Tuesday, April 25, 2006

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Palate cleansing

Incidentally, the temp job on which I'm working, consists largely of staying on hold, and since you never know when the line will be picked up, you have to listen to the hold music.

Trust me, there is no surer way of withering the romance in one's soul, than listening to several hundred cloying love songs from all musical genres, from the last four decades (I begin to have a new appreciation for bands that actually wrote non-love-songs, like the Beatles. Still nothing to write home about musically, but at least there's a little variety). As music it is awful, but the telephone tinniness somewhat obscures the sound (while worsening it further), and focuses your attention on the mind-numbing lyrics. You would think that nobody with good taste ever fell in love...though it's occasionally interesting to play the game of sympathy-reversal. I always liked doing that in stories where the good guys annoyed me, or the bad guys didn't seem so terrible. Later I discovered that this is somehow postmodern or deconstructivist or something, but I like doing it anyway. So for instance, in Rob Roy I took great delight in thinking of Frank Osbaldistone's father as a likely swindler who made his fortune by loan-sharking and shady business operations...look carefully at some of the opening passages, and it's not really hard to credit. And in these love songs where a guy is whining about the girl who don't treat him right, it's usually easier for me to sympathize with the girl than with him. Unfortunately it's rather thin entertainment when you have eight hours of this to go through.

By the way, say what you like about present-day pop music, but the abandonment of flutes was a huge step forward. Do you know what a flute sounds like in a 70's pop song? I never was partial to woodwinds (Brahms and Mozart both seemed to like the clarinet, but I don't know what they saw in the thing - it has a wimpy sound), but right now I never want to hear a flute again. Ugh.

Fortunately, at least I can come home and listen to some of Mendelssohn's Lieder ohne Worte - like a cleansing bath for the ear.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

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Oh, and...

The story of the Galileo controversy bores me to tears, and the fact that Robert Sungenis is trying to resurrect heliocentrism is, well, sad and funny. But it's sort of an interesting fact, perhaps not really relevant to anything, that while Galileo may have been right about the interpretation of Scripture, his opponents seem to have been correct about the actual facts of the case.

Now I can't say that for sure, because I am not a physicist, and I have no idea as to whether Einstein's general theory of relativity is really and completely true. But if it is - then the correct evaluation of things is this: that either geocentrism, or heliocentrism, or in fact anything-centrism are all valid interpretations of the world, and the only thing to choose between them (so far as physics is concerned) is convenience. In other words, heliocentrism makes the math much easier, but that's all you can really say - which is just what Cdl. Bellarmine said, not that he was thinking of Einstein's theory.

To be sure, it makes the math a LOT easier. To think of the world in geocentric terms, you would have to suppose that the entire universe is subjected to an extremely weird gravitational field, which allows it to whirl around the earth. Or something like that; I can't say I fathom the details. But the basic idea of the general theory is that any frame of reference can be taken as "at rest" - including what we would think of as "accelerating" frames of reference. These latter, can instead be interpreted as subject to a gravitational field. Likewise an object in a gravitational field, can instead be interpreted as accelerating. The special theory only supposed that frames of reference in constant motion were all equally valid.

On the other hand, I keep hearing that quantum theory in one or another of its branches, predicts that the gravitational force is mediated by a "graviton", which seems to suggest that some things are really and truly accelerating, while others are really and truly in a gravitational field. Maybe not though.

I just think it's kinda funny. Of course if I were addressing the whole "the Church is the enemy of Science" nonsense I wouldn't mention it, as it only confuses the issue because fools will say "he's advocating geocentrism!" I would just point out that Galileo is all they've got, which is pretty pathetic when you're talking about the oldest and largest institution, uh, ever. Scientists have resisted many more correct scientific theories than Cardinals ever did. That doesn't reflect all that badly on the scientists, as evaluating scientific theories is their business, and everyone makes mistakes - on the other hand, it doesn't reflect so terribly on the Cardinals either.
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Sorry, I've been a bit absent this week. Entirely absent, I mean. But on the other hand, I've also been busy - specifically, with a job, which is nice. It's just a temp position however, and the hunt for a real job continues. This one, alas, will not even last long by temp standards.

I've also gone and got hooked on Agatha Christie mysteries. Very fun.

Also picked up Mendelssohn addiction. To think that that Aldous Huxley compared him unfavourably with Chopin, speaking of "the weaker Mendelssohn and worse Schumann" - I won't defend Schumann, but as far as Mendelssohn goes, it's one of those remarks that annoy like something stuck in the teeth, by being so thoroughly and exactly wrong. Chopin had fire or passion or whatever you like, but strength was exactly what he lacked. His music is one long flinch - the rhythm, the harmony, the phrasing, they are all one long dodge of the obvious and straightforward. And worse yet, strength was exactly what Mendelssohn possessed - for a strong artist is direct. You might say that there is a kind of subtlety that does not contradict strength (though the crude think otherwise) but rather compliments it - and another sort of twisty, roundabout quality that goes by the same name "subtlety", but is in this case the invariable companion of weakness. Chopin suffered from the latter; Mendelssohn certainly not.

In any case, he had great powers of invention, though little originality. I mean that he was neither an innovator, nor possessed of a very individual touch - unlike say, Brahms - but he had terrific facility at what he did. Perhaps this is why he is rather underrated.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

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One more thing

This wouldn't be Blogimus Maximus without the occasional irrelevant musical commentary, so:

One of the stranger features of music is that a piece can be almost ruined, you might say, by beauty.

What I mean is, a composer will hit on something so exquisite that it puts the whole rest of his piece into the shade. You feel for the poor fellow, because it's hard to see what else he could have done. The beauty of it is so dependent on specifics, on being exactly right so to speak, that variations on the idea tend to just invite unfavorable comparisons with the main thing. Repetitions, on the other hand, can only be taken so far. But to excise the thing is unthinkable! It would be a crime - so there you are, it has to go in there, and make everybody else look bad.

This can go either for a small element in a single movement, or for a whole movement. For instance, Mozart's string quintet K. 593 would be almost intolerable on account of its 1st movement - which is unbelievable - were it not for an impressive finale that provides a little aesthetic balance. There is a simple little idea in the finale of Schubert's violin sonata in A minor, D385, which almost seems too plain and straightforward to be any good, yet it dominates the piece. And while the slow movement to his "Death and the Maiden" quartet is much better, everything after the "fast variation" in it, is somewhat of a letdown I think...though I may think too highly of it out of envy; I had invented a similar (but naturally inferior) idea myself, and then I listened to the quartet and realized I had been robbed....
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Holy Week

I'm obviously not one of those give-up-blogging-for-Lent types, perhaps because blogging has never been a high-blood-pressure activity for me...no working myself up over the latest news item, no wars in combox (largely because of the fewness of readers, but due also to the excellent manners of those that I have) - yes, blogging is a nice relaxful activity. But I figure Holy Week is another matter; there's only one Holy Week a year, after all. So I'll see you after Easter - in the meantime, so long!
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In summation

While thinking along these lines and writing such long, unreadable & disorganized blog posts, I realized something that (thankfully) can be put into much fewer words: that the basic human conviction that life has to have meaning and purpose, is simply a conclusion of the reason - it is the ground of all knowledge, manifested in its broadest form, demanding an explanation not for particular things, but for all things. And since fashionable thinkers do not understand the connection between this need for an explanation of everything, and the need for explanations of lesser things which leads us to all lesser knowledge, it is clear that a thirst for dialectic obscures the reason rather than reveals it. This is not so surprising, since dialectic is inseparable from various systems of thought, and even those systems constructed with a clear view of reality in mind, cannot be received perfectly by men who lack themselves such clarity, or the patience and wit to connect their own knowledge to the received system. Thus induction into some system of thought, can really create a substitution for thought, a mere evaluation according to some arbitrary set of rules.
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Second postscript

I suppose what I didn't say, but was more or less getting at, was that our attempts to explain the world around us cannot succeed unless we explain the existence of everything, and to say that some things exist simply because they are logically necessary consequences of certain other things, is not sufficient. For this is only an ersatz answer, akin to asking "why is John in Kentucky?" and answering "because he got in his car and drove there." Nor can we say that we have arrived at a first cause, unless it is the cause of everything, not just of some things which in turn led to others. For it would remain unexplained, why this first cause acted so as to bring about certain things unintentionally; the question arises, "what disposed this cause to act this way, such that without its intention, it brought such-and-such into being?" At which point it becomes obvious that we are not really talking about the first cause at all, but there is another preceeding. Which then, would seem to answer my passing question, whether the arguments for a first cause not only prove that God exists, but that His creation was made according to a plan, that is, Providence. For if not only the original things, but their consequences were intended by the Cause of all things, then Providence is evident.

Well, enough of that. I had merely set down to say why I considered Intelligent Design theory a very inadequate concept, and now I've typed several thousand words. Anyone can find better philosophy on this subject, but there were a few modern ideas (the sole reality of the elements, and also ID theory) that I had never seen treated in this context, and I thought that however insufficient my reasonings, at least they might be an improvement on nothing at all.
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I added, at the end, the completion of my little essay which I did not have time to finish last night.

Friday, April 07, 2006

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Yes it really matters that everybody is a nominalist

Except that we're not. And I don't just mean all us Catholics, but hardly anybody really is: we believe very firmly in the categorical reality of the elements. Electrons are real; protons are real; hydrogen, helium and all the rest of it is real - these categories are so sharply-defined (even if you start asking bothersome questions about isotopes or ions) that nobody really views these in a nominalist manner. Rather there is a bizarre idea about that all those neat, tidy little things are real, but big messy things like "man" or "star" are just man-made categories. The basis for this is a sort of philosophical perfectionism - if the boundaries of a concept cannot be defined exactly (or if an exact definition of same is open to dispute - as if we should say that sunset is at 7:03 today, though there is a time between contact with the horizon and complete obscuration - to say nothing of messy horizons), then the concept is supposedly "not real". Only if we can define it exactly - whether it be a mathematical formula or a particle - is it "really" a distinct type of thing.

This principle is invariably destructive and silly when put into practice, so people tend to fare the better nowadays, the less they look to their philosophy. It is also irrational of course; there is no reason that a very slightly ambiguous concept is "unreal" where a mathematically precise one is "real", and in fact there is no reason that considerable ambiguity must make the concept unreal. The point at which ambiguity washes away the concept entirely, is a matter of judgment, just as the extent of ambiguity in a given concept is a matter of judgment. To quote Belloc's "The Servile State":

"...I sign a contract to serve him for a week at a wage of bare subsistence. Does the State in enforcing that contract make me for that week a slave?

Obviously not[...]

What of a month, a year, ten years, a lifetime? Suppose an extreme case[...]

As undoubtebly as it would not be making him a slave in the first case, it would be making him a slave in the second.

One can only say to ancient sophistical difficulties of this kind, that the sense of men establishes for itself the true limits of any object, as of freedom[...]

This verbal jugglery might be continued. It is a type of verbal difficulty apparent in every inquiry open to the professional disputant, but of no effect upon the mind of the honest inquirer whose business is not dialectic but truth.

It is always possible by establishing a cross-section in a set of definitions to pose the unanswerable question of degree, but that will never effect the realities of discussion. We know, for instance, what is meant by torture when it exists in a code of laws, and when it is forbidden. No imaginary difficulties of degree between pulling a man's hair and scalping him, between warming him and burning him alive, will disturb a reformer whose business it is to expunge torture from the penal code."

Thus, our problem is not so much adherence to a positive and false philosophical doctrine, as a sort of mental laziness by which we refuse to rise against age-old sophistries of the kind he describes, and indeed believe that "education" or "learning to think" consists of inculcating oneself with the terrible habit of practicing such sophistries instinctively.

And by a sort of natural selection, only those concepts are left wholly intact, which are difficult to attack by this "unanswerable question of degree".

Among the many consequences of such degrading practice, is a subjective collapse of the Argument from Design - and in some cases, a false substitution of something called "Intelligent Design theory". The argument from design, to the existence of God and to His Intellect (for a distinction between arguments for a first Cause, and arguments from design, is that the second argument obviously proves that God is Spirit and not a mindless substance - for nothing mindless can design; that is the whole meaning of design - while the first argument is less obvious a proof of this, if indeed it proves this at all [I would scarcely know; I am not a philosopher]) can be drawn from every level of substance in the universe; the elements of the universe are organized in distinct categories, and possess constant attributes, whereas chance or spontaneity is conducive neither to order nor to constancy. But if you believe that only these elements are real, then the argument from design can be drawn from these and these only. And because the more primitive elements of the universe are less obviously-designed than the more sophisticated ones, the argument is thus weakened - in practice it is gravely weakened, even if sufficient in theory. One could make an analogy with architecture: a building is obviously a design, a brick less so. I could argue conclusively, perhaps, that a brick is man-made but it's much easier to make the case for the building.

Now here is the important part. If you argue from the design of the human intellect, the animal kingdom, the solar system, the galaxy, or in short, from all the astonishing organization of the universe, its regularity and equilibrium, to the existence of a creating Intellect, the skeptic will tell you that if he can explain the existence of mere elements, and demonstrate that said organizations will arise naturally from these elements, then you have nothing to say to him; he has won. Of course his explanation of even the elements, will not be adequate but it may at least be convincing.

He does not realize that his denial of design rests entirely on the idea, that particles alone exist, and things composed of these do not exist except as a humanly-defined set of particles, their existence as things in their own right, being a figment of the human intellect. If he did realize it, he would think only that his argument rests on an evident truth.

It is distasteful to treat some of these skeptics, so much baser than their skeptical forefathers, as if their childish ideas were serious philosophy, but that said: one of their number, named Richard Dawkins, is apparently fond of a concept he calls the "designoid" - the thing, composed of the elementary particles, which appears designed but is really the product of natural forces. Now in the sense of human construction, there are obviously "designoids" - things that look man-made but aren't - but abstracting to a complete denial of design for any ordered form, requires that principle of "reality in the elements alone."

Here it is important to realize what an element is. It is not really "matter" in an absolute sense. A proton is a form, just as a chair is a form. If the Aristotelean term "form" is offensive to any, say that a proton is a "pattern" imposed on matter, just as "man" is (partly) a pattern imposed on matter. This pattern can be manifested variously - in a computer simulation, for instance. As every deep thinker of age ten or so realizes, the entire universe could be a computer simulation for all that our senses tell us - we only know that there are certain primitive patterns, manifested throughout the universe, called "particles" or "waves" or "waveforms" or whatever the physicists take to calling them next. Of these primitive patterns are composed more sophisticated ones - first atoms, then molecules, then super-molecular structures of varying complexity (from a mere liquid or crystal, to say, a cell). None of these patterns are logically dependent on their more primitive components. One could imagine two worlds made entirely of water (to pick a simple example), where in one case the water was composed of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen, in turn composed of electrons, protons and neutrons as in our own universe, and in another case the water molecules were indivisible units, displaying nevertheless the same capacity for "hydrogen bonds" (though without the hydrogen), surface tension, etc. - as if "water" were an elementary particle.

It is only by contingency, that most patterns in our universe are composed of simpler patterns, until we reach patterns of "energy" that are thought to have no simpler components (if indeed this is so). Of course, if we were to consider that hypothesis of universe-as-computer-simulation, then these "elementary" things would in fact be comprised of other things.

In asking just why the universe exists, and looking for its cause, there is nothing more fundamental or deeper in the question "what is the cause of fermions and bosons?" than "what is the cause of Man?" just because our bodies are made of the former. Of course a materialist assumes that the cause of our universe, was primarily a cause of its elements and only by accident a cause of its higher organizations. But this is, in fact, only an assumption. The fact that the elements are temporally prior to say, life, does not mean that the cause of our universe was a cause of elements and not life - it only means that if the principal effect of Creation was Man, then the cause of Creation must have acted by a plan; for only one who plans, can cause something by causing things that will bring it about. That, after all, is what it means to carry out a plan.

One may of course, say that all questions of "why" are meaningless, that there is no reason to ask "why are things thus, and not some other way - or not at all?" But it is the nature of our intellect to consider things in this manner; if we did not think that facts required an explanation, we would have no concept of the universe at all. To assail this "why" is to assail reason - to which it may be said that Reason, as the product of natural processes, cannot be absolutely trusted. It gave us our current knowledge of the universe (they may say), and our knowledge of this universe informs us of Reason's imperfection. To demand "explanations" for every fact is indeed a useful heuristic for understanding and controlling one's environment, and it has served us well (they inform us), but there is no reason to think that this evolutionary adaptation, when extended beyond its normal realm of operation into considering the fabric of the universe itself, remains valid. It just so happened that for quite some time, we could go demanding these "explanations" and keep on getting them, but there is no reason to expect that this can go on forever - it is mere anthropomorphism that makes us think so. Such is their argument.

Yet again, it presumes that the real things are the elements, not the higher-order patterns of our universe (like our own bodies). Again it presumes what it would prove - that whatever did cause our universe, if anything, caused the elements and we are an accidental growth. But if the universe was caused by One who intended to create us, then the trustworthiness of our reason is scarcely impugned by the fact that natural processes brought us about, for those very processes were initiated with the idea of Man coming out at the end.

So Reason cannot, by uncovering the physical world, uncover evidence against itself. The situation is as it always was: you may accept its conclusions (when they are indeed conclusive, and not mere probabilities), or become an irrationalist. The latter is difficult or impossible to achieve entirely - it is not easy to voluntarily abandon reason - but we can certainly refuse to see what is right in front of us, if we try hard enough.

Thus the false substitution of "Intelligent Design theory" for the argument from design. ID theory is an historical hypothesis (for evolutionary biology is a branch of history, and much trouble comes from pretending otherwise), which basically accounts for the origin of species by separate, supernatural interventions, or by one big suspension of the ordinary laws governing elementary particles, so that one way or another, DNA does not mutate "randomly" (that is, in accordance with the laws of physics). It is an interesting if strange and unproven idea; I can see no reason that it deserves any great attention or promulgation in the scientific community, or in textbooks. But to substitute this twiddling little thing for the Argument from Design is manifestly wrong. This is the evangelical Protestant's knockoff of St. Thomas's fivefold proof - not that its main proponent Dr. Behe is a Protestant (he is a Catholic) but that is who backs the movement as "scientific proof" of the existence of God. We have to do better than that.


What I had meant to add, but did not have time, is that ID theory is only of great importance when one supposes that the universe is fundamentally a thing of elements, and only accidentally of life. In that case, it is only if we show the insufficiency of natural processes to create life, that we have reason to infer a Creator. In fact, one could as well suppose that the universe is fundamentally a thing of life, for which the simpler elements are as it were the building blocks. That only a small fraction of the universe consists of living things, and a smaller one still of men, is beside the point, as I will explain in a moment. And if life is the more fundamental thing in the universe, the fact that natural action of the elements may tend to produce and diversify life, is rather an explanation of why we have elements than why we have life - just as the fact that bricks are hard, is not an explanation of why we have buildings but why we use bricks to make them. A materialist who reduces life to an accidental occurrence is assuming what he would prove.

As I said, the comparitive sizes of the animate and inanimate universes are irrelevant, for to suppose that whatever comprises the bulk of the universe by mass is somehow more important relative to its cause - that is, that whatever brought about the universe, primarily brought about that great inanimate mass, and only accidentally that small animate mass - is mere assertion. We tend to a general notion that the large is more significant than the small, for two reasons: that the larger things tend to have greater effects than smaller things of the same type, and that in human endeavours, it is usually more difficult to make large things than small things of the same type. But the inanimate universe differs in kind from ourselves, and only under one aspect - namely our ability to alter, or be altered by, our physical surroundings by main force - can the inanimate world be compared to us. Only if one supposes that the first cause was primarily one of elements, whose actions are simple and physical, can one say that we are insignificant because of our small mass, volume & motive power. Again the assumption of the conclusion.

This also invalidates in general, the bizarre accusation of "anthropocentrism" by skeptics who believe that God would have no reason to concern Himself with our tiny little world. It is truly bizarre, because even from a crude physical standpoint the earth is a very strange place; unless there is life somewhere else, the polymers and super-molecular structures that comprise living bodies, are like nothing else that ever existed; the fact that they reproduce themselves with such great regularity is equally unparalleled. This is to say nothing of what we have done in the last century - on our planet we now find: copious emission of radio waves, fissious nuclear chain reactions (while heavy elements decay everywhere, I suppose that the chain reaction of uranium or plutonium is unique in the universe; I could be wrong), fusion explosions (the reactions themselves are ubiquitous, but brief fusion reactions on the surface of a small planet are another matter), and all sorts of chemical compounds that exist nowhere else, to say nothing of certain extreme conditions as produced by particle accelerators, or on the other end phenomena like superfluid helium, or other liquids and solids that so nearly approach absolute zero.

Lastly I should point out, that any claim to explain the universe by "chance" is presupposing some existing universe that itself requires explanation. The popular idea nowadays, that the Big Bang arose from a sort of cosmic chaos that spits out universes every now and then, "by chance", supposes that there is a nonzero chance of such occurrences. Chance cannot exist outside of extant circumstances; this is obvious enough if we ask, "what is the probability of a table with five nickels on it?" You can only give an answer, if you know something of the circumstances: where this table is supposed to be, who might or might not put it there, etc. Any attempt to assign an abstract probability to something, to say that there is a "small but finite probability" of some occurrence under any circumstances, is illusory. Why some cosmic chaos should occasionally spit out universes, rather than never at all, is another circumstance that requires another explanation, just as the universe itself did. So you cannot say, in defense of this "priority of the elements" that I have been discussing, that the appearance of the elements is "probable"
simpliciter and that the more complicated structures, arise inevitably from those "probable" elements. If there is indeed this hypothetical cosmic universe-spitter, that says nothing as to why there is a universe-spitter, and whether it exists so as to eventually create - for instance - us.
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Eliminated blogger anonymity. I had dispensed with it in the comboxes anyway, so why be inconsistent and confusing? The pseudonym was not just a childish whim (not that I am immune to same) - I had reasons for not wanting to show up on a google search for my name, but I don't really care anymore, so there you are. Besides, I think a googler would mostly just pull up a football player and one of those sad little CSICOP/James Randi types. In fact he would pull up a lot of folks; it's a surprisingly common name, given that I've never actually met a Wynn who wasn't related. Then again, I live in Minnesota which was largely populated by Germans and Finns; but the home of my ancestors is the South (for the benefit of my European readers this is really the Southeast - used to be the South when we were smaller), to which many Welshmen immigrated; maybe there I would have met more Wynns, as the name is Welsh.
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The Ancient Gnostics - Actually Smarter than the New Ones?

Lately there's been a fuss about this "Gospel of Judas" business. I skimmed the thing myself, and I realized that the Gnostics seem to have a pattern in their propaganda:

1. Brief & sketchy narratives. People who think the canonical Gospels are ahistorical should see what a real fake Gospel looks like - rather disjointed and bare-bones, which makes sense because their Gnostic authors were attempting something rather difficult: fiction.

2. Mischevious little hooks (the Serpent is really the good guy, Cain is really the good guy, Judas is really the good guy, etc.)

3. Empty mystical platitudes, blasphemously attributed to Our Lord, mixed along with the occasional quote or near-quote of the canonical Gospels.

4. The "welcome to the nuthouse" moment - suddenly all the "aeon" and "emanation" talk starts, and boy is it dense.

Now that last part is important; it's what distinguishes the old Gnostics from modern New Agey types who think the gospel of Thomas is like, way cool *cough cough*, pass me the bong man, *cough cough cough*.

A fellow like William Blake, who liked esoteric and complicated stuff, knew several ancient languages and had studied Greek philosophy, and was sorta nuts, could very well get into the crazy Gnostic geneaologies & mythologies and all the rest of it - making up some stuff of his own while he was at it, very much in the Gnostic tradition. But surely a modern sort would lack the patience and powers of concentration that this silliness demands? I can't believe that the spiritual dilletantes who think of Gnosticism as an oh-so-fascinating alternative to dull Christian orthodoxy are really able to keep their eyes propped open when the Ogdoad and the Demiurge rear their ugly heads. On the surface that seems to speak well for the new Gnostics, as against the old ones.

But I'm not so sure. The ancient Gnostics realized perhaps, that a bunch of dull platitudes, snarky little Biblical role-reversals, and intimations of esoteric knowledge were all rather empty unless you actually delivered the goods. The goods were worthless and boring - a mishmash of forgotten Eastern religion, Babylonian magic (so I've heard), numerology, Greek philosophy (I read in Belloc that the "emanation" was a concept used by the Greeks to explain the creation of a complex world by - or in this case from - a simple God), and home-grown nuttiness (improvisation was one of their hallmarks). But there was something, however disappointing - and I'm sure that if they presented it in the right way, they could get people to convince themselves there was something profound behind its obvious superficiality.

The new Gnostics, on the other hand, you don't even have to provide with any phony esoterica. Just deliver a bunch of obscure sayings, cleverly "transgressive" ideas, and promises of arcane "gnosis" and they'll convince themselves that they've elevated to a higher spiritual plane. A spiritual plane grown in somebody's attic under lamplight, I'm sure....

Thursday, April 06, 2006

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A really zinging passage in Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine:

6. In other developments the intellectual character is so prominent that they may even be called logical, as in the Anglican doctrine of the Royal Supremacy, which has been created in the courts of law, not in the cabinet or on the field. Hence it is carried out with a consistency and minute application which the history of constitutions cannot exhibit. It does not only exist in statutes, or in articles, or in oaths, it is realized in details: as in the congé d'élire and letter-missive on appointment of a Bishop;—in the forms observed in Privy Council on the issuing of State Prayers;—in certain arrangements observed in the Prayer-book, where the universal or abstract Church precedes the King, but the national or really existing body follows him; in printing his name in large capitals, while the Holiest Names are in ordinary type, and in fixing his arms in churches instead of the Crucifix: {46} moreover, perhaps, in placing "sedition, privy conspiracy and rebellion," before "false doctrine, heresy, and schism" in the Litany.

"in printing his name in large capitals..." everything after that is just brutal. He certainly knew how to twist the knife.....
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The Rosary

I had never thought much about how the mysteries of the Rosary were chosen, but there is an interesting connection in all of the joyful mysteries. Here are a few passages from the Douay version of St. Luke's Gospel:

1:31 Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus.
32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever.
33 And of his kingdom there shall be no end.

1:41 And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost:
42 And she cried out with a loud voice, and said: Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.
43 And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
44 For behold as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
45 And blessed art thou that hast believed, because those things shall be accomplished that were spoken to thee by the Lord.

2:15 And it came to pass, after the angels departed from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another: Let us go over to Bethlehem, and let us see this word that is come to pass, which the Lord hath shewed to us.
16 And they came with haste; and they found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.
17 And seeing, they understood of the word that had been spoken to them concerning this child.

2:27 And he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when his parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law,
28 He also took him into his arms, and blessed God, and said:
29 Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word in peace;
30 Because my eyes have seen thy salvation,
31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples:
32 A light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the story of thy people Israel.
33 And his father and mother were wondering at those things which were spoken concerning him.
34 And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary his mother: Behold this child is set for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted;

2:46 And it came to pass, that, after three days, they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, hearing them, and asking them questions.
47 And all that heard him were astonished at his wisdom and his answers.

In the first passage the angel Gabriel prophesies the glory of the Incarnation. In the second, St. Elizabeth refers to Our Lord (and indeed calls him "my Lord") but only yet in reference to His Mother. In the third, the shepherds behold Our Lord plainly, but only knew that he was the Saviour, Christ the Lord. In the fourth, Simeon even holds Our Lord, and says that He will be a light to the Gentiles, that He is set for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted. In the fifth, the doctors in the temple converse with Our Lord, and "all that heard him were astonished at his wisdom and his answers".

So in every case, the joy in the joyful mysteries, is in the Incarnation and the salvation that it promises. And from mystery to mystery, there is a progressive revelation of Our Lord: the Annunciation marks the beginning of the Incarnation, and the angel Gabriel goes before Him. Only the Blessed Virgin herself is present to witness it. Then, Our Lord already incarnate, St. Elizabeth cries out when Our Lady greets her. Thirdly He is born, and a few men gather around to see him - the shepherds, and of course the three magi as we are elsewhere told - but He is in no public place. Fourthly, He appears publicly in the temple, and lastly He not only appears publicly but speaks to the men in it.
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That distasteful term

As with many St. Bloggers, somebody at Jimmy Akin's site has decided to go off on "Rad-Trads". It has taken me awhile to put in words why I find this sort of thing so annoying.

It's not the positions themselves that bother me. Even if I find their definition of "dissent" or of "radicalism" extremely broad (at least when it comes to such disreputable things as tradition), I can at least agree that dissent and extremism do exist in the trad movement.

It's not that I have a vague feeling that these people regard traditionalism as a sort of spiritual poison, though I certainly get that impression.

No, it's that particular term. Let's get this straight: it is a playground taunt. It is stupid. So when traditionalists take umbrage at the phrase, and its employers defend the usage by drawing fine distinctions between "traditionalism" and "Rad-Tradism", they are making themselves look very silly.

Take the word "hick". I like that word; I use it. But it is alien to precise thought; such is its nature. If I were to discourse at length upon who is a hick, who is not a hick, who partakes of borderline hickery, etc., then I would sound very silly. Thus with anyone who treats "Rad-Trad" as a serious concept, rather than a childish insult. Whether you can, in fact, find a logically-coherent definition of Rad-Trad is irrelevant; you could do the same for hick, pansy, dumbass, or any such word. That would not make your discourse any less absurd.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

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New Furnishings

Don't know what I was thinking with the puke-beige; maybe I still hadn't gotten over my time as an art student. I'd been planning to go white; black always struck me as silly. But then I made it black by mistake, and suddenly realized "wait a minute, black is beautiful". If readers disapprove, either on aesthetic grounds or because they do not like reading white-on-black, then by all means paraphrase Gandalf and say, "I like white better" - white it shall be.
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Not a day back on the blog, and I can't help posting again. This is just a brief one, a little complaint if you will:

Why does our society so discourage criticism? That is, critical analysis of some idea. Consider that thing called a "textbook". These propose to introduce you to some subject. Do they do this by inducing you, gradually and logically, into a coherent system of knowledge, offering evidence and argument - or caveats acknowledging weakness of same - for various conclusions to the extent that they are merited? For instance, if they state something about the society of 6th century Britain and later something about that of 16th century Britain, do they acknowledge that we know much of the latter and almost nothing of the former? When they tell us about the lifestyle of prehistoric Man, do they tell us about the chains of inference on which these claims are based? When they tell us of some popular medical opinion, do they tell us how it came about?

Very funny. Yet the problem extends beyond textbooks; here is a project I suggest: pick a science, discover its fundamental assertions, and then discover the basis for same. Is it ever impossible? I am sure it is not. Is it, in many cases, ridiculously difficult - far out of proportion to the complexity of the science? Yes.

It is as if we are allergic to first principles, and this allergy, I think, is rather convenient for the rulers of our civlization.
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Well, my children, by which I mean (in all probability) my elders and betters - in any case, my readers:

Do not take up chess. Take up cocaine, even start watching football if you must, but stay away from chess. It will consume your mind.

In the latest little wave of "warm fuzzy Islam" propaganda, somebody wrote a book listing the Islamic contributions to civilization, one being chess. That he thought this a compliment to the Muslims shows the author's ignorance of the game. They can perhaps be forgiven for bringing us chess, but praised! Were it not for them, I would never have heard of a "rook ending". Something called the "French defense" would never have troubled my idle hours. "Contribution" indeed!

I have sworn the thing off for some time now, and for this reason my interest in the rest of the universe has revived. The monkey has been extricated from my back - permanently, I hope.

Thus I return to my little cranny of St. Blog's. What has happened in the interim?

Well, I've gotten pretty well in the habit of going to our local indult Mass. And by "local" I mean 40 miles away or thereabouts. The longer you stay, the harder it is to go back...whenever, through laziness or necessity, I've gone to the local Novus Ordo Mass, it seems to get worse each time - enough that "laziness" has ceased to make a difference, and the conditions of "necessity" have gotten very strict. At the same time, hearing 3 (two, can't remember) sung Masses does make the usual Low Mass a bit unsatisfying! However, there's a difference between "I could hope for more" and "difficult to endure".

I'm starting to feel like a trad (albeit a new one) rather than a fellow-interested-in-traditionalism; it would be hard to go back. There are, I admit, a few points where if anything, I have come to feel less "traddish" over time - I have come to appreciate and admire Chesterton more than I had, and one of the obvious facts about Chesterton is that he was a liberal.

Yes, I mean the old-style and political brand of liberalism (theological liberalism has always meant more or less what it means now, only not quite so much) - but still, there it is. While he abandoned the socialism of his youth, it was emphatically not because he became "less liberal" or embraced conservatism; it was because he realized that private property was in fact a very fine thing, and he was not about to let anger at the millionaires and capitalists drive him to renounce it.

Perhaps Chesterton is a bit more liberal than my own inclinations would make me, yet I find myself more in sympathy with him that I did. So I cannot join those traditionalists, for instance, who find great difficulties in "Dignitatis Humanae", the Declaration on Religious Freedom in the Second Vatican Council - or in "Nostra Aetate", the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. The degree of authority of these documents, I neither know nor am deeply concerned about; the idea of religious tolerance (as a general policy; Dignitatis Humanae provides certain qualifications such as "provided that just public order be observed") does not bother me as it seems to bother some traditionalists (I hasten to say, not all or even a majority; I have no numbers before me). If the declarations had in fact approved (as I've heard suggested) an absolute separation of Church and State, then indeed I would be concerned as to their exact degree of authority, whether a "declaration" is on a par with, say, an anathema of Trent - but they don't say that; you can have an established Church (and indeed ought to, in a Catholic country) without burning any heretics. Of course conciliar approval of religious freedom could be taken as a demand for an absolutely "faith-blind" government, but I cannot even say that this is the most natural interpretation, much less the correct one - unless you have a very violent idea of "freedom" and its conditions.

That the Council was a good idea, I am not about to say; I do not know of any good consequences of it (though I have not looked), unless that the liberal excesses have inspired enthusiasm for the old Rite among people who might otherwise treat the TLM with less reverence...an uninspiring argument. Likewise I can think of many bad things that are hard to imagine without Vatican II. But it's just not something I feel like complaining about, and if St. Thomas Aquinas thought differently from V2 about burning heretics, then just possibly he was wrong. After all, they executed all sorts of people back in the old days; do we really want a return to the old penal approach in toto?

Nor am I sympathetic to the whole agrarian yearning which seems to interest some American trads (I think only a small minority - I would even say, pace Mr. Culbreath, that I hope so). The first thing to be said for farming is that it keeps us from starving, and I believe this is about the last thing to be said for it. From what I have read, only low-density populations who do not need to support a civilization, can live off the land quite comfortably with rather little work - I am thinking of Tacitus on the Germans and Dr. Johnson on the Scottish Highlanders; both authors noted the great indolence of these people, and I suppose they did not lie. Of course the ancient Germans and early-modern Highlanders were also great warriors, and being a tad rusty with the claymore I cannot say that I would care for this type of agrarianism either. But really civilized farming, that sounds just plain unpleasant - certainly my mother does not yearn for the tobacco farms of her youth. That we might be better people if we were mostly farmers I do not deny, but labour and hardship in general are said to improve character, yet it is idle to suppose that a society will or even should inflict these things upon themselves willingly, for mere self-improvement. Religious orders may impose physical labour for this purpose, and indeed if some few enthusiasts wish to practice agriculture, why on earth should I protest? Only please do not suggest that I should get behind the plow, or comment on my modern effeteness for not wishing to do so. And yes, I realize that here I probably part company with Chesterton, who seemed to associate agrarianism with distributism, along with Fr. McNabb...I can only say that I hope this association was unnecessary, because I like the basic idea of distributism very much.

Lastly: I don't care a fig for democracy, and I don't see anything absurd about monarchism...just don't, don't try and tell me that the American Revolution was an "illegitemate rebellion". You can sneer all you like that "no taxation without representation" is not a fundamental law of justice...yet it certainly appealed to one: we payed taxes to a government which was run by, and for, the British - there was no doubt on this point, and to try to pretend George III (or any other King or Queen) put the welfare of his American subjects on a par with that of his British subjects is a joke.

The definition of tyranny is "government that is not for the benefit of the governed". QED. Yes, some things are really that simple; the only question is whether expelling a tyrant was worth a war, and I would say yes - given that this was hardly the most terrible of wars, the benefits seem to outweigh the harm. That the founding fathers were a bunch of Freemasons does not change this. Dr. Johnson's obfuscation that slave-owning Americans did not deserve freedom is a sophistry beneath contempt (as if injustice could be excused by the sins of its victims - that the author of Rasselas should say such things!), that Canada got de facto independence without a fight some decades later is no argument (should Washington have been a prophet? Besides, would Canada have fared alike had we never won independence? I also get the feeling that of the two British Colonies in America, Canada was the fair-haired-boy of the twain; their treatment argues little about what we would have got).

I like Great Britain but I like her even better on the other side of the world, and have no patience with arguments from those who think otherwise.

Besides, why on earth would a monarchist want to be subject to the British crown? As I understand it, their Parliament was running things long before 1776; perhaps I have a mistaken impression from the fact that they executed a King they didn't like.

But these are all minor, political points that separate me only from a fraction of traditionalists; if I wax emphatic about them, that is just a bad habit.

As a change from my previous mode of blogging, I think I will post more on "devotional stuff" - which I had always been embarassed to write about before, yet I think egotism more than humility was the reason for that. Because of course, to refrain from saying things so as not to feel prideful, implies that these things are impressive enough to tempt one to pride...but my little observations on the spiritual life are not going to impress anybody anywhere! Having realized that, I will correct the error. Tomorrow I think I will post something about the Rosary, even if all my readers (hello to you both! Wait, there's a third!) are more familiar with this great prayer than I am. Also in the pipe: Cdl. Newman!