Monday, April 30, 2012

A balance that does not tremble cannot weigh

Someone asked me yesterday, "I see you have a book called The Virgin and the Mousetrap. What's with the mousetrap?"

I might have said, "Read the book," but the book has been long out of print. It had the shortest shelf life of anything I've ever published.

The title comes from my analysis in that book of the Merode Altarpiece, a painting on three panels by a 15th-century master many scholars believe to be Robert Campin. The original now hangs in the Cloisters gallery of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Click to enlarge.)

The central panel of the painting shows the Annunciation, the archangel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she is to become the mother of Christ. The traditional iconography is here: the red gown and the lilies. Scholars have also assigned symbolic meaning to the snuffed candle, the books, the star in the folds of Mary's gown, and so on. But what struck me most forcefully is the artist's keen eye for things, the textures of wood, metal, cloth and stone. The carefully wrought iron of the candle sconces and fire irons. The gleaming brass of the hanging wash basin. The porcelain vase. The carved oak settle. We are escaping here from the oppressive supernaturalism of the Middle Ages, with its distrust of everything material, and entering a world in which human comfort is not to be despised. I love this central panel for its sense of repose, craft, intellectuality, ease, material contentment.

I wrote in the book: "The altarpiece evokes a harmony of material and spiritual concerns, a confluence of practical knowledge and moral aspirations. In this simple household scene, rendered on a cusp of history, the Flemish master has given us a vision of two worlds in perfect balance."

And now to the right panel, Joseph in his workshop. The setting is somewhat darker, the honed blades ominous, the furnishings and clothing Spartan. That ingenious mousetrap on the workbench (and another on the sill) has an iconographic meaning too; Saint Augustine on several occasions refers to Christ's crucifixion as "the devil's mousetrap " by which Satan is snared. But the mousetrap can also be read as a "better mousetrap," that proverbial symbol of science and invention, and, just possibly, a triumph over pestilence and disease.

In the century that followed the painting of the Merode altarpiece, science and technology consolidated a new alliance that led to the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. We can see outside Joseph's window a bit of the new commercial urban bustle that will give rise to the possibility of comfortable middle-class life we view in the central panel. But now, as I look afresh at Joseph in his shop, I am stuck by a kind a melancholy I did not sufficiently notice before, a certain anticipation by the artist of a dour materialism ungraced by art, spiritual yearning, or moral aspiration. Where have I seen this before? Oh, yes.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Lily of the valley

Click, and then again, to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Lauds -- a Saturday reprise

This is one of the two times each year when my morning walk along the Path takes me straight into the sunrise. That big yellow star seems to be lurking just behind the trees. (Click to enlarge.)

Within 20 light-years of Earth there are about 100 known stars. Of these, nearly 70 are tiny red dwarf stars, much less bright than the Sun, barely hot enough to ignite the fires of nuclear fusion that blaze at a star's core. These stars are so faint that they are not visible to the naked eye, even though they are among our closest neighbors.

The 20-light-year neighborhood includes about 15 orange stars, hotter and bigger than the red dwarfs but not as hot or bright as the Sun.

There are six yellow stars, including the Sun, with surface temperatures of about 6,000 degrees Celsius.

Only three stars in the solar neighborhood are brighter than the Sun: Procyon in Canis Minor, Altair in Aquila the Eagle, and Sirius in Canis Major. Sirius, a white-hot star, is the big boy on the block.

The star population is a pyramid: A few hot giants at the top, a crowd of cool dwarfs at the bottom.

The capstone stars burn fast and furiously and die violently, forging heavy elements like carbon and oxygen and spewing them into space to become part of new generations of stars and planets. The red dwarfs burn their hydrogen fuel so slowly they live for hundreds of billions of years. Because the universe is only about 14 billion years old, every red dwarf star that was ever born is still with us.

The Sun is less than 5 billion years old -- young enough to have heavy-element planets, but old enough for conscious life to have evolved on one of those planets.

I think of all of this as I walk each morning into that doorway of radiance, that nuclear furnace in the trees beyond the pool of mist. Like the eye of a jungle cat shining in darkness. The world's animal soul.

(This post originally appeared in November 2006.)

Friday, April 27, 2012

The seat of the soul

It was not my first visit. I had been there once before to talk with the great man, to the Castle of Cloux, near Amboise, in the valley of the Loire. He had been living there since 1516, at the invitation of Francis I, king of France.

He was 67 years old, bundled up in a thick fur wrap by a roaring fire. His face showed age but not infirmity. Long white hair fell about his shoulders. White beard. Thick, downswept brows shaded his eyes like awnings. A strong nose. And of course the mouth, serious yet generous, not unlike the mouth of the Christ he had painted on the wall of the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

The king likes to surround himself with luminaries -- artists, poets, philosophers, talented people of all sorts. Leonardo's reputation, of course, is known throughout Europe. It was inevitable that the king would draw him to France. A prize of war? So be it.

The last time I visited we talked about his paintings, only three of which had followed him to France. This time I wanted to hear about his anatomical studies. I had heard he had hundreds of drawings, recording the meticulous dissection of cadavers.

"Might I see them?" I asked.

Kindly, he aquiesqued, and asked his young apprentice and friend, Count Francesco Melzi, to fetch several thick portfolios.

As I carefully turned the sheets, I was stunned. Never had I seen such detailed representations of the human frame. Bones, muscles, tissues. Heart, lungs, stomach, liver.

"From life?" I asked, forgetting myself.

"From death," he replied with a slight smile. "Not so may years ago I had the privilege of working with Marcantonio della Torre, professor of anatomy at the University of Pavia. He gave me access to corpses."

As the thickly-annotated sheets slipped through my fingers I realized I was looking at something marvelous, a marriage of art and science.

"Extraordinary," I whispered.

"All a waste," he said. He closed his eyes.

"A waste? What do you mean?" I knew I was looking at documents of historic significance.

He rocked quietly for a moment, then looked into my eyes. "I was looking of the soul," he said. "All my life I have been trying to capture the human soul in my paintings, the ineffable essence of a man or woman. But all I was painting was the surface of a person, the face, the skin. What I wanted was something else, whatever it is that shines out through the eyes, that warms and animates the skin. I wanted the thing behind the gesture, the lamp that gives the light."


He pulled the fur robe more tightly about him. "I didn't find it. I didn't discover the seat of the soul. When I had taken the body apart, looked into its most secret recesses, all I had was a gory mess of tissue and blood."

"The soul had flown? Returned to its Maker?"

"Perhaps." The old man looked to Count Melzi, who smiled sympathetically. Then Leonardo returned his gaze to me. "Perhaps," he said. "Or perhaps what I was looking for was there all along, in the face, in the gestures, in the glow of skin. As the music is in the tuned lyre. Dismember the lyre, untune the strings…"

I looked again at the densely inscribed sheets in my hands, the flayed muscles, the sectioned valves. "Sir," I whispered. "If I may be permitted. There is no music without wood and fret and strings. You have given us a …"

"Shush," he said. He closed his eyes and his chin dropped to his chest.

Melzi indicated it was time to go. I placed the anatomical drawings in their portfolios, and looked again at the old man in the chair. A great soul. Of science and of art.

Thursday, April 26, 2012


In Stephen Crane's American classic, The Red Badge of Courage, young Henry Fleming goes off to war fired by dreams of heroic sweep and grandeur. "He had read of marches, sieges, conflicts, and had longed to see it all. His busy mind had drawn for him large pictures extravagant in color, lurid with breathless deeds." In the war to preserve the Union he would mingle in one of the great affairs of the earth. He longs, yes longs, for the symbolic wound, the blood-red badge of courage.

The first foes Fleming encounters are some Confederate pickets along a river bank. One night while on guard duty he converses across the stream with one of them. "Yank," the Confederate says to him, "yer a right dum good feller." That friendly sentiment cast onto the still air makes the young soldier momentarily regret the war.

By novel's end, regrets have multiplied, and Fleming has rid himself forever of the "red sickness of battle." He turns with a lover's thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks -- and peace.

I grew up with the Civil War. My childhood home was a dozen miles from Chickamauga, and within sight of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. Beginning 150 years ago this June, my hometown, Chattanooga, Tennessee, became a nexus about which turned the fate of the Union.

I don't recall, however, any sense of romance about that long ago conflict. Possibly because my grandmother's house, where I spent much of my time, was closer to the National Cemetery where thousands of Civil War battle casualties are buried than to the battlefields where they died -- wave upon wave of white grave markers. And besides, another war was raging, in Europe and the Pacific, that was far more likely to capture the imagination of a pre-teen boy.

Somehow I have managed to live 75 years with tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks, and -- at least for myself -- peace. Only once have I held a gun in my hands, my uncle's .22 at age twelve. Only once, on that same occasion, have I used a gun to kill a living thing, a squirrel. For all of this, I count myself a lucky person, grateful that other men and women, more unlucky or more courageous than me, assumed the burden I managed to avoid.

And now we have a new kind of warfare, targeted killing by unmanned drones and robots, lethal strikes against militants and -- inevitably -- civilians halfway around the world by controllers sitting in front of computer monitors in Nevada. "Bug splat" the victims are called by the controllers, from the blurry demises they observe on their screens. No red badges of courage here.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Questing and arresting – part 3

Sister Elizabeth Johnson has a chapter in her book Quest for the Living God called “Creator Spirit in the Evolving World.” Like the other sisters I have met, she unequivocally embraces and celebrates the scientific story of creation, beginning with the big bang 13.7 billion years ago, up to and including the evolution of life and consciousness by natural selection. She sees no need for such ad hoc interventions as “intelligent design.”

She writes:
To sum up: ecological theology proposes that the Creator Spirit dwells at the heart of the natural world, graciously energizing its evolution from within, compassionately holding all creatures in their finitude and death, and drawing the world forward toward an unimaginable future. Throughout the vast sweep of cosmic and biological evolution, the Spirit embraces the material root of life and its endless new potential, empowering the cosmic process from within. The universe, in turn, is self-regulating and self-transcending, energized from the spiraling galaxies to the double helix of the DNA molecule by the dance of divine vivifying power.
Johnson even allows for chance and chaos in the universe’s unfolding. “We should not be surprised,” she writes, “to find divine creativity hovering very close to turbulence.”

Except for the splashes of anthropomorphic language, none of this is very far from how the religious naturalist understands the universe. And since all language is necessarily embedded in a human matrix, the only alternative to some measure of anthropomorphism may be silence, which is the preferred stance of the religious naturalist but does not lend itself to collective celebration.

One can understand why the bishops might be suspect of Johnson’s theology, especially with the idea that human self-consciousness might have arisen by natural processes, without reference to special creation. The bishops’ committee writes:
Although a scientific explanation of life in purely material terms already presents considerable difficulties that could be discussed, the crucial issue is that of self-consciousness. Simply put, human self-consciousness cannot be wholly explained as the result of material causes. The multiple neurons of the physical brain cannot account for the unitary self-consciousness of the human person. The functioning of the brain cannot of itself explain human acts of knowing and willing. This has been amply demonstrated by various philosophical arguments. There is therefore one stage in evolution that cannot be fully accounted for by scientific explanation, that of the appearance of self-conscious intelligence and free will.
Of course, the bishops don’t know any more about the origin of self-consciousness than I do, so they roll out that dowdy old God of the gaps. Give Johnson this: She has a grander and more comprehensive understanding of the vivifying presence of God in the world than do the bishops, who appear to be locked into the divine artificialism of pre-scientific thought.

But the bishops are not stupid. If human self-consciousness arises from natural, material processes, then this has obvious implications for the idea of personal immortality. And if the human self is not literally immortal in the traditional sense, then any claim by the bishops to possess “the keys to the Kingdom” is a hollow basis for authority.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Questing and arresting -- part 2

To speak of God as holy mystery, permeating the world, as does Sister Elizabeth Johnson in Quest for the Living God, is to be part of an ancient mystical tradition that in Catholicism, and elsewhere, has leavened dogmatic theology. And certainly the religious naturalist is aware that the prodigious fullness and complexity of existence speaks of something that is beyond our powers to understand, something that evokes feelings of awe, wonder and gratitude.

But, like other Catholic theologians I admire, Johnson goes on to refer to the mystery as gracious, and loving, and as inviting us to participate in that graciousness and love. And indeed, that "invitation" can lead one to the kind of life of inclusiveness and love of others that I so admire in the professed women I have met. Johnson's book is so imbued with the essence of Christian love that it's hard to imagine the fusty and disapproving reaction of the bishops.

But the religious naturalist is loath to endow the mystery with qualities such as graciousness and love and invitation, which are, after all, human characteristics. Indeed, the very notion of "theology," god-knowledge, would seem to be a step too far. Mystery and -ology, it seems to me, are mutually exclusive.

As someone who professes orthodoxy, Johnson comes up against the adamant doctrinal core of the Incarnation and Resurrection. If these are historical facts, then God has entered history not as mystery, but as flesh and blood. And defied the laws of nature, to boot.

Some of the sisters I have met seem to take these core doctrines as symbolic, instructive in the way great myths can be instructive and energizing without being literally true. For them, Jesus is teacher and inspiration, a person who represented a turning point in history with his call to universal love. From the bishops’ point of view, denial of a literal Resurrection is a heretical bridge too far. "If Christ be not raised from the dead…etc."

It is hard for me to get a fix on Johnson's exact understanding of Incarnation and Resurrection -- she speaks often of the risen Jesus -- but I don’t see much that the bishops could object to. What I do see is a vision of what the Church might be that is altogether to be wished for.

In the meantime, it is the Church of the bishops that one has to deal with, with its roster of doctrines that take no notice of four centuries of the empirical investigation of nature, or of the seventeen centuries of human learning since Nicea. The age of miracles and magic is past. Still, religious naturalists can embrace with the Catholic sisters the ineffable mystery, and together try to build a world where love and justice prevail.

(Johnson's book and the bishops' response touch on matters scientific. More on that tomorrow.)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Questing and arresting

Here we go again. From last Thursday's New York Times:
The Vatican has appointed an American bishop to rein in the largest and most influential group of Catholic nuns in the United States, saying that an investigation found that the group had “serious doctrinal problems."

The Vatican’s assessment, issued on Wednesday, said that members of the group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, had challenged church teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

The sisters were also reprimanded for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.”
My first response is: These guys just don't get it. But, of course, they do get it. These forward-looking professed Catholic women -- the Conference represents 80 percent of Catholic sisters in the United States -- threaten the Church's creaky, anachronistic power structure, with its trailing ambience of paternalism, misogyny, Jansenism, homophobia, triumphalism, and medieval dogmatic theology.

During my years as a Boston Globe columnist it was my inspiring privilege to get to know several communities of Catholic nuns. The sisters were comfortable with my brand of religious naturalism, and I admired their socially and ecologically-engaged Catholicism. They practice a kind of Christianity that is inclusive and ecological. They might have just come down from listening to the Sermon on the Mount, fired up with a love for the creation that does not discriminate against "the other" or quibble over fine points of obtuse doctrine.

For this they get figuratively or literally hauled before committees of male prelates and made to explain themselves. For the life of me, I don't know why they stay. But their faith is sincere, and they love the Church, more than the institutional Church loves them in return.

Last year, Elizabeth A. Johnson, a Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University and a member of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, was raked over the coals by an investigating committee of American bishops, who advised that her most recent book, Quest for the Living God, should be removed from Catholic schools and universities. Of course, the book will not be removed from any but the most fundamentalist Catholic schools. In fact, being singled out for doctrinal condemnation insured that the book would be more widely read. Johnson's response to the committee, and their response to her response, are easily available on the web (scroll down for link to document).

Johnson is lashed by the bishops for many "failings," not least for promoting a notion of God that emphasizes unspeakable mystery. No word, no title, no human characteristic, no analogy, no metaphor is adequate to encompass the living presence of that mystery in the world, according to Johnson. It is a notion of God not so different -- at first glance -- from the agnosticism of the religious naturalist, and one can readily understand why the bishops felt impelled to act. After all, their patriarchal power is modeled after a God who is Father, Lord and King.

(A second –- more nuanced -- glance at Johnson's theology tomorrow. She and the bishops are also at odds on issues of scientific interest. More of that later, too.)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Fractions of light

Click, and then again, to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Of nightingales and whistling plovers -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared September 12, 2007.)

Exactly 220 years ago today, Gilbert White, the curate of Selborne, England, wrote in his journal:
Lapwings leave the low grounds, & come to the uplands in flocks. A pair of honey-buzzards, & a pair of wind-hovers appear to have young in the hanger. The honey-buzzard is a fine hawk, & skims about in a majectic manner.
White is the granddaddy of all of us who write about the natural world. I own two copies of The Natural History of Selborne: the little Oxford World Classics edition; and the Frederwick Warne edition of a century ago, with its associated extras. Best of all, in a funny way, is the MIT edition of White's journals I keep dipping into. There is something fresh and unstudied about the fragmentary journals, as if one were in the company of White himself.

I once had the very great pleasure of visiting Selborne, a tiny village nestled in a quiet dale about forty miles southwest of London. I walked through the rooms of the beautiful old house on the village green where White lived from 1730 until his death in 1793. I visited the garden behind the house, where he tended vegetables, flowers, and fruit, and where Timothy the tortoise presided. I tramped the beechwood "hanger" above the village, where White saw the lapwings, and the path that follows the gentle brook that flows from Selborne village to the ruins of old Selborne Priory.

To visit Selborne is to step back into history, into a time, when the natural environment still pressed close upon consciousness and the migrations of lapwings could serve to punctuate the year.
Jan. 15. Hailstones in the night.

Jan. 25. Snow gone. The wryneck pipes.

Feb. 17. Partridges are paired.

Feb. 21. Ashed the two meadows.

Mar. 14. Daffodil blows.
White's world has nearly vanished. Today, the products of the Industrial Revolution press close upon Selborne. The village itself is protected -- like Walden Pond, it is a place of pilgrimage for naturalists from around the world -- but a drive of three miles in any direction from the village brings one back to the reality of busy highways, railroads, electrical pylons, and urban sprawl. Preserving what is left of the world that White so affectionately recorded will require vigilance and love.
Apr. 10. Therm. 72!!! Prodigious heat: clouds of dust.

Apr. 12. Wheat mends. Barley-grounds work well.

Apr. 18. A nightingale sings in my fields. Young rooks.

Apr. 20. Some whistling plovers in the meadows toward the forest.

Apr. 27. Many swallows. Strong Aurora!!!

Friday, April 20, 2012

The 2nd Law of thermodynamics

Before I leave John Updike's bouquet of odes to natural processes, let me share these lines from "Ode to Entropy":
Death exists nowhere in nature, not
In the minds of birds or the consciousness of flowers,
Not even in the numb brain of the wildebeest calf
Gone under to the grinning crocodile, nowhere
In the mesh of woods or the tons of sea, only
In our forebodings, our formulae.
Can that be true? That no other creature than ourselves anticipates non-existence?

Surely, other animals experience danger. The wildebeest calf darts to avoid the lunging crocodile. The rabbit in my neighbor's yard watches warily as I pass. The fearful infant chimp clings in its mother's protective embrace. Is this a threat response without awareness of fatal consequence? Is obliviousness of death the default condition of non-human nature?

I suppose, in the absence of a common language, there is no way to know for certain what goes on in a chimpanzee's or gorilla's brain. Nor do we know when and how the idea of personal immortality arose in the minds of humans. Funerary evidence would seem to suggest that a belief in immortality was universal among our ancestors. It is, however, a belief that flies in the face of everything modern science has learned about the nature of a human self.

For the great majority of humans, faith in an afterlife remains firmly entrenched. For myself, I have no greater expectation than that -- like Updike's tossed banana peel -- I might nourish the roadside chicory.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Philosophy 101

If I were going to teach a course in philosophy (he said with tongue only partly in cheek), I would use for my text seven poems of John Updike, collected in a volume called Facing Nature, called "Seven Odes to Seven Natural Processes." Individually, the poems celebrate rot, evaporation, growth, fragmentation, entropy, crystallization and healing.

By "healing," for example, Updike doesn't mean some sort of spiritual redemption that you might find talked about in a traditional philosophy course, but the kind of biological healing that puts a scab on a wound, the "brilliant microscopic engineers," the platelets, threads of fibrin, lymphocytes, and microphages. "Our body loves us," Updike exults "and, even while the spirit drifts dreaming,/ works at mending the damage that we do."

These are long poems, filled with classic Updike wit, his canny gift for metaphor, his keen appreciation of science. Mostly the poems describe the physical context of "our tremulous venture," the healing that repairs the scraped knee, yes, but also the entropy, rot, and fragmentation that chisels away at our integrity. Even growth, which sounds benign, finds its fulfillment in senescence and death; the wound's scab can delay but not eliminate fragmentation's final bite. "Time's line being a one-way street,/ we must walk the tight rope or fly," our poet counsels.

Disintegration, yes, and death, but regeneration too. "The banana peel tossed from the Volvo/ blackens and rises as roadside chicory." All process is reprocessing, Updike says; give thanks for gradual ceaseless rot, nature's merciful counterplot.

Give thanks? How, then, in the grip of these natural processes over which we have no efficacious control, do we create that elusive and long-sought thing, the examined life, the transcendent self? When entropy's heartless arrow promises to grind every lofty cathedral and dog-eared book to dust, how do we assert that hopeful cry, "I was here -- and it mattered"?

Answering that question is, of course, the only reason for a course in philosophy. Art is an answer. Updike's works fill four shelves here in the college library where I write, which was Updike's way of paying attention. By paying attention we become, if even briefly in the great scheme of things, participants in the universe's consciousness of itself, which is, I suppose, no small thing. Paying attention, as many saints and poets have declared, is the highest form of prayer.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam

And so it begins. On the woodland floor. The first paired leaves of the wild-lily-of-the-valley. The nodding blossom of the bellwort. The five-petaled gift of the wood anemone.

The planet leans into the Sun. That old random tilt. Twenty-three-and-a-half degrees. It could have been more, or less. It could have been zero. If it had been zero, our lives would have been different in a myriad of ways. Not just the transformation of our physical circumstances in a world without seasons. Our psychic lives, too.

The annual cycle of the seasons -- the departure and return of the Sun -- is the progenitor of our most primitive conceptual categories. "The chief difference between the man of the archaic and traditional societies and the man of the modern societies with their strong imprint of Judeo-Christianity lies in the fact that the former feels himself indissolubly connected with the Cosmos and the cosmic rhythms, whereas the latter insists that he is connected only with History," writes Mircea Eliade at the beginning of his classic work, The Myth of the Eternal Return.

Even the Christian story, for all of its historicity, participates in the archetype. Jesus is another of Joseph Campbell's "heroes with a thousand faces," who retreats into the darkness of Calvary to return in glory at the equinox. The cycle of the solar season -- as Eliade, Campbell, Frazer, and many others have documented -- is impressed upon our subconscious as firmly as flesh itself.

Of course, these days we can insulate ourselves from the diurnal and annual cosmic rhythms. Heat and light can come and go at the flick of a switch, and with every flick we become more psychically removed from connection with the cosmos. But wait! There, just there, pushing aside last summer's decaying leaf litter, those two green hands, folded as if in prayer, Introibo ad altare Dei, the wild-lily-of-the-valley, the tip, the tilt, the eternal return.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


My MacBook laptop has been annoying me with glitches that are signs of old age (or planned obsolescence). Am I sorry? Not really. At last I can justify buying what I've wanted for several years -- a MacBook Air.

And here it is, in my trembling hands, in a package so sleek and slim that one wonders where there is room for the circuitry, flash drive and battery. For my money, the Air is the most sublime manifestation of human technology on the planet today.

As a graduate student in physics in the early 1960s, I availed myself of a Univac computer that sat in the central space of a large building built for it alone. Now I lie here on the couch holding a machine vastly more powerful than the Univac. And with a few clicks of these beautiful back-lit keys I have instant access to … well, to almost anything I can imagine that can be presented on a screen. I am reminded of Arthur Clarke's 3rd Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It was a stunning ride, from Eniac to Univac to personal computer to the Air, all in one brief lifetime.

In a recent issue of Science, an international group of researchers addressed the question of cumulative culture. Why is it that in a few tens of thousands of years humans have advanced from small groups of hunter/gatherers armed with sharp sticks to a planet-dominating species connected by the internet and Airs, while our nearest primate cousins are still digging termites out of holes with twigs as they did all those thousands of years ago?

The researchers presented young human children, chimpanzees, and capuchin monkeys with a puzzle box that required sequential problem-solving to obtain rewards. Well, it's a long story, but what stands out is the tendency of the human children to share knowledge and rewards, something not manifested by the chimps or capuchins.

It is no big surprise that pro-social behavior should be related to cumulative culture. The larger question is perhaps why humans evolved pro-social behaviors. Collective hunting? Fire and cooking? Language? Brain size? Delayed maturity? My goodness, there is no end of possible contributing factors, and essentially no way in this chicken-and-egg conundrum to sort out causality.

Maybe we'll never know what was the evolutionary tipping point that unleashed the human rise to planetary dominance. If pro-social behaviors are the cause or result or cumulative culture hardly matters. My new Air was made in China, by people who are as much entranced by these sleek machines as I am. We are bound together by DNA and WiFi, poking at our puzzle boxes, and -- when we are at our best -- sharing knowledge and rewards.

Monday, April 16, 2012


I have written here on several occasions over the years about Sigrid Undset's epic saga of 14th-centuey Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter. Not so long ago I mentioned it as my favorite novel.

Faithful commentator Paul told us the other day that he has now read the whole 1144-page trilogy and offered this appraisal:
It certainly is a compelling portrait of 14th century Norway, well written/translated, sensitively drawn in terms of human aspirations/conflicts, as well as in terms of the natural world.

BUT the moral framework is almost entirely structured in the 'narrow' terms of Catholic dogma and its dreary world view with its god-drenched preoccupation with sin, guilt, need for redemption, its suppression of natural human impulses. It's a great story/saga but it's seen through such a narrow Catholic lens that I would not call it one of the greatest novels.

What is it then that for me does make say Crime and Punishment a truly great novel? Raskolnikov's crime and his redemption explore moral themes that are universal and 'philosophical' in nature -- themes explored in such a way that they are not confined to the trappings of any one tradition. Raskolnikov's sense of guilt and his resignation to his punishment stem much more from his natural conscience than from the dictates of any law of man or dreary Catholic God. Again his redemption and moral regeneration begin, not by offering himself up to the 'will' of some jealous God, but under faithful (flesh and blood) Sonya's loving influence.
My first response is, yes, of course, Undset's story is told through a Catholic lens. She is, after all, writing about 14th-century Norway. Anything else would be an anachronism. People in that time and place lived in fear of elf maidens and vengeful gods, including that new fearsome and demanding Christian God from the south who spied out every sin and promised terrible retribution

But Paul's comments raise a larger question.

The human drama is inevitably reflected through a cultural lens, be it that of 14th-century Norway or 19th-century Russia. Cultures vary -- Kristin's understanding of Christianity is certainly different than Raskolnikov's -- but human nature is pretty much constant, at least over intervals of mere hundreds of years; let's call it, as Paul does, "natural conscience." Feelings of guilt and longing for redemption may be as much a part of our biological DNA as bilateral symmetry. We can be sure, however, that Kristin would be troubled enough of conscience -- her adulterous affair, her defiance of parent, her complicity in the death of her lover's wife -- with or without the assumed existence of her "dreary Catholic God." And who's to say that Raskolnikov's nagging remorse is not stoked at least in part by the Christian culture of which he is a rebellious part? A jealous divinity, family shame, class consciousness, intellectual hubris: These are cultural contexts. The great dramas of men and women making their way in the world are universal. In God's presumed presence or absence, Kristin and Raskolnikov wrestle with their respective passions. And Kristin's Simon and Raskolnikov's Sonya proffer redemption through the gift of unearned love.

Kristin's story touched me more deeply than Raskolnikov's no doubt because I share more of her cultural premises, not because Undset's book is somehow objectively greater than Dostoevsky's. I can understand how another person might prefer the latter.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Still light

Click, and then again, to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Hanging on -- a Saturday reprise

Here is a painting I've had as my desktop in recent weeks, Winslow Homer's Snap the Whip, 1872, one of America's sentimental favorites. Click to enlarge.

A simpler, more innocent time. Boys at recess, barefoot in the grass. Hand-me-down clothes. Autumn wildflowers, trees turning to red and gold. A fumbling Ulysses S. Grant is in the White House, the country is at peace after a horrendous civil war, and the Panic of 1873 and subsequent depression is still in the offing. Anyway, all of that political and economic stuff is a bit of a pother and far away. The sun is high in the sky, there's an apple in the pocket, and only the oldest boy is thinking yet about the eternal mystery that is girls.

Yes, a lovely sentimental antidote to the busy rancor of our own time, the incessant noise of the television, the attack ads, the news of war. How blissful to be twelve years old again, fit and healthy with the grass between your toes. Never mind that these boys had a life expectancy at birth of about 40 years, and that many of them had probably already lost a sibling or parent; when the sun's out, and it's recess, and you've got eight pals to play with…

But that's not why I like the painting. I love the way the arc of the whip reflects the curve of the hill. The vanishing point of the red schoolhouse and three white shirts -- everything converges on the two adults in the distance, the grown-up world that inevitably awaits.

Between the three boys who anchor the whip and the six who resist the centrifugal force that breaks the chain is the schoolhouse, the open door and window bracketing the anchor's grip. Maybe it's because I was a teacher all my life, but I like to think that the "message" of the painting has to do with education, with what goes on when the boys and girls are called back inside by the teacher's bell -- the glue that holds a civil society together when the whiplash of events threatens to tear us apart. Not indoctrination. Rather, reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, the basic skills that enable an individual to explore the world creatively. History, geography and science, with their lessons of diversity, tolerance and respect for empirical fact. The ameliorating influence of poetry and art.

And one of these boys, maybe the oldest in the center, will become a teacher himself, maintaining an unbroken chain of accumulated knowledge that anchors us to the past and propels us together into a mutually supportive and secure future.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Another New York experience

On the evening of Holy Saturday I happened to be walking down Amsterdam Avenue on the upper west side, near Columbia University, and passed the Episcopal cathedral of St. John the Divine, a massive, never-finished, architectural mish-mash of Romanesque and Gothic that seems to have had for its only purpose out-doing the Roman Catholic cathedral downtown.

I stepped inside.

And there, in the vestibule of the un-illuminated church, white-robed celebrants were kindling the Easter fire.

The Paschal candle was lit, the flame was shared to lesser candles, and the clergy and acolytes processed down the central aisle, where -- off there in the darkness -- the congregation waited.

I was surprised to discover that I was deeply moved.

Of, course, there was an element of nostalgia; many times in my youth I experienced the ritual lighting of the Paschal candle. And there is no denying the beauty of the ceremony -- those feeble flames in that vast dark space, the albs, the chant.

But I think what moved me was something deep and resilient in my own spiritual make-up, something completely natural and profoundly pagan, more firmly grounded in Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough than in the Nicene Creed.

Whatever the Christian symbolism of the new Easter fire, the ritual is surely grounded in the northern cycle of the seasons, the equinoctial return of the Sun after its southern excursion, a magical participation in a natural cycle.

We are knowledgeable enough today to realize that the diurnal and annual cycles of cold and warmth, dark and light, barrenness and fertility, will happen with or without our participation, but the lingering residues of the ancient liturgies can, if we let them, remind us that for all our technological savvy we are still part of nature.

That's what moved me in the dark nave of St. John the Divine: Not the ostensible evocation of the supernatural, but a more visceral stirring of the blood -- flesh and bone, light and dark, heat and cold -- something rapturously sensual, sexual, the planet spinning on its tilted course, bread and wine, oil and wax, the helical stuff of life twisting and twining in every cell of my body with an inexhaustible urgency -- a surfeit of mystery that calls for acknowledgement, celebration, reenactment, quite independently of any superimposed theology.

The miracle is everywhere.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Breaking the grid

While in New York City this past weekend I had the chance to the see the 8-foot-long, hand-drawn plan adopted by the Commissioners exactly 200 years ago for the future development of the city. The map (a portion of which is shown above) is the centerpiece of an exhibit called "The Greatest Grid" at the Museum of the City of New York.

The colonial and post-Revolutionary city had developed more or less willy-nilly at the southern end of Manhattan Island. The new plan called for a rigid grid of north-south avenues and east-west streets embracing the rest of the island. Numbered avenues. Numbered streets. A grid that made no concessions to nature -- not to topography, nor watercourses, nor shorelines, nor field or forest. An assertion of utter and paramount human dominion. Of rectangular efficiency. Of economic reductionism. Nature was not consulted.

And so it was. And so it is. With few exceptions.

The ancient Native American trail that traversed the island north to south managed to resist the grid to become the diagonally-slicing boulevard known today as Broadway. This defiance of rectangularity gave the city some of its liveliest spaces, most prominently Times Square. Times Square throbs with human excitement, but -- nature? -- you'd be hard pressed to find so much as a dandelion sprouting from a crack.

The great miracle of Manhattan is the gaping hole in the grid, that vast living lung which is Central Park, completed in 1857, Frederick Law Olmsted's brilliant acknowledgement that nature has something to teach us, even about what it means to be civilized. To be sure, Central Park is a mammoth work of human design and engineering, but to his credit Olmstead worked on a canvas that was nature as he found it. It was not wilderness he gave us, but wilderness transformed by conscious spirit.

To step out of the grid for a walk in the park, as I did this past Sunday, is to be reminded that, body and soul, we are organic beings who will only thrive and prosper in the future if we can carry with us some measure of the organic milieu that gave us birth -- nature embellished by human art and artifice.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


I have this fantasy of arriving at the Pearly Gates. Saint Peter checks his online ledger: "Yep, you're in," he says.

I look over his shoulder and see a vast white building stretching into the distance. A big sign on the roof reads "ID Inc."

"Is that building what I think it is?" I ask.

"That's where we design creatures for new planets," he responds. "I see here you have degrees in physics and engineering. Would you be interested in a job?"

"A job? In heaven?"

"We find that a lot of folks find they have too much time on their hands. Eternity, you know. Some folks volunteer in the cafeteria. Other's baby sit in Limbo. With your tech background, I just thought you might be interested in Intelligent Design."

"I've forgotten most of what I used to know," I said.

Peter smiled. "Once you're inside, it will all come back."

I said: "That ID building looks humungous. It seems to go on forever."

"Well, bear in mind that countless new planets are coming into existence all the time, requiring complete floras and faunas. We tried outsourcing some design to Foxconn, but found them too -- how shall I say it? -- mundane. They wanted pandas everywhere."

"Well, it sounds like fun," I said. "Maybe when I get settled. As a matter of fact, I have a few ideas. The Lord in his wisdom made the fly…"

"…and then forgot to tell us why. Yes, I know. We tend to get a lot of complaints. You can't please everyone."

"Musca domestica. A superb design, but needs some color. Perhaps iridescence. New dietary habits…"

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," said Peter, somewhat impatiently. "The Boss rather likes the common house fly. One of his personal designs. It's not all about you, you know."

"I have some other intelligent ideas," I said. "For example, why termites? Why viruses? Why senescence? Why…"

"Yes, yes," said Peter, tapping briskly at his keyboard. "We'll start you out in the cafeteria, and take it from there."

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Easter Sunday

Click, and then again, to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

All night, in the dar -- a Saturday reprise

Why do we so admire the poetry of Mary Oliver? She is not the most technically proficient poet around, and there is a disquieting sameness to her work. But we come back to her again and again. My volumes of Oliver's collected poems are the most dog-eared of any on my shelf.

I think it is something about the way Oliver is able to get out of her body and into the skin of a hummingbird, a swan, a snake, or a black bear. She is a shape-shifter, a shaman. When she describes a grasshopper moving its jaws this way and that, we almost feel it is Oliver's own animal spirit behind those bulging orthopteran eyes.

It is a gift to have that sort of sympathy with the natural world; a greater gift to have the language to give it expression. Her poems are spells, incantations, as if she learned her craft at some ancient druid's knee. "My work is loving the world," she says, in her newest collection of poems, Thirst:
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird --
      equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
The new volume takes us somewhere we have not been before. She has lost her partner of more than forty years. Thirst is a book of grievings -- elegies between two hard covers, which are the old human longing for a Heaven where there is no loss and the modern self that knows that death is final. We follow her into that thirsty place, and watch, and watch, as she tries to create another Kingdom of "grace, and imagination..."
...and the multiple sympathies: to be as a leaf, a rose,
      a dolphin, a wave rising
slowly then briskly out of the darkness to touch
      the limpid air, to be God's mind's
servant, loving with the body's sweet mouth--its kisses, its

(This post originally appeared in 2007.)

Friday, April 06, 2012

Eat your spinach, it's good for you

I'm not quite sure how I got on the mailing list of Notre Dame University's Center for Philosophy of Religion. I have written extensively on topics of mutual concern. And I am an eight-year graduate of the university with a sincere affection for my alma mater. In any case, I am happy to receive the Center's occasional newsletter.

Let me say at once that I find much to admire about the Center and its mission. Their investigations, although grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition, are open to insights from other traditions, including the likes, apparently, of agnostics like me. The current fellows profiled in the latest newsletter appear to be a lively mix of inquiring minds.

Prominent among the Center's research topics is the "Problem of Evil in Modern and Contemporary Thought." Brave of them to take on a question that has bedeviled theists for thousands of years: Why does an all-good and all-powerful God allow evil in the world? If God loves us unreservedly, why do the innocent suffer, sometimes excruciating agony?

Traditional "resolutions" of the paradox are grounded in our ignorance: We cannot know what God has in mind when he allows suffering. As Gary Gutting writes in the current newsletter: "We have no way of knowing whether we humans might be the victims of necessity. For example, we do not know whether there is or will be some other, far more advanced, species for whose sake God will allow us to be annihilated or suffer endlessly." Or as others say: God allows suffering for the benefit of the sufferer in ways, in our ignorance, we cannot comprehend.

For example, the "free-will solution" to the problem of evil suggests that (as Gutting writes) "the freedom of moral agents may be an immense good, worth God's tolerating horrendous wrong-doing."

One might think this "solution" of the problem of evil would satisfy an agnostic; after all, we are ever ready to admit our ignorance. But the ignorance of the skeptical theist and the ignorance of the agnostic, I would contend, are of different sorts. The first allows one to believe what one already assumes to be true; the second fences one's knowledge about with unknowing.

For the skeptical theist, ignorance is an invitation; for the agnostic, ignorance is a caution.

(I will be traveling this weekend. Anne will be here Sunday. I’ll be back on Wednesday.)

Thursday, April 05, 2012


I picked up a paperback from the free-book table of the college library, a novel by John Williams called Stoner.

I had never heard of author or title. The title suggested a subject in which I had no interest. But the publisher -- the New York Review of Books -- and an introduction by John McGahern, prompted me to take an look. I tucked it in my book bag and took it home for a read.

Williams was a half-generation older than me (1922-1994), and a life-long professor of English literature at the University of Denver. "Stoner" is the surname of his protagonist. William Stoner is a teacher of English literature at the University of Missouri (where Williams went to graduate school), although a half-generation older than the author.

This is a book about teaching, as a job, as a vocation, as a passion. It is a novel full of heartbreak and sorrow, and occasional moments of transcendent joy. But at its core it is the story of a man who loved literature and felt no greater commandment than to share his love with those oh-too-few students who are in love with learning.

At one point, rather late in his career, Stoner reflects:
He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man.
The first requirement of good teaching: That the book be true. That is, that the teacher believes that what he or she teaches partakes of the truth of the world -- plane geometry, the novels of Jane Austen, the disposition of troops on the battlefield at Gettysburg, the evolution of life on Earth. The subject matter. Not the private prejudices and foibles of the teacher.

Great teaching is not indoctrination, but the meeting of open minds over a text. Not for the sake of the text itself, as some contemporary academics would have it, but the text as a door to the fulfillment and happiness of the "reader."

During my forty years in the classroom, I doubt if any student could have detected my religion, or political persuasion, or the joys and sorrows of my private life -- unless, of course, I was asked in confidence outside of class. It was my job, my vocation, and my passion to elucidate a text -- the physical world -- in so far as I was able. If in so doing, the text enriched the lives of my students, I earned my keep. If I conveyed a contagious joy and passion for lifelong learning, so much the better.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Ice capades

For decades now, I have watched climate scientists at work, vicariously though my daughter's membership in that community. I have not detected any disposition to interpret data one way or the other because of self-interest, peer pressure or conspiracy. Indeed, I watched Mo take on the establishment with her tectonic uplift theory for the ice ages (which was subsequently the subject of a Nova program). The theory would rise or fall with the data. It rose.

That's what peer review, reproducibility, and independent evidence is all about.

Her latest paper (Nature, March 22) provides further evidence that climatologists are not willy-nilly stirring up worst-case scenarios of global warming disaster.

There is evidence on the ground in Bermuda and the Bahamas that sea level during an interglacial warming 400,000 years ago was 20 meters higher than today. Such a rise can only be accounted for by the catastrophic melting of the massive East Antarctica ice sheet (or perhaps a super tsunami).

A 20-meter sea-level rise! Now that would be something to worry about. You could gondola through the streets of New York and board and disembark through third-story windows. Venice would swim with the fishes.

But wait. The Earth is rather like a hard rubber ball. Squeeze it in one place, it bulges out in another. Put heavy ice caps on the northern continents and the underlying crust sinks. Away from the ice caps, in Bermuda and the Bahamas, it rises. Melt the continental ice during an interglacial and the crust rebounds there and sinks elsewhere. At least half of that apparent 20-meter sea-level rise was because of crustal subsidence. The East Antarctic ice sheet did not collapse.

Well, that's a quick explanation; here's another description. The evidence and data analysis are in the Nature paper.

So, friends, it would appear that the East Antarctic ice sheet is not about to melt anytime soon. The worst case global-warming scenario has been mitigated. Instead of stepping out of your gondola at the third floor of your New York destination, you can disembark on the second story.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Knee-jerk science?

Over recent years I have watched with astonishment as the issue of global warming -- essentially a scientific question -- has become increasingly politicized. If you want to find believers and deniers, you will discover them almost exclusively on the political left and right, respectively. For most people engaged in the debate, data is irrelevant.

There are three questions. 1) Is warming real? 2) Is it at least partly the result of human activities? 3) What should we do about it?

The first two questions are amenable to scientific analysis. The answer to the third question will involve politics and economics, which in turn will reference scientific predictions for the severity of climate change, violent weather, sea-level rise, and so on.

Let us admit immediately that all three questions are hard to answer with certainty -- global climate is horrendously difficult to model, with many variables and feedbacks -- and not all scientists agree on the answers. But this much is certain: An extremely broad international scientific consensus exists that the first two questions are answered in the affirmative. A less robust consensus suggests that the results of warming are potentially severe enough to warrant present action to diminish greenhouse gases.

Deniers are quick to say that, of course, climate scientists will come to those conclusions; their livelihood and research funding depend upon pumping up anxiety. And, to be fair, we should provide particular scrutiny to research funded, for example, by tobacco, pharmaceutical and energy companies with vested interests in outcomes; scientists, after all, are human. Increasingly, major scientific journals require authors to declare financial interests that might be relevant to their research.

As it turns out, I have a ringside seat for assessing vested interests among climate scientists. My daughter is a climate scientist of some repute, presently director of the deep ocean sample repository at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. I'll address her most recent publication (Nature, 22 March) and the question of foregone conclusions tomorrow.

Monday, April 02, 2012

At home in an infinite universe

They are questions that bedeviled thinkers for thousands of years: Is the universe infinite or finite, eternal or of a finite age?

It is certainly hard to imagine a universe that extends without limit in every direction, or a universe without a beginning or end. It is equally difficult to imagine a finite universe; what is beyond the edge? Or a beginning or end in time; how can something come from nothing? how can what is cease to be?

The problems are so intractable philosophically that their resolution has generally been left to the theologians, which from a philosophical (or scientific) perspective offers no solution at all. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for proposing a philosophical resolution (an infinite universe) that offended theology.

An escape from befuddlement is provided by Einstein's theory of general relativity, which -- for example -- can describe a finite universe without a boundary, as the "two-dimensional" surface of a sphere is finite and without an edge. Unfortunately, multi-dimensional curved space-time is so counterintuitive that it is difficult to get one's head around it without mastery of the mathematics. Given a choice between the ancient myths of your local preacher and the obtuse mathematics of the physics professor, it's not hard to guess what most folks will opt for.

I have just received for review a new book by physics professor Chad Orzel called How To Teach Relativity To Your Dog. It's a fun romp, and clever pedagogy, but I can't imagine it making the best seller list, much less displacing Heaven Is For Real from first place.

Meanwhile, I'm reading a meditation on infinity by physics professor Anthony Aguirre, in a collection of essays called Future Science. He discusses contemporary cosmological theories based on general relativity, and in particular the rehabilitation of the idea of an infinite and eternal universe, or, more precisely, that our universe might be just one of an infinity of infinite universes. He writes in conclusion:
What seems clear, however, is that infinity can no longer be safely ignored; beautifully constructed, empirically supported, self-consistent theories have brought infinity from idle curiosity to central player in contemporary cosmology. And if correct, the worldview these theories represent constitutes a perspective shift unlike any other: in comparison to the universe, we would be not just small but strictly zero.
Well, I can't imagine many folks racing to embrace that conclusion.

Oh, but wait. Aguirre adds one final sentence:
Yet here we are, contemplating -- if not quite understanding -- it all.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Palm Sunday

Click, and then again, to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.