I find Stephen H. Webb’s reflections on Darwinism (“How Darwin’s Wife Saved His Theory”) very interesting, but I think there are questionable assumptions embedded in some of its verbal formulations. Consider the statement, “Critics of Darwinism . . . have long argued that his theory of evolution is inseparable from its moral and philosophical implications.” It is not just critics of Darwinism who would say that; everyone would. It is obvious, indeed trivially true, that an idea cannot be separated from its implications. If A implies B, you cannot have A without B. The question, however, is not whether Darwinism can or should be separated from its philosophical implications, but rather whether it has any clear philosophical implications and, if so, what those implications are.
Webb writes as though Darwin’s theory of evolution leads inevitably to a single set of philosophical conclusions. For example, he speaks of Darwin being compelled to “tone down the implications of his theory,” as though those implications are unambiguous and place everyone in the position of having to either forthrightly acknowledge them or (as Darwin did) conceal them. But rarely is it the case that one can talk about “the” philosophical implications of any scientific theory. The philosophical conclusions people reach from a scientific theory depend to a large extent on the philosophical assumptions they begin with.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many philosophers and theologians saw atomism (i.e. the idea that matter is composed of atoms) as irreconcilable with Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophy and bitterly attacked it as philosophically false and therefore theologically dangerous. I doubt any Thomists today would take the same position. Many people saw in Newtonian physics philosophical implications incompatible with traditional Christian belief, including radically reductionistic materialism and physical determinism. And it is not hard to trace the materialism of such figures as Hobbes, Baron D’Holbach, and La Mettrie in part to the impact of Newtonian ideas. It was, after all, the success of Newtonian physics in explaining the motions of celestial bodies that led Laplace famously to say of God’s existence that he “had no need of that hypothesis.” Does that mean that Newton’s laws of physics are incompatible with orthodox Christian belief? Should the churches have fought tooth and nail against Newtonian physics? That would have been absurd, of course. Newtonian physics was one thing, and what people made of it philosophically quite another.
To take a more modern example, it is well known that Einstein was strongly influenced by the philosophical ideas of Ernst Mach in coming up with the theory of relativity. However, it is very much disputed whether Relativity is really Machian or anti-Machian in character. Mach himself seems to have rejected Einstein’s theory as incompatible with his ideas. (This brings to mind an amusing exchange that took place later between Einstein and Heisenberg. Heisenberg, was using certain epistemological arguments in an attempt to overcome Einstein’s objections to quantum mechanics, and he appealed to the fact that Einstein himself had once used very similar arguments in defending the ideas of relativity theory. Einstein retorted, “I may have used such reasoning; but it is nonsense all the same.”)
Quantum mechanics perfectly illustrates the point I am making. Everyone agrees on quantum mechanics as a physical theory, but it is hard to find two people who exactly agree on its philosophical implications. It can be, and has been, interpreted in diametrically opposite ways: in determinist and non-determinist ways, idealist and materialist ways, realist and instrumentalist ways. The interpretations of quantum mechanics are, notoriously, all over the philosophical map.
It is simply not the case that from a scientific theory, whether in physics or biology, a straight line can be drawn to a philosophical world view.
I have to confess that I don’t think it at all philosophically important what Darwin himself thought about the philosophical implications of his theory. Do we care that Newton was essentially an Arian heretic, or that Maxwell was a devout Presbyterian, or that Einstein was a Spinozist? Among well-known twentieth century physicists there were Marxists and at least one Nazi (Pascual Jordan, who made significant contributions to quantum theory, joined the Nazi Party and became a brownshirt). Scientific ideas are one thing and the philosophical ideas of scientists (which are often very confused or worse) are something else entirely.
The scientific idea of Darwinism is quite simple and in itself quite harmless. It says that natural selection acts upon random genetic variations and causes the forms of life to undergo an evolution, which began with relatively very simple forms of life and led eventually to the forms we see today. That is it in a nutshell. Have some people erected this into a grand metaphysical system? Yes. Does that mean we have to follow them in that direction? Obviously not. Are there lots of atheist Darwinists out there? Yes. Are there also many Darwinists out there who are devout and theologically traditional Christians or Jews? Yes. And, based on my experience, I would say that the great majority of research scientists who are devout Christian or Jewish believers think that the scientific content of Darwinism is essentially correct. (And I am not talking about theological modernists or dissenters. For example, among the many scientists I personally know who are orthodox Catholics, all, with the possible exception of one, believe in the theory of evolution.)
Webb says that “Social Darwinism is merely Darwinism minus Darwin’s scruples about his wife.” The math puzzles me. Doesn’t that mean that Darwinism = Social Darwinism + Darwin’s Scruples about his wife? How is it, then, that there are all these people out there (including many of my Catholic scientist friends) who are Darwinists, but who are not Social Darwinists and who have never heard of and would care not a fig about Darwin’s scruples? The argument seems to be that since some people draw atheistic conclusions from the theory of evolution, evolution can’t be true. Well, people draw atheistic conclusions from all sorts of things. Some people see moral evil in the world and become atheists. Others see the suffering of children and become atheists. Others see the immorality of clergymen and become atheists. That does not mean that the suffering of children, or moral evil, or clerical immorality necessarily have atheistic implications, and even less does it mean that we should make it a policy to deny the facts about these things on the grounds that many people have drawn the wrong philosophical conclusions from them.
I would like to second what Spengler says in reply to David Brooks on the subject of genius. It is obvious that Brooks has never met any true geniuses and has no idea what he is talking about on this subject.
There is at least one person alive today in my own field of theoretical particle physics who almost everyone recognizes as a genius. His name is Ed Witten. Most physicists would laugh in your face if you told them that Witten is just the product of ordinary talent—or even unusual talent—and hard work from an early age. There are many hundreds of extremely talented people in this field of physics, brilliant people, and most of them have worked very hard from early on to develop their skills and knowledge. But I doubt that any of them are under the illusion that they could have come anywhere close to Witten in ability, no matter how hard they had worked or young they had started.
Another good example of a genius who utterly disproves Brooks’s thesis is someone I have written about before on the First Things blog: the great chess player Jose Raul Capablanca (1988—1942). Many (including several world chess champions) have expressed the view that Capablanca was the most naturally gifted player of all time. When Jose was four years old, he was watching his father (a weak amateur) play chess with one of his friends. Jose had never seen a game of chess before or been taught its rules. After watching a few games, he accused his father of cheating, because his father had made an illegal move. His father was astonished and asked him, “What do you know about it?” Little Jose said defiantly, “I can beat you!” And so he proceeded to do! At the age of twelve, Jose won the championship of Cuba. But after that, his parents only allowed him to play infrequently, so that he could focus on his schoolwork.
He resumed playing a little when he went off to college (at Columbia University’s Engineering School) but still not against world-class players. The first strong opposition Capablanca ever faced was Frank J. Marshall, the U.S. champion, in a match in 1909. Capablanca, not only had relatively little playing experience up that point, but by his own admission had never even studied the openings. Marshall, on the other hand, was one of the top five or six players in the world. Nevertheless, Capablanca utterly crushed him, winning eight games to one with fourteen draws.
What was astonishing about Capablanca was how little he worked at the game. There has probably never been a grandmaster who worked as little as he did. He didn’t study openings, or read chess books, and he played relatively infrequently. By the time he won the world championship in 1921, he had played in only two strong international tournaments (San Sebastian 1909 and St. Petersburg 1914). What astonished everyone was the fantastic speed at which he played. One grandmaster said of him: “What others could not find in a month of study, he saw at a glance.” It was often his custom at tournaments, even when playing top opponents, to stroll around the tournament hall watching the games of others. When it was his turn to move, he would walk back to his table, glance at the board for a few seconds, make a move, and then resume his stroll. His opponents, though spending hours thinking, would be crushed.
One famous English player, after suffering this treatment, complained, “Maybe he is justified in having this contempt for us, but he doesn’t have to show it.” At the St. Petersburg 1914 tournament all the top contenders for the world title were attendance. In the evenings they played many “lightning games” against each other (that is, with extremely fast time limits of only a few minutes for the whole game). “Capa” crushed all of them, one after the other, spending on average one-fifth of the time on his moves as they. There is a tone of awe in the way the other champions have spoken about him. “Chess came as naturally to him as breathing,” said one. “Chess was his mother tongue,” said another.
I agree with Spengler that it is mediocrities who feel threatened by the idea of genius. The truly talented recognize genius when they see it, and know the difference between what they have and what the genius has.
It is a very lawyerly response, involving a careful parsing of the words of the statement of the U.S. Bishops conference entitled “Catholics in Political Life.” Jenkins asserts that he and the others who made decision to invite President Obama “tried to follow both the letter and the spirit of its recommendations.” As to the letter of the document, Jenkins succeeds to some extent in making his case, but not completely. As to the spirit of the document, he utterly fails, and indeed does not even try.
The relevant sentences of the bishops’ document are: “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” The first sentence seems clear enough, but Jenkins argues that by “those who act in defiance” is meant those Catholics who act in defiance. He points out that the bishops’ document is entitled “Catholics in Political Life,” and that non-Catholics can hardly be said to act in defiance of Church teaching, since as outsiders they are not bound by the Church’s teaching authority. It should be noted, however, that the bishops did not talk about defiance of Church teaching, but “defiance of our fundamental moral principles,” and according to the Catholic understanding the moral principles in question—not killing innocent children, or facilitating such killing—is actually binding on everyone. As I said, lawyerly. I want this man defending me if I get in trouble.
As to the second sentence, Jenkins argues that the bishops denounced giving awards, honors, or platforms only in cases where doing so “would suggest support” for the pro-abortion actions of those politicians, and that this does not apply in the present situation since Jenkins has made clear that he does not support the pro-abortion actions of President Obama. Whether this is a good argument depends on how one diagrams the bishops’ sentence. Jenkins thinks that the qualification “which would suggest support for their actions” applies to all three things that shouldn’t be given, i.e. awards, honors, and platforms. But that is, frankly, an implausible and artificial construction to put on the words. It is obvious that there are different kinds of “platforms”. A platform could be a debate, a speech, or an appearance as a visitor in a classroom. No one would advocate depriving pro-abortion politicians of any and all platforms. That is clearly why the bishops added the qualification “which would suggest support,” and why it is most naturally read as modifying the word platforms. The words awards and honors in the bishops’ statement, on the other hand, didn’t require such a qualification, since awards and honors by their very nature imply some degree of support or approval. The intended meaning would seem to have been that Catholic institutions should not give any awards, any honors, or those platforms that would suggest support. But admittedly, there is some ambiguity here, and therefore, wiggle room.
So much for parsing the letter of the bishops’ document; let’s look at the spirit. President Obama is being honored as a “doctor of laws.” This a man who is going to profoundly affect the law by turning it even more against the unborn. How is that in the spirit of the bishops’ recommendations? “Tried to follow the . . . spirit” of the bishops’ recommendations? How hard could Jenkins have tried, given that he did not even bother to consult the bishop of his own diocese when deciding to make the invitation—indeed, did not even inform him about it until after it was a done deal?
The verbal subtleties of Jenkins’s letter are remarkable. Surely a lawyer wrote it. Note how the bishops’ admonitions are termed “recommendations.” Admittedly, they are something less than commands. But surely they are more than mere recommendations. Note also how Jenkins’s critics are said by him to “impose” an interpretation upon the bishops’ document: “Our interpretation of this document is different from the one that has been imposed by those criticizing us.” But who is imposing meanings here? A good fraction of the archbishops in the country (so far, almost half) have now come out and said that they disapprove of Jenkins’s decision. Are the leading bishops in this country imposing an interpretation upon their own document? Even if Jenkins and his canon lawyers have read the “letter” of the bishops’ document more carefully than the bishops themselves did, surely no one knows the “spirit” that animated the bishops when they approved the document better than the bishops themselves.
There is not a word in Jenkins’s letter that shows any sorrow for the fact that he has brought so much anguish to so many of his fellow Catholics and has clouded the commencement ceremony with so much moral ambiguity and conflict of conscience. He hopes that the occasion will be a joyful one for the graduates and their families. How can he say that? His spokesman claimed that the Notre Dame administration completely expected the outraged response that their decision would produce. It follows that Jenkins deliberately went ahead with something he knew would shock the consciences of many graduating seniors and their families, and he now says that he hopes we are joyful? Fr. Jenkins, it will be a joyful graduation for our family despite the use that you have chosen to make of the occasion. You have certainly not increased the joy of anyone, however, by your cold, legalistic response.
It is reported that Fr. Stanley Jaki, O.S.B., died today in Spain.
Fr. Jaki was well-known for his writings on science and religion. He was selected to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures in the mid-1970s, and these lectures were published as The Road of Science and the Ways to God. For many years Fr. Jaki was the only scientist who wrote about science and religion from a Catholic perspective, at least the only one who commanded a wide audience. He was trained as a physicist, but devoted his life to the history and philosophy of science and theology rather than scientific research. Now there are increasing numbers of research scientists who are Catholic and have taken up the pen, including Fr. Michal Heller, Peter E. Hodgson, Kenneth Miller, and Michael Behe. But Fr. Jaki bravely blazed the trail for us. R.I.P.
The passage Ryan quotes below from the article by Nathan Schneider represents my views and my words quite accurately. However, the juxtaposition of my statement about certain approaches being “stupid” and a reference to a book by Wiker and Witt [A Meaningful World: How the Arts And Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature] may leave the impression that I am applying that adjective to their book. I emphatically do not. I find their book to be very intelligent. Let this be a lesson to me.
Fr. Jenkins defends his decision to honor President Obama by saying that we should “engage” those who disagree with us. And yet, strangely, Fr. Jenkins has conspicuously failed to engage in a serious way the arguments of his own critics. Strong arguments against Fr. Jenkins’s course of action have been put forward in the public square by Bishop D’Arcy, George Weigel, Patrick Lee, Ralph McInerny, and many others, and Fr. Jenkins has made no effort to answer them, except in the most perfunctory way.
Here are some of the arguments that Fr. Jenkins has so far not engaged:
Fr. Jenkins’s critics say that they would have no objection to Notre Dame’s “engaging” Pres. Obama’s ideas by inviting him to participate in a debate on abortion, but that he is being invited, rather, to give a speech and receive an honorary degree at a ceremony where debate is clearly out of the question.
Jenkins’s critics (such as Prof. Patrick Lee) say that inviting President Obama is analogous to inviting a segregationist politician to give a commencement speech back in the 1960s. Can Jenkins explain why these critics are wrong? Would he have invited a segregationist to give a commencement address? If not, wouldn’t that be inconsistent of him? Shouldn’t the segregationists have been engaged? Or are some immoral ideas to be engaged and others not? And, if so, what distinguishes those one should engage from those one shouldn’t? If Jenkins would have invited a segregationist in the 1960s in order to engage him, would he also have awarded him an honorary degree?
Bishop D’Arcy points out that the Catholic bishops of this country have stated that, “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.” Does Fr. Jenkins agree or disagree with the Catholic bishops on this? Or does he think that President Obama’s recent actions on abortion policy were not in defiance of our fundamental moral principles? Or does he believe that a degree awarded honoris causa is not an honor? Does he have any answer to Bishop D’Arcy’s argument?
What about those who say that it is callous and cruel for a Catholic university to put its own graduating students and their parents in the position of having either to participate in something they deem objectionable (according to the bishops collectively and Bishop D’Arcy in particular) or to miss their own commencement ceremony?
If Fr. Jenkins means what he says about engaging intellectual opponents, let him show it by engaging his very numerous Catholic critics.
Ryan posted a link to an interesting article on the intelligence of pigeons and baboons. It seems that recent studies have shown these creatures to be smarter than was realized. This leads some researchers, such as University of Iowa professor Ed Wasserman, to conclude that there is no fundamental qualitative difference between the minds of animals and humans, but only a quantitative one, and that only human arrogance makes people think otherwise. As for myself, I shall only be convinced of this when I hear of pigeons and baboons conducting such studies.
A dear friend of mine, Pastor Matt Hummel of St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church here in Delaware, sent me this in response to my Green Guru posting: “Steve, You missed the most obvious solution to the issue! Cap and trade!”
A headline in the Sunday Times yesterday reads “Two Children Should be Limit, Says Green Guru.” The guru in question is Jonathon Porritt, who chairs the British government’s Sustainable Development Commission. According to the Times article, Porritt says that couples who have more than two children are being “irresponsible” by creating an unbearable burden on the environment.
I guess elementary math is not part of the training of green gurus. The idea of two children per couple is obviously premised on the notion that each generation should produce only enough children to replace itself. But even if one accepts that premise, the mathematics is wrong, for several reasons.
First, as is well known, demographers say that for a constant population, the fertility rate averaged over all women should be 2.1 children per woman, not 2.0, since not all children survive to adulthood. Second, and much more important, there are many people who are unable to have children for one reason or another. About 15% of couples suffer from fertility problems; many people are unable to find a mate; and many who do find a mate marry too late to have children. Altogether about 19% of women in the United States in the 40-44 age bracket are still childless, which means that they will probably remain childless. This implies that in order to have a constant population, those women who are able and willing to have any children should have on average 2.6 children, not 2.0. If we also take into account the fact that many women who are able and willing to have a child are unable to have more than one, one finds that those women who are able and willing to have more than one child must actually average almost 3 children just to keep the population stable. Instead of the canonical “family of four” that has been held up for so long as the ideal, it should be the “family of five,” or four and three-quarters, perhaps.
To put it another way, if no one had more than two children, as the green guru would want it, the fertility rate could probably not be gotten above 1.4. In twenty generations the world population would plunge to less than 2 million. Given the enormous division of labor and degree of specialization required by an advanced economy, such an economy could not be sustained, and the human race would reduced to a primitive economic level. Without advanced technology, infant mortality and mortality in general would shoot up. The Porritt two-child maximum would go by the wayside, since women would have to bear many children just so that enough would survive to keep the human race in existence. Yes, the world would be very green indeed.
Judging from remarks that colleagues have made in my presence, there are a remarkably many otherwise intelligent people who agree with the green guru that it is irresponsible to have more than two children, and who pride themselves on having stopped at two, as though they were benefiting society thereby. I suspect that this widespread attitude, based on an elementary mathematical error, may be one reason for the woefully low birthrates in economically advanced countries. Not the only reason, or the most important reason, but a contributing factor.
Recently I undertook to explain on the First Things website what the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is all about. This rap song made by some particle physicists at CERN (the European science center where the LHC is) says the same things in a slightly different way.
There was an excellent discussion on Delaware public television on the subject of Joe Biden, Catholic teaching on abortion, and Catholic voters. The three panelists were Prof. Robert T. Miller of Villanova University School of Law, Fr. Leonard Klein of the Catholic diocese of Wilmington, and Prof. Katherin A. Rogers of the University of Delaware Philosophy Department.
View the video here. Click the link on the left side of the screen for the Friday, October 10 show. The discussion begins about ten minutes into the show. As might be expected, Miller, Klein, and Rogers all did a terrific job.
Amanda posted yesterday an excerpt from a book entitled A Discourse of the Married and Single Life: Wherein by Discovering the Misery of One, is Plainly Declared the Felicity of the Other. This made me think back twenty-six years to my wedding reception.
My wife and I and our families and the groomsmen and maids-of-honor were waiting to enter the reception hall and be introduced to the guests. My older brother William was my best man and was to give the toast, and he hadn’t thought of anything witty to spice up his remarks. My father stepped in to help, and offered these words from Samuel Johnson: “Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.”
It got a big laugh, but afterwards a physics colleague of mine (now a professor at a prestigious university) came up to me with a confused look his face, and said, “I don’t understand the joke your brother told. What does celibacy have to do with it?” It suddenly dawned on me what his problem was: The idea that an unmarried person would be celibate was so foreign to his way of thinking, that Dr. Johnson’s statement seemed like a pure non sequitur to him.
While in Seoul, South Korea this summer, I had the opportunity to attend Saturday evening Mass at Myongdong Cathedral with a young French physicist friend.
I couldn’t understand a word—it was entirely in Korean—but I was deeply moved. There were no rich vestments, incense, Gregorian chant, or Renaissance polyphony. Nevertheless, I felt—as I have rarely felt in the last forty years—that this was a Mass as Mass was meant to be. The reverence was profound, the sense of being in a sacred place powerful. It was very Catholic and at the same time very Eastern. At the elevation of the consecrated Host, a gong sounded softly and everyone bowed deeply from the waist and held that posture for several seconds, until the gong sounded again. The same at the elevation of the chalice. At the “kiss of peace,” there was no shaking of hands and “superficial chumminess” (as my one-time pastor, the late Msgr. Myles Bourke, called it). Rather, people silently bowed to those around them. Of course, bowing has always been a part of the mass, and even in the western countries we are supposed to bow at the words “by the power of the Holy Spirit, he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man” in the creed. But hardly anyone does bow over here, and the few who do make a perfunctory nod of the head. In Korea, everyone made a deep and extended bow at that part of the creed.
There is something about the Korean language and the way it is prayed that made the prayers of the congregation—even though recited and not sung—sound like chant. (My pastor made exactly the same observation to me about a Vietnamese mass he attended—before I had a chance to tell him of my Korean experience.) There were, as here, four hymns—real hymns, not show tunes. They seemed Western, though I did not recognize the melodies. Everyone sang with strong and good voices. About half of the women (of all ages) wore mantillas. The celebrant was young, as were the priests who assisted him at Communion. He moved with dignity and grace and his sermon was delivered in a quiet and serious way. It contained humor, for occasionally chuckles rippled through the congregation. But he did not indulge in theatrics, hamming it up or striving for effect. The cathedral was not packed, but quite full. And according to the church bulletin they had two Saturday evening Masses and ten (!) Masses on Sunday, starting early in the morning and extending throughout the afternoon.
When we left, I remarked to my friend: “If this is how Mass is normally celebrated over here, it is no wonder the Church is growing by leaps and bounds.” And apparently it is how Mass is normally celebrated in Korea. Thirty years ago there were one million Catholics in South Korea, now there are five million. Incidentally, it is not uncommon to see nuns—mostly young—as one travels around Seoul.
Despite Jody’s observations, I think McCain was absolutely right not to spend a lot time talking about abortion and related issues in his acceptance speech. Consider:
(a) You’ve got to get possession of the bully pulpit before giving the sermons.
(b) Those on both sides for whom the life issues are paramount already know McCain’s and Obama’s positions and (except for a few people in the grip of some delusion, like Doug Kmiec) are going to vote accordingly.
(c) One cannot argue that by not emphasizing abortion McCain forfeits the right, if elected, to claim a “mandate” in this area. Everyone knows that he would not really have a specific pro-life mandate in any event. Everyone knows this because everyone knows that public opinion is deeply divided and somewhat confused on the issue, and because they know that this election is largely being driven by other concerns—the economy, the war in Iraq, weariness with partisanship, etc.
Unfortunately, most of the independents who need to be appealed to are not strongly pro-life. One reason that Republicans are hurting, is that many people have come to the conclusion that the Republican Party has been so focused on social issues and foreign policy issues, that it has neglected economic issues. And some plausibility is lent to this claim by the fact that Pres. Bush allowed Congress to spend profligately, vetoed no bills no matter how wasteful, and seemed to have no domestic agenda that he was willing to fight for.
That is obviously why McCain spent by far the greater part of his speech on matters like energy, education, taxes, and spending. He underplayed foreign policy as well as the life issues. People already know he would be a strong Commander-in-Chief and that he is forthrightly pro-life. What he had to convince them of is that he has some definite plans for dealing with the energy problem, the economy, and so on.
There is in conservatives a strong Romantic streak that loves the lost but righteous cause. They want to ride over the cliff with all flags flying. But that went out with the Jacobites—or should have. I hear some of my pro-life friends saying, “Why did we fight for the Republicans all these years? What have they done for us? Look at Souter.” They seem to be half in love with easeful defeat. “To hell with mere politics,” they seem to say, “we’d rather be right than win a meaningless election.” Not that you, Jody, are in that camp. But you might be encouraging those who are.
I was surfing the television a few nights ago and came across something on EWTN that really irked me. It was an embarrassingly stupid show called “I was a Teenage Darwinist.” It featured some mountebank striding up and down in front of an audience, wisecracking and sneering at Darwinism and evolution. His method was to set up straw men and knock them down with silly remarks laced with cornpone humor.
In the fifteen minutes that I could bear to watch him, he also discussed Copernicus and Galileo in completely misleading terms that suggested that he had only the loosest understanding of what he was talking about. It was obvious that the guy was no kind of scientist. And, indeed, when I looked him up on the internet I found that he is a lawyer. Obviously the kind that gives lawyers a bad name.
What in the name of all that is holy was this tripe doing on one of my favorite television channels?
The sad fact is that EWTN is just not serious enough about science. There are some bright spots. One bright spot is Fr. Robert Spitzer, president of Gonzaga University, who, though not a scientist, discusses science in a knowledgeable and illuminating way. Another is Fr. Tad Pacholczyk, who is a biologist of impressive credentials. But they are the exceptions.
It is rare to see on EWTN research scientists of international reputation. And that is not because there aren’t any good Catholics who fit that description. Just among my friends and acquaintances in my own field and closely related fields of research—theoretical particle physics, cosmology, and astrophysics—I know well over a dozen accomplished scientists who are devout and orthodox Catholics, completely loyal to magisterium across the board. I am talking about people with Ph.D.s from Ivy League schools and impressive research records. I am talking about people who also watch EWTN, read journals such as First Things, and belong to such organizations as Opus Dei and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.
In fact, just in the last few years I have become aware that there are considerably more believing and practicing Catholics in my field than I had imagined. (Admittedly, still only a small percentage of the total number of scientists in these fields.) And most of them are relatively young. In June, I went to a particle-physics conference in Seoul, South Korea, and there I ran into three young Catholic theoretical physicists I hadn’t known of before (as Catholics, that is), and learned from them of a fourth.
Not all these people would necessarily want to appear on EWTN as guests—some of them don’t have tenure yet, and some may be too shy. But they could act as consultants for EWTN. The next time someone suggests to EWTN that they air drivel like “I Was a Teenage Darwinist,” they could check with their scientific consultants first.
I think that many people have gotten the false impression that religion, let alone theological orthodoxy, has few if any friends in the world of science. This leads them to adopt an overly defensive stance toward science, which sometimes erupts into pre-emptive attacks on it. Films such as “I Was a Teenage Darwinist” reflect fear and hostility to science. That is not the way to go. In the long run it will be ruinous to the Church. It will drive a wedge between the worlds of faith and science. Bright young people will feel that they have to choose one or the other. But they don’t: There are many bright young people who live happily in both worlds.
It seems to me that the Catholic bishops are missing a golden teaching opportunity.
Bishops are rightly concerned that for them to publicly warn or chastise politicians because of their voting records on abortion will be misunderstood as politically motivated. All sorts of issues get dragged into the discussion, such as separation of church and state and the role of prudential judgment in applying the Church’s moral and social teachings. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, however, has presented the Church’s bishops with a very new situation. In her recent statement, she did not merely defend her legislative record; she has made a crystal-clear public declaration on a doctrinal question that is not in any way political in itself (though obviously it has implications in the political order). She says that she does not believe that life begins at conception, and she cites St. Augustine to support her position.
Here are some unambiguous facts:
(1) Pope John Paul II taught explicitly in Evangelium Vitae that direct killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral:
Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom. 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.
(2) The teaching in question is an article of faith, according to an explicit statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (in the Commentary that accompanied the statement Ad Tuendam Fidem):
To the truths of the first paragraph belong the articles of faith of the Creed, the various Christological dogmas and Marian dogmas; the doctrine of the institution of the sacraments by Christ and their efficacy with regard to grace; the doctrine of the real and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the sacrificial nature of the eucharistic celebration; the foundation of the Church by the will of Christ; the doctrine on the primacy and infallibility of the Roman Pontiff; the doctrine on the existence of original sin; the doctrine on the immortality of the spiritual soul and on the immediate recompense after death; the absence of error in the inspired sacred texts; the doctrine on the grave immorality of direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being.
About this category of doctrines the same document states:
These doctrines are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and defined with a solemn judgment as divinely revealed truths either by the Roman Pontiff when he speaks ‘ex cathedra,’ or by the College of Bishops gathered in council, or infallibly proposed for belief by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.
These doctrines require the assent of theological faith by all members of the faithful. Thus, whoever obstinately places them in doubt or denies them falls under the censure of heresy, as indicated by the respective canons of the Codes of Canon Law.
(3) Whatever one’s theory of ensoulment might be, it is clear that the phrase “innocent human being” used both in Evangelium Vitae and in the statement of the CDF was meant to include unborn human life at all stages after conception.
Nevertheless, it is possible to argue that, while the general principle of the immorality of killing innocent human beings is an article of faith, the factual question of whether a child just after conception is a human being is not an article of faith. Yet, even if that is so, the humanity of the unborn child after conception would still be something taught infallibly by the ordinary magisterium, and fall under the category of “truths definitively to be held.” In the words of the same CDF document:
The second proposition of the Professio fidei states: “I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.” The object taught by this formula includes all those teachings belonging to the dogmatic or moral area, which are necessary for faithfully keeping and expounding the deposit of faith, even if they have not been proposed by the Magisterium of the Church as formally revealed.
Such doctrines can be defined solemnly by the Roman Pontiff when he speaks ‘ex cathedra’ or by the College of Bishops gathered in council, or they can be taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Church as a “sententia definitive tenenda.” Every believer, therefore, is required to give firm and definitive assent to these truths, based on faith in the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the Church’s Magisterium, and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium in these matters. Whoever denies these truths would be in a position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church.
To all appearances, Pelosi has publicly and pointedly denied a “truth of Catholic doctrine” that is “definitively to be held” (“definitive tenenda”) by “all believers”, and the denial of which renders them “no longer . . . in full communion with the Catholic Church.” Moreover, Pelosi simultaneously proclaims her right to do so because “many Catholics” agree with her. Clearly, this is a scandal in the original sense of the term.
What can the bishops do? There is something very simple they can do that would have an enormously salutary effect.
They can, in a public statement, explain the doctrinal situation and require Pelosi to respond to the following question: “Do you assent to the teaching of the Church that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being at any stage after conception is gravely immoral?”
Her previous public statement makes it presumable that her answer is no. This presumption can only be removed by a clear affirmative answer. In light of the public nature and scandal caused by her earlier statement, she should be required to make a public assent to this Catholic teaching.
This is no longer a question of a politician claiming some kind of rights or leeway as a politician. It is a well-known Catholic very publicly explicitly rejecting a “truth of Catholic doctrine.”
Mary Rose, I think you may be jumping the gun a bit about the pre-Christian tablet recently reported on in the New York Times. You say, “All we can ascertain from this discovery is that this notion mentioned on the tablet—the notion of a suffering messiah dying and rising from the dead after three days—existed before Christ’s time on earth.” The word ascertain means to establish with certainty. But it is clear from the Times article that there is the highest degree of uncertainty about whether the tablet refers to a messiah figure, a rising from the dead, or anything remotely connected to those ideas. The only clear words on the tablet relevant to this interpretation are “in three days”. They are followed by some almost illegible words that may or may not be an unusual form of imperative of the verb to live. It is said to be unclear who these words are addressed to, and what their context and meaning is. There are other illegible words in crucial places. One reads this in the Times article:
Moshe Bar-Asher, president of the Israeli Academy of Hebrew Language and emeritus professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at the Hebrew University, said he spent a long time studying the text and considered it authentic, dating from no later than the first century B.C. …
Regarding Mr. Knohl’s thesis [that the tablet refers to the resurrection of a suffering messiah] , Mr. Bar-Asher is also respectful but cautious. “There is one problem,” he said. “In crucial places of the text there is lack of text. I understand Knohl’s tendency to find there keys to the pre-Christian period, but in two to three crucial lines of text there are a lot of missing words.”
Mr. Bar-Asher obviously does not consider the truth of this thesis to have been “ascertained.” Indeed, one detects in his reference to Knohl’s “tendency to find … keys” a diplomatic suggestion that Mr. Knohl is engaged in a bit of wishful thinking. In any event, Knohl seems to be engaged in the very common mistake of over-interpreting data.
It is a fact of life, which ought to shock no one, that academic researchers hype their results shamelessly —- and even their merely hoped-for results. They do this in the abstracts of research papers to get colleagues to read them They do this in grant proposals to get funding. They do this in conference talks to get attention that may get their work talked about and cited in the professional literature. They do it in the media to get publicity in the hopes of gaining fame. The research world is full of people trying to get noticed. That is why one should approach most stories in the press about revolutionary discoveries of any kind with a great deal of skepticism. My rule of thumb (based on reporting about my own field) is that the true significance of scientific discoveries reported in the media is on average about 10% of what it is reported to be.
Nathaniel calls our attention to Bishop Trautman’s difficulties with the word ineffable as reported in the Erie Times-News. The same newspaper article relates the following:
Trautman called parts of the proposed translation “archaic” and “just clumsy language.” One proposed change, for the first week in Advent, would replace “old way of life” with “ancient bondage,” the Erie bishop said. “Ancient bondage” is very ambiguous and not clear enough to the people,” he said.
It strikes me that the phrase “ancient bondage” conveys much more than “old way of life.” In fact, there is a remarkable amount of doctrine packed into those two little words. They remind us what was wrong with our old way of life, namely that we were in bondage to sin, enslaved by the devil. They remind us not only that our way of life was wrong but that we were powerless to escape it, and therefore needed to be rescued from it — in other words, that we needed a savior. They remind us that this bondage goes way back, indeed back to the very beginning of mankind. That small phrase contains the whole Exodus story and the whole story of redemption. Bishop Trautman would prefer an airy phrase that could be referring to nothing more than a change of occupation.
Last week Ryan Anderson called our attention to a new kind of moral analysis developed by Elizabeth Harman of Princeton University and announced at a conference recently held there. This is how Harman formulated her new discovery:
“Things have moral status throughout their existence, just in case there’s any time in their existence at which they are conscious.”
Ryan helpfully translates this out of academic-speak into plain language: “If a fetus one day develops to maturity, then it has been valuable all along, since conception. But if we will abort the fetus, then it was never valuable.” Ryan reports that when Harman was asked whether fetuses have moral status, she replied, “Some do, some don’t, and it depends on what’s going to happen to them.” In other words, as Ryan explains, “if we kill them, then they have no moral status, but if we don’t, they do. So two intrinsically identical unborn human beings could have radically different moral statuses.”
Robert T. Miller yesterday pointed out some of the strange conclusions to which Harman’s principle logically leads. I would like to point out another: Harman’s principle justifies both performing abortions and preventing them.
If Abortionist Smith successfully performs an abortion and kills Baby Doe before the child attains consciousness, then baby Doe has (according to Harman) no moral status—and thus Smith’s act is morally justifiable. But suppose that Rescuer Jones successfully prevents Smith from performing the abortion, and therefore Baby Doe does survive to become conscious. It then follows from Harman’s principle that Baby Doe always had moral status—even when Smith was trying to kill her and before Jones rescued her. And therefore it follows that what Abortionist Smith was doing was wrong, and what Rescuer Jones did was not only morally permissible but morally obligatory.
One is thus left with the apparent contradiction that it is morally permissible (and perhaps at times morally obligatory) to abort preconscious children but also morally obligatory to stop them from being aborted. In fact, one can go further: Suppose a third person successfully prevents Rescuer Jones from preventing the abortion, and Baby Doe thus dies before achieving consciousness. That would result in Baby Doe’s never having had moral value in the first place and render what Rescuer Jones did wrong, and what Abortionist Smith did right again.
So, according to Harman, it is right to do an abortion, right to stop an abortion, right to stop someone from stopping an abortion, right to stop someone from stopping someone from stopping an abortion, and so on. Calling Lewis Carroll!
What a wonderful principle! Even if everyone ended up completely agreeing with Harman’s moral analysis, it would not resolve the fight over abortion but actually intensify it.
I partially disagree with my friend Robert Miller on the matter of papal bird-flipping. Only partially, because I tend to agree with him about the quasi-apologies proffered by the Vatican after the Regensburg speech, but disagree about Cardinal Re’s remarks.
Robert says, “if you intentionally flip someone the bird, don’t pretend afterwards you did it by accident.” The question is whether the Holy Father intentionally flipped anyone the bird at the Easter Vigil. I think not. If I may apply a well-known distinction from Catholic moral theology, there is a difference between an insult that is intended and one that is an unintended (even if admittedly foreseen) by-product of one’s act or statement. If a man says, “The Catholic Church is the one true Church,” his statement implies that other Christian groups are something less than that. Consequently, it is to be anticipated that his statement will annoy many non-Catholic Christians. That doesn’t mean that the statement is made with the intention of causing annoyance. When recently the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document that in essence made just this assertion about the Catholic Church, its purpose was obviously the positive one of clarifying the Church’s teaching on ecclesiology for the benefit of her own members and most especially of her theologians. I am sure the CDF and the pope realized that there would be interreligious fallout but thought it was a price that had to be paid for the sake of a greater good. In the same way, if any Christian says, “Jesus is Lord,” it does not mean that he “intends to flip the bird” to all those who think Jesus is not Lord.
Robert himself states very well one message that the pope presumably meant to convey by agreeing to baptize Mr. Allam at the Easter Vigil—namely that the gospel is to be preached in season and out. One imagines the pope also meant to underline the fact that the gospel message is intended for all people of whatever background. Popes have publicly baptized former animists and Buddhists and members of other religions. To refuse to baptize former Muslims, or to treat such baptisms as something to be hidden away, would be to deny the universality of the Church’s message and mission.
I understand what Cardinal Re said about not taking things “negatively” to be a simple statement that the pope’s act in baptizing Mr. Allam had a positive purpose that did not include giving “one in the eye” to anybody. This isn’t to say that Cardinal Re’s statement was perfectly formulated. Baptism is never a purely private matter. And what the cardinal said about negative interpretations does sound a little like an apology—even though I don’t think it was or was meant to be.
There is another distinction that needs to be insisted upon in today’s world, namely the distinction between acts or words that are “offensive” in some objective way, and those that are “offensive” merely in the sense of bothering someone or another. An objectively offensive act or word, I would say, is one that offends against some objective standard—for example, which offends against truth, or justice, or charity, or modesty, or the innocence of children, or the majesty of God. What the “Reverend” Jeremiah Wright said about the U.S. government inventing the AIDS virus to kill Blacks offends against both truth and justice. As a statement clearly inspired by hatred, it also offends against charity. It is a statement that ought to offend everyone, whether or not it actually offends anyone. On the other hand, the statement of Geraldine Ferraro was offensive only in the sense that some people were made uncomfortable by it.
This is not to say that the two kinds of offensiveness can always be neatly separated. There are times when one’s duty to truth (as in the case of the CDF statement) requires one to say something that will be hurtful to someone. But gratuitous hurtfulness is to be avoided—which is, I think, the point of Churchill’s amusing observation. Charity requires that we avoid hurting the feelings of others either intentionally or unnecessarily. Thus it can be objectively offensive to hurt someone’s feelings, but in many cases it is not.
I think the larger point that Robert is making—and I agree with it wholeheartedly—is that we have become tyrannized over by a ridiculous cult of niceness where any statement however true or salutary has to be apologized for in groveling terms just because somebody somewhere doesn’t like it. What we need is a national—indeed a world—conversation about “offensiveness,” before we suffocate on our own good manners.
I was very pleased to hear this morning that the 2008 Templeton Prize has been awarded to Michal Heller (who publishes in English under the name Michael Heller), a Polish priest, physicist, philosopher, and theologian. Here is an excerpt from what I said about him in the October 2004 issue of First Things:
Michael Heller brings to his reflections on science and religion a depth of knowledge, thought, and experience that is highly unusual. He spent his early childhood in Siberia, where his family had been exiled from Poland by the Soviets. The power of faith to sustain people through extreme hardships turned his mind to God and eventually led him to the priesthood. He went on to earn a master’s degree in philosophy and a Ph.D. in physics, and he was one of the intellectuals who would meet at the Krakow residence of Archbishop Karol Wojtyla to discuss science and faith. After Wojtyla became pope, Heller continued to organize these meetings, bringing eminent scholars from around the world to participate. He is currently professor of philosophy at the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Krakow and an active researcher in relativistic cosmology. These essays show him to be a thinker of fine judgment about science, theology, and philosophy, and about their interrelationships.
From many points of view, this is an excellent choice.
I got an email Monday from a philosophy-professor friend asking what I thought of the new “theory of everything” (“TOE”) developed by one Garrett Lisi, who apparently is being talked up on the Internet and in some newspapers as a “new Einstein”. Lisi does not have a job at a university or research lab (although he obtained a Ph.D. in physics from UC San Diego in 1999), and is portrayed in some accounts as a “surfer dude” who does physics in his spare time. My friend’s email caused me a momentary twinge of embarrassment, as I had never even heard of Lisi or his theory. I did a quick search and found the paper that was causing all the ruckus. It is called “A Surprisingly Simple Theory of Everything.” My own impression (based on a cursory reading) is that the paper does not propose a consistent theory of anything, let alone everything. Investigating further, I found that people who have looked more closely at the paper than I am inclined to do have come to the same conclusion. The physicist and indefatigable physics blogger LuboÅ¡ Motl goes so far as to use the word crackpot to describe this work.
Anyone who works in cosmology or particle physics—fields where sexy things like quarks, grand unified theories, and expanding universes are discussed—will, over the course of his career, get approached by people claiming to have revolutionary new theories. Some of them are merely Walter Mitty types, whose dreams of scientific glory are undisturbed by any real knowledge of the nitty-gritty realities of science or research. Others are probably nuts in some clinically recognized sense. One always wonders, when visited by such people, whether they will become violent if one is too honest with them. Recently, a rather hulking fellow in a leather jacket came to my office to explain his “unified field theory” to me. He began by asking politely if I would mind if he closed my office door behind him. I replied, “I’d rather the door remained open, actually,” adding to myself, “so they’ll be able to hear my screams.” Between the crazies and the dreamers lies a broad spectrum of crackpots. I don’t know whether there is a technical term in psychiatry for crackpots, or whether psychologists even study the phenomenon of crackpottery—but if they don’t, they should, because it is real and not at all rare.
Some of these crackpots are amusing characters. When I was at the University of Washington in the early 1980s, a fellow who styled himself Rheo H. Star came breezing into the physics department claiming to have a theory that explained everything from the interactions of quarks to the propulsion systems of flying saucers. He had a gift for impressive terminology. One of his equations he called the “Tri-gon Tensor Equation.” And he had invented a device (it looked like an electric chair) called the “psycho-dynamometer.” I sure hope he never used it on anyone.
Over the years, I suppose I have talked to, or been sent material by, dozens of would-be scientific revolutionaries. Much of the blame for this kind of thing lies with the Einstein myth. We have all heard that Einstein flunked math in school. We have all heard that Einstein was a nobody, an outsider working alone in a patent office who was, by the force of his untutored genius, able to sweep away all that went before. All nonsense, of course. Einstein did very well in subjects like math and physics in school. (He did poorly in French, though, because he hated it and didn’t study.) Einstein obtained a doctorate in physics. He had a profound and detailed knowledge of the cutting-edge physics of his day. His theory of relativity did not sweep away all that went before but was an entirely logical outgrowth of earlier physics.
It is not just the crackpots who are victims of the Einstein myth. Some graduate students suffer from Einstein complexes, too. They don’t want to work on anything that does not have the possibility of radically revising our view of the universe. Anything less than that is too pedestrian. Not for them the patient step-by-step progress of science. That was not Einstein’s attitude. One of his most important contributions—the one for which he won the Nobel Prize, in fact—came from thinking carefully about a rather dry, technical, and mundane-seeming phenomenon called the photo-electric effect.
The Einstein myth is part of the larger Romantic myth of the genius as rebel: Beethoven shaking his fist at the heavens. Nothing is great unless it’s “transgressive.” Fortunately, science is not much affected by this idiocy. Partly this is because experimental data serves as a reality principle. Partly it is because science is so technical that the crackpot is simply weeded out when he proves unable to acquire the necessary technical skills. It seems that the humanities are not in so fortunate a condition.
In the final analysis, it is the experts who must police things. Generally, in the natural sciences this works. The kooks are kept out and largely ignored. Of course the kooks bitterly complain that “the establishment” is out to get them, as it was out to get all the other great rebel-geniuses they imagine scientific history to be full of. The problem in so many other fields is that not a few of the experts give every appearance of being kooks themselves. Architectural experts destroy beautiful old Catholic churches. Liturgical experts give us liturgies that are painful and embarrassing ordeals. Literary theorists write impenetrable prose. Psychologists give us twinky defenses. The question arises: When is one to trust the experts and when is one to trust one’s own instincts? It may be the central problem of our times.
My own guiding principle is to trust the experts (generally speaking) on anything purely technical, but to rely more on my own judgment as far as human realities go. I trust the architect on what will keep the building up but not on what is beautiful. I trust the pediatrician, but not the child psychologist. When we had our first child, my wife read a number of books on how to raise one’s kids. I never wanted to hear what they had to say, much to her annoyance. She noted that they had degrees in the subject and I didn’t. My own feeling was that if it took a degree to raise a child properly, the human race would have died out 100,000 years ago. I’d rather trust my parents’ advice and example and my own instincts in such matters than some egghead of dubious sanity.
But physics is a technical field, and so, if you want to know whether a theory of physics makes any sense, it is a pretty safe bet to trust the professional physics community. Trust me on that. I am an expert.
Bill Donohue of the Catholic League (of which I am a proud member) issued a press release yesterday attacking an idiotic column by one Joe Feuerherd that appeared in the Washington Post. In that column, Feuerherd blasted the Catholic bishops of this country for supposedly telling him who to vote for under pain of eternal damnation. Donohue’s press release is, on the whole, excellent, but it makes a lamentable slip in the following passage:
Feuerherd would have us believe that the document [of the bishops] lists as “intrinsically evil” such things as “abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage.” He is twice wrong. The document does not call either stem cell research or same-sex marriage “intrinsically evil.” There are eight acts which merit that label: abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, the destruction of embryos, genocide, torture, racism and targeting noncombatants in war.
The sloppy wording of the last sentence makes it sound as though only eight things are “intrinsically evil” according to the teaching of the Church and her bishops, and that same-sex marriage is not one of them. But that is obviously untrue; there are many things besides those eight, such as murder, adultery, blasphemy, and incest. The list is much longer than eight. And since the list would clearly include homosexual activity, it would logically also include so-called “same-sex marriage.”
What Donohue presumably meant to say was not that “There are eight acts which merit that label,” but that “There are eight things that are so labeled in the bishop’s document.” But even if he had been more careful in his wording, and written just that, what would have been the point? The particular document of the bishops may not explicitly list “same-sex marriage” as intrinsically evil, but the Church’s clear teaching is that such arrangements are indeed evil and intrinsically so.
One has the uncomfortable sense that Donohue sees the adjective intrinsically here as merely an intensifier, like unspeakably, and wants to take pains to make clear that the Church does not put “same-sex marriage” in the same list of horribles as torture and genocide. But intrinsically means simply intrinsically. An intrinsically evil act is one that is objectively wrong in and of itself, and which therefore can never be justified by circumstances or consequences.
That being said, it is wonderful that Donohue took on Feuerherd, who is obviously a dolt.
Anthony, I won’t comment on the putative geekiness of Neil Turok, given that many people, including some of my own children, would aver that I am myself a geek of the first water. I can say, however, that Neil has always seemed to me, on the few occasions I have met him, a very nice fellow. And everyone would agree that he is an excellent physicist. But readers of First Things are doubtless more interested in Turok’s theories than in Turok himself. Given that in some of his theories the universe has no temporal beginning, should a Christian or Jew be worried?
There is a long history of attempts to construct viable theories in which the universe has no temporal beginning. One of the biggest obstacles to such attempts is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that systems tend to run down. It is because of the Second Law that it is thought to be impossible to build a perpetual motion machine, and one could think of a universe that has been going on forever as a perpetual motion machine.
A long time ago, it was suggested that the Big Bang might have been just one “bounce” in an infinite sequence of bounces with no beginning or end. That is, in each cycle the universe expands, reaches a maximum extent, collapses to a point (or to a very small size), and then rebounds to begin a new phase of expansion. Back in the 1930s it was shown by the physicist Richard Tolman that such a sequence of bounces could not have been going on for infinite time. Due to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the entropy of the universe would increase with every bounce, and Tolman showed that as a consequence each cycle would take longer than the previous ones. Thus, if the duration of our cycle were 100 billion years (to pick a round number), the previous cycle might have lasted for only Â½ of that, the one before that only Â¼ as long, and so on. Thus even if there were an infinite number of cycles before the present one, their combined duration would have been finite (since 1 + Â½ + Â¼ + etc. adds up to a finite number).
There have been many other eternal universe scenarios proposed over the years, some involving bounces, some involving universes spawning other universes in an infinite succession of generations, yet others involving what is called “eternal inflation.” The cyclic universe idea of Steinhardt and Turok is simply the latest attempt, and is itself an outgrowth of another scenario they proposed a few years ago that they called the “ekpyrotic universe.”
Such ideas are to be taken seriously. They may sound wild to the layman, but they don’t sound wild to most theoretical particle physicists or cosmologists. We already know things about the world that are far stranger than anything proposed in these scenarios. I personally would not be at all surprised if the Big Bang turned out not to be “the beginning”, though how we would ever be able to know that is hard to say. I would be quite surprised, however, if it turned out that the universe had an infinite age, i.e. that it truly had no temporal beginning, since it goes against the grain of everything modern science has learned about the universe. The Steinhardt-Turok idea has a very clever way of beating the Second Law of Thermodynamics; but Nature, if I may put it this way, is not mocked. The theorist may think he has outsmarted the Second Law or some other fundamental principle, but he usually ends up discovering that he has run up against it in another guise or run into some equally formidable obstacle.
For example, most theorists do not think the “eternal inflation” idea of Andrei Linde (which has far more going for it that the Steinhardt-Turok idea) can describe a universe that is eternal into the past, though it may describe one that is eternal into the future. (This conclusion is supported by theorems recently proved by the cosmologists Guth, Borde, and Vilenkin.) Similarly, serious technical objections have been raised to the “cyclic universe” idea of Steinhardt and Turok. Further work may show that these objections can be met, but at the moment, their idea should be regarded (and generally is by experts) as a very interesting, but extremely speculative and quite problematic scenario, and nothing more than that.
What the layman should know, and strive to remember when he reads some breathless article about the latest breakthrough, is that the world of fundamental physics is always frothing with speculative ideas, the more spectacular of which get fastened onto and hyped by the popular science media. Scientists are happy to abet this, since the hype gets them a lot of attention and, ultimately, funding. Everyone enjoys a good scientific revolution; no one more than I. And I don’t want to be a wet blanket; but when it comes to imminent breakthroughs that will radically change our view of the cosmos, in most cases it is sound and fury signifying very little.
I was just looking at the Wikipedia article on Capablanca, Anthony, and it quotes an interesting evaluation of Capablanca given by Bobby Fischer in a 2006 (!) radio interview. Here’s what Fischer said:
Morphy and Capablanca had enormous talent, Steinitz was very great too. Alekhine was great, but I am not a big fan of his. Maybe it’s just my taste. I’ve studied his games a lot, but I much prefer Capablanca and Morphy. Alekhine had a rather heavy style, Capablanca was much more brilliant and talented, he had a real light touch. Everyone I’ve spoken to who saw Capablanca play still speak of him with awe. If you showed him any position he would instantly tell you the right move. When I used to go to the Manhattan Chess Club back in the fifties, I met a lot of old-timers there who knew Capablanca, because he used to come around to the Manhattan club in the forties—before he died in the early forties. They spoke about Capablanca with awe. I have never seen people speak about any chess player like that, before or since.” —Bobby Fischer, Icelandic Radio Interview, 2006
My father, when he was in his teens, actually saw Capablanca give a simultaneous exhibition at the Manhattan Chess Club. Oh! What I would have given to have seen that! I did see Fischer give a simultaneous once. And on another occasion, I narrowly missed the opportunity of playing him! Not competitively, needless to say. It happened like this. I was a lad of about 15, I had a few bucks to spend on a Saturday morning. “Should I buy that copy of Pillsbury’s Chess Career that I’ve been wanting to get, or shall I go and play at Chess House?” I decided to buy the book and play at Chess House Sunday. When I showed up at Chess House on Sunday afternoon, I learned that Fischer had been there the day before and was playing all comers!