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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Garden of God

I've been reading The Garden of God: A Theological Cosmology by Alejandro García-Rivera, a professor at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. I thought I'd post bits from it as I read along. Here's something I found interesting, from pp. 15-16 ......


The Question of Evil

But heaven and earth as components of a theological cosmology raise questions regarding the interaction between heaven and earth. This was the place where premodern theology dealt with angels and demons. If we can get past the caricatures our modern age has made of angels and demons, we can perhaps recognize the importance of revising certain doctrines concerning angels in a theological cosmology.

One of these is the doctrine of the fall of the angels. Found in Daniel and in Revelation, the fall of the angels has been used in theology to qualify and deepen the meaning of the other fall, the fall of the human. The fall of the angels brings evil into the creation right at its beginning. Somehow the mystery of evil is tied in with the very mystery of creation. If Christian belief in the fall of the angels ought to tell us anything, it is that it is insufficient to place evil entirely upon human shoulders. While humans introduced death into the world through their sin, they did not invent evil. Evil was offered to humans by the serpent and humans accepted it.

The fall of the angels, as Louis Bouyer writes, helps us see the human "by virtue of his creation and its conditions, a first potential redeemer of the world. If he had been faithful to the call of God, who intended him to fill the place left by the prevaricators, his faithfulness would have erased the initial transgression. This is the meaning of paradise, the restoration of the world around man." This view has solid basis in the patristic literature yet has been neglected in contemporary thought, either due to a lack of belief in demons or angels or aversion to the doctrine itself. Nevertheless, the doctrine still has something to teach Christians in the twenty-first century. Evil has cosmic dimensions. We misunderstand its nature if we see it simply as a result of human moral failing. There is something profoundly spiritual in human evil acts that neither law nor reason can curb. The malignant spiritual dimension of evil is ultimately to be found in the human alienation from the cosmos.

Perhaps this lack of awareness about the cosmic dimension of evil explains why theological treatment of human evil and suffering borders on the irresponsible .....


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What's the right thing to do?

- Jeremy Bentham's "auto-icon" (his preserved body minus his real head) on view at University College London :)

The second video class of Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s course on Justice - What's the right thing to do? - is out (you can find the first class/video at my past post here). This class is on how to put a price tag on human life, and on Jeremy Bentham's and John Stuart Mill's utilitarian ideas of pain vs pleasure. Here's the class .....

Rilke’s Last Encounter With an Angel

I saw this tonight from Harper's Magazine (2007), and since it's archangel day, thought I'd post it ....


Rilke’s Last Encounter With an Angel

By Scott Horton

History knows several tales concerning great artists on their death beds, straining with superhuman strength to complete a final last work, a work filled with pathos and a great sense of mortality. The best known of these, perhaps, is the tale of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, KV 626. In the Romantic era, the circumstances surrounding the creation of this work were mystified. Death, it was said, paid a call to Mozart to commission it, and Mozart fully understood the circumstances. He was, it was said, writing his own requiem. Of course, spoil-sport academics have since documented that the piece was commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg, who wanted to pass it off as his own, and who had used a series of cloaked intermediaries to disguise the fact that he was the patron. The Requiem is, nonetheless, a magnificent work, one of Mozart’s greatest. It would have that position with or without the legend. And notwithstanding Count von Walsegg and his artifices, one does have a great sense of reconciliation to death in this work. It is extraordinary in that respect, much like Bach’s great cantata “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” (Actus Tragicus, BWV 106).

One has to wonder about Rilke’s last poem, “Komm du” in much the same way. This was found as the last entry in his last notebook. It is accordingly unclear whether Rilke considered the poem to be a finished work or merely something in progress. In fact, there is a notation at the end which may be taken as a note Rilke scribbled to himself:

Verzicht. Das ist nicht so wie Krankheit war
einst in der Kindheit. Aufschub. Vorwand um
größer zu werden. Alles rief und raunte.
Misch nicht in dieses was dich früh erstaunte

Relinquishment. It’s not the way sickness was
once in childhood. Procrastination. A pretense
in order to be greater. Cries and murmurs.
Don’t mix into this the things that surprised you early on.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Sämtliche Werke, vol. 2, p. 511.

So I don’t take it as a given that the work was brought to fruition in Rilke’s mind. Nevertheless, this poem is amazing. It is one of the greatest poems in the German language, or in any other. And it has the distinctive character of finality about it, not in the sense of being completed, but rather of being a last work. It does not reach to being completed. To the contrary, it aims to be and is transitional, passing from one state to another. That indeed appears in the very first words, “Komm du, du letzter”: a voice summons or beckons. This poem wears the lack of finality like a sort of accomplishment in itself.

Rilke’s poems are notoriously complex and susceptible of differing interpretations. And that is particularly true for this one. Translating the poem is also highly problematic. In fact this was recently the subject of a fascinating series of exchanges in the New York Review of Books in which three different efforts to render the poem into English are discussed. Let’s consider first the voice in which the poem intones. It could of course be seen as the poet’s voice, and the “you” could be death. That may in fact be the most conventional reading. But it doesn’t strike me as the most plausible one.

For several reasons, I see this poem in the background of the Duineser Elegien. Rilke wrote that walking the land around the castle at Duino, he believed he encountered an angel. The incident was recorded in the memoirs of his hostess, Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis, from January of 1912:

Rilke climbed down to the bastions which, jutting to the east and west, were connected to the foot of the castle by a narrow path along the cliffs. These cliffs fall steeply, for about two hundred feet, into the sea. Rilke paced back and forth, deep in thought, since the reply to the letter so concerned him. Then, all at once, in the midst of his brooding, he halted suddenly, for it seemed to him that in the raging of the storm a voice bad called to him: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic orders?” (Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?)… He took out his notebook, which he always carried with him, and wrote down these words, together with a few lines that formed themselves without his intervention … Very calmly he climbed back up to his room, set his notebook aside, and replied to the difficult letter. By that evening the entire elegy had been written down.

Throughout human history there are no shortage of tales of poets taking inspiration from angelic figures, and indeed the concept of the poetic “muse” has this derivation. But I’m not aware of another incident in the twentieth century in which an angel appeared and offered the opening lines of a poem—indeed, the first Duinese Elegy, what turns out to be generally recognized as one of the great poems of the century. And while the elegy was dated by various correspondence to a January evening in 1912, Rilke did not in fact put it forward for publication until 1922, just four years before his death, and before the composition of “Komm du.”

But the voice that sounded at the cliffs of Duino is, in my mind, the same voice which is speaking in this, Rilke’s last poem. The key for this is a signature image: fire. “Wie ich im Geiste brannte, sieh, ich brenne” (l. 3); “das Holz hat lange widerstrebt,/der Flamme” (l. 4-5); “brenn in die” (l. 6); “unkenntlich brennt” (l. 13). In a celebrated letter from 1925, Rilke told one of his translators that she should not make the mistake of understanding the angel referred to in the elegies as a Christian angel. To the contrary, this angel was quite distinctly drawn from an Islamic tradition. Rilke writes that in the months before his trip to Duino, he had traveled in Spain and had been consumed with reading the Qu’ran and a book on the life of the Prophet Mohammed. It seems fairly clear that this occurred under the influence of his friend Lou Andreas-Salomé, whose husband, Friedrich Carl Andreas, was a leading scholar of Islamic culture in the Russian Empire, particularly including Naqshibandiyya. Rilke was absorbed with Islam, and it left traces throughout his poetry, especially in the Duineser Elegien–and in this poem. But to a modern reader, this is bound to seem trite and absurd, all this talk of angels. So we need to start by remembering that the Islamic angel is something quite different from the Hallmark greeting card variety.

In Islam, belief in angels is one of the six articles of faith. By Islamic tradition, angels are composed of light, they are intangible, beings, who lack a free will. Their sole purpose of existence is to serve God. Being made of light, they can assume almost any form, completely real to the human eye, and traverse a distance just as fast as light or faster. One of the angels, Ezra’eil (عزرایل) is associated with death and dying. By legend, he appears to the dying to separate them from their mortal remains. The angel is associated with fire, and is sometimes portrayed as burning (though in Islamic tradition, the quality of fire more properly belongs to the jinn [ جني ] which does have a free will and is seen is something dark and evil). Hence, the use of the metaphor of fire throughout this poem can be seen as a Leitmotiv for the Duino angel. The key role of the angel is its ability to pass between the two worlds and to appear to and be understood by humans, or at least some humans.

Whereas the first elegy is marked by the angel’s challenge, the ninth elegy opens the question of death—and specifically how an artist should live and work with death in prospect. It presents the notion of life in two unclearly defined realms: one being the world of normal human existence, and the other being the ethereal realm of the angel, the unknowable world that exists beyond. The poet, Rilke tells us, obviously lives in the former world, but gains insight from the contemplation of the angel’s world. And in the ninth elegy, Rilke comes back to his angel as death. He calls the angel an “intimate companion.”

So in this final poetic work, Rilke again has heard his angel call to him. It is a time of separation and transition. “Bin ich es noch, der da unkenntlich brennt?” he asks, Is it still I who burns there unrecognizably? Rilke flags the state of transition (the curious word “noch”), he asks on which side of the “great unbounded realm” he stands. And the burning is of course an act of physical transformation; of change from flesh and bones to the Abrahamic dust and ashes.

But why would it be an Islamic angel? And why, if it is an Islamic angel, does Rilke use what his readership will certainly see as Christian images? Hölle (hell) and Geist (spirit), for instance, and the post scriptum’s reference to Verzicht? And why does he develop all of this in a Middle European, and thus Christian, poetical form? I don’t see clear answers to this riddle. In fact, much as I contemplate it, it all continues to be quite mysterious. But a few clear points emerge. Rilke is not satisfied with Christian doctrine and dogma, especially with respect to ontological questions. He finds the Islamic concepts and symbols to be more aesthetically compelling and better suited to his art. And he also holds the Islamic world and its culture in very high regard, and is sickened by the contemptuous attitudes of most Europeans towards Islam. It’s certainly not the case that Rilke is an inner convert to Islam.

But it is the case that he seeks a cultural, or perhaps a spiritual convergence in which Islam and the West are reconciled. (And indeed, from the time of his travels in Spain it was clear that he had the image of the golden age of al-Andalus before him. Spain, and that apogee of Spanish culture, were the reconciliation of Islam and the West.) Rilke’s voyage starts in a castle dramatically perched above the Adriatic Sea, on the soil of the Danubian monarchy. But within six years, that world had perished–and with it the entire social order that Rilke had grown to know. The forces of cultural pessimism were taking a deep political hold over Middle Europe. There was a feeling of despair about the old world and its values. And it is against this background that Rilke undertook his cultural peregrinations into the Islamic mind. It was a search for a different understanding, one closer to the poet’s inate sense of the roles of death and transfiguration. And that very curious message seems wound up in this last poem, just as it weaves its way through the Duineser Elegien. The poet meets death, to be sure. But the poet is also very concerned about cultural reconciliation and is stirred by a very troubled vision of the struggle that Europe and the world have ahead of themselves. These qualities make for a work which is more modern than romantic. This poem is an ultimate act of transcendence.


Monday, September 28, 2009


I thought I'd paste this post by Kieran Healy about the Polanski arrest as it reflects my own feelings ......


Roman Polanski

by Kieran Healy on September 28, 2009

What happened is part of the public record, so there’s no reason to be unclear or misinformed about the nature of the crime and subsequent events. This includes the victim’s stated wish — repeatedly, later — that legal action not be continued, but also the actual facts of the crime, which was a one hundred percent real rape of a drugged 13 year-old. So, now. Who’s going to cover themselves in glory?

Thus far, I think Robert Harris is winning with “I am shocked that any man of 76, whether distinguished or not, should have been treated in such a fashion” and “One of the reasons I’m absolutely shocked and stunned by his arrest is that we have worked together extensively in Switzerland, where he has a home … “. (And he dresses so well! And The Pianist is such an affecting film!) Close behind is French Minister of Culture Frederic Mitterrand, who “strongly regrets that a new ordeal is being inflicted on someone who has already experienced so many of them”. Like Neddy at EOAW I don’t believe there’s anything more to these defenses than “He’s one of us”. But it’s early days yet. For instance, coming up fast now on the outside is Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post, who says the arrest is “outrageous” in part because,

Polanski, who panicked and fled the U.S. during that trial, has been pursued by this case for 30 years, during which time he has never returned to America, has never returned to the United Kingdom, has avoided many other countries and has never been convicted of anything else. He did commit a crime, but he has paid for the crime in many, many ways: In notoriety, in lawyers’ fees, in professional stigma. He could not return to Los Angeles to receive his recent Oscar. He cannot visit Hollywood to direct or cast a film.

See, you or I might think that not going back to the U.S. or U.K. is an action Polanski took in order to make sure that, having raped a minor and fled the country, he would not be rearrested. But you or I would be wrong. In fact these are punishments that Polanski has suffered. But tiens, it was a long time ago. Puritanical Americans simply do not have the enlightened attitude toward wine at the dinner table, quaaludes, and child rape that the Europeans do. In Ireland, for instance, there are quite a number of seventy-odd year old men (and even older) who spent their youth ministering to children and raping them — some of their victims have been able to forgive them, and many want never to speak of those events again, so why all the legal fuss? Perhaps that’s a bad example. Ireland isn’t really a European country.

In any event, I look forward to more detailed explanations of who the Real Victim is here, and more fine-grained elaboration of the criteria — other than “marvelous dinner guest” — for being issued a Get Out of Child Rape Free card.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009


My sister is teaching herself how to make Flash files. She has some of the stuff she's done posted here. I can't seem to post the animated files, but here are just photos of two of them - one is of a camera with photos that change when you click on the button - this one showing is an old photo of me in Hawaii with a statue of the Buddha :)

My favorite one she's done so far shows the squirrels that lived in a hollow tree in her yard - when you roll your cursor over hot spots, the pictures change ...

To hell and back

I saw an interesting post at the Jesuit blog Whosoever Desires - Ratzinger on Christ’s Descent into Hell. It recalls a past debate at First Things about Hans Urs von Balthasar's Holy Saturday theology (Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy: An Exchange ... More on Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy ... Responses to Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy). I do remember that discussion, and there was another article on the subject they failed to mention, perhaps because it's by a different person - Was Balthasar a Heretic?.

The discussion was about whether Jesus descended into hell suffering and abandoned by God (Balthasar), or instead triumphant, harrowing hell .... the "heretical" stuff comes in maybe because Luther and Calvin took a similar pov as Balthasar. The Whosoever Desires post gives two different opinions on the subject, both by B16.

I want to mention another article, one I posted bits of before - The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail by Baylor University Professor of Theology and Literature, Ralph Wood. I can no longer find it published online, so I'm quoting my old post here .....


No serious consideration of hell should omit one of the church's most ancient claims in the Apostles Creed—that Christ was not only "crucified, dead, and buried," but also that he "descended into hell" ... The single slender thread of "evidence" is found in 1 Peter 3:19-20 and 4:6, where we learn that the crucified Christ "went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the day of Noah," so that "the gospel was preached even to the dead" .....

Hell is not a temporal but an eternal realm, the horrible spiritual state of God's utter absence. Since Christ plunges into hell and preaches to the spirits of the dead, winnowing some of them from hell, it follows that others who have never been given the Good News can still be released from the post-earthly prison of death and damnation. For Christ's victory is not confined to this present life alone. He is also the Judge and Lord over hell. Thus does the doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell enable us to affirm, with Paul in Romans 8:38-39, that absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus—neither death nor demonic powers nor even the abyss of hell.

No one has stated this Pauline hope more clearly than the great Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar. Exactly in his descent into hell, writes von Balthasar, Christ "disturbs the absolute loneliness striven for by the sinner: the sinner, who wants to be 'damned' apart from God, finds God again in his loneliness, but God in the absolute weakness of love … enters into solidarity with those damning themselves."

A radically different interpretation of Christ's descent into hell has been offered recently by the Presbyterian theologian Alan E. Lewis in a remarkable book, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. He maintains that, if we take seriously the doctrine that Christ assumed our full humanity, then we must retrieve Luther and Calvin's insistence that Christ endured the unfathomable suffering that comes from total abandonment by God in death. Lewis rightly fears that we cheapen Easter if we do not attend to the hellish Sabbath in which God himself lay in the godforsakenness of the grave .....

Whether we read Christ's descent into hell as a triumph or a defeat, it remains a crucial concern for all Christians. With his usual crispness and clarity, G. K. Chesterton sums up the enormous significance of the doctrine: "Christ descended into hell; Satan fell into it. One wanted to go up and went down; the other wanted to go down and went up. A god can be humble, a devil can only be humbled."


A related topic is the opinion Hans Urs von Balthasar had that there may actually be no one in hell (Dare We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"?: With a Short Discourse on Hell). There were a series of articles on him and this idea .....

I think the first one was at First Things by Avery Dulles - The Population of Hell which defended Balthasar.

There was Fr. Regis Scanlon's article, originally in the New Oxford Review, blasting Balthasar's view on hell - The Inflated Reputation of Hans Urs von Balthasar

Richard John Neuhaus' article in First Things, defending Balthasar against Scanlon - Will All Be Saved?

Dale Vree's article in the New Oxford Review, answering Neuhaus - If Everyone is Saved ...

There's more of the guys above :-) but perhaps the next one to read would be found in the New Oxford Review by Janet Holl Madigan - In Defense of Richard John Neuhaus

And let's not forget David Watt's article, originally in the New Oxford Review, against Balthasar's view - Is Hell Closed Up & Boarded Over?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Did the universe begin?

I'm still reading Keith Ward's book on the big questions in science and religion and one of the questions is about how the universe began. Most scientists support the big bang theory of the universe's beginning (the Church is on-board with this) but there are also some other explanations by guys like Stephen Hawking (quantum cosmology?) that aim to compensate for the ways the big bang theory disappoints (you can read more about this at counter-balance). I'm wondering what this all has to do with the idea of creatio ex nihilo, or creation out of nothing - need to read more.

Meanwhile, here below is a video I saw today of an interview/talk with Marcus Chown, cosmology consultant for New Scientist magazine, that touches on this stuff above. Only the first part of the talk may have embedded, so to watch all of it go here ......

Time After Time

I saw from the Google doodle today that it's HG Wells' birthday. I've read and liked many of his books and think he was an interesting guy (and I find it kind of funny that CS Lewis apparently detested him), so I thought I'd mention a past movie about him ..... Time After Time Here's a little about the movie from Wikipedia ....

Time After Time is a 1979 American fantasy film written and directed by Nicholas Meyer. His screenplay is based on a novel by Karl Alexander and a story by Steve Hayes and centers on British author H.G. Wells and his use of a time machine to pursue Jack the Ripper into the 20th century.

The film starred Malcolm McDowell as HG Wells, David Warner as Jack the Ripper, and Mary Steenburgen as a woman Wells meets in present day San Francisco. One neat thing about the movie was that it was shot in San Francisco and we get to see Golden Gate Park, the Marina District, Ghirardelli Square, Fisherman's Wharf, Chinatown, etc. I saw it on tv so there may be some R rated parts I missed, and of course it's dated :) but still I found it pretty entertaining.

Here's a trailer ...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Audio Retreat

Creighton University is offering a new audio weekend retreat by Larry Gillick SJ. Here's the blurb at their page ....


A confrontation with our shame.
An invitation to honor.

Presented by Fr. Larry Gillick, S.J. of Creighton University

The conferences are centered around the basic experiences of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. The major theme is how we experience and deal with our shame and how Jesus reverses shame and its paralyzings to our being mercifully honored and missioned. These Exercises are not so much about answers, but to inspire the reverent asking of the right questions and praying with the searchings.

This is a retreat of twelve, thirty-minute conferences designed to lead to a prayerful reflection on how our actions flow from our attitudes and the recalling of how Jesus deals now with us as He did with women and men of His time.


I've listened to a few past retreats from Fr. Gillick and found them good, so I thought I'd try this one too.

Theistic evolution and the film Creation

- Paul Bettany as Darwin

Lately I've been thinking a lot about theistic evolution, so I was intrigued when I saw mention of a new movie about Darwin (HT to MadPriest). This British movie, titled Creation, is ....

[...] an upcoming biographical film about the life of Charles Darwin. It is directed by Jon Amiel and stars married couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, as Charles and Emma Darwin. John Collee wrote the script based on Randal Keynes's biography of Darwin titled Annie's Box. The film had its world premiere on September 10, 2009 at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it was selected as the opening night Gala Presentation for later that evening, the first non-Canadian film since 1996 to be so honoured.

The film is reviewed at Christian Today, which mentions that the movie hasn't yet secured US distribution because of the opposition of some Christian groups.

Here's the trailer ....

Saturday, September 19, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

- Hugh Jackman as Wolverine

This week's movie rental wsa X-Men Origins: Wolverine, starring Hugh Jackman. A prequel to the other X-Men movies, it tells the story of how Logan became Wolverine and ended up with no memory of his past. Sadly, I didn't like it all that much, and Roger Ebert gave it just 2 stars in his review. It did have a lot of action and some nice stunts, though. Here are some pics ....

- Jackman as Wolverine and his brother Sabertooth (Liev Schreiber) about to be shot by a firing squad after killing a superior officer while serving in Vietnam

- Logan gets the fictional meteoric alloy Adamantium fused to his bones

- Remy LeBeau, a card-playing mutant Logan searches for in New Orleans ....

- ....leads him to the bad guy's hideout on Three Mile Island (nope, you can't make this stuff up :)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Road, the novel

A few days ago I posted something about an upcoming movie, The Road, which is based on the prize-winning novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. Here's some of what Wikipedia has on the plot ....

The Road follows an unnamed father and son journeying together toward the sea across a post-apocalyptic landscape, some years after a great, unexplained cataclysm has destroyed civilization and almost all life on Earth. The setting is extremely bleak: the sun is obscured by a layer of ash so thick that the pair must breathe through masks, and plants do not grow. The surviving remnants of humanity have been largely reduced to thoughtless violence and cannibalism. Realizing that they will not survive another winter in their present location, the father leads them through this desolate landscape towards the sea, sustained by a vague hope of finding other "good people" like them.

Overwhelmed by this desperate and apparently hopeless situation, the boy's mother, pregnant with him at the time of the cataclysm, has committed suicide some time before the story begins. The father coughs blood every morning and knows he is dying. He struggles to protect his son from the constant threats of attack, exposure, and starvation, as well as from what he sees as the boy's innocently well-meaning but dangerous desire to help the other wanderers they meet. They carry a pistol with two bullets, meant for protection or suicide if necessary. In the face of all of these obstacles, t
e man and the boy have only each other (they are "each the other's world entire") ....."

I was intrigued enough by this description to look for the book at the library and have just finished it. You can read a New York Times review of the book here - The Road Through Hell, Paved With Desperation - but I thought I'd write just a few words about it too ...

The novel is incredibly bleak in its description of the dying post-cataclysm world .... almost all plants, animals, even the oceans, are dead .... and given the global warming situation, this picture painted doesn't seem that unimaginable. It made me appreciate all the more what we still have left, and made me mourn what we're losing more and more of every day.

With civilization in shreds, the few people that are left in the story seem to polarize into the "good guys" and the "bad guys", as the father and son name them. The bad guys turn to rape, murder, and cannibalism. The man and the boy are good guys. They won't eat a dog when they come upon it, even though they're starving, and I think that's where the line gets drawn between good and bad for them (and for me too) .... when you won't do anything necessary to survive, whatever the cost to others and to your own ideals, then you have chosen to be good, even if that means also being dead.

The worst thing and the best thing about the story for me were the same thing - the relationship of genuine love between the man and his son, lived out in an environment of danger, suffering, and despair. If they hadn't cared so much, been so vulnerable, the story wouldn't have hurt so badly to read, and it also wouldn't have been so worth reading.

Be a philosophy student for an hour

When I started college I was an art major but my sister took a philosophy class and liked it so much she talked me into taking it too. I also liked it so much that I decided to have a double major - art and philosophy - and that changed my life forever :)

Here below is a video of a class taught by Harvard professor Michael Sandel on Justice. According to Wikipedia, more than 10,000 students have taken this course, making it one of the most highly attended in Harvard's history. He begins with the classic trolley car thought experiment and relates ethical concepts raised to contemporary social/political controversies. In the video, the professor issues a warning to the class and the thing he warns them about is what made philosophy wonderful to me back in college and still ......

Philosophy estranges us from the familiar not by supplying new information but by inviting and provoking a new way of seeing. But, and here's the risk, once the familiar turns strange, it's never quite the same again. Self-knowledge is like lost innocence, however unsettling you find it, it can never be unthought or unknown. What makes this enterprise difficult but also riveting is that moral and political philosophy is a story, and you don't know where the story will lead, but what you do know is that the story is about you.

You can also listen to this short podcast at Philosophy Bites - Michael Sandel on What Shouldn't Be Sold

Mary Travers, RIP

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Umberto Eco twice

I don't know if I've mentioned before that I hate Umberto Eco's writing style - if it hadn't been for Sean Connery and Christian Slater, I'd still not know what The Name of the Rose was about :) But recently, I've realized he's also a philosopher with some interesting stuff on semiotics, so when I "saw" him twice this week, I thought I'd post about the sightings .....

First, I cam across this story in the Telegraph - Don't blame Silvio Berlusconi, says Umberto Eco, it's the fault of all Italians. But more interesting, I later saw reference to a series of letters he exchanged with Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini back in the late 90s and run in an Italian newspaper (also a book - Belief or nonbelief?: a confrontation by Umberto Eco, Carlo Maria Martini). Many topics were discussed, including the question of when life begins, and the end of the world. I did find one of Eco's letters from the discussion at Cross Currents. Here it is below ....


by Umberto Eco

This article is derived from an exchange of four letters with Cardinal Martini. The following letter is Eco’s reply to a question the cardinal had asked him: “What is the basis of the certainty and necessity for moral action of those who, in order to establish the absolute nature of an ethic, do not intend to appeal to metaphysical principles or transcendental values, or even to universally valid categorical imperatives?”

— The Editors

Dear Carlo Maria Martini,

Your letter has extricated me from one serious dilemma only to leave me on the horns of another that is equally awkward. Until now it has been up to me (through no decision of mine) to open the debate, and he who talks first inevitably puts his questions and invites the other to reply. My predicament springs from my feeling inquisitorial. And I very much appreciated the firmness and humility with which you, on three occasions, exploded the myth that would have us believe that Jesuits always answer a question with another question.

But now I am at a loss as to how to reply to your question, because my answer would be significant had I had a lay upbringing. But in fact I received a strongly Catholic education until (just to record the moment of the breach) the age of twenty-two. For me, the lay point of view was not a passively absorbed heritage, but rather the hard-won result of a long and slow process of change, and I always wonder whether some of my moral convictions do not still depend on religious impressions received early in my development. Now, in my maturity, I have seen (in a foreign Catholic university that also employs lay teaching staff, requiring of them no more than a manifestation of formal respect during religious-academic rituals) some of my colleagues take the sacraments without their believing in the Real Presence, and therefore without their having taken confession beforehand. With a tremor, after so many years, I felt once more the horror of sacrilege.

Nonetheless, I feel I can explain the foundations on which my “lay religiosity” rests—because I firmly hold that there are forms of religiosity, and therefore a sense of the Holy, of the Limit, of questioning and of awaiting, of communion with something that transcends us, even in the absence of faith in a personal and provident divinity. But, as I see from your letter, you know this too. What you are asking yourself is what is binding, captivating, and inalienable in these forms of ethic.

I should like to approach things in a roundabout way. Certain ethical problems became clearer to me on considering some problems in semantics—and please don’t worry if some people say that we are talking in a complicated way: they might have been encouraged to think too simply by mass-media “revelations,” predictable by definition. Let them instead learn to “think complicated,” because neither the mystery nor the evidence is simple.

My problem hinged on the existence of “semantic universals,” or in other words, elementary notions that are common to the entire human species and can be expressed in all languages. Not such an easy problem, given that many cultures do not recognize notions that strike us as obvious: for example, that of substance to which certain properties belong (as when we say that “the apple is red”) or that of identity (a=a). However, I am convinced that there certainly are notions common to all cultures, and that they all refer to the position of our body in space.

We are erect animals, so it is tiring to stay upside down for long, and therefore we have a common notion of up and down, tending to favor the first over the second. Likewise, we have notions of right and left, of standing still and of walking, of standing up and lying down, of crawling and jumping, of waking and sleeping. Since we have limbs, we all know what it means to beat against a resistant material, to penetrate a soft or liquid substance, to crush, to drum, to pummel, to kick, and perhaps even to dance as well. The list is a long one, and could include seeing, hearing, eating or drinking, swallowing or excreting. And certainly every human being has notions about the meaning of perceiving, recalling, feeling, desire, fear, sorrow, relief, pleasure or pain, and of emitting sounds that express these things. Therefore (and we are already in the sphere of rights) there are universal concepts regarding constriction: we do not want anyone to prevent us from talking, seeing, listening, sleeping, swallowing, or excreting, or from going where we wish; we suffer if someone binds or segregates us, beats, wounds, or kills us, or subjects us to physical or psychological torture that diminishes or annuls our capacity to think.

Note that until now I have described only a sort of bestial and solitary Adam, who still knows nothing of sexual relations, the pleasures of dialogue, love for his offspring, or the pain of losing a loved one; but already in this phase, at least for us (if not for him or for her) this semantics has become the basis of an ethic: first and foremost we must respect the rights of the corporeality of others, which also include the right to talk and think. If our fellows had respected these “rights of the body,” we would never have had the Slaughter of Innocents, the Christians in the circus, Saint Bartholomew’s Night, the burning of heretics, the death camps, censorship, child labor in mines, or the rapes in Bosnia.

But how is it that this marveling and ferocious beast that I have described immediately works out his (or her) instinctive repertoire of universal notions and can reach the point where he understands not only that he wishes to do certain things and does not wish other things to be done to him, but also that he should not do to others what he does not wish to be done to him? Because, luckily, Eden is soon populated. The ethical dimension begins when the other appears on the scene. Every law, moral or juridical as it may be, regulates interpersonal relationships, including those with an other who imposes that law.

You too say that virtuous laypersons are persuaded that the other is within us. However, this is not a vague emotional inclination but a fundamental condition. As we are taught by the most secular of human sciences, it is the other, it is his look, that defines and forms us. Just as we cannot live without eating or sleeping, we cannot understand who we are without the look and response of the other. Even those who kill, rape, rob, or oppress do this in exceptional moments, but they spend the rest of their lives soliciting from their fellows approval, love, respect, and praise. And even from those they humiliate they ask the recognition of fear and submission. In the absence of this recognition, the newborn baby abandoned in the forest does not become humanized (or like Tarzan seeks at all costs the other in the face of an ape), and the result of living in a community in which everyone had decided systematically never to look at us, treating us as if we did not exist, would be madness or death.

Why is it then that there are or have been cultures that approve of massacre, cannibalism, or the humiliation of the bodies of others? Simply because such cultures restrict the concept of “others” to the tribal community (or the ethnic group) and consider “barbarians” to be nonhumans; but not even the Crusaders felt that unbelievers were fellowmen worthy of an excessive degree of love. The fact is that the recognition of the roles of others, the necessity to respect in them those requirements we consider essential for ourselves, is the product of thousands of years of development. Even the Christian commandment to love was enunciated, and laboriously accepted, only when the time was ripe.

But you ask me: Is this awareness of the importance of the other sufficient to provide us with an absolute basis, an immutable foundation for ethical behavior? It would suffice for me to reply that even those things that you define as “absolute foundations” do not prevent many believers from knowingly sinning, and there the matter would end. The temptation of evil is present even in those who possess a well-founded and revealed notion of good. But I want to tell you two anecdotes, which gave me much to think about.

One concerns a writer, who describes himself as a Catholic, albeit of the sui generis variety, whose name I shall not give only because he told me what I am about to quote in the course of a private conversation, and I am not a talebearer. It was in the days of the papacy of John XXIII, and my elderly friend, in enthusiastically praising the pope’s virtues, said (with clearly paradoxical intentions): “Pope John must be an atheist. Only a man who does not believe in God can love his fellowman so much!” Like all paradoxes, this one also contains a grain of truth: without troubling to consider the atheist (a type whose psychology eludes me, because, as Kant observed, I do not see how one can not believe in God, and hold that His existence can not be proved, and then firmly believe in the nonexistence of God, holding that it can be proved), it seems clear to me that a person who has never had any experience of the transcendent, or who has lost it, can make sense of his or her life and death, can be comforted by love for others, and by the attempt to guarantee someone else a life to be lived even after his or her own death. Of course, there are people who do not believe and nonetheless do not trouble to make sense of their own death, but there are also those who say they believe but who would be prepared to rip the heart out of a child in order to ward off death. The strength of an ethic is judged on the behavior of saints, not on the foolish cujus deus venter est.

This brings me to the second anecdote. I was still a sixteen-year-old Catholic boy when I happened to cross swords in a verbal duel with an older acquaintance who was a known “communist,” in the sense in which the term was employed in the terrible fifties. And since he was provoking me, I asked him the decisive question: how could he, as a nonbeliever, make sense of that otherwise senseless event that was his own death? And he replied: “By asking before dying that I might have a civil funeral. And so I am no more, but I have set an example for others.” I think that you too can admire the profound faith in the continuity of life, the absolute sense of duty that inspired his reply. And it is this sentiment that has induced many nonbelievers to die under torture rather than betray their friends, and others to catch the plague in order to look after plague victims. And sometimes it is also the only thing that drives a philosopher to philosophize, and a writer to write: to leave a message in the bottle, because in some way what we believe in, or what we think is beautiful, might be believed in or found beautiful by posterity.

Is this feeling really strong enough to justify an ethic as determined and inflexible, as solidly established as the ethic of those who believe in revealed morality, in the survival of the soul, in reward and punishment? I have tried to base the principles of a lay ethics on a natural reality (and, as such, in your view too, the result of a divine plan) like our corporeality and the idea that we instinctively know that we have a soul (or something that serves as such) only by virtue of the presence of others. It would appear that what I have defined as a “lay ethics” is at bottom a natural ethics, which not even believers deny. Is not the natural instinct, brought to the right level of maturity and self-awareness, a foundation offering sufficient guarantees? Of course we may think this an insufficient spur to virtue. “In any case,” nonbelievers can say, “no one will know of the evil I am secretly doing.” But those who do not believe think that no one is watching them from on high, and therefore they also know that—precisely for this reason— there is not even a Someone who may forgive. If such people know they have done ill, their solitude shall be without end, and their death desperate. They will opt, more than believers, for the purification of public confession, they will ask the forgiveness of others. This they know, in the deepest part of their being, and therefore they know that they should forgive others first. Otherwise how could we explain that remorse is a feeling known to nonbelievers too?

I should not like to establish a clear-cut opposition between those who believe in a transcendent God and those who believe in no superindividual principle. I should like to point out that it was precisely ethics that inspired the title of Spinoza’s great work, which begins with a definition of God as the cause of Himself. But Spinoza’s divinity, as we well know, is neither transcendent nor personal: yet even the vision of a great and single cosmic substance in which one day we shall be reabsorbed can reveal a vision of tolerance and benevolence precisely because we are all interested in the equilibrium and harmony of this sole substance. This is so because we tend to think it impossible for this substance not to be in some way enhanced or deformed by the things we have done over the millennia. Thus I would also dare say (this is not a metaphysical hypothesis, it is merely a timid concession to the hope that never abandons us) that even from such a standpoint we could table the problem of some kind of life after death. Today the electronic universe suggests that sequences of messages can be transferred from one physical medium to another without losing their unique characteristics, and it seems that they can exist even as pure immaterial algorithms when, one medium have been abandoned, they are not transcribed again onto another. And who knows whether death, rather than an implosion, is not an explosion and the impressing, somewhere, among the vortices of the universe, of the software (which others call “soul”) we have developed in life, made up of memories and personal remorse, and therefore of incurable suffering, or of a sense of peace for duty done, and love.

But you say that, without the example and the word of Christ, all lay ethics would lack a basic justification imbued with an ineluctable power of conviction. Why deprive laypersons of the right to avail themselves of the example of a forgiving Christ? Try, Carlo Maria Martini, for the good of the discussion and of the dialogue in which you believe, to accept even if only for a moment the idea that there is no God; that man appeared in the world out of a blunder on the part of maladroit fate, delivered not only unto his mortal condition but also condemned to be aware of this, and for this reason the most imperfect of all creatures (if I may be permitted the echoes of Leopardi in this suggestion). This man, in order to find the courage to await death, would necessarily become a religious animal, and would aspire to the construction of narratives capable of providing him with an explanation and a model, an exemplary image. And among the many stories he imagines—some dazzling, some awe-inspiring, some pathetically comforting—in the fullness of time he has at a certain point the religious, moral, and poetic strength to conceive the model of Christ, of universal love, of forgiveness for enemies, of a life sacrificed that others may be saved. If I were a traveler from a distant galaxy and I found myself confronted with a species capable of proposing this model, I would be filled with admiration for such theogonic energy, and I would judge this wretched and vile species, which has committed so many horrors, redeemed were it only for the fact that it has managed to wish and to believe that all this is the truth.

You are now free to leave the hypothesis to others: but admit that even if Christ were only the subject of a great story, the fact that this story could have been imagined and desired by humans, creatures who know only that they do not know, would be just as miraculous (miraculously mysterious) as the son of a real God’s being made flesh. This natural and worldly mystery would not cease to move and ennoble the hearts of those who do not believe.

This is why I believe that, on the fundamental points, a natural ethic— respected for the profound religiosity that inspires it—can find common ground with the principles of an ethic founded on faith in transcendence, which cannot fail to recognize that natural principles have been carved into our hearts on the basis of a plan for salvation. If this leaves, as it certainly does, margins that may not overlap, it is no different from what happens when different religions encounter one another. And in conflicts of faith, charity and prudence must prevail.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Some Jesuits and Keith Ward on evolution, original sin, and evil

I've read a post at Whosoever Desires, a Jesuit blog, titled Evolution and Original Sin: The Problem of Evil, and then later read the chapter on the same subject in the Keith Ward book I just got - The Big Questions in Science and Religion.

This subject really has my attention. I've always been bothered by the problem of evil, but recently have been thinking about the impact that the theory of evolution (plus other science) has not only on suffering, but also on the supposed cause of suffering (original sin) and the traditional remedy (the atonement). Stuff abut atonement will have to wait for another post, though I do have some past posts on it - David Hart / Atonement .... James Alison / Atonement - and I recommend The Incarnation: God's Gift of Love by Kenneth R. Overberg SJ.

But about evolution, original sin, and the problem of evil, here's part of the post at Whosoever Desires ......


[...] It seems that for St. Paul, Original Sin is the general solution to the problem of evil. Through Adam’s disobedience, death and suffering entered the world. And according to Romans 8, since through man’s sin death and suffering entered the world, it will be through the New Adam’s obedience that creation will be freed. Bluntly put, we know this is not the case, at least in the traditional sense. Adam as a historical man who sinned and brought about suffering in creation did not exist. Evil and suffering existed in the world long before human beings came around.

For Teilhard [de Chardin], this means that “if there is an original sin in the world, it can only be and have been everywhere in it and always, from the earliest nebulae to be formed as far as the most distant.” The problem of original sin and evil is not that it is a small event that occurred way back then, but that it is so large an event. It can no longer be a particular “act” restricted to a man or even a first population of human beings. It must be a “state” of all of creation .... when God, who is existence itself, decides to create finite being, being that can only become perfect by means of change and growth, there will necessarily be statistical evil .... A perfect world could not actually involve true change in the realm of creatures and freedom in the realm of humans ...

Note again, for Teilhard, this is not a deficiency in the creative act, but is of the very structure of participated being. It is the necessary side product. He notes in a footnote that “original sin then becomes a combined effect of atomicity [which is the statistical disorder of multiplicity that we see after the big bang for example] and organicity [which is the general contamination of the human mass by the use of human freedom in selfish ways].” The more human beings misuse their freedom spiritually, the more the human social mass will be effected through natural selection. Those who are more selfish may be selected out to propagate more since they survive longer, and so sin works its way into DNA ....


Keith Ward, in chapter 3 (Is Evolution Compatible with Creation?) of his book mentioned above, has a similar take on the subject. Here are some bits from the chapter. I've put stuff out of order, but the pages are cited ......


Human beings are essentially parts of an evolving physical universe with general laws that have to be exactly what they are in order to produce human persons. Those laws will produce earthquakes, stellar explosions, periodic extinctions of life, and volcanic eruptions as an essential part of having a universe like this. If beings like human persons are going to exist, they have to exist in a universe in which suffering and death is necessary .... you may say, as Ivan does in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel, The Brothers Karamazov, that you are still repelled by the amount of suffering in the universe and you would rather reject the whole idea of God than pay the price of the ticket for human existence.

In a sense, most religious believers agree. They worship -- admire and revere -- the perfection of the Divine Being. But they stand perplexed and bitter at the amount of suffering, however necessary, in the world. Partly for that reason, rather than for any selfish desire for further personal existence, most religions have posited an afterlife in which overwhelming good becomes possible for everyone .... A perfect God who chooses to create this universe, accepting that suffering is necessary in it, must offer to all conscious beings who suffer, if it is possible to do so, an overwhelming personal good. That personal good is a life after death ... for everyone without exception ... (p.80)

If suffering is attributed to the sin of some first human being, it seems grossly unfair that all animals should now suffer for something for which they are not responsible. Augustine's theory of "original guilt," according to which all are guilty for that original sin, which they did not, of course, commit personally, seems morally perverse. It is not, incidentally, in the Bible and it is not accepted by Jews or Eastern Orthodox Christians or most Protestants. (p. 64)

What some Christians call "original sin" can be seen, from an evolutionary perspective, as the decision by groups of early humans or even prehominids to realize their genetically inherent tendencies toward lust and aggression, at the expense of similarly inherent tendencies toward kinship bonding and altruism. Over generations, those destructive tendencies have "switched on" the relevant genetic mechanisms, until it has become "human nature" to be selfish and aggressive ..... The "golden age" myths ... are ways of saying that the true nature of humans, what they are made for, is a life of compassion, wisdom, and love. But humans have "fallen" into desire, ignorance, and self-centeredness, and they need to find a way to return to primal innocence. We know there was no historical golden age or fall and that there is no return to primal innocence. But wisdom, creativity, and love can still be seen as the essential goals of human life. (p. 81)

Without our striving after virtue in this world, heaven would not be a possibility for us. Heaven is not a continuation of such striving but its consummation and its ending. Fortunately, too, according to most religions, God will forgive our wrongdoing and grant more than we deserve -- it is a gift that does not depend soley on our own virtues but on the mercy and love of God. It is chiefly in that sense that God will ultimately prove to be a loving father. (p. 74)


While I like what the Whosoever Desires post and Keith Ward have to say, I'm not entirely happy with their expanations for why this kind of universe, one with progress through suffering/death, is the only one possible. Still, the thing Keith Ward wrote about the overwhelming good of an afterlife with God making up for the badness of mortal life reminds me of the last week of the Spiritual Exercises, in which we try to comprehend and share in Jesus's joy in his resurrection.

Soon I hope to post something about what Keith Ward has to say about Jesus's role in attracting us into being better people (un-atonement :)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Patrick Swayze, RIP

Sadly, I saw this in the news today - US film star Patrick Swayze dies. I liked him so I thought I'd mention two of his movies that I also liked ....

Point Break
This 1991 film also starred Keanu Reeves and Gary Busey, and told the story of bank robber/surfers (Swayze was their leader) and the two FBI agents who hunt them down (Busey and Reeves). Kind of funny was that the bank robbers called themselves the Ex-Presidents and wore masks of Reagan, Carter, Nixon, and Johnson :) Reeves decides to infiltrate the bad guys, learns to surf, and becomes somewhat enamored of Swayze's charismatic character. There's a final showdown in Australia between the characters played by Reeves and Swayze, where a storm has produced waves the surfer can't resist.

Roger Ebert gave the movie three and a half stars - you can read his review here. And here's a trailer for the movie .....

City of Joy
The 1992 movie was based on the book of the same name by journalist Dominique Lapierre, was directed by Roland Joffé, and tells the story of three people who interact in Calcutte - a farmer (and family) who moves into town to find work, an American doctor who's become disillusioned with his life and takes a trip to Calcutta, and a woman running a clinic for the homeless in the "City of Joy" - the Calcutta slum of Anand Nagar. Ebert didn't like this film as much - gave it only three stars and thought it was too westernized and could have done without the Swayze character :). You can read his review of it here. I had trouble finding a trailer for the movie, but apparently, you can watch the whole film in parts at YouTube - here below is part 2 ....

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Jesuit in the dragon's kingdom

Last year I had a post about Jesuit Matteo Ricci - Matteo Ricci & the Memory Palace, so it was with interest that I read of a documentary movie about him and his time in China - A Jesuit in the dragon's kingdom.

- Gjon Kolndrekaj, director of the documentary, obtained permission from the Chinese to film in the Forbidden City

Matteo Ricci was an Italian Jesuit (1552 – 1610) who became a missionary first to Goa and then to China, where he remained the rest of his life. You can read more about him at Wikipedia.

- the documentary was presented in Rome on June 18 by the Vatican and sponsored by the Society of Jesus (read more about it here)

You can watch a video about the making of the movie here.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ron Hansen on the Spiritual Exercises

Tomorrow is the day that Creighton University's Ignatian online 34 week retreat for Everyday Life begins, if one wishes to make it in sync with the liturgical year (the 19th annotation form of the Spiritual Exercises). Making the retreat is more convenient than ever - you can listen to it in audio segments, there's now also a book, Retreat in the Real World with the full text of the retreat, or you can just visit the retreat website and read each week's guides as I did nine years ago.

Although the online retreat lasts longer than a typical month long Spiritual Exercises retreat, it follows the same structure. Here's part of an article that describes the retreat and its four stages or "weeks" by Ron Hansen, writer and Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University .....


Spiritual Exercises

[...] Ignatius wrote that his Spiritual Exercises “have as their purpose the conquest of self and the regulation of one’s life in such a way that no decision is made under the influence of any inordinate attachment.” The first week of the exercises requires a scrupulous examination of our life history, seeing God’s loyal and loving presence within it, but also acknowledging the sins, addictions, and predilections that hindered our possibilities. The first week ends with a meditation on Christ’s call for us to follow him, with the promise that we will lead richer, happier lives.

The second week essentially teaches us how to follow Christ more closely by establishing us as his disciples. We watch his birth and accompany him in his baptism in the river Jordan, his sermon on the mount, his raising of Lazarus from the dead, and other healing and teaching events in his public ministry. Empowered by the love of God and our friendship with Jesus, we are required to make a choice of a way of life, a choice that may involve a great change in our habits or careers, but more often entails only those amendments and reformations that enhance a closer relationship with God.

Intimacy with Jesus having been established, we witness in the third week his last supper, the agony in the garden, his arrest and trials, and his passion and death. And the fourth week is devoted to Jesus’ resurrection and his various apparitions to his disciples, concluding with a “Contemplation to Attain the Love of God.”

The method for each hour’s meditation is generally the same. We begin with a preparatory prayer and as a prelude to the meditation consider the history of the subject, such as Jesus appearing to seven of his disciples as they fished (John 21:1–17), reading the gospel passage several times until we can develop a mental representation of the locale and the people in it. We then ask for a grace; in this case, it is to be consoled at seeing Christ on the shore and to feel the joy and comfort of his resurrection. We see the fishermen hauling in their nets on the Sea of Galilee, hear the smack of waves against the boat’s hull, feel the sunshine on our skins, smell seaweed and brine, taste the water we scoop up in our palm. With all five senses wholly engaged, we become part of the scene and can be as shocked and happy as Peter was when he recognized that it was the risen Christ who was roasting a fish on a charcoal fire on the shore and plunged into the sea to wade to him. We hear Christ’s instruction to Peter, and we also enter the conversation—or as Ignatius puts it, colloquy—inquiring, perhaps, on how we ourselves can feed his sheep or just saying, like Peter, “Lord, you know that I love you.” We finish the meditation period with a standard prayer, such as the Our Father, and usually exercitants keep a journal in which they describe what happened in their prayer and its affect on them.

Ignatius found early on that there were those who were “educated or talented, but engaged in public affairs or necessary business” who could not find a free month to perform the exercises as he’d first intended. For them he developed a program in which the Spiritual Exercises could be completed without withdrawal from jobs or other obligations by having the multiple exercises of the 30 days carried out in the course of 30 weeks—an increasingly popular choice for lay people. One of the greatest gifts of this so-called “19th annotation retreat” is that it teaches a habit of prayer that can be incorporated throughout our lives—that journey with God that Ignatius called “the fifth week.”


The images are from the website of the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, which also offers a Spiritual Exercises retreat in everyday life

Junia, a woman apostle

- Andronicus, Athanasius of Christianopoulos and Saint Junia

Mark Goodacre's latest NT Pod post is NT Pod 12: Junia: the First Woman Apostle?. Here's a bit from Wikipedia on Junia.....

Junia or Junias (accusative case: ΙΟΥΝΙΑΝ) is mentioned in the Epistle to the Romans 16:7 as "of note among the apostles" (KJV, RSV). Some Christians and most Christian theologians take the name to be that of a woman, and some see it as proof that Saint Paul encouraged female leaders in the Church. In this interpretation, Junia would be the only recorded female apostle. Andronicus, also mentioned in Romans 16:7, might be her husband ...

For those interested in the question of whether Junia was indeed a woman and an apostle, I recommend listening to Mark's podcast - he goes into the issues of the Greek translation of the name Junia and also of whether the text has Junia as an esteemed apostle or as esteemed by the apostles.

You can also read a 2007 news story on the subject - Becoming Junia - again.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Turing test and the Chinese Room

I saw that Alan Turing was in the news today - UK gov't apologizes to gay codebreaker Alan Turing

Science dope that I am, I only know who Turing is from watching science fiction tv/movies .... stuff about his Turing test, which gives a guideline for assessing whether one is communicating with a machine or a person. Turing proposed his test in an article for Mind in 1950 - Computing Machinery and Intelligence - in which he claimed that an appropriately programmed computer could think. One of the most well known objections to that theory was the Chinese Room, a thought experiment by John Searle.

In the Chinese Room experiment, Searle gives two scenarios - in one, hidden in a room is a computer which has been programmed to accept input Chinese characters and to respond with other Chinese characters that its programming deems appropriate. It can do this well enough to fool the person outside the room, who is inputting the characters and reading the responses, into believing that he's conversing with a person who understands Chinese. This computer would pass the Turing test. Searle then asks us to imagine another scenario in which not a computer but a man sits hidden in the room, receiving the queries in Chinese and, using the programming instructions, then creating appropriate Chinese responses - the man would also pass the Turing test.

Neither the man nor the computer, however, understand Chinese but are only able to simulate understanding due to their programming. Searle argues that without understanding, neither the computer (nor the man) are thinking.

According to what little I've read, many think that the Chinese Room thought experiment doesn't disprove the Turing test. I wish I could explain why not, but to be honest, though I find this stuff interesting it's pretty much all Greek to me. I like better the Voight-Kampff test in Blade Runner for assessing whether or not someone's a machine -- You're in a desert walking along in the sand when all of the sudden you look down and you see a tortoise. You reach down, you flip the tortoise over on its back. The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun beating its legs trying to turn itself over but it can't, not without your help, but you're not helping .... Why is that? ... :)

But I digress - one of the places I heard about the Turing test and the Chinese Room was in an episode of the tv series Numb3rs, where Charlie mentions them. The Math Behind Numb3rs blog run by Stephen Wolfram (of Wolfram Alpha fame) has a post that has some interesting comments on the subject. I've pasted the comments under the video clip of the episode.


From The Math Behind Numb3rs ....

[...] The Turing test is one of the simplest and perhaps best-known proposals for determining a computer's capability to display intelligence. It was proposed by the father of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing, in 1950. In the Turing test, an impartial (human) judge converses with two parties: a human and a computer (or, in Turing's language, a "machine") that has been programmed to attempt to appear human. If the judge is not able to determine which party is human and which is the computer, then the computer is said to pass the Turing test. (Note that it is not actually required that the computer mimic human speech, only that its responses be indistinguishable from those a human might make. For this reason, the communication is commonly restricted to take place via teletype, instant messaging, etc.). There are of course a number of additional specifications needed to account for the fact that the output of a sophisticated computer algorithm might be comparable to the writing of a young child (or even a non-native speaker of English). It is the latter case that is somewhat similar to the Chinese Room argument mentioned in this scene.

Turing predicted that computers would be able to pass his test by the year 2000. This prediction has proven somewhat optimistic since, as of 2007, no computing device has yet been up to the challenge. In fact, there is an annual competition known as the The Loebner Prize devoted to recognizing the software and hardware that comes closest to passing the Turing test.

John Searle laid out the Chinese Room argument in his paper "Minds, Brains and Programs," published in 1980. Ever since, this argument has been a recurring discussion point in the debate over whether computers can truly think and understand. Interestingly, the conclusion of Searle's Chinese Room argument is true despite the fact that it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of computers and of computer programs. A prominent example of the fact that the Chinese Room argument does not hold is the life experience of Helen Keller, who managed to escape her own Chinese room, as discussed by Rapaport. In fact, an overwhelming majority of researchers believe that the Chinese room argument is utterly wrong (as discussed in Stevan Harnad's articles on the subject) and that the more interesting question to the field of cognitive science is why it is wrong.

There are a number of subtleties in making the Chinese Room argument. In particular, since Chinese is a pictographic (not a phonetic) language, if you don't speak it, you don't know how to write down the characters corresponding to what you just heard. (And even if you speak it fluently, you might still not be able to write it; most Chinese-speaking foreigners can write much less than they can speak.) So the Chinese Room argument requires Chinese characters (i.e., a text-only channel) as input for this reason. (Interestingly, even so, Chinese dictionaries are ordered based on the number of "strokes" in each character, and assessing what constitutes a "stroke" is something even native Chinese speakers do not always get "right.")


You can read more about the Turing test at The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Three movies

Saw the trailers for a few upcoming movies worth mentioning. One is adapted from a book by David Foster Wallace (who wrote the short essay, Just Asking). The book adapted is Brief Interviews with Hideous Men - I tried reading it once but found it too depressing, but the movie is a comedy (heh). Here's the trailer ....

The next trailer I saw is for a movie that might be considered more violent and disturbing than the first I mentioned but that's probably a matter worthy of dispute :) The film is The Wolfman, starring some actors I like: Benicio del Toro and Hugo Weaving, and is a remake of the original 1941 movie of the same name. Hard to say from the trailer if it will be worth a watch, but here it is ....

The third trailer I watched was for the film The Baader-Meinhof Complex, a German movie about the 60s inception of the West German militant group Red Army Faction (RAF). Here's the trailer, and below that is Roger Ebert's review .....


The Baader-Meinhof Complex

September 9, 2009
by Roger Ebert

In the 1970s, Germany was transfixed by the outlaw Baader-Meinhof Gang, terrorists who robbed banks, set off explosives, kidnapped, assassinated and otherwise attempted to bring the government to its knees. What were they against? The usual: U.S. imperialism and German capitalist oppression. What were their politics? Marxist, they thought, but actually reflecting the anarchist theory that random acts of violence could destroy the fabric of a society. They resembled the Weathermen but were longer-lived and much more destructive.

"The Baader Meinhof Complex" is an ambitious attempt to chart the group's rise, fall and tentative rebirth over the course of a decade, when it called itself the Red Army Faction. The film is historically accurate, I gather --perhaps too accurate, with too many names and places and dates and victims to comprehend. No doubt a German who lived through those years would understand it more easily.

As it is, we grasp at a handful of high-profile characters and relate to the others only in general terms. The central figures are Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) and Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck). Baader and Ensslin are lovers and radicals, inflamed by Vietnam, German industrialism, an attempt on the life of a left-wing leader and a laundry list of other causes that lead them to conclude that violence is the only effective form of opposition.

Entering their world nearly at the beginning is the well-known journalist Meinhof, who comes to share their convictions. She's the film's most enigmatic figure. At first a confidant and adviser, she becomes a participant, disappears from view, abandons her husband and their two children. This decision is not satisfactorily examined; because it was actually taken, I suppose we're intended to accept it as granted.

The film is an impressive period re-creation, directed by Uli Edel, whose best work involves Jennifer Jason Leigh's astonishing performance in "Last Exit to Brooklyn" (1989). The screenplay is by Edel and Bernd Eichinger, who wrote the great "Downfall" (2004), about Hitler's last days in his Berlin bunker. That film was intensified by its limitations of time and space. "The Baader-Meinhof Complex" is diluted by too many events and characters distributed over too much time.

The unifying character, supplying a sort of focus, is Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz), the top law enforcement officer in West Germany, who makes an attempt to understand the terrorists' thought processes. He patiently tries to argue why some police tactics are futile and counterproductive. He certainly doesn't agree with Baader-Meinhof, but he comprehends them. That's the Sherlock Holmes theory: Understand the mind of the criminal.

Ganz effortlessly brings all the weight of his distinguished career to this role. There is a quality in his face that adds authenticity to everything he says. Hard to believe this is the same actor who played the trembling, disintegrating, paranoid Hitler. As event piles on event, he serves as an observer who assists us.

There's the suspicion that Uli Edel finds some sympathy, in abstract principle, anyway, with the causes of the gang. Yes, but their tactics are murderous and futile. At the very beginning, after it is agreed that no guns will be used in a bank robbery, one conspirator brings one and kills someone, and after that murder becomes part of the Baader-Meinhof charter. I submit that it is insane to judge an ordinary citizen as directly responsible for the activities of his government. Yes, we all "share some blame" for what our nations do, but to set off a bomb is to execute a random passerby. That is the evil of terrorism in general, although of course in the classic theory of anarchism, it is theoretically justified. I understand anarchy expressed in art, literature or film that seeks the downfall of an establishment. But to take a price in blood? You must be very full of yourself.

The film meanders but finds focus again toward the end, after the gang's first members are rounded up and held in prison. They go on a hunger strike, are forcibly fed, find the means to commit suicide. Exactly how and why -- and even if -- some of them take this action is left in some doubt. No doubt it was the same in life. The film would have benefitted by being less encompassing and focusing on a more limited number of emblematic characters -- Meinhof and Herold, for starters.