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October 2009

All Hallows’ Eve 2009

The more or less traditional Halloween post about or from Charles Williams’s All Hallows’ Eve. See the 2007 post for a little more about Lester, who is speaking here, and Richard. Here Lester (a woman) leaves what we call the world of the living for the world of what we call the dead, which is actually the world of the truly living.

She looked across at Richard. She said, “Dearest, I did love you. Forgive me. And thank you— Oh Richard, thank you! Goodbye, my blessing!” She stood, quiet and very real, before them; almost she shone on them;then the brightness quivered in the air, a gleam of brighter light than day, and in a flash traversed all the hall; the approach of all the hallows possessed her, and she too, into the separations and unions which are indeed its approach, and into the end to which it is itself an approach, was wholly gone. The tremor of brightness received her.

Since Alabama has the week off...

...let’s replay the big blocked kick from last week.

(Hat tip to Will, who I can’t believe is interested in this.)

In the unlikely event that you (a) don’t know the resolution of the claim that Alabama should have been penalized because Cody took his helmet off before the ball was dead, and that as a result Tennessee should have been given another shot at making the kick, and (b) care: the SEC stated officially that even if a penalty had been called it would have been enforceable on the next play, and since time had expired there would have been no next play.

Blind Bartimaeus, Again

I keep thinking about blind Bartimeus, and the other people, all damaged in one way or another, who reached out to Jesus in their weakness. I suppose someone has made a list of them, but anyone who goes to Mass or reads the New Testament very often can immediately think of several: the woman with the hemorrhage, the ten lepers of whom only one returned to give thanks for his healing, the crippled man who was told to take up his bed and walk.

It is a constant theme in the New Testament: that weakness is a form of strength, that poverty is a form of wealth. I think the reason for this, or one of the reasons, is that those who are in some way weak or poor are able to recognize the truth of their situation in a way that the powerful and rich are not. It seems to have been the thing that Nietzsche, with his admiration (to say the least) of power, hated most about Christianity, the thing that made him call it, contemptuously, a religion for women and slaves.

But weakness and poverty are the true condition of us all. One need not believe in God to recognize the fundamental weakness of every human being; all human strength is paltry in comparison to the physical forces of the world. Every source and form of human power—wealth, beauty, domination—is fragile at best and doomed by time. One who has those things finds it easy to believe that they are his by right and that he will always have them. But age and death will eventually take them all.

Better then, to understand the situation from the beginning. And those who know, like Bartimaeus, that we are damaged and weak and broken stand open to both God and despair. We may still choose wrongly, of course—poverty and weakness are certainly no guarantors of wisdom or virtue—but we make our choice in the face of reality, not illusion.

I’ve never been the sort of person who hears God speaking to him at every turn. You know the sort I mean: the sort who frequently says “The Lord laid it on my heart” to do or say something. There have been only two or three times when it seemed to me that God might have spoken directly to me. I didn’t hear a voice, but words were suddenly present in my mind, addressed to me as if they came from someone else else.

One of these was soon after I returned to the Christian faith after what I’ve come to think of as my lost years, between the ages of roughly eighteen and twenty-eight. They weren’t truly or entirely lost, and quite a few good things happened in that time, but I was lost, and I made a real mess of things. And when I came out of that period I was very conscious of my weakness, almost to the point of despair. One night I was praying, and the words came into my mind: I  made you weak so that you would know where real strength comes from.

That was a comfort to me, though as time went on I’ve often forgotten it. I find it very difficult to glory in my weakness, as St. Paul said he did. I would rather be strong. I guess I still haven’t completely learned my lesson. Most of us, perhaps, really and fully grasp it only at the point of death.

Blind Bartimeus

Jesus said to him in reply, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man replied to him, “Master, I want to see.”

Mark 10:51

This exchange always seem to me to sum up a major part of Christian belief: there is something wrong with me, and only God can fix it.

This is also one of the few instances where I prefer the New American and other current translations to the KJV:

And Jesus answered and said unto him, “What wilt thou that I should do unto thee?” The blind man said unto him, “Lord, that I might receive my sight.”

That’s very musical, but it doesn’t have the simple impact of “I want to see.”

I want to see.

Hats Off to Tennessee

For a really hard-fought game that I can’t honestly say you deserved to lose.

Of course I probably wouldn’t say that if you’d won. Which you would have done if you had a better kicker.

And hats off to Terrence Cody for two (2) blocked field goals.

This Alabama team can’t beat Florida, though. Maybe not LSU, either. Somehow Saban, McElroy, and Co. are going to have to rediscover the art of the touchdown. Soon.

An Alabama Fan, Preparing for Tomorrow

I refer of course to the Alabama-Tennessee game. Disclaimer: I do not hate Tennessee, or its fans. I believe they deserve equal treatment before the law. One of my uncles went to Tennessee, and he was nevertheless a fine man.

I do think, however, that there is some valid scientific evidence that the proportion of orange in a team’s uniform can be correlated to its objectionableness. Certainly this holds true in the SEC, though I don’t know about the rest of the country. Think about it. Florida. Auburn. And the Big Orange, Tennessee.

(Hat tip to Will)

Ross Douthat on Health Care Reform

Ross Douthat had an interesting piece in the NYT a few days ago on the health care reform issue. Here’s the key passage:

We know what one such approach would look like. It’s the eventual endgame that liberals pushing a “public option” are aiming for: a federal takeover of the health-insurance sector, paid for by rising tax rates, in which the government guarantees universal access while using its monopoly power to hold down costs.

But there’s another path, equally radical, that’s more in keeping with the traditional American approach to government, taxation and free enterprise. This approach would give up on the costly goal of insuring everyone for everything, forever. Instead, it would seek to insure Americans only against costs that exceed a certain percentage of their income, while expecting them to pay for everyday medical expenditures out of their own pockets.

People who could not afford to pay for anything at all would have to be helped, of course, but with this approach they would be assisted in buying the same care that everyone else is getting, not be shunted off into a separate and inferior system.

As a number of people have pointed out over the past few months, what we call “health insurance” is not really that. Insurance is something you purchase to protect yourself in the event of some catastrophe that leaves you facing an expense you can’t possibly cover. You have insurance on your house so that if it burns down you can replace it; you don’t expect insurance to pay for fixing a broken window or a clogged drain. You don’t expect your car insurance to pay for a flat tire or an oil change.

But that’s the way we treat health care. Even more irrationally, we expect the lion’s share of this expense to be borne by our employers, and so we have a situation in which people who are out of work or self-employed or employed by small businesses are either at a severe financial disadvantage where health care is concerned, or are shut out of the system altogether, having to fall back on a patchwork of government programs.

I really don’t have much hope of our elected representatives taking this path, but it seems by far the most sensible. I don’t think anyone who’s thought about it for more than a minute or two would argue that the system doesn’t need major reform. I have been saying for at least twenty years that we will eventually get a government-run system because the present system is crazy and unjust. But I’m afraid we’re going to get something that’s worse—almost certainly in the long run, and perhaps in the short run. The Democrats want a federally-controlled system, and the Republicans will most likely play their usual role in limiting the expansion of federal power: that of a piece of chewing gum on the bottom of the Democrats’ shoe, annoying them but slowing them down only a little.

The ideas presented by Douthat are radical in the sense of getting at the root, or rather roots, of the problem, but, as he says, they seem far more suited to the American context. I’ve also been thinking that for some time, and discussed it here a couple of months ago. My view is frequently reinforced by stories like these:

Organized crime’s new targets: Medicare and Medicaid

As I said in that earlier post, we have a large number of people in this country “who would approach the system as vultures would approach a big dead pig.” I wasn’t joking.

Nearly 65? Time for the Medicare Maze

For someone new to the system, the hundreds of options Medicare provides can be daunting. “We’ve seen C.P.A.’s get stymied,” said Paul Gada, personal financial planning director at Allsup, a provider of Social Security and Medicare consultation services…

There’s something wrong with a system which ordinary people can’t navigate without a consultant. If we extend that to everybody, it will be neither cheap, nor efficient, nor fair.

Strangest Reaction to Rome’s Anglican Move

Here, at National Review Online, is Andrew Stuttaford, more or less applauding the departure of “international brigades”—I think he means Anglicans outside of England—from Anglicanism:

“it would be no bad thing if the C of E were to become a little less ‘church,’ and a little more ‘England’...”

What makes this so odd to me is that Stuttaford, if I’m not mistaken, is not a Christian. I have the impression from reading his posts at NRO that he’s more or less an atheist. This conflation of nationalism and Christianity is not unusual, but generally it’s either more unconscious, as with some American Protestants who see the story of America as a continuation of the story of the Bible and really cannot separate the two, or less straightforward, as with the skeptic who quietly keeps his reservations to himself because he thinks religion is good for people, or for the country. I think it is relatively rare for someone in that latter camp to openly wish to build up the national church while actively denigrating the faith to which the church is ostensibly devoted.

Stuttaford’s remark is, however, a blog post, probably written hastily, so it could be that I’m misunderstanding him.

I am not, by the way, and obviously, not going to try to link to all the interesting commentary on this development. Most likely anyone who reads this blog and is interested in the matter reads others that cover it better than I could hope to. But in case you don’t, the American Papist is a good place to start.

Sally Thomas Update

I wandered over to Icons & Curiosities this afternoon, as I usually do two or three times a week, only to find that it has shut down. The last post invited readers to Sally’s personal blog, calling it Castle in the Sea, which was puzzling, as everyone knows her blog is called Fine Old Famly. Well, it turns out they’re the same place, and she has resumed her former very engaging ways. I’m selfishly pleased about this, as I liked FOF better than I&C. I’m about to update my blog roll to reflect these developments.

And of course for the real SallyT update, you should go read this post. Also, she has an excellent piece on the good and bad of blogging, here. I’m pretty much in agreement, and not just because she said something nice about this blog.

Addendum: In case you didn’t see it in the comments, Sally reminds me that she will continue blogging sometimes at First Thoughts, another First Things blog.

Here’s Some Good News

A new door has been opened for Anglican communities wishing to enter the Catholic Church. I’m one of those whose eyes begin to glaze over when people talk of the governing structures of the Church in terms more detailed than “Pope, bishops, priests, religious” so I’m not totally sure how much further this goes than the arrangement of 1980 which established the Anglican Use. I suppose the key is the existence of a sort of Bishop of Anglicans: “pastoral oversight and guidance will be provided for groups of former Anglicans through a Personal Ordinariate, whose Ordinary will usually be appointed from among former Anglican clergy.”

Having said that, I’ll add that I feel a little like someone suffering from a fatal disease for which a cure has been found, but too late for him. But that comparison breaks down in two ways: one, I did not die, spiritually, of my hunger for beauty and reverence in the liturgy, but rather adapted so that I don’t need it anymore; you might say I killed that hunger. And that’s just as well, because, two, I have no reason to suppose that there is any group of Anglicans in my part of the world who would be interested in this. I think dissident Anglicans in this area tend to go in a more Protestant rather than a more Catholic direction, either back toward a sort of hard-core Low Church Anglicanism, or toward contemporary charismatic-evangelical Protestantism.

But whether or not I see any personal benefit from this, I’m awfully glad it’s happening. I wonder whether we dare hope for some movement in the mother country?....

Gould vs. Perahia in Goldberg Shootout

Some months ago my friend Robert gave me a copy of Murray Perahia’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, saying that it sets a new standard for the piece, and is better than the famous 1955 Glenn Gould version. This eventually led to a period of a couple of weeks in which I listened to both performances several times. I can say I now know and appreciate the work far more than I had.

As I’ve undoubtedly said before here, I don’t have the sophisticated discernment or the technical knowledge to say much about the merits and demerits of classical performance. And yet I do find sometimes that I prefer one performance to another, and it’s interesting to try to articulate the reasons.

Just to make my limits clear, let me say that I will never be able to speak of music as David Hurvitz does in this review of the Perahia performance:

He's extremely careful to shape groups of variations to form expressive arches. The most impressive of these explores the gradual increase in tension from Variations 26 through 30. Note how Perahia uses the piano's dynamic range to give the 28th variation, with its long ornamental trills, an unusually quiet delicacy (on harpsichord this can sound like the sewing machine from hell), followed by a natural intensification through his bold treatment of the rapidly alternating chords of Variation 29, and culminating, with an effortless sense of climax, in the contrapuntal fullness of the ensuing Quodlibet.

Ok, fine, I’ll take his word for it. But here’s what I can say: Perahia’s performance is very, very beautiful. It glistens. It’s rich in tone. It’s effortless and highly polished. It’s really just about perfect. And the quality of the recording is as sweet as we’re ever likely to hear.

Gould, in contrast, though I think his 1955 recording was considered the last word in virtuosity at the time, seems a little rougher, a little less precise, a little less polished. But it also seems a bit more emotionally engaging; in certain variations he touches me a little more deeply. (Since I did this comparison a couple of months ago, I’ve forgotten which ones.)

Which is “better”? Well, I’m very glad to have both. If I were going to recommend only one, it would be Perahia’s. I mean, how can you argue with perfection? And among other things it includes all the repeats, thus making the recording half again as long, but giving a sense of mass and completeness to the work which a shorter version can’t do. But one does not always wish, or have time, to spend 73 minutes listening to one recording, and the shorter versions like Gould’s can be just as satisfying, depending on one’s circumstances and mood.

In addition to these two piano versions, I would also always want to have a harpsichord version available. I have Landwoska’s on an old and rather scratched-up LP, which I need to replace.

Here, for your own comparison, are the aria and a few variations from Perahia’s version:

And although I wasn’t able to find Gould’s recording on YouTube, here is a live performance from 1964 which includes the Goldberg aria:

Art and Secrets

But art is not only the desire to tell one’s secret; it is the desire to tell it and to hide it at the same time. And the secret is nothing more than the whole drama of the inner life.

—Thornton Wilder

I read Our Town when I was in high school and really liked it. I’ve wanted for some time to read it again.

Pelican and Heron In the Rain

This was taken a couple of weeks ago on a rainy Sunday morning. I didn’t plan for it to be black and white. I was experimenting with some settings on my camera that are supposed to give better results in low light, which this was, and one of the settings gave things a strong and unnatural blue cast. So after fruitlessly trying to manipulate the color to something close to the real thing, I gave up and made it black and white.

This one will give you an idea of what the colors ought to be: very muted, mostly grey and brown.

Who We Belong To

To God first, of course, but:

The Word of God is not brought to the ends of the world in a suitcase. We carry it in ourselves.... Once we have heard God’s Word, we no longer have the right not to accept it; once we have accepted it, we no longer have the right not to let it become flesh in us; once it has become flesh in us, we no longer have the right to keep it for ourselves alone. Henceforward, we belong to all those who are waiting for the Word.

—Madeleine Delbrêl (from Magnificat)

I suppose, in light of those parts of the Church’s history in which the Church compelled conversion and orthodoxy by force, the assertion that “we no longer have the right not to accept it” requires a note. The Church has repudiated such coercion, and of course one has the right in a legal sense to refuse the Word. But if one has really heard it, in the sense of understanding it, one can no longer refuse it without guilt. Whether a person has really heard it or not is known only to God, I think, though I am certain that many who believe they have heard it and rejected it have not really heard it at all.

I had never heard of Madeleine Delbrêl. Here is the first thing Google turned up when I searched for her name.

A Couple of Songs for Sunday Afternoon

But it’s okay if you listen to them in the morning, or at night, or even on Monday. This is more of the stuff that I’ve intended to post for a while, and will perhaps make a nice change from the somewhat depressing previous two posts.

Janet sent me the link to this live performance of Simon and Garfunkel’s “For Emily Whenever I May Find Her.” I hadn’t heard it for many years, and really had more or less forgotten it. I liked it a lot when I was listening to Simon & Garfunkel in high school. In college I was part of a crowd that did not consider them cool, and pretty much stopped listening to them. This is really a very beautiful song. I don’t like it quite as much as Janet does, and I think the reason is that some of the imagery doesn’t describe anything very specific to me: I know that organdy and crinoline refer to types of cloth, but that’s all. I really like the empty streets and the cathedral bells. Goodness gracious, what a voice Art Garfunkel had!

This next one is a group called the Be Good Tanyas performing a song called “The Littlest Bird,” which I assume one of them wrote, though I don’t know that for sure. Pentimento posted a link to it in a comment some months ago, and I thought it was enchanting, so much so that I got the album on which it appears, Blue Horse. This ended up being my favorite song on the album, which I found somewhat uneven, mainly because I’m not real crazy about several of the songs. But this one is just about guaranteed to make you smile. If you don’t smile at first, listen to it again. And as a bonus, the video is charming and evocative. The gals are from British Columbia, so I don’t know why the video is set in New Orleans, but it certainly captures the vibe of the place. Listen to it on good speakers or headphones, if you can; the audio is of high quality, and there are a lot of nice things going on that you might miss on computer speakers.

While We’re On the Subject...

...of love and marriage: some months ago I read and bookmarked a piece in City Journal called Love in the Time of Darwinism, intending to write about it later. That happens a lot, of course, as there are far more interesting things to write about than there is time to write. But in this case it was not so much lack of time as the depressing nature of what the author says that made me put it off. I warn you, it is really depressing, and also in places quite crude. It’s a true picture of our times, though, so we might as well face it. It’s about the state of relations between the sexes among the young, meaning those under thirty or thirty-five. The question in my mind is whether the people described in it are very typical. I certainly hope not. But reading this made me very glad I’m not young. And if they are typical, then we are in deep and probably hopeless trouble as a culture—hopeless in the sense that I don’t think it happens very often that a cultural decline of this sort is reversed.

I must say, not with any sense of triumph at all, that I saw this coming a long time ago, or at least certain aspects of it. This is a sort of background aspect of the piece, but one thing the author mentions is the tendency for young men to drop out of the whole education and career struggle. A generation ago, women set out to conquer the world of male occupations. I thought that if they succeeded, men would tend to just say to hell with the whole thing, because they didn’t really want to do most of it anyway. Many of them—us—were only doing it because we had to, because we wanted to support our families, because it was what a man was supposed to do and we wanted to feel like men. Most men have never had careers, with all the engagement and energy that implies; most have just had jobs.

I speak with some personal vehemence here. I’ve been making my living in information technology since the late ‘70s, and am grateful that I’ve been able to do so. But I never cared much about the work for its own sake; it was never a chosen vocation. I have never had any material ambition. I could have been perfectly happy living my entire life earning no more money than I needed to rent a room and eat two or three times a day, as long as I had time to read and write and listen to music (maybe play a bit, too).

I went to school to learn this trade for one reason only: because I was ashamed of not being able to support a family. It’s always irritated me greatly to be cast in the role of the oppressive male hogging a good job that a woman could do just as well or better and was perhaps entitled to, because she was oppressed. If I’d been single I would have long ago said...well, I’m not going to write what I would have said, because I like to keep this blog reasonably free of vulgarity. But it boils down to Fine, you can have it. There are indications that a certain number of young men are in essence doing this.

You can have it all was a feminist slogan of the ‘70s. But of course you can’t, and one kind of can’t is that you can’t elbow men out of the way as you climb the academic and career ladder, and then, when you’re thirty or thirty-five, expect to have a husband who earns enough money for you to stop working for a decade or two and have a family.

Anyway, brace yourself for an unpleasant experience and read the piece (the link is back in the first paragraph).

A Sexual Desert?

I think I mentioned a week or two ago that I have a backlog of things I’ve wanted to post about, but haven’t had time for. This is one of them: at First Things, Mary Eberstadt analyzes an attack on marriage which was published in The Atlantic a few months ago. That piece is here, though you don’t have to read it to understand Eberstadt. And I think I’ll preface this by saying that I’ve never been much impressed with Sandra Tsing Loh’s work. It can be amusing, but it doesn’t seem very deep—it tends to be typical of a certain kind of sophisticated urban woman: quick, glib, light, and stuffed with references to pop culture and trendy brand names (or what I take to be such, as I don’t recognize most of them). In other words, I don’t know how representative Sandra Tsing Loh is. But here’s how Eberstadt summarizes her case:

It amounts to two charges made repeatedly, almost always by women and with many echoes elsewhere in contemporary sources: first, that the combined pressures of motherhood and marriage and breadwinning are just too much to bear; and second, that many of today’s marriages—that is to say, marriages made among enlightened, older, educated, sophisticated people—are a sexual desert.

One could say a lot about this (and perhaps some of you will), and that’s one reason I haven’t mentioned it yet—I could easily go on at length, and the state of contemporary marriage is really too big a subject for a blog post. But I’ll limit myself to a brief observation on each of these two charges.

First: many married women really did get a bad deal when it became expected that they would get jobs. The situation is partly their fault, or the fault of the feminists who thought that, simply because they decreed that it ought to be so, men would assume exactly 50% of the cooking, cleaning, and child care. That was one of many illusions fostered by superficial notions about the difference between the sexes. Men in general—yes, there are many exceptions, but most men—were never going to do those jobs, especially not the way women wanted them done. (I know, there are many reasons why wives and mothers have gone into the work force, and feminism is probably not even the most important one. But feminism did insist upon the desirability of it, and attempt to lay down rules.)

But it’s also true that many men are completely unfair about this, because they expect their wives not only to do the traditionally feminine work at home, but also to hold down an outside job. I mean, they don’t just accept it if she wants to do it, or if the family really needs the money, but consider her obliged to contribute financially as well as in every other way. So they both come home from work, but he expects to watch TV while she cooks dinner, cleans up afterward, does laundry, etc. I’m sure we’ve all seen marriages where this is the case. It’s obviously unfair, and one can hardly blame women in that situation for resenting it. (This whole matter is full of examples of unintended and not especially good consequences, but I’ll leave those for another time.)

Second, about that “sexual desert”: I’ve suspected for some time that the current sexual climate might actually be producing a decline of interest in sex, at least among married people, at least with each other. The reason, in a word: boredom. There are a number of things in our culture which contribute to the possibility of sexual boredom in marriage. Birth control makes sex seem without risks and physical consequences. Often, after one or two children, one or the other in a couple gets himself/herself sterilized. This makes it possible at least in principle to have a lot more sexual activity. But it is a simple and obvious fact of human nature that people get bored even with pleasures when they are readily available.

At the same time, popular culture, from the merely provocative to the pornographic, leaves everyone with the impression that everyone else is living a life of unbounded sensual pleasure, and bombards us with provocative imagery. Much of this, I assume, has a greater impact on men than on women, but it must affect women, too. Perhaps for them it isn’t the direct sexual provocation so much as the broader idea of romance, but the overall effect is surely similar: other people have a much more exciting sexual-romantic life than you do; they have something which you also have a right to expect. And if you don’t have it, and you’re married, well, obviously your spouse must be the problem.

Moreover, although contraception holds out the promise of unlimited inconsequential sex, the psychological and emotional complications remain. He’s delighted by the idea that there’s no reason why she can’t be available to him all the time. She’s not so sure she likes that; among other things, she doesn’t want to be taken for granted. And her drive is probably lower anyway, maybe even more so if she’s artificially infertile (NFP couples can tell you a lot about the effect of fertility on the female sex drive). And besides, she’s so tired and stressed out (see the first item above). And so on. Real sex is messy and complicated on every level; it requires at least a minimum of dealing with another person, and some sort of accommodation to his or her wishes, not to mention imperfections. It doesn’t always, or even often, work out as perfectly as it does in the movies.

So why wouldn’t a couple eventually draw away from each other, each to a different sort of place that seems to hold the promise of the excitement to which they feel entitled?

Given all the difficulties surrounding sex, and the fact that pornography—the real stuff, not just titillation but movies of actual people actually doing it—is available at the click of a mouse, it not only makes sense but seems almost inevitable that for at least a considerable number of men, and maybe some women, pornography would tend to replace real sex.

Our culture has separated sex from love, marriage, and child-bearing, and is working on separating those last three from each other. Why not go a little further, and separate sexual pleasure from any kind of personal interaction at all? After all, if the whole point is your own pleasure, another person may just distract you and get in your way.

I have some fragments of a science fiction novel set in a future in which married couples never make love with each other, but enter, holding hands, into separate worlds of virtual erotic reality, each just exactly the way he or she wants it. It doesn’t seem all that implausible, really.

Caring for Your Introvert

I suspect that most readers of this blog will have more reason to give this advice about dealing with introverts than to take it. Sample passage:

Extroverts are easy for introverts to understand, because extroverts spend so much of their time working out who they are in voluble, and frequently inescapable, interaction with other people. They are as inscrutable as puppy dogs. But the street does not run both ways. Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extroverts, I have never sensed that any of them really understood. They listen for a moment and then go back to barking and yipping.

Walker Percy has a wonderful passage about shyness that I need to look up; it would be a good companion to this piece.

A Few More Thoughts About Nothing

In the discussion on the previous post on this topic (see here), Francesca made the point that “our non-materialist definition of ‘nothingness’ is a consequence of natural theology, of knowing that God exists.” I’m not 100% sure I understand this correctly, but if I do, then I disagree with it. (I think.) However, it does make me see a little differently the situation of the atheist attempting to explain the universe.

My complaint about these attempts is that they claim to explain how the universe could have begun from “nothing,” but they don’t really mean nothing. They mean “not much”—as I understand it, unorganized and not very active quanta of energy in space. I call foul on this—something is not nothing, and transformation and development are not creation. And I’ve been attributing it to intellectual weakness, if not dishonesty.

But I think the roots of the error are deeper. Thinking about what Francesca said, I realized that it’s almost impossible to conceive of something appearing from nothing—a transition from non-existence to existence, and moreover without any causal agency. The mind must supply some form of not-exactly-nothing, and imagine it being transformed and growing into something larger and more complex. And the mind insists on supplying some sort of cause, even if it’s only a “random quantum fluctuation,” whatever that may be. Try it: imagine nothing, no cosmos at all—not empty space, but non-existence—then try to imagine something coming into existence. Your mind will insist on coming up with possible causes, perhaps God if you are disposed to think that way, perhaps some sort of meta-physics if you aren’t, but something that both pre-exists and causes the transition from nothingness to somethingness.

So in the end the intellectual inadequacy of the something-from-nothing argument rests less on the failure of those making the argument than on the nature of thought itself and, I think, on the nature of reality. Perhaps it’s more a failure of will than of intellect. As I said in the earlier post, there’s nothing wrong with saying “we just don’t know” in response to this question of the ultimate origin of things. But if one has a strong emotional commitment to defeating the idea of the Creator God, that’s not enough—some alternative explanation is required. It’s always a little amusing to see the determined rationalist driven by the non-rational.

Please Pray for the Philippines

This is just a quick note during a break in a software training session: the Philippine Islands, already hit by serious flooding from a tropical storm last week, are now facing the possibility of a major disaster from a Katrina-class storm. See here and here. Please pray for the Philippines, for our friend antiaphrodite, and for her family.

Update: Current tracking maps show Typhoon Parma coming ashore on the northern end of the Philippines early Sunday morning. I assume that’s local time, which would be Saturday afternoon in the U.S. Currently it is what we would call a category 5 hurricane, which is the most severe. It looks like Manila and the whole north end of the main island will get a whole lot of rain no matter what. But if it turns to the north the wind and surge damage could be a lot less. So pray.

UPDATE 2: Thanks be to God. It looks like they were spared the worst.

UPDATE 3: But not completely out of the woods.