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September 2009


I’ve been trying to take a picture of one of these for some time. Usually they flit around so abruptly, and stay put for such a short time when they land, that I can’t get them in focus. But this one posed on this fence for several minutes, only moving from one picket to another, and staying still for a bit on each one. It isn’t as pretty as some, but at least it’s pretty much in focus. (You need to view the full-size image to really see it.) I have a number of very fuzzy pictures that I took last summer of a brilliant green one.

I was very surprised to discover (via the Wikpedia entry) that dragonflies are considered somewhat sinister in some parts of Europe. I’v always seen them as graceful and benign. I was even more surprised to discover the existence of an activity called oding, which is to dragonflies as birding is to birds.

What It’s Like To Be a Boy

Or a girl. Sigh. Makes me kinda glad I’m not young anymore.

Unrelated: I’ve just spent twenty minutes or so watching an extremely violent thunderstorm. It’s miles away, to the southwest, probably out over the Gulf. I hope no one is out on the water in it, at least not in anything small. It’s one of those where the lightning is almost non-stop. I’m seeing a great bank of dark clouds almost constantly lit up by flashes from within. I like storms but I won’t mind if it doesn’t come this way.

Creation From Nothing, and I Mean Nothing

In that post about Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong a week or so ago, I mentioned that Dawkins appears not to grasp the idea of creatio ex nihilo, creation from nothing. More precisely, he appears not to grasp the idea of nothing. This seems to be true of quite a number of scientists and materialists. It is a common pattern in the polemics of materialists attempting to refute the idea of a creator God to push the conceptual chain of causality back to some really, really, really fundamental entity, stop there, and declare victory. In Bertrand Russel’s day it was the atom, but that didn’t hold up for long; sometimes, considering the huge number of subatomic particles discovered since then, one wonders if atoms can really be said to exist at all.

But no entity is nothing. I’ve never read Stephen Hawking’s famous Brief History of Time, so I’m not sure where I got this, but I read somewhere that he considered the hypothesis of a creator unnecessary because “a quantum fluctuation in the void” would be sufficient to set in motion the processes that resulted in the Big Bang and everything that followed from it, including you and me. I’ve since become aware that this phrase seems to have become a standard (or at least very popular) materialist explanation for the existence of the cosmos. Google it, and you’ll see what I mean. Here are a few representative items:

  • A Wikipedia article on the vacuum state
  • As best I can figure from sampling a few such links, certain really really elementary particles are always appearing and disappearing: “According to quantum mechanics, the vacuum state is not truly empty but instead contains fleeting electromagnetic waves and particles that pop into and out of existence” (from that Wikipedia article).

    I don’t know anything of modern physics past a few elementary concepts (though I hope one day to read some of the books that attempt to explain it to the untrained). And I find it hard to believe that something which is apparent to me should escape the notice of Stephen Hawking. But it seems to need pointing out that everything mentioned in these discussions—fleeting electronic waves, for instance—is something, not nothing. There are events, which are not nothing, and in order for there to be events there must be some sort of space-time, however bizarrely contracted and distorted it may be in some postulated pre-cosmic state. And if there’s one concept that even slightly educated people like me can’t miss in modern physics, it’s that space and time are not nothing. Even a purely empty space, which apparently does not exist, is not nothing.

    It really seems that these scientists and their followers have not truly grasped the idea that nothing means non-existence. Not “existence in a really strange and incomprehensibly small and imperceptible mode,” but non-existence.

    There’s nothing you can say about the attributes of nothing, because it isn’t there.

    It has no behavior, it does not fluctuate, because it isn’t there.

    It does not provide a field in which events can occur, because it isn’t there.

    Nothing means nothing—no energy, no particles, no space-time, no physical processes, not even any physical laws. Nothing. When Catholics say that God created from nothing, this is the nothing we mean. Not the hardly-anything, but the not-at-all.

    The “popping in and out of existence” of certain particles seems to describe a transition from energy to matter, although I’m not clear about that. But supposing it doesn’t, supposing that the idea is that they truly come into existence from nothing, and setting aside the fact that the environment in which they exist is something, one would still come up against the same old riddle. To stop there is to say that the seed explains the plant, and no further questions need be asked.

    If you want to stop at the concept of the quantum fluctuation and ask no more questions, if you want to say it’s all just there and there’s no point in inquiring any further, I can respect that. It’s an honorable and honest position. But don’t claim to have solved the problem when you’ve only pushed it back another step. And don’t say it’s we who are reluctant to ask the probing questions.

    The Catholic faith does not, contrary to atheist imaginings, shrink from asking the question of where God came from, of who made God. It is the question that leads us to the idea of the self-existent, of the God Who Is, who is not a being but Being itself. The one who asks it leaves physical science behind for philosophy, and in considering the answer he goes yet further, from philosophy to contemplation and worship. Here, he recognizes, is the Ultimate, that which we all seek, that which is, at last and entirely, worthy of the human desire to worship.

    Prayers for a Friend in the Phillipines

    As those who read the comments here regularly are aware, the young lady who signs herself “antiaphrodite” lives in the Phillipines. I was surprised, upon reading her request for prayers today, to learn that there is major flooding and serious hardship going on there (see her comment here—“flooding issues” indeed—and typically wry remarks at her blog). I hope those who pray, which I think is most but not all of the readers of this blog, will do so.

    I have seen nothing in the news about this, but my only news sources these days are Google News, supplemented with occasional visits to, and the continually shrinking local paper. Looking around a bit, I found this at the BBC, which will show you what they’re coping with in the Manila (antiaphrodite lives in one of its suburbs).

    Four Things I’ve Seen at the Bay Recently

    Last night, standing by the bay, I was remembering that a year or so ago I was standing there thinking about the fact that in Love in the Ruins Thomas More mentions seeing and hearing a kingfisher, and that it was strange that I never had, because this is the same sort of place as the part of Louisiana where More lived. And soon after that I saw one, and heard its distinctive chattering cry. Last night I was thinking that I hadn’t seen one for some time. And then this morning I saw (and heard) one. An odd coincidence. The kingfisher is said to be a brilliantly colored bird, but either the ones I’ve seen are relatively drab or the colors are being muted by my seeing the bird in silhouette against a bright sky.

    Also last night, I saw the moon setting over the water, very much as described in this blog post, only without the candle effect.

    Twice in the past week or so, most recently this morning, I’ve seen what I believe is an osprey. At any rate it’s a large predatory bird that landed in a dead tree and then appeared to be hunting over the water. At first it was coming straight toward me and I thought it was a pelican, just because of the size, but when it turned I could see that it wasn’t.

    Also this morning I saw a fairly large mullet jumping. The sun was shining and the mullet flashed silver when it came out of the water. I was glad to see this, because the bay has been over-fished and I don’t see nearly as many mullet as I did ten or fifteen years ago.

    It was not very recently that I saw this pelican; it was at least a year ago. I keep trying to take pictures of pelicans, gulls, etc., but my camera doesn’t have a long enough lens to get them close and in focus.

    Karen Armstrong vs. Richard Dawkins: Both Lose

    Here is an interesting pair of short essays on the existence of God by Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins. I called it a debate first, but then read the intro more closely, and found that the two pieces were written independently of each other. Still, they provide a good picture of the mental dilemma in which a great many people of our time find themselves. Addressing the question “Where does evolution leave God?”, they agree more than they disagree in seeing little (Armstrong) or no (Dawkins) place for him.

    I don’t know a great deal about Karen Armstrong, except that she is an ex-Catholic and popular author of books that, as best I can tell, are roughly in the spiritual-but-not-religious vein. That impression is supported by the present piece, and also by the Wikipedia article about her. She was apparently supposed to be representing the pro-God side in this exchange, a fact which says a lot about the journalists who commissioned it, as she certainly doesn’t seem to believe in God in the sense that most people would mean “God” and “belief.” It’s all pretty fuzzy, but she seems to follow many quasi-Christians in treating religion as a branch of literature or psychology, or as a mixture of the two.

    Armstrong does not, on the basis of this piece, seem to be very good at reasoning. This sentence, for instance, strikes me as making no sense at all: “God had been essential to Newtonian physics but it was not long before other scientists were able to dispense with the God-hypothesis and, finally, Darwin showed that there could be no proof for God's existence.” And what makes her think that the problem of evil somehow became decisive only after Darwin? The death of a child here and now is far more troubling to me than the knowledge that a species of lizard found millions of years ago is now extinct. Her view of the history of religion is peculiar, to say the least: at times she seems to be saying that before the 17th century (or so) no one very sensible believed in God except as a symbol.

    One striking thing about these pieces is that, while presenting themselves as the latest thinking, they frame an essentially 19th century argument. Armstrong’s view is really not substantially different from Victorians who valued Christianity insofar as it fostered elevated thoughts and pure morals. And Dawkins, as usual, for all his knowledge of biology, still inhabits the philosophical world of a confident Victorian atheist. Bless his heart, he still doesn’t seem to grasp the concept of creation from nothing, or the import of the First Cause argument.

    On the whole, though, I prefer Dawkins, at least on the basis of these two pieces. Though his vision is oppressively narrow, he does at least hold himself accountable to facts and logic, and shares with Christians the understanding that a God who is essentially only a phenomenon of the human mind is, literally, no God at all.

    Together the two essays form a dismal picture of the sundering of the soul that is a characteristic of our times: a yearning for meaning that is unable to find any foothold in the world of fact, and a materialism which glories in fact and denies the possibility of meaning.

    Well, You Wouldn’t Think So

    I’ve been very busy with work this week (ten-hour days, inter-departmental acrimony, etc.) so haven’t had a chance to write about any of the several things that are in my mental queue. But I had to pass this on before I forget it.

    A co-worker went into the hospital yesterday for a heart catheterization procedure. The doctors were checking out a suspected blockage near the heart and also in an artery leading to the kidneys (a kidney? whatever).

    So he’s lying on the table about to be wheeled into the operating room. The procedure is done with only local anaesthesia, so he’ll be awake.

    As they’re taking him away, his wife says “Now, be sure to remind them to look at the kidney, too.”

    He snorts, rolls his eyes, etc. “Oh, come on, these people know what they’re doing, they don’t need me to remind them.”

    When they’re done, they wheel him back out, and the doctor starts telling them what he found (nothing to worry about, happily). And the wife says, “And what about the kidney?”

    Doctor: “Uh...oh yeah.”

    And they wheel him back in to look at the kidney.

    (Which was also fine, by the way.)

    Men, Women, and Misunderstandings

    Some months ago in a discussion here Francesca Murphy made a remark that has stuck with me, because I think there’s a lot of truth in it: made me wonder whether some male / female arguments come down to misunderstanding, whereas female on female disagreements can go up in smoke because of too much understanding...

    (“It” was something I said; see below for context.)

    I thought of this recently when I read the following passage from Elizabeth Goudge’s Pilgrim’s Inn. Nadine is the daughter-in-law of the elderly Lucilla; David is the grandson of Lucilla; Damerosehay is Lucilla’s beautiful and beloved home:

    “I only hope, Grandmother,” said Nadine, her pent-up pain surging out in sudden bitterness, “that this wife of David’s will appreciate Damerosehay and its treasures. You know, it’s all a bit out of date.”

    It was a cruel thing to say, and the moment she had said it Nadine could have bitten her tongue out. She dared not look at Lucilla’s face, but she saw her brace her shoulders and saw her fingers fumbling over the raisins.

    Nadine goes on to feel terrible about what she said for the next day or so. What struck me about this was that a man (or at least a great many men) could very well have said the same thing Nadine did, and meant absolutely no harm by it. Even if he knew how much Lucilla loved Damerosehay, he still could have made this remark innocently, speculating in a purely objective and detached way about how a young woman might react to the house. I mean, it is out of date in many ways; the time is the late ‘40s, and the house (19th century or older) lacks some modern conveniences. Moreover, and, possibly worse from the female point of view, he might well not have realized that he’d said anything wrong unless the woman communicated it in no uncertain terms; most likely a mere bracing of the shoulders and fumbling over raisins would not have done it. And if she lashed out at him he would be baffled, and perhaps angry himself, feeling that he had done nothing to deserve her anger.

    On the other hand, both Nadine and Lucilla are perfectly clear about what has happened. Nadine intended to wound, and succeeded, and they both know it.

    I’m not drawing any particular lesson or broader insight from this; I just find it fascinating. I think I’ve seen this sort of thing happen, or been in the position of the hypothetical man saying something similar, and not realized what was going on. I work in a predominantly female environment of office workers, and I think it goes on around me a lot there without my being entirely aware of it.

    Francesca in her comment added another layer of potential complexity: “or at least, too much ‘understanding’”

    Here is the comment of mine to which Francesca was responding. And here is the very trivial post which started that conversation. You just never know around here...

    The Last Man On Earth

    I didn’t really plan to stay up till 2am watching this movie. It’s sort of a long story but, believe it or not, it’s actually work-related: I can be pretty sure that nobody wants to use the system I’m working on at midnight Saturday night, and while I need to keep an eye on the database operation I kicked off, I don’t have to watch it every second.

    Anyway, The Last Man On Earth is not a great movie, but it’s worth seeing. The plot leaves a lot to be desired, as does most of the acting, but much of the imagery is fantastic. The opening sequence, an empty 20th century urban city-scape in black and white, is strikingly beautiful in a desolate sort of way. The phrase “pop Antonioni” occurred to me.

    I’m interested now in reading the Richard Matheson novel, I Am Legend, from which the movie was adapted—so badly adapted, apparently, that Matheson didn’t want his name on it.

    The story, by the way, is based on the idea of one man still normal in a world where everyone else has become a vampire; the normal man is a legend, as vampires are to us: he stalks the world in broad daylight when normal people are asleep, possessed of mysterious powers, killing them as they sleep...

    Laïs Lenski

    Now and then while browsing through the new releases on eMusic, something I’ve never heard of will catch my eye: an interesting title or a striking graphic, something that makes me wonder what the music is like, and listen to the 30-second samples. Most of the time that’s the end of it. But every now and then I strike gold. Such was the case with this album (and here’s the image that caught my eye, as well as the samples that caught my ear). I ended up getting the entire album, and it’s very, very beautiful.

    Laïs is a vocal trio from Belgium, comprised of the three women on the album cover. They’ve released several albums on their own, which I haven’t heard. The cellist is Simon Lenski.

    Here they are in an informal performance of “Hymne,” the first song on the album. Translation welcome; one of my few reservations about the album is that I haven’t been able to find English translations of the songs in other languages.

    If you like this, you’ll like the whole album, or most of it. The material is wide-ranging, from folk songs to Nico to Shostakovitch, and is mostly wonderful. It took some digging for me to discover who wrote most of it, because that information isn’t provided by eMusic, or even on the Lais web site. I found it here. Some of the songs were written by one or more of the performers. The highlight for me is a stunning setting of a poem by Colley Cibber, “Blind Boy” (text here). To my taste there is only one really weak track, the final one, “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby,” which many will recognize from the film O Brother Where Art Thou. I never was enthusiastic about the song, and it doesn’t particularly suit the group; I wish they’d chosen “Down to the River to Pray” instead. Apart from that, it’s a great album.

    Prayer Request

    This is something that, I am embarrassed to say, I should have done several weeks ago. First I didn’t know the person’s last name, and then I kept forgetting to do it except when I was not around a computer.

    Please pray for Kevin Gilmore. I don’t know him personally; he’s the brother-in-law of some friends. He has colon cancer and his prospects are very, very poor. Our friends say that in the normal course of things his case is almost hopeless, so if he recovers it will likely be a miracle.

    This is an especially sad situation because he is the father of, if I remember correctly, six children, all still at home. They are a staunch Catholic family and have been homeschooling, but because of this wife has had to go back to full-time work, and the children to go back to public school.

    I really don’t understand why these things happen. We can only look to the cross.

    Strange Churches

    At Sally Thomas’s Icons and Curiosities blog, a link to a gallery of really, really unusual churches—from ancient chapels carved out of cliff walls to modernist madness. Really fascinating stuff.

    This reminds me that I’ve been meaning to add Icons and Curiosities to the blog roll, which I have now done. It’s subtitled “A Shopping Blog,” which is not an attractive prospect to me, but it’s really about interesting religious artifacts of all kinds, from “interesting” in the sense of “Good grief, what were they thinking?” to “That’s really beautiful.”

    The Heart of the Family, by Elizabeth Goudge

    It’s simply astonishing that a few months ago I barely recognized this writer's name, and now she is of major importance to me. Even to say I barely recognized her name is almost an overstatement: it was the sort of faint uncertain recognition that one is not even sure really is recognition, and not just suggestibility.

    I just finished this book, which I like even better than the other one I read, Pilgrim’s Inn. I’m not going to say it’s better, objectively, but for subjective reasons I like it a little better. I’m not even going to try to do it justice in a quick post, but I’ll say this: Elizabeth Goudge is surely the equal, at least, of C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams in her ability to convey spiritual truth in fiction. Which is not to say that her work resembles either of theirs in any direct way, only that it is as true and deep as theirs.

    It’s a curious thing, this 20th century English Christian literature (The Heart of the Family was published in 1953, Pilgrim’s Inn in 1948. At just the time when the world most needed it, when Christianity seemed almost dead as a cultural and artistic and intellectual force, so many writers gave it a new life, by seeing it and presenting it in a way different from older ways, yet entirely in harmony with them, a way that could include and acknowledge the modern world and modern habits of mind. The word “fresh” appears frequently in this book, beginning with the first line of the epigraph, from Hopkins: “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Goudge’s work not only expresses that idea, but is a manifestation of it. It makes the idea that the Faith could ever become truly outmoded, much less obsolete, appear ridiculous.

    Thanks, Janet.

    Although today is a holiday, I considered putting in most of the day at my job, though from here at home rather than in the office. I’m very glad I didn’t. It was a great pleasure to read the last hundred pages or so of this book within one day, rather than in the five-or-ten-page bites that are my normal mode of reading during the work week.

    Some Leaves

    ...the leaves burn with the changing colors of the seasons and the color of each is its own gift that can never be repeated.

    —Elizabeth Goudge, The Heart of the Family

    Last fall I was thinking about the fact that we really don’t get much in the way of colorful leaves here. And I started noticing the ones I see in my immediate neighborhood. One day I picked up four particularly colorful ones, brought them inside, and took pictures of them, planning to post them here. But the pictures really didn’t look like I wanted them to. Still, when I read the passage above, I decided to post a couple of them anyway. It’s the same leaves in both pictures, but the second one was a week or so later, and with different lighting.

    Running to the Edge of the World

    I’m reading another Elizabeth Goudge novel, The Heart of the Family, which is perhaps even better than Pilgrim’s Inn. At any rate I think that for various and often obscure personal reasons it may mean more to me. I’m not sure I’ll say very much about it here, just because there is too much to say, or not say. Perhaps I’ll only quote from it.

    Among many passages I would mark if I weren’t reading a library copy is this one. Robin, who I think is two years old, has frequent temper tantrums. The “her” in the passage is his four-year-old sister, Meg. It may be implausible that Meg would have understood this, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

    If it had been suggested to her that Robin went berserk with rage against the unfamiliar encagement of his spirit within the frustrations of human life, much as a convict who has known the freedom of the world will lose his reason and beat his body against the walls of his cell, she would have shaken her head in bewilderment. And if someone had wondered aloud if he wept because he knew he would never get out until he was an old man, she would have been equally bewildered. Yet she knew it was that.

    There is a story in my family that I had such tantrums when I was a child. If the story is true, then I rather think the cause was much as described here. The passage continues:

    And she knew that once she had dried his tears the only way to comfort him was to put his boots on, take him out of doors, and let him run to the edge of the world.