INTERESTING SCIENCE ARTICLES:
Just a brief collection I skimmed through while waiting at my car dealership last Thursday:
- Steven Pinker’s defense of scientism is rejected.
- Someone else rejects Pinker’s argument, this time from a progressive angle. Note the references to Douthat, I’ll come back to that later.
- Stephen Jay Gould was referenced above-here’s a hat tip.
- Thomas Nagel evaluates Sam Harris’s ‘science of morality.’ Best line: Once we recognize the ways in which we have been formed by forces beyond our control, what resource can we nevertheless call on within ourselves in deciding which of our instincts to transcend? There’s the $65 million question.
- Lastly, an interesting article on the potential ethical implications of the anti-aging proposals put forth by Aubrey de Grey. For more, see Sherwin Nuland’s commentary.
The second article mentioned above critiqued Ross Douthat’s comment about “non-speciesism” for failing to take into account the science of animal consciousness. The article overstates its case slightly (the Cambridge Declaration does not state unequivocally that animals are conscious beings but rather notes that there are clear parallels in terms of neuro activity. That quibble aside, I chatted with a co-worker about this over the weekend, who referred me to an intriguing National Geographic story on this subject. There is still resistance to animal consciousness in some quarters (Daniel Dennett, I think, is rather skeptical) but while some researchers have complained of “moving goalposts” the trend is rather clear here.
That made me wonder what the Catholic take might be. After a brief search, it appears the answer is “What else is new?” Consider:
- Edward Feser traces the problem to Cartesian thinking (image that, Descartes is still the source of much confusion);
- Mathew Schmalz reminds us of the rich Catholic heritage of treating animals with dignity;
- and some helpful discussion from the Catholic Answers forum. One particularly helpful one: “The scientists are offering a physical explanation of the behaviors which so many ordinary people have already observed. As a way of comparison, Isaac Newton didn’t discover gravity. People were well aware of its practical effects. What he did was explain why gravity worked as it did.”
I’d also like to add some thoughts from C.S. Lewis (The Problem of Pain) on this subject:
If, nevertheless, the strong conviction which we have of a real, though doubtless rudimentary, selfhood in the higher animals, and specially in those we tame, is not an illusion, their destiny demands a somewhat deeper consideration. The error we must avoid is thatof considering them in themselves. Man is to be understood only in his relation to God. The beasts are to be understood only in their relation to man and, through man, to God. Let us here guard against one of those untransmuted lumps of atheistical thought which often survive in the minds of modern believers. Atheistsnaturally regard the co-existence of man and the other animals as a mere contingent result of interacting biological facts; and the taming of an animal by a man as a purely arbitrary interference of one species with another. The “real” or “natural” animal to them isthe wild one, and the tame animal is an artificial or unnatural thing. But a Christian must not think so. Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and everything a man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by divine right. The tame animal is therefore, in thedeepest sense, the only “natural” animal – the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy, and it is on the tame animal that we must base all our doctrine of beasts. Now it will be seen that, in so far as the tame animal has a real self or personality, it owes this almost entirely to its master. If a good sheepdog seems “almost human” that is because a good shepherd has made it so.
For those so inclined, I commend the rest of the chapter on animal pain. [My own view, FWIW, is that the consciousness of animals remains in the last degree a mystery-Thomas Nagel has written on this. I rather like Gerald Schroeder's thought that in some sense all of creation bears the potentiality for mind, though and though we can't "speak the language" of stones or grass we have reason to conclude that the full self-consciousness necessary for the human vocation as the imago Dei was realized fully only in ourselves]
My co-worker who referred me to the National Geographic special also discussed how another special he had seen described the Gospels as being written 100 years after the fact (not so) and tainted because they were written in Greek and not Aramaic. I was reminded of a comment once made by the psychic Mary T. Browne (what can I say, I’ll take wisdom from wherever it comes-I have no fetish for intellectual purity and would give the Devil his due if need be). Browne suggested that one perk of the afterlife was we would finally know real history, the vast majority of what we think we know of it in this life being overwhelmingly tainted to varying degrees.
Keith Ward once quipped that the nature of the academy is to encourage scholars to pursue ever more radical ideas as a means of differentiating themselves from their colleagues. Some have gone so far as to argue, for instance, that Confucius was an invention of Jesuit missionaries (put another way, an attack on my boy Matteo Ricci). The point is that I’m more than a little skeptical of National Geographic specials, which help present the seemingly never ending kaleidoscope of “historical Jesuses” of every possible stripe. No less a person that the Pope Emeritus has written that the Gospels need not be verbatim transcripts to contain within them essentially accurate history. In real life, things are not often as clear cut as we would like them to be.
Besides, as many before have noted, dying and rising gods were a dime a dozen in the ancient world, but the claim that a Palestinian Jew (whom the triangulation of enough sources has even Bart Ehrman convinced was a real historical person) was crucified under Pontius Pilate and then rose from the dead stands out sharply. In Sesame Street lingo, one of these is not like the others.
“GAY EXORCISMS”, MATTHEW SHEPARD AND CHARITY
Though it has not, somewhat surprisingly, attracted much mainstream media attention Bishop Thomas Paprocki recently led an exorcism in “reparation for the sin of same-sex marriage” in Illinois. What particularly intrigued me about this was that the bishop claimed inspiration from comments made by Pope Francis in 2010-which seems to have been a deliberate response to state legislators appealing to more recent, and manifestly less severe, comments by the Pope as justification for voting ‘Yes’ on the recent legislation. While I wouldn’t quite say the bishop’s reaction was predictable it was clearly a response to what-it must be said-was twisting the Pope’s words. (Liberal politicians seem not to realize that such strategies are like waving red flags in front of already agitated bulls-think of Nancy Pelosi’s obscene attempt to twist Aquinas into being pro-choice a few years back. The moral here is never attempt to play ‘Gotcha!’ with those who actually know their faith).
In any case, I was intrigued by a reference in the article to the murder of Mary Stachowicz, a former secretary of Bishop Paprocki, whose killer was a gay man. The references to Stachowicz online ran the gauntlet, from those declaring her killer “allegedly homosexual” to those calling her a martyr for the faith. For some particularly nasty examples of this mindset see here and here. For a more sensible commentary, see Rod Dreher’s thoughts on the matter with which I concur heartily, if only because I am very much against the concept of “hate crimes”-and let’s be honest, there WAS a double standard in the media. Incidentally, the Matthew Shepard murder is back in the media spotlight, in response to a provocative new book. Whether this is an effort to rewrite history or simply acknowledging what seems to me to have been an open secret for some time (the narrative of the Shepard murder most of us are familiar with does not seem to match all the facts and as I noted above, real life is pretty complicated-again see Dreher who observes that “people do not like to have their sacred myths revealed as untrue.”
Obviously temperatures are running very hot on matters gay still. Just the other day, I was reading some Patristic references to homosexuality on Catholic Answers and was rather taken aback by their vitriolic tone (though it should be noted the harshest language tends to be directed towards pederasty and condemnation of lesbianism seems conspicuously muted). This was the same day I happened to be reading about Fr. Rolheiser on the same forum, where-again not surprisingly-there were more than a few accusations of heresy thrown his way. Another commentator (on a different site) lashed out at Fr. Rolheiser for daring to criticize the anger of ‘conservatives’ without accounting first whether their anger (which really means ‘vitriol’ in this case) isn’t perhaps justified.
Well, phew. I maintain that Fr. Rolheiser is orthodox (though admittedly he pushes the envelope at times I find it unfair that he is so often lumped together with Richard Rohr). I suppose part of what I find challenging is that I don’t demand intellectual purity or complete conformity from every Catholic source I read (candidly that strikes me as an impossible standard). More alarming to me, though, is an intensely militant focus on such matters (see for instance some thoughts on the Bishop Paprocki matter from my neck of the woods). This fiercely militant tone strikes me as rather anathema to the spirit of Christian charity-even when the conservatives are right (and I’m inclined to say they often are), and even if their anger is justified, Truth is not a club to be used to beat the recalcitrant into submission with.
Rowan Williams remarked to me in an e-mail that he still does not believe that being a Christian commits one to a conservative position in all culture war issues. I concur with that, and its no secret my sympathy for the ‘liberal’ position on homosexuality makes it difficult for me to acknowledge the formal teaching of the Magisterium, and impossible to adopt a vitriolic tone. Nonetheless, I’m not like a friend (not the one from work, another one) who boasts of how socially liberal ECUSA is. Sorry, social liberalism strikes me as another ideology, the valid insights of which must ultimately be relativized before the Gospel and not the other way around.
I end with two brief thoughts. First, something written by a correspondent of mine some time ago that I believe still holds true. And second, some words from the Holy Father…I realize the hypocrisy in now quoting the Pope myself after whacking others for taking him out of context, but the profound Truth in what he says below speaks for itself.
The faith passes, so to speak, through a distiller and becomes ideology. And ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid. And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought… For this reason Jesus said to them: ‘You have taken away the key of knowledge.’ The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements.
Jesus told us: “You burden the shoulders of people [with] many things; only one is necessary.” This, therefore, is the “spiritual, mental” thought process of one who wants to keep the key in his pocket and the door closed: “The faith becomes ideology and ideology frightens, ideology chases away the people, distances, distances the people and distances of the Church of the people. But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. It is an illness, but it is not new, eh? Already the Apostle John, in his first Letter, spoke of this. Christians who lose the faith and prefer the ideologies. His attitude is: be rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness. This can be the question, no? But why is it that a Christian can become like this? Just one thing: this Christian does not pray. And if there is no prayer, you always close the door.