Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Infinite Regress

Achilles Penthesileia BM B209  
Some of the arguments for the existence of God as a First Cause depend on the assertion that there can be no infinite regress of causes.  It is safe to say that although such an assertion is plausible, it is not self-evident. I thought it would be just as well to attempt to construct an example.  My attempt fails, but it is an interesting failure (at least to me).

The idea is this:  Achilles throws his spear, which we will take to be made of continuous, infinitely divisible matter.  (Sorry Democritus!)  In making his through, he obviously does not hold the spearhead directly; he holds the spear by somewhere near the middle of the shaft, but the push of his hand is ultimately responsible for the motion of the spearhead.  Ultimately responsible, but not directly responsible!  We can divide the shaft between his and and the spearhead (of length L) into halves:  Achilles pushes the first half, the first half pushes the second half, and the second half pushes the spearhead.  We can divide this again, so that now we have quarters:   Achilles pushes the first quarter, which pushes the second quarter, which pushes the third quarter, which pushes the fourth quarter, which pushes the spearhead.  We can continue, a la Zeno, to divide the shaft indefinitely, but each time we do, there remains a well-defined chain of causes, with the last piece (ending at distance L) being pushed by the penultimate piece (ending at distance (1 - 2-N)L).  Isn't this an example of an infinite regress?

Well, no.  It is a finite regress of arbitrary length, and no one has ever had a problem with finite (though long) regress.  We are safe as long as the number of divisions of the shaft is an arbitrarily large but finite number, but what happens if we do what the Greeks would never feel comfortable in doing and "complete" the infinity of divisions? Then the last piece, at distance L, will be pushed by the penultimate piece at distance (the largest rational number less than 1)L.  But there is no such thing as "the largest rational number less than 1".

Of course, another way to avoid a first cause is to have a closed causal loop.  Those may be possible in General Relativity, but it is highly doubtful that they can describe the universe as a whole.  Worse, although the cause of each element in the loop may be well defined, the loop as a whole seems very ... artificial, a thing even more unsatisfying and in need of an explanation than a chain of events going back into the infinite past (with apologies to the Big Bang).

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Elgin Marbles on the Moon

Ac marbles
Author unknown [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Last night I dreamed that there were huge carvings on the surface of the moon.  They were similar in style to the Elgin Marbles, but each figure was at least 1 mile high, and were easily visible from Earth through sufficiently powerful telescopes.  Although there were heroes, centaurs, etc., the carvings did not correspond to any known characters or stories from any mythology; I had the vague feeling these might correspond to a mythology from the age of the Titans, before Zeus overthrew his father.  There was an accompanying inscription in very old Greek; a few people could read it, but I never found out what it said.  The whole display was clearly meant to be seen from Earth.  Naturally enough, there was a mission planned to visit the carvings in the hope of learning something about how they had been made, whether this meant that people had once lived on the moon and it once had (surprisingly) an atmosphere, etc. 

My dreams are still better than SyFy made-for-TV movies.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Is String Theory Too Timid?

Lately I've been watching the series of YouTube videos put out by Stanford University in which Leonard Susskind lectures about string theory and M-theory.  He really is an excellent lecturer, so even though I have had little cause to use advanced quantum mechanics over the past two decades, let alone particle physics or string theory, it's easy to follow his lectures.  (They are not lectures for the general public, though, because they do require having had at some time a pretty good background in physics, but they are OK for an advanced undergrad or someone who is very rusty.)

I have tended to be a skeptic regarding superstrings, mostly because it is too often presented to the general public in exactly the same way ancient Greek philosophers presented their physics theories:  long on an appeal to what a beautiful idea it is, but almost completely lacking any evidence from experiment or observation.  That is very bad form for a scientist!  It hasn't helped that some of the theory's proponents have even suggested that perhaps it is the ONLY possibility, so that "God had no choice" but to build a universe out of superstrings -- a statement that is at least borderline blasphemous and which displays a mind-boggling absence of imagination.  Happily, though, the actual science behind string theory is not quite so muddle-headed as the popularizations. 

One thing that is still surprising, though, is how reliant string theory seems to be on physics that is backed up mostly by our experience with molecules, atoms, and nuclei.  In particular, Susskind starts off with a string of masses connected by springs, considers that string in a reference frame in which it is moving close to the speed of light, then applies the standard techniques to quantize it.  This is all pretty basic stuff, very similar to what is used in the Debye model of a generic crystal.  The only thing is, he wants this to apply all the way down to the Planck scale.

To me that seems to be unjustified optimism.  Quantum mechanics has of course been phenomenally successful in explaining or predicting all kinds of phenomena, but there are, after all, a number of foundational problems about it, and it requires a huge jump to go from they physics of hadrons and mesons to the Planck scale.  Somehow, it seems likely to me that along the way, we will have to replace Quantum Mechanics itself with something new that will be even weirder.  Quantum Mechanics would remain as a "low energy" approximation for whatever comes next, just as Newtonian Mechanics remains as an approximation for Quantum Mechanics.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Thinking in Dreams

Like most people, I suspect, my dreams come in different kinds.  Some of them are like short stories, and if I remember enough details these can be quite interesting.  Many are like a confused movie, except that the confusion is usually not noticed until I wake up.  In yet other dreams the main character really does seem to be much more identifiable as "me", partly because the people with whom the character interacts are often family or friends, or because the places the character visits are places I have been, and partly because he thinks much the same way my waking self thinks. 

The fact that this dream self thinks so much like me makes the differences all the more interesting.

One thing that stands out is that at some level -- something like the subconscious of my dreaming self -- I know that I am dreaming.  I do not have lucid dreams, but in some cases I end up debating with myself whether I can disregard an unpleasant event because it is just a dream or whether I am just in denial.  This happened twice over the past week:  in one dream I had accidentally backed my truck into a car behind me, and in another I was hunting with a friend (not anyone my waking self recognizes) and got into trouble both for shooting a moose on private property without the landowner's permission and for discharging a firearm too close to the road.  The fact that I have never hunted nor lived in a place with moose makes that second dream particularly strange.  I tend to wake up shortly after beginning to suspect that I am dreaming.

Geography is very confused in my dreams.  I know the layout of the US states pretty well -- the main mistake I am likely to make is confusing Vermont and New Hampshire.  Maps in my dreams are horribly confused.  The distances are much reduced, with the cities that are landmarks on my drives each lying about one hour or less from its neighbor, and the roads are much more north/south and east/west than in reality.  In my dreams, a good day's road trip would be from Tuscaloosa up into Indiana, then over to New Jersey and down to Philadelphia.  In the real world this would be a trip of about 1300 miles; in my dreams it is more like 250 miles, and I seem to have made many such trips just of the heck of it.  (Update 1/19/15:  Last night I dreamed my dad had driven to Detroit and back as part of a long day's work, and the round trip took him 8 hours.  In the real world it would have taken 32 hours.)

When I was a student I used to dream that I was studying for the test that was (in the real world) coming up the next day.  I would try to read from my textbook, but it was impossible to focus on it, either visually or mentally.  This usually happened just as it was time to get up, and eventually I realized I needed to wake up because the fuzziness of the textbook was a dead giveaway.

Something similar happens when I try to do math in my dreams.  For instance, just last night I dreamed I was talking to someone about the manganese nodules on the seafloor (why we would be talking about this, I have no idea), and he suggested that there were only a few thousand of them.  I knew that was much too small a number, but all my efforts to make an order-of-magnitude estimate were frustrated, even though I used dream paper to try writing it out.  I made all kinds of mistakes:  I mixed up the formula for the volume with the formula for the area, even though I knew I was doing something wrong; I estimated the oceans to cover half the earth, rather than 70%; and I used 4000 km as the radius of the earth, when it is 4000 miles.  I also estimated one nodule per square kilometer of ocean, but I knew that would be a generous lower bound.  I can do a calculation like this in my head in just a few seconds while awake, but it was quite beyond me while asleep.

The weird thing is that once, back in high school, I went to bed knowing there was a serious problem with the proof for a theorem I was trying to prove.  At about 3 am, I woke up knowing what the solution was to my difficulty, so I got up and wrote it down.  Somehow I had solved the problem in my sleep.  Sadly, this seems to have been a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Is My Office Haunted?

Well, no.  This is just a stupid trick of the light on some blank DVDs I had on my much-too-messy desk.  Still, I can kind of make out two eyes and a nose. 

What's really sad/funny is that this is actually as good as or better than many of the "ghost photos" one can find on the Internet.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Unconditional Surrender and a False Dilemma

"HiroshimaGembakuDome6705". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday will mark the 69th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, which, together with the bombing of Nagasaki, killed well over a hundred thousand civilians.  That was according to plan; the bombings were intended to make it blatantly obvious to the Japanese that the war was unwinnable and the cost was unthinkable, so that they would promptly surrender.  If this was not terrorism, nothing is terrorism.  Please do not pretend that the target was a ball-bearings plant.

This much is generally conceded, but it is argued that it was the better of only two alternatives.  The other possibility was a D-Day-style invasion that was expected to result in a million American casualties, with even larger numbers of Japanese military and civilians killed.  It is easy to say that we must not do evil that good may result, it is argued, but if doing evil saves over three million lives, then the evil must be done. 

But were these the only two possible alternatives?  Actually, there was another choice available -- one that is so much more shocking than the deliberate slaughter of 100,000 civilians that it is overlooked:    admit that the president of the United States had made a mistake.

Franklin Roosevelt had insisted that the surrender of the Axis powers must be unconditional, and Churchill and Stalin had agreed.  This was in no small part bravado, which was necessary in the early part of the war, but it was also intended to make sure that the defeat of the Axis would be unambiguous.  The Allies did not want a repeat of the claim that Germany had not lost the First World War in the field, but rather was betrayed by cowards well behind the front.

Look at this from the perspective of the Japanese, though.  What could unconditional surrender mean, other than that if they knew what the Allies had in mind they would never surrender?  It would have been easy for them to imagine atrocities; all they had to do was remember how they had treated China and Korea.  The Japanese tendency to commit suicide rather than surrender was only partly a matter of honor; there was also a very practical fear of how the defeated were made to suffer.  What terrible things could the Allies have in mind that they were not willing to declare?

Of course, the reality was far milder than anyone, Japanese or American, could have imagined.  Tojo was hanged, as were a few others, but Japanese war criminals were pursued with nothing of the gusto applied to the hunt for German war criminals.  Japan surrendered the right to wage war, but a small self-defense force was retained.  Hirohito abandoned the claim to divinity, but both his life and his office were spared.  The occupation forces were well-disciplined, and Japan was welcomed as a trading partner and ally, leading to greater prosperity than at any earlier point in Japanese history.

What if the Japanese had been told what lay in store for them?  Would they have stubbornly insisted on continuing to fight, regardless of the costs?  Probably not: even before the atomic bombs were dropped, about half the Japanese cabinet favored surrender.

Would this have allowed Japanese militarists to insist that Japan had not "really" been beaten?  Possibly, but that kind of person will make outrageous claims no matter what the facts may be.  The German perception that their armies had not lost World War I in the field had less to do with the rise of the Nazis than the terms of surrender and (above all) the Great Depression.

Americans have always had too great a tendency to deify our presidents, and FDR was an extreme example.  This often comes at a cost.  Let us pray that we never again consider the reputation of a president to be worth more than a hundred thousand civilian lives.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Hidden Bloodlines

I just stumbled across a rather interesting documentary that argues that Edward IV of England was illegitimate, and then proceeds to track down the "real" king of England, who was (he seems to have passed away, if the YouTube comments are to be trusted) "real people", as my family would say. 

I think this sort of thing must be very common.  After all, St. Joseph was a direct descendant of King David, yet he was a carpenter with no apparent social or political significance.  More generally, although a tiny percentage of people descended from prominent families are able to trace one line of ancestors back two thousand years or so, I suppose no one can trace back all his ancestors that far.

In my case, I know I have ancestors from France, England, Ireland, and Germany -- presumably, then, basically the whole of northwestern Medieval Europe.  But what about before then?  Could one of my ancestors have been a Roman legionnaire recruited in Egypt and settling in Gaul, but descended from one of Ramses the Great's 96 sons?  Who knows?  Going back that far, we all have a lot of ancestors, and with all that has happened since then, just about anything is possible.

All this is well and good, but arguably of only trivial interest.  Things get more interesting, though much more controversial, when we get to the question of who may be descended from ancient Israel and Judah, and what that means.  An unbelievable amount of nonsense, much of it highly offensive to any thinking person, has been written on such topics.  Let me be clear from the outset that I am not in any way endorsing either the anti-Semitic pseudoscience that led to the Nazis and their successors, nor the comparatively quaint fantasy of British Israelism.

Instead, I want to focus primarily on Christian (and especially Catholic) writers who tend to take a few verses from Scripture (in particular, John 4:22 and Romans chapter 3) use them to draw unwarranted conclusions regarding the relationship of the Catholic Church to "the Jews".  (Quotation marks are actually necessary here, because the passages would have had a somewhat different meaning in the First Century than in the Twenty-first Century.)  The motivations of these authors are no doubt good; they seems to be a combination of curiosity about these particular verses, a wish to counteract the history of Antisemitism, and a desire to make the Gospel more palatable to their Jewish friends, but there are problems with their results.

First of all, in John 4:22, when Jesus said, "Salvation is from the Jews," He was kind of obviously talking about what was happening that very decade -- a time when there was not much mystery to the question of who is a Jew.  He was also building up to the very next two verses, which were about the end of Temple Judaism and the admission of non-Jews to proper worship:
But the hour cometh and now is, when the true adorers shall adore the Father in spirit and in truth. For the Father also seeketh such to adore him.  God is a spirit: and they that adore him must adore him in spirit and in truth.
As for the advantages St. Paul lists for being a Jew, they appear to fall into three categories. 

  1. Some advantages are apparently due to some spiritual aspect of biological descent.  Some societies vastly overestimate the importance of such a dimension -- in particular, caste-based and eugenic societies.  Today's society tends to deny any possibility of such a dimension, in part due to its materialist philosophy, and in part due to the outrages committed by caste-based and eugenic societies.  However, it is important to remember that the doctrine of Original Sin means that biological descent does have certain real spiritual consequences, even though they are not as extreme as some have believed.

    Also, every human being whatsoever has both good and bad in his ancestry.  The Hebrews accepted the Law at the foot of Mount Sinai; they also worshiped the Golden Calf at the foot of Mount Sinai.  The prophets came from and to them, and they are the ones who murdered the prophets.  This does not make them especially bad or especially good; it makes them a fitting representative for all of humanity.  (In fact, I suspect part of the reason God called the Hebrews is precisely because there was nothing very special about them.  If He had called the Egyptians, people might have thought it was because of their science or architecture.  If He had called the Greeks, it might have been thought to be because of Greek philosophy or art.  For a long time, though, the Hebrews had no very distinctive worldly success.)

    The main problem, though, is clear in Romans 3:3.  "For what if some of them have not believed?"  Because, of course, some of them did believe, and those who did entered the Christian community and no longer identified themselves as Jews.  At this point, only God knows who is actually descended from the Patriarch Jacob, just as only God knows who is actually descended from Ramses the Great.  I suppose that there are very few people in Europe with no Jewish ancestry at all, but there is apparently no way of knowing in this life.
  2. Other advantages listed by St. Paul were due to the fact that Jewish culture going back to Abraham had been shaped by the worship of the One True God for nearly two thousand years.  This is not such an advantage today, when modern Judaism has explicitly rejected the Christian Gospel for two thousand years but several national cultures have been shaped by the Gospel for up to the same length of time.
  3. Finally, at the time of St. Paul, only Jews would have been raised since childhood in the worship of the True God.  By the time he was martyred, though, he would already have known Gentile converts whose children had been raised in the Faith from childhood.
So two of the kinds of advantage really do not apply any more, whereas the third is a mixed blessing that might apply to just about anyone of European or Near Eastern descent.  This, to say nothing of the explicit statements of Scripture in precisely the passages that are cited, makes it perfectly clear that a recent convert from Judaism does not become a First Class Christian, with everyone else a Second Class Christian, which sadly is the implication of many of these books.

As regards ranking individuals or nations or cultures, I think the problem comes with assuming that there is one universal ranking, and everyone ranked "better" is better in every way.  This certainly creeps into much that has been written about the nine choirs of angels.  We know, though, that the Blessed Virgin Mary occupies a position in Heaven higher than that of any angel or any other mere human, and we also know that she was not eligible to become a priest or bishop.  We know that she comes first among created beings by order of grace, but that Lucifer came first by order of nature.  We even know that it is meaningless to ask if an oboist "outranks" a cellist, because there are both oboe concertos and cello concertos.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Contemplate this.

This is the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1:  perhaps a fitting time for our collective stupidity to rear its head again.

Many people alive today have never experienced the Cold War, and so have no memory of this fear.  John McCain has no such excuse.

That's even before any consideration of whether Putin or Obama (or McCain) is more untrustworthy.

Update:  Maybe someone can correct me on this, but my recollection is it took longer for the US to confirm that the USS Vincennes had shot down Iran Air Flight 655 than it took the US to declare that a missile downed Malaysia Airlines MH17.  But that's due to improved technology, right?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Can Buddha Be Baptized?

Can Buddha be baptized?  That is, could some modern-day Aquinas do for the philosophies of the East what St. Thomas did for the philosophy of Aristotle -- strip off those elements that are incompatible with established Catholic doctrine, yet still find a substantial core remaining that the Church could use?  It's an appealing thought for at least three reasons.

  1. Plato enabled the Church Fathers to make a great deal of progress in understanding and developing Christian theology, and Aristotle likewise enabled the blossoming of scholasticism.  The prospect of another surge forward in understanding is very attractive.
  2. The use of Plato to explain Christian doctrine played a role (though not the decisive one) in converting the Greco-Roman world to Christianity.  Maybe the use of elements of Eastern philosophies could lead to the conversion of much of Asia.
  3. Finally, it would fit in with the egalitarian view of the humanity that is so pervasive at present.
Plato and Aristotle in The School of Athens, by italian Rafael
This painting of Plato and Aristotle adorns the Pope's official residence, 
the Palace of Sixtus V.

Sadly, I don't think this is at all likely. 

To be clear, there is much of value in Eastern culture generally.  That is obvious -- any society that endures long enough to produce an actual culture must be doing some things right, and any culture large enough to produce an actual culture must contain some of the best (along with some of the worst) of mankind.  Asian accomplishments in the fine arts and the practical arts are too obvious to require further elaboration, and of course Christians can make as much use of these as of their Western counterparts.  Why should philosophy be any different?

One of the interesting things about Greek philosophy is that, although it spoke of the gods or even in fact of God, it had next to nothing to do with Greek religion.  Greek religion did not dictate Greek philosophy, and Greek philosophy did not dictate Greek religion.  Chesterton discusses this somewhat in The Everlasting Man:
Aristotle, with his colossal common sense, was perhaps the greatest of all philosophers; certainly the most practical of all philosophers. But Aristotle would no more have set up the Absolute side by side with the Apollo of Delphi, as a similar or rival religion, than Archimedes would have thought of setting up the Lever as a sort of idol or fetish to be substituted for the Palladium of the city. Or we might as well imagine Euclid building an altar to an isosceles triangle, or offering sacrifices to the square of the hypotenuse. 
In almost every other time and place, either philosophy has been the handmaiden of theology, or theology has been the handmaiden of philosophy.  In fact, there was some of that in ancient Greece, too, with the weird cult of Pythagoras, which seems to have more-or-less worshiped the natural numbers, and again in the late Roman Empire with the neo-Platonists.  Even the main tradition of the Golden Age of Greece -- Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle -- contains elements at odds with Christianity, such as the idea of the transmigration of souls in Plato and an eternal, essentially static universe in Aristotle.  

Nevertheless, it is possible to remove those elements from classical Greek philosophy while still having something that is recognizably the work of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.  In contrast, it would not be possible to remove the specifically Christian aspects of the philosophies of St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas without shredding and twisting them.  My impression is that the same is true of Buddhist and Hindu philosophy; the religion is thoroughly integrated into the philosophy, so that the philosophy would be distorted beyond recognition if the religion were removed.

After all, the main part of what is left when Plato or Aristotle is "baptized" is a mostly empty framework on which a pervasively Christian philosophy can be constructed.  This framework includes a technical vocabulary and rules of inference.  Some of the biggest philosophical mistakes in the Church's history have involved using Greek philosophy as something more than an empty framework -- in trying to hold on to Aristotle's physics, for example.  Even if Buddhist or Hindu philosophy could be "emptied out" to produce a bare framework, would the new framework be compatible with the old one?  If so, would it add to the old framework?  If not, would it have any advantage over the old one?  The prospects are suddenly much less encouraging.

The impulse, now stronger than ever before, to see all times, places, and persons as fundamentally equal does echo some genuinely Christian themes.  For example, 
And Peter opened his mouth and said: "Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him."Acts 10:34,35 (RSVCE)
But that does not mean that God distributes His blessings equally, a fact obvious to every child, only denied by adult ideologues, and dealt with explicitly in I Corinthians 12.

Jesus was born in a specific place at a specific time.  It is sometimes pointed out how the world was prepared for the Incarnation and the spread of the Gospel -- in particular, the Pax Romana had just begun and piracy was mostly eliminated.  Perhaps the blossoming of Greek philosophy a few centuries earlier should also be added to the list of preparations.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Science Documentaries

Once, when the secrets of science were the jealously guarded property of a small priesthood, the common man had no hope of mastering their arcane complexities. Years of study in musty classrooms were prerequisite to obtaining even a dim, incoherent knowledge of science.
Today, all that has changed: a dim, incoherent knowledge of science is available to anyone.

-- Science Made Stupid
A couple of weeks ago, a reader posted a comment on my post regarding the "Axis of Evil" as allegedly supporting geocentrism.  The comment was in fact very sparse:  it consisted of nothing more than this link to an article that is shocked! that scientists are dismissive of a documentary that some have never seen and in which others actually participated.  In reality, this is not shocking at all -- and I am not making a cynical statement about scientists in saying that.  Instead, my response is due to three facts:
  1. details are not always necessary to make a sound judgment;
  2. form matters; and 
  3. appearing in a documentary does not mean a person endorses the claims of the documentary.

Orlando-Ferguson-flat-earth-map edit

1.  Documentary shows, whether good, bad, or indifferent, really don't bury the lede; they almost always let you know from the beginning what kind of conclusion they are promoting.  Regardless of format, anyone who knows that conclusion to be bunkum does not really need to see the evidence presented in favor of the bunkum.

Maybe the best example would be "documentaries" (many of which can still be found on YouTube) claiming that something really profound, probably the end of the world as we know it, was going to happen precisely on December 21, 2012.  If somehow you had been living under a rock and had seen none of this, would you really think there was still any point in watching the documentary now?

The scientific community is actually quite small, and the community of scientists engaged in research on cosmology is a very small part of it.  Any professional cosmologist will be aware of the current state of cosmological research, the controversies within the field, and the arguments for and against the proposed resolutions to those controversies.   That means he will be particularly good at sniffing out bunkum in his own field.

2.  Form matters:  sometimes the manner in which a claim is presented destroys its credibility.  Legitimate business opportunities do not come in unsolicited emails from strangers.  A man who interviews for a job as a bank manager while dressed as a chicken does not seriously want the job.  Presidents almost never announce anything that is both new and important in State of the Union Addresses because they want to guarantee that the speech is a "success".  No Bigfoot program will make the announcement of proof that Bigfoot is real -- in the highly unlikely event that such proof emerges, probably in the form of a real body found by a hunter or motorist, every network will cut into its programming to announce the discovery immediately. 

There is a hierarchy of credibility when it comes to the forms in which scientific claims are released.  At the top are claims released through a peer-reviewed journal with a good reputation.  Below that are claims released at scientific conventions attended by the leaders of the field in question; they will not be able to carefully check the claim, but at least they will be able to point out obvious flaws on the spot.  Then come press releases.  Generally speaking, the press has no idea what scientists are talking about, but at least the release might have been written by a scientist.  Documentaries actually are near the bottom, mostly because they are either produced by the "edutainment" industry, which is more interested in telling a story the public will enjoy than the truth, or by advocates of fringe ideas who knew (either from experience or from a sound intuition) that they would not be taken seriously if they tried presenting their ideas in any of the above forums.

There are still worse ways to release a claim -- for example, one could do like Melba Ketchum and buy a small and insignificant journal so that it will publish one's paper.  She still maintains that the paper was "really" peer-reviewed, but not many people, let alone scientists, take her seriously.  Her paper is still the only one published by that journal in the year or so since she bought it.  The has got to be just about the worst possible way to present a claim without actually breaking the law.
By the way, the insistence on real peer review may seem like snobbery, but it isn't; it's a necessary step given the number of claims made and the limited amount of time available.  The truth is that it is not even possible for any one person to keep up with all the peer-reviewed articles published in any of the larger sub-fields of a basic scientific discipline (for example, condensed matter physics as a subfield of physics).  Besides that, most of the really interesting conjectures based on the current observations and experiments will inevitably turn out, on the basis of further observation or experiment (or sometimes for theories, more careful math or better computer simulations) to be wrong.  Filters are necessary so that time is spent mostly on ideas that are at least plausibly correct.

3.  I remember some TV show from the '80's or early '90's about a Weekly World News-type newspaper that wanted to run with a headline that maybe Elvis was an alien.  Someone thought that Carl Sagan would be a fantastic source for a comment.  So they phoned him.  "Dr. Sagan," said the reporter on the phone, "what do you have to say about the theory that Elvis was an alien? ... Oh. ... I see."  (He hung up.)  "Well, what did he say?"  "He said, 'I am absolutely astonished that you would have the audacity to ask me such a ludicrous question.'"  Everyone looked glum, until someone came up with the headline.  "I've got it!" he said, "Elvis an Alien?  Carl Sagan Says, 'I'm Absolutely Astonished!'"  (If anyone remembers this show, please remind me of its name.  I've been looking for it off-and-on for several years.)

Unfortunately, similar stunts by TV shows do not seem to be limited to fiction.  One scientist describes the way he was misled and his words twisted by a "documentary" here.  A similar account comes from an advocate of ideas as near the fringe as is geocentrism.  In fact, I've heard similar stories often enough to conclude that if someone comes asking for your comments in a "documentary", unless you have a preexisting relationship of long standing so that you really have a reason to trust the producers, it is essential to retain the power to veto the use of your name, image, and words in the final production -- a demand that the producers will almost certainly not agree to.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

How many states are there in Brent Greer's America?

The flag below is not the flag of the United States of America; it is the flag of Liberia. How can we be sure of this? It has to do with the number and position of the stars and the number of stripes.

  Flag of Liberia (WFB 2004)

The flag below is the US flag.  

Notice that it has 50 stars in a staggered pattern.  Even with this many stars, there are only about 3 rows of stars at the same height as the red stripe that touches the bottom of the blue union and the white stripe immediately above it. 

Now check out the flag Brent Greer painted on his house.  He has 7 rows of stars at the same height as two stripes, and they are in a rectangular pattern, meaning that, contrary to the Fox News headline, he did not paint the US flag on his house.  He did not paint any recognizable flag whatsoever.

The closest I have been able to find to what he painted is this one, representing some fictional situation in which the Confederate States of America had conquered and incorporated the United States of America, yet still ended up with 50 states.  This has a staggered pattern, though, and a white stripe extending to the bottom of the blue union.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

George Weigel on Courage

The Denver Catholic Register does not permit comments to George Weigel's recent column on its own site, so I make my comment here.

First of all, I have no excuse for following the link that led me to his column.  I had never heard of George Weigel until he wrote his biography of then Pope, now Saint John Paul II, but my impression is that I can only agree with about one third of what he has written since then.  He was actually invoked by some hawkish Catholics -- or perhaps more accurately, Catholic hawks -- as an authority whose promotion of the US military adventure in Iraq somehow balanced the opposition of John Paul II (and Benedict XVI) to that war.  Unfortunately, this has been all too typical of Weigel. 

The column in question is thus not unexpected.

As a rule, of course, comparisons to Hitler or to Nazi Germany are not the mark of a well-reasoned argument, since the Nazis are apparently the only current universal representation of real evil.  Remember the hubbub when Prince Harry dressed as a Nazi for a costume party?  There would have been no such outcry if he had dressed as a pirate, or as Nero, or even as Satan himself.  A comparison to Hitler, such as that insinuated by Weigel, is not intended to further an argument, but to shut the argument down. 

As I mentioned in a previous post, when applied to a world leader, a comparison to Hitler can mean only two things.

  1. Do not attempt to reason or negotiate.  Reason is futile, because you are dealing with absolute evil.  Negotiation shows that you are weak -- you don't really want to be another Neville Chamberlain, do you?
  2. The war must continue until "Hitler" surrenders unconditionally -- no matter how many lives it costs.
But Russia is still a superpower.  In the not-so-veiled language the US likes to trot out so often, they won't rule anything in or anything out when it comes to defending themselves.  Weigel is no spring chicken; he is old enough to remember the Cold War, even if he is not wise enough to be grateful for having survived it.

There are certain more specific reasons that Weigel should "not go there" with the Nazi comparisons. 
  • Many Nazis thought that the Western Powers -- mostly the British Empire and USA -- would "see the light" and join Germany in a united struggle against Russia.  Well into the war, von Ribbentrop felt sure they would; Rudolf Hess took it upon himself to try to negotiate such a deal; and even at the very end, Himmler flirted with the idea.  It didn't happen then.   What does Weigel want?  The UK, US, and Germany to unite in a struggle against Russia.  Don't think no one has noticed the parallel.
  • I'm sure it's not polite to mention it these days, but there are some uncomfortable parts of the Ukrainian nationalist movement that Weigel supports that make the comparison ... ironic.
  • Among the many groups that the Nazis persecuted was the Catholic Church.  However, when we carefully explain that 
    • although Hitler and Himmler were baptized Catholics, they radically broke from the Church and were in no way living out Catholic ideals;
    • although Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) was briefly in the Hitler Youth, this was under compulsion, and he and his family were firmly anti-Nazi;
    • the concordat with Nazi Germany was a practical matter and in no way whatsoever an endorsement of Nazi ideas or actions;
    • although some bishops sympathized with the Nazis (such as Archbishop Šarić) and some helped Nazis escape after the war (such as Bishop Hudal), they acted according to their own delusions and without the blessing of the Church -- when we as Catholics have to explain these things, and we hope that people will look calmly and without prejudice at the evidence, it is very unseemly to make rash and superficial accusations that someone we may not like is somehow "just like Hitler".

And now to Weigel's take on courage, which is after all what the title of this post promises.  Weigel actually starts his column by mentioning the incredible carnage that servicemen faced on D-Day, both in reality and as portrayed in the movies.  Unbelievably, he then transitions to, "... the courage displayed on D-Day was preceded by the courage displayed before D-Day: the courage of decision-makers charged with defeating Nazi barbarism, who did not shirk their duty but shouldered the burden of leadership."  Ah, yes.  Because it really takes as much courage to risk a frown from FDR or a raised eyebrow from Churchill as it does to charge a beach covered by enemy machine guns in pillboxes that have already withstood the naval bombardment.  To risk being reassigned to a less prestigious staff position, that is real courage!  Please.  George Marshall, to whom he applied the statement, would be shocked at and embarrassed by such a suggestion.  Patton would simply have slapped Weigel, and this slap would no doubt be remembered alongside the punch of St. Nicholas as a fully justified blow.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


Nothing hinders certain things happening by luck or by chance, if compared to their proximate causes: but not if compared to Divine Providence, whereby "nothing happens at random in the world," as Augustine says. 
-- St. Thomas Aquinas


A comment on a recent post generated a conversation, at the commenter's own blog, on the nature of chance.  Here I continue that discussion by posting my ideas on chance at greater length.

To begin with, I think the best way to approach the mystery of chance is in the context of several similar mysteries, the first of which is free will.   One important aspect of free will is that we cannot predict exactly and with certainty what another person will do, even if we know his entire history and all the influences in creation that might be acting upon him.  If we could, he would be a mere automaton.  Since we might indeed expect subatomic particles to be precisely automatons, it is counterintuitive that the same statement should be true of them -- that there is an absolute limit to our ability to predict what they will do -- yet such is the case.  (This sort of "coincidence" happens all the time, where there is a tenuous but recognizable stylistic similarity between Christian doctrines and the best understanding of the material world science can provide -- almost as if they have the same Author.)

The best analogy I have heard reconciling God's complete control of the universe with free will is that of a work of art.  For example, in The Lord of the Rings, did Saruman betray his fellow wizards by his own free choice, or because Tolkien wrote it that way?  Both, obviously.  Nothing happened in the book that Tolkien did not intend, yet Tolkien's "influence" is of a completely different nature than that of any of the characters in the book -- Gandalf, Galadriel, or even Sauron.  When Saruman rebelled, it was a decision that came from within him, even though it came as a part of Tolkien's story.  Saruman had free will.  This is one of the reasons Tolkien referred to "Middle Earth" as a "sub-creation".

Other works of art can illustrate related ideas.  

One often notices in movies scenes that seem to have nothing much to do with the main characters or plot trajectory, but obviously the scene must be there for some reason.  If we can guess the reason that scene was included -- if, for example, it points to a secret weakness in the villain that the hero can be expected to exploit -- the scene is analogous to what has come to be known as Providence.  Of course, in principle everything that happens can be said to be ordained by Providence, using definition 1a from the Merriam-Webster dictionary ("divine guidance or care"), and the word has even come to be used as a title of God Himself, but most often it is used to describe the ordering of the chain of natural causes in order to produce a divinely intended purpose that we think we recognize.  Almost always this purpose is favorable to the one who calls it Providence.  An American, then, would see the thick fog that allowed Washington to escape New York in 1776 as an example of Providence.

The fine flying weather on September 11, 2001 that helped inexperienced terrorist pilots crash passenger jets into the World Trade Center we would not call Providence.  There could have been storms over New York City leading to microbursts downing the planes in relatively uninhabited areas; if this had happened, we would then have said that weather was providential. 

Aquinas would definitely have included the "Providence" referred to above in his discussion of Fate, but the idea of Fate often comes unaccompanied by the presumed understanding and positive feelings of Providence. OK, yes, it is often invoked in a prideful way; every fan of the University of Alabama felt in 1992 that the Tide was fated to win a national championship that year, when the hundredth anniversary of football (a "Century of Champions") was being celebrated at Alabama.  On the other hand, Fate is also used in situations that are more mysterious or unpleasant, but that look somehow artificial, like they must indeed be part of some larger story.  Any number of examples may be taken from history, but for a light example take the ending to the 2013 game between Alabama and Auburn:
This was not like a normal loss -- the loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, for example.  The whole last 5 minutes or so of the game were surrealistic, with both coaches making strange decisions.  To quote the song by the Sons of the Pioneers, "Nothing could have saved us; this was our destiny."

Well, what about Chance, then? Perhaps the best artistic equivalent is Pointillism, as shown in the painting below, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – 1884.

  A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, 1884  

  • Every dot in the painting is intended by the painter. 
  • Knowledge of what is depicted is not sufficient to accurately predict where each dot must be.  From within the painting, the size, position, and perhaps the color of each dot contains an irreducibly random element.
    Notably, this is different from the pixels on a TV screen.  Each pixel has a fixed size, shape, and color; only the intensity varies, and that variation is likely to be rather smooth.
  • The dots dot not make any profound statement about the artist.  Conversely, knowledge of the artist will not make it possible to predict the size and position of the dots.

According to quantum mechanics, there are similar elements in the physical world that, from our perspective as creatures and not the Creator, are entirely random.  The evolution of wave functions is entirely deterministic -- until an observation is made (or information is leaked into the "outside" that would make an observation possible in principle), at which time the wave function "collapses" into an eigenstate of the operator for the observable.  Generally speaking, it will be more probable that the wave function collapses into some eigenstates than into others, just as it is more likely that two fair dice will sum to 7 than to 2, but as with the dice, the probabilities can be calculated. 

Making this more complicated, some observables are incompatible with each other, so that an observation of one observable destroys information about another observable.  (There is no state which is an eigenstate of both observables.)  This is what gives rise to the famous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, according to which it is impossible to measure the position and momentum of a particle simultaneously to arbitrary precision, even though either one alone may be measured to (in principle) arbitrary precision.  Such a question, it seems, has no meaning for what "particles" like electrons really are; they are neither classical particles nor classical waves, but quantum particle-waves.

Classical physics has particles and waves, but it has nothing like incompatible observables and no fundamental role for chance.  Quantum physics is different.  It defies our intuitions in troubling ways.  It reminds us that we did not create the universe -- we certainly would not have made a world like this.

It is at this point that the liberal arts major may feel tempted to shake his head sadly and say, "You scientists!  You don't realize it, but you are really describing epistemology, not metaphysics!  You are describing limits to what we can learn about the world, not the nature of the world itself!"  

As far as that goes, it is a true statement.  Furthermore, any Catholic (or Orthodox Christian) knows something that appears, to any physical measurement, to be one thing, but is another:  the Eucharist.  However, in the absence of public revelation to the contrary, we have no choice but to assume that what can be measured in careful observations is a true clue to the underlying reality.  After all, the only reason we have for understanding and being comfortable with classical physics is the fact that macroscopic objects obey classical physics (to a very very very very good approximation).

Thursday, May 1, 2014

April Fools!

Laughing Fool  
Today is April Fools' Day.  At least, it feels like April 1, not May 1.  In normal years, of course, we would have January, February, March, April, and then May.  This year we have had January, Second January, February, March, and now April.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Billion Dollar Brackets and Fine Tuning

Backgammon PrecisionDice

For this year's NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, Warren Buffet offered to pay $1 billion to anyone who could correctly predict the outcome of every game.  Unsurprisingly, no one won.  Many stories and commentaries have cited numbers about just how improbable it is to pick every game correctly.  What none of these stories and commentaries seem to have noticed is that the question is meaningless.

The usual comparison is with a lottery.  Lotteries are run so that every possible combination of numbers is equally likely, which means that no one strategy is any better than another.  Choosing "1 2 3 4 5" for Powerball works just as well as "2 3 5 7 11" (the first 5 primes) or "8 15 16 23 42" (from the Lost sequence) or any other sequence of 5 natural numbers less than 60.  (Don't play any of those sequences, though.  Because there is a "reason" for each of them, several other people are probably already playing them, which means that even if you won the prize, it is much more likely that you'd have to split the winnings!)

Most estimates of the "odds" of getting all the games right in a bracket challenge probably assume that the odds getting each individual game right are 50/50.  Since there are 32+16+8+4+2+1 = 63 games in a bracket (not counting the play-in games), this would make the odds of a random bracket winning 1 in 263, or 1 in 9.223 x 1018.  However, no 16 seed has ever beaten a 1 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament, but 93.75% of brackets chosen completely at random will have at least one 16 seed beat a 1 seed.  Clearly, there are better strategies for filling out a bracket than just flipping a coin.

So what is the best strategy for filling out a bracket?  No one knows!  My strategy is to choose the winner of each matchup so that the odds of the team with the lower seed winning are (15 + difference in seed numbers)/30; that way, the odds of a 1 seed beating a 16 seed are 100% but the odds of one 1 seed beating another 1 seed (in the Final Four or Championship Game) would be 50%.  This assumes that the people on the committee that sets the seeding really know what they are doing, which is debatable -- but what isn't debatable is that they know more about college basketball than I do.

Of course, there is a lot more information available -- the outcomes of games through the season and the order in which they came, the stats for individual players, the general strategies of the coaches, and the announced injury situations.  No one really knows how to put all this together!  Then there is information which is not publicly available (exactly how the players feel, physically and emotionally) and there are unpredictable things that will happen over the course of the tournament.

In the case of Powerball, any strategy is the ideal strategy, but in the case of a basketbal bracket, the ideal strategy is unknown.  If the strategy is unknown, how can we know how likely it is to win?

At any rate, let me pretend that someone who really knows basketball can choose the 1 vs 16 matchups correctly 100% of the time and the other ones 70% of the time.  His odds of getting all 63 games right are 0.759, or 1 in 1.378 x 109.  Probably no one is really that good, and he would still face long odds, but he is a billion times more likely to fill out his bracket correctly than the crude estimate had indicated!

Let's go a little further.  Suppose someone is a super-genius at college basketball and can pick games correctly 99% of the time (and I'll give him the 1 vs 16 matchups for free).  Someone like that would already have his own billion dollars, but he's going to play anyhow.  His odds of filling out the whole bracket correctly are 0.9959, or 55.27%.  To me, that is the best measure of just how hard this is!

Unfortunately, it's not hard to find people quoting probabilities as though they were meaningful when they really are not.  What are the odds that your marriage will end in divorce?  Sorry, national stats are really useless in this case, because you are not a typical person.  No one is.  Your background and personality (and that of your spouse) are unique, and they have everything to do with whether you two will decide to remain together.

One particularly frustrating (to me) use of bad statistics comes in the fine-tuning argument for a Creator.  This is based on the fact that there are 25 free parameters in the Standard Model; these are physical constants with values that can only be determined by experiments, not on the basis of some principle we know.  In several cases, a change of a few percent to one of these parameters might have caused the Big Bang to collapse on itself again, or for stellar nucleosynthesis to create a world in which no atoms are more complex than hydrogen or in which all stars are neutron stars.  In such a universe life as we know it would be impossible.  What are the odds that this happened by chance?

Once again, we do not have enough information to answer the question, and it is dishonest to pretend we do.  Since these are "free parameters", we obviously need additional information to determine their values -- but we also need additional information to know anything about the distribution from which they might be randomly chosen.

Dice (typical role playing game dice)  

Think of it this way:  Maybe the universe is the way it is because, Einstein notwithstanding, God did throw dice to determine the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, and 42 was the number that came up.  We can further specify that all the dice were fair and identical, and that the most likely value for the throw was 63.  What are the odds that 42 came up?  The number will depend on whether it was 6 20-sided dice (6 x 10.5 = 63) or 18 6-sided dice (18 x 3.5 = 63).  Even in this simple example, if we do not know what kind of dice were used, we cannot answer the quesion.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Marriage and Materialism

It has recently occurred to me that one of the main reasons that "gay marriage" has garnered so much public support is the widespread acceptance of materialism.  Before I go any farther with this, though, let me get a few things out of the way.
  • When I say materialism, I do not mean consumerism.
  • I find materialism entirely unconvincing, in part because only a spirit can be convinced or deceived.  To claim that we are bodies deceived into thinking that we have minds has always struck me as the most complete nonsense; it would make more sense to think we are souls deceived into thinking we have bodies, though I don't agree with that, either.  The point of this post is not the strengths and weaknesses of materialism, though, so I will leave it at that.
  • Acceptance of "gay marriage" is not determined by whether or not materialism is embraced.  The Soviets were materialists, but they remained basically sexually conservative.  Many Protestant clergy accept "gay marriage", but they presumably reject materialism. 
Anim engrenages droits

A good argument could be made that Americans (and Europeans) are, if anything, more superstitious now than at any time in the recent past, and that might seem to be at odds with them increasingly embracing materialism.  Not really, at least in this case.

Take, for instance, the fascination with "paranormal investigations". Even though they use the word "spirit", they have a very corporeal idea of what a spirit is:  to "explain" survival of the soul after death, they use conservation of energy; they look for spirits using electromagnetic field detectors; they try to explain why some places are haunted in terms of their vague understanding of the electrical properties of quartz and water.  They try to explain ghosts as phenomena of natural science, even though their "science" is merely pseudoscience.

Likewise, zombies and vampires are wildly popular, but they are almost always shown as people who didn't really die (though it may have looked like they did), but rather sufferers of some viral infection.  Science fiction/fantasy is not much better -- that genre consistently misreads "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" to mean "Anything we can imagine magic might do can be done by a sufficiently advanced technology," and they proceed to make a weird mishmash of superstition and pseudoscience that fails to make any sense.  For example, in the Star Trek universe all humans are apparently atheists -- at least that was the story while Gene Roddenberry was still alive -- but (to name a few) the "prophets" or "wormhole aliens" from Deep Space Nine were functionally gods, as were the members of the Q Continuum.  At least they were more powerful than most or all of the Greek and Norse gods.  These beings may involve exotic materials, maybe materials that involve other dimensions (a la string theory), but it is always stated or assumed that material explanations (of some sort) are entirely sufficient.

In contrast, consider the objects of mathematics:  numbers, geometric shapes, etc.  Although we may have 1 apple, 2 apples, 3 apples, or whatever, certainly the numbers 1, 2, 3, ... do not exist physically, yet it is hard to shake the feeling that they somehow have an existence independent of us and that we discover them rather than invent them.  Not everyone agrees on this point; some think that mathematics does not describe a kind of non-physical reality, but that it only tells us something about how the way the human mind works.  To me, at least, that is very unconvincing; surely a civilization of intelligent aliens would know about the natural numbers (and all the integers, and the rational numbers, and the real numbers, ...) and Euclidean geometry (and hyperbolic geometry, and spherical geometry, ...).  The aliens would know that the ratio of the circumference of a Euclidean circle to its diameter is a constant, and that the value of that constant is an irrational number that is approximately 3.14159265.

It should be pointed out that just because we know the integers and the operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division does not mean that we know everything there is to know about them, nor does it mean that we cannot make wrong guesses about them.  Gödel's incompleteness theorems show that there are truths about the integers which we cannot prove axiomatically.  It is not yet known whether or not the Twin Primes Conjecture is true, though significant progress has been made on that question recently.  The Polya Conjecture has been shown to be wrong, as has the Mertens Conjecture.  The key thing is that if a conjecture can be proved to be true, like Fermat's Last Theorem was, then it is true everywhere, at every time, and for everyone; if it is proved to be false, it is false everywhere, at every time, and for everyone.

Those who claim that the Natural Law exists (I am one of them) insist that the Natural Law is something similar:  like mathematics, it exists independently of human opinion or knowledge.  In some ways, medicine might be an even closer analogy, because medicine is about humans (as the Natural Law is), is more contentious, and rarely if ever has the full rigor of mathematics (what does?).  Yet again, truth is not just a matter of opinion.  Even when it was believed that tobacco could cure cancer, it was still a health hazard.

It is silly to insist that serious materialists would be unable to use adjectives or verbs, but materialist philosophy taken seriously will impact how language is understood -- particularly the subjunctive mood.  "People should not smoke tobacco" would have to mean something like "Smoking tobacco leads to health problems, which most people and societies wish to avoid."  Even that formulation is a bit iffy, since "smoking tobacco" is an abstraction, and "people" and "societies" are universals.  A materialist might still be willing to use them (it is hardly possible not to), but he would consider the universals to be merely nominal -- just a name we impose for convenience, not a reality in itself -- that comes in handy for fuzzy thinking.

I think no reasonable person could insist that this is always wrong.  For example, it has become clear that there is no sharp distinction between a comet and an asteroid, or between an asteroid and a planet, or between a planet and a brown dwarf, or between a brown dwarf and a star.  It is very useful to have such words to narrow down what we are talking about, but no matter how we define these categories, there will be objects (not necessarily in our own solar system) that straddle the boundaries.  These words are names that we impose on nature, not ideas that we discover in nature.

Likewise, it would not be reasonable to insist that there is a universal ideal of American football that is discovered.  At any given time, there are several different sets of rules for American football -- at the high school level, the college level, and the NFL, for example -- and the details of the rules change from year to year.  It is probably a safe bet that no other society within the observable universe plays football with exactly the same rules set by the NCAA for the 2013 season.

My contention is that a materialist worldview has been widely absorbed by the public.  This would explain why some people clearly have so much trouble understanding that there are some parts of reality the government cannot change by passing a law or issuing a ruling from the bench.  The government can pass a law making it illegal to smoke tobacco, but if the government passes a law that the smoking of tobacco cures cancer, that law will have no effect.  In 1897, a bill was proposed in Indiana to establish by legislation based on a claim by Edwin Goodwin that he had discovered a way to square the circle (a known impossibility); the bill would also have had the effect of establishing one (or more!) different values of π from the one established by mathematics.  The bill did not pass, but even if it had, it would have changed nothing; as it is, it only made Indiana the butt of jokes.

The real disagreement, then, is over whether marriage is something with a fixed substance, or not; is it something like football, where we can change the rules as we please, or is it something like math, where we can't?   If many people today believe that all universals are merely nominal and that all laws -- of math and physics as well as the Congress -- express only the culture currently in power, it will be nearly impossible for them to understand, let alone persuade, supporters of traditional marriage -- and vice versa.

Every Child a Wanted Child?

Someone in Pakistan thought that was a good idea.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Proverbs 26: the Internet Chapter

Seriously, just read through it and think about what you have read in comments on blogs and news articles recently.  "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou be made like him."  That's one for me; I am too often "made like him."  "As he that taketh a dog by the ears, so is he that passeth by in anger, and meddleth with another man's quarrel." We call these "trolls" today.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Century Later

Kaiser Wilhelm I

One hundred years ago, World War I started.  No one really wanted it to start, but all the key players in Europe had bound themselves up in such a way that they could see no way to avoid war without losing face.  The sad truth is that politicians, then and now, would rather see a disastrous war that kills millions than "lose face" by admitting they were doing something stupid.

Then and now:  because it's happening again.  When politicians compare Putin to Hitler, what does that do?  Well, do you negotiate with Hitler?  Heck no -- no one wants to be compared to Neville Chamberlain.  Do you defeat him and allow a negotiated surrender?  Apparently not:  the demand for unconditional surrenders extended World War II and cost many lives, but it was thought to be necessary.  

But how do you persuade a nuclear superpower to surrender unconditionally?  You don't.  Let's be clear on a couple of points here:
  1. Russia is a nuclear superpower.  They may have fewer nukes than in the past, but it's easily enough to cause several hundred million deaths.  If they wanted to, they could destroy the United States (at the obvious cost of being destroyed themselves).  The people who survived would no longer be "the United States".   Ditto for the European Union.  A superpower is defined not in terms of what it can create, but what it can destroy.  Superpowers can only be pushed around so much.
  2. We (the US, the West, whatever) did not "win" the Cold War, except in the all-important sense of surviving the Cold War.  Of course, in that sense, the Russians won, too.  It is true that the Soviet Union did not survive the end of the Cold War, but Ronald Reagan did not bring down the Soviet Union.  The Russian people brought down the Soviet Union.  If we keep getting this wrong, we will keep screwing up our policies in that part of the world.
If we are prepared to act like adults for a while -- what now?  What is needed is a compromise that gives everyone what they insist on and respects the realities of the situation.  I have two suggestions in mind.
  1. Russia leases the Crimea from Ukraine for 100 years.  The US leases Guantanamo Bay from Cuba, even though relations between the two countries have been terrible for decades.  Hong Kong was leased to the UK from China even during the Cold War.  The main advantage of this solution is that it acknowledges that Crimea is in principle a part of Ukraine (to soothe their pride) while also acknowledging Russian control.  Also, instead of a costly war, at least Ukraine would get something for the loss of control of Crimea.  This is my preferred option.
  2. Russia buys the Crimea outright, the way the US bought (for example) Alaska and the Louisiana Purchase.  Arriving at a fair price would be challenging, to say the least, but again Crimea gets something in return, as opposed to the huge losses that could be expected in a war.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Problem with News

Photo by Stefano Corso via Wikimedia Commons.

When it comes to factual data that is easily understood and of little long-term consequence, the synoptic news media can probably be trusted.  If they say that the current temperature of Buffalo, NY is 21 degrees Fahrenheit, or that last night Chicago beat Indianapolis 109-87, they're probably right.

When it comes to editorials and opinions, they are usually wrong and always untrustworthy.

The hard part comes with the in-between stories:  stories that are supposed to deal with facts, but facts that are not easily confirmed; stories that can take on a whole different appearance depending on what is reported and what is buried or on the precise choice of words; stories in which we are "supposed" to see that there are "good guys" and "bad guys", possibly due to the political, cultural, or geographic bias of the news organization, possibly just because such stories attract more eyes and ears.  In these in-between situations we may be getting "nothing but the truth" without getting "the truth, the whole truth", but more often we will have a few lies, mistakes, and insinuations mixed in even with the few limited truths we are given.

This comes up in situations like Syria and the Ukraine.

In the case of Syria, the narrative from most of the media is that Assad is a monster; the narrative from many Catholic and Orthodox sources is that the rebels are Muslim fanatics who murder Christians and desecrate churches.  The odds are that both are true as far as they go.  So what should "we", meaning the US, do?  Honestly, this is the kind of fight we should stay out of.  I slightly prefer the devil I know to the devil I don't know, but that doesn't mean I think we should help Assad.  Whoever wins will be morally problematic, and whoever wins will be in power only for a few years, eventually to be replaced by people who hate them.  There is NO SUCH THING as a long term in situations like this.  We're best off keeping everyone at arms length and not identifying with anyone.

In the case of the Ukraine, depending on who is telling the story it appears to be parallel to one of four precedents.

  1. The US invasion of Panama under Operation Just Cause.  The US had several reasons for this, but the nominal one was to defend US personnel in the Canal Zone.  At least the US did not annex Panama.
  2. The US annexation of Hawaii. It's hard to see this as really justified, and the US did seize the territory on the excuse of protecting Americans in Hawaii.  But at least the annexation stopped there, and over the long haul this has probably worked out to the advantage of the Hawaiians. 
  3. The German annexation of the Sudetenland. The "reason" for this was to protect ethnic Germans living in Czechoslovakia.  However, the annexations did not stop there.  Also, the annexation was not to everyone's advantage early on and ultimately was to absolutely no one's advantage.
  4. The German annexation of Poland, northern France, etc.  There was little attempt to present an excuse; Germany wanted the land and was able to take it, period.
The synoptic media make this sound like the annexation of the Sudetenland; Russian statements make it sound like Operation Just Cause; and American politicians make it sound like it might be most like the German annexation of Poland.  My guess is it's closest to the US annexation of Hawaii, but under the circumstances, it's just a guess.  It's based in part on the fact that although I am not quite sure what to think of Putin and contemporary Russia, I am very sure what I think about Barack Hussein Obama and the European Union.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Once a German Professor, Always a German Professor


I am a great admirer of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as I have been since I was first introduced to his writings in the late 1990's when I began to learn about the Catholic Faith.  He is obviously a man of great learning and wisdom.  However, like all of us, Benedict has been shaped by his experiences, and reading his writings it is often obvious that he was once a German professor.  

Often this shows in his selection and presentation of material.  One problem faced by a scrupulous  academic is that what he wishes to be both accurate and very precise.  All too often, this approach backfires.  Care for precision can sound like doubt, and the delay in coming to the point can be extremely frustrating.  Of course, this sounds familiar to those who know some German, in which language the meaning of a sentence is often impossible to guess until the last word.  More seriously, though, the bulky verbiage can be confusing to those not used to it, and especially to those (in the secular media, for example) who do not believe the fine distinctions represent important differences.

Another noteworthy characteristic of the German language is that it uses long words where English would use phrases.  The main practical difference is that we would tend to vary the phrase more than a German would find synonyms for the long word.  Also, these words tend to be logical to the point of being very funny.  For instance, in English we have a "wrist", but in German the same joint is called a Handgelenk (= "Hand Joint").  In English, we have a "glove", but in German gloves are called a Handshuh (= "Hand Shoe").

All these things stand out clearly to me as slowly work my way through the last encyclical that Benedict wrote alone -- Caritas in Veritate, or Charity in Truth.  The subtitle of this encyclical is On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth, and the phrase "integral human development" occurs 21 times within the body of the text.  I'm not sure, but I suspect that the phrase works much better in his native German than it does in English.  Regardless, this and certain other stylistic elements have made this encyclical unduly difficult to work through.  Isn't there a better English expression for the same concept?

I think there is; I suggest the word "flourishing".  Flourishing has the connotation of robust, energetic, holistic growth -- growth for both the individual and the society, growth that encompasses the spiritual, physical, moral, cultural, and economic spheres.  This is the main gist of what Benedict was trying to say:  laws and policies must be designed to promote the flourishing of all affected parties, while in the process never doing evil that good may result.

This explains why so many Catholics saw this as an attack on Capitalism.  Even at its best, Capitalism has as its goal the prosperity of each participant, each looking out for himself, ideally while never doing evil that good may result.  If society as a whole also prospers, or if other affected parties prosper, it is a happy coincidence.  The same can be said of the other aspects of flourishing -- the moral and spiritual dimensions, for example.  Capitalism has, of course, provided greater material prosperity, though very unequally.  A quick glance at the headlines clearly indicates that it does not lead to great advances in the cultural, spiritual, or moral spheres.

It's a sad thing that I have to point out that this is by no means an endorsement of Socialism.  Nearly a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, many people are still stuck in the idea that there are only two possibilities:  unrestricted Capitalism or Socialism/Communism.  No; but trusting to dumb luck is not wise, and we can set the bar higher than the egocentric pusuit of material prosperity.