Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Can Man Understand?

Can the human being really understand God? The verse from the Bible that comes to mind is from Isaiah, Chapter 55 (NAB at USCCB):
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For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
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As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.
This is not to say we shouldn't try to understand God in some way. It is not right to shrug our shoulders and say that if we can't know Him we might as well move on to some other interest (science, for example). We have to juggle a little, and not let a concept either dominate us or be immediately rejected. Pope John Paul II wrote a very interesting encyclical called Fides et Ratio. He describes the interaction between faith and reason, and it is well worth reading.

I've been reading Church history about the reaction of the magisterium concerning evolutionary theory. Though I started in Darwin's time, the relation of science and philosophy to Christianity actually goes much further back and I'm becoming increasingly aware of its relevance to my interests. So I'll just give a very general overview here.

When philosophy began in the West, some 600 years before Christ, it was an attempt to understand things in terms of reason, not mysticism or mythology. It therefore included the study of nature which we now consider science. The first Greek philosopher was Thales of Miletus who lived around 600 BC. The famous Greek philosophers followed in this order: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who died in 322 BC. Aristotle worked out a "Natural Philosophy" in which the natural world was defined in terms of movement (in rather complicated interactions of place and time) .

Greek philosophy became known to scholars throughout the ancient world. It did not take very long after Christianity spread for someone to try to combine the understanding of Christ with this Greek thought. Frederick Copleston, in A History of Philosophy, Vol. 2, lists Marcianus Aristides as one of the first to do so in about 140 AD. Then came Justin Martyr who used philosophy even more openly, and Clement of Alexandria, a scholar who lived in Alexandria, Egypt between 150 and 215 AD. He headed a school for teaching Christian theologians known as the Catechetical School of Alexandria. Pope John Paul considered St. Augustine, who elaborated on Plato's philosophy about 400 AD, to be the first to truly produce the "first great synthesis of philosophy and theology" (Fides et Ratio, sec. 40).

St. Thomas Aquinas combined Aristotle with Christian understanding in the 13th Century. Others disagreed with their speculations, and there has been wrangling throughout history on the importance of reason in contrast with faith. In particular, a monk named William of Ockham placed more emphasis on faith than intellect in order to know God (as I understand it). Ockham, though, seems these days to have the reputation of cutting away faith altogether in favor of science, in which case he is misunderstood. He was concerned that Aquinas, in his effort to incorporate what Aristotle called Universals, limited the free will of God. (Universals were supposedly essences of things which existed outside physical things, such as "red-ness" for all things that look red.) If God could only create according to Universals, Ockham felt He would be limited in choice.

Well, philosophers and theologians have wrangled for centuries about God and our relationship to Him and how we understand Him. Of course, with the scientific revolution, people have wondered more and more if we could "cut away" God altogether and be left with nothing but the material world. Many indeed have done just that in their personal worldviews. But now biology is showing that some things cannot be explained by the laws of physics and chemistry, at least as we know them now.

Many think that physics and chemistry will never be able to explain the codes of DNA, and how the DNA is arranged in ways that resemble the computer systems created by human intelligence. Many, however, believe scientific research will eventually be able to explain everything.

This, in a very condensed version, is where we stand now.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Catholic Sunday Snippets 090927


It’s time again for Sunday Snippets—A Catholic Carnival. This is a group of Catholic bloggers who list links each week at RAnn’s blog, This That and the Other Thing to direct you to their latest writings. (If you take this link to RAnn, you may have to scroll down until you see "Sunday Snippets—A Catholic Carnival.")

I usually post early on Tuesday and Friday. This week my entries include:

Tuesday -- Philosophy, science and faith. Sounds complicated, but I try to make it understandable (at least as well as I understand it myself).

Friday -- More of faith and philosophy.

If you are visiting from RAnn, you can see my entire blog, including both entries above, by hitting the “home” link at the bottom of this post. You can get back to RAnn at any point by clicking “Catholic Sunday Snippets” under LINKS in the right column.

Thanks a lot for joining me. Happy blogging!

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Image credit: free-clipart.net .

Friday, September 25, 2009

Faith OR Reason?


I talked in the last post about Catholic philosophy and modern science. When persons claim that faith has more to do with belief than reason, they are often accused of being "fideists." Some people seem to claim (in so many words) that if you have faith in God without studying philosophy, your belief is not adequate. That claim in itself is unreasonable.

People come to God in many ways. There are masses of faithful who live and die never having studied philosophy. These people can have as real a relationship with God as professors. Yet, others take the journey to God by means of reason. They may not have an emotional conversion experience, yet they convert all the same. There is a sense, though, in which the stress on philosophy can lessen the importance of relationship, and that is a mistake. We need some balance of both heart and head.

Faith is a mystery, a word which probably makes philosophy professors shudder. Yet the Bible gives us some beautiful passages about it to get us on track. One is Ephesians 2:8 (taken from the USCCB webpage of the New American Bible):

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For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God;
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it is not from works, so no one may boast.


This means, for one thing, we need to get rid of all pride in order to believe well. God gave us intellect, and we are to use it. But we are so susceptible to making pronouncements that put us above others, we must be very careful. The focus is always on God Himself.

Another verse is from John 6:29:
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So they said to him, "What can we do to accomplish the
works of God?"
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Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent."

These verses may seem contradictory, but I don't think they are. God teaches us by varying the approach. Unfortunately, we grab onto one idea or the other, then fight about it with others. I think the passages when contemplated together may mean that our work is at least in part reason because everyone thinks, but while you think, don't forget mystery. To give examples, if you simply as a child accepted Jesus as soon as your parents or priest told you about Him, perhaps it was because you trusted these authority figures, and perhaps an element of faith which is beyond our understanding also had a part. In fact, that part may be a factor in the learned professor's conversion though s/he is unaware of it. Yet to follow historical philosophical thought, to question and reach your own conclusion that God exists is certainly a help in strengthening that faith.

Modern science does not completely understand consciousness, even though they have learned much about the brain. My belief is that neither consciousness nor the soul will ever be understood completely by human beings. There will always be mystery, and for that reason we need faith.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Philosophy 101


They say life is what you do when you are planning something else. That happens with blogs, also. I had started reading about the history of the Church response to evolutionary theory and wanted to post about it, but got sidetracked. I hope to get to that subject, but while reading one of my favorite Intelligent Design (ID) websites, I read a post by Michael Egnor on Evolution News and Views relating to philosophy.

Now, my expertise in philosophy is at the 101 level, but a lot of philosophy has been flying around in evolutionary circles, and I'm sure not everyone who speaks about it is an expert. So, I'll give my own opinion.

I won't go into the details of Michael Egnor's post, but he recommends a book about philosophy which addresses the New Atheist arguments. The book is The Last Superstition, by Edward Feser. The New Atheists are people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett who are contemporary authors with various backgrounds. They argue that today's science has replaced religion and traditional religious (Catholic) philosophy such as that of St. Thomas Aquinas, who built his own system on that of Aristotle (the Greek philosopher).

The main point of Feser's book, to make a sweeping generalization, is that Aristotle worked out a philosophy that claimed to prove that change can happen in this world, but ultimately depends on an Unchanged Changer. And Aquinas built on Aristotle's work. as can be found in his five proofs of God, one of which depends on an Unmoved Mover.

Feser explains that today's scientific mindset tries to ignore Aristotle's metaphysics (which investigates the properties of reality), and yet unconsciously uses it. For example, the New Atheists tell us that scientific experiment is the only way to understand reality, yet they take for granted the reasoning behind experimentation--that one thing is caused by another. In other words, they are missing a certain concept in their understanding. They take an alternative philosophy in which there are no Universals in the sense Aristotle means. (Universals are essences of things that occur in the world, for example, "red-ness" for things that are red and "human-ness" for humans.)

Feser makes very interesting arguments, but I have thought in my limited study of philosophy that he and other philosophers like him are also missing at least one fundamental concept. They talk about Aristotle's philosophy of change, where there has to be, by logic, something (or someone) that is First and causes change. But a person would still have believe that there is a source of change other than physical energy and matter to get to that point.

The equation above is for Gibbs free energy and it is important because it is used to calculate physical / chemical change. It comes to us courtesy of J.W. Gibbs, who is pictured at top right and lived from 1839-1903. The triangle is the symbol I learned in high school to designate change (the Greek letter delta). The G is called Gibbs free energy, the H is enthalpy, or the tendency of things to change from a higher state of energy to lower (such as water falls from a higher to lower state in a waterfall). T is temperature and S is entropy--the tendency of things to become more disordered. When you plug in the values for each situation you evaluate, you can tell whether a physical change, such as a chemical reaction, will happen or not (if Gibbs free energy is negative, it will happen).

If I understand Feser correctly, he would say it is a Prime Mover that causes change, at least the first in a long line. If we don't accept that, our reasoning is faulty. But I think that most scientists, especially materialistic ones (those who think the world consists only of matter and energy which are interchangeable through Einstein's equation E=mc^2), would look at the Gibbs equation and say it explains what causes change. This can go all the way back to the Big Bang (BB), that explosion being caused by a great concentration of energy, and even before the BB. To them, there is nothing sacred in the BB as far as the formation of the universe goes. It could be that energy forces and mass continue to alternate in various proportions endlessly (and in fact, this is what they think). Both Aristotle the philosopher and Gibbs the scientist assumed that change comes from a cause.

One either believes our universe is made of only mass and energy, or one believes there is a God. Feser does a good job in showing the ridiculous logical consequences of a materialistic mindset, but I don't think he fully gets to the bottom of what causes it. Though the materialist's reason may be faulty on some level, in my opinion the deeper problem is lack of faith.

Faith is a mystery, and I will talk more about it (I hope) next post.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Catholic Sunday Snippets 090920


It’s time again for Sunday Snippets—A Catholic Carnival. This is a group of Catholic bloggers who list links each week at RAnn’s blog, This That and the Other Thing to direct you to their latest writings. (If you take this link to RAnn, you may have to scroll down until you see "Sunday Snippets—A Catholic Carnival.")

I usually post early on Tuesday and Friday. This week my entries include:

Tuesday -- A new movie is out about the Cambrian Explosion, a point in the fossil record where many animals appear fully formed.

Friday -- A new look for my blog!

If you are visiting from RAnn, you can see my entire blog, including both entries above, by hitting the “home” link at the bottom of this post. You can get back to RAnn at any point by clicking “Catholic Sunday Snippets” under LINKS in the right column.

Thanks a lot for joining me. Happy blogging!

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Image credit: free-clipart.net .

Thursday, September 17, 2009

New Look

Well, I made the plunge and changed the look of my blog. It's still the same template, but has a little color. I hope it's still readable enough. I like white as a background, but if the color is light enough you can still read the print pretty well. I formatted the type for this entry to make it just a little darker than the regular type but will probably mostly use the regular.

I took a picture from our city's bike trail along Muskegon Lake. This lake empties into Lake Michigan through a channel, and the bike trail follows it on the south side the whole way from the east end to the Great Lake (you can see the Muskegon Lake from the trail about half the time). They just completed this trail a few years ago. You can take another branch of the trail and go east about 25 miles. Michigan has quite a few bike trails along old rail-road beds that are beautiful to see.

Since I've been spending time with my blog layout, I won't get into any subject too deeply today. (I went through ALL the templates, then came back to the first, just a different color. Plus, I had to crop the picture a few times to get it right.) I've been reading some history on the Church magisterium and their reactions to the scientific community concerning evolution. It's quite interesting and I hope to write about it next week.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Cambrian Explosion



There is a new video out from Illustra Media, the same people who made Unraveling the Mystery of Life and The Privileged Planet. It is called Darwin's Dilemma and is about the Cambrian Explosion, a geological period in which many original forms of animals appeared fully formed in the fossil record. I've never copied a video to my blog, and I don't know 1) how to do it and 2) whether it is within the Upload Terms of Google to do it with commercial previews. So, I'll just show you the above picture which is on their website and link to the video here, where you can see the trailer for Darwin's Dilemma.

The Cambrian Explosion, when so many full-fledged animals without intermediates started appearing, is estimated at about 530 million years ago. When you compare the graphs of what Darwin expected for fossil development and what has actually been found, it looks like these graphs from the Veritas Forum:


Darwin predicted a gradual appearance of simple forms in the fossil record which would diversify and become more complex (graph on left). Instead, you have the abrupt appearance of many complex forms at one time (right).

I look forward to seeing this film. I haven't seen Illustra Media's other films since I felt I've read a great deal concerning their subjects, but this one is a little different because it contains information about fossils over the entire Earth. I know something about fossils, but could use more education on them. What I've heard about this film makes me look forward to seeing it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Catholic Sunday Snippets 090913


It’s time again for Sunday Snippets—A Catholic Carnival. This is a group of Catholic bloggers who list links each week at RAnn’s blog, This That and the Other Thing to direct you to their latest writings. (If you take this link to RAnn, you may have to scroll down until you see "Sunday Snippets—A Catholic Carnival.")

I usually post early on Tuesday and Friday. This week my entries include:

Tuesday -- A miracle on our block.

Friday -- New pictures of Hubble Space Telescope.

If you are visiting from RAnn, you can see my entire blog, including both entries above, by hitting the “home” link at the bottom of this post. You can get back to RAnn at any point by clicking “Catholic Sunday Snippets” under LINKS in the right column.

Thanks a lot for joining me. Happy blogging!

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Image credit: http://www.free-clipart.net

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Hubble Renewed



Psalm 19 (1-3)


For the director of music. A psalm of David.



1 The heavens declare the glory of God;


the skies proclaim the work of his hands.


2 Day after day they pour forth speech;


night after night they display knowledge.


3 There is no speech or language


where their voice is not heard.


New pictures have been released from the refurbished Hubble Space Telescope. There are many things that are amazing about God's Creation, but one we can't miss is His immense range. He has made atoms and stars, He conceived of electrons and galaxies.

The observable universe is about 10^25 miles long (a 1 with 25 zero's).

There are about 10^23 atoms (a 1 with 23 zero's after it) in a chemical mole. (A mole has mass approximately equal to the substance's molecular/atomic weight in grams, for example, less than 1/2 ounce of Carbon.)


And here we are, right in the middle of it all.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Miracles Happen!


We had some excitement this week on our block. A news truck was across the street on Friday, and later our neighbor came and told us that several of them had gone fishing to our near-by lake the evening before and had taken the kids with them (the neighbors have two grown children living with them along with their grand kids.) They had a one-year-old girl strapped in a stroller with them on a wooden dock. Then a two-year-old pushed the stroller into the water. The stroller sank about 10 feet. The men there tried to dive for the stroller and couldn't get to it. One of the women immediately called 911 and the firemen came within a few minutes. One of the firemen dove for the child and was able to bring her up. They used CPR and then took her to a children's hospital.

When our neighbor came Friday afternoon, he said the baby was probably under for about 10 minutes. He came again in the evening and said she had water in the lungs. But they were able to bring her home Saturday, and she looked just fine! She was walking and wasn't even on any medication! Isn't that amazing?

I know they talk about suspended animation when someone is submerged in cold water, but this sure looks like a miracle to me!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Catholic Sunday Snippets 090906


It’s time again for Sunday Snippets—A Catholic Carnival. This is a group of Catholic bloggers who list links each week at RAnn’s blog, This That and the Other Thing to direct you to their latest writings. (If you take this link to RAnn, you may have to scroll down until you see "Sunday Snippets—A Catholic Carnival.")

I usually post early on Tuesday and Friday. This week my entries include:

Tuesday -- Francis Collins was named head of the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) which has done work that discredits Darwin's theory of evolution.

Friday -- President Manuel Zelaya was forcibly ousted from Honduras a few weeks ago.

If you are visiting from RAnn, you can see my entire blog, including both entries above, by hitting the “home” link at the bottom of this post. You can get back to RAnn at any point by clicking “Catholic Sunday Snippets” under LINKS in the right column.

Thanks a lot for joining me. Happy blogging!

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Image credit: http://www.free-clipart.net

Friday, September 4, 2009

Honduras Coup


There was a coup in Honduras a few weeks ago that is still playing out. President Manuel Zalaya was escorted from his presidential residence and out of the country. The Organization of American States (OAS) unanimously condemned the coup. (Not everyone is calling it a coup, but what else is it when a president is forcibly removed from the country?)

Zalaya was a rich land-owner and when he first came to office was supportive of his kind. But eventually he changed his outlook, and he became more concerned of the needs of the poor.

The per capita income of Honduras is estimated to be $2600 (from Encyclopedia of the Nations, Honduras). This is $50 per week, but is an average, so the higher incomes would push this down even more for the poor. When we were in El Salvador five years ago, workers were trying to get $2.00 a day wages. I imagine there are Hondurans working for $1.00 a day.

Zelaya was trying to get the popular opinion on whether to change the law concerning presidential term limits. The referendum was up for vote the day he was removed from the country. The persons involved said the referendum was illegal, but it was only a popular opinion poll, at least for the moment. I don't know the in's and out's of Honduran law, but it seems the best way to change a law in a democracy is to let the people decide.

There have been varying reports of the local Catholic response to the coup. Some priests have supported him and are undergoing harassment, as told here at the Catholic News Service. The Honduran bishops, headed by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, seemed to back the coup, also reported by CNS. They claim an increase in class hatred since Zelaya came to office.

When Christ said, "The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me" (Matt. 26:11 NAB), he sure had that right. One wonders how on Earth we haven't figured out how to share yet. But of course, this is the result of sin on all sides.

In struggling with this problem, the Church has declared a "Preferential Option for the Poor." John Paul II said:
While an examination of conscience can be disconcerting, it may also be invigorating. Pope Paul VI offered some insights: "It is not just a question of eliminating hunger and reducing poverty. It is not just a question of fighting wretched conditions, though this is an urgent and necessary task. It involves building a human community where everyone can live truly human lives, free from discrimination. . . . free from servitude to others or to natural forces which they cannot yet control satisfactorily. . . . Each person must examine his or her conscience, which sounds a new call in our times" (quoted here at the USCCB website).
The whole of our individualistic attitudes must change in order to be molded into community. Unfortunately, being realistic, not everyone is willing to do this. The Christian community of Acts 4 is sadly beyond our reach when considering all living persons, many of whom are not even Christians or just nominally so. The question is, where do real Christians (the ones who seriously try to follow Jesus Christ) go from here?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Koonin and Collins


Eugene Koonin is a senior investigator at NCBI, the National Center for Biotechnology Information. NCBI is under the National Institutes of Health at Bethesda, MD. Koonin's main research area is genomics. He heads a research group there that has been analyzing genes and comparing them between species.

It is interesting that Francis Collins, highlighted in my last post, has become the head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), under which NCBI operates. He was appointed to the post by President Obama in July and confirmed this month. This is the very place that work has been done in disproving Collins' hypothesis of naturalistic, materialist evolution.

Once scientists knew how to evaluate the contents of the gene, as Collins did with humans, researchers worked on various species to determine their specific makeups. The genes are made of molecules which make various patterns. The molecules of DNA are all the same between different species but the patterns are all different . (Pictures of the molecules can be seen here.) There are many species in our world--some estimate 50 million or so. These are subdivided from larger groups, such as animals and plants.

The researchers used organism species from various subgroups to compare genes. Even within bacteria, there are various subgroups and species. Then there is another large group of one-celled organisms called Archaea (are-KEY-ah). These were thought to be relatives of bacteria, but are so different as to now form their own domain. Within Archaea there are subgroups and species also.

The researchers have found amazing results. These are reported by Koonin and Yuri Wolf in a paper which I have linked with before called, "Genomics of Bacteria and Archaea," published in Nucleic Acids Research in October 2008 (online). All the species are showing unique genes. The majority of their genes are shared with only one or a few other species. There is no smooth increase from simple to complex, as Darwin predicted.

Some wonder, with so many species in the world and so few (comparatively) checked, whether the others will fill in "gaps." There are several reasons not to expect this. For one, Koonin states in the paper that their selection is across enough diversity that the sample is enough to talk about general principles of genetics.

A second reason is that mathematically, the random motion of molecules and rate of chance switches of DNA molecules within an organism do not jive with the diversity of the findings. The proteins which DNA produces do not match enough between organisms to agree with neo-Darwinism.

The Earth cannot have supported over 10^50 (that's 10 to the 50th power) organisms in the approximately 3.5 billion years of biological life. We know that because of the volume of water on the Earth. That is a limit in which random mutation would have to work to get from one species to another with smooth, small steps predicted in evolution. With the diversity of genes now found, the gap could not be filled with neo-Darwinian, chance changes. The probabilities are just too low.

A third reason to think the gaps will not be filled is that even higher organisms are found to have unique genes. There is reason to believe unique genes will continue to be discovered as more species are sequenced.

I wonder how Francis Collins, who insists on materialistic evolution, will handle the results of the very organization of which he is now in charge. Collins accepts the Anthropic Principle, which in at least one of its versions states the universe is fine-tuned in order for life to exist. Yet we need a Biologic Anthropic Principle to state that the complexity of the cell can only be explained by a supernatural designer and creator. I hope someday Collins realizes this need.

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Yuri Wolf, co-author of the paper mentioned here, is a member of Koonin's research group at NCBI.

Image links: Koonin ; Wolf .