Sunday, September 30, 2012

Intrinsic Evils and Grave Sins

Don't get me wrong:  The platform of the Democratic Party does indeed endorse evils that are both intrinsic and grave.  Any politician (of either party) who endorses such evils forfeits my vote, and a politician who belongs to a party that endorses them, especially if he fails to state his objections to his party's platform, must be regarded with profound suspicion, at the very least.

But.... The word the Church uses to describe something as most seriously wrong is not "intrinsic", but "grave".  For a sin to be mortal -- the kind that can send one to Hell -- it need not be an intrinsic evil, but it must involve grave matter

So, for example, it is not intrinsically evil to fight a war.  There are times when it is not only permissible, it is mandatory.  However, to choose to fight a war in violation of the Just War criteria is not only wrong, it is gravely wrong.

This is important enough that we might as well see how the Catechism explains Just War.

2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time: 
  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain; 
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; 
  • there must be serious prospects of success; 
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition. 
These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the "just war" doctrine. 

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.
It is impossible for a serious, rational adult to honestly conclude that the Bush administration's decision to initiate war with Iraq met these requirements.  We can look at this in detail if someone wants, but for now I will simply state the obvious:  It is easier to make a case that "at one and the same time" each of those conditions is violated than that each of those conditions is simultaneously fulfilled.

"Wait a minute!" someone will say, "Doesn't the Catechism say that the moral legitimacy of a war is known only to the leader and to God, and that it is not our place to question it?"  (This is a paraphrase of what some people said a decade ago.)  The answer is clearly no.
  1. At least in a free republic, every citizen has a responsibility for the public good.
  2. Nothing in the passage above said that government leaders are not answerable to the citizenry for their prudential judgments.
  3. Nothing in the passage above said that the rectitude of a war can be judged only by those with the authority to conduct it.  Having authority is not the same as having "secret information" that turns every conclusion on its head -- especially when the leaders themselves claim to be acting not on knowledge, but on the ignorance of their adversaries' true capabilities.
  4. Maybe an analogy would help here:  We grant medical doctors the authority to diagnose and treat their patients, but that doesn't mean that doctors are immune from malpractice suits if they act negligently or from prosecution if they act with malice -- as judged by a jury of their fellow-citizens.
All of this might seem like beating a dead horse.  After all, Bush is no longer in office, and the Iraq war has wrapped up.  However, it is clear that many Republicans, including those most likely to occupy cabinet positions in a Romney administration, do not distinguish between patriotism and support for Bush-era policies.  Given the opportunity, they assure us they would do the same things.  Well, the situation in the Middle East today, with Egypt unsure of its future, Syria at war with itself, Iran about to have nuclear weapons and exchanging threats with already nuclear-armed Israel, to say nothing of what's happening in Pakistan -- with all these problems, the "opportunity" for armed intervention will surely present itself again in the next presidential term.

Yeah, but why bring this up?  And what does this have to do with the first paragraph? 

Just this:  Over the past few days, I have seen references to a column by Bishop Paprocki of Springfield, IL.  The bishop says that the Democratic platform endorses grave and intrinsic sins, and that this is something that should give pause to Catholic voters.  This is true.  He also says, "I have read the Republican Party Platform and there is nothing in it that supports or promotes an intrinsic evil or a serious sin."  Well, OK.  Presumably the closing prayers at both conventions also have "nothing in [them] that supports or promotes an intrinsic evil or a serious sin," since both were written and delivered by Cardinal Dolan.  To know what the individual candidates plan to do, or are open to doing, one must go farther than just the platforms of their parties: one must pay attention to their speeches, their past actions, and the sponsors and associates they choose. 

As a result, it is scarcely relevant that the grave sins supported by one party are intrinsic, whereas the sins supported by the other party are only grave sins because of their circumstances. By all means, hold the Democrats responsible for endorsing abortion, which is always wrong, but don't give the Republicans a pass on the war they want us to fight just because some other war, fought under other conditions, might be just.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

History: It Could Have Happened Differently.

Growing up, it was hard for me to imagine that World War II could have turned out differently.  After all, America doesn't lose wars, I was assured.  (At least not unless politicians screw it up -- the same story Germans told themselves after WWI.)  With America's great natural resources, and with her factories protected by both vast oceans and (in many cases) hundreds of miles of land, victory for the Allies was just a matter of time.  Didn't people of the day understand this? 

School tended to reinforce this idea.  The North was destined to win the War Between the States because of their greater industrial output.  America had a Manifest Destiny to break away from the British Empire and form a vast republic "from sea to shining sea".  It really couldn't have happened any other way. 

By now, though, most college students were not even born when the Soviet Union was dissolved.  For them, the peaceful end of the Cold War was also inevitable.  The thick gloom of that period, when everyone assumed that the Cold War would either stretch on for centuries or end in a full-scale nuclear exchange, is unimaginable to them.  I remember it well, though; this time, I know very well that the ending could have been much, much worse.

With that in mind, read this story about one of the men who played an important role in making sure the Cold War had a happy ending for Russians and Americans alike.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Death Penalty: What Is Rare?

This is the third in a series of posts about the death penalty from a Catholic perspective. 

The topic for today comes from this passage from the Catechism:
Today, in fact, given the means at the State's disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender 'today ... are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'

Let's not kid ourselves:  It was a bad idea to write a passage about the conditions prevailing "today", if "today" means anything other than "during the course of our natural lives" or "before the eschaton".  To the extent that secular leaders want to show respect to the Catholic Church, they need only say, "Well, that may have been true in the mid 90's when it was written, but everything is different today, especially after 9-11."  Count on it -- much more shameless claims are made all the time. 

My main topic here, though, is the word "rare".  Consider the following statement:
Circumstances which require people to be rescued by boat from their roofs are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
Is the statement true?  No doubt.  It may well be that on most years no one needs to be saved from a rooftop.  But there is a real and practical difference between circumstances that are practically non-existent and circumstances that are non-existent; those people who find themselves stranded on a roof need help sent, not to have that aid denied because someone thinks thinks "rarely" means "never".

In fact, it can be argued that executions in the US are indeed rare -- too rare, at any rate, to be an effective deterrent.  From 1976--2005 (inclusive), there were 11080 killings by police that were ruled justifiable homicide, but from 1976--September 20, 2012 there were only 1305 legal executions.  A violent criminal is roughly 10 times more likely to be killed by police than to be executed after a trial; if he is not deterred by the greater risk, he will not be deterred by the lesser.

Just like people have to be rescued as individuals, they have to be tried as individuals, not as some kind of statistical average.  We must neither increase the number of executions because it is "too low" nor decrease the number of executions simply because it is "too high". 

Is the statement that executions should be rare then completely without value?  No.  It is something like a spell-checker.  When a spell-checker indicates a word is misspelled, it does not necessarily mean it is a mistake; it may just be a word that is not in the spell-checker's dictionary.  For example, the word "eschaton", which I have used above, is not in my spell-checker's dictionary. A spell-checker does not tell you the word is wrong, it warns you to double-check.  In a similar way, whenever the number of executions trends noticeably upward or there is any question whether executions can be accurately described as "rare", it is time to double-check the criminal justice system to make sure this is not due to errors.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Death Penalty: Do We Need Justice?

This is the second posting in a series discussing capital punishment.  The first post discussed why human dignity actually requires that the death penalty remain at least a theoretical possibility.

For today's discussion, I will need to quote some documents that are very relevant to a Catholic understanding of capital punishment.  Let me say at the outset that I myself am bound by Catholic teaching.  It is important to understand that the emphasis, particularly of recent documents, is distinctly "pastoral"; they are much more exhortations to minimize the number of executions than philosophical treatises meant to explore the subject in depth.

The two most-cited passages come from the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
2266 The State's effort to contain the spread of behaviors injurious to human rights and the fundamental rules of civil coexistence corresponds to the requirement of watching over the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime.  The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.
2267 The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.
"If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
"Today, in fact, given the means at the State's disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender 'today ... are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'[John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.]
and Evangelium Vitae,
Among the signs of hope we should also count the spread, at many levels of public opinion, of a new sensitivity ever more opposed to war as an instrument for the resolution of conflicts between peoples, and increasingly oriented to finding effective but "non-violent" means to counter the armed aggressor. In the same perspective there is evidence of a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of "legitimate defense" on the part of society. Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform.
There is also a much earlier source which should be cited: the Catechism of the Council of Trent,
Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord.

So what exactly has changed?

The most obvious change is that the recent documents insist that a necessary condition for the death penalty to be appropriate is that no other effective means of securing public safety must exist.  That was simply not present in the Catechism of the Council of Trent, though it is not in conflict with anything in the older document.

This new emphasis has impressed many Catholics so much that they have understood it to mean that the State may not execute people because they deserve it, but may execute people to preserve public safety.  In other words, capital punishment has nothing to do with justice, only with prudence.  If this understanding were in fact correct, its consequences would be truly shocking and impossible to reconcile with a well-formed conscience (which is one proof that it is in fact not correct.)

1.  It may easily happen that public safety is enhanced by the death of an innocent man.  Or, as someone said, "You know nothing.  Neither do you consider that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation perish not."

2.  If the decisions about capital punishment are merely prudential, there will immediately be the claim that it is beyond the competency of the bishops to comment on.  Oh, and it's beyond the competency of the citizenry, too, since the government and its lackeys can always claim to have important, secret knowledge that can't be shared with the public, but if it were it would show that black is white and white is black.  This is exactly what happened when Bush decided he wanted a war with Iraq; the Pope opposed the war, but the Pope's biographer approved of it, and for many that was good enough.

3.  If the government is the sole decider of who must be put to death to remove threats to public safety, "threat to public safety" will become a very elastic concept.  After all, aren't both parties convinced that their rivals in the other party would be a disaster to America if elected?  Surely their political opponents are a greater threat to public safety than any mere serial killer! 


Now go back and look again at what was actually written.  There are plenty of phrases that indicate that justice is still required, that it is still a necessary condition for the criminal to deserve death.  These are not emphasized because it must have seemed obvious that it is wrong to execute anyone who has not done something to deserve death.  I agree that it should be obvious, but in our morally illiterate society, such assumptions are no longer safe.

To sum up, in the past it was taught that no one should be put to death unless he had done something worthy of death, but it was probably assumed that for the proper authorities this condition was both necessary and sufficient.  Today the teaching is that for capital punishment to be right, both the criminal must have done something to merit death and there must be no other practical way to protect the public.  The idea that anyone, regardless of guilt, may be put to death in order to secure public safety must be vehemently rejected.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Death Penalty and Human Digntity

This is the first of a series of posts to examine the death penalty.

It is easy to see that many priests and bishops are troubled by the death penalty.  It would be troubling if they were not, since it is their calling to be shepherds.  The honest ones will admit that Catholic teaching does not demand the absolute abolition of the death penalty, but they argue that consideration of human dignity means that it should practically be abolished.  My argument is that it is precisely because of human dignity that the death penalty should not be absolutely abolished.

We humans have three claims to dignity.

  1. "And [God] said: Let us make man to our image and likeness.... And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them."
  2. "For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man."
  3. "For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures."
One of the consequences of our first claim to dignity -- that we are created in the image and likeness of God -- is that we are moral actors.  This sets us apart from mere animals.

Without this understanding, it is impossible to understand anything about any kind of punishment for crimes.  That is why it is unfortunate that the Catechism places so much emphasis on the "practical" side of the question.  If a tree drops a limb that kills someone, it might be deemed dangerous and removed, which we would find rational, or it may be chopped down in a fit of fury even though it poses no further threat, an act we would certainly find irrational.  It is not likely that many would find it irrational, though, to prosecute and jail Edger Ray Killen for the murders in 1964 of three civil rights workers, even though at the time of the trial in 2005 Killen was 80 years old and no longer a threat to society.  The tree is not a moral agent, Killen is.

Where I come from, there is an expression:  so-and-so is "not worth hanging".  It is an expression that must not be taken literally.  We can really be indebted to another person, but not to a useful tree; justice may call for the execution of someone guilty of terrible crimes, but it will never call for the death of a tree.  Any attempt to save the lives of condemned criminals by denying that they are more morally significant than a tree must be resisted, precisely because of the human dignity the Church defends.

The point of this post is only to answer a question that Msgr. Pope asked me some time ago when we were disagreeing about the death penalty:  "Why is this important to you?"

This barely touches the surface of the subject of the death penalty, but this will have to be enough for part 1.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

"Dolan’s prayer rocks the Democratic convention"

What is wrong with this headline?

Video: Cardinal Dolan’s pro-life, pro-family prayer rocks the Democratic convention

Of course, one problem is it's not really true.  The video shows the prayer being treated politely, not like a performance at a rock concert, if that was the headline's intended meaning; nor did it seem to disturb the equilibrium of those present, if that was the intended meaning.

There is a much more serious problem, though.  The headline strongly implies that what is really important is that the prayer was heard by the Democratic Convention, not that it was heard by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Unfortunately, there is at least some evidence of the same attitude in the Cardinal's prayer.  For a few examples: "Help us to see that a society’s greatness is found above all in the respect it shows for the weakest and neediest among us....  Grant us the courage to defend it, life, without which no other rights are secure.... Renew in all our people a profound respect for religious liberty.... Make us ever-grateful for those who, for over two centuries, have given their lives in freedom’s defense...."  What do you think, is the Cardinal placing himself among those who 
  • do not see that a society's greatness is found in the respect it shows the weakest and neediest?
  • lacks the courage to defend life?
  • lacks respect for religious liberty?
  • is not grateful to those who have given their lives in freedom's defense?
Or is he saying this because he believes (correctly) that many of the people overhearing his prayer fall into those categories?  If so, how does his prayer differ from this well-known prayer?

The Pharisee standing, prayed thus with himself: O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican.
Notice how uncomfortably similar Cardinal Dolan's prayer is to this.  It also has the same self-congratulatory tone -- there is no very significant difference between what the Pharisee said and, "O God, I give Thee thanks that this country is not as the rest of nations," which is a fair approximation of such phrases as, "We beseech you, almighty God to shed your grace on this noble experiment in ordered liberty...."

Does the Cardinal pray like that in his private prayers -- the ones heard only by him and God Almighty?  Of course not.  He no doubt prays for the conversion of sinners, and he no doubt remembers that he himself is a sinner.  I respect him enough to believe that in private his prayer is more like that of the Publican:  "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."  

The problem is not with what Cardinal Dolan was saying to the Democratic Convention, nor with what he had earlier said to the Republican Convention; the problem is that what he was saying, he was saying to the Republican and Democratic Conventions, when he should have been speaking to God, with them and on their behalf.  Yet even the Cardinal's supporters agree that he was speaking to the crowds, not God -- for example,
It has often been said that to effectively communicate the truth to others, it is helpful to affirm the ways in which they already acknowledge and live out the truth.... Above all, though, Dolan’s prayers were calls to unity and ultimately conversion for leaders and members of both parties.
God clearly is not among the "others" for whom "it is helpful to affirm the ways in which they already acknowledge and live out the truth."  

As for the "calls to unity", the decisions for unity are subject to the free wills of "leaders and members of both parties", who, through a shocking coincidence, happened to be in the same room as the Cardinal.  It is natural for a man to pray that his girlfriend will marry him, but if he does so as part of saying grace at dinner with her parents, that's not a prayer, it's a proposal.  For the same reason, the Cardinal's "calls to unity" were not prayers, they were political proposals.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Plural of RBI

There is some controversy over the proper plural for RBI, a baseball term meaning "run batted in".  Some people say that since the plural of the original phrase would be "runs batted in", which also has the initial letters r, b, and i, the plural of RBI should be RBI.  A larger group says the plural should be RBIs (pronounced "Arby eyes"). 

So I ask the first group:  What do you call a single run batted in?  Do you call it a RBI or an RBI?  If you say "an RBI", you're treating RBI as a new word, not an initialism, so the objection to "RBIs" disappears.

Maybe the best choice is just to follow those who call it a "ribby".

Monday, September 17, 2012

Sun: Life Imitates Art

First, go here to see the Savage Chickens cartoon from August 9, 2012.  Then go here to see the Astronomy Picture of the Day for September 17, 2012.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Life Imitating Science Fiction?


Star Trek:  The Motion Picture ends with Captain Willard Decker, as a representative of "the creator", merging with V'Ger, a living machine built around the fictional Voyager 6 probe.  This makes it a little odd that the "Voyager scientist" quoted in a New Scientist article about Voyager 1 is also named Decker.  Don't worry, though; he is Robert Decker.  I have no doubt he is tired of all the jokes.

Beauty and the Plausibility of Evolution

When I was younger, I resisted the idea of biological evolution very strongly.  There were several reasons:  
  • my upbringing, specifically the environment in the church and school I attended,
  • the fact that the most vocal proponents of biological evolution seemed to be insisting not only that it did happen, but that it could not have been otherwise because there is no God, and 
  • the apparent absence of plausible alternative understandings of the first few chapters of Genesis. (Such alternatives do exist, but I was not exposed to them.)
Another reason, though, is that the common representations of life on Earth before the advent of man tended to be drab, boring, and ugly, as lampooned in Science Made Stupid.  The real world is too interesting and beautiful for this to be plausible for me. 

Today, documentaries like Walking with Dinosaurs have made great strides in making the pre-human world seem lively and realistic, and dinosaurs today are more likely to be represented as colorful, like the Swiss Guards, rather than dull green or gray, like cheap plastic toy WWII soldiers.

Group of swiss guards inside saint peter dome

My first exposure to the potential for beauty in the prehistoric world, though, was Disney's Fantasia.  The dinosaurs were still drab, but the context provided the beauty.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Separation of Science and State

How should we understand this statement, which is defined to be an error in the Syllabus of Errors?
55. The Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church.—Allocution "Acerbissimum," Sept. 27, 1852.
I think the key thing to notice is that "separated" (along with other forms of the word, such as "separation", as in "separation of Church and State") is an ambiguous term.  It can mean distinct, but it can also mean isolated.  The Church has always understood that Church and State are distinct -- in terms of their goals, their founding, etc. -- but that they should not be completely isolated from each other.

Franklin Church (Lane County, Oregon scenic images) (lanDA0044)

Since Americans, and modern people in general, have such a hard time distinguishing the sense in which it is right for Church and State to be "separate" from the sense in which it is wrong, it might be useful to consider an analogous situation:  the separation of science and state.

Atlantis Arrival at 39A (STS-117)

In the best American tradition, I will hold these truths to be self-evident:
  • Science is different from the State in terms of its goals.  The goal of science is understanding.  The goal of the state is the temporal welfare of its people.
  • Science is different from the State in what it does.  Science seeks to discover the laws of nature, but cannot author them, nor is their any need to enforce them.  The State, on the other hand, has rather wide latitude in defining the laws which it enforces.
  • Science is different from the State in its perspective.  Science strives to be objective, but the State has inescapable subjective aspects that require compromises. 
Thus science and the State are certainly distinct, and in that sense, separate.  As a result, 
  • It would be a disaster for the State to attempt to dictate science.  Perhaps the most infamous example was the attempt in 1897 of some Indiana lawmakers to redefine pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.  (The bill was, fortunately, defeated in the state senate.)
  • It would be an even greater disaster for scientists to run the State as some kind of scientific experiment.  Don't get me wrong; a scientist can also be a statesman, and vice versa -- Benjamin Franklin may be the best example.  We have seen, though, what happens when one group of people has only scientific curiosity about another group of people -- the Tuskegee Experiment, or worse.
On the other hand, no one today really wants science and State to have nothing to do with each other.
  • We want the State to regulate the conduct of science, for example in the storage and disposal of hazardous chemicals, the ethical conduct of experiments on living beings, etc.
  • We want science to inform the State on the effects of regulation.  This is true whether it relates to the FDA approving drugs for limited or widespread use (or banning them altogether), the granting of offshore drilling permits, the establishing of automobile fuel efficiency or emission standards, etc.  
  • Also, because of both public interest and the widespread benefits promised by science, we want the State to fund and support science.
Thus, although we want science to do science and the State to be the State, we also want them to interact with each other in a mutually beneficial way.  Note also that it is precisely when the State is ignorant of science that it is most likely to infringe on what is properly handled by science.

There are significant parallels between the separation of science and State and the separation of Church and State.  Of course, there are differences, too. Since I seem to be all about bulleted posts, here are a few more that pertain to Church and State.
  • Although the primary focus of the Church is the eternal welfare of souls, Christians are to love the whole person, which means looking after their temporal welfare as well.  This is why the Church has founded so many hospitals, for example.  It also puts the lie to the current administration's attempt to pigeon-hole religious freedom to one hour of worship weekly.
  • Likewise, just because the State is dedicated to the temporal welfare of its people does not mean that it is properly concerned only with power, wealth, and health.  Only recently has Western Civilization begun to forget that knowing the truth is a good, even for this world, and that being a person of good character has value even apart from an eternal reward.
  • Because of the previous two points, Church and State have had a tendency over the centuries to become excessively intertwined, frequently to the detriment of both.  My understanding is that under canon law, priests and bishops are now no longer allowed to serve in government posts; thus Fernando Lugo, onetime president of Paraguay, resigned from being a bishop and priest in order to assume the presidency.  (I understand there were irregularities even with that maneuver.)  The point is that the prohibition against a confusing of Church and State is not born out of Divine Revelation only, or even of Divine Revelation plus philosophy; it is born most of all from experience. 
  • These days, however, the more likely problem is not confusion between Church and State, but the insistence that if an idea can be seen to have been suggested by the Church, the State must have nothing to do with it. This is an example of the genetic fallacy. The Church has steadily refused to commit this fallacy, which is why She has been comfortable using carefully sifted ideas from non-Catholic and even non-Christian sources.  In the final analysis, what matters about an idea is whether or not it is true, not who thought of it first.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Technology Indistinguisable from Magic?

Arthur C. Clarke said a number of foolish things.  One of his most famous sayings is, 
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
What can be made of that?

First of all, notice that this is essentially a statement of religious faith, which might seem odd  given his many dismissive statements about religion.  Clarke's assurance partakes very much of "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen", because when one points out that today's technology is readily distinguishable from magic, the response would be to nod gravely and point out that today's technology is not "sufficiently advanced".  In fact, Clarke never saw "sufficiently advanced technology"; on Earth, at least, it has never existed. 

But surely we can extrapolate based on what has happened over the past two centuries or so?  After all, the first human flight was only about 230 years ago, in a Parisian hot-air balloon; the Wright brothers made the first flight in 1903; and Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon in 1969.  During the same period, we went from mail to telegrams to telephone to emails and texts; we saw the development of silent movies, "talkies", TV, and the Internet.  Surely this shows that anything that seems impossible or "magical" today can be done with enough technology?


No.  Although technology has enabled us to do things that might have seemed possible, but mind-numbingly difficult, science has placed restrictions that were not known before.  In 1783, when the first manned flight in a hot-air balloon was being made, it was not known that perpetual motion machines are impossible.  Then in the 19th century, the laws of thermodynamics were discovered, which make perpetual motion machines impossible.  In the 20th century, a several new things were discovered to be impossible -- distinguishing one electron from another, moving information faster than the speed of light, and simultaneously determining an electron's position and velocity with arbitrary precision, for example.

In addition, there is a real difference between saying that a sufficiently advanced technology could do things that would look like magic to someone not accustomed to it, and saying anything that happens in a story about magic -- that is, anything that a human being can imagine -- can be done with technology.  This latter situation would have to be the case, though, if Clarke's statement, as it is usually understood, were to be true.  (I suppose an alternative interpretation would be that sufficiently advanced technology would only work about as often as magic.  It certainly feels that way sometimes.)

So, for example, a computer with Internet access does indeed act in some ways like the Wicked Witch's magic mirror.  The restrictions on a TV, however, are very different from those on a magic mirror or a crystal ball.  A TV cannot see what's happening elsewhere without a camera in the right place; a TV cannot see the future; a TV cannot contact the dead. 

Likewise, we can now fly, but not at all like superman or even a witch on a broom.  It requires pretty big, obvious machines to fly; even the jet backpack, which really only works for short distances, is pretty clumsy, obvious, and limited -- much more so than the descriptions of magic found in folklore.  

So to recap, although things achieved by technology today might have seemed like magic in years past, the things magic is described as having done still seem like magic today, and there is no reason to believe that this will change. 

What did you expect?  Arthur C. Clarke was a science fiction writer, not a prophet or sage.  His quote about technology and magic is not really true, but it can be the premise or inspiration for some entertaining and thought-provoking fiction.  That will have to be enough.