Sunday, June 28, 2015

Controversy over the Confederate Flag

I was thinking about blogging on recent developments, but it turns out that I made all of the important points three years ago, so I will just provide a link to that post.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Chinese Proverb

Cheap shrimp cocktail and beef stew went into business together.
It was a disaster.  Everyone died.
-- Quoted by a character in a dream

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

"Conservative Catholic" Bloggers and the Pope

Before I even begin, let me explain that the reason I do not here take liberals to task is because, even before I was old enough to know what the words "liberal" and "conservative" mean, the liberal movement had wedded itself to unquestionable evils, such as abortion, and for that marriage at least they actually do believe in permanence.
I had expected more from people who call themselves not only conservatives, but conservative Catholics.  These are people with whom I would expect to be in agreement, but as several recent posts have revealed, the frequency with which that expectation is frustrated the source of a great deal of irritation to me.

The most recent example comes from the hubbub surrounding an encyclical which the Pope has not yet even released [a draft has been leaked as I write this, but even that was not available when I started this post], but which is said to deal with our responsibility to look after the environment.  That, in itself, is not very new; it was Adam's first job, as described in Genesis 2:15.  

Unfortunately, most of these "conservative Catholics" seem to be infested by a form of Gnosticism (as are so many in today's society).  Gnostics thought that matter, including the body, was at best of no importance, and at worst somewhat evil, as it functions (in their opinions) as a prison for spirits.  Some Gnostics concluded that even marital intercourse is wrong, since it leads to more spirits being trapped in matter (i.e., children); others concluded that because the body is of no importance, no sex act performed by the body could possibly be sinful.

Something of these attitudes was revived during the Enlightenment, particularly in the dualism of René Descartes.  A hint of the confusion caused by this can be found in modern science fiction, which on the one hand will happily deny that there is such a thing as a soul -- only the body is important -- and then in the next episode the mind or "essence" of a character is uploaded into a computer or downloaded into another body -- the body is of no importance.  

The aroma of Gnosticism is also particularly to be found in any modern discussion of nature and/or nonhuman animals and plants.  Like a drunk wandering home late at night, most people end up in either the ditch on the right or the ditch on the left.  The ditch on the left is the idea that animals and plants are of equal if not superior worth compared to a human.  These are the people who will protest in favor of abortion but against the cutting down of a 300 year old oak.  The ditch on the right is that the only value nature has is as raw material for industry.  Ironically, both sides end up enthroning Industry as a god, the only difference being whether they regard it as a good god or an evil god.  (This, by the way, is one key difference between modern pagans and ancient pagans: ancient pagans new that nature could kill them if they weren't careful, whereas modern pagans are afraid that if we are not careful, we might destroy nature.)

A particularly common "defense" given in anticipation of this encyclical is that the Pope is only infallible when talking about Faith and Morals (and even then only under specific circumstances), with the very strong implication that anything else can simply be ignored.  The error is in the implication.  

Statements may be classified by their credibility.
  1. Infallible statements are, of course, the gold standard.  The problem is that whenever an infallible statement is explained, or paraphrased, or applied, the infallibility does not transfer to the explanation, paraphrase, or application.  Since explanations and applications are necessary for any practical use to be made of these statements, infallible statements are not enough.
  2. Some statements are not infallible, but they are thoroughly trustworthy.  The theory of quantum mechanics is a particularly strong example, because (a) it is something no sane person would really want  to believe, so it has been thoroughly tested in hopes of debunking it, and (b) none of these experiments have shown quantum mechanics to be wrong.  Honestly, though, almost all "facts" fall into this category:  "The earth is round," "China is a real place," "Rats do not spontaneously generate from old rags," "Millions of Jews were murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust," etc.
  3. Some statements may not be as certain as those discussed above, but they are still worthy of the benefit of the doubt.  Advice from your doctor falls into this category; you can get a second opinion, but you should not simply disregard what your doctor says.  Likewise with weather forecasts: they are often wrong, but it is foolish to ignore the forecast of a major storm.
  4. Some statements have neutral credibility.  If I say, "Baylor will win the Big 12 football championship in 2015," a proper response would be, "Maybe; we'll see."
  5. Finally, there are statements which should be met with varying degrees of suspicion, but which should be regarded as either most likely to be false or to be so cunningly deceptive that the only safe thing is to ignore them entirely.

It may well be true -- it is almost certainly true -- that the bulk of what is in the upcoming encyclical does not belong in the first category, infallible statements.  That is true of any encyclical, really.  When St. John Paul II said in Evangelium Vitae, "Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform," this evaluation of the prison system is not infallible.  When Popes have written encyclicals condemning Socialism, the moral principles in them may be infallible, but the application to self-described Socialist leaders, parties, or nations is not infallible.  However, a Catholic aiming to cultivate the proper virtue of docility will still regard them as trustworthy, or at least worthy of the benefit of the doubt.

The problem, of course, comes when the statements of the Pope clash with a preexisting religious commitment:   the devotion to the god Industry mentioned above.  That's it.  They are afraid that the Pope will find the projections of anthropogenic climate change credible, and that will be bad for "bidness", be bad for their side in politics, and give aid and comfort to their political rivals.

To the best of my knowledge, neither the bloggers nor the people supplying comments on the blogs are climatologists, or even have the necessary background to make a professional evaluation of the science.  Without such a background, and when dealing with a process expected to take a century or more to unfold, they really have no excuse for looking for an excuse to disregard the Pope before he has even published his encyclical.  (Sure, there are a handful of climatologists who think absolutely nothing will happen.  There are also a handful of biologists who think Bigfoot is probably a real, bipedal, hairy ape.  There were quite a few biologists who were willing to argue that smoking cigarettes is totally healthy.  If you are willing to cherry pick your experts, you can always find at least one expert who will back up any idea.)

As for what I think about anthropogenic climate change, that's a topic for a later post.  For here, it is sufficient to say that Catholics should not dismiss the Pope out of hand.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Before We Go to Mars ...

Our experiences with manned space flight so far have been analogous to the quest to be the first to the North and South Poles, or the race to be the first to climb the Matterhorn or Everest:  they have been displays of cleverness and machismo with nationalist overtones, but they have not been practical.  (Yes, the shuttle allowed us to repair the Hubble, but if we had not been flying the shuttle we could have used the savings to launch several more Hubbles and still had money left over.)  It is time for this phase to be winding down.  It may be cool and fun for anyone to go up to the ISS, or for that matter to climb Everest, but the public has long ceased to pay attention to either.  We need a better goal for manned space flight now, and the obvious choice is the establishment of permanent and self-sufficient colonies.  The only place in the solar system where that has a reasonable chance of success is Mars. 

There are some things we must do before we make an attempt on Mars, though.
  1. We need to make sure there is no life already on Mars.  Once we start sending human beings to Mars, it will be impossible to prevent some microbes from making it to the surface, and there is every chance that some of them would find niches on Mars in which they could survive.  Their presence could mask the presence of any native microbes.  It's not likely that there is any life native to Mars, but we have to be sure; this could be our only chance to study them.  Any Mars life would probably lie deep underground, so we will have to find a way to drill robotically and explore aquifers and the sites of ancient hot springs.  This will take decades.
  2. We need to make sure humans can live on Mars long-term.  The gravity on Mars is only about 1/3 what it is on Earth.  Microgravity (the weightlessness experienced by astronauts in orbit) is known to have bad health consequences.  Can we adapt to the low gravity of Mars, or will Mars always remain a place where we can visit, but not settle?

    The best way to find out would be to establish a permanent station on the Moon.  The Moon's gravity is even weaker than that of Mars, and it's conveniently nearby in case there is a medical problem.  Presumably the first team on the Moon would stay for 2 years, the next for 4, the next for 6, etc., until we could be sure people could survive with no serious health problems for at least a decade.  We would also bring some animals to see if low gravity affects the development of young -- we must not let the first families on Mars be guinea pigs.
  3. We need to solve the problem of energy generation by fusion so that energy constraints will no longer limit us.  This will make it at least conceivable that we could move spacecraft with the massive (probably lead) shielding necessary to spend several months in space unprotected by the Earth's magnetic field, to send enough people and machinery to Mars to make a small city, and eventually to begin terraforming Mars to a less deadly environment.  People are working on fusion now, but we are still decades away from it becoming a practical power supply.

Taking all these considerations into account, it is hard to know what to make of NASA's plans to go to Mars in the 2030s.  It may be naive, it may be dishonest, or they may have goals entirely different from those I have laid out.

Monday, June 8, 2015

There Is No Fundamental Right to Marry?

Over at the misnamed website "Public Discourse", S. Adam Seagrave has a somewhat problematic article in which he denies that there is "a fundamental right to marry".  I have to make my comments here because "Public Discourse" does not take comments -- you know, discourse from the public.

Seagrave's argument is that marriage is not an act of one person only, but necessarily involves the participation of one other person, and that rights of the kind guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment pertain only to isolated individuals.  The first part is of course correct, and the second may or may not be correct, but his conclusion is both irrelevant and misleading.

For one thing, the language of rights in the Constitution in general is not confined to the actions of individual persons.  Take, for example, the First Amendment, which refers to "the right of the people peaceably to assemble".  An isolated individual cannot "assemble"; only a group of persons can.

Secondly, of course an advocate of "gay marriage" (which is what this is all about) could even accept Seagrave's assertions and still say, "But no one has a right to stop two men from marrying each other."  After all, early in his essay Seagrave mentions that he would like to be a millionaire, but that he has no right to be a millionaire.  I think he would agree that although the state may have a right to prevent him from becoming a millionaire by certain means (like theft or blackmail), the state probably has no right to simply prohibit him from being a millionaire.

Thirdly, Seagrave's comments really only apply to mutable positive law.  Until 1971, there was no "fundamental right" of an eighteen year old American citizen to vote, but with the passage of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment there now is.  (It is not, of course, an absolute right -- a convicted felon typically may not vote, for example -- but it is "fundamental" in Seagrave's sense.)

It is really a mistake to talk about "gay marriage" as though it were about rights at all.  The question is not, "Should we grant to every couple the right to marry, regardless of who the two people are?" or even "Does every couple have an inherent and inviolable right to marry?"  The question is about "can every couple marry", not "may every couple marry".

For an analogous situation, suppose for the sake of argument we take the word "couple" to mean "two people in a romantic relationship".  Someone would inevitably find that too restrictive; suppose that the preferred solution were to define the word "two" to mean "any number greater than one".  It could of course be argued that there is no inherent meaning to either the sound or to the sequence of letters (or even the letters themselves); these are culturally defined.  It could be noted that some cultures have words for only a handful of numbers, and that English itself distinguishes singular nouns from plural nouns, using the plural for any number greater than one.  It could be noted that we have often changed the definitions of words; for example, "fish" used to simply mean, "an animal that lives in water" -- hence jellyfish, starfish, crayfish, and shellfish.  What could possibly be wrong with choosing, as a culture, to adapt the language to be more inclusive?  After all, the old meaning of "two" is subsumed within the new meaning of "two", so how could this possibly hurt existing couples?

Video added 7-5-2015.

The obvious answer is that we would lose arithmetic.  If we redefine "two" -- if we try to not merely change the word but the whole concept, as is being attempted with marriage -- we lose arithmetic.  Under the new rules, 2+2=2 and 2-2 is undefined.  We would lose our ability to reason meaningfully about numbers.

From the point of view of tradition, redefining marriage would do for anthropology -- the study of man -- what redefining "two" would do for arithmetic.  Our ability to understand human beings properly would be impaired, and our ability to make rational decisions relating to human beings would be compromised.

Finally, Seagrave unintentionally invites questions such as, "If there is no fundamental right to marry, could the state abolish marriage altogether?",  "Would it be fundamentally wrong for the state to forbid any Christian from marrying?", etc.  Even granting the right to a couple, perhaps there are grave circumstances which might prohibit a valid marriage, as there are grave circumstances which might prohibit an adult citizen of the United States from voting, but these would have to be grave reasons.  The problem with "gay marriage" is that it is not really marriage, just as 3 is not really 2; the problem is not that marriage is some sort of privilege which the state is free to grant or withhold at its whim.