Spawn of Mars
Don't worry. If you like your religion, you can keep your religion.
"Planet" Is What You Say It Is
Simply Use Pluto as a Minimum
Wednesday, June 12, 2019 12:07 pm
Regarding the demotion of Pluto as a planet, an astronomer once tweeted:
So, hey, Pluto is still not a planet. Actually, never was. We just misunderstood it for 50 years. Now, we know better. Nostalgia for Pluto is not a very good planet argument, but that's basically all there is. Now, let's get on with reality.
I'm sure this guy thought he pwned the folks defying Pluto's demotion. There's a nastiness in his tweet, isn't there? Not surprising, considering his handle is @plutokiller.

He's wrong, in any event.

"Planet" is not a designation like "baryon" or "lepton." There is nothing in the design of the universe that relies on some profound distinction between, say, a "planet" and a "dwarf planet." Sorry, but Pluto was a planet for 50 years. We said it was. We did not learn anything new about Pluto that would make it not a planet. 

What we did learn is that there's a lot of Pluto-like things out there, such as Eris and Sedna. So is Eris a planet? Is Sedna? If they are, we might end up with hundreds of "planets." Where would it end? Heck, would Ceres get promoted? How about Vesta?

"Planet" would become a useless designation.

So step back for a moment. What has been the historical definition of a planet? "Planet" initially encompassed the objects known as Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This, then, is our foundation. What is common about these objects? Think a while and the definition arises:

A planet is not the Sun nor a star. That is, it does not engage in the fusion of elements, nor does it constitute the late-stage remnants of a fusing body.

A planet orbits a star. More precisely, its primary orbit has a star as a focus. Even more precisely: Once one has identified a solar system — a collection of objects gravitationally bound, as a unit, to one or more stars — a planet is an object that orbits not a fellow object but one of the stars.

A planet has sufficient gravity to maintain itself as a sphere. Its mass is essentially in a spherical equilibrium, if you will.

And finally, to keep our definition from including every beachball in a system: A planet is no smaller than Pluto.

Ta da.

You don't have to bother with any nonsense about an object clearing debris from its orbit. You don't have to worry about an absurd proliferation of "planets." This definition satisfies that sense we all have of "I know a planet when I see one."

Yes, Pluto is an edge case. Yes, it seems like it's just an upstart Kuiper-Belt object. But come on — Pluto has a substantial moon, its orbit periodically brings it closer to the Sun than Neptune, and it stood out enough among the objects of our system to be noticed without fancy space-borne telescopes.

Besides, there is a lot to be said for nostalgia. Nostalgia is also respect for continuity. Science doesn't have to be constant — and snarky — upheaval.

P.S. "Dwarf planet" is a stupid term. So is it a planet or not? Is a "giant planet" not a planet? For planet-like objects smaller than Pluto, there should be a distinctive noun, akin to "planetoid."

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...

Long Time Coming
An Unexpected Sight
Sunday, April 28, 2019 3:29 pm
Rocketships are romance.

However grounded they were in speculative engineering, rocketships were ultimately acts of art. They were unreal transports to a heaven closer than God’s. They were graceful. Hopeful. Evocative.
A Lunar Excursion Module is not a rocketship.  A LEM is a quasimodoan apple pegged on a foil-wrapped, four-legged cardboard box. I agree there is a kind of beauty to it. There is no grace, however. Even its name is graceless.

And when the lunar astronauts returned, they did not gracefully descend — but fell; in a practical, man-packaging cone, wingless, powerless, splashing into the sea.

Even when astronauts acquired wings, those wings were stubby. The Shuttle was a train-car with ailerons, a brutish airplane without the slick menace of an SR-71, the aloof magnificence of a B-52, or the subtle panache of a DC-3. Whatever else, the Shuttle was surely no rocketship.

Now, I didn’t grow up with a romantic anticipation of the Space Age. I and the Space Age are siblings. I was six when we landed on the Moon. The rocketships I encountered were already passé, simplistic and dreamlike, images in outdated storybooks and encyclopedias. And yet, even then, those images were not so very old to me; and somehow they retain a nostalgic weight.

So one day recently, in this year of 2019, when I am fifty six and Apollo 11 is fifty years past, I was surfing through dumb videos on YouTube — not even cyberspace is quite the wild thing it was once romantically expected to be — and I came upon a recording of SpaceX ships returning to Earth. I knew about these SpaceX successes, but since I get my news from video-free blog posts, I had not seen such a recording before.

I watched. I saw spacecraft descending from the clouds, landing with flames, vertically and grandly like... rocketships. Oh, yes, the SpaceX ships are only tubes with brackets. They moved so perfectly, though. Even without portholes and silver fins, they stirred me.

Real rocketships, at last!

P.S. I really do agree that the LEM has its own beauty. In fact one of my favorite SF spacecraft is the Eagle from Space: 1999 — a ship clearly using a LEM aesthetic. My mother once wondered why I liked the Eagle. "It's so clunky," she said. Yeah, Mom; but it's cool.


Mars Can Wait
Until the Restoration
Thursday, July 26, 2018 1:41 pm
I haven't read anything about the President's initiative for a Space Force. I don't even know if it was more than a rhetorical wish. That, and some rumblings about finally going to Mars, could make a person hopeful, however.

To think we once walked on the Moon! And now we must fret over trannies in bathrooms.

It occurs to me, though, that the last thing we want is to head to Mars under the current social regime. You know as well as I that the most pressing issue will be: Should the first human to step foot on Mars be a woman, a black, or a black woman? What should be an achievement of the species will instead be a fight for diversity points. Without question the success of the mission will be subordinated to the satisfaction of SJW feelz.

Therefore I think it best that we whose heads are clear not wish for a Mars landing soon. Let us wait for a restoration of civilization; for a renewal, frankly, of patriarchy. Our current gynarchy would make a farce of any Mars mission.

Now, being a sourpuss, I think we will have a collapse long before there is a restoration of anything sane; and it will be some unknown descendant civilization that finally makes it to Mars. So be it. The first men on Mars should be men, plain and simple. Men are the explorers and conquerors. Modern America has forgotten that.

P.S. So should I be cheering on China? Or Russia? It makes an American sad.
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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