Seeker of Truth

Ruminations of One Suspended between Catholic Christianity and Scientific Utopianism

Location: Washington, United States

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Why were the Middle Ages so Bloody?

People did not expect to live forever, quite simply put. Maximizing longevity was not their goal, hence their wars, their justice, their general conduct was one where death held much less fear for them than it does for the 20th century agnostic who tries to create paradise in this world.
People went on crusades, for the honor and the glory of the faith, as well of their own, of course. Not only some arrogant noblemen whose boredom drove them to adventure, many commoners did so as well. Men and women all over Europe went on pilgrimages over unsafe roads, with no hotels, restaurants or hospitals to ease their journey, but with bandits, disease, and hunger their daily companions. Can we imagine what it must have been like for a medieval pilgrim to journey from the heart of Europe to the Holy Land? Modern tourists will shun a destination because of some political upheaval or epidemic. How many of us would go on a journey if there is a significant chance of dying from the hazards of it? We even think of curtailing space exploration because it is too dangerous.
Of course, the medieval person did not travel for idle distraction from the meaninglessness of his or her life. Their journeys had purpose, often in relation to God. Only the most depraved were so far from this common ideal, that their motives might be akin to those of today’s men, i.e. completely secular. And those people, in perfect congruity with their Weltanschauung, were outlaws, highwaymen, robbers. Only modern man entertains the pretense of being civil and benevolent without belief in a higher authority which would validate such a morality.
Is our precious peace of a few decades that we like to consider as the hard fought for product of scientific humanism, merely a temporary aberration, then? Will our glorification of the body beautiful, the life in the here and now eternal, fade away like so much Hollywood glamour? Is strife and conquest the natural condition of man, a symbol of our fallen state? Maybe the Middle Ages were the norm, with our goal of life preservation at all costs a kind of subtle perversion, yet one more heinous than its obvious cousins. It makes cowards of us, bends our spirit, and finally drains it, as we struggle toward our unreachable goal of not having an accident, not having our party spoiled, not dying, at least not before our time? But when is our time?

Monday, July 24, 2006

On Historicity

Is Adam historical? And if not, would there be no fall, no need for Christ, and no validity to Christianity?
Here is one argument: 
It was necessary to formulate 'doctrine' in a way that very primitive people could understand and transmit undistorted through centuries. Could God have explained to stone age jews the concept of evolution, of any other scientific prerogative to a creation story that would hold water with us today? And what if our understanding changes radically once more, in 100, 1000, whatever years? The early transmission of the essence, not the particulars, were the most important, I postulate. Later on, there would be dissent anyway, and also an ability to understand allegory as allegory.
Another point to ponder is free will. If we are serious about that - and we must be if we want personal responsibility and ultimately meaning for our lives, then we cannot have a revelation that explains all in detail, from beginning to end, leaving no room for human faith, exploration, good works, bad works, choice.
Furthermore: What if our current understanding of creation and evolution is flawed by the fall? Can we ever prove that scientifically? What if science is, like other ways of knowing reality, just a transitional step? It has only been atround in a strict sense for a few hundred years, and may yet be obscured by some newer method, impossible to predict in its particulars. The ancient Greeks, Romans, even Egyptians could easily have pursued science or scientific methods, doing experiments, validating theories derived by them, corroborating results, etc. They somehow could not conceive of that, anymore than they could conceive of a steam engine. Why? We don't know. It does suggest, however, that our current way of doing things and conceptualizing them may not be the end of all. I have elsewhere speculated on science's inability to envision an ever-ongoing string of new discoveries, rather than the prevailing attitude of having nearly solved all big questions and merely needing to flesh out the particulars. Here I am proposing something more radical, namely the obscuration of scientific method with other, more effectively revealing and relevant ones, which are able to probe mysteries of 'creation' not accesible by what we currently understand as experimental science.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

On Rationality and Religion

Mystics and scholastics, that is what I remember learning in high school about the two strands of thought that shaped Christianity in the Middle Ages. It goes back much further, of course, all the way to Plato and Aristotle at least.
Much has been accomplished by the rational approach, such as the establishment and continuity of Western civilization. But there are tremendous pitfalls in logic applied to religion, and we are now reaping the fruits of those. From Occam and Wyclif on, a kind of rationalism began to dominate the culture, that at first seemed relatively benign, even superior to many previous ideas. Yet it was the beginning of the road into reductionism, relativism and the usurpation by science of the position of ‘truth giver’.
I believe that all rational approaches carry this danger, that if taken too literally or even used too exclusively, they will lead to reductionist absurdity. Aquinas, Augustine, none of the greatest scholars of religion can be exempt from that rule. Does it mean we have to abandon reason altogether? I do not think so. However, we have to remain eternally conscious of the fact that our most elaborate systems of thought are mere approximations, even metaphors, that our formulae, our theorems, do not capture truth, not in science, not in philosophy or logic. Aristotle seems quaint when we look at some of his assertions with our scientifically trained hindsight. We may look even quainter to somebody living in A.D. 3000. Or maybe not. Maybe we will be known as the true Dark Ages, where man’s hubris sought to replace God with the democratic/scientific process. Maybe John Lennon, who so famously wrote ‘Imagine there’s no heaven...’ will become a character of fable, as posterchild of a well-intentioned but fatally flawed system of belief that almost brought the world to that brink of destruction from which it had sworn to save it.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Does Yoda have DNA

Or critical thoughts on evolution. If DNA encodes amino acids, which encode proteins, which build all manners of structures, a reasonable questions is ‘what all can actually be built with this DNA?’ Could an extraterrestrial being use the same encodings as earth’s evolutionary tree or are there very clear limits to the kind of structures possible without going outside of our 4 bits of code? A case in point is evolution which presents us with a vast array of life-forms, albeit ever so slightly in a discontinuous fashion. There are lots of different dogs, for instance, but no cat-dog. We find fossils of birds that look a bit like reptiles, and such, but we do not have a phylogenetic tree in all its shades, as far as I know. The point is, given any particular species, there are only so many mutations possible on that particular genome, many of them lethal, some intraspecies variations, some leading to a new species. While we can easily say that there is a path from dinosaurs to birds, as it is a fait accompli, the question is, can we define possible paths without relying on hindsight, or in other words, can we emulate DNA algorithmically? And if so, will our models show that there are only a fairly limited number of possible developments, meaning evolution was almost bound to come up with what we perceive, or will there be a virtual infinity of possible creations, making our particular manifestations a sort of accident.
It seems at first thought, that the latter hypothesis ought to be the correct one, as there are so many combinations possible of the base-pairs, and hence the aminoacids encoded by them. But then, a tremendous amount of combinations is probably meaningless in terms of proteins created. Also, the DNA is not at all like a blueprint, a miniature replica of the organism in encoded form, but rather like a program, a small number of instructions without a one-to-one correspondence to their output. So, while Yoda is by all appearances a close relative of humans, breathing air of roughly the same composition, having muscles, bones, eyes, a brain, bilateral symmetry, a skin and digestive tract, he may be one of those outputs that is not obtainable from the available nucleotides. I believe the situation is analogous to mathematics, or formal logic, where a given set of theorems can only produce a certain set of statements and not others, even though they all look plausible.
A fantastic limit of this scenario would be where only one very finite set of organisms could be produced, namely the ones that historically existed on earth. In this case, there is no real evolution. Related to this idea is the one where no smooth transitions exist and species are like crystal lattices of a complex organic salt, that can solidify in a large but distinct number of configurations.
While neither of these scenarios is a proof that there is a creator involved in the process, the discovery of significant limits to the variety of lifeforms that can be encoded via our DNA weighs a bit toward the existence of God, much like a discovery that we are truly alone in the universe, or at least in the galaxy.

Monday, July 10, 2006

On Heretics and Crackpots

Religion and science both have their renegades, people who decide to run with their own quaint ideas of what constitutes truth, rather than bow to the mainstream doctrine. In science we have the perpetuum mobile inventors, the faster than light travelers, the action at a distance aficionados. These people are quite rightfully ostracized, marginalized, disempowered, made fun of etc. It is not simply that they are wrong, but how they are wrong: maybe at some point we will have faster than light travel, or action at a distance, but if so, it certainly won’t be via the theories proposed by the current scientific dissidents. The same goes for the currently popular creationism, intelligent design, related theories. If God makes the world, he seems to make it pretty much self-contained, organic as it were, not a curious patchwork of incongruous pieces. As such, living species hang together very nicely, with a common method of inheritance, structures, chemistry etc. Does it ultimately mean that there was no God creating these phenomena? No, he could have made them all in one day, in one second, and made it look like it took billions of years from big bang to now. We are in creation, in time, in space. God is outside of either and all, I believe. Not being much of a theologian, I tread on unfamiliar turf, it does make sense, however, to me, to conceive of things that way. Claiming this does in no way invalidate scientific discoveries, merely relativizes their significance as belonging into the world, rather than being outside, leaving that area to the divine.
Does religion have its equivalent of the scientific crackpot, the man with the idea that is blatantly ridiculous, like the hollow-earth advocate, or has been refuted numerous times but is being kept alive tediously, like some romantic dream of a better world? Junk science replaces the complexity of true science with simpler formulae, explanations, theories. Junk religion does the same. Instead of worrying about how God’s all-knowing nature can permit free will, the protestant of Calvin’s or Luther’s bent simply does away with it, postulating predestination. I have previously written about the problem with determinism in a scientific universe. It does not get much better in a religious one. If the saved ones are known and pre-elected, there is not much sense in keeping a religion, is there?
The main difference I see is the fact that science has a somewhat better PR factor when it tries to clean its stable from heresy, while in Christianity all manners of heresy are not only tolerated, but the orthodox church itself is often maligned as being unnecessarily autocratic. I wish to state here for the record that I do not blame the vast numbers of lay people who were raised under and believe in some form of protestantism. I do however, take umbrage with their clergy, who ought to know better. How can an Anglican bishop, for instance, defend a church that was founded on the lustful inclinations of a British monarch, and the greed of that nation’s aristocracy for Catholicism’s riches? What about the ‘liberal’ protestant who denies the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection? It is one thing to be an atheist denying God. It is another thing entirely to be a Christian denying Christ. The first position is in itself logical and consistent, and implies certain difficult to answer questions, which are nonetheless legitimate - how to define values, how to circumvent the determinism conundrum. The second one is blatantly stupid, no other word suffices here. It is my conjecture that most forms of protestantism, particularly those of post-medieval European descent, are doomed to die from their own inanity, and are just a bit slow in doing so. I do not know enough about the pentecostal-type forms of Christianity to consider those. In general, I believe that a religion can easily sustain mysteries, i.e. areas incomprehensible to human intellect, but it must never provide pat answers to life’s difficult questions.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

About the Fall: Why do Religion and Science Differ in Their Theory of the World

From paradise, that is. How would such an event be both possible within the realm of the physical, i.e. not merely a metaphorical description of something, and reconcilable with what we know of the universe we live in?
With such an event, one would postulate perhaps a radical change in the laws of physics or their effects, akin to a substance going from liquid to solid, a container being turned inside out, electricity animating some circuitry, or stopping to.
I have always been critical of those who would try and advance some scientific framework for religion, and am about to cross that boundary myself, yet there has to be a connection between the two somewhere, and this would be a good place to start speculating.
What physical concepts would one associate with a fallen state? Entropy comes to mind, any form of decay, and limits certainly, such as the speed of light. Wether any of this is relevant I am not prepared to wager on, but certainty is less important at this stage than inquiry.

Some more thoughts: The fall is a must, if we posit the truth of Jesus’ life and passion. Else, why would God not have created a perfect world in the first place? Only with free will, the fall, the redemption, do we have a coherent whole of Christian doctrine. No fall, no Christ, no God, no Heaven, and so on...
So, how does the fall fit in with big bang, evolution, the age of the universe?
First, one would have to posit it ‘before’ any of these other facts, and I don’t necessarily mean before in the time as we measure it scientifically. It might be an ‘outside’ of what science sees as the universe.