Who Is Like Whom?

Monday, 01-06-2020

 

Intercourse among persons of the same sex tends to be impulsive and promiscuous, often impersonal, and even anonymous.  Homosexual pairings, in turn, tend to be unstable and nonexclusive.

These days, however, a good deal of intercourse among persons of opposite sex also tends to be impulsive, promiscuous, impersonal, and even anonymous, and a great many heterosexual pairings are also unstable and nonexclusive.

Some activists say the reason for the trend is that people are “learning” from persons with same-sex desires.  The popular media bombard us with articles with titles like “what gay men can teach us about sex outside of marriage.”  Though the influence of propaganda on young, confused, or impressionable persons should never be discounted, I don’t think this is the main reason.

What then?  My guess is this.  Just as same-sex intercourse is incapable of being procreative, among many persons today opposite-sex intercourse is not intended to be procreative either.  This matters, for knowing that the way we come together sexually is the same way we make children has a way of concentrating the mind.  But knowing that it isn’t – or that it is, but that we are denying its procreative meaning and purpose -- has a way of dissipating it.

I don’t want to exaggerate, because behavioral trends are complex, and most people have not become wildly promiscuous.  In fact, statisticians say that among men who are attracted to women, and women who are attracted to men, the modal number of sexual partners over a lifetime hasn’t changed too much lately.  But they also say that the extreme is becoming more extreme.

And it is obviously losing its disgrace.

One cannot help asking how this change will affect the mainstream.  It is hard to remember now, but only a decade ago writers opined that if only homosexual behavior lost its social stigma, it would become more like heterosexual behavior.

The actuality of the matter is that at least among some population groups, heterosexual behavior is becoming more like homosexual behavior.

 

The Argument to a First Principle of Order

Monday, 12-30-2019

 

The same fallacy keeps coming up, so let’s try this again.

Darwin is supposed to have shown that order can arise spontaneously from what is not ordered.  The story is that random variations take place, and some of the variations are more successful than others in being passed on to the next generation; therefore new things develop.

Slow down.  Natural selection can certainly explain the origin of some new things.  In that sense I have no quarrel with evolutionary biologists.  But natural selection can explain new things only if the new things have adaptive value.  The problem is that over the geological ages, a lot of new things without adaptive value have appeared – things that should not have persisted, but did.

For example:

●  Natural selection can’t explain preadaptation – the development and persistence of things millions of years before they have any adaptive value -- like brightly colored blossoms before there are pollinators to attract.

●  It can’t explain certain human attributes such as the almost universal belief in God, the perception of beauty in music, or the search for the purpose of human life, because these things have no adaptive value whatsoever.

●  And it can’t explain irreducible ensembles of features – things that must all be present before something works but which could not have developed one at a time, because none of them has any adaptive value until they are all present, each in its right place, all working together.

Notice that I haven’t yet said anything about God.  An intelligent person should acknowledge that even if there were no God and the causes of things were entirely material, as he thinks, even so natural selection couldn’t be the only cause of new species.

But suppose it were.  Would the naturalist then have demonstrated that order can arise spontaneously from disorder?

No, not even then.  Why not?  Because the contingent emergence of order at one level presupposes prior order at another level.  Just to forestall misunderstanding, I should add that I am referring to priority in the sequence of causes, not necessarily priority in time.

For example:

●  If I shake a box of puzzle pieces long enough, the pieces might fall into place to make a picture, but not if their shapes are random.  The orderly way things fall into place presupposes the prior order of how the different shapes fit together.

●  An ant hill behaves as though someone were directing it, but not if the ants emit and respond to pheromones at random.  The orderly behavior of the anthill presupposes the prior order of how pheromones are used to send signals.

●  What programmers call an evolutionary algorithm may produce interesting and novel phenomena, but someone has to write the algorithm, because random code accomplishes nothing.  The orderly result of executing the algorithm presupposes the prior order of the algorithm itself.

About the last example, someone might protest, “Couldn’t an evolutionary algorithm be used to write an evolutionary algorithm?”  Maybe, but even so, the code-writing algorithm couldn’t write its own code; that would have to be there beforehand.  So we still don’t escape from the principle that order presupposes prior order.

Besides, there would have to be a highly organized device on which the algorithm could be executed, and that device would need its own code – so it would need still more prior order.  Call that a computer with an operating system.

Or a universe.

After all, why are the natural laws the way they are, so that natural selection can occur?  Where does the genetic information on which natural selection operates come from in the first place?  Why are there just those laws of chemistry and physics instead of others?  In fact, why are there any chemical and physical phenomena?  Why not rather none?

The argument we have been developing works very much like what have traditionally been called the arguments to a First Mover and to a First Cause.  For contingent order presupposes prior order; if the prior order is contingent, then it too presupposes prior order; if that prior order is contingent, then so does it.  On and on it goes.  But since we cannot allow an infinite regress, there must be something that starts all this order going – a First Principle of Order -- an absolute starting point that is not contingent – something that exists necessarily.

And that – as Thomas Aquinas would say -- is what we call God.

 

What Mind Can Grasp It?

Wednesday, 12-25-2019

 

And so our Lord Jesus Christ, being at birth true man though He never ceased to be true God, made in Himself the beginning of a new creation, and in the form of His birth started the spiritual life of mankind afresh ....

What mind can grasp this mystery, what tongue can express this gracious act?  Sinfulness returns to guiltlessness and the old nature becomes new; strangers receive adoption and outsiders enter upon an inheritance.  The ungodly begin to be righteous, the miserly benevolent, the incontinent chaste, the earthly heavenly.  And whence comes this change, save by the right hand of the Most High?  For the Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil, and has so united Himself with us and us with Him that the descent of God to man's estate became the exaltation of man to God's.

-- St. Leo the Great, Nativity Sermon VII
 

Herds of Supermen

Monday, 12-16-2019

 

A strange irony is curled up in Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of what was to come.

Nietzsche thought that the belief in objectively true values – a real good and evil, a real right and wrong – was finally petering out.  Not much was left in the tank.  Soon it would be empty.  The age of nihilism would begin.

One result of this emptiness would be would be the rise of the herd creatures he called the “last men,” people who no longer believed in anything or aspired to anything (and who therefore might believe carelessly in anything), but who would know, more or less, what they wanted.  Above all, they would want their lives to be comfortable, safe, easy, and just like everyone else’s.

The other result would be the rise of a few who were in some sense more than human, men who, instead of receiving values from supposedly transcendent sources such as God, would create their own values, imposing them on those weaker than themselves.  Creating their own values would be tantamount to creating their own reality, because, if values are not objective, then facts are not either.  In some unimaginable sense, the various supermen would war over whose values, whose “facts,” would prevail.  As soon as some of them were able to impose a new order of reality, the specter of the abyss would retreat.

The strange irony I mentioned is that the sort of people who prattle about “creating their own values” has turned out to be exactly the sort of people whom Nietzsche despised as last men.  Free at last, free at last!  Let each person have his own reality, right along with his new car and entertainment center.  If God is dead, everything is hey, whatever.

So the would-be supermen turn out to live in herds.

As it happens, we do from time to time encounter genuinely superior persons.  This is nothing new; some of them have always been among us.  But they are not supermen.  They are what the Tradition has called saints.  What uplifts them is not arrogance, but grace.

So the age of nihilism that Nietzsche prophesied has come upon us, but it is not, as he thought, a story of last men and supermen.  It is but the latest chapter in the story of the lost and the found.  May we be among the found.

 

Whom the Gods Would Destroy, They First Make Mad

Monday, 12-09-2019

 

To keep the government from doing bad things, James Madison and the other supporters of the Constitution proposed relying not so much on written prohibitions as on checks and balances.  Other governments had used checks and balances between the social classes.  The Framers proposed using them between the branches.

It was a daring idea.  The aim was not to abolish conflict, but to institutionalize it.  We were to rest our hopes for the common good not on getting along, but on fighting fair.

For a check is a kind of weapon. 

But the idea of a balance based on fighting fair raised a profound question, which the supporters of the new Constitution never answered, or even, so far as I know, addressed.  The permissible checks and balances are themselves spelled out in written rules.  So if written rules are nothing but parchment barriers, why shouldn’t we pronounce the same damning verdict upon those rules?  Aren’t the written sentences that spell out the permissible checks and balances also just parchment barriers?  What is to prevent a political player from going outside the rules completely, fighting dirty instead of fair, competing with the others by unconstitutional means?

The only possible answer is that the Framers thought they had drawn up such good rules that each political player would find it in his interest to keep playing by them.  If he did play by them, he would win some, lose some.  If he didn’t, he might, conceivably, win everything -- but it would be much more likely that he would lose everything.  So he would think it more to his advantage to stay within the rules than go outside them.

This is not always the case.  From time to time, situations arise in which some players think – correctly or incorrectly – that they have less to lose by playing outside the rules than by playing within them.  And so they do play outside them.  When this happens, we have a Constitutional crisis.  That is what is happening now.

Of course, to defuse Constitutional crises, we have other Constitutional mechanisms.  The failure of certain checks and balances is compensated by other checks and balances.  But if they fail too, a Constitutional crisis can go on for a long, long time.

If it goes on for too long, then the side that first began playing dirty may become more and more desperate, partly because it persuades itself that victory is almost within its grasp, partly because the consequences of losing now would be unthinkable.  Consequently, it throws caution to the winds, violating the rules more and more gravely and openly.

The more it does so – and this, I think, is what all men of good will must remember – the more frantic and furious the other side may also become, so that it begins to wonder whether it ought to play dirty too.  Once it reaches that conclusion, both sides come unhinged, losing even what little was left of their principles.

Not even those who do play dirty want the populace to turn against them.  Therefore, even the most extreme acts, short of assassination, are dressed in the garments of legitimacy.  This is an easier set of clothes to put on than one might think, because few citizens understand the Constitution anyway.  It is hard enough that checks and balances are so complicated, and therefore confusing.  Making matters worse, those who play dirty have a deep stake in making the Constitution as baffling as possible.

It took the Romans years to realize that they had lost their republic.  By that time they didn’t want it any more.

 

Away With the Manger

Monday, 12-02-2019

 

Query:

Everyone in my family except me is an atheist.  At Christmastime, they deck the house out in Christmas stuff and play Christmas carols round-the-clock -- but at the same time, they make a point of mocking Jesus and His followers!  Back in high school, my decision to become a Christian provoked such serious arguments with my father and stepmother that I'm on don't-talk-about-faith terms with them.  Even at other times of year the situation can be difficult.  Once, when my stepsister saw a bumper sticker that said “Jesus loves you,” she exclaimed that she hated the driver for it.  But it gets worse when I'm home for the holidays.

I love my family and it hurts me to hear them talk like this. Please, give me some idea of how to speak for Jesus in such a way that they won't mock what I say and shut me out!  I'd love to be able to take a stand without seeming obnoxious or self-righteous, but I know that if I do they'll get angry, and I'm afraid I won't be able to handle the situation gracefully.

 

Reply:

I sympathize.  The situation sounds unpleasant.  Here's how I advise you:  To be charitable, humble, grateful, and forbearing toward your family; to rejoice in their good qualities, and show your appreciation for them; to be actively helpful by doing things like running errands and washing all the dishes without being asked; to go on about your Christian business, like worshipping at church on Christmas Eve, without calling attention to yourself; and not to try to force your family to be what they aren't.

Besides all those things, do one thing extra:  Pray for your family.  Do it without ceasing.  Leave it to God Himself to decide how to answer your prayers.

I know you want to do something more.  You want to hurry God.  You want to “make a stand.”  My heart goes out to you.  But believe me, practicing love to your family is making a stand.  They know you're a Christian; it isn't necessary to talk Christ if they aren't yet ready to hear Christ.  If they grow irritated with you even for loving them, just love them even more.  I mean genuinely – not obnoxiously.  Because being obnoxious about loving them might be a temptation.

By the way, if they want to sing Christmas carols, join them!  Why not?  You might ask them some year why they sing them, but don't fret about the fact that they don't believe them.  Don’t you believe them?  Besides, there may be more going on in their hearts than you think.  Considering how angrily they fight against Jesus, perhaps they are feeling His pull.  Would you rather that they be indifferent?  Who knows what the Holy Spirit can do?  You may all end up saints.  Have a blessed Advent and a merry Christmas.

 

Related:

God Rest Ye, Melancholics

That Mourns in Exile Here

To Believe

The Object of Uttermost Desire

The Multiverse Argument

Monday, 11-25-2019

 

Physicists know that if certain physical constants did not happen to lie within an extremely narrow range, the universe would be inhospitable to biological life.  Consider for example those heavens of which the psalmist speaks so eloquently.  If the gravitational constant were minutely stronger than it is, stars would burn up too quickly.  If it were minutely weaker than it is, they would never be able to ignite.  The universe seems to have been fine-tuned for the possibility of life like us.

"Fine-tuned," of course, is another word for "designed."   Even the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Fred Hoyle wrote, “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.”  Curious words for an atheist, but that’s what he wrote.

One of the most popular attempts to discredit the cosmological fine-tuning argument proposes that what we call our universe is really only one member of an infinite ensemble of universes, in each of which the physical constants have different values.  Of course the values in ours are hospitable to life, the argument runs -- if they weren’t, we wouldn’t be here observing them!  However, it goes on, this is no more surprising than the fact that if you go into a room, hang up a target on the wall, then fling an infinite number of mudballs in an infinite number of directions, at least one of them will hit the bullseye.  No doubt the winning mudball thinks it is the product of miraculous aim, but it isn’t.

This argument against fine-tuning sounds rather good at first, but it is fallacious.

In the first place, whatever happened to Occam's Razor?  “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily,” wrote William of Occam.  All other things being equal, simpler explanations that assume fewer things should be preferred to complicated ones that assume more things.  Yet instead of the hypothesis of just one God, the multiverse argument hypothesizes an infinite number of universes -- all of them, by the way, unobservable.

Besides, even if we do allow the multiverse proponents to “multiply entities unnecessarily,” the multiverse argument doesn’t explain what it is supposed to explain.  It resorts to the hypothesis of a multiverse to account for this universe having the queer properties that it does – but how does it account for the even queerer properties of the multiverse itself?

For who made the room?  Who hung the target on the wall?  And who flung all those mudballs?

___________________________________________

The quotation is from Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections,” Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics 20 (1982), p. 16.