Category Archives: Background Perspective

Grind

  • “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” James Baldwin

One of the ironies for the socially concerned citizen is the uneven burden imposed on the poor by high minded programs attempting to address other compelling challenges – call it unintended (or unheedful) consequences or collateral damage. The ‘climate change’ agenda as typified by the Paris Agreement is one such dilemma. Irrespective of whose interpretation of the discredited hockey stick curve of global warming[i] for which you’ve signed up, that our abused planet will benefit from a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions bears no argument. The open questions, it seems to me, are what solutions are created, how much they cost and who pays? One answer to the last question in the short term is undoubtedly the “energy poor.”

Whether income is limited by low wages, no work, the fixed income of seniors or disability, the energy poor are defined as those for whom more than ten percent of their income is needed to cover energy costs. Since those folks many times also are housing poor (more than thirty percent of their income goes to basic housing costs), the effects grind hard on their ability to make it from paycheck to paycheck. Some live on a constant edge, a couple of missed paychecks away from sleeping under a bridge alone or with their families. During this current brutal winter in the northern United States, such a load means cold houses with thermostats set well below comfort and pipes at regular risk. Life lived wrapped in a blanket.

If Al Gore or Bill Gates (or Donald Trump for that matter) doubles his electric bill, it’s not even a petty inconvenience. More than likely since someone else probably does the mundane work of paying their bills, they wouldn’t even be aware of it. For someone energy poor, such a disaster could be the difference between fresh vegetables and cheap boxed mac and cheese, straight or crooked teeth for Johnny or a ten-year-old car that takes you to work and one that is busted or needs gas and is parked on the street outside the apartment house where the rent already strains the budget.

Just a few statistics and facts, I promise:

  • Thirty million Americans live in energy poor households. Among the population in the world’s “rich countries,” two hundred million are so burdened.
  • In Europe where renewable subsidies (and costs from emissions caps and targets) exceed the United States, thirty percent of Germans are energy poor; in Greece the toll approaches fifty percent.
  • In the United Kingdom, since 2006 while trying to hit coercive renewable targets, energy costs have risen 36% in real terms, while income has grown 4%. A poll in 2014 found one third of British elderly leave at least part of their house cold; two thirds bundle up with extra clothes in their homes.  15,000 died in the tough winter of 2014-2015 because they couldn’t afford to heat their homes properly.

And so it goes.

 “The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time.”  Willem de Kooning

Brayton Point coal fired 1,500 megawatt plant in Fall River. Closed in 2017.

There is good news[ii] regarding carbon emissions with a milestone in 2016: natural gas passed coal as a source of electrical generation for the first time.  Admittedly, a short-term solution, because while gas emits about half the carbon as coal per megawatt generated, the fracking techniques and drilling that freed new sources of plentiful natural gas also emitted significant amounts of methane, an even more efficient greenhouse effect gas than carbon dioxide.

Coal use has steadily declined for the last three years after peaking ten years ago. Nuclear power generation and renewables with hydro-electric leading the pack, have grown as a percentage of power production, but they are more expensive, especially solar and wind. We’ve already noted who gets hurt with that. Who benefits? Those of means and higher income can take advantage of disproportionate government support for expensive electric cars and solar panels on their roofs. The poor and working poor will not be getting energy star tax credits; they’ll be struggling to keep the heat and lights turned on.

Directives imposing or releasing coal from restrictions in the long run will make little difference. Efforts to strangle or to revive the coal industry with Presidents Obama and Trump swapping executive orders are akin to squabbling over saving fax machine manufacturing. Well, maybe not quite that depth of obsolescence. Coal is dying of its own infirmities as an energy source and will expire as quickly as alternate fuel source electrical generation can be brought on line. Xcel Energy is typical. One of the largest Midwest utilities, it has shuttered twenty five percent of its coal fired plants since 2005. Xcel has a goal of reducing their carbon emissions by sixty percent by 2030 with or without the Paris Agreement. “I’m not going to build new coal plants in today’s environment,” Xcel CEO Ben Fowke told Reuters. “And if I’m not going to build new ones, eventually there won’t be any.” [iii]

A modest, and to me, humane suggestion: avoid the “Inconvenient Untruth” histrionics and cease the ham handed, ideologically and politically motivated, big government (or worse international) draconian intervention on carbon emissions or swaps. Instead focus efforts on research and development of affordable and sustainable energy solutions that do not punish those least able to pay the bills.

“But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” William Butler Yeats

[i] See attached critique of climate modeling that was done several years ago by a friend of mine who has taught at a large university for many years. Since it is a compilation of his remarks in email exchanges with others, and I didn’t ask his permission to share this, I have taken efforts to remove his name, but he’s one of the smartest people I know, brilliantly adept in math, energy and engineering and in interpreting data. Has multiple patents and published papers.  If you object, B, I’ll take this link down. Climate Modeling

[ii][ii] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/americans-used-a-lot-less-coal-in-2016/

[iii] Ibid

Advertisements

6 Comments

Filed under Background Perspective

Super Moons, Shepherds and Chrétiens

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.” Edgar Mitchell, astronaut and moon walker

On December third, we witnessed a “super moon.” Before the popular media got their hands on them, the astronomers referred to perigee full moons and perigee new moons. From sixteen century French, it derived from ancient Greek meaning simply “close around the earth.” We name any full moon that comes within ten percent of the closest approach the moon in its orbit makes to earth a “super moon.”. Closer means slightly larger and brighter in our view, and stronger tides, both high and low.

What is somewhat unusual this time around is that there will be three of them consecutively. The full moons on January second and again on the thirty first will be perigee moons.  The second full super moon in January will also be a blue moon, the second full moon in a month. And to complete the January 31’st trifecta, there will be a full lunar eclipse, so super, blue and eclipsed. Quite a free show. Hope for a clear winter night in an area without a lot of light pollution. A party would be in order.

When full on a cloudless night, our closest neighbor with the enigmatic smile lights our way. Unique in our solar system with its relative size to a planet, our moon greatly intensifies the tides of our great oceans. Without it, the sun would still cause tides, but not nearly as pronounced. Those tides have a profound effect on the rotation of the earth, slowing it from its early cycle to our familiar twenty-four-hour spin. Without the moon we would see sunrise every ten hours.

“From moonlit place to place,
The sacred moon overhead
Has taken a new phase.”
The Cat and The Moon, W.B Yeats

From Genesis 1: God made two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night. He made the stars also. I’ve wondered what the shepherds guarding their flocks and saw the angels announcing the birth of Jesus did when there weren’t miracles about. They must have welcomed the full moonlit nights to help them in their assigned watch. I wonder if they understood the moon reflected the sun? Most ancient peoples thought the world was round, but most thought our globe was the center of the universe, and the array of the stars and planets revolved around us.

Only sixty-six years, less than a lifetime, separated the first powered flight of the Wright brothers and Neil Armstrong’s “one great leap” on the surface on the moon. Only since then, have human beings viewed images of our home planet from another celestial object. Out of all the human beings that have lived over tens of thousands of years, only we that have lived in the last half century have been graced with this revelation.

Our perspective, literally our worldview, has lifted, never to be the same. In that same sense, our view of the shepherds, the angels, even the birth of Jesus has subtly shifted as well. We see what angels see, but what those fearful shepherds never did.  They were calmed by the angels, “Do not be afraid.” Are our fears, too, put to rest?  Or has the view revealed from the moon of our luminous and fragile blue orb changed us in some way we have yet to comprehend?

“Minuit, chrétiens, c’est l’heure solennelle,
Où l’Homme-Dieu descendit jusqu’à nous
Pour effacer la tache originelle.” 
French lyrics for “Oh Holy Night”, traditional Christmas Carol [i]

 “Midnight, Christians, it’s the solemn hour. When God-Man descended to us….”

I recently learned reading one of the brilliant speeches of the late Justice Antonin Scalia[ii] that the disparaging English word used to marginalize a group of people, “cretins,” originates from the French. Unlike us (as seen in far too many social media posts), the French originally named a group of severely developmentally challenged residents of the Alps “Chrétiens” or Christians in the fourteenth century, not to demean them or Christianity, but to remind all that human beings, all human beings, irrespective of their status, their gifts or their net worth are inheritors of the dignity of man. “Imago Dei.” Made in the image of God. How many of us believe that in our hearts today?

Yet, is this not the center of the mystery of Christmas? And how, dear readers, are Christians perceived in fashionable society today? Let Justice Scalia speak for himself, far more eloquently than I could ever hope to.

“It has often occurred to me, however, that for quite different reasons the equivalence of the words Christians and cretin makes a lot of sense. To be honest about it, that is the view of Christians – or at least traditional Christians – taken by sophisticated society in modern times. One can be sophisticated and believe in God – heck, a First Mover is at least as easy to believe in as Big Bang triggered by nothingness. One can even be sophisticated and believe in a personal God, a benevolent Being who loves mankind, so long as that Being does not intrude too ridiculously into the world – by working so-called miracles, for example, or by limiting human behavior in inconvenient ways…. But to believe in what might be called “traditional” Christianity is something else. To believe that Jesus Christ was God? … Or to believe that he was born of a virgin! (Well, I mean, really!) That he actually, physically, rose from the grave?!?…”

Read the original, more comprehensive in scope. I strongly recommend this book for some opportunity to think deeply about what we may have avoided thinking about deeply. His point here is that simple and unsophisticated is not by definition wrong, and may indeed be the truth, however incongruent and inconvenient that may be for us. Be advised, though, the recognition, and our place in that truth, may call us to honest introspection and change.

Have these times of ours, so confusing, with an ever-present din of anger and fear, conflict and loneliness, concealed in its foggy night something we have lost, and can ill afford to misplace?

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

 “The Fellowship of the Ring,” J.R.R. Tolkien

[i] ‘Oh Holy Night’ Luciano Pavarotti, 1978 Montreal

 

[ii] “The Christian as Cretin,” from “Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith and Life Well Lived.” Antonin Scalia, Christopher Scalia and Edward Whelan, Crown Forum, Penguin Random House, 2017.

1 Comment

Filed under Background Perspective

Morning Dews and Damps

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” Albert Einstein

From our bungalow on Birch Street in Portsmouth, I exit to the bottom of the hill on Orchard View and turn left on Middle Road by Escobar Farm. Middle Road to the end, right on Union to just before West Main Road, left on Jepson Street to the end at Oliphant Lane and back is exactly ten miles. I hold dear my bike ride at five or six am past nurseries and fields of corn, potatoes, squash, pumpkins and strawberries. From the top of Middle Road, one of the highest points on Aquidneck Island, on a clear morning the West Bay is clearly visible and to the east in glimpses, the Sakonnet River, which runs fourteen miles between Mount Hope Bay and Rhode Island Sound.

If I’m running late, the strawberry pickers are starting to gather. On the weekends, the farm owners drag a small wood framed snack stand out to field with a tractor to sell snacks and drinks to the U-Pick-Them crowd. At this point of the summer, the magnolias, dogwoods, apples, cherries, horse chestnuts, azaleas and rhododendrons have past their flowering splendor, but the hydrangeas, Black-eyed Susans, daisies, hostas, Queen Anne’s lace and an occasional tree of heaven are holding their own. Everywhere, in every direction, is quiet and the smells of summer. Most of the farms are arable, but there are a few chickens, ducks and dairy cows. One field near the reservoir on Union, just past the golf course, hosts four beef critters, lazily grazing their way to qualifying for their purpose as steaks and hamburger in the fall or early winter.

Colonial houses dating back to the revolution along with a collection of center chimney capes and newer colonials and ranches are distributed unevenly along the way. There are several small developments of newer homes with farmer’s porches and attached garages with large lots for the most part, many of which back up to planted fields, reservoir or golf course.

Traffic is light, and almost without exception the few cars and pickup trucks slow and swing wide around the frequent bicycle riders. Unlike last year, which for some reason was a bad year for cotton tails, I greet adolescent rabbits a dozen times on my ten -mile ride. Don’t know their names; they remain reticent and watchful. The red-tail hawks look well fed.

“She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life.” Susan B. Anthony

At the base of a short hill on Union Street just past the U PICK blueberry farm, a few wicker baskets of haphazard common garden vegetables are often displayed for sale on the honor system with a metal cash box. They sit on a flat spot atop the stone wall in front of a rambling two story white house with several additions and out buildings, some well-considered, others more like orphaned after thoughts; the house is just this side of neglected with a slate roof and washed-out, chalky paint. The yard is losing a long transition from tended gardens to an encroaching wooded glade of mostly maples. Curious, I investigated its history and found it was registered as a National Historic site as “Oak Glen.” Julia Ward Howe died of pneumonia here at 91 in 1910 where she had spent many summers.

As a young girl in New York City, she met Charles Dickens through her father, a prominent Wall Street stock broker and her mother, the poet Julia Rush Cutler. Of a literary bent, privately educated, she published learned essays, biographies, plays and poetry. Her husband in a less than happy marriage was Dr. Samuel Howe, the founder of the Perkins School for the Blind; they raised their children in South Boston. She spent many summers here in Portsmouth and much time in the “Yellow House” in Gardiner, Maine, apparently to get away from her husband. Well known as first an abolitionist, she outraged many with her unflattering descriptions of blacks in her book, “A Trip to Cuba.” While disliking slavery, she did not believe in the equality of races. Apparently “all men are created equal,” although an admirable ideal, did not mean all that it implies. Her most passionate cause was women’s suffrage and equality; I suspect that the landed gentry were a bit more equal than an Irish washerwoman taking in Mrs. Howe’s laundry.

At various times, she was president of both the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association and the New England Suffrage Association, which she co-founded. She also founded and served as president for twenty-one years of the Association of American Women, advocating for women’s education.  At some point, she eschewed her father’s strict Calvinist faith in favor of the less demanding, and more fashionable among the literati, Universalist creed.

Mrs. Howe was best remembered for her song writing, and was inducted posthumously into the Song Writers Hall of Fame in 1970. After meeting Abraham Lincoln in 1861, a friend suggested she pen new lyrics to the same tune as the abolitionist anthem, “John Brown’s Body” with the line about “moldering in the grave.” Her “Battle Hymn of the Republic” still rouses many a worship service and patriotic gathering. Four thousand people sang it at her memorial service, as it had been sung at all her speaking engagements for many years.  In 1870, she unsuccessfully lobbied for the country to celebrate a “Mother’s Day” on June second. Two of her daughters collaborated on telling her story, which won a Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1916. Like so many who left a legacy, she was imperfect, an admixture of the admirable and the flawed.

Oak Glen still on its original 4.7 acres sits unnoticed by most next to a similarly neglected small historic cemetery on Union Street in Portsmouth like the faded matron of a once elegant family. Oak Glen has become for me a symbol of ephemeral celebrity, but her signature work, the words of which came to her in a dream, remains. We sang it at church on the Fourth of July as it has been sung for over a century.

“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of human life.”  H.G. Wells

2 Comments

Filed under Background Perspective, Personal and family life

Brothers in the Morning

“Remember upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all.” Alexander the Great

Last week on a cold early morning with a sharp wind coming up from the bay, I stopped at my favorite coffee watering hole where a small crew has been framing an addition in the back of the restaurant. Two of the carpenters were walking from their pick-ups parked in back, dressed for the weather, gloves without fingers, tool belts over their shoulders, talking quietly with easy familiarity.

I remembered thousands of mornings that began each day with similar working friendships: fence crews, carpenter crews, landscape crews, workshop crews of various kinds for fabricating doors, windows, cement forms, nailing pickets on fences, and most especially and fondly tree climbing crews. So many tree climbing crews, large or only two or three men, in Massachusetts, Maine, Colorado and Rhode Island. Convivial or occasionally contentious, we mustered each morning in weather fair or foul, and set about doing something together that needed doing.

We rarely spoke of politics or the news and never in meaningless loaded bludgeon words like inclusivity or diversity or multiculturalism; we talked about the coming tasks that day – the seventy-foot dead silver maple hanging over a swimming pool or roof or power lines, and how to get the damn thing safely on the ground without injury to property or persons, about chainsaws and handsaws, peaveys and winches, ropes and knots, solid high crotches in the tree to tie into, safe and central. We spoke of trucks, saws and chippers that broke down and trees that had almost killed us. We talked about wives and girlfriends and children and good looking waitresses and beer. In the trucks on the way to the morning’s job, we planned for and complained about the cold, the heat, the wind, the rain, the snow and ice. Sometimes we bemoaned the previous night’s disaster for Red Sox, Bruins or Patriots, or we celebrated a hard-won victory and the miraculous catch the center fielder made climbing the wall to save the game and how the bull pen finally closed out the late innings with no damage.

We spoke of real things, not in slogans, not cant and constructs, but in clear sentences to convey to one another our thoughts, hopes, fears, lives and plans.

“Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.” Kenyan proverb

The more experienced taught the new guys, and, of course, some mentors rode the rookies derisively for their lack of skills. But they watched out for them, nonetheless. Stopped them before they fell or cut themselves (or their ropes). The rough humor was constant. I remember getting into trouble about forty feet in the air with an ill-advised decision that left me dangling precariously. My foreman Bill yelled up that since Rita was such a beauty he and others on the crew would make sure to go over to console her if I couldn’t get myself out of the mess I was in.  Another day when I was coming down with my rope securely tied in, Bill lay in wait because I was coming down in an open area well clear of the trunk of the tree. He sprung from the bushes and grabbed my rope. With a quick expert roll, he wrapped my feet, preventing further descent. Then he spun me until I was horizontal and my mouth snapped open with centrifugal force.

The jokes were part of the training, training in skills, knowledge and teamwork. When the foreman issued an edict, debate was not considered. The seniors knew what they were about and taught as they had been taught, and their teachers before them. Bill was a gifted athlete and a savant climber, respected and liked. He taught neophyte climbers like me how to fall if necessary (he was a veteran of the 101st Army Airborne) and more importantly to avoid falling. Tension would build in the crew when truly unnerving challenges arose. Bill had a gift for defusing fear and self-focus; it was about the team, covering each other, keeping an eye out for each other’s safety, the ground men making sure the climber’s lines were never tangled in brush should he need to get out of harm’s way in a hurry. Lunch might include rock throwing or axe throwing contests, foot-lock climbing for height and time, arm wrestling or story telling of demented tree felling events in the histories of the more experienced.  The stories always had lessons.

Men have learned and worked together in such crews, each person with a necessary role in the team, since they hunted with spears and clubs. Worker’s guilds and medieval artist guilds evolved from those groups. The first universities were born of these patterns of order based on experience and talent; the teacher’s organization and the masons who constructed the buildings were so modeled. Men relate differently to and with each other in such crews than they relate to women or in mixed gender gatherings.  For those who have not experienced that brotherhood in crews, teams, the military, it cannot be fully understood.

“The anthropologist Lionel Tiger, in Men in Groups, earned the wrath of feminists when he suggested that men had been primed by the exigencies of the hunt to form hierarchically organized groups, with each man performing a particular task, all of coordinated in a team movement to bring down the mammoth or the wild boar. Some feminists countered by saying that women too had to form groups in order to locate and gather berries, which was a strange way of proving Tiger’s point. Berries do not run forty miles an hour. Berries do not have antlers, hooves or fangs.” From the section, “The Triumph of Brotherhood” in Dr. Anthony Esolen’s latest, “Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture”, which I highly recommend.

1 Comment

Filed under Background Perspective, Personal and family life

Three Year Olds and Socratic Learning

“I never learn anything talking. I only learn things when I ask questions.”  Lou Holtz

Angela and Meg 1988

Angela and Meg 1988

When our youngest daughter Meg was around four, we were walking around our old neighborhood in Providence. As we approached one house, we were accosted by a malodorous intrusion.  My first thoughts were ‘broken septic pipe’; my second was that all smells are particulate, which was not comforting. I realized that Meg was just trying to reconcile an unpleasant incident and her previous experiences with smells outdoors.  “Dad, is someone having a yucky cookout?” I read that the average four-year-old asks four hundred questions a day. I thought that was an exaggeration until we encountered Meg, a mischief always ready to throw something or run from a call home and always ready to ask a question, most of the time with five follow up questions. She outdid the most dogged of journalists.

Curious Mary

Curious Mary 2015

Our third granddaughter Mary may outdo her Aunty Meg with questions. She gauges the temperature in the room, especially when she thinks she may have crossed a line. “Are you mad?” “Are you sad?” “Are you happy?”  A couple of months ago, she wanted to clear up an issue of compelling interest to her at the moment. When she was instructed to stop picking her nose (which is a remarkably cute one), she immediately asked, “Can I pick the other one?” She needed to know if the prohibition was nostril specific – not an unnecessary clarification for a three-year-old. Curiosity is what leads us first to knowledge, then to understanding, and then perhaps with “know thyself” good fortune, wisdom – that most necessary of gifts.

The wisest teach with questions, many times not providing all the answers themselves, but leading each inquiring mind to seek the truth. Not to say that truth is solely subjective, but that finding elusive, objective truth is not for the weak of spirit or mind. Socrates taught with questions and reminded us that only by coming to grasp with our own ignorance do we scratch out the beginnings of wisdom. In the biblical history of Jesus of Nazareth, we observe that in all His recorded utterances, He answered directly only ten of the one hundred and eighty-seven questions He was asked. He related parables and stories. In those same scriptures He asked three hundred questions.

“Try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question.” Rainer Maria Rilke, “Letters to a Young Poet”

We have learned as a people and as individuals mostly by asking questions: the right questions. For those most difficult to understand questions, a lifetime, perhaps many lifetimes, are necessary, and the illumination of history helps. This is most difficult, for to understand our history, wisdom is learning what the events of history were to those who lived them, not in the revisionist light of our own interpretation. The corollary is also dismayingly true. As contemporaries within our own defining events, we don’t know how they will turn out; what the outcome will be in a hundred years or twenty of this cultural phenomenon or this movement of our rulers or this election, we cannot know.  Our understanding while living within these events is indispensable, and the decisions we make elucidated by that understanding equally so, but we cannot know, definitively know. We can surmise based on what has happened to others in similar cultural changes, making analogous choices perhaps. While consequences are to some degree predictable, absolute certainty is not ours to have.

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” Thomas Pynchon, “Gravity’s Rainbow”

So let’s ask a few:

  • It is clear to all honest thinking people that industrial capitalism and consumerism needs reform.
  • Is that needed reform to descend into revolution and chaos as the so-called Protestant Reformation did when the sixteenth century Church required reform from its excesses and faults? Is that reform to be clumsily centralized by a coercive government or localized to the town, the association, the parish, the congregation, the family and the person? Will we learn from the last century’s bloody experiments of “reform” of capitalism with fascist and communist usurpation?
  • It is clear to all honest thinking people that the hedonism and self-absorption of a culture cannot lead anyplace good.
  • Will we regain our footing and recover a culture that seeks happiness planted in the rich soil of wisdom rather than in dissociated pleasure, shallow rooted in ephemera and trifling entertainments and sexual license? Will our inclinations lead to further degradation of the dignity and individual worth of every human life? Will our lives tend towards despair or hope; fear and anger or persistence and courage; bitterness or joy; ignorance or faith; hatred or love; humility or the condemning certainty of the self-righteous? Will we spend our precious time in regrets about the past we cannot change or neglecting the present for the chimera of the future while today is all that we have?

 “As you get older, the questions come down to two or three. How long? And what do I do with the time I’ve got left?” David Bowie

The final questions I leave to those much wiser than I.  From Hilaire Belloc’s brilliant book, The Great Heresies, “But sooner or later every human being who thinks at all, everyone not an idiot, is faced by this Problem of Evil; and as we watch the human race trying to think out for itself the meaning of the universe, or accepting Revelation thereon, or following warped and false partial religions and philosophies, we find it always at heart concerned with that insistent question: Why should we suffer? Why should we die?”

And from John Henry Newman: “On my deathbed, issues that agitate me most now will then interest me not at all; objects about which I have intense hope and fear now will then be nothing more than things that happen at the other end of the earth. They will have no life in them, those things that once consumed me. They will be as faded flowers of a bouquet that do nothing but mock me. What will it avail me to have been rich or great or fortunate or honored or influential?”

 Can’t help but wonder what’s happenin’ to my companions
Are they lost or are they found?
Have they counted the cost it’ll take to bring down
All their earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon?”
  Bob Dylan, “Slow Train”

7 Comments

Filed under Background Perspective, Personal and family life

Independence Day 2016

Father Nick Smith celebrated his seventy-five birthday last week. Although retired, he, like many a good priest of sharp mind, blessed with deep faith and good health, never really fully retires. Father Nick still celebrates Mass a couple of times each weekend and is listed in our parish bulletin at Saint Patrick Church on Smith Hill in Providence as Senior Priest. Educated originally in the city of his birth, Dublin, Ireland, he emigrated to the United States while still a young priest. Thoughtful, kind and with a smile that would calm the savage beast, we are blessed to know him. The gentle lilt of his native brogue in his homilies brings to mind the poetry of the Irish soul. His passion clear, his authenticity doubtless.

This morning’s Mass was no exception to his well-regarded homilies and earned him enthusiastic applause, which, as most know, is not the norm for Catholic Masses, although at St. Pat’s with Father Nick and our pastor Father James Ruggieri is not an infrequent occurrence. Both are extraordinary priests and homilists. For this Fourth of July, I asked Father Nick for a copy of his homily, and with his permission, share it with you as a guest blogger today for our celebration of this anniversary of our country’s birth as an independent nation, now nearing a quarter of a millennium. Warts and all.

 Independence Day, Father Nicholas Smith

Father NickIn recent years the famous Tall Ships have been in New England, including Newport, and I understand will visit Boston next year. It’s quite amazing the thousands who come out to see them: the parade, the pageantry, and the color of it all. And well they might.

The country was discovered by a man on a ship! The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock on a ship! Many of us wouldn’t be here if someone back in our family tree hadn’t come to this country by ship.  Tall ships, small ships, passenger ships, cargo ships.  All in a very unique way remind us of who we are and from whence we’ve come.

Tomorrow is the 240th birthday of the founding of our nation. Independence Day is the commemoration of what those peoples sought when they landed on these shores long ago. The first boat people, sailing away from slavery, persecution, famine to a new world of justice and equality and peace. So we don’t celebrate the land at this time nearly as much as we salute a people who came and fought and in many cases died for the privilege of being free. That’s the gift of the Founding Fathers right there in the historic Bill of Rights! That we are all free – free to come and go – free to worship – free to vote for those we want to lead us, and vote out those we don’t.

But we remember—with some reverence even—we remember that this freedom is both delicate and dangerous. It doesn’t mean that you can do what you want. It has its limitations. And the fundamental restriction is, of course, that your freedom cannot infringe on the freedom of another.

As an immigrant myself, I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating.

  • No one would want to live in an America where you can be mugged or robbed or shot.
  • No one would want to be a citizen here, and be at the mercy of the Ku Klux Klan or the hatred of the Nazi Party.
  • No would want to live in an area where you’re threatened simply because you happen to be of a particular color or race or creed.

These are sad realities.

  • We’re not free when people in some areas of cities have to put five locks on their doors for protection.
  • We’re not free to walk down the street at night.
  • We’re not free in so many ways.

Because America the Beautiful is also America the violent. The abuse of freedom—a warped sense of freedom—freedom gone wrong is rampant.

Nowhere is freedom more delicate than in the whole relationship of Church and State. They should be separate. We should be free to worship how and where we want. But when you get down to the individual person, you cannot split him up. You and I are both American Catholics. Not one or the other, but both.

So when the priest in the pulpit speaks out on the sacredness of life or against abortion for example, not only is he free to do so as an American, but it’s his duty and responsibility as an apostle of Jesus Christ. What we’re free to do is to accept God’s Laws or reject them. What we’re not free to do is to make them, or twist them around to suit our whims. Jesus gave us God’s Laws, and we are followers of Christ.

Rejection, incidentally, of Christ’s laws didn’t begin today or yesterday. It can be traced all the way back to scripture. “Come to me. Come after me,” is essentially what Jesus is saying in that beautiful gospel today. Clearly, a significant number didn’t then, and don’t now.

On this great weekend, however, we want to look at the positive! God knows we get enough of the other. So, if nothing more, recall the immortal words of President Kennedy, words which every American child should know like you know the Hail Mary. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

The only America we can pass on to the people of tomorrow is the one we create today and love today. If you’re not satisfied with it, stop sitting on the sidelines and complaining. Work at making it better—doing your bit to make it a country of high moral standards, a country of neighborliness and justice and charity. A country where the phrase “In God we trust” is more than just words on a coin.

So what are we celebrating today?

  • We’re celebrating the past—the people of the ships—your forefathers, who sacrificed not only that we could be, but that we could be free.
  • We celebrate the future—the hopes, the dreams, the ideals we have for our children—and theirs.
  • But also, and most important in my opinion, we celebrate the present—one another—because all we’ve got is one another.

Let’s pray in this Mass that we can grasp anew something of the great gift of freedom—and the responsibility that flows from that gift.

Let’s pray that God’s kingdom

  • A kingdom of love, not hate.
  • Of hope, not despair.
  • Of peace, and not war

That this kingdom of God may penetrate our very beings and sweep through this land from ‘sea to shining sea.’

Leave a comment

Filed under Background Perspective

Science and Scientism, Part Two

“The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshipped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate and beautiful – and it cannot be at war with itself. Only we imperfect human beings can start such battles. And only we can end them.” Dr. Francis Collins, who led the team that mapped the entire human genome. “The Language of God”

Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks as host of the Apollo 40th anniversary celebration held at the National Air and Space Museum, Monday, July 20, 2009 in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks as host of the Apollo 40th anniversary celebration held at the National Air and Space Museum, Monday, July 20, 2009 in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

After the strident coverage of the scandals of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts, televangelists fell on hard times to the point where Billy Graham, who led more people to an altar call than any of the others, made the definitive point that he was not one. To many, televangelism became a punchline. A notable exception is the enthusiasm attained with his followers by one of the most successful of the current televangelists, although he is not a Christian one. His television series was a resounding success, produced by a fellow true believer, Seth MacFarlane, the animator who also produced a widely watched hit commercial series, “Family  Guy.”

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson came to broad public acclaim through the remake of the old Carl Sagan series from the eighties, “Cosmos.” Dr. deGrasse Tyson has it all: engaging personality, telegenic good looks, a pleasing, convincing voice, brilliant teaching skills, along with a great passion for and the certainty of his faith. He fills large public venues on his tours with high production value, entertaining presentations that sell out routinely. Dr. deGrasse Tyson is now a millionaire (and counting).

I have no objection to the science that he so ably teaches (in truth I love and read books on science regularly), but take issue with his other agenda: the aggressive deconstruction of other people’s faith. Joining Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Bill Nye and other apostles of the cult of scientism, he is not subtle, lobbing gratuitous enades right from the start of the Cosmos series using a shop worn atheist meme about Giordano Bruno[i].  He likes to fire up his flock with Tweets mocking anyone naïve enough to fall for the God myth.

Here’s a couple from December 25th, 2014 from a man clearly enamored of his own cleverness.

  1. ‏ On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642
  2. Merry Christmas to all. A Pagan holiday (BC) becomes a Religious holiday (AD). Which then becomes a Shopping holiday (USA).

The irony in #1 is apparent: Newton and many others who were seminal in Western science were deeply religious. #2 is factually wrong on sequence, dates and history (explanation in the article referenced in the footnote).[ii] The point of these was obviously not accuracy, it was self-satisfied mockery of other’s cherished beliefs. They reflect the central narrative of the scientism creed: the long struggle to climb out of the ignorance and mire of religion has finally triumphed, pulling mankind up from autocratic, stubborn ignorance and into pure, breathing-free reason; and, we, the deGrasse Tysons of the world, the enlightened, are its wizards.

“(Moderns) do not know that there are other methods (besides science) of finding the truth, such as honest, straightforward logical reasoning. They are less aware than previous generations of what good reasons are, for the very word ‘reason’ has drastically shrunk in meaning in modern philosophy.” Peter Kreeft,” Fundamentals of the Faith”

Their dogma ignores that modern science grew out of the soil of religion; there is no opposition, only complimentary and necessary perspectives. The founders of modern Western science were educated in church sponsored universities and faith filled, seeing no conflict between faith and reason: Newton, Descartes, Galileo, Pascal and many others. Many scientific advances have been made by priests and religious.  Here’s a few:

  • Father Jean Picard developed the first modern reasonably accurate estimate of the size of the earth. He was a contemporary of and collaborator with Isaac Newton, inventor of calculus and founder of modern physics.
  • Nicholas Copernicus, astronomer and mathematician, who formulated the math and calculations proving a heliocentric solar system, was a third order Dominican.
  • Gregor Mendel, father of gene theory and the science of modern genetics, was an Augustinian friar and abbot of the St. Thomas Abbey.
  • Father Georges Lemaitre
  • More recently, Father George Lemaitre, Belgian priest and teacher of astronomy and mathematics at the Catholic University of Leuven, first formulated the theory of an expanding universe in 1927, usually misattributed to Hubble, who published two years later. Father Lemaitre developed what became known as Hubble’s Constant, as necessary to those calculations, and first proposed the Big Bang Theory. After first challenging the theory, Albert Einstein met with Lemaitre, and after extensive review of the math, became a supporter.

Scientism is not science, but self-defines a schism between science and reason vs. religious faith and superstition.  This impoverished belief system violates a fundamental tenet of true science; by presupposing that no Creator exists, it distorts wide open inquiry to preclude any possibility of the divine. Rather than going wherever the evidence leads, scientism shuts down paths of examination.  If you want to maintain an open mind on the subject, I recommend some reading on this vast subject; it has far too long a history for a blog post. I briefly reviewed the slow devolution of philosophy to the current “enlightened” position of a false dichotomy between faith in a Creator and science in a couple of previous posts: Singularity and Beyond Singularity, but for a deeper look, I’ve included a short suggested reading list in a footnote[iii].

Science offers a valid, but limited understanding of our existence. Science is the specific study and understanding of physical phenomenon, mostly, but not entirely, based in the “scientific method” of observation of empirical and measurable data, then formulating hypotheses regarding those observations. Next it tests and hones hypotheses with experimentation, further observation and mathematics. Science is rooted, however, in broader metaphysical concepts: that we can trust our observations and reasoning, i.e. that our brains and observational equipment (biological and instruments) can be relied upon for accurate observation, and that the scientific method is valid. The foundation of science itself is a metaphysical concept that the universe is intelligible, and that human beings can come to understand that intelligibility. An intelligible universe would seem to indicate an intelligible origin. Great benefits have accrued to humankind through science and its practical cousin, technology, but also concomitant risk and always emerging ethical questions.

“Can,” “how,” “how much and how many,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “who,” “why and why not,” and their relationships are the domain of science, however “ought” and “should.” are the province of ethics, informed by millennia of philosophy and religion. On this ground, scientism has staked its claim as well. Science is, well, a science, but scientism is a faith, a type of religion, albeit a secular and relatively new one. Scientism holds that science is the only reliable guide to truth, and that metaphysics, philosophy, religion, poetry, art and other forms of human understanding are speculative, subjective, relative and not up to the exacting standards of hypothesis, experiment and empirical observation. From this perspective, objective truth is solely contained in the scientific method.

As with all stories, this has no certain beginning; and shrouded in the mists of antiquity, the story begins when we start watching and paying attention. When and where you start watching, dear reader, is what you must determine with some study and thought, and dare I say, some prayer.

“Positivism and existentialism are no longer as popular as they were earlier in this century, but their essential mind-set has taken root securely in our culture, especially the false premise common to both philosophies, namely that reason equals science.” Peter Kreeft, “Fundamentals of the Faith.”

 

[i] Father Robert Barron comments on “Cosmos: A Space Odyssey.”

[ii] Word on Fire Blog, “What Neil deGrasse Tyson Misses About Science and Faith,” Joe Heschmeyer

[iii] This list is far from comprehensive, and many other references are omitted, but they will provide a starting place from a variety of perspectives. I have read them and know them to be clear and well written. There are many others. I apologize for the incomplete references, but Amazon links to all are included. Most are available in inexpensive paperback or Kindle editions:

9 Comments

Filed under Background Perspective, Culture views

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Norman Bird Sanctuary pond 11-15-15“He knows if you’ve been good or bad, so be good for goodness sake.” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”   1934, lyricist Haven Gillespie

If your high school yearbook was anything like mine (yes, they did have printing presses back then), many of the earnest and hopeful pictures of the seniors were autographed. We took them around to friends, who at the time seemed destined to be inseparable, and exchanged heartfelt good wishes for each other’s lives. Most would include their best expectations for their own lives in a line under their picture stating their goals and aspirations. A majority yearned most notably for happiness. I doubt there were many that interpreted that longing with a clear definition. Prosperity? A beautiful spouse and loving family? Good health and a long life? Multi bedroom houses and an expanse of weed-less lawn? A Porsche, a Harley or a Catalina 315 in Newport Harbor? Wilderness camping? A career with high earnings, fulfilling achievements and social recognition? A lot of fun, however construed, with multiplying diversions and entertainments – dances and concerts and travel to exotic places?

For some an adolescent meaning for happiness persists with inherent disappointment baked in – perhaps even to become pathology with a grinding need for distraction whether in sports or sex, drugs and rock & roll or toys of any stripe or a consuming career and pursuit of the accrual of wealth and stuff or celebrity and the praise of others. If the unrecognized intention is distraction, then distraction from what is the relevant question.

“Anyone that chooses to look back on his past excesses will perceive that pleasures (typically) have a sad ending: and if they can render a man happy, there is no reason why we should not say that the very beasts are happy too.” “The Consolation of Philosophy”, Boethius, (sixth century)

The ancients had a much different understanding of happiness and thought much of happiness a choice, not good luck or successful effort for what we moderns accept as achievement. For Aristotle, human happiness did not consist of satiated desire or momentary contentment, but living daily lives in quiet pursuit of first knowing objective truth, virtue and honor, then to instill virtue in our decisions great and small. He agrees “The highest good attainable by action is happiness,”[i] but defines what that means poles apart from contemporary interpretation.  Happiness is not dependent upon the ephemeral or somebody else’s opinion; happiness is not to be sought as a goal unto itself, but something revealed and familiar in silent reflection, nurtured in our daily thoughts, words and actions.

For Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, Aristotle’s definition is self evident, but they refine it further. Aquinas dedicates a segment of his Summa Theologica to happiness. “Since the last (final or primary) end is stated to be happiness, we must consider the last end in general.” [ii] He accomplishes this in great depth for an entire, beautiful section of his exposition on Ethics.  Augustine in his letter to Proba wrote, “We must search out the life of happiness, we must ask for it from the Lord our God. Many have discussed at great length the meaning of happiness, but surely we do not need to go to them and their long drawn out discussions. Holy Scripture says concisely and with truth: Happy are the people whose God is the Lord.” To be truly happy, it is necessary to first know God, and in so knowing, learn truth and virtue, then to live that life. This brings us to Christmas.

“You first loved us so that we might love You – not because You needed our love, but because we could not be what you created us to be, except by loving You.” “On the Contemplation of God,” William of St Thierry, abbot.

“The end of the ages is already with us. The renewal of the world has been established, and cannot be revoked.”[iii]  We could come up with a better plan than God did for reconnecting His creation with Himself unless that was the only possible plan: that the Bridge had to be of flesh and blood, born of a very young woman in a very remote area of the world. The mystery is not that this actually happened in Bethlehem. If we contemplate the reunification of man separated from God, God, Who is pure Truth, Love and Beauty could not do other than this loving reconciliation for it is His nature, His essence. How it was and is done is a wonder, but what else would it be?

Once genuinely knowing that truth within ourselves, trying to live a life worthy of it, a life of virtue, seeking to understand ever more deeply and love ever more fervently leads like gravity leads running water in a woodland stream to an inner peace and happiness[iv], to that “perfect and sufficient good.”  “So be good for goodness sake.”

“Above all things keep peace within yourself, then you will be able to create peace among others. It is better to be peaceful than learned.”[v]  So if in the context of this peace imbedded in an abiding happiness, we should feel offended or ignored or forgotten or taken for granted or hurt or angry or resentful or vainly knowledgeable in an ignorant world or upset with incompetence or obtuseness or arrogance we perceive in others, then these are opportunities for virtue and great peace.  A gift of opportunity is granted to reclaim peace, to recall the sufferings of others, to know that we cannot see into their souls and what grave secret burdens they carry. We can understand that our feelings may well up from a reservoir of hurt carried within us all that we can allow to drain off. Peace is better than to be right. Mercy and truth, but mercy first. Peace and right, but peace first. Humility before offended pride, which always is rooted in our own faults.  God bless you and yours this Christmas season and a Happy New Year.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

Is God, our Father dear,

And Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love

Is man, His child and care.

 

For Mercy has a human heart,

Pity a human face,

And Love the human form divine,

And Peace, the human dress.  

 “The Divine Image,” William Blake

[i] The Nichomean Ethics, 1.4, Aristotle

[ii] Peter Kreeft in Summa of the Summa, states in his notes, “’Happiness’ (eudaimonia in Greek, felicitas in Latin) means not merely subjective contentment, or rest of desire, but also real blessedness, the state of possessing the objective good for man.”

[iii] “Lumen gentium” from the Second Vatican Council.

[iv] “As Plato pointed out (Republic, Bk 9), all who have experienced both the greatest bodily delights and the greatest spiritual delights testify to the same results of this dual experiment: that the soul can experience far greater pleasure than the body. (It can experience far greater suffering, too.) All who doubt this simply prove they lack the experience and are in no position to judge.” Peter Kreeft, notes from Summa of the Summa.

[v] From “Imitation of Christ,” Thomas à Kempis.

4 Comments

Filed under Background Perspective

Word Sense

Janus, Roman god of transitions and opposites, looking to the past and future

Janus, Roman god of transitions and opposites, looking to the past and future

Most bloggers like words, are fascinated by words, enjoy thinking about and playing with words, and want to use the right words. Nerds essentially, poets with an unrequited love, and I fall into that category.

“In time small wedges cleave the hardest oak.”The Spanish Tragedy,” Thomas Kyd

“That is why a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Genesis 2:24

Janus words are self-antonyms, and with some thought, we can find quite a few of them. “Cleave” is a bit antiquated. Thomas Kyd penned “The Spanish Tragedy” in Elizabethan times. When did anyone last tell their spouse he cleaved to her? Perhaps you cleaved the firewood with a splitting maul. More likely you split the wood. In modern conversation, allusion to cleavage most often involves immodest dress. Still, we understand the opposite meanings of “joined with” and “split” by their context.

How about the Janus word, “screen?” I’m wonky enough to look forward to watching a screening of “Pawn Sacrifice,” the new Tobey Maguire movie about the Bobby Fischer/Boris Spassky world championship chess match in Iceland. Screen can also mean to hide from view, as in Hillary set up a private server for her emails to screen her communications from oversight and legal inquiry.

Oversight can mean to oversee and supervise, as in the Secretary of State has oversight responsibilities for the security of U.S. diplomatic missions and embassies across the globe. However, if an ambassador in a high risk country like Libya pleads for additional security forces, is ignored, doesn’t get the help he needs, then is murdered along with three other Americans in Benghazi, well, that’s an oversight of a different kind.

“Sanction” can connote approval or condemnation. We can discern its opposite meanings depending upon context to guide us, even within the same sentence. The weak Iran weapons deal with its unpublished side agreements tacitly sanctions Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions by removing all economic sanctions without enforceable inspection provisions, thus freeing up billions of dollars for Iran’s terrorist supporting enterprises.

More?  How about “trim,” which can mean “to decorate (add to)” or “to cut away?” “Fast” can mean to move rapidly or to stand motionless and firm. “Weather” can be used to describe wearing away over time or to persist unchanging in the face of adversity. A little thought and you can find others like “left” or “dust.” We don’t ponder these self-opposite words, and our brains adjust without pause to interpret them on the fly.

As I thought of these words, another came to mind that, while not exactly an auto-antonym, can connote, if not opposite meanings, vastly disparate implications for the human experience. Let’s explore the word “sense” in a little more depth.

“And I’m thinking ‘bout how people fall in love in mysterious ways. Maybe just the touch of a hand.” “Thinking Out Loud” Ed Sheeran

 Sense can mean hard headed evaluation and everyday common wisdom. “That makes no sense.” Or “Common sense is unfortunately not very common in Washington.” Sense has other inferences connecting us to feelings, intuition and imagination. “He had a sense of foreboding when his new partners stopped their conversation as he entered the room.”

Sense is a basic attribute of sentient beings. We need five senses as our means of learning about our environment. They become increasingly intimate and perhaps more primitive as we first experience them from far to near. We start to see from great distances; with a little help to the far side of the universe. Closer in, we begin to hear – the greater the distance, the louder the stimulus needs to be and the longer it takes for us to sense the disturbance. From explosion to the transcendence of music; the unwelcome intrusion of angry shouting to the whisper of a child with a secret.

Next in comes smell, always particulate, sometimes exhilarating, calming or pleasant, other odors offensive or even frightening. Closer in still come taste and touch, requiring physical contact with that which brings to us the sensation. Sweet and pungent, bitter and delightful, hot and cold, sharp and soft, pleasure and pain.

Within our most intimate relationships, all five senses intensify, and with the most personal of human contact with bodies intertwined, all senses heightened, we become one. Open to passionate sharing of our very selves, at its spiritual core, open to new life – both with each other and in co-creation with God. Not merely, “Let’s go lie down somewheres, baby,”[i] but “I in my innermost desire want our love to bear the fruit of a child, who is a lot like you.” The definition of marriage is an intimacy like no other inscribed in our nature as humans. The vagaries of cultural change can no more redefine marriage at its core than it can redefine our souls.

“What more do you want?”

“The truth,” she said. “For starters.”

We both fell silent for a moment. I said, “It was a hell of a lot easier for us to agree to have sex.”

She drew that big breath back in; her shoulders and chest rose. “Sex is always easier than the truth,” she said. “The Star of Istanbul” Robert Olen Butler

[i] “Coney Island of the Mind” Lawrence Ferlinghetti

4 Comments

Filed under Background Perspective

Musicophilia

“Mozart’s music is so pure and beautiful that I see it as a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe.” Albert Einstein

violin partita No 2 D Minor JS BachLast week Dr. Oliver Sacks died well; he wrote, thought and gifted mankind until the end. He was highly praised as a neurologist, author and for the partially autobiographical 1990 film, “Awakenings,” which earned Golden Globe and Academy Award Best Actor nominations for Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. Williams played the Oliver Sacks character. A fine writer, he penned a book, “Musicophilia” in response to Stephen Pinker’s statement that “music is ‘auditory cheesecake, an evolutionary accident piggybacking on language.’” [i]

Dr. Sacks “pointed to [music’s] ability to reach dementia patients as evidence that music appreciation is hard-wired into the brain.” He said in a lecture at Columbia in 2006 that “I haven’t heard of a human being who isn’t musical, or who doesn’t respond to music one way or another . . . I think we are an essentially, profoundly musical species. And I don’t know whether — for all I know, language piggybacked on music.” [ii]

Music is to me the deepest of human efforts to communicate, to impart information – intellectual and emotional – an amalgam of mathematics, symbols, human feelings and poetic beauty. Some is simple; some is more complicated. Musicologist Helga Thoene studied patterns and double coding in music. She applied a number/alphabetic substitution code to the notes of Bach’s exquisite unaccompanied Violin Partita in D-Minor[iii], a piece written after the death of his wife. Thoene discovered encoded within it the medieval Latin proverb, Ex Deo nascimur, in Christo morimur, per Spiritum Sanctum reviviscimus (In God we are born, in Christ we die, through the Holy Spirit we are made alive).

With 27 possibilities (26 letters and one number for a space), the odds of this sixty eight character (with spaces) phrase occurring perfectly and randomly are one in 27 x 27 x 27 and so on 68 times (2768), a very large number – quite respectable odds against pure chance. What is a reasonable person’s reasonable inference about the Ex Deo statement? Applying his considerable genius to create a beautiful piece of music, Bach applied intelligence to impart additional information and intended it to be there. That, of course, is the point.

“The most beautiful experience we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science…” Albert Einstein

Other instances of improbable odds occur in nature. If in the formation of the universe the ratio of the gravitational force-constant to the electro-magnetic force-constant increased by as much as one in 1040 (one with 41 zeros after it), only small stars would be formed. Decrease it by the same amount, only large ones.[iv] Both are needed. Large ones produce all the elements in their thermonuclear center and disperse them with supernovas for their use in new stars and planets; small stars survive long enough to sustain a planet with life. An image to help understand the odds? They are akin to a sharpshooter with a rifle hitting a quarter, but a quarter 20 billion light years away at the outer edge of the observable universe.

Closer to home there is the DNA structure and sequencing for a human being, or even a single protein. To bog down the blog with the details of the math, biology and chemistry would flood too many ideas with inadequate space to explore them. A far better job of it than I could ever attempt is to be found in “God’s Undertaker” referenced in the footnotes. I’ve mentioned this book before, and for any fair minded and motivated curiosity, it is well worth a few evenings of reading. Clearly written and not beyond anyone with a minimal familiarity with scientific and mathematical topics – nothing beyond high school is necessary to understand the concepts.

The formation of a single protein or even more so the human genome DNA generated randomly over eons of time and prebiotic chemistry is doable – as long as we accept one in 10123 odds, or approximately one out of the estimated number of protons in the known universe. Science has succeeded in creating with various manipulations of natural events, such as simulated lightning strikes into the hypothesized primordial soup, some, but not all of the necessary amino acids for all the proteins needed by life. Not a single protein by spontaneous confluence of any kind has been produced in this manner. Artificial proteins, yes, with elaborate computer modeled lab procedures, but with any process mimicking randomness – not even remotely close. Neither has double helix pairing such as the AGCT structure of twenty billion of such pairings in precise sequence in human DNA been shown to be possibly random. The introduction of intricate instructions and information is necessary.

The point is one discussed before in this blog. There is zero proof of any kind that these more complex prebiotic chemical processes took place randomly, nor, despite numerous efforts, have they been close to duplicated in a laboratory.

I was  justly criticized for naming the choice for a theistic vs atheistic or even agnostic perspective on these things as a faith decision. I think that is because it can be confusing to those who don’t see a choice for “no God” or an unprovable God as a faith decision. Rather let’s agree to call it a belief system that undergirds one’s world view. Materialist/naturalist vs. intelligent design. Reflect, then, on the ponderous and convoluted reasoning set forth by the materialist to explain away the odds. Is not the reasonable inference by a reasonable person that the evidence points to an infusion of the necessary information from an intelligent source? That the against-all-odds, irreducible complexity of life is more simply explained by a designer – an Occam ’s razor for our existence?

Are those who trust a designer as more likely than a random accretion as the cause for the presence of elements and the fine-tuned chemistry, physics and biology of life less enlightened than the nature only true believer? If it is credible that the Ex Deo proverb is coded within Bach’s partita by accident or for that matter that a partita or a Bach or the longing and beauty of the human mind creating music was somehow a chance happening like ink drops on a piece of paper, then I suggest you are not following the evidence to lead to your conclusion. That isn’t science; it is belief.

Science that takes as an axiom that all conclusions must find a naturalist/materialist result is not science that follows the evidence, but presupposes and limits its findings to the detriment of the search for truth.

   “I want to know God’s thoughts. The rest are details.” Albert Einstein

[i] Quotes from Peter Leithart’s blog piece in the journal, “First Things.” http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2015/09/musicophilia

[ii] Ibid

[iii] As played by Arthur Grumaiux: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpe7thXd69E

[iv] Please see “God’s Undertaker. Has Science Buried God?” by John C Lennox for in depth analysis of these examples.

8 Comments

Filed under Background Perspective