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 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.

Religion as Fraud Is Boring
Why Not Try Harder With Your Conflict?
Tuesday, November 20, 2018 3:48 pm
There's a couple of things I dislike about the Ori arc in Stargate SG-1.

First, it is facile and cowardly to cast Origin, the religion of the evil Ori, as a sort of medieval Christianity. Of course the Ori instigate a crusade against our galaxy. Why not a jihad? Because modeling Origin on Islam and having Stargate Command oppose a jihad would, I suppose, be mean to brown people. Or something. Mustn't be phobic! Except, of course, against Christians. Natch. 

Second, the Ori offer enlightenment and outright ascension to their followers. Those who heed Origin will themselves become gods! But then it is revealed that this is a lie. The Ori want followers only to literally consume the energy of belief. Ascension will never be granted to anyone. Origin is a fraud.

This, I think, I dislike even more than the arc's implicit Christophobia — which, these days, I'm somewhat resigned to. Haters gonna hate. Amirite? But to posit a religion as a fraud? That is artistically tedious.

The modern screenwriter, being so far removed from true religion and bound, by his university-credentialed brilliance, to the truths of SCIENCE! alone, cannot even imagine religion as anything other than fraud. Gods aren't real; God isn't real. How do I know? The SCIENCE! tells me so!

We might, as Good Liberals, indulge the ethnic employment of religion. Aren't those Mexicans adorable with their Signs of the Cross? Aren't those Blacks adorable with their Gospel Spirituality? And my, the little bon mots we can extract from the religious expressions of these adorable ethnics! Despite the fraudulence of their silly religions.

But imagine the Ori weren't lying. Imagine that ascension truly awaited the followers of Origin. Imagine that Origin was not a fraud. Suddenly the Ori arc is interesting.

It's easy to fight charlatans. The moral high ground is so very high. But what if your foe is not a charlatan? Where then is your moral high ground? Is it right to oppose the dissemination of enlightenment? When the rewards are so great? The truths so real? True dilemmas arise. It's not so easy anymore. The Crusade has a point after all. It is bloody, yes. But not pointless. The conflict between the Ori and Stargate Command is suddenly deep.

Or at least not tedious.

Since I actually like the trappings of medieval Christianity, I mostly enjoy the Ori arc even as it irritates me. They squeezed a lot of decent adventure into two seasons. (Squeezed perhaps too much: One potentially deep and interesting story — the implantation of a Goa'uld into the incarnated avatar of the ascended Ori — was somewhat flaccidly disposed of in a single episode. That story should have been a three parter, the very climax of the Ori arc. Oh well.) I also like Tomin, and Vala's relationship with him. And finally I have one word for you: morenabaccarin.


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.

You Do Not Come Disassembled
A Thought About the Self
Friday, January 27, 2017 3:19 pm
The person who bristles at being labeled is being childish. You are not a special snowflake; you are always a member of some category. The only matter with a label is its accuracy.

Call me a Thomist and you would be right. More to the point, presume that my metaphysical ruminations hardly originate with me. I'm not trying to break ground, here; I'm sharing an understanding that I have acquired. 

So I am David. David is not a soul inhabiting a body. My body is not a vessel. There is no ghost in the machine. While my soul, having immaterial aspects due to its rational nature, can exist apart from its material aspects, a human soul without a body is incomplete. Truncated; crippled. My soul is the form of David and that form properly entails the material.

I am reducible to neither my body nor my soul.

There is a tendency these days to think of the mind as a computer plugged into a body. It seems a useful analogy, sometimes. The problem is that one starts to think of separated processes in the mind because that is how computers work. Most especially, one thinks that the "mind" is the conscious bit of oneself, the you, and the unconscious bits are just the "brain," all but independent of the true self.

However, much as you must stop thinking of the soul and body as independent, you must stop thinking of the mind and brain as independent. When you drive to work and are thinking the whole time about something else and yet you are stopping at traffic lights and making those familiar turns, it is not a drive-to-work brain-bound subroutine that is getting you there, but you.

There is only one actor. And that assertion is not semantic; it is metaphysical.

Now, I'm not going to give a thoroughgoing defense of this idea. A good Thomist can do so (visit Edward Feser whenever you can). Rather, in this little blog post, I want only to prompt a shift in your thinking.

Do you recall that experiment that "proved" free will was an illusion? I recall that, eventually, the empirical facts were shown to be wrong; but accept that the experiment was empirically accurate in its results.

The "proof" was that when a subject picked up a cup, the brain fired off the muscle signals to pick up the cup before the subject consciously acted to pick up the cup. In other words, the decision to pick up the cup followed the movement to do so.

As you can see, the problem in this "proof" is the presumption that the conscious part of you is all of you; more subtly, that free will is implicated only in consciousness.

Or consider this. The free will in this case doesn't consist in the "decision" to pick up the cup; the free will was prior to that, when the subject decided to do what was asked of him. Picking up a cup does not require will as such. The subject knows how to pick up a cup. He is primed to act already. His muscles are in play even before he is consciously aware of what he is doing.

If the subject were instead told to stab someone, an if-then morality check — i.e., his conscience — kicks in. The muscle process is blocked. The consciousness is made aware, affirms the delay, and no stabbing occurs. And a well-formed conscience — that perennial check on "mindless" action — is the result of prior learning and training; of prior free will. Even the reflexive refusal to stab a man is ultimately the consequence of free will, whatever the milliseconds timing of this or that neuronal impulse.

Or consider this. Ultimately the mind is immaterial. The decision to act is made in an immaterial space. That a material detection of a "decision" should follow the material detection of a "movement" does not tell you what happened prior to both in the immaterial aspect of the mind.

Think about it.

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