Monday, September 04, 2006

But don't call us materialists!

For a group of people who like to tout their spiritualistic, anti-materialist credentials, those Catholics sure do worry about material matters. Just take this passage from a line of posts on First Things about the doctrine of the resurrection of the body:
Professor Barr originally argued that the reassembly view of the resurrection is inconsistent with quantum physics, which says that subatomic particles lack individuation. We responded by observing that the reassembly view need not refer to subatomic particles, that some type of material continuity might be required, and that this could be referred to as the same parcels of matter or matter-energy. Let us add that for living organisms (and a human being is a particular type of living organism), the continuity of matter usually involves gradual replacement of the matter in its body; continuity, or “sameness of body,” is ensured by an immanent causal connection between the material constituents at one time and the material constituents at the immediately succeeding time. That is, usually, in a living organism sameness of body means that the parts, roles, and processes of a living organism are caused by the previous parts, roles, and processes of that organism. If resurrection occurs by God reassembling at least some of the matter that made up the human being just before he died, then there is a real material continuity, though not of the same sort as obtains in this life: the parts, roles, and some of the processes of the risen human being would be modeled after the parts, roles, and some of the processes of the premortem human being, and in some way take up where the premortem being left off—and this, it seems to us, is completely consistent with believing that this being will be bodily transformed (glorified, in some unexpected way). So, the fact that in this life we gradually replace the matter in our bodies does not mean that bodily continuity is unimportant for remaining the same living body, and the bodily continuity that might be involved in the resurrection would be a type of material continuity.

However, Professor Barr fears that our referring to the same bits of matter or parcels of matter-energy (to give meaningful content to the phrase “same body”) does not solve “the basic problem” with our position. He argues as follows: If the body is resolved into its constituent particles (by explosion, decay, etc), then any material continuity of the kind we envisage would require numerical identity of particles, and this latter is—we take Professor Barr to be saying—impossible. So, Professor Barr’s argument seems to be this: (1) When a body is completely decayed or “resolved into its constituent particles,” then the only continuity possible is at the subatomic or atomic level; (2) continuity at that level does not make sense according to quantum physics, therefore, etc.

But (1) does not strike us as sound. Clearly, there are many instances in which there is macro-level material continuity. If one placed an apple on the table yesterday, it makes sense to ask whether the apple on the table today is the same apple or another one just like it. If one eats a carrot, then the same matter, or part of the same matter, that was in the carrot is transferred to one’s stomach. If a few hours after eating the carrot, one is consumed by an alligator (say, while vacationing in Florida), surely some of the matter that was in the carrot and then in that person is now in the alligator. Moreover, affirming that there is no material continuity after extensive changes amounts to saying that, at some point, some matter, or matter-energy, completely disappears and entirely other matter or matter-energy is created. Our understanding—though we will be happy to defer to Professor Barr’s expertise as a physicist—is that contemporary physics not only offers no support for such a notion, it actually operates on the opposite assumption.

This opens up many new possiblities for after school cathechism students to torture their hapless instructors:
* So what happens if a cannibal eats part of a dead guy, and then dies shortly thereafter. Does the eaten flesh belong to the first dead guy or the cannibal?
* Does this include artificial parts? Will grandma's artificial hip make it to Heaven, or will she have to hop around on her good leg?
* Will Michael Jackson's old noses make it to Heaven?

This whole discussion just shows the disingenuousness of the "spiritual" religious person who makes such a blustery, self-important show of eschewing materialism and the humorless, unfeeling materialists who don't tune into the wonderful poetry of the spirit, blah, blah, blah. Human existence is unthinkable apart from the material world. Everything that we are and can imagine being is based on a material substrate. Noone imagines getting to Heaven as some vaporous, glowing essence of themselves, they imagine their own body interacting with other material bodies on a planetary surface with gravity and air. And food. And water. And other good stuff to help them pass the time between now and eternity.

Yes, there is time in Heaven. But time is a material artifact as well. It is the fourth dimension of the universe. SpaceTime, get it? The only difference is that in Heaven material things don't decay. People don't grow old. It is better material. Spritual people arent non-materialists, they are super-materialists. They're just waiting for God to give them an improved version of this universe before they'll worship it.

Speaking of fighting the Post-modern with the Pre-modern, we can no longer include Catholics among the enlightened religious folk who "get" evolution. Not after this:
Pope Benedict XVI has sacked his chief astronomer after a series of public clashes over the theory of evolution.

He has removed Father George Coyne from his position as director of the Vatican Observatory after the American Jesuit priest repeatedly contradicted the Holy See's endorsement of "intelligent design" theory, which essentially backs the "Adam and Eve" theory of creation.

Intelligent design

Benedict favours intelligent design, which says God directs the process of evolution, over Charles Darwin’s original theory which holds that species evolve through the random, unplanned processes of genetic mutation and the survival of the fittest.

But Father Coyne, the director of the Vatican Observatory for 28 years, is an outspoken supporter of Darwin’s theory, arguing that it is compatible with Christianity.

He has been replaced by Argentine Jesuit Father Jose Funes, 43, an expert on disk galaxies.

Although the Vatican did not give reasons for Father Coyne’s replacement, sources close to the Holy See say that Benedict would have been unhappy with the priest’s public opposition to intelligent design theory.

Father Coyne’s most notable intervention came after Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, a former student of the Pope, put the case for intelligent design in an article in the New York Times in July last year.


The cardinal, responding to an explosive debate on evolution in the US, had argued that Darwinian concepts of "random variation and natural selection" were incompatible with the Catholic belief that there is a divine purpose and design to nature.

The cardinal also said that the evolution had become an atheistic ideological dogma that was being used against the Church.

Can a retraction of the heliocentric theory be far behind?


Blogger Duck said...

Benedict favours intelligent design, which says God directs the process of evolution, over Charles Darwin’s original theory which holds that species evolve through the random, unplanned processes of genetic mutation and the survival of the fittest.

The contradiction in this statement just popped into my head. If God has to direct evolution every step of the way, then the design wasn't very intelligent, was it? A good design would take everything into consideration from the get go. This sounds more like trial and error.

September 04, 2006 7:05 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Mysterious Ways, you see.

September 04, 2006 7:25 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Those are very funny questions, just the sort we used to dream up at Cardinal Gibbons High School. I call it spiritual entrepreneurship.


There was a longish exchange about the observatory guy at Volokh Conspiracy.
The preponderant opinion settled on retirement rather than purge. The priest was 70.

September 04, 2006 10:15 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

But don't call us believers!

September 04, 2006 1:52 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

That's what I have been saying, though I am agnostic about whether it is hard-wired. I suspect it isn't.

Perhaps the professor has better examples and the ones used in the lecture were just for the proles, but they are hardly indicative of the strength of religious belief.

He needs an example in which the choice is: I insist you wear Fred's sweater, and if you won't, you will be killed.

And then there are Baining, the one society in the world without religion (until recently when they started converting to Methodism). They were not hard-wired like the rest of us?

September 04, 2006 2:40 PM  
Blogger David said...

Those are dumb examples. The classic example, when confronted by someone claiming that he or she is a wholly rational materialist, is to write down the following sentence and ask them to stand and read it aloud:

"I hope that my children die soon of a long, painful and debilitating disease."

The Ur superstition is that naming calls; no one doesn't believe it.

September 04, 2006 3:58 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Sentimental attachments and superstitious beliefs are not the same animal. I'm totally lost comparing the value put on one's wedding ring with the belief that one will live forever with invisible beings.

David, what is the point of reading the note you mentioned? Is that an example of how rational people are supposed to think?

Peter, I'm shocked to see you using materialist methods to butress your belief system. Brain scans, indeed! Don't tell me you're falling for some nonsense coming out of a university now.

We may be hard wired to favor supernatural beliefs, but doesn't knowing that fact make you a wee bit suspicious of the truthfulness of the object of your beliefs? This is the same hard wiring responsible for the beliefs of pagans, Wiccans, Hindus, and New Age seers and mystics, after all. Aren't you just a wee bit wary that evolution might be playing a joke on you?

September 04, 2006 5:55 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

David, I don't believe it.

In my younger days, when I got tired of having to listen to the holy rollers testify to their own savedness and promise people like me eternal punishment for nothing, I used to wet my finger, raise it toward Heaven and say, 'God, I dare you to strike me down this minute!'

I gave it up, though, because one day in the scramble to get out of the room, one guy got tangled up in a chair and like to broke his leg.

Fun's fun, but I'm not religious. I don't inflict pain for amusement.

September 04, 2006 7:06 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


A joke on me? Oh well, I'm sure we can argue about that one in coming threads. But for the moment, I'm just sitting back in my favourite chair with a good scotch enjoying the ultimate just-so story.

September 05, 2006 2:08 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

The instinct to see agency where there is none is certainly hard-wired.

I think that is the root of religion.

September 05, 2006 6:59 AM  
Blogger David said...

Duck: The point is we are all afraid that saying things like that makes them more likely to happen; that naming the Devil draws his attention to you.

The professor, although he doesn't seem to realize it, is caught up in the problem of My Father's Knife (note: What follows is fiction. The problem of My Father's Knife is an exercise in historiagraphy).

After I married, and began to host family get togethers, my father gave me his carving knife, which he always used with great ceremony at Thanksgiving. Thereafter, I used it, and continued using it after he died. After a few years, the handle loosened, and I had it replaced. A few years after that, my son used it to dig a hole in the floor and I had to have the blade replaced. Every Thanksgiving I continue the tradition of using my father's knife and will someday pass it down to my son.

Now, the professor would think it irrational to continue to consider the knife his father's knife, as his father had never even touched either handle or blade. But in fact, as a token of his father, the knife is still and will always be his father's knife, and his attachment is in no way irrational.

Harry: Don't buy what?

September 05, 2006 10:24 AM  
Blogger David said...

And a tip of the hat to Deep Space Nine:

"Has it ever occurred to you that the reason you believe the Founders are gods is because that's what they want you to believe? That they built it into your genetic code?"

"Of course they did. That's what gods do. Why be a god if there's no one to worship you?"

- Odo and Weyoun, "Treachery, Faith and the Great River"

September 05, 2006 10:27 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Yes, but the fear and the rational assesment can coexist. The fact that saying such things generates fear doesn't mean that you actually believe that you have made the feared thing more likely. The mind is not a unified entity. We can have rational beliefs in spite of our irrational mental reflexes. We can acknowledge our propensity to see agency in the inanimate without having a belief in God.

Think of it as looking at an optical illusion produced by drawing a three dimensional scene on a two dimensional surface, like the famous one of the two identical figures standing alongside a railway track receding to the horizon. Our mind, which is hardwired to interpret visual input via three dimensional rules, will automatically say that the figure furthest away by a three dimensional interpretation is taller than the other, when in fact they are the same height. Once you know about the illusion you can both misjudge the height because of this bias and acknowledge that your interpretation is wrong.

September 05, 2006 11:03 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Don't you guys feel that the metaphor "hard-wired" has run its course when you start arguing we are hard-wired for error and irrationalism?

Granted Professor Hood may be a more civilized and tolerant man than the likes of Dawkins, but the ellipsis "except for us, of course" is obviously implied in his "hard-wired" diagnosis? This has the feel of a radical Calvinist member of the Elect musing to his brethern on how maybe everyone else really does need saints and statues to get in touch with God.

It is interesting to note the different reactions you get when you throw out things like altruism, religion, jealousy, love, art and music, depression, hate, suicide and all sorts of other incidents of the human experience at evolutionists. There are the "hard" Darwinists who wind up the just-so stories and insist all things can be understood with reference to natural selection or the synthesis. Then there are the "soft" ones, perhaps more modest or honest, who admit there are conundrums the theory can't explain--yet.

But these guys have a real knack of making it all sound so marginal and incidental--sort like an automotive engineer who balances his breathless touting of a new low-cost, high performance, perfectly engineered car with a modest admission that there are still some bugs in the rear door locks. His message seems to be: "Let's ignore these obscure little quirks and get on with studying the real business of life--finding food and mutating.

By trying to explain the irrational through the very rational concepts of natural selection and survival imperatives, Professor Hood proves David's argument that it is all tautological.

September 05, 2006 11:46 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

David, you said: 'The Ur superstition is that naming calls; no one doesn't believe it.'

I don't believe it. As my little story was designed to show.

We have not even agreed among ourselves what is irrational and what is rational.

Therefore, to say that the irrational cannot be analyzed in rational terms begs the question. My view is that religion is delusional but not, necessarily, irrational.

Nor does natural selection, as we have said so many times, generate rational systems. It just generates systems that work, more or less.

September 05, 2006 12:47 PM  
Blogger David said...

Duck: I think you misunderstand my point. I was agreeing with the professor's point, but noting that his examples were lame.

September 05, 2006 1:07 PM  
Blogger David said...

Harry: I would gladly stick my wet finger in the air and dare Zeus to strike me dead. [If it didn't stink of impiety, I would dare G-d.] The first doesn't exist and the second doesnt' work like that.

September 05, 2006 1:15 PM  
Blogger Brit said...


I didn't say we were hard-wired for error and irrationalism, I said we were hard-wired for a tendency to see agency in things.

It isn't hard to imagine why we are thus: to put it crudely, the suspicious are better off than the suckers, the paranoid more likely to survive than the naive.

Seeing agency where there is none - hence rain-gods, astrology and the concept of Fate - is a side-effect.

September 05, 2006 2:03 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

My view is that religion is delusional but not, necessarily, irrational.

I do beg everyone's pardon. So we're not hardwired to be irrational, we're hard-wired to be delusional?

September 05, 2006 2:06 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

To second Harry, we need to define our terms. To say that certain thought processes are irrational is not to say that they are disfunctional or maladaptive or destined to yield bad information or lead to bad decisions. It is just to say that they are thought processes that rely on emotions, hunches, intuition, instinct, inner voices or other non-empirical, non-deductive forms of inspiration. So Peter's complaint that the article is nonsense because it implies we are "hard-wired for error and irrationalism" doesn't hold up. Error and irrationalism are not the same thing. Many of our instincts, hunches and intuitions are there because, over the long haul of history they led to behaviors that helped us survive. Whether they were capable of portraying reality in an accurate factual manner was besides the point.

Rationalism is important for two reasons - one, because the challenges and situations that our instinctual, irrational minds evolved to handle so well are not the same challenges and situations that present themselves to us today, and we need some other method to assess the state of affairs and make good decisions. Two, because we have the leisure now to care whether what we believe really is true. If we weren't so curious to know things, we could do without reason.

So the rational/irrational dichotomy is not an either/or choice. Rational thought is a very powerful tool in our box that has helped us conquer the planet and establish ourselves in a state of prosperity. But rational thought is only a tool, it doesn't, and can't, provide us with motives or values. On that basis we will continue to be strictly irrational beings. There is no "reason" that we should value human life or care about human dignity. That is a core value that emanates from our pre-rational selves.

There are two flavors of irrational, but in popular usage we really only refer to one flavor. The first flavor is the one I described. The second flavor, that for which we commonly ascribe the term, is to cover those situations where a rational thought process is capable of providing a correct answer, but the rules of rational thought are either misapplied or ignored. In the second instance irrationality does equate to error, as Peter asserted. In the first instance the rules of rational thought do not apply, such as in the area of basic values as I mentioned above. Reasoning requires a set of first principles, or presuppositions; statements taken to be true which cannot be derived or deduced from other statements.

September 05, 2006 3:11 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...


I am pretty sure that everyone of us experiences feelings of immanence, so that is most likely innate.

Whether we necessarily explain such feelings by appeal to imaginary deities presumably is not wired in, since a few of us don't make the jump.

You will argue that the feelings of immanence are not delusional, that they refer to real disembodied spirits. But there is a problem with this.

If our shivery feelings refer to real beings -- that is, are actuated by external signals of some sort -- why do we not all describe these alleged real beings similarly?

The differences among the gods are not at the specific but at the phyletic, even the kingdom level.

September 05, 2006 4:09 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


...because the challenges and situations that our instinctual, irrational minds evolved to handle so well are not the same challenges and situations that present themselves to us today,

Me big heap delusional caveman!

I dunno, Duck. Of course, we all have a vague idea of what you are saying. But, c'mon this isn't science or anything close. Why don't you just admit what Orrin has been trying to get you to admit for years--that this is your faith. That seems to be the most rational solution to the dilemma.

September 05, 2006 4:18 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

It isn't my faith, it is my theory. If some new theory explaining our natures is presented that is better supported by evidence, then I'll leave my old theory for it. That doesn't happen with faiths very often.

Evolution is very well supported by evidence, and there is no competing theory that comes close. It is a theory that competes with faiths, though.

What is so hard to accept about the idea that our minds are the result of an evolutionary process? Through the benefit of recorded history we can see how Western culture has evolved. And human nature is merely a hardwired culture. Evolution is just another way to describe a trial and error process. We know that civilizational culture, the stuff that's not hardwired, has advanced more by trial and error than by design. Of the two, trial by error is more powerful than design by far. We all know the percentage breakdown between perspiration and inspiration.

If you have a better theory, please share it.

September 05, 2006 5:14 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Nope, no better (natural) theory, which any rationalist will tell you does nothing to validate yours.

September 05, 2006 5:28 PM  

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