Monday, April 29, 2013

String Theory: Did God Have Any Choice?

I am reminded of this question by the opening chapter of a book I have just started reading: The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next by Lee Smolin.  Smolin, who is skeptical of string theory, has justified criticisms about the extent to which string theory has monopolized particle physics and the over-exuberance of some of the proponents of the theory's proponents.  He does not quote them asking, "Did God have any choice?" but it actually has been suggested by some enthusiasts that no, God did not have any choice; no other laws for the universe were possible.

Ambrogio de Predis 007

You don't have to be either a physicist or a theologian to see that this is poppycock.  We can imagine all kinds of laws that might govern the universe.  We do this not only in scientific conjecture, but also whenever we write books of fantasy or science fiction.

Not only does such a suggestion both border on blasphemy and also contradict the everyday experience of telling, hearing, and reading stories, it perpetuates the idea that modern physics advances very much like it did in ancient Greece:  scientists sit around and tell stories, and whoever tells the best story "wins".  This completely obscures the fact that physics is an intrinsically experimental science.  The literature is full of elegant theories that nevertheless are contradicted by experiment, and Mother Nature always gets the last word.  Of course, the most damage was done by Albert Einstein, who really did think his theory was so beautiful that it must be true; so far, Mother Nature seems to agree.

In reality, the situation is not that bad.  The best book I have finished on string theory and why it is appealing is Out of This World: Colliding Universes, Branes, Strings, and Other Wild Ideas of Modern Physics by Stephen Webb.  Webb's book makes it clear that the "inevitability" of string theory is a conjecture (not proved) that is constrained by the known symmetries of the gravitational, strong nuclear, and electroweak forces, together with a dash of aesthetic beauty. 

To illustrate what this means, imagine I am trying to understand how many finger are on my right hand.

  1. I perform one experiment and find that there are fewer than 6 fingers on that hand.  
  2. I perform another experiment and find  that my right hand has more than 4 fingers.  
  3. Finally, I declare that the laws of nature are beautiful, and a beautiful law would be that the number of fingers on a hand is an integer.  
There is only one solution left:  I have 5 fingers on my right hand.  I might make a brash statement that "God had no choice" but to give me 5 finger on that hand, given conditions 1, 2, and 3.  But of course, the experiment does not really constrain God's choice; God's choice constrained the experiment.  I could easily have been born with more or fewer than 5 fingers on my hand, as was the case with some of my acquaintances.  As for the requirement of an integer number of fingers, some people lose part of a finger, and in any case one might argue that the thumb does not count as a whole finger.

Why then is such a ridiculous claim made about string theory?  Either because the speaker does not really understand what he's talking about, or because he wants to make a shocking statement that makes him seem more important than he really is.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


I know I should not be surprised, but there are still people who are saying that there is a planet "Nibiru" that will pass near Earth later this year.  I had hoped this would calm down, at least temporarily, after all the "Mayan calendar" predictions fizzled.  Silly me.

WARNING:  The following video is painful to anyone with either a basic grasp of science or a drop of common sense.

Now I am content to say that Nibiru actually hit the Earth on February 15, but was much smaller than had been expected, namely about the size of a house.

However, if it is indeed supposed to be more massive than Jupiter, it should be about the same diameter as Jupiter.  (Oddly enough, mass doesn't have much effect on the diameter of really big planets.)  This means it would become visible to the naked eye at about the orbit of Uranus.  It would be easily visible to anyone with binoculars, let alone a telescope.

To be generous to how fast an unknown planet might approach Earth, imagine it was dropped from well outside the solar system and just allowed to fall toward the sun, picking up speed as it fell.  By the time it reached the orbit of Uranus, it would still have about 6 years 3 months to fall before it reached Earth.  

By the time it reached the orbit of Jupiter, it would be as bright as Jupiter, which is brighter than anything in the night sky other than the moon and Venus.  It would be easy to see even in the largest cities.  (To my great surprise, I was able to see comet Hale-Bopp from inside Tokyo.  I wasn't even looking for it; I just looked up on my way home from the subway station, and there it was.)  The planet would still have about 298 days to fall. 

In other words, there is no way whatsoever that this could "sneak up on us".  

But what if it came from the direction of the sun, like the guy in the video says?  

Well, it could not have always been in the inner solar system, for a variety of reasons, ranging from the fact it would destabilize the orbits of the inner planets to the fact that it would be easy for even amateurs to see -- "presidential executive order" or not.  On the other hand, if it fell from farther out and just happened to be close to the sun from our perspective right now, we would have seen it six months ago.

One more thing.  The idea discussed in this first video is not exactly the same as the original idea of Zecharia Sitchin, but there are some strong similarities.  Sitchin believes that a planet "Nibiru" has passed through the inner solar system before, with catastrophic consequences.  In fact, he thinks it passes through the inner solar system every few thousand years, which may sound like a long time when compared with recorded human history but would still mean that either (a) a planet has just recently been bumped into an orbit that crosses the orbits of a half dozen other planets, which is unlikely, or (b) Nibiru has already passed through the inner solar system millions of times.  Neither case is at all consistent with the nice, almost-circular orbits of the planets.  It might be plausible if we lived in some of the wilder systems we have seen orbiting other stars, but not for our solar system. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Hate Crimes Laws

The way we define "hate crimes" now is pretty stupid, or worse.  After all, essentially all crimes involve either actual hatred or callous disregard; the boundary between these two is fuzzy at best, and the motivation of the criminal is not of foremost concern to the victim.  Worse, these laws appear to be yet another word game designed to get around the Constitution -- in this case, the Fifth Amendment's protection against double jeopardy.  Also, the "hate crime" legislation has become above all a mark of special favor for some groups from the government.

In spite of these problems, I have come to the conclusion that there actually is a proper role for "hate crime" laws.  Specifically, an act should be considered a "hate crime" if 

  1. it constituted a felony under other statues, and
  2. either
    1. a confessed purpose of the act was to intimidate or outrage an identifiable group of people or 
    2. a reasonable person would conclude that a purpose of the act was to intimidate or outrage an identifiable group of people.
Note that the only real difference between such a crime and terrorism is degree.  A "hate crime" might involve things like the destruction of property; terrorism should be reserved for acts which actually cause terror: bombings, poisoning the mail, that sort of thing.  The valid purpose of a "hate crimes" law should be to fill in this gap between a crime only against individual victims and acts of terrorism meant to intimidate whole groups.

Rolling Toomers Corner Auburn University

As an example of what I have in mind, consider the poisoning of the oaks at Toomer's Corner.  Note that although "criminal damage to an agricultural facility" is apparently a felony under existing statutes, what makes this crime really important is that it (as Updyke himself confessed below) was targeted at the entire Auburn University community. 

As it is, motives such as intimidating a group may come into play at sentencing, and my default instinct is not to multiply laws unnecessarily.  On the whole, though, I think the real if indirect targeting of a whole group constitutes a distinct crime.

Even so, some care would be needed in drafting the laws.  I do think that the language should be kept general, rather than enumerating distinct categories that are favored for special protection.  On the other hand, imagine the plausible case in which members of the Mongols motorcycle gang murder a member of the Hell's Angels "to make a point".  Should that be considered a hate crime?  Under the conditions I set forth above, yes; besides which it would be of practical interest to discourage hotheads from stirring up trouble.  It is not clear, though, that much of anyone would be comfortable with seeming to make "membership in a motorcycle gang" a protected category.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Matt Dillon for President

No, not the actor; the US Marshal in Gunsmoke.  

James Arness Amanda Blake Bette Davis Gunsmoke 1966

Although Marshal Dillon did occasionally make mistakes, he was the exemplar of American masculine virtue.  So, for example, in the episode "Kangaroo Court", he had to deal with a religious extremist who had taken it upon himself to pass and execute judgment, including floggings and amputations, on those who did not live by his moral code.  If Gunsmoke had been produced today, that would have been the whole of the story:  a cynical, agnostic marshal triumphing over a stereotypically crazy believer.  Instead, the episode ends with Marshal Dillon quoting Micah 6:8, showing that the marshal knew Scripture, had a pious attitude toward it, and knew how to apply it.  

Above all, Marshal Dillon embodied the cardinal virtues of justice, prudence, moderation, and courage.  These are perhaps best on display in the fairly typical scenes in which he protects someone he has arrested from a lynch mob.  Marshal Dillon may be confident that the prisoner will be convicted by a jury and hanged, but he will not be hanged until he has had his trial.  The law is the law, even when it is inconvenient.

A complete contrast, both in character and in genre, can be found in the character of Ming the Merciless; the particular scene I have in mind comes from the (pretty awful) 1980 movie.  Ming, of course, is an over-the-top tyrant for whom there is no law except his own convenience.  Thus his attempted wedding to Dale Arden proceeds like this:
Zogi, the High Priest: Do you, Ming the Merciless, Ruler of the Universe, take this Earthling Dale Arden, to be your Empress of the Hour?
The Emperor Ming: Of the hour, yes.
Zogi, the High Priest: Do you promise to use her as you will?
The Emperor Ming: Certainly!
Zogi, the High Priest: Not to blast her into space?
[Ming glares at Zogi]
Zogi, the High Priest: Uh, until such time as you grow weary of her.
The Emperor Ming: I do.

So Marshal Dillon,  American hero, was willing to risk his life to see to it that a man he was confident was guilty would still receive a fair trial, but for the villainous tyrant Ming, the most basic aspects of law could be disposed of when they became wearisome.  

Which of these two is most like these Republican senators, who want to be seen as "tough as nails" and "no nonsense"?  Is the Constitution only binding when we feel sympathy for the accused, or are doubtful of his guilt, so that a trial would not be wearisome?

Sweet Caroline

Forty years ago, we were proud of our country because 

  • we were sending men to the moon, 
  • we had not only been an important factor in winning World War II, but we had helped rebuild our defeated foes into freer and healthier societies, 
  • we were defending the world against the spread of godless Communism, and
  • our founding documents showed the greatest wisdom in balancing the need for a just order with the need for freedom.
I turned on the radio this morning to find that today people are proud of America because fans of the Boston Bruins know the words to "The Star Spangled Banner" and baseball parks across the country played "Sweet Caroline".  Both of these are nice, mind you, but not really much of a foundation for national pride.

  • We now can't even send a man into orbit without buying a lift on a Russian Soyuz.  It is not at all clear when or if we will get back into manned space flight; there are currently no plans with sufficient support and momentum to withstand the end of a president's term.
  • We have spent the last decade and more fighting wars with no clear aims.  Even before the wars are over, we have tried to "rebuild" the fractious states of our foes according to political traditions that are alien to them in the hope that they will elect governments that mirror American values.  The results have been predictably poor.
  • The president of Russia is now more likely to invoke God, as he did in response to the explosion of a meteor on Feb. 15, than is the president of the United States.
  • It is safe to say that respect for the US Constitution is lower today than at any other time in American history.
    • Freedom of religion is under attack in various ways.
    • So is the Second Amendment.
    • The idea of Congress actually declaring a war is a joke.  Now the president declares wars, and he dares Congress not to rally behind him.
    • The Bill of Rights still protects the individual from the government.  Unless, that is, the government decides to call the individual an "enemy combatant", a decision that cannot be appealed and that has the effect of depriving the individual of all rights, civil and human.
    • Oh, and the Bill of Rights does not apply to US territory outside the 50 states.  However, other parts of the Constitution, such as the fact that the president is the commander-in-chief of the military, apparently still do hold there.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Japan: An Alien Culture

The poor writers of Star Trek try to create alien civilizations, but they really only manage to give us slight exaggerations and caricatures of contemporary Americans.  None of these aliens are so strange, though, as to be able to produce this:

Japan seems to look at the world in a completely unique way.  This should have been a warning to us:  the fact that the American occupation of Japan worked so well should have been a warning that it would certainly not work anywhere else.

Don't think, though, that Japan is crazier than any other country.  We all have our own odd characteristics; we just don't notice them, in the same way we do not usually see our own noses.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend when I came back from spending 3 months in Denmark and Germany.  I told him that nothing says "America" like two football helmets shooting lightning at each other, colliding, and exploding.  "I never noticed; it just seems so natural."  Of course he was exaggerating, but there is a sense in which this seems appropriate, in spite of the fact that it is obviously nonsense. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin

It took me a long time to realize that the following "equation" is wrong:
truth + truth = truth.
That is, an abundance of true statements does not necessarily lead inevitably to a correct conclusion.  True statements cannot logically imply a false statement, but they can lead someone to jump to a wrong probable conclusion.

One place this really happens is in the news.  Suppose the major news outlets all develop a tendency (based perhaps on ratings, or on some "professional" consensus developed over cocktails) to report as many negative items as possible about one group, while completely ignoring stories in which members of that group are either doing something praiseworthy or are victimized by people outside the group.  The group can be based on anything identifiable -- race, religion, national origin, preferred sports team, and yes, sexual orientation.  Regardless, it will be easy for the news media to construct a false image for the group without saying anything actually false, simply by choosing which truths they find "newsworthy".

So yes, it is absolutely true that "we must love the sinner and hate the sin."  However, stating this at the same time the sin is being condemned has the effect of weakening the condemnation; it is too much like an apology, and it leads to the false conclusion that the sin is not really very bad after all.  As a result, we never, ever hear Jesus mix the condemnation of sin with any such statement in the Gospels.  Instead, He condemns the sins of the unrepentant in no uncertain terms, but when dealing with those who know they have sinned and are ready to repent, He offers mercy.

On the other hand, I have noticed a disturbing trend of orthodox Catholic bloggers always pairing the condemnation of homosexual acts with the cliche that is the title of this post.  But please note that the pairing is only for a few select sins.  For example, when it comes to the beating to death of Matthew Shepard, I don't believe anyone has said, "Though we must hate the crime, we must love Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson;"  but the obligation to love the sinner extends to all sinners.  Nor do I recall any such statements about needing to love Bernie Madoff, or John Anthony Walker, or James Earl Ray.  For that matter, I don't recall any special messages about how, though we must deplore the sinful abuse of immigrants, we still must love those who abuse them.

It is hard to avoid two possible explanations.

  1. They realize that the battle is lost of the culture of the United States, at least for the foreseeable future, and they are afraid to antagonize their opponents.  This is nothing but craven cowardice.  I suspect it is most often the case.
  2. Duel pistolet
  3. They do not, in fact, believe that there is really anything very wrong with homosexual activity.  An analogous situation was treated in the Father Brown mystery "The Chief Mourner of Marne."  In that story, respectable members of society think it hard of Fr. Brown to leave the Marquis of Marne mourning and repenting of a sin from long ago when they think it is that he killed his brother in a duel; for example, one of them said, "Surely the true Christianity is that which knows all and pardons all; the love that can remember—and forget."  However, when it emerged that Maurice Mair (the marquis) had used a very vile trick to murder his brother James in the duel, their attitude entirely reversed.  Only that of the priest was unswayed, leaving him to say, 
We have to touch such men, not with a bargepole, but with a benediction.  We have to say the word that will save them from hell. We alone are left to deliver them from despair when your human charity deserts them. Go on your own primrose path pardoning all your favorite vices and being generous to your fashionable crimes; and leave us in the darkness, vampires of the night, to console those who really need consolation; who do things really indefensible, things that neither the world nor they themselves can defend; and none but a priest will pardon. Leave us with the men who commit  the mean and revolting and real crimes; mean as St. Peter when the cock crew, and yet the dawn came.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Kim Jong-un and Caligula

Caligula bust

There's crazy, and then there's crazy.  The Roman emperor Caligula has long been regarded as crazy, and quite possibly there's something to that.  On the other hand, some of his "crazy" actions were probably meant to humiliate rivals; these may have been wise or foolish attempts, and they may have been more or less successful, but they were probably not quite as mad as they may appear at first blush.  Also, he may have found it convenient to let his enemies believe he was crazy; and he may have been slandered by his successors.  Both of these last points remind me of Ronald Reagan, of all people; he certainly liked keeping the Soviet Union unsure of how me might react to a provocation, and his subsequent Alzheimer's has been seized with evil glee by those who wish to discredit his entire presidency.

Caligula came to mind in the context of a contemporary leader who is currently making some very questionable decisions from atop his precarious perch:  Kim Jong-un.  It is certainly speculated that his current actions, which make no military sense whatsoever, may be designed to deter internal rivals.

What Kim Jong-un really, really needs is a way to declare victory and go home.  It really is of no importance whether anyone else believes this is a victory, as long is he can sell it domestically. 

So here is a suggestion:  Kim Jong-un should have is army collect sea shells, then return to the capital to celebrate a "triumph" over the sea.  Crazy?  Yes.  But not the craziest option on the table right now.

Faith and Reason

When Pope John Paul II published his encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), I was somewhat astonished.  I thought it was obvious that truths known by faith and truths known by reason could not contradict each other.  Of course, one has to be certain they are using words the same way; for example, when we say someone is a "big man" we may mean he is physically large, or that he is magnanimous, or that he is important.  We love apparent paradoxes caused by the elasticity of language:  "Napoleon was a small man, but he was also a very big man."

Unfortunately, the problem of language seems to extend to the very heart of the perceived conflict between faith and reason.  Specifically, I recall a conversation I had with a woman on a train back in the late 1990's.  The topic of faith came up -- I don't recall how -- and she asked how I could account for Muslims, Hindus, etc., all of whom appear to have just as strong a faith in contradictory ideas.  

My response was that faith has to do with its subject matter; it is not merely a feeling, any more than guilt is just a feeling.  Someone may feel guilty for something that no reasonable person could blame them for, such as being the only survivor of a crash that takes the lives of friends or family.  Likewise, some people can commit the most atrocious crimes without feeling the slightest twinge of guilt; the guilt is there, but it is not experienced as a feeling.

For another example, take health.  One person may be perfectly healthy in every important way but feel terrible due to something superficial; another person may feel just fine, but have an undetected cancer.

The conversation ended with the woman saying she had never thought of it that way, and that she would give it some more thought.  In retrospect, I think she was far more representative of the general public than I realized:  most people probably share her confusion between faith as a feeling and faith as way of knowing.  In fact, I suspect that many people have a similar misconception about reason and confuse their emotional reactions to an exercise in reason.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Two Superstitions About Popes

Pope Francis in March 2013
Both of these have been on display recently. 

1.  The first is the superstition of "the next Pope".  Whenever a new Pope is elected, we hear calls that the Church must change certain immutable teachings -- for instance, that only men can be ordained as priests, that contraception is an immoral violation of the nature of marriage, that all sex outside of marriage is immoral, etc.  Maybe "the next Pope" will change those teachings. 

No.  No secular analogy quite holds, but it might be sufficient to suggest that this would be like speculation that a new Chief of Staff of the United States Army will re-introduce segregation.  This will not happen because, although the Chief of Staff very powerful, he is not of unlimited power; he is subject to the authority of the President, the Congress, and the Supreme Court, none of which are part of the Army, and none of which will be re-introducing segregation.  Likewise, the authority of the Pope is not unlimited; he is subject to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and although our understanding of Divine Law may change, Divine Law itself does not change.

What would happen to a Chief of Staff who tried to do something outrageously opposed to the policies of the government?  No question about it, he would be removed from office immediately; if Truman could do that to MacArthur, it can happen to any general.  And what would happen to a Pope who exercised his free will to formally teach falsehood?  After all, he could make that attempt.  Somehow he would be prevented from doing so by the Holy Trinity.  

It is tempting to wonder if this might explain some of the sudden and unexpected deaths of Popes, but producing such a story about a real, historical Pope would inevitably be nothing but unjustified libel.  (If written about a fictional Pope, it would be very hard not to have his death appear to be a literal Deus ex machina.  His death would have to come at the beginning of the story, not at the end.  For example, his decision to teach error might be uncovered by a detective as part of the investigation, with complications from those who persuaded the Pope to follow this course of action.)

2.  The second kind of superstition exaggerates the role of the currently reigning Pope.   Don't get me wrong: I fully accept the role of the Pope as taught by the Church.  There are some, though, who treat every little thing done by a Pope the way that some superstitious people treat tea leaves, interpreting his gestures and omissions as though they were ex cathedra declarations on faith and morals, and frequently as though these inferences outweigh everything actually taught over the past 2000 years.  Inevitably, this is either because the "tea-leaf reader" is hoping to have his own position validated or because his attitude towards the Pope is fundamentally one of fear.  Either case is far from the virtue of faith.

So take, for example, the ruckus over Pope Francis's Maundy Thursday Mass, where he washed the feet of young prison inmates, including two young women, one of whom is Muslim.  This is noteworthy because the rubrics clearly state that if the priest chooses to wash feet, they are to be the feet of males.  (For several excellent posts dealing with this matter, see Dr. Ed Peters' blog.)

Let's be clear:  It is no great act of mercy to wash the feet of healthy young people.  This is not the First Century; the streets are much cleaner, quality shoes are widespread, and baths are commonplace.  Outside the context of the Holy Thursday Mass, to offer to wash the feet of someone who can do it for himself would not be, as some bloggers have forcefully insisted, "beautiful", it would be bizarre, even creepy.  If you want to be helpful, you can do the laundry or wash the dishes, but keep your hands to yourself!

Well, what about within the context of the Mass?  Here the matter becomes speculative, and that is a huge part of the problem.  The Holy Spirit prevents the Pope from formally teaching error, but the Holy Spirit gives him no help at charades.  This leaves some people speculating that Francis is "teaching" that those nasty old rules don't really matter and we should not pay them much heed. 

This is not the first time that the actions of a Pope have run an unnecessary risk of being interpreted as teaching something false.
"But when Cephas was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.  For before that some came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them who were of the circumcision.  And to his dissimulation the rest of the Jews consented: so that Barnabas also was led by them into that dissimulation.  But when I saw that they walked not uprightly unto the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all: If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of the Gentiles and not as the Jews do, how dost thou compel the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?"-- Galatians 2:11--14
It is important to understand that St. Peter (Cephas) was not only the first Pope, he was also one of the original twelve Apostles, and as such received certain "prerogatives" that would prevent him from ever again falling into mortal sin; yet even so, he could set a bad example, as he did in the case cited in Galatians.  If St. Peter could make such a blunder, so clearly could Pope Francis.  

At the same time, let's not read too much into this.  Francis was elected to be Pope, not to be a mime.  The quotation, "Preach the Gospel always.  When necessary, use words," which is often attributed to St. Francis, is actually of doubtful origin, and when Pope Francis teaches as Pope, it will always be necessary to use words.