The cruel irrationality of scientism

A common feature of human behavior is for people to take positions that are the exact opposite of their stated morality.

This isn't necessarily hypocrisy because hypocrites are necessarily aware of the contradiction.  The fact that the practicioners of what I shall dub "scientism" are blissfully ignorant of the truth of their position only makes them that much harder to convince.

It should go without saying that science is never "settled."  Science is a process, a method of truth-seeking and its core tenet is taking nothing for granted.  There are endless examples of "settled science" being overturned by subsequent discoveries. 

True scientists are constantly attacking the status quo and never resort to appeals to authority to settle disputes.

As a method of explaining the natural world and solving problems, science has done wonderfully well, but it is simply incapable of being turned into a philosophy or worldview.  When people say they "believe science is real," that's a statement of faith, not logic.

Nothing I'm writing here is either new or original (well, other than my peerless prose styling), and if one goes back a couple of hundred years one finds the Cult of Reason making all these mistakes in Revolutionary France.  Tens of millions of people have died thanks to "Scientific Socialism" in the 20th Century. 

It's interesting that people who blame religion for war seem completely unaware that in so doing, they're making a new religion - which is far more murderous.

I should also mention that "religion causes wars" is garbage warmed over.  People cause wars and they will sometimes use religion to justify their greed, wrath or other sins.   Wars happen because people want and enjoy them.  Violence is fun, as all of recorded history demonstrates.  Having decided to make a war, people will then try to appeal for divine assistance or some other cause.

This is not to say that some wars aren't necessary or justified, merely that picking a single factor as the reason for most of them is either ignorant or dishonest.

It's also unscientific.  To make that statement one would have to have a means of sifting through conflicts to determine the exact degree of religious scruple held by all the (long-dead) participants.

Since science needs extremely reliable data, it's always tentative at best.  Since data can shift, science can never provide a steady moral compass, and it's interesting to see that each generation brings new revelations on the horrors that science can inflict.  In fact, the more we empower science for its own sake, the most extreme these horrors become.

One doesn't need to go full-on Luddite and hate technology to understand that there are some experiments we shouldn't be undertaking.

That lack of any meaningful moral restraint is what makes scientism so scary.  Not long ago, there would have been near-universal horror and massive federal investigations of allegations that abortion mills were doing a thriving trade in infant body parts.  Instead, the investigators turned on the whistleblowers for exposing the enterprise and we were told that such grisly commerce is necessary for science to move forward.

Thus we come to the point where the same people who claim their opponents are Nazis have fully embraced the scientism of the actual Nazis.  History has a strong sense of irony.

A double dose of Easter

Okay, the headline may be a little misleading.  Don't think that I went to the vigil Mass and am now going to the Sunday one.

What I mean is that this Easter is really the culmination of our year-long Lenten journey.  It's been two years since an Easter Mass was said in our diocese and I'm really looking forward to it.

I think I mentioned that the turnout on Good Friday was impressive.  I suspect today will be even better.

Of course, it is still imperfect.  My extended family won't be getting together and my parents are still hiding out from the COVID, which appears to have targeted Michigan in particular.

Weird that we should be doing worse than "open" states what with our mandatory masks, limited capacity and other oddball measures the best people assured us were necessary to prevent exactly what's happening.  Must be wreckers and saboteurs. 

But enough about that, today is a day of celebration.  Christ is risen.   That's all that matters.

Have a blessed Easter.

A Very Good Friday

Today was the first time in two years I could attend a Good Friday service.  Traditionally these are somewhat punishing - longer than a normal Mass and with a lot more kneeling.  My kids refer to it as an endurance contest.

This year was different.  Yes, there were certain COVID-required expedients that shortened the duration, but I think in terms of hardship the mask-wearing more than compensated.

No, what I'm referring to is the joy at being able to participate at all.  As the songs say:  "You don't know what you got till it's gone," and that's certainly true in this case.

Our clergy seemed to feel the same way, and thanks to COVID spacing, we had a spillover crowd - not bad for noon on a Friday.  It was the most upbeat Good Friday I've ever had.

In many ways, the Lenten season of 2020 never ended, yet the promise of Christ's Resurrection remains.  No power on earth can change that.  I see this more clearly now and it is contributing greatly to this feeling of calm I've had over the last couple of months.

Easter is coming.  I can't wait.

An end to our year-long Lent

A year ago I saw the COVID lockdown as a month of Good Fridays.  I now see the past 12 months as a year-long Lenten observance.

The pews at my local parish are filling back up with the faithful.  The social distancing (which apparently has no evidentiary basis but was a SWAG* imposed on a nation), is making it challenging to find a seat, but in time that restriction will also be lifted.

Michigan's restrictions on religious observances were comparatively mild, likely due to the considerable size of the various faith communities and the precarious political balance that exists.

I also credit the leaders, particularly the Catholic bishops, who attacked the problem of restrictions aggressively and invoked sound science whenever possible.  This made it very difficult to claim clearly arbitrary or anti-religious restrictions were based on some sort of science.  The Diocease of Lansing notes with some satisfaction that there are no documented cases where COVID spread through Mass.

My faith has ground throughout the ordeal, as this blog has perhaps illustrated.  What was a "zen room" in our home (a combination exercise/mediation area that used to be a formal dining room) has now been made into a "petit shrine" and filled with icons and Christian religious art.  We even added some holy water for daily use.  We still have the exercise equipment, but the floor mats do excellent service as kneelers as well.

A year ago, Michigan Catholics were reduced to taking "spiritual" communion, and while we can now partake of the Host at Mass, the Precious Blood is still being withheld and the holy water founts remain empty.  Not quite there yet.

But just as winter's grip is inexorably weakening, so are the restrictions.  Schools are coming back into session and I noticed that one-way signs at the grocery stores are gone.  Legacy media are still trying to keep the old panic alive, but no one cares.  Lockdowns didn't stop the spread a year ago, and they won't stop it now.

Lent is almost over, and so I think is the year-long Lent of fear and overreaction.  It brought a lot of stress and hardship, but as with all evils, God ensured that goodness was brought forth that otherwise never could have been.  For that we can be grateful.


*Scientific Wild-Ass Guess. 

The Crow is a profoundly Catholic movie

I have to say that the Lord of Spirits podcast is fundamentally changing how I think about everything, not just religion.

I've got a post up at comparing Deadpool and The Crow.  Both in subject and structure the two are strikingly similar, but I want to dig a little deeper into the moral aspects of The Crow. 

Previously, I always thought of it as a spiritually-tinged revenge movie with proto-emo imagery and music.  That's still true, but the broadly Catholic-influenced themes and actions really stood out to me.

From a this perspective, Brandon Lee's character isn't a ghost bent on revenge so much as a soul in Purgatory who is cleansed of sin by carrying out divine judgement on unrepentant sinners while also helping those capable of redemption to find it.  The titular crow is his guardian angel, guiding him on the path to salvation and peace.

The late Brandon Lee did a great job in this film, and one can't help but see similarities in his fate and that of his character, Eric. 

On the face of it, Eric isn't a paragon of virtue.  He's a rock and roller who has a live-in girlfriend - not exactly a poster child for the Holy Family.

And yet, he intends to marry her, proposing in the proper way.  Even the wedding dress is modest and traditional.  The date - Halloween - seems like a hipster conceit, but that means their first morning as husband and wife will be All Saints Day.

Okay, maybe I'm reaching there, but it's interesting to look at how he approaches his task.  Each one of the guilty party he approaches has the opportunity to seek mercy.  Only the pawn broker asks for it, and so he is spared (though his continued sinful behavior inevitably catches up to him).

The bag guys aren't just bad, they are objectively evil.  The witch practicing blood magic?  Yeah, that's a big call for some divine retribution there.

Finally, there's the big confrontation between Lee's character and the arch-villain, Top Dollar.  As is customary, the villain gets the upper hand and seems sure to triumph but our hero suddenly turns that tables - in this case by summoning the memories of his fiancee's suffering and giving to the bad guy all at once.

What's interesting here is that Eric does the only after Top Dollar has admitted that yes, he was ultimately responsible for the double murder.  He may as well have said mea culpa, mea culpa mea maxima culpa.

In fact, the fact that Eric is able to obtain those memories at all is another Catholic 'tell.'  Officer Albrecht stayed with Shelly throughout her ordeal - a corporal act of mercy.  Albrecht also looks after Sarah, buying her dinner when they meet, which is of course an act of charity.

Throughout the film, these moments knit together a tapestry of religious symbolism that may appear purely spiritual, but all have a basis in Catholic theology.  Note how Eric purges the heroin from Sarah's mother and then tells her to go forth and sin no more.

When the mother then tries to be 'motherly' and her daughter gives her grief, the film could take a darker turn, but Sarah chooses the path of mercy, and accepts her mother's repentance.

The final scene where the again-dying Eric sees a vision of his fiancee approaching in a luminescent white light may appear to be simply traditional good vibes, a vague spiritualism, but a Catholic would note that her ordeal had already purified her, and that she was waiting for Eric to cleanse himself of sin as well.  Having done so - offering forgiveness to some, justice to others - Eric is now able to ascend with her.

Make no mistake, the film abounds with Christian symbolism, right down to the showdown in what appears to be an abandoned cathedral.   From my view, the entire film is permeated with not just religious themes, but ones that make the most sense if one views it from the Catholic perspective.


Lenten cleaning

Cutting my news consumption has been wonderful.  I've got more time than ever, and I'm finally getting stuff done around that house that has been waiting for years.

I'm also avoiding the daily outrage of people expressing outrage over today's outrage.

It's outrageous, don't you know.

But this year I'm not feeling that, but instead the quiet satisfaction of solving long-running issues with closet space, furniture arrangements and so on.  When we moved into our current house, we had a lot more space, so we got very sloppy with it.  Things aren't particularly crowded, but we have stuff we don't need and space that we could be using better.

So that's what I'm doing.  Jordan Peterson talks about "cleaning your room," and this week, that's what I'm doing.  Going through long-forgotten clothes or other items is a useful and necessary experience.  I'm letting go of a lot of things - both physically and emotionally. 

Doing this during Lent is particularly appropriate since it is yielding useful items that I can donate to others who need them more.

If things have you stressed, I suggest you turn off the screens and do the same.  It's awkward at first, but once you start making progress, you'll feel a lot better.  It's not just the having something to do or knowing you are taking care of a project, there is a practical benefit as well: you can find things!

That's what I'm enjoying most of all - the extra space, and convenience.  Jumbled drawers are now sorted and clutter that I've tripped over for years is either gone or put away.

If you think about it, not stubbing your toe is a lot more consequential that the latest Twitter outrage.  Focus on the little things you can fix rather than the big things that are beyond your control.

When the trends reverse themselves

A few years ago, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book called The Black Swan that created something of a sensation and established him as the go-to guy for risk management.

The book wasn't long, somewhat repetitive, but it did make important points about human bias and imperfect information.  Basically, we don't fully understand risk and so we don't properly prepare for it.  The 'black swan' of the title was the discovery in Australia of actual black swans - something that exists nowhere else in the world.  In fact, when they were found, it was shocking because of course swans are white.

A "black swan event" is therefore a rare event with significant consequences that no one even thought about, let alone prepared for.  The fact that it is rare doesn't mean impossible, which was his point.  Taleb has gone on to talk about fragility and the ineptitude of the current ruling classes.  His politics are all over the place, but he's brought up important points.

One of them is that trends only last until they change, and it's not always obvious when that will be.  Trend lines themselves are backwards-looking and therefore prone to misleading people if a big change is about to hit.  He gives the classic example of a sudden change in the trend by charting the weight gain (and health) of a Thanksgiving turkey, which shows steady improvement right up until it becomes dinner.

The key point is that the turkey doesn't know when that will happen or even if it will happen.  The turkey just goes on eating and getting bigger. 

So it is with other trends.  For years it was assumed that globalism meant that manufacturing jobs have to go overseas and will never come back.  Then it became clear that this trend wasn't an impersonal force of nature but the result of deliberate policy choices.  Change those choices, and the trend reverses itself.

The Catholic Church has watched with alarm as the number of active priests dwindled over the years.  One argument was that the requirements were too strict for the modern age and the doctrine to antiquated.  Married priests and maybe female clergy were the only options open.

Pope Benedict XVI disagreed and instead focused on stronger doctrine and also raising the standards for clergy, including increased accountability to prevent future abuses.

The result is that more people are choosing the vocations.  Note that I said "people" because women are also choosing to join the holy orders in numbers not seen in my lifetime.  Even before my conversion I recall the closure of various abbeys due to lack of members and yet now new ones are opening up.

Interestingly, the new members wear the traditional habit, a departure from plain-clothes nuns of the 80s and 90s.

Overall, the trend is still downward because it will take years to make up for the 'lost generation' of priests, but it is now moving in the right direction.

My point is that its easy to get locked into a fatalistic approach on so many things and simply assume an outcome is assured based on trend.  A better approach is to look at why things are trending that way and whether it can continue.  I notice housing prices are now even hotter than they were in 2008.  People looking for houses tell me that listings sell the day they go up and people have to bid over the asking price.

That's another trend that can't last forever.


The Lord of Spirits podcast will blow your mind

For the last couple of weeks I've been catching up with the Lord of Spirits podcast.  This consists of two Gen X Eastern Orthodox priests talking about the spirit world - angels, demons, giants and so on.

It's a great listen and quite amusing because our hosts don't shy away from pop culture references in explaining their concepts.

There is too much to summarize in a single post, but one of their most intriguing concepts is that the spirit world not only exists, but is just as active as it was in Biblical times.  One of the difficulties in modern Christianity is reconciling both the worldview and the written record of ancient days with the world we see.

To the Hebrews and early Christians, the world was packed with spirits.  Angels were constantly dropping in to give messages and advice, and demons were running amok possessing people.  Modern secularists will tell us that these were merely natural phenomena turned into supernatural events by ignorant and superstitious people. 

Sadly, a lot of mainstream Christians also think this is true, including a great number of Protestants who reject the notion that there could be more than one spiritual rival to God.  In contrast to the Orthodox (and Catholic) view of seraphs, saints and cherubim, they see only the Big Guy and everyone should just talk directly to him - no need to bother with the receptionist, messenger boys or any of the other heavenly bureaucracy.

Obviously this is sweeping generalization but it is so common as to be the default. 

Opposing the secularist model, the hosts posit a new one in which the spirits are still there, it's just that people are trying to rationalize them away.  "I don't see angels, so there can't be any" seems to be the preponderant view.

At the same time, however, we see people turning to non-Christian faiths that are on far shakier ground in terms of standards of proof.  Neopaganism is a going thing, in part because it also meshes better with our identity-driving world.  If there can be no universal faith open to all (because Christianity is racist), the next best option is updating the old tribal gods.

Consider also the number of shows hyping ghost stories or supernatural event.  These things often feature high-tech gadgets to record distant voices, cold spots, etc. seeking to validate the spirit world in a scientific way.  Yet here again, no reference to religion is apparent - when spirits are encountered, the investigators simply try to talk or merely psychoanalyze them.

I'll have more thoughts on this in later posts, but for now I'll close by recommending that you give it a listen.


Buffy sticks a stake in Joss Whedon

Sarah Michelle Gellar is, by modern standards of celebrity, a hermit.  She isn't tweeting constantly, blabbing to media about every issue and her political positions are generally unknown.

She got married and stayed married, and unlike Angelina Jolie, her face isn't a fixture on tabloid magazine covers.  She only surfaces when she's doing a project and wants to draw attention to it.

During the initial onslaught of #MeToo, I don't recall her expressing an opinion regarding "male feminist" uber-hypocrite Joss Whedon.  Now, however, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has driven a stake into Whedon's tottering career.

I'm of two minds on Hollywood's infamous casting couch.  On the one hand, it's exploitative and grossly immoral. 

On the other hand, such things have always been part of show business.  Throughout human history "actor" and "prostitute" have generally meant the same thing.  It was only in the last few decades that performers began to climb the social ladder and become respectable as a class.  I blame World War II, because so many entertainers (particularly movie stars like Clark Cable and Jimmy Stewart) dropped their careers and went to war.  That gave show business a reputation for honor and decency that it didn't really deserve.

To put it another way, I don't think anyone goes into an industry notorious for nude sex scenes and thinks that everything is totally moral and proper.  I'm not even going to mention the drugs and other goings on.  When a producer or director points links couch performance to movie roles, the obvious thing to do is leave.  Yes, it means giving up dreams of celebrity and fabulous wealth, but some prices are too high to pay.  Life is all about self-denial.

However, not everyone is that strong, and predators have ways of boxing in their prey, which is why I think the only way to win "the fame game" is not to play.

The key issue seems to be not that bad people did bad things, but that they failed to honor their contract.  The movie moguls of old really could make you a star if you catered to their whims.  Nowadays, Hollywood's audience and reach continues to shrink.  I'm not the first to note that Weinstein got dimed out in large part by middle-aged women whose careers had flatlined.

Whedon has similarly lost his golden touch, which makes his increasingly angry persona intolerable.  Hollywood itself has a whole genre of films about washed-up stars and their despair. 

The collapse of the studio system ushered in the era of the writer/producer/director auteur, and I think we're now seeing a similar collapse, with advanced yet affordable technology and online streaming allowing talented artists to bypass Hollywood altogether.  The day of having to find a distributor or raise millions of dollars from backers are quickly fading.  There is a massive audience hungry for content that Hollywood simply refuses to provide, and it will be interesting to see what comes next.

What that means is that the casting couch will have to find a new habitat.  The social ostracism of former apex predators isn't so much about a shift in values as it is about a declining population of prey.


The Cruelty of Roman Discipline: Titus Manlius

For the past few weeks I've been working my way through Livy's History of Rome, one of the few books from antiquity that has survived reasonably intact.

Livy was writing well after the fact, and like many historians of his time, saw his task as using the past for moral lessons about the present as well as a chronicle of things that had gone on before.  Where the two collide, drama and story generally win the day over unpleasant facts.

One celebrated episode in Roman history took place in 340 B.C. when Rome faced enemies on multiple fronts, the most dangerous one being a revolt of their Latin allies.  A stern man, Titus Manlius (love the names they had!) was elected consul for that year and his task was to crush the Latins.

I should mention that under the Roman Republic there were two consuls -  executives elected to one-year terms.  The idea was to prevent a return of monarchy and the consolidation of power into a single individual.  The Roman solution to this frequently was to create two identical offices which shared responsibility.  In times of great danger, however, the Senate could appoint a dictator (their term) with absolute power to defend the state, but only for a limited amount of time, usually six months.

In practice, the dictator was assigned a specific task and then expected to surrender their authority. 

Anyway, back to our story.  Passions are running high, and the Romans are eager to get to grips with their enemy.  Titus Manlius is worried that a chance encounter - say a duel among patrols - could lead to a skirmish and escalate into a battle, wrecking his plans.  He instead wants to maneuver the Latins into a position where he can crush them decisively.

He therefore gives an order that no one is to engage the enemy without his orders upon pain of death.

Naturally, this is tested and the example historians give is that his own son (also named Titus Manlius) was baited into battle by insults and totally defeated an enemy champion in a duel.

Manlius Junior not only wins the fight, but strips his fallen enemy of his weapons and armor (a big deal in ancient times) and brings the trophies back to his father.  Daddy Manlius looks at his son and orders the army to form up, presumably so he can give his son an award in front of them.

The troops fall into their ranks and then as expected, Manlius Senior announces that his son has distinguished himself in battle and awards him a medal.  He then announces that the duel was against orders and has his son beheaded.

This sends a shock wave through the whole army, which hitherto had been a bit lax about discipline.  After watching the general execute his son, they get serious about it.

I mention this episode because it is celebrated in Roman history.  Livy is writing more then 300 years later and he tells the story in a way that indicates that his readers already know it, they just don't know the context and the exact time period.  He's basically saying "Okay, so this is when that famous Titus Manlius thing took place.  We all know the basics of the story, but let me get into the details."

There are of course countless other variations of this storyline where a soldier disobeys orders in order to save lives or win a battle and gets simultaneously rewarded and punished, but this is to my knowledge the oldest version of it.

In more modern variations, the reward and punishment are less severe - a soldier gets promoted for valor and then demoted for insubordination, for example.  Or he wins a medal and is then put in the stockade for a few months.  The Romans, however, took pride in what they considered to be firm discipline.  To us, it looks cruel.

Objectively speaking, it is, and while the Romans (and Greeks) had many of the same virtues, their pagan culture was decidedly weak on mercy.  They knew it as a quality, sometimes praised it, often begged for it, but rarely granted it.  In the pre-Christian era, mercy was optional, something one might do to win a reputation or perhaps because it strategic value.

What I'm driving at is that there was no particular requirement for it.  Over the last few decades, Christianity has been subjected to heavy cultural criticism for supposedly being patriarchal or oppressive and (of late) even racist.  All of this is nonsense, and we're already getting a glimpse of the cruel morality that is intended to replace it - a "cancel culture" where apologies are demanded but never accepted and mercy is shown only to those who have sufficient clout to merit it.

Every moral question is reduced to the classic "who, whom" formulation, where there is no absolute standard of right and wrong, merely a question of who derives benefit.  If it's your team, it's okay.

Titus Manlius is an example of who one can take the virtues of discipline and courage and turn them into something absurdly cruel.

I should add that Game of Thrones was another great example in the popular culture of just how vicious a non-Christian world can be.  Some of the nastiness was simply low-talent writers trying to paper over their plot holes with salacious materials, but at its core the story has no real heroes.  Everyone remotely admirable gets killed or turned into a villain.

Even a cursory glance in Roman history shows that this isn't all that far-fetched.