Spawn of Mars
Don't worry. If you like your religion, you can keep your religion.
Desperately Seeking E.T.
A Peculiar Sort of Hype
Wednesday, May 29, 2019 11:44 am
In a lecture in October of 2015, Dr. Carolyn Porco, Imaging Team Leader for the Cassini Mission to Saturn, said, regarding the chance of life on Enceladus:
Should we ever make such a discovery, if we ever, anywhere, find that there has been a second, independent genesis in our Solar System, then I think that at that point the spell is broken. The existence theorem has been proven. And we could safely infer from that, that life is commonplace; that it is not a bug but a feature of the universe in which we live and that it has occurred a staggering number of times throughout the 13.7 billion years of the history of the cosmos. And I think that that might be the kind of discovery that could change a great many things.
Maybe I'm just curmudgeonly contrarian, but the discovery of extraterrestrial life would not impress me. 

Keep in mind that I'm talking about bacteria in the seas of Enceladus; or even little fishes. Leave aside, for the moment, those greymen in their saucers.

It is wrong to say that life on Enceladus would necessarily be independent of life on Earth. Despite the self-assurance of our scientists, no one knows how life arose. Clearly this Solar System began with the ingredients for life. Earth and Enceladus, however they formed, formed from the same stuff. Strictly speaking, Enceladus is but a distant continent; and especially if its life uses familiar DNA, Occam's razor — that fave principle! — would suggest that life on both worlds had a single genesis.

If, on the other hand, Enceladan life uses an unfamiliar DNA, with unprecedented nucleobases or a triple helix or the like, then one could speak more soundly of an independent genesis. Still, it is a leap to say that one System disposed to life — even multiple threads of life — implies life has occurred a "staggering" number of times elsewhere.

To be sure, on what grounds do I set a special boundary on our System? If I am unwilling to grant a fundamental separation of Earth and Enceladus, what right have I to separate this System from the Milky Way? Clearly, by my standards, this Galaxy began with the ingredients for life. Yes? Indeed this Universe began with the ingredients for life!

Life here implies life everywhere.

But that conclusion doesn't sit right with anyone. Why do you suppose we keep looking for proof of life far from Earth?

Just as we know that the abundance of life on Earth does not imply an abundance in the Universe, another instance of life in our System would not imply another instance anywhere else in the Universe.

Life on Enceladus would, at most, make life not unique to Earth. But why does that matter? Why does that prospect excite Dr. Porco?

It excites her because she thinks we — not she; but you and I — are under a spell.

We think Earth is special. That we are special.

To Porco, this is a delusion. A spell that must be broken. To her, there is — or rather, must be — nothing special about our world. More to the point, nothing special about us. Thinking ourselves special smacks of... ugh... religion... and other icky, unscientific things. Porco is literally a disciple of none other than Carl Sagan; and if anything thrilled Carl Sagan, it was smothering the significance of mankind under billions and billions of stars.

Sagan's deepest hope was that the greymen are indeed out there. I suspect Porco's deepest hope is the same. I'm not saying she's a UFO enthusiast. I'm saying she's a Darwinian. To a Darwinian a man is just an especially complicated bacterium. If we find extraterrestrial bacteria, we will surely find extraterrestrial men; for between the two is a Darwinian straight line.

And that is the true goal. When E.T. is found, religion will be humiliated. Science will win, once and for all.

You may think I am (unfairly) imputing a lot to Dr. Porco. But she is a type. When I hear about spells being broken, I know the type is present. She has also said:
All the atoms of our bodies will be blown into space in the disintegration of the solar system, to live on forever as mass or energy. That's what we should be teaching our children, not fairy tales about angels and seeing Grandma in Heaven.
That's Dr. Porco for you: a conventional secular nihilist; and a woman you should never employ as a babysitter.

But I didn't come here to bury Dr. Porco. My point is only that the discovery of extraterrestrial life will break no spell. Life, in some ways, is trivial. Whether it exists under the ice of Enceladus or in the fumes of the Marianas Trench, it's just life. You can certainly marvel at its variety and dispersion. I'd never deny the wonder of it all. Indeed, be excited by the vitality of Creation! But life is already commonplace. And whenever was it dogma that only Earth possessed any life? It has in fact been a naive presumption, among God-fearing and godless alike, that where there is ground to walk on, there will be creatures. And even if turns out that terrestrial life does not encompass all life, that would not mean mankind is not a special case. God would still favor us.

I am not under a spell. I am not misled. There is nothing in the Creed or the Magisterium that says, "There can be no life on Enceladus." Should fishes be revealed in the environs of Saturn, my worldview will not shift.

Ah. But what if the greymen were revealed? Well, that is a category difference. The discovery of greymen would impress me. The hype would be justified.

You see, I am not a Darwinian. I know it is not possible for rational minds to arise from material processes. I would surely be jarred by the existence of fully rational aliens.

Would Sagan and Porco therefore have their victory? Would my spell be broken? Hardly. The Faith does not preclude non-human rational beings — think of angels, after all. What would jar me, what would give me pause, would be the novel mystery:

Where do aliens fit in the economy of salvation?

Aliens, being rational, would by definition be made in the image of God. They would presumably be free-willed. They would likely be sinners. So did our Christ die for them, too? Or are there two Christs in Heaven? The human Christ — fully divine; fully human — and the alien Christ — fully divine; fully alien?

Well, mysterious as that situation might be, it is perhaps no more mysterious than the Trinity or the one Incarnation we know about. And in any event, pace Dr. Porco, I would remain just as stupidly deluded about the existence of God and the significance of mankind.

We religious folk are obstinate, sometimes. Metaphysical truths can steel a person, that way.

P.S. At the risk of being one of those authors who tactlessly plugs his books at the end of every article, blog post, and tweet, I will mention that my excellent novel The Giant's Walk wonders about the salvation of rational non-humans...

Whence Then Hath It Cockle?
An Insight Into Theodicy
Thursday, March 7, 2019 10:00 pm
I'm not put out by the existence of evil. That is, I do not think it is some sort of terrible mystery, nor a thing to make one doubt the existence of God. You have heard it said: "A truly good God would never allow this! So there is no good God; indeed, no God at all." But that is not an argument. It is a kind of tantrum, really. 

Still, let me offer a response — a parable I recently heard at Mass. True, a parable is not an argument either; but at least it is not a tantrum.

Jesus said (Matt. 13:24-30):
The kingdom of heaven is likened to a man that sowed good seeds in his field. But while men were asleep, his enemy came and oversowed cockle among the wheat and went his way. And when the blade was sprung up, and had brought forth fruit, then appeared also the cockle. And the servants of the goodman of the house coming said to him: Sir, didst thou not sow good seed in thy field? whence then hath it cockle? And he said to them: An enemy hath done this. And the servants said to him: Wilt thou that we go and gather it up? And he said: No, lest perhaps gathering up the cockle, you root up the wheat also together with it. Suffer both to grow until the harvest, and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers: Gather up first the cockle, and bind it into bundles to burn, but the wheat gather ye into my barn.
There you go. God plants the wheat. It is not He who plants the cockle. And why does God not immediately uproot the cockle? Because doing so risks uprooting the wheat.


"Suffer both to grow."

Again, the point of a parable is not a QED. Parables illuminate. Simply see it: Removing the evil cockle would uproot the good wheat. Not because good requires evil; but because good would be ruined by the act of removal. And though one could here begin a great exegesis, leading to some great theodicean schema, that endeavor would be against the spirit of a parable; and of a post in a blog.

Superfluous in Heaven
Even Sacred Music Is Mundane
Saturday, February 4, 2017 12:36 am
In the mid '80s, when I was a college boy, I regularly went to the record stores near campus. This was just before CDs and long before MP3s. You wanted music, you flipped through an alphabetized bin and found an LP. Anyhow, one day, while I was browsing for something new, a classical work of some sort started playing on the store stereo. It was beautiful and unfamiliar. I listened for quite a while. I finally asked the clerk what it was. He showed me the sleeve and I went to the proper bin. The LP was in stock. I bought it. 

It was the Third Symphony of Jean Sibelius, as performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, recorded in June 1984. I know these details because, even when I eventually got the CD, I got the exact same recording. I am reading the liner notes as I write.

Now, I am profoundly susceptible to music. My reactions are acute. Sometimes I am infatuated only; sometimes I am ceaselessly bound. Sibelius's Third is still beautiful to me. It raises and stirs, thirty years on.

Beauty is not precisely in the eye of the beholder. All beautiful things are imperfect and being imperfect are not perfectly beautiful. Besides, one who beholds is imperfect, too, and cannot apprehend beauty perfectly. It is all piecemeal. So it is not surprising that we disagree on what is beautiful. That said, beauty is not a matter of opinion. We are moved by a beautiful thing because we are sensing Beauty Itself. A truly beautiful thing partakes of God.

That is why a beautiful thing makes life good. Living on Earth is a rotten business. A beautiful thing consoles and compensates. When I listen to Sibelius's Third I am glad I have ears. I am reminded that misery is a privation, not an end. I am glad that I am still breathing.

And then I wonder: Would the Third even matter to me in the afterlife?

Assume I get to Heaven. Assume I am granted the Beatific Vision. Seeing God fully means apprehending Beauty at Its Source. No need for reflections or consolations. Sibelius's Third Symphony is of the Earth and would be superfluous in Heaven.

I can tell myself that, being in Heaven, my understanding would be under grace and I would not even miss the Third, nor think it sad that I don't need or want to listen to it. I would understand that even a great work is unnecessary when there is no misery to counteract. I wouldn't even feel a loss, since loss cannot exist in Heaven.

Even after the Resurrection, when we would all be restored to our bodies and again in some sort of material life, the grace of Heaven would persist. We won't need symphonies nor any example of artifacted beauty. Presumably they wouldn't even attract us since we would have no unsatisfied appetites.

And yet.

Will we stop loving each other because we are immersed in grace? Will we stop enjoying what can be enjoyed, whether it is our family or the sun or the moon or whatever might constitute the consummated universe?

Maybe the Third will be superfluous. Or maybe you can never have too much beauty, and we will listen with an even greater joy than before.

Amid the Forests, Among the Stars
A Little Animism Might Help
Sunday, October 5, 2008 7:52 pm
When considering what has occupied thinkers until the modern age, it strikes me how unabashedly they ruminated on the non-material. For ancient and medieval thinkers, material things were not ultimate things, and truly ultimate things can and should be understood.

Modern materialists simply lack imagination. Maybe it is better to say that their imaginations cannot escape their machines and mathematics. Whatever strength of imagination they do have — to imagine, say, a warp in spacetime — they reject any concepts not reducible to the material.

Thus they are terribly hampered when it comes to thinking about the supernatural, let alone believing in God. Indeed, unlike the rest of us, they have no sense of the Divine. Perhaps they truly lack this sense. Rather than having plucked out their eyes, they were simply born blind. Either way, is it not amusing how they think themselves superior for being handicapped? It never occurs to them that they are in a minority not because they, as an elite, have transcended mankind, but because they are simply damaged. 

In any event, it seems that much of the difficulty in accepting God is rooted in an abandonment of philosophy. Natural science has progressively estranged itself from its parent. The modern materialist, at heart a scientist, no longer wonders about causes formal, efficient, and final. He simply doesn't wonder. They don't matter to him. He has, indeed, lost the very language to discuss them. All the terms and theories and modes and categories have been cast aside. And why? Because all of them were devised at first to explain the mundane: Why do things grow? Why do things fall? Why do things live? Why do things burn? Yet having explained the mundane with all his equations and having presumed there is an equation for everything, the materialist has no more need for philosophy.

Never mind Aristotle and Aquinas and their ilk. Consider animism. How is that things move? How is that some of them clearly move deliberately? Is there something that facilitates this animation of things? There is clearly a distinction between living and dead. Something enlivens. And is "living" restricted to beasts? Isn't the wind alive? Shouldn't it, too, have an animating spirit, as much as a mouse? Indeed, are any objects free of spirit? Is it not possible that all objects contain a spirit?

This is not an idiotic line of inquiry. It is reasonable. Just because we have since concluded that the wind has no spirit doesn't mean the evidence isn't there. What is unfortunate is that, having concluded via science that the wind is just an effect of the variously accelerated molecules in the atmosphere, the intuition at the core of animism has been lost. Did you know that the ancients even supposed that abstract emotions had spirits? Love was not only something experienced but something existent, an entity in possession of its own animating spirit. This is downright alien to modern thinking. It may be a refined animism far from the fields and forests, but it is still an animism.

Now, when we Christians say that God is Love, what are we saying, after all? We are saying that Love is an entity animated by a Spirit. Yet the materialist has so thoroughly discarded animistic thinking, he can't even suppose that Love might be more that just an affect of creatures. He can't imagine Love as Being. Sadly for him, so much of God is like that; and since he can't manage the tiniest bit of animistic thinking, he imagines God as only a kind of Spaghetti Monster. The materialist simply hasn't the philosophical disposition — the necessary cognitive tools — to transcend his inadequate notions of God.

Ages as Bright as Any
Michael Flynn's Eifelheim
Saturday, June 21, 2008 9:37 pm
In seeking science fiction that is neither left-wing nor Christophobic, I would have thought the worst place to look would be in a novel about aliens crashing in a medieval German town. O! the opportunities to condemn the superstitious villainies of the Dark Ages! Beleaguered aliens — so like ourselves in their adherence to Science! — against the base and ignorant Catholicism of dim-witted villagers! Goodness me, the cliches write themselves.

Eifelheim is absolutely nothing like that. This is a work that depicts medieval Catholics with sympathy, not by supposing them to be unwashed Episcopalians who would vote Democratic if only they could, but by eschewing condescension and hatred — and, more to the point, by depicting the faithful Catholics as fully rational. 

In trying to understand the alien Krenken, Pastor Deitrich does not struggle to accommodate his religion and his science. He doesn't overcome any "provincial" shortcomings nor abandon his beliefs. Rather, he quite intelligently employs the scholarship of his age — secular and religious — to explain the Krenken. His categories may be medieval and Catholic, but they are rational. Put simply, Dietrich is not forced into some sort of proto-Enlightenment. He remains medieval. Best of all, his understandings are never made to seem pitiful for being insufficiently post-Einsteinian.

So Eiefelheim plays upon the actual strengths — intellectual and technical — of the Middle Ages. Does that mean we get an apology for the Middle Ages, a novel of Medieval Boosterism? No. But we are spared any nonsense about "Dark" Ages. Although the villagers are, quite properly, depicted as 14th-century people, they are also depicted as human beings, fearful and wise.

And wonder of wonders, Christianity itself is presented well — not as a generic stand-in for Belief in God but as a precisely dogmatic view of things. I'll give you two significant examples of this.

First: The fervent, hard-line Franciscan Joachim, who like others of the villagers believes the Krenken to be demons and, at first, seems like he's going to be the stock Intolerant Bigot, instead proclaims: "Show these beings what a Christian is. Welcome them into your hearths, for they are cold. Give them bread, for they are hungry. Comfort them, for they are far from home. Thus inspired by our example, they will repent and be saved... Imprisoned in flesh, they can wield no demonic powers. Christ is all-powerful. The goodness of Christ is all-powerful... Now we may see that it will triumph over Hell itself!" And Joachim is as good as his word.

Second: Much as Dietrich uses his categories to understand the Krenken Science, the Krenken use theirs to understand Dietrich's Christian Faith. Of course, much as Dietrich's categories fail him a bit, the Krenken's fail them a bit; yet as time goes on, many of the Krenken are actually converted and baptized! Not frivolously, either, but — as Joachim had hoped — in reaction to the Christianity of Dietrich and the villagers. Yes, the baptized Krenken have their moments of doubt (Eifelheim is no more a booster for Christianity than it is for the Middle Ages), but they remain faithful — even unto their personal detriment.

Now, on top of its respect for and intelligent engagement with medieval Catholicism, Eifelheim is simply a beautiful story. As science fiction it is sound, if a little unremarkable. That is, don't come to it expecting any unprecedented ideas about aliens or interstellar travel. But as a story it is beautiful. It is not about aliens but about a medieval village confronted with non-human souls, and there are episodes and events and scenes and characters that are great and plentiful and excellently arranged. Even granting that I am a soft touch, Eifelheim moved me. I can't recommend it enough.

P.S. I'm currently deep into Flynn's novel The Wreck of The River of Stars. Believe the hype: It's masterful. Read it — before or after Eifelheim, it doesn't matter. Gosh and damn, I've never been happier being an SF geek than in the past six months! And all it took was well-written SF that doesn't hate on my beliefs...

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