Sunday, September 30, 2012


Particle collisions: CERN
I love it when New Scientist tackles the big questions. This week it is "What is Reality?" There is a new humility in science, it seems. Many scientists will now admit that we just don't know the answer to the question. Reductionism is no longer convincing. You can examine ever smaller components of the material world (so far we have boiled it down to quarks, leptons, and bosons), only to discover that there may be no bottom level, or that if there is, it is well beyond the reach of observation (minute vibrating strings in several extra dimensions).

More importantly, since everything from the most elementary particles to the objects we see around us with the naked eye can be described in terms of "wave functions" or waves of probability, existing in a "superposition" of contradictory states until the function is "collapsed" by the act of observation, it seems that the consciousness of an observer has re-emerged as a determining factor in reality itself. Max Planck, the founder of quantum theory, said in 1931, "I regard matter as derivative from consciousness." The
only way to avoid this is to think in terms not of conscious observation but of "measurement", or the interaction of the subatomic processes with a measuring instrument of some kind – which means that the subatomic realm is no longer "more fundamental" than the world we see with our naked eyes.

The most interesting form of reductionism reduces subatomic particles to collections of space-time points, these in turn to sets of numbers, and the numbers themselves to pure logical sets. But what are sets? Like numbers themselves they exist either as shared mental constructions, or as entities outside both materiality and subjectivity in a Platonic "third realm". Either way, materialism is refuted. At least this would help to explain why the world conforms to the rules of mathematics, which as the physicist Eugene Wigner pointed out in 1960 would otherwise look very like a miracle.

Concurrently I am reading a series of SF novels by Stephen Baxter (the Xeelee sequence) that build on these discoveries and speculations of modern physics. For Baxter, life can emerge and thrive wherever there is the right combination of complexity and stability – even in the heart of a star, or in the first few nanoseconds after the Big Bang, when the universe was no bigger than an orange. Whole civilizations rise and fall before the formation of stars, or even atoms. Baxter's wildly imaginative stories feature creatures composed of dark matter, quarks, flaws in spacetime, and even convection currents in planetary oceans.

The idea that consciousness emerges wherever there is ordered complexity reminds me of Christopher Alexander's intuition in The Luminous Ground that degrees of beauty, of ordered complexity, are degrees of life, of connectedness with the ground of reality which he calls the Self, but which might as well be called Being. But this does not lead to a merging of all things into a supreme Oneness. “This is, perhaps, the central mystery of the universe: that as things become more unified, less separate, so also they become more individual and most precious.” (p. 309)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Beauty won't save the world alone

The title of Gregory Wolfe’s excellent collection of essays, Beauty Will Save the World, is based on a much-quoted line from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. In its context it appears only in indirect speech, being attributed by one of the other characters to the “Idiot” of the title, Prince Myshkin. Thus in its original context its meaning is ambiguous, or at least ill-defined. That makes it doubly appropriate for Greg’s title, since he is arguing against the “ideologues” of today’s culture wars in favour of a literary and imaginative approach to the truth. Conservatives have succumbed to philistinism, and fail to appreciate modern art, he argues. Great literature, and art in general, explores the world – and today that means the modern world – from
the inside. It is not preachy or moralistic; as a result, conservatives of a Puritan or pragmatic bent often find it unedifying, or even profane. But it is legitimate, Greg believes, for art to shock, to revolt against established conventions, to make explicit what others may hesitate to look upon. In many cases this may the only way for the artist to discover a “redemptive path toward order”.

A particular target of the book seems to be those conservatives who can see nothing good coming out of modernity except the Inklings. I suspect Greg numbers me among them, although in reality my tastes are much broader than the things I tend to write about. But it is the case that my interest is less in literature and the arts, important though these are in posing the right questions and exploring the ambiguities of our time, than in philosophy and theology, where we legitimately search for answers to those very questions. This is not the same as seeking an ideology, though of course a theology can be rendered ideological easily enough. Theology at its most authentic is not a fortress of ideas, but more like a path across a landscape, a route map, or a system of signposts. It is intrinsically mystical, it is of the spirit not the letter.

Greg has developed a strong aversion to the kind of conservatism that rejects the modern world and gives up on modern culture, pretending to saw off the branch on which it sits. The importance of “Beauty” is that she is the only one of the ancient “transcendentals” that still speaks to us through modern culture. She is our way back to the vision of the whole, to a meaningful universe. But she has become separated from her sisters, Truth and Goodness, and thus relativized and subjectivized. Lacking a sense of transcendent Truth and Goodness, our culture is easily dominated by purely political and economic forces – power and money are the new transcendentals. He has a good account of how this happened, beginning with the Nominalists. But through it all, Beauty remains eloquent, calling us back to an awareness of Being and therefore of the reality our ideologies have squeezed out of the picture. The artist is the one who keeps us hearing this call to meaning, which is the breath of life.

The artist awakens the question of meaning, and takes us to the threshold of understanding. He speaks to the imagination, which is far more important than the rationalist in us admits. Imagination is our faculty for comparing and connecting the various parts of the world to make some kind of whole, a narrative in which we have a part to play, or an icon of the self we have lost. The imagination, Greg says, “works through empathy”. It is by empathy that the artist passes over from his or her own experience to that of another, and through that transcendence of self attains a glimpse of common or universal humanity beyond the reach of solipsistic individualism.

This is all very well, but will Beauty, will the imagination, “save the world” on its own? I doubt it very much. Beauty may prepare the world to be saved; it may crack the walls of our prison. But to pass through that crack we need something more. To step out of the cave and into the light we need the will to do so, and that can only be engaged if Beauty is reconnected with Truth and Goodness. Greg himself sees this. He is more than familiar with Balthasar's warning of the consequences of separating Beauty from her "two sisters", and he writes of artistic creativity as a "call" or "invitation" to virtue. It is a point that is hard to develop further without falling into moralism. The arts and literature are preparatory, even essential in some ways, to the life of the spirit, but nevertheless some more radical engagement with the world is necessary, and that is found in spirituality, in the inner life, in mysticism, in metaphysical intuition. That is not to say we must all become "intellectuals", because that word now refers to a kind of book-learning and cleverness that is very far from what I have in mind. We must become more open to a light that we only half remember, which comes from a horizon beyond the achievements of human culture however noble, and which answers the cries of the human spirit to which the artist gives a voice.*

I see this as one possible meaning of another work by Dostoevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. In this short story, a man intending to commit suicide dreams of an unfallen world of human beings living in peace with each other, with nature, and with God. But he also dreams of how he introduces sin and corruption into this world, until it becomes as bad as his own world, so that in a desperate desire to atone and heal he teaches them to make a cross and implores them to crucify him.

Awake again, his love of life is restored. “For I have seen the truth,” he writes; “I have seen and I know that people can be beautiful and happy without losing the power of living on earth. I will not and cannot believe that evil is the normal condition of mankind. And it is just this faith of mine that they laugh at. But how can I help believing it? I have seen the truth – it is not as though I had invented it with my mind, I have seen it, seen it, and the living image of it has filled my soul for ever.”

Here we see the role of the imagination, of the arts, which is ultimately to show us an image that our soul will recognize as true. But then we must act, we must become apostles, we must become “ridiculous”.
“The chief thing is to love others like yourself, that's the chief thing, and that's everything; nothing else is wanted – you will find out at once how to arrange it all. And yet it’s an old truth which has been told and retold a billion times – but it has not formed part of our lives! The consciousness of life is higher than life, the knowledge of the laws of happiness is higher than happiness – that is what one must contend against. And I shall. If only everyone wants it, it can be arranged at once.”

* This paragraph has been revised since first publication to express my meaning more clearly. – SC 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Companions for the Year of Faith

The coming Year of Faith (11 October 2012 to 24 November 2013) is a great opportunity to refresh our understanding of the Catholic faith, and strengthen our confidence in it. There are plenty of books I could recommend, beginning obviously with The Magnificat Year of Faith Companion. This is a superb pocket-sized compendium of wonderful spiritual reading for the whole year. Timothy Radcliffe's Why Go to Mass? is still an encouraging (and amusing) read. Henri de Lubac's The Discovery of God could melt the heart of the most decided atheist. CTS have some great booklets for the Year of Faith and more on the way. And for a rich and robust apologetics taking you all the way from natural reason via sound scriptural analysis to the heights of mystical experience get hold of Barry R. Pearlman's A Certain Faith, on behalf of which I am waging something of a one-man campaign (do join me!). I will be reviewing this in the upcoming Second Spring.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A view of British children

An article by Anthony Daniels in the Telegraph newspaper (7 Sept. 2012) presented a rather sad view of the situation of many children in modern Britain. Here is a section of the piece:
British children are by far the fattest in Europe (three times as many of them as in France are truly obese), and even among the fattest in the world. A very high percentage of them never, or only very rarely, eat a meal at a table with other members of
their family – or perhaps I should say household. Indeed, there is often no table at which they could eat such a meal if it ever occurred to anyone to provide them with one.
   When I entered such a home – as I often did as a doctor – I discovered no evidence that cooking had ever taken place in it, beyond reheating of prepared food in the microwave. The children did not so much eat meals as forage or graze, more or less ad libitum. One of the most elementary forms of civilised social intercourse was therefore alien to them.
   Meanwhile, down the road, there were Indian shops selling fresh vegetables so cheap that you could hardly carry away all you could buy for £10 – the cost of 30 cigarettes. It goes without saying that the homes of which I speak were plentifully supplied with flat television screens, some of them as wide as the sky, and almost always illuminated.
   The pattern of child-rearing in Britain is all too often that of a toxic combination of overindulgence and neglect. First a child is bribed into silence, or at least minimal compliance, by being given what it wants; then, when it is old enough to demand rather than request, it does so. A higher proportion of parents in Britain end up frightened of their own children than anywhere else known to me – I never saw it in Africa, where I lived for several years. And it is not only their parents who are frightened of them: who these days dares to tell children to behave themselves in a public place? Old people shrink away from them in fear; I have not seen this in other countries.
   About a fifth of our children leave school unable to read or write fluently. This is not the consequence of poverty: on average, at least £50,000 will have been spent on their education. No doubt bad schools, bad teachers, and bad teaching methods have a part to play. But it cannot be easy to be a teacher of children whose parents, or parent and latest lover, will take the child’s part in any disciplinary dispute because of their egotistical belief that anything that emerges from them must be above reproach....
   By the end of his childhood, a youngster is considerably more likely to have a television in his bedroom than a father living at home. The combination of family instability and a vulgar, celebrity-obsessed, low-IQ and all but inescapable popular culture (of which, incidentally, the BBC’s website for home consumption is clearly a manifestation), means that British children lead the western world in many forms of self-destructive as well as unattractive behaviour.
   But none of this is poverty, properly so-called: it is squalor, mental, emotional, moral, psychological, cultural and often, as a result, physical too. But to call it poverty is actually to make it worse, in so far as it misidentifies the problem and fosters the very culture of dependency that brings so much of it about in the first place.
The point that material "poverty" is less the problem here than a kind of cultural degeneration is well made and rings true. But that is a problem that runs deeper than the "culture of dependency" to which Daniels makes reference, and the solution is not as simple as reducing benefit payments.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Beauty of Numbers

Michael S. Schneider's wonderful work A Beginner's Guide to Constructing the Universe, which I recommended in Beauty for Truth's Sake, is linked to a lot of classroom teaching that Michael has done over the years. This has now been captured in his superb DVD called Constructing the Universe, which could be an important resource for teachers and parents seeking to get their children and pupils interested in the properties and transformations of numbers and shapes, and the way these patterns underlie the forms and processes of the natural world. Modestly he says, "This DVD wasn’t made directly for youngsters but for adults who might enjoy seeing a philosophical approach to numbers, culture and the universe. It's a modern take on traditional mathematical cosmology weaving numbers, shapes, proportions, nature, art, mythology and symbolism into a whole united by mathematics. I think it would be a bit much for most youngsters, although there are some sections they might enjoy seeing. Perhaps high schoolers with an interest in math and these ideas might appreciate it." That is surely an understatement. Well worth trying out!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Effects of the Reformation

Part of our recent Summer School was about the effects of the English Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries – not just the effects on Roman Catholics, who now entered into a period of savage repression and iconoclasm, but the effects on the economy and society of England as a whole. The destruction of much of the fabric of civil society, on which the working classes and the poor depended, created a new kind of poverty and a new society, simultaneously laying the foundations of modern international finance and the wages system. A useful summary of all this can be read in a recent issue of The Social Crediter (read Parts 3 and 3).