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.