us that cries out “There must be more!”  Should we deflate ourselves or should we continue to search for that which is more than we are?
Which will you choose?

Monday, March 10, 2014

The De-Evolution of Thinking with Stanford Nutting

The last post on this blog included the photo below. I had also posted it on Google+ with a simple caption that read, “Although a lot could be said about this, I think the photo says it all.”
Kevin O'Brien as Stanford Nutting

I was surprised at some of the comments it received. Here were some thoughts from myself and a couple of acquaintances from Google+.
The Sweater
Perhaps a throwback to what a 1970’s CCD teacher might wear, or perhaps it stands for the square of truth you decide to take while choosing not to believe the other truths. Pick a color! Of course, we must be inclusive and accept every version of truth, so that all the colors of our world can come together like one giant ugly sweater. The sweater seems unified, but note the black chasm between each color.

1. What is “Truth”?
This is about questioning absolute Truth. It could be asked sarcastically, but many will sincerely contemplate this, really seeking what is true in terms of things like morality, justice, goodness, love, etc. Or perhaps seeking to answer what the nature of Truth is, rather than a particular truth of a particular matter. In this context, one can understand Pontius Pilate's identical question in the gospel of John 18:38, and of course the answer is a concrete one, Jesus Christ, the man standing before him.
2. What is?
Could this be a “fill in the blank” or just the beginning of whole new level of bewilderment? This question seems to no longer be asking about truth at all, but asking about existence. What IS? What exists? What is anything? But, if we go by the suggestion of the conclusion of the first question, we might say it more properly as "Who is?", and then we end up with God, the one whose name is "I AM", the one who “IS”, existence itself.
3. What?
One is confused or maybe surprised, but perhaps still searching coherently to some extent. The question is simply "What?" This is a common way of expressing concern, astonishment or mishearing, an attempt to confirm what has already been said. It is clear that something of significance has been mentioned in the two questions above, but comprehension has not been reached, so it needs repeating or perhaps just leaves one in shock

4. Wha?
One is now deep into the muddle. The question is no longer coherent; it remains unfinished. Imagine you walk into a room and say “Wha?” You realize something strange is going on in the room and say “never mind, I don't want to get involved".  Upon further examination of the previous questions, the answers are too large or out of reach, and one is left feeling both confused and maybe slightly stupid or in a state of extreme disbelief.

5. ?
Now there are no words at all, which means there is no more dialogue. If there is no more dialogue, we end up with the dictatorship of relativism. If you have your truth and I have mine, there is no point in even discussing any of the above. In this scenario, might makes right; you will agree or be punished. The purpose of life and the nature of man are lost in a fog, but there might be two paths forward…seek or despair.

One can desperately and blindly continue into the fog, or perhaps “?” can trigger a humble state. One is at a loss for words, a state of unknowing, not even knowing what to ask. One has encountered something so foreign that it is impossible to even guess at anything that would shed light on it. As if a stranger started speaking in a foreign language, you have no clue as to what is going on. This could trigger a proper state in which to receive God’s grace. There are no further questions, but one is open to the answers or instructions that may come. Assumptions are dropped, and one waits for whatever is given. Perhaps the awe of the Lord as a gift of the Holy Spirit is soon to follow this kind of “?”.

These are just some ideas as to the meaning of each question. What do you think? We know you’re out there.

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Outside System

It was around the age of four or five that our children began to speak to me and my wife on the topic of “fairness”.  The normal emphasis would be on the things they deemed unfair. As they explained themselves, I noted an astonishing correlation. All that they disagreed with also happened to be “unfair”. As we questioned them further, a second amazing correlation revealed itself; all which they agreed with also happened to be “fair”.

I’m afraid our children, if left alone, would determine right vs. wrong on their own via their own internal passions as opposed to any outside system. By the way, if you doubt the existence of original sin, spend some time with toddlers or small children. You will note that there is no need to teach them how to be “bad”. It just comes naturally.
Unless guided, children will not use an outside system to judge things and adults are not much different, other than perhaps they will more readily yield to the majority. For many, cultural consensus has become the guarantee of truth. If enough people told you that up is down and right is wrong, you’ll cave unless you have an outside system to refer to.

If this seems ridiculous, ponder the insanity of abortion. If educated people can actually be made to believe that an unborn baby is a “non-person” with no right to be alive, what else can they be convinced of? If said persons were to ask, “When did we become persons?” They would accept subjective thresholds of viability or conscience as dictated by the majority, instead of the observable and scientific point of conception. We often fail to live up to the edicts of the obvious.
Reflect on the unintelligibility of same-sex marriage as well. Too many have been easily duped into thinking that marriage has no rational basis in procreation; that marriage having been defined the way humans reproduce is somehow a trivial coincidence. If humans did not reproduce the way they do, marriage would never have been defined the way it has (male-female) around the world and throughout history…but back to outside systems.

Consider a Compass:
Allegories to a moral compass are just about perfect for describing a moral outside system. The compass uses the earth’s magnetic field to determine which way is north. It does not matter what direction a group of travelers believes is north. The way the magnetic field and the compass needle react to each other is completely independent of the minds of the travelers.

What happens if a large group of symbiotic travelers refuse to use the compass? They will go “somewhere” based on their beliefs and experience about traveling.  They may split up into smaller groups, but even the smaller groups need to decide what to do. The strongest will rule eventually, whether by physical force or via other kinds of peer-pressure, coaxing or bullying. It’s the same in societies. Even for the most stubborn and independent of individuals, the strongest will rule eventually, whether it’s a dictator by physical force or just a majority via lawyers and laws.

Consider Industry:
If a customer complains that a product or system is not working right, one of the first questions the vendors support team should ask (internally) is… “Is there a deviation?” In other words, is the product/system working within its normal operating limits or not? There are many situations in which a product is working within in its established parameters, but the customer still doesn’t like it. Here we have a situation where the customer is saying “it’s wrong” and the vendor says “it’s right”. So what should they do? Is the customer ALWAYS right?

Many times they will refer to industry standards as the outside system (like ISO). The data comes via an outside body of industry experts. They establish widely accepted benchmarks which are independent of the opinions of both the customer and the vendor.

What of morality then?
If you’re a true a relativist, then this post is not really for you, since pure relativism cannot plant a stake in the ground for anything to be truly right or wrong; there are only opinions. For those of us who think right and wrong actually exist objectively, where do we look to? Should moral standards be left to some “body of experts” like in industry? If humans look to other humans to know what is moral for humans, I would say it is still an internal system, like the travelers looking to other travelers instead of a compass to find which way is north. Humans would need to look outside of humanity, but also higher than humanity, so animals would not suffice.

Bonobo chimps are most similar to humans genetically and are known for their sexual promiscuity. They do not seem to discriminate in their sexual behavior by sex or age. In addition, communal sex seems to decrease tension and keeps the peace. I’ve heard it argued that if we could be more like the bonobos, we would all be happier. Wanting to use animals as our outside system for sexual morality shows just how far the human intellect has fallen.


Many believe that God is the outside system for human morality. God would act as the unchanging magnetic field in the compass allegory, but what would act as the compass itself, the visible and universal thing that points the way?  Some may point to sacred writings like the Bible as a kind of travelers guide or map, but written words do not “interact” with people the way a compass interacts between the earth’s magnetic field and the travelers. A map would be an irreplaceable tool, but maps will not orientate you in the right direction like a compass will.

If God really does exist and really does care that we know “The Way”, it seems reasonable that He would provide a reliable compass that was visible and universal for each new generation of travelers to navigate life with. We call this “compass” the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The idea of this kind of outside system is not new; the earliest Christian writers understood its importance…"For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." (2 Tim 4:3)

Life without an outside system...
Stanford Nutting

Thursday, February 13, 2014

More on the Creation Debate

Toward the end of our Religious Education year is where I go back to “the beginning”. It’s this time of year that I briefly go over the creation account in Genesis with my confirmation students.

The timing was perfect this year considering the Feb 4th debate between Bill Nye (science guy) and Ken Ham (Answer in Genesis CEO) and my most recent class held on Feb 8th. I did not see the debate, but my understanding was that the Catholic view of creation was not represented. Since there is currently some talk around the blogosphere about a Catholic “third way”, here is a post from the early days of this blog that covers what we review in class and adds to the whole conversation.

I’ve never heard the seven day creation story explained so well as in the Great Adventure bible timeline during the early world sessions in Genesis. Catholics do well to treat Genesis, not as history book or a science book, but as the story of the beginning of a relationship, the relationship between God and man.

• Day 1 and 2
Creation of time & space (see Genesis 1: 3-8):
Separating day from night is a way to describe time, and a dome is a way to describe space. Remember too that a day is not necessarily 24 hours, but some segment of time. “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like one day.” 2 Peter 3:8. Could day 1 and day 2 be the first nanoseconds of the Big Bang? Just my own musing…

• Day 3
The continuation of space on the earth & the creation of life (see Genesis1:9-13):

• Day 4 - 6:
All about how the presence of God fills voids. In this case voids in the sky, sea & land
It is important to note that the creation of man & beast is on the same day, day 6. We should stop and contemplate why. Isn’t man set apart from animals with a soul; made in the image & likeness of God? Why don’t we get our own special day?!? We’ll get back to this.

One of my confirmation students once asked “What about dinosaurs?” I replied, “What about dinosaurs?” She continued, “How can man & beast be made on the same day if there were no humans around when dinosaurs were around?” I said, “If a day is just some segment of time, then it could be billions of years. Dinosaurs could have come and gone in the earlier part of the “day” and then man appears at the later part. It’s really not important. Dinosaurs are just another beast.”

• Day 7
God blessed the 7th day and made it holy because he rested on that day
(see Genesis 2:2-3):
God does not need physical rest. The Sabbath day is for us. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Mark 2:27

The beasts made with man on day 6 do not know or love God. They were not given the will or the intellect to do so; it’s not what they are made for. How many people do we know who relate to God the same way an animal does? They do not know or love God, even though they were given the capacity.

Man is called to leave the beasts behind in day 6 and find “rest” with God in day 7. A relationship in which two parties can “rest” in one another can conjure up images of a comfortable, self-giving union in which nothing is hidden or held back. This may remind us the Catholic ideal of marriage or the idea of “covenant”, as it should. This should also remind us of heaven which is an eternal rest with God. Will we choose to “rest” with God in day 7 or remain with the beasts in day 6?
What should I do Simba?
One last thing, remember that the number 7 in scripture represents perfection, fullness or completion. The number 6 is 1 less than 7 and corresponds to evil, imperfection or…The Number of the Beast!!!

Visuals are always helpful. Click HERE view all of creation!