The base line: Alan Coleman, 1936 to 1945

In 1936, when he was four years old, Alan Coleman arrived at St. Joseph’s Home in Ballarat as a Ward of the State. He remained there until he was thirteen, and under the care of the Sisters of Nazareth in Geraldton until sixteen. When the Senate convened, from 2003 to 2005, an Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care, Alan made submission number 471. This story is taken from that submission.

Initially, Alan was in the nursery, but when he was six, he went “downstairs” to the school-age group of six to thirteen year olds. He realised that he was “in for a very hard time” because downstairs was “run like a prison.” Each child was assigned a number which was marked on his clothes. Alan was number 96.

The nuns delegated a great deal of authority to what Alan describes as “bully boys,” who were each in charge of from eight to ten younger boys. They had authority to administer some punishment and to refer offenders to the nuns to be given up to twelve strokes, or even more, of a long cane which had “pins in the end.”  The peak physical punishment was being stripped naked, held down by four of the bully boys, and flogged from shoulder to calf with a thick strap. If you twisted over, the strap was applied to stomach and genitals.  Sentences were up to a hundred lashes. Alan himself received this punishment at the hands of Sister Blandina, “the worst offender,” “sadistic and puritanical.”

In winter the boys were always cold and always hungry as, in Dickensian fashion, there were “never any seconds.” Any caught stealing food were punished either corporally or by being “made to stand in a dark passageway up to six or seven hours.” Saturday was weekly bath day. Three tubs and three towels served one hundred boys, youngest to oldest, in the same three tubfuls of water. Modesty was preserved by canvas towels worn round the waist. Only when it came to the bully boys turn were the tubs emptied and refilled with hot water.

In spite of the boys’ numbers, names were still important. Another Alan Coleman of the same age was sent up from Melbourne, so one had to change his name.  The new boy became Joseph Coleman, and in spite of the fact that, in contrast to Alan, “Joseph” was not very good at school and did not play sport, Alan gradually assumed the role of his protector for as long as they were in care together.

In Year 7 of school, Alan injured his hand while working in the laundry. He was six weeks in Ballarat Base Hospital, and though he had no visitors, he basked in the compassionate attentiveness of the nurses. After this stay, and a longer one due to rheumatic fever, he started to have visits at the home from friends made at the hospital. It’s a comment on his likability.

Alan’s eighth grade class, the last year of his primary schooling, was taught by Sr Blandina. The class was being prepared for an exam to determine the two pupils who would be eligible to attend St. Pat’s College the next year. Alan, to Sr Blandina’s dismay, topped the class and the eligibility. However, he heard a rumour that the Brothers at St Pat’s “could do what they liked” with the orphans, so he withdrew.

It appears that, after the school years, the boys went into either the farm boys’ quarters or the smaller group of college boys. The first allusions to sexual behaviour in Alan’s submission involve the farm boys offering personal instruction in masturbation. Alan and Joseph went to the college boys, who let them stay. “[W]hile I was upstairs we had no idea this types [sic] of thing happened…we kept this from the nuns because we were taught never to put anyone in.” That’s the extent of sexual abuse experienced, or heard of, by Alan Coleman at St Joseph’s between 1936 and 1945.

It was 1945, and orphaned farm boys from St Joseph’s were being sent to Nazareth House in Geraldton (apparently an old people’s home) to work in the kitchen.  In Geraldton, similar invitations to mutual masturbation were extended by the other farm boys and particularly the “manager,” a nineteen year old. The only more disturbing incident involved a visiting priest to whom Alan was sent on suspicion of “misbehaving.” The priest masturbated and asked Alan to “touch it,” but he refused. The refusal was accepted, “any way he was so excited he pilled [sic] out a large handkerchief and wiped it he told me not to say anything.”

Alan’s strong moral code and his moral courage shine through in these events: his protection of his adopted “brother;” his sacrifice of further education; his lonely refusal of the culture of masturbation among the farm boys; and his “no” to a priest. Alan’s life subsequently was that of a man adrift. He only settled at the age of sixty, in the Philippines, with a Filipina wife who bore him a son, although he still accused himself of an incapacity to show affection.

This is a picture of life for an orphan in St Joseph’s orphanage between 1936 and 1945, and it serves as a baseline for another story, or set of stories, about the same orphanage between 1943 and 1959.

Redefining marriage

Brendan O’Neill raises a point which I have never heard in the discussion before, but which I have always felt is critical. This unprecedented redefinition of the basic building block of human society rewrites the contract that the State entered into with every currently married person. How’s that for retrospective legislation? I will return to this point below.

Speculate for a moment that the purpose of this push is the destruction of the the institution of marriage. How does that fit with the observations that the original dynamic of homosexual activism was, loudly and proudly, the destruction of the bourgeois institution of marriage? Perfectly well. That same motive was expressed equally fervently by what was known radical feminism in the 70s, and which has become the taken-for-granted feminism of the teenies. If that is the major motivation it has worked very well.

Still, though, something about the appeal of marriage has not been eradicated.  Couples who have lived together for years will marry when they decide to have children.  How about that?  That has happened in my own family. Why would they do such a thing if marriage is merely a recognition of the commitment and loving relationship between two people?  So marriage is a tougher nut to crack than was first imagined, and all those young feminists are still going off and getting married before having their children. “Gay marriage” is the next move in the campaign to break the nexus between marriage, family and society.

Returning to the issue of retrospective legislation, I note that there is no provision being made for those who have grave objections to the State’s redefining marriage, and in particular their marriage, to leave the redefined state. If these legislators are to pretend to have any concern for their constituents, they must surely include a provision for those who are currently married to be awarded a divorce on the single ground that the state has violated their original contract of marriage. Such a provision would provide for the automatic transfer of the state-sanctioned marriage to a state-sanctioned civil union of the kind that was offered to homosexual couples.

Those whose marriages are, first and foremost, a sacramental union, would still be sacramentally married.  The Catholic Church, for example, does not recognise the State’s divorces.  George Weigel, after the re-election of Obama, wrote, “Thus it seems important to accelerate a serious debate within American Catholicism on whether the Church ought not pre-emptively withdraw from the civil marriage business, its clergy declining to act as agents of government in witnessing marriages for purposes of state law.” Amen. That’s not going to happen, in the US or Australia, because it takes a Church with courage, commitment and a vibrant faith to stand in open opposition to the surrounding culture and many who are nominally within its own ranks.

Nonetheless, it should be the subject of a vigorous debate now. The various churches which currently act as agents of the State in marriage ceremonies could demand that their recognition as marriage agents be withdrawn as part of any “gay marriage” enabling legislation. They would advise couples to enter into civil unions immediately before coming to the church to marry, so that their legal rights would not be threatened.  Failing the cooperation of the State, the churches could engage in their own campaign of civil diobedience, refusing to sign State marriage contracts or allow them to be introduced into the church.

I’m not holding my breath.  The prospect of “gay marriage” has receded in Australia with the election of a conservative government, even as the law has recently been changed in the UK. In the United States, the fight is bitter, unequal and undemocratic, as the fate of both Proposition 8 and Brendan Eich attests. It is understandable, then, that a debate such as George Weigel proposed is being conducted in some nooks and crannies of the American Catholic Church, and perhaps in other congregations.  It is also understandable that Weigel’s view has been rejected in such comments as I have read.

Identity Theft

On the 10th of October, 2010, Natasha Mitchell interviewed Thomas Metzinger on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National network program All in the Mind. The show was titled You are not a self! Bodies, brains and the nature of consciousness. The ABC is the Government-financed public broadcaster in Australia. Radio National (RN) is an AM radio network dedicated to cultural and scientific topics that do not get much airplay on commercial radio. Metzinger was introduced on the programme like so:

Professor Metzinger is based at the Johannes-Gutenberg University in Mainz in Germany, and has long collaborated with neuroscientists and artificial intelligence researchers and others. And in his new book The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self he makes the case that there is no such thing as a self.

RN appeals to a an audience more interested in ideas than in celebrity gossip, and more interested in talk about ideas than in music or light entertainment.  Unfortunately, while the natural audience for such a format may be broader, the group of people who make these programs seem to fall into a familiar, narrowly defined demographic. They may be religious, in the sense that Harnack or Bultmann were religious, but in general they are atheist or agnostic. Radio National tends to preach to the converted; that is, to people just like themselves.

This particular interview, in other words, was not exceptional.  Here are some extracts. (Mid-point ellipse ⋅⋅⋅ are mine. Others are in the original transcript. All italics and bolding are mine.)

Thomas Metzinger: Nobody has ever seen a will. ⋅⋅⋅ We don’t find a will in the brain, that’s for sure. What we have is the conscious experience of having free will, of actually deliberating, wanting something, of weighing different goals against each other and so on, and that conscious experience of free will, that will be explained by science.

And the question is…many people in the general public feel an uneasiness with this debate about freedom of the will. Imagine there was no freedom of the will, that if we had a theory that said that, we couldn’t really believe that theory, it would make us sick. I mean, how could you imagine that every thought, every intention you are consciously experiencing right now has been predetermined by something unconscious outside of your reality. The people that have that experience are usually in psychiatric institutions. Our brains were never made for this.


Natasha Mitchell: ⋅⋅⋅ you make the provocative argument that there is no such thing as a self, that there never has been, that there never will be.

Thomas Metzinger: The physical body certainly exists, the organism exists, but organisms are not selves. I don’t deny that there is a self-y feeling. I certainly feel like someone, but there is no such thing. ⋅⋅⋅ What I am interested in is to understand why we just cannot believe that this is so. We have the feeling there is an essence in us, a deepest, inner core. We have this feeling that there must be something that is just not right about neuro-scientific theories about self consciousness, there’s something beyond it.

⋅⋅⋅ a first approximation could be to say what we have called the self in the past is not a thing in the brain and not a thing in some metaphysical realm beyond the brain, but it’s a process…

Natasha Mitchell: So it’s not a little man or woman inside our heads…

Thomas Metzinger: …that looks at pictures. But the experience of looking, of being directed to one’s own feelings or to one’s sensory perceptions of the outside world, this is itself an image.⋅⋅⋅ My⋅⋅⋅big, unintelligible philosophical theory⋅⋅⋅says that we identify with this image of our body because we cannot recognise it as an image. And if my theory is correct, there should be just this one element of global identification and it should be easy to control it experimentally. ⋅⋅⋅ But I must also…one warning, the idea of global ownership for our body as whole is a dangerous idea because it introduces a second self, like a little man that does the owning.

Natasha Mitchell: Exactly. You just can’t get away from this problem, philosophers!

Thomas Metzinger: Yes, it’s awful, isn’t it⋅⋅⋅ Our image of ourselves⋅⋅⋅is changing faster and more dramatically than through any other scientific revolution in the past. In a way we are destroying a lot of what mankind has believed in during the last 4,000 years, but it’s also clear that in this emerging vacuum neuroscience will not be able to put something new into this vacuum.

Natasha Mitchell: You see it as that we’re witnessing a disenchantment of the self, which is interesting because you’ve just banished the self in this conversation.

Thomas Metzinger: Well, who is ready to do that, who could even understand, honestly, what that would mean?

I have said that this particular interview was unexceptional. In terms of Metzinger’s underlying assumptions, assumptions which underlie almost all of RN’s programming, it is standard fare.  In the bald statement of the consequences of these assumptions, though, Metzinger goes farther than most of the program’s interviewees would do. Rather as Peter Singer takes certain assumptions which are deeply ingrained in the mindset of most Westerners, and draws from them their logical conclusions, so Metzinger draws the conclusions of materialist neuroscience. In doing so, he says, “…who could even understand, honestly, what that would mean?” Certainly not Metzinger.

For one thing, it means that the personal pronouns no longer have any referent. I, me, my, mine, you, yours, us, our, they, their, theirs, have all been rendered meaningless. For he not only resolves the old question about the existence of other minds, other selves—they do not exist—but he reverses Descartes—”I” am not, therefore “I” do not think. That consequence has no sobering effect on Metzinger’s speculations. He simply carries on as though nothing, really, has changed. He does this even, and especially, when talking about the frightening new reality we are facing.

Thomas Metzinger: It’s also a question of preserving our dignity in the face of these sometimes very sobering discussions, and in developing a cultural response to it. Can modern science help me? It’s not only about defending ourselves, it’s also about what I call riding the tiger; can all this new knowledge help us to improve our autonomy, maybe also our rationality? How can I take responsibility and charge for the way I deal with my own brain?

Most particularly, he continues to talk as though our desires can motivate our rationality to modify our behaviour in order to further enhance our rationality, our autonomy, our personal responsibility.  That is, our minds can be applied to change external circumstances, and even to modify our minds themselves.

Our selves, our minds, are an illusion, a process by which we are deluded into imagining that we exist as autonomous, rational centres of intention and action. Perhaps, though, according to this “big, unintelligible philosophical theory,” I do exist, but not as the illusion that I take myself to be. I am, in fact, a set of neuro-chemical processes which have found it convenient (in an evolutionary sense) to project the illusion of an I, and furthermore, to project onto that I the illusion that it is, in fact, me.  One must beware, of course, of promoting this I-ness into a “little man” to whom all of this projecting makes rational, emotional and operational sense. Such a lapse is absolutely verboten. There is no underlying I receiving the projection of this I that I experience. There are only I-less processes.

Let us hark back to the first quote from Metzinger above, about the non-existence of free will; a quote which in fact opened the radio programme. Imagine that the conversation above is being conducted with a psychiatrist. Imagine further that the psychiatrist has been introduced to Thomas Metzinger, but knows nothing more about him.

The psychiatrist is faced with a person who is convinced of the non-existence of his own self. He seems rational; is clearly intelligent, and yet is unaware of the glaring contradictions in his own disquisition. He continues to talk about his self, his thoughts, his intentions, his actions, and implicitly assigns the same capabilities to everyone else, starting with the psychiatrist. What would the psychiatrist think? What would you think? Now Thomas presents his credentials—Professor Dr Thomas Metzinger, Director of the Theoretical Philosophy Group and Director of the NeuroEthics Section of the Johannes Gutenberg Universität, Mainz, and Director of the MIND Group of, and Adjunct Fellow of, the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies.

There is a moment in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where Pirsig is talking to his son Chris about one of Chris’ friends at school. Chris says that the friend has seen a ghost.  Pirsig’s response is sceptical, and then Chris says the friend’s name: a native American name. Most readers, I suspect, share with the author the shock of an unexpected re-orientation of possibilities at that moment. I suppose that for our imaginary psychiatrist the situation would be similar.  Thomas has donned his New Clothes.

The psychiatrist, suspecting an elaborate hoax, as I did, consults the oracle, as I did. And sure enough, he finds a plethora of confirming information on the Internet, as I did.

How is it that someone who insists on the truth these notions, but the non-existence of the self that expresses them, comes to be granted such high academic honours?  How; when for, say, Robert Pirsig to express them at certain times in his life would have resulted in his being committed to an asylum? I am not here casting about for rhetorical effect.  Metzinger has said as much himself.

This is the reductio ad absurdum of materialist neuroscience. This is the philosophy that consumes the selves that embrace it. In the Kingdom of Bedlam, the sane question their sanity. Or to put it another way,

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Does Intelligent Design subvert faith?

Spengler (David Goldman) posted an article in the Asia Times Online, titled Why ‘Intelligent Design’ subverts faith. What follows is my reply. Quotes from Goldman’s article are in italics, for the most part. Spengler quotes from an article by David Bentley Hart, hence the reference.
The workings of nature are so complex and perfect…that they bespeak a design, and a design must have a designer. The trouble is that the same clock seems to set off a bomb at random intervals. 
There is a false premise in Voltaire’s argument, namely that humankind is always and inevitably subject to the ravages of cruel and capricious nature. We now build cities able to withstand earthquakes; the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 killed 16,000 people in much more densely populated regions, a terrible toll, to be sure, but a fraction of the Lisbon dead. No human being need die from hunger, or cold, or bacterial disease; if some die, it is the fault of human action, not an Act of God.
Human understanding of the mechanism of earthquakes depends upon the complex perfection – the rational predicability – of nature. Voltaire’s argument stands up well. It’s not that everyone “is always and inevitably subject…” because there have always been many who lived peaceful and uneventful lives, culminating in a quiet death. David Hart’s meditation was occasioned, if I recall correctly, by the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost over a vast area, on the day after Christmas. The scale of the destruction, and, I believe, its timing, gave rise to much anguished reflection.
What, however, distinguishes such a catastrophe from the mundane reality of our mortality, from the sum of the small tragedies that occur all around us every day: the toddler crushed under the wheels of his mother’s SUV; the father of a young family crushed in an industrial accident; the chance encounter with meningococcus or SARS; the semi-trailer jack-knifing into the path of the family’s sedan? It is the concentration and sheer mind-boggling scale that overwhelms our blasé defences. And it is something else. It is the shock of confronting our hubris; naked, terrified and inadequate where a moment before it had been cocky and overblown.
Build as we might, Nature will always have in reserve a better disaster. All of those areas swamped in Japan had sea-walls. Tsunamis are not unexpected in Japan. But the scale of this one was. Now a new standard will be set for the sea-walls, and smaller waves will be contained. The meteorite that struck Siberia in 1908 might just as well have struck a populated area. Where will the next comparable strike occur? Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection. In a north Queensland hospital, in an isolation room, is a young girl from Papua New Guinea who has a multi-resistant strain of TB.  Only one drug remains in the armoury against it. This story is being repeated across the globe. The ancient scourge is back, and gathering in force. How will we defend against it?
Such questions must be considered in the light of another: when the economy tanks, who will pay for the protection against the tsunami, or earthquake, or cyclone, or tornado, or storm surge, or TB? Who pays for it now in most of the populated world?
So, I disagree with the Panglossian optimism of your response to Voltaire. But, even if I did agree, the notion of human beings as co-workers with God in the improving of Creation, does not answer the Voltairian criticism. For it places the responsibility of the broken and tragic state of Creation firmly at the feet of God. Then, with Augustine, we can ask, “If God is all-good, He wants His creatures to be happy, and if He is all-powerful, He can do whatever He wants. But His creatures are not happy. Therefore He lacks either goodness or power or both.”
If the resolution of this question is to be found in the millennial striving of the community of co-creators, we are back, are we not, at a requirement “ believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of – but entirely by way of – every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known…“?
Against this stands, not the surrender of (what we now know to be) the vastness of the natural order to hostile forces, but the exodus from the Garden.  Nature is as nature always was. It continues to exhibit the predicability of its design, and it continues on the path determined by its design – complete with tectonics, cyclones, earthquakes and disease. In Aquinas’ analogy, the insensate arrow follows the trajectory determined by the purposeful archer.  But we are not as we were when God offered us His protection. This is not a Christian story: we Christians inherited it, as we live in the consequences of that first exodus.
Any role for the Creator in the construction of nature implies design. So,  if I am correct in my understanding of your comments concerning Soloveitchik,
…the final perfection of nature is a messianic vision… But there is a great deal to do in the meantime. Man is not the passive victim of earthquake, flood, famine or disease. We can build defenses against natural disasters, cure disease, and eliminate hunger. Whatever harm befalls us today, we can change our destiny in the future. … We are not the passive victims of nature. We strive to establish human dignity by mastering nature…
then Soloveitchik has not addressed the questions of theodicy at all. God has chosen to make the world we inhabit with its complement of tragic potentials, and it sounds from the above as though He has done so “for our own good,” in order that we may struggle to overcome the deliberate failings of His deliberately inadequate design. It’s not a good look.
As regards design, it seems to me that there are two possibilities. The universe created itself spontaneously, so it has no Designer at all, and all of the predictable order that we detect is but the playing out of incalculable improbabilities resulting –  presto –  in the spurious appearance of design. Alternatively, God created the Creation – time, space and the whole shebang – in which case it was, by definition, designed by Intelligence. In either case, Nature displays design: if it did not, if it was chaotic and unstable, how could comprehending intelligences ever come to exist within it?
Soloveitchik may be arguing that evidence of a Designer, coming from the studies of Intelligent Design, would degrade the quality of faith in believers. Aside from the difficulties of demonstrating ID with a level of certainty that would persuade most workers in the biological sciences, such an argument would be opposed by another revered Jew, St Paul of Tarsus. Following Paul, the Catholics have always held that the world displays such evidence as is necessary for the seeker of truth to determine that God, indeed, exists. They insist on the unity of Faith and Reason, and reject Fideism.
The particulars of your objections to ID I take to be these. What stake does man have in a nature designed by God such that it both nurtures and destroys him? Assuming the Creator’s design, how can we presume to know “the grand design of physical creation?”
Yes, the first takes us immediately to questions of theodicy, but what else is new? No matter how you dice and slice the concept of the Creator God, Judeo-Christian faith must deal with such questions. If God is indifferent to human suffering, no question arises. But revelation tells us otherwise, and we must give an answer. What stake? Only that this world, this Nature, is the only temporal home we have. It is the stage on which the eveternal drama of our lives must be played out. We act to ease the suffering of our neighbour because we have been told that it is incumbent upon us, even as we feel the call to such action in the depths of our souls. We inflict suffering on our neighbour because of the insufferable dilemma of human existence, on the horns of which we are in this life impaled. What stake do you need?
The atheist Stephen Hawking may, at the instigation of his publisher, presume to claim that knowing the mind of God is within our grasp, but, theoretical physicists aside, most scientists have no such grand illusions. Most are working in a tiny corner of the universe of phenomena, in the expectation of rational behaviour by the universe and all of its constituent parts. For the most part, they are not disappointed. Harking back to St Paul, this realised expectation is not destructive, but supportive, of faith. A Fideism that cleaves to the “accident” of a particular religious faith, in the face of contradictory explanations derived from observations and theories about nature, will always be brittle. A faith which can – in good faith – subsume the discoveries of the scientific method, will be much more robust. I note, however, that my proviso is not, for the most part, observed.
ID is not essentially different from the broader project of science, despite the furious attacks on it from within established science. Its hypothesis is that nature is, to an important extent, designed, rather than being the result of various random processes. In order to test this hypothesis, they seek evidence of design in some of the minutiae of nature. It is not a grand scheme, and, as an hypothesis, it makes no assumptions about the source of the design. Obviously, there are plenty of people who are prepared to make conjectures about the Source, but that is irrelevant. The real threat of ID is that its acceptance would shatter the nexus, generally unconscious but no less fanatically held for that, between scientific methodology and the philosophy of scientific materialism.
I don’t know whether ID will succeed with such a demonstration: I will them well. Should they succeed, there will not be a stampede to the the churches and synagogues, but the hand of the faithful will have been strengthened in the current fight to the death of the culture wars. Should they fail, those who maintain the argument against scientific materialism will be no worse off.

Speaking from my invincible mathematical ignorance, I concur with your comments on the importance of Gödel. However, his was only one contribution to the dismantling of grandiose modern expectations of science and mathematics. In Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi tried to chart a way forward for science when the god of scientific certainty had been shown to have failed. Like Gödel, he had confidence in the ability of science to grope towards truth, and he understood the critical role of what you have called “inspiration.” But in all of this is the discovery of the design of things, and in none of this is there any necessary threat to faith.

Updated 25 Feb 1013

Glory to God?

The Anglicans have rewritten the Gloria Patri to make it less offensive, bless their hearts. The optional new, improved version goes like this.

Glory to God, Source of all being, Eternal Word and Holy Spirit,
As is was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forever. Amen.

As a reminder, here’s the version of the original that I’m familiar with.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
World without end. Amen

What’s the critical difference between these versions? It is this: the new version is no longer Trinitarian. The three persons of God have disappeared. Instead, we have three characteristics of a Unitarian God. The first line of the PC version could just as well have read,

Glory to You, Source of all being, and to the Eternal Word, and to the Holy Spirit…

but it doesn’t. Inclusive language turns out to be exclusive, after all. Disguised as an agonisingly sensitive response to the genuine anguish that women have clearly suffered for millennia in reciting the Gloria, the revolutionaries who have gained the ascendency in various Christian jurisdictions over the last forty or fifty years have slipped a Unitarian formula into one of the most oft-repeated prayers of the Church. A substantial proportion of the Anglican communion now regularly proclaim that God, the Trinity, is dead: long live God the Unity.

The Science of Resurrection

In the collection of essays on which I based my discussions of Bultmann, you will find, as the last essay, a summary of the original eight essays by Austin Farrer, entitled An English Appreciation. In the course of it, he offers this:

The established, or virtually established, positions of science and history give rise to necessary refusals, as when we refuse to believe that the world was created eight thousand years ago or that the sun stood physically still for Joshua… About necessary refusals nothing can be done or ought to be done. They must be accepted.

While I have some sympathy with him, and I understand why he says this, I don’t agree with him. As he himself seems to be saying, there are two categories of knowledge involved here. The first, that the world was not created eight thousand years ago, is the knowledge of the history of the earth, derived mainly from the study of the geology of the earth itself, and the study of the formation of the solar system. The second, that the sun did not physically stand still for Joshua, whilst it is an historical assertion, is based upon the immediate evidence of the behaviour of the solar system, and the theories of planetary motion that have been derived, and may be constantly re-affirmed, from that always available evidence.

Common to both of these statements (and to any useful statements we make) is a cluster of assumptions. We rely on our ability to draw true and useful conclusions about the world because we first rely on the world to be consistent in its structure, and to behave consistently. This is a confidence we learn from experience: the objects out in the environment are such as to allow us to learn about them without constantly having to re-evaluate that learning.

With the rise of scientific methodology, we have stepped far beyond the realms of direct experience. Take, for instance, our view of the solar system. Our knowledge—that the earth and all the planets orbit the sun—flies in the face of the evidence of our senses—that it is the sun, the planets and the stars that move, whilst the earth remains in place. Our confidence in this knowledge, and all such counter-experiential or non-experiential knowledge, is based on our confidence in the structures our society has erected for the testing, extension, elaboration and explanation of scientific knowledge. In short, we rely, for almost everything we know, on the testimony of witnesses whom we trust.

This confidence has become so great in light of the staggering technological advances in our societies, that the methodological processes that underlie it have quite rapidly become a religion in their own right.

What is it about our scientific knowledge that rules out believing that the sun stood physically still for Joshua? It is not our knowledge of the day-to-day mechanics of the solar system, or our knowledge of the tremendous scale of the force of gravity (itself an utterly mysterious force acting at a distance, until replaced by the new mysteries of general relativity) that rules out the Book of Joshua. It is, instead, the unshakable belief that the universe created itself; that there is no Creator. That absence of a Creator means that only physical processes deduced to be the operating principles of the universe can possible act on a planetary scale. I think it is safe to claim that this is an a priori position. It is not a conclusion which has been drawn on the basis of evidence uninformed by pre-suppositions. It is the fundamental working hypothesis of all materialists. To put it another way, it is the primary article of the creed of materialism. It is a statement of faith.

That is not the view of Christians. Christians know their Creator. It is He who is the maker of all things, visible and invisible. What is more important: He is an active God, participating to the point of revealing His name to the Hebrews, and coming in person to the Jews, and remaining in person to all who believe in Christ. This activist God has always accompanied His message of revelation with signs and wonders, for we are a sceptical people.

If this is true, and I believe there are compelling reasons for believing this, then no action that God has taken in history in support of His revelation is “impossible.” This, in itself, is not a statement of faith, but a logical consequence of the faith-supported belief in the Christian God. It is no more a statement of faith than the contention that the laws of physics preclude the standing still of the sun: itself a logical consequence of the belief that the universe is self-created; or at least that the agent of its creation, like Aristotle’s First Mover, is more remote than the ends of the expanding universe from its creation.

Such is the science of Resurrection. Science itself can tell us nothing about the Resurrection, but the Resurrection can tell us a great deal about science. We believe the fact of the Resurrection because we believe the witnesses; the chief of which is the Church itself. Having accepted this evidence, we draw our conclusions from it, as did the early Church. Among these are that we cannot understand ourselves as material beings. Not only can we not gain an understanding of our minds on this basis, but we cannot even appreciate the nature of our physical bodies on the basis of materialism. This event-based science subsumes and limits materialist science. It must inform all of our scientific thinking.

The other “necessary refusal” is of a young earth. This is a somewhat different case. The Tradition in which I have found myself—Catholicism and Anglo-Catholicism—is not sola scriptura. For Catholicism, Scripture, although inerrant, is not necessarily literally so. Scripture itself, in the Catholic view, was accredited by the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit: and it remains to the teaching authority of the Church to interpret Scripture, and to delineate the literally inerrant from the allegorically, and the like. I will assume that, for example, the conclusions of geology about the formation of the earth’s crust and topography meet the criteria of relatively uncontroversial and accepted science. This study concluded long ago that there had been massive changes in the earth’s surface over what can only have been very long time frames.

To address the young earth issue, we return to the assumption about the consistency of nature, but with a different emphasis. Whereas the reported Joshua event would involve a massive interruption to the normal process of nature, that interruption was of less that a day, at a remote point in history. No direct physical evidence of this event, which is not reported to have caused any other changes, can possibly be adduced either in support of, or against, its occurring.

In this case of the young earth, however, we have before us the same Book of Nature which the geologists have studied intensively over the past two centuries or so. From my Catholic perspective, I have no problem with this: the problem is displaced to other sites of contention. From the perspective of, let us say, an evangelical who believes in a young earth, at least two kinds of response are possible.

One is to challenge the interpretation of the evidence. This approach is fraught with difficulties. It accepts that nature speaks to us consistently and accurately, and so it involves endlessly contesting the accepted scientific interpretation, and every new piece of evidence that is presented.

Another is to embrace the primacy of faith and the literal interpretation of the Bible, while accepting that nature is telling a different story. I believe that a lot of scientists and technologists have adopted this position. For them, nature sets a complex and ever-fascinating series of puzzles whose solution generates worldly benefits for human beings; in mineralogy, for instance. They accept the terms that these challenges present, and set about trying to solve them. While nature is true and consistent in terms of the puzzles it presents, it is not the real story. That story is told in the Bible. Fallen Man can only appreciate the surfaces of nature; redeemed Man understands the Truth that God created all of this in six days. I have never had this discussion with such a person, so I am speculating from shreds of evidence, but this position offers a surer footing for literalism, even at the price of Fideism.

Catholics and Anglo-Catholics avoid these dilemmas by regarding the Genesis account of the age of the earth as an allegorical description of an underlying reality; the Creation ex nihio as a deliberate intention of God. For them, however, the challenges of scientific materialism have been displaced. The attacks on the Faith have been directed for some time now to the credibility of the witness. When the primary texts in which the testimony occurs are acknowledged to require interpretation, an open but unavoidable invitation to their undermining has been issued.

Though not germane to this particular discussion, I will quote in passing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, lest the extent of Catholic accommodation to modern viewpoints be misunderstood.

How to read the account of the fall

390 The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.

Resurrection Denialism

On the evening of that day,  the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side… Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.”Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.”
When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight… As they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you.” But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit… “See my hands and feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.
This is what Christians believe. St Paul understood this. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile… If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. At least, this is what Christians believed for two millennia, and what they still profess. The problem is that so many of them do not.
I cannot see how anyone who denies the physical, and permanent, resurrection of Jesus can maintain that he is a Christian. All such are working, in my view, for the destruction of Christianity; and they’re doing a pretty good job. Various surveys have shown that Christianity has waned dramatically over the past half-century in Europe and the Anglosphere, with the exception of the USA, where the decline has been much less marked. Neither do surveys tell the whole story. According to one report, only 1.13 million adults went to church on Easter Sunday, 2001, while the same report indicates that, in the 2001 census, 72% of adults in Britain classified themselves as Christian. In 2002, a survey of 20% of the Anglican clergy found that one-third of them did not believe in the physical Resurrection of Christ.
The truth claims of the faith are quite definite: denying the Resurrection flouts those beliefs. During Hitler’s rise to power, as an important part of his program for seizing complete control of Germany, he promoted a movement known as “German Christianity.” The various churches in Germany had an “interesting” relationship with the German state; they still do. At any rate, German Christianity split the churches, and a countervailing movement known as the Confessing Church arose. It included notables such as Bonhoeffer, Barth and Bultmann. Their purpose was to assert ecclesial independence. Bonhoeffer’s activities in the Abwehr, leading to his execution, were not conducted under the auspices of the Confessing Church. In 1937 Pope Pius XI, from this sickbed, wrote the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Concern) to the German Church, asserting the incompatibility of Nazi ideology and Christianity. The Catholics too were being ravaged by the appeal of the Nazis.
At this remove, there are few, if any, who would argue for the theological validity of German Christianity. Yet, as far as I am aware, it denied none of the fundamental tenets of of the Creeds. Today, however, the credal basis of the faith is being trashed in seminaries and theological colleges throughout the Western world.  Currently fashionable political movements demand that Christian teaching be radically altered to accommodate their agendas, and this is done as a matter of course.
Orthodoxy will again resume its place at the centre of Christian life and worship. How long it will be, God knows. When is does, this time will be seen as one of those periods in the history of the Church during which the Body of Christ was traumatised by the struggle between catholic truth and dangerous heresy. In such struggles, souls are torn asunder.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

The Schoolman Dawkins

What does Dawkins mean by the term evidence? That seems to depend on the circumstances in which it is applied. In a previous post, I wrote about the challenge to the likes of Dawkins, presented by the testimony of and about Padre Pio.  Subsequently, I discussed the use Dawkins made of Hume in dealing with that challenge.

It has occurred to me since, that Dawkins double standards on evidence align him in some senses with the Schoolmen from the declining years of Scholasticism; or at least with the caricature of them that is retailed by the camp-followers of “The Enlightenment.” In this view, the Scholastics were lost in a world of excessive subtle arguments based on an Aristotelian and Thomist philosophy, splitting finer and finer hairs in a debate hopelessly divorced from the real world. Into this massive but brittle word of ideas was introduced a new realism, throwing away the old edicts, and relying only on observation, evidence and reason.

A basic problem with this caricature is that evidence ain’t evidence. Some evidence can, according to Dawkins, be dismissed a priori; for example, evidence of the miracle of the sun at Fatima, or of the bi-locations of Padre Pio. By what authority is this evidence dismissed? By the absolute authority of a philosophical commitment: that all things, visible and invisible, are material, complete, entire and with no non-material residue. This dogma trumps all evidence. For there can be no evidence that contradicts it. Given the pre-suppositions of the dogma, any evidence which purports to contradict it must necessarily by fraudulent, mis-reported, mistaken or mis-interpreted. Q.E.D.

It turns out that this dogmatic rejection of evidence is not unusual in the history of science, and Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn, most notably, have pointed out.

During the eighteenth century the French Academy of Science stubbornly denied the evidence for the fall of meteorites, which seemed massively obvious to everybody else. Their opposition to the superstitious beliefs which a popular tradition attached to such heavenly intervention blinded them to the facts in question. [Personal Knowledge,II.6.2 Scientific Value]


 Ordinary people were convinced of the fall of a meteorite, when an incandescent mass struck the earth with a crash of thunder a few yards away, and they tended to attach supernatural significance to it. The scientific committees of the French Academy disliked this interpretation so much that they managed, during the whole of the eighteenth century, to explain the facts away to their own satisfaction. It was again scientific scepticism which brushed aside all the instances of hypnotic phenomena occurring in the form of miraculous cures and spellbinding, and which—even in the face of the systematic demonstrations of hypnosis by Mesmer and his successors—denied for another century after Mesmer’s first appearance the reality of hypnotic phenomena. When the medical profession ignored such palpable facts as the painless amputation of human limbs, performed before their own eyes in hundreds of successive cases, they acted in a spirit of scepticism, convinced that they were defending science against imposture. We regard these acts of scepticism as unreasonable and indeed preposterous today, for we no longer consider the falling of meteorites or the practice of mesmerism to be incompatible with the scientific world view. But other doubts, which we now sustain as reasonable on the grounds of our own scientific world view, have once more only our beliefs in this view to warrant them. Some of these doubts may turn out one day to have been as wanton, as bigoted and dogmatic as those of which we have now been cured. [Personal Knowledge, III.9.3 Reasonable and Unreasonable Doubt]

Such examples are multiplied in Polanyi and Kuhn. They demonstrate the overarching role of some underlying structures of belief that are virtually indistinguishable from faith in the way scientists deal with the flux of information that comes to them from their environment, both personal and professional.  These models of reality are many cases simply the internalisation of the theoretical constructs of those scientific disciplines with which an individual is familiar, but all of these are encompassed by his broadest philosophical understanding of the nature of reality.

Philip E. Johnson wrote an article, The Unraveling of Scientific Materialism, in the November 1997 issue of First Things, in which he responded to a piece by Harvard Genetics Professor Richard Lewontin in the New York Review of Books in January, 1997. It’s a interesting article in a number of dimensions, including this quote from Lewontin:

Dawkins’ vulgarizations of Darwinism speak of nothing in evolution but an inexorable ascendancy of genes that are selectively superior, while the entire body of technical advance in experimental and theoretical evolutionary genetics of the last fifty years has moved in the direction of emphasizing nonselective forces in evolution.

Johnson continues:

Lewontin laments that even scientists frequently cannot judge the reliability of scientific claims outside their fields of speciality, and have to take the word of recognized authorities on faith. “Who am I to believe about quantum physics if not Steven Weinberg, or about the solar system if not Carl Sagan? What worries me is that they may believe what Dawkins and Wilson tell them about evolution.”

 However, the centrepiece is this direct quote from Lewontin.

We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

Johnson, rightly, regards this comment as revealing of a systematic rationale operating within the evolutionary biology communities. However, from previous examples, it can be seen that such systematic belief systems are endemic to science.  The question then is, not whether they exist, but whether, and to what extent, they are detrimental. In terms of the title of this posting, are we at present in the midst of the intellectual and religious flowering of the current structures of belief, or are we in the midst of its decline and fall, in a climate that is sterile, self-defeating and inimical to human flourishing?

Those who have eyes to see

Reading about Fatima, I noticed a theme that recurred in various descriptions of the miracle of the sun.

O Seculo (a pro-government, anti-clerical, Lisbon paper):

From the road, where the vehicles were parked and where hundreds of people who had not dared to brave the mud were congregated, one could see the immense multitude turn toward the sun, which appeared free from clouds and in its zenith. It looked like a plaque of dull silver, and it was possible to look at it without the least discomfort. It might have been an eclipse which was taking place.

O Dia (another Lisbon daily, edition of 17 October 1917):

“At one o’clock in the afternoon, midday by the sun, the rain stopped. The sky, pearly grey in colour, illuminated the vast arid landscape with a strange light. The sun had a transparent gauzy veil so that the eyes could easily be fixed upon it. The grey mother-of-pearl tone turned into a sheet of silver which broke up as the clouds were torn apart and the silver sun, enveloped in the same gauzy grey light, was seen to whirl and turn in the circle of broken clouds.

Ti Marto (father of Jacinta and Francisco)

We looked easily at the sun, which for some reason did not blind us. It seemed to flicker on and off, first one way, then another. It cast its rays in many directions and painted everything in different colors— the trees, the people, the air and the ground. But what was most extraordinary, I thought, was that the sun did not hurt our eyes.

Dr. Almeida Garrett, PhD (Coimbra University):

It must have been nearly two o’clock by the legal time, and about midday by the sun. The sun, a few moments before, had broken through the thick layer of clouds which hid it, and shone clearly and intensely. I veered to the magnet which seemed to be drawing all eyes, and saw it as a disc with a clean-cut rim, luminous and shining, but which did not hurt the eyes. I do not agree with the comparison which I have heard made in Fatima—that of a dull silver disc. It was a clearer, richer, brighter colour, having something of the luster of a pearl. It did not in the least resemble the moon on a clear night because one saw it and felt it to be a living body. It was not spheric like the moon, nor did it have the same colour, tone, or shading. It looked like a glazed wheel made of mother-of-pearl. It could not be confused, either, with the sun seen through fog (for there was no fog at the time), because it was not opaque, diffused or veiled. In Fatima it gave light and heat and appeared clear-cut with a well-defined rim…

It was a remarkable fact that one could fix one’s eyes on this brazier of heat and light without any pain in the eyes or blinding of the retina. The phenomenon, except for two interruptions when the sun seemed to send out rays of refulgent heat which obliged us to look away, must have lasted about ten minutes.

Similar experiences are common at Medjugorje, as I discovered when I made my own pilgrimage there. This impressed itself on me most powerfully not through my own experiences of phenomena of the sun (I had none) but through standing beside a couple of young blokes from Adelaide as they observed them. All of these instances are testimony to the cracks in the foundations of a purely materialistic worldview. They are evidence that flatly contradicts materialism’s alibi. The challenge is to draw all such strands of evidence together to bind up this strong man.

Dawkins v. Fatima

In my previous post, I quoted from Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder, as follows.

It is the 70,000 witnesses that impress. Could 70,000 people simultaneously be victims of the same hallucination? Could 70,000 people collude in the same lie? Or if there never were 70,000 witnesses, could the reporter of the event get away with inventing so many?

Let’s apply Hume’s criterion. On the other hand, we are asked to believe in a mass hallucination, a trick of the light, or a mass lie involving 70,000 people. This is admittedly improbable. But it is less improbable than the alternative: that the sun really did move. … If the sun moved in truth… an even greater miracle would have to have been perpetrated: an illusion of non-movement had to be staged for all the millions of witnesses not in Fatima. And… if the sun had really moved at the speed reported, the solar system would have broken up. We have no alternative but to follow Hume… and conclude… that the miracle of Fatima never happened. Moreover, it is not at all clear that the onus is on us to explain how those 70,000 witnesses were misled. [My bold emphasis.]

I mentioned the logical flaws in such arguments, so I had better explain myself.

Let us conduct a thought experiment. In order to determine the way a large crowd of people experience the sun, we arrange to conduct tests at a number of venues at which crowds of from 50,000 to 120,000 people gather. Candidates for such gatherings spring readily to mind. With the co-operation of the organisers of these gatherings, we ask the attendees to glance towards the sun, while reminding them of the dangers of doing so. We further ask them to report to one of the many data collectors present, whether they noticed any peculiar behaviour of the sun. What expectations would we have? Apart from being sued by a large number of people because of the damage they sustained to their eyes in following our instructions, we can confidently expect that at none of the venues would any untoward phenomena be reported of the sun.

If, however, at the Portugese national soccer championship, 70,000 people suddenly cried out in terror as the sun seemed to tear itself from the heavens and hurtle towards the earth, how would we respond? Could we repeat what Dawkins has said above, and conclude that it never happened? Let’s be clear about it. In this case, as in Fatima, it is that 70,000 people saw the sun behave in inexplicable ways, ways contrary to the “laws of nature.” We might argue, with Dawkins, that the failure of others away from the venue to observe these phenomena means the the sun did not actually change it’s behaviour at that time. However, would Dawkins himself dare to argue that it is not at all clear that the onus is on us to explain the phenomena? I very much doubt it. Some hypotheses would have to be offered. But how could they possibly be tested, especially if, across all of the experimental venues, this turned out to be a unique event?

Unique events are always problematical for science. Scientific methodology is most comfortable with the observation of interchangeable subjects and controlled conditions. As either of these reduces, the problems of drawing generally valid conclusions multiply. Unique events in uncontrolled circumstances—the stuff of most of our lives—most of the time defy any but serendipitous observation. Why, for example, do we hold no expectation at all that the above thought experiment would yield such a result?

Our lack of expectation tells us nothing about the likelihood of the events at Fatima, because of the extra dimension, inapplicable to our experiment. That dimension is is the supernatural intervention of the Virgin Mary. My point in proposing the experiment is to demonstrate the different criteria that are applied to events thought to be naturalistic, and to those thought to be supernaturalistic. Why two standards for the judgement of the evidence?

The miracle of the sun at Fatima was witnessed by so many because it had been predicted by the children.  Mary, in the preceding apparition, had promised that some such event would occur on that date, and at that time. A falsifiable prediction was made, based on the hypothesis that the Blessed Virgin Mary was the one who was appearing, and that she, through her Son, had the power to initiate such events. Dawkins, as a scientist, should be very pleased with such a set of conditions, even if he is incensed by the success of the prediction.

Hume’s criterion, which to Dawkins seems…unassailable, he quotes as follows:

…no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish. ‘Of Miracles’ (1748)

Hume is talking about testimony, because his primary aim is to destroy confidence in the testimony of the Bible, and particularly, though not exclusively, the New Testament. Whereas the miraculous events of the OT occur in the Law and the more ancient histories, the NT is the witness, the testimony, of the contemporaries of Jesus, and Christianity was founded on this testimony. What he is demanding is that the testimony to, say, the Resurrection and subsequent appearances of Jesus, be of such a kind that it would require a miraculous revelation even more astounding than the Resurrection itself, to engender disbelief.

Is this feasible? Of course not. All human testimony carries a burden of uncertainty. Furthermore, supernatural events, by definition, are not repeatable, so no testing can be carried out ex post facto to reproduce the reported event or events. In that, it’s like the unrepeatable moments of our lives. It is the observed stability of many classes of events in the natural environment that gives us the confidence to repeat an experiment, on the understanding that the unrepeatable components of the new event do not detract from the common element that we abstract from the experimental reality.

Fatima, though, is a event that comes perilously close, for sceptics, to fulfilling Hume’s criterion. Surely the falsehood of the testimony of 70,000 witnesses would be miraculous? Dawkins accepts that, but fails the witnesses on the test of comparative miraculousness. But how many witnesses would it take to convince Dawkins? Had the whole of the daylit human population witnessed the event, it would not have been enough, because “the solar system would have broken up.”

That is to deny the nature of the demonstration that was Fatima. What drew 70,000 to Fatima was the promise that the Trinity would act in support of Mary’s appearances and messages to the children. They who created the natural universe, space and time, would act on their creation so as to demonstrate its dependence upon them.

Another word for testimony in this context is evidence, and when it suits his purposes, as it frequently does, Dawkins attacks everyone who does not share his worldview, as having no evidence to support their contentions. Here, though, Dawkins reveals that he simply disregards evidence which is contrary to his philosophical presupposition of exclusive materialism. For this criterion is nothing but a statement of a deeply held a priori philosophical commitment.

Hume’s test is prima facie anti-scientific. Nonetheless, it is the way most scientists proceed. They draw conclusions based on their own judgements of what is feasible and infeasible, reasonable and unreasonable, possible and impossible. Consequently, observations which wildly contradict prevailing scientific theories are dismissed as freakish outliers. Only if such observations persist might they begin to trouble the scientific conscience. Scientific consensus, however, can be a very unscientific thing.