Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The sixth planet

One way into astronomy for a lot of people, I suspect, is the beauty of the planet Saturn, second largest planet in our system (95 times the mass of the Earth). NASA's Cassini space probe, still orbiting the planet, has sent back a multitude of extraordinary photos that show us this gem of the solar system in close up. Other planets have rings, but these are simply spectacular, and visible from Earth through even a small telescope. Made largely of ice, some of it vented through giant geysers from the moon Enceladus, their complexity is still not completely understood. Even less understood is the hexagonal cloud formation around the Saturnian north pole. (It is a bit like finding a big "6" painted on the side of the sixth planet.) No doubt it has a simple explanation (here is one attempt), and probably isn't a marker left by some alien civilization, but in the meantime, just like those "faster than light" neutrinos from Gran Sasso, not to mention the hunt for the Higgs boson which is the lynchpin of the Standard Model of particle physics, it will continue to intrigue us, and to entice a new generation of children into the study of science. Modern physics and cosmology are at a turning point, it seems. The need to explain the "dark matter" and "dark energy" that apparently make up up most of the universe may be pointing to the need for a new "paradigm" or a radically new set of cosmological theories. More than ever, scientists need imagination as well as intelligence, and faith (in the ultimate intelligibility of the universe) as well as reason.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Marshall McLuhan

Best known these days for his phrases "The medium is the message" (the title of one of his books was The Medium is the Massage), and "the global village", not to mention a cameo appearance in Woody Allen's movie Annie Hall, Marshall McLuhan was a prophet of the new communications technology and the founder of Media Studies with his book Understanding Media (1964). Last year was the 100th anniversary of his birth, and he died in 1980. But there is a lot more to him than this, and as an educator and philosopher he repays careful attention. He was, by the way, a Catholic convert in 1937 thanks to the influence of G.K. Chesterton. Wikipedia (a phenomenon that would have interested him greatly) tells us not only that he claimed intellectual guidance from the Virgin Mary, but that he had a lifelong interest in the number 3 – his conversion began as he was studying the Trivium (the first three Liberal Arts) for his thesis at Cambridge University. That thesis was published for the first time in 2006 by Gingko Press, and examines the history of the Trivium from Classical times to the Renaissance. McLuhan himself was an exponent of Rhetoric in the traditional and broadest sense – hence his interest in the communications media. He saw how each new technology (writing, print, telephone, TV, computer) effectively transforms human cognition and society. He predicted the World Wide Web and analysed its effects as early as 1962.

The latest issue of The Chesterton Review contains a couple of pieces on McLuhan in "News & Comments". One (by Jeet Heer) concludes that to appreciate the full profundity of McLuhan's thought you need to read books like Hugh Kenner's The Mechanic Muse, Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. But don't neglect to read McLuhan.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Forming Priests, Poets, Philosophers

The Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, has announced a rather impressive programme of formation for Priests, Poets and Philosophers, described as "an academic and Renaissance convivio where the perennial wisdom of the Catholic intellectual tradition challenges and entices the mind and soul." It includes a roundtable and a course, with lectures and discussions across a wide range of disciplines. The whole is partly designed for priests and seminarians, but teachers and parishioners and other students are also welcome. Visit the website for details.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Through the Eyes of Faith

The purpose of my book Beauty for Truth's Sake was partly to help overcome the division between faith and reason, and the fragmentation of academic disciplines in the absence of a coherent vision of the world. This is also the purpose of a series from HarperCollins called "Through the Eyes of Faith", textbooks for Christian colleges that examine each of the disciplines in turn from a faith perspective. It is a bold move – has anyone out there reviewed these books?

Friday, January 6, 2012


Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal and former President of the Royal Society writes in an article about manned spaceflight in the Daily Telegraph (10 January):
"Even though manned spaceflight will be a diminishing priority for governments, I believe and hope that some people now living will walk on Mars (though they may well go with one-way tickets). Moreover, a century or two from now, intrepid adventurers may be living independently from the Earth. Whatever ethical constraints we impose here on the ground, we should surely wish such pioneers good luck in genetically modifying their progeny to adapt to alien environments.
"Indeed, this might be the first step towards divergence into a new species: the beginning of the post-human era. Meanwhile, machines of human-like intelligence could spread still further into the stars. Whether the distant future lies with organic post-humans or with such intelligent machines is a matter for debate – but these prospects remind us that we may be near the beginning of a cultural and technological evolution that will continue not only here on Earth, but far beyond."
The emphasis is mine. Meanwhile, one of the most horrifying articles in a
recent issue of the RSA Journal is called "Self-Created". It comes from a "transhumanist" who predicts:
"we will modify ourselves to work in a way that is smarter, better and faster. History is the story of human liberation, and design will take us to a new frontier whereby we can liberate ourselves from our very identities... To self-design will be to self-create. New jobs will arise, and modifications will become conditions of employment."
He concludes: "Self-modification will start as tragedy. There will be sad grotesques. But with the tools and the intent, we can design our own personalities. The definition of ‘human’ will expand. Our children’s children will look nothing like us. And that will be by design."

The article exemplifies an attitude that is increasingly common in a secular age, where a sense of the sacred has become attenuated or distorted or lost altogether. If we are merely the material products of evolution, why not take over from the blind accidental processes of natural selection and design ourselves to be the way we'd like to be? What could be wrong with that? Sure, there will be some collateral damage – what the article calls "sad grotesques" – but you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs.

It is an attitude founded in the fantasies of the ego. Against it stands an attitude founded in reality – the reality of the world and of human nature. The world comes from a mysterious source over which we have no control. It is sheer gift. Conscious life, too, comes from this same mysterious source of Being, which cannot therefore be less than conscious itself. The profound reasons why science and technology should not ignore or usurp this "source", reducing organism to artifact, are laid out in a paper by Michael Hanby, from the Summer 2011 issue of Communio.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Pope on education

The Pope's Message for the World Day of Peace (1 Jan.) this year is titled "Educating Young People in Justice and Peace", and section 3 in particular contains some luminous passages summarizing the Pope's fundamental message to the modern world. For example:
"Man is a being who bears within his heart a thirst for the infinite, a thirst for truth – a truth which is not partial but capable of explaining life’s meaning – since he was created in the image and likeness of God. The grateful recognition that life is an inestimable gift, then, leads to the discovery of one’s own profound dignity and the inviolability of every single person.... Only in relation to God does man come to understand also the meaning of human freedom. It is the task of education to form people in authentic freedom. This is not the absence of constraint or the supremacy of free will, it is not the absolutism of the self. When man believes himself to be absolute, to depend on nothing and no one, to be able to do anything he wants, he ends up contradicting the truth of his own being and forfeiting his freedom. On the contrary, man is a relational being, who lives in relationship with others and especially with God. Authentic freedom can never be attained independently of God."
The Message also contains a link to another text from 2005 where Pope Benedict summarizes the "theology of the body" and of the family. Both are worth reading in full.