Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

The Aesthetics of Psychics

Is there such a thing as being psychic? After a century of failure to validate any claims of telepathy, clairvoyance, fortune-telling, and the like, it might seem daft even to raise the question. Yet this would be to ignore the reality from which the modern notion of “being psychic” emerged. There have always been people who are acutely sensitive to nature and to other people. They may pick up on nearly imperceptible signals and are attentive to the spiritual or mental states of others, or even that of nature, being raised to ecstasy or troubled with pain. Though there might not be anything properly supernatural about this, it is far from an ordinary ability. This is something real, like having rhythm, but there is a temptation to make this into something intelligible, thereby falsifying it.

When you try to make “being psychic” something intelligible, like telepathically receiving words or images, you take whatever was real about such sensitivity and turn it to something false. The modern notion of “being psychic” incoherently flounders between nature and supernature. Is it a natural power? If so, then it would be something intelligible under our notions of physics and biology. It would be something measurable, testable, with some genetic or molecular basis. Is it something beyond our nature? In that case, there is no sense in speaking of someone “being psychic,” as the supernatural phenomenon belongs to something other than the person. When you try to make it something intelligible, following a fixed rule, you make it into something that will be proven false, since you have denied what was real about it.

Do the empirical falsifications of psychic claims mean there is no such thing as psychics? Only in the sense of having determinate powers following some fixed rules. If we return to the original conception of someone who is sensitive or in rapport with his fellow creatures, or with the reality that underlies them, we can no more say that this is unreal than that there is no such thing as having rhythm. A person who “has rhythm” goes by feel, knowing when to speed up, slow down, hesitate, or keep two times at once. If he were to try to write this in musical notation, or to turn his gift for improvisation into a fixed set of rules, he thereby would falsify the gift, producing something other than his art.

Ancient cultures recognized that certain people had a sensitivity to nature, a rapport with the fundament of reality. This was manifested as a sense of harmony, balance or peace. In cultures with more ethical conceptions of the Divinity underlying nature, those who had a rapport with goodness, wisdom (not intelligence) or justice might be trusted to speak for God. Again, attempting to render this intelligible falsifies it. We intuitively apprehend, for example, that it is good and beautiful to save life, while it is evil and ugly to murder. If you try to rationalize it, saying that it is to your biological advantage or in your enlightened self-interest to abstain from murder or to prefer a society where people aren’t allowed to go around killing each other, you have taken the virtue out of virtue. You are saying that the only reason you don’t kill is because it is not expedient to kill, which is hardly distinguishable from the soul of a murderer. The assumption that reality is always improved by making it more intelligible is repeatedly falsified in art, morality and religion. Those who are wedded to this assumption will have a low appreciation of these aspects of human existence.

Psychics represent a segment of the population who are not ashamed of their subjectivity, and recognize it as a basic reality that needs no extrinsic justification. They go astray, however, in modern society, starting in the nineteenth century, when some psychics thought they needed to make their abilities into something objective, in order to be respectable. This naturally failed. If we are surprised at why psychics persist in their self-belief even after empirical falsification (setting aside the shameless charlatans), we must recognize that they still retain some sense of subjectivity as a value in itself. Indeed, without such self-belief, their aesthetic sensibility would be impossible. An artist must have confidence in every stroke, every beat, or his work will lose the quality of art, making it something too labored, too constructed. Those who lack the ability to feel a Negro spiritual well enough to sing it are incompetent to judge this area of existence. Instead of looking down upon the lack of technique or understanding, they should look up to the noble genius that reveals a glimpse of deepest reality, if only as a flash to be seen, not understood.

Some will dismiss this as obscurantism, but even the most plodding intellectual endeavors in science and philosophy are subservient to this aesthetic desire for insight. Without this, no one could take any joy from his work. Scientists themselves do not criticize the idea that Truth is a positive value to be sought. The worthiness and nobility of their endeavor is something presupposed, and any attempts to justify science in terms of expedience, i.e., for its technological and economic benefits, reduce it to something unspeakably profane and bourgeois. No one could revere a science for such mundane reasons. If it is shameful and falsifying to rationalize scientific pursuits, let us not rationalize the overtly aesthetic.

Benevolent Statism vs. Religious Freedom

Those who are generally unsympathetic toward organized religion may be tempted to dismiss or belittle the recent furor over the Obama administration’s mandate that all employers, including religiously-affiliated institutions, must provide coverage for sterilization, contraception and abortifacients. From a hostile secular liberal perspective, any opposition to this measure must be grounded in an irrational desire for public recognition of a religious belief. Adherence to this measure, by contrast, is simply rational compliance with a public health initiative. Such breezy analysis ignores the fact that the proposed mandate is a significant departure from established law regarding freedom of religious conscience, and it exhibits an intellectual confusion of liberal ethical norms with objective scientific reality. That is to say, the notion that contraception is necessary to health requires an expansion of the notion of “health” to include normative social judgments, rather than pure physiological examination.

The legal or constitutional issues are profound, and based on past case law and the current composition of the Supreme Court, it would be extremely surprising if the Obama Administration’s proposed measure will withstand litigation. The movement so strikes at the heart of freedom of conscience that several bishops are openly calling for refusal to comply with this unjust law. To appreciate the significance of this fact, consider that the bishops do not call for civil disobedience regarding existing law allowing divorce, abortion and contraception, or indeed for any other matter, though there are plenty of laws that express ideas hostile or contrary to Catholic teaching. However, none of these laws compel a conscientious Catholic to participate in a gravely immoral act. Further, the opposition is not limited to “conservative” bishops, but extends even to liberal-leaning Catholic figures such as Roger Cardinal Mahony and John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter.

Now, many liberals will dismiss this by saying that the Catholic Church is “wrong” or “backwards” for regarding contraception, abortion and sterilization as gravely immoral, and cite statistics showing most lay Catholics disagree with official Church teaching on contraception in particular. These criticisms show that certain liberals have no understanding of the principles of liberalism. There is no virtue in tolerating only those beliefs you find rational and agreeable. Even fascists tolerate other fascists, and communists tolerate other communists. If liberals only tolerate other liberals to have a voice in the public sphere, they are no more tolerant than anyone else. To adopt the “free exercise of religion” and freedom of religious conscience as a matter of principle means that we respect such freedom regardless of the content of a certain religion. Too often, secular liberals seem to regard religious freedom as something they grant only begrudgingly to keep the peace, not something they truly respect and honor. How could they respect and honor such a freedom, if they think all religion is a stupidity at best, or an oppressive evil at worst?

To make an analogy, one need not agree with the Amish that Christian modesty and simplicity requires refraining from using electricity. One could further point out that most Anabaptists (i.e., Mennonites) have no objection to using electricity and other modern conveniences. This does not abolish the right of the Amish to follow their religious conscience, and no one would think of compelling them to use electricity.

Many liberals tend to mistake their ethical judgments (homosexuality is essentially no different than marriage; contraception is “reproductive health”) for scientific facts. They are forced into such intellectual contortions because they are nominally unwilling to accept the legitimacy of imposing objective moral norms on the public (“you can’t legislate morality”). Thus the liberal, to be consistent, must pretend his ethical judgments are scientific facts. This can only be accomplished by the illogical process of inferring normative judgments from declarative statements.

This move by the Obama administration is based on the assumption that an ideological creed – “contraception is necessary to ‘reproductive health'” – is to be treated as an objective, universally accepted fact. It refuses to recognize the equal validity of alternate constructions, e.g., “contraception is an elective convenience for reasons of avoiding the economic and social consequences of pregnancy”. The notion of “reproductive health” is hardly coherent; if anything, pregnancy, not its prevention, is a sign of reproductive health. Even the manufacturers of contraceptives do not really believe that pregnancy prevention is a question of physical health. When Pfizer issued its recent recall of a non-functioning contraceptive, it explicitly assured customers that there was “no health risk”! Perhaps the women with unwanted pregnancies would have disagreed, but they are entitled to no compensation. If pregnancy were a health affliction, Pfizer would be facing tremendous liability right now.

At any rate, the Obama administration’s rule fails the “compelling state interest” standard for intervention in religious affairs, which previous cases and acts of Congress have established as applying to religiously affiliated institutions and persons, not just houses of worship. Given the widespread availability and inexpensiveness of contraceptives, there are plenty of alternative means of guaranteeing contraceptive access without requiring religious employers to pay for them, making this an especially gratuitous intrusion into the exercise of religious conscience.

As an added note, the mandatory imposition of insurance coverage without any copay is economically unsound, as proven by the past experience of military prescription drug coverage, which until recently had zero copay, resulting in exorbitant waste. The economic irrationality of this rule is only consistent with its ideological origin, which confuses convenience with entitlement. This 1970s-style statist liberalism is already imploding in Europe; it is ironic that our “progressive” president is trying to introduce this system as if it were something novel.

When Mathematics Fails as Theology

It is fitting that the failed California doomsday prophet should have his formal education in engineering rather than theology, since his contorted interpretation of the Bible relied on a hermeneutic that would make mathematics theologically informative. While it is easy to ridicule his particular belief, the mentality that created it is quite widespread, and can be found even among the most eminent scientists who profess no religious faith. By this mentality I mean the fallacy that mathematics can determine ultimate questions of reality.

Camping’s unwavering certainty in his prediction (“The Bible guarantees it”) was grounded in the appearance of remarkable mathematical coincidences that pointed to May 21, 2011 as a Biblically significant date. Given the premise that the Bible is absolutely true, and the additional premise that his inferences are mathematically certain, we can appreciate why Camping would present his particular interpretation of Scripture to be as authoritative as Scripture itself. Mathematics allows no room for interpretation, so it seems, as the numbers speak for themselves.

This mathematical absolutism disregards the role that subjective choices play in developing a mathematical model. Just because our model accounts for all the data, that does not mean we could not have constructed another model that works equally well. In general, it is impossible to prove theoretical uniqueness. Camping, for example, found it astounding that the same date that was seven thousand years after the Flood was also after the Crucifixion by a number of days equaling the square of the product of three numbers with significance in Hebrew Gematria. He ignored the fact that his dating of the Noachic Flood in 4990 BC was highly idiosyncratic, as well as the more obvious fact that any number of arithmetic operations could have been chosen. Further, why must the end date be determined by the square of the product rather than the cube? In short, he made some deliberate subjective decisions, consciously or unconsciously, which led to the desired result that the Rapture would occur in his lifetime.

Lest we think that such mathematical idolatry is confined to elderly fundamentalist preachers, let us take a look at the opposite end of the spectrum. The famed physicist Stephen Hawking has recently proffered his view that it can be proven – through abstract mathematical theorizing, of course – that heaven does not exist and God is unnecessary. The basis of this claim is his construction of a theoretical model whereby the universe “creates” particles with mass, and the universe is self-enclosed with respect to temporal causality. As with Camping, this model is cleverly constructed to confirm a priori convictions Hawking has held for decades. He already suggested in A Brief History of Time that the need for a beginning of creation might be elimintated by “rounding off” the light cone so there is no causally “first” event. “What need then for a creator?” Such a manipulation was highly tortured, as it would contradict a plain interpretation of general relativity by allowing effectively superphotonic expansion, and generalizes the notion of temporal causality to the point that it is no longer an effective constraint on physical theorizing. Such liberties are part and parcel of the “anything goes” approach to modeling the early universe.

The point is that Hawking had many options available to him, but he did not take the most “obvious” option (in light of relativity’s causality postulate and observed expansion from a single point). Just as Camping wants the Rapture to occur in his lifetime, Hawking wants the universe not to rely upon a transcendent God. He ignores the significant role that his own subjectivity has played in the formation of his mathematical model.

Even if Hawking’s recently proposed theory should someday prove to be an accurate mathematical model of physical reality, it would not accomplish the theological aims he intends for it. The universe does not create massive particles out of nothing, but (theoretically) from a vacuum field or some other construct with definite quantifiable properties. However you want to characterize such an entity, it certainly is not “nothing” in a strict philosophical sense. Modern physicists play fast and loose with philosophical concepts in order to make their mathematical models appear to sanction their metaphysical predilections.

A universe that is self-enclosed with respect to temporal causality does not thereby find itself without need for a creator. To take a simple example, take a universe with one particle that has two states, A and B, where the event of being A causes the event of being B and the event of being B causes the event of being A. (I assume the physicist’s error that events cause events.) In this chicken-and-egg universe, our one particle goes back and forth between being A and B. Does it follow that it needs no creator? Not at all, for there is still no logical necessity that such a universe should exist at all, and we should have to ask ourselves why this particular universe with its causal structure and laws is actually existent, while some other equally mathematically valid universe is not. No natural order is absolutely necessary, in which case we must appeal to some higher cause to account for the natural order as a whole.

Hawking’s physical theories, like all mathematical models of physics, contain determinate assumptions that are not tautological. Since they are not logically necessary, and mathematical principles have no power qua mathematical principles to actualize themselves as physical reality, it follows that we need something beyond physics to account for why this particular natural order was granted reality rather than another. Most physicists overlook the need for metaphysics because they unconsciously ascribe to mathematical principles an almost mystical power to result in physical actualization. This poorly thought out Platonism is rarely formally declared, but is implied in the way physicists speak of their theoretical constructs, particularly when dealing with the early universe or attempts at “theories of everything”.

We might try to make the natural order logically necessary by declaring that every mathematically valid possibility comes into existence. This make nonsense of Occam’s Razor, as it postulates an unfathomable infinity of universes just to account for this one. Further, it does not solve the problem of logical necessity, as it is not logically necessary that every possibility should become actual.

Lastly, one could decide that the natural order needs no cause, and is just a brute fact to be accepted without explanation. This is irrational in the true sense of the word, as it declares everything to be without a reason. It is also profoundly inconsistent to insist that everything that happens within the universe, no matter how insignificant, must have a reason or cause, yet the entire universe with its natural order can come into being and be sustained in being (physicists generally ignore this metaphysical problem) for no reason whatsoever. Logical cogency ultimately requires grounding in a metaphysically necessary Being, and none of our physical theories, by virtue of their mathematical contingency, can meet this requirement.

To the philosophically literate, it is no surprise that mathematics is incapable of serving as natural theology. In our society, however, mathematical ability has become practically synonymous with intelligence, since it is most easily quantified (naturally), and it is positively correlated with other mental abilities. It is a mistake, nonetheless, to make mathematical ability the defining characteristic of human rationality, since computation and spatial reasoning are easily replicated by computers that have no subjective thought processes. Although Professor Hawking and Brother Camping have both done their math correctly, that is no substitute for authentic wisdom and understanding, which requires a more subtle grasp of concepts and an awareness of one’s own subjective assumptions.

See also: Causality and Physical Laws

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