Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Last Days and the Resurrection of the Dead II:
Frank Tipler Does it with Physics

Penrose Diagram, for an Omega Point; Arrow is the "world-line" of a photon
from Wikimedia Commons

"It is our relative insignificance in time, not space, which is the real challenge posed by modern cosmology for traditional religion.  I shall show that this view leads naturally to a physical theory for an evolving God, which I term the Omega Point theory." Frank Tipler, "The Omega Point Theory: A Model of an Evolving God" in Physics, Philosophy and Theology--A Common Quest for Understanding

INTRODUCTION

In the post, Last Days and the Resurrection of the Dead I: Quantum Cosmology and Quantum Logic, I discussed  Andrej Grib's proposition that there would be a "Big Crunch", the universe disappearing in a singularity.    Grib, in his article about this and quantum logic, referred to that Big Crunch being an "Omega Point", proposed by the Jesuit paleontologist and theologian Teilhard de Chardin and later by the American physicist Frank Tipler.   I'll discuss Tipler's version (with which I disagree) in this post,  and then turn to that of de Chardin in a third.

PANTHEISM RUN RIOT?--TIPLER'S OMEGA POINT

If you do a Google search: "Frank Tipler Omega Point", you'll find several entries with the term "crackpot".    I won't go that far;  if you agree with Tipler's base assumptions, his arguments are cogent, to an extent.   These assumptions are listed below:
1. "...the possibility of a TOE [Theory of Everything]...might imply that there is only one logically possible universe. This would refute...the premise that God had some freedom of choice in creating the universe."
2. "An evolving God is very much in the world, creates it, and is created by it."
3. "...at the most basic ontological level there is nothing but physics and the 'stuff' studied by physics."
4. "...value is something connected with life, and thus if value is to remain in the universe, life must persist indefinitely;"
5. "...I claim that life is a form of information processing (the converse is not true) and the human mind--and the human soul--is a very complex computer program. [emphasis added]"
6. "...the future c-boundary of the universe consists of a single point--call it the 'Omega Point'." Frank Tipler, op.cit.

Let's examine these assumptions.   I don't disagree with #4 (which is not exactly the same as agreeing with it--there are quite a few qualifications that have to be added to make that statement satisfactory).    The pantheism implicit in #2 is rejected by Catholic teaching;  God transcends the universe even though He is immanent in it*.   I also reject the scientism implicit in #1 and #3;  I have posted
many articles** to the effect that much in the world cannot be explained by science, and that even in that prime example of physics theory, quantum mechanics, there is "a veiled reality" which science can not penetrate.  The proposition that  mind is nothing more than the emergent product of a meat computer,  the brain, is one with which many philosophers and scientists would disagree (including the mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, and the philosophers of mind, John Sears and Thomas Nagel).

The term "c-boundary" comes from terminology devised by Roger Penrose in his  cyclic conformal cosmology thesis.  (And this thesis deserves a post, nay a chapter, on its own.)   The c-boundary is defined as the set of points which are not the pasts of any points or the future of any point in spacetime.  The c-boundary is essentially the "edges" of spacetime--the perimeter of the square, as in the diagram above.   As the list of terms in the link gives it, an Omega point is a c-boundary in which an infinite amount of information has been stored***.

Tipler's vision of the Omega Point is described in more detail in his book,  The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead.   In the far distant future the universe is contracting.   Super-intelligences (not necessarily carbon-based life) use the shear forces of this contraction for energy.   These intelligences are benevolent:  they can reconstruct and download personalities into computers, where they will live a virtual life (a la' Matrix?), happy and pleasurable.  This virtual life will be essentially eternal, since time will slow down as the universe approaches the Big Crunch (as if one were descending into a black hole).    One remarkable "benefit" of such a virtual life is romantic fulfillment:
"it would be possible for each male to be matched not merely with the most beautiful woman in the world, not merely with the most beautiful woman who has ever lived, but to be matched with the most beautiful woman whose existence is logically possible." Frank Tipler, The Physics of Immortality.
And what's the story for females, and those of non-heterosexual inclination? Certainly this is a picture of Heaven different from that given by Jesus:
"For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven." Matt 22:30 (KJV)
I have raised objections above to Tipler's thesis, and it is evident that it does not correspond to a Catholic position on the transcendence of God, the resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment and being a saint in Heaven.

*See the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Relation of God to the Universe.

**See, for example, "There's more to there than physics", "Philosopic Issues in Cosmology 4: Creatio ex Nihilo, Theology vs. Physics", "Are All Great Scientists Atheists?", "Tipping the Sacred Cow of Science: Confessions of a Science Agnostic"

***If you go to this link you'll see many terms that are used for Tipler's Omega Point thesis.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Designer Babies via CRISPR/Cas9?
Science-Fiction vs Catholic Teaching

Mechanism of CRISPR/Cas9 Genetic Modification
From Wikimedia Commons

"...the Sleepless [genetically modified humans] are superior in mind and body, and easily capable of outperforming their normal cousins. All men are not created equal. Where, then, is the line between equality and excellence? How far should any superior minority hold themselves back for fear of engendering feelings of inadequacy in their inferiors?—especially if this minority is not hated and feared, but rather the elite?"  Wikipedia comment on Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress's sci-fi novel on genetically modified humans
"In moral evaluation a distinction must be made between strictly <therapeutic> manipulation, which aims to cure illnesses caused by genetic or chromosome anomalies (genetic therapy), from manipulation <altering> the human genetic patrimony. A curative intervention, which is also called 'genetic surgery,' 'will be considered desirable in principle. provided its purpose is the real promotion of the personal well-being of the individual, without damaging his integrity or worsening his condition of life.'...On the other hand, interventions which are not directly curative, the purpose of which is "the production of human beings selected according to sex or other predetermined qualities," [emphasis added] which change the genotype of the individual and of the human species, "are contrary to the personal dignity of the human being, to his integrity and to his identity. Therefore they can be in no way justified on the pretext that they will produce some beneficial results for humanity in the future,'... 'no social or scientific usefulness and no ideological purpose could ever justify an intervention on the human genome unless it be therapeutic, that is its finality must be the natural development of the human being.' [emphasis added] "  Charter for Health Care Workers, Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance.

INTRODUCTION

Designer babies?  Yes, that possibility looms ahead of us, as I recently learned from a Biologos Forum post:   CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing of human embryos by Chinese scientists is reported in a late issue of  Protein and Cell.*   

In this post I want to explore what science fiction has had to say about genetic engineering and the idea of society divided into classes, classes defined by ability.  Since science-fiction has been successful in anticipating other changes imposed by science on the world we live in, perhaps we should take note of what it has to say about a world with ubermensch and lumpen-proletariat.  

Finally, and this will be the message, what does Catholic teaching have to say about the moral course to follow?  (It's already there in the second quote above, but I want to enlarge on that.)

GENETIC ENGINEERING IN SCIENCE FICTION

Nancy Kress's Hugo Award winning novella, Beggars in Spain.  dealt with the societal and moral issues of genetic engineering in 1995, before the advent of the CRISPR/Cas9  technique.   The title comes from a character's question, one of the genetically engineered elite, "what do the productive members of society owe to the unproductive members who have nothing to offer except need"?  These unproductive members are presumably "the Beggars in Spain"*, whence the title.  I won't spoil the novel's conclusion (it's actually a trilogy), except to note that it's surprising.

The same question arises in a classic science-fiction story, "The Marching
Galaxy Magazine cover
for "The Marching Morons"
from Wikimedia Commons
Morons" by C.M. Kornbluth.    In this story an intelligentsia, an elite in which each member has to hold several jobs, manages a world in which there is no material want.   They keep the lumpen-proletariat satisfied with mindless TV quiz and reality shows (and how does that 50 year old story strike a chord today!), cars that seem to go 80 mph but are actually doing only 20.  (Warning! Spoiler!)  They attempt to keep the population down by trying to make contraceptive pills glamorous, but that solution doesn't work.  So, their "final solution" is to popularize a "Trip to Venus" in TV, movies and posters, pack the lower orders into rocket ships that will end nowhere, and thus rid themselves of "The Beggars in Spain".

Aldous Huxley, in his novel Brave New World, had a somewhat different approach.   In his "brave new world"**, babies came from bottles, not the wombs of mothers;  they were sleep indoctrinated to be happy in their pre-ordained caste--alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon:
 "Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they're so frightfully clever. I'm awfully glad I'm a Beta, because I don't work so hard... And Epsilons are still worse. They're too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly colour.  I'm so glad I'm a Beta." Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Chapter 2.
Astounding Science Fiction Cover
Beyond this Horizon
from Wikipedia
Robert Heinlein's 1942 novel,  Beyond this Horizon, (written under the pseudonym Anson McDonald), also dealt with genetically modified superhumans.   As in the previous works, there is enough material wealth to supply everyone. Indeed, a major problem in Heinlein's quasi-utopia is how to dispose of surplus goods.   The value of genetic spontaneity--unpredictability--is established by setting a class of "control naturals", a protected group who have not been subject to genetic engineering.

In each of the above works it is not that those with lower abilities can not be supplied with what they need (in Beggars in  Spain, there is unlimited energy source from a special device), but rather what is owed from those with high ability to those of lower ability, that they should also partake of a good world.

Both Nancy Kress and Aldous Huxley show how a world managed by pre-ordained ability and oriented towards material satisfaction is, ultimately, not a satisfactory world in which to live.   There is a particularly moving episode in Beggars in Spain, in which a genetically engineered dog, a luxury curiousity--frightened beyond its ken--jumps off a penthouse patio.    But none of these authors, whether or not they view genetic enhancement as enabling a worthwhile society, raise the question of whether there is an absolute, intrinsic moral prohibition against genetically modifying humans as if they were things or animals.  So, that's where we go next.

CATHOLIC TEACHING AND GENETIC ENGINEERING

The substance of Catholic teaching on genetic engineering is given in the document from which the second quote above was taken, Charter  for Health Care Workers, Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance., and from works footnoted in that document.   I want to summarize and comment on this.

First, the distinction between genetic treatment to remedy or cure a disease is carefully laid out.   For example, there are a number of diseases which are genetic in origin:  Huntington's chorea (Woody Guthrie's disease), hemophilia, sickle cell anemia, susceptibility to breast cancer, to mention just a few.  Can we conclude then, that God allows us to alter these defects, to enable us to live better lives?   Suppose genetic therapy had been available to correct the childhood condition of Bl. Hermann Contractus, who was the author of the prayer Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen) and who supposedly suffered from cleft palate and spinal defects.  Would we then have had that prayer?

Now let's go to the borderline situations.   What about diseases that may disable a person, or make him more liable to die, conditions which are secondary causes  of disease:  obesity (as a precondition for circulatory problems), depression (as a precondition for addiction or suicide)?   What about babies with Down's syndrome?  What do the prescriptions laid out by the Charter tell us here?  Would genetic manipulation to avoid such problems be treatment or enhancement?

The situation is clear in other respects;  genetic manipulation to get 180 IQ, 7 ft basketball players is not to be done (if it be possible).   Pope St. John Paul II made this abundantly clear in his address to the World Medical Association, as quoted in  the encyclical Donum Vitae
"Each human person, in his absolutely unique singularity, is constituted not only by his spirit, but by his body as well. Thus, in the body and through the body, one touches the person himself in his concrete reality. To respect the dignity of man consequently amounts to safeguarding this identity of the man  'copore et anima unus' [body and soul one thing]...It is on the basis of this anthropological vision that one is to find the fundamental criteria for decision-making in the case of procedures which are not strictly therapeutic, as, for example, those aimed at the improvement of the human biological condition" Pope St. John Paul II, Address to the World Medical Association, as quoted in Donum Vitae
And this says it all.   That which preserves the dignity and uniqueness of the human being as God has intended, is that which is to be allowed.   Enabling a designed class of superhumans will not bring happiness to the world, as Brave New World and Beggars in Spain demonstrate.   And the final question (to which I don't know the answer), is there a slippery slope in genetic engineering on which we can't control our descent?   If we can replace the gene that causes Huntington's chorea, will we then be content not to engineer the superman or superwoman?

Perhaps the answer is to find a gene for holiness.  As C.S. Lewis put it, the next evolutionary advance will not be in physical or mental improvement, but to be sons of God:

"...I should expect the next stage in Evolution not to be a stage in Evolution at all:  I should expect that Evolution itself as a method of producing change will be superseded. And finally, I should not be surprised if, when the thing happened, very few people notice it ....it is a change that goes off in a totally different direction---a change from being creatures of God to being sons of God... [t]he first instance appeared in Palestine two thousand years ago." C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.

NOTES

*Very briefly, this is the molecular biology involved in this gene editing; it's also illustrated in the diagram above:  RNA is introduced into a plasmid, with a protein complexing agent, Cas9, which procedure enables the RNA to snip genomic DNA at a predetermined site, into which alternative genomic material can be introduced.   For a more extended discussion please do a Google search or consult the Wikipedia article.

** "Beggars in Spain" refers to a 16th Century English nursery rhyme that I have not been able to source.  I have read (can't recall where) that it refers to impoverished Spanish noblemen who are too proud to beg, but still need to be supported.

***"The title is from Shakespeare's The Tempest, "O brave new world, that has such people in it"

Monday, March 21, 2016

Second Ebook Published:
"The Quantum Catholic "(Book 2 of "Top Down to Jesus")

To the right is the cover of my new ebook, "The Quantum Catholic", which has just been published by Amazon.com (as Kindle).   It's the second in the series "Top Down to Jesus".   The third, "War? Science vs. Church" should be out in another month or so.

Here's the Table of Contents and the Preface:

  • Preface
  • Chapter 1--What is Quantum Mechanics all about?
  • Chapter 2--Quantum Mechanics--A Veiled Reality
  • Chapter 3--Quantum Divine Action
  • Chapter 4--A Quantum Analog for the Holy Trinity?
  • Chapter 5--Quantum Mechanics and Free Will
  • Chapter 6--Quantum Mechanics and the Real Presence
  • Chapter 7--Summation: Does Quantum Mechanics Speak to Catholic Teaching?
  • REFERENCES
  • Afterword

PREFACE

In my blog,  “Reflections of a Catholic Scientist”, of the five most viewed posts, three have to do with the relation of quantum mechanics to Catholic teaching.    That tells me that there are readers who would like to hear more about this relation, and who would also like to get a qualitative understanding of what quantum mechanics is all about.   (When I say “qualitative”, I mean QUALITATIVE—minimal numbers and simple equations.)   

I realize there are people (like my wife) whose stomach churns and whose eyes glaze over when numerical propositions are set before them.   So, I find it amazing that a Google search,“Quantum Mechanics simple explanation”,  shows articles with matrices (arrays of symbols), partial differential equations and so forth.

What are my qualifications for writing a book on QM and Catholic teaching?  As an MRI and NMR physicist, I’ve had to use quantum mechanics for my own work.   In fact, perhaps the best paper I’ve done is an application to NMR of the quantum mechanics learned in graduate school.  (Google “Kurland-McGarvey equation”—it’s nice to have a name equation that doesn’t need footnoting,)  I’ve taught classes on quantum mechanics and its applications to undergraduates, graduate students, and medical residents.    

On the Catholic side, I’ve had theological training in Ecclesial Lay Ministry classes and in graduate work (post-retirement) at the University of Scranton.     And most important, I’ve done much reading, post-retirement, in both philosophy and theology (references are given at the end of the book);  to quote Samuel Johnson  (Boswell’s Life of Johnson):

"I cannot see that lectures can do so much good as reading the books from which the lectures are taken." 
  
The book begins with a very brief history of the development of quantum mechanics.   There will follow a qualitative account of two fundamental experiments that relate to philosophical interpretations of quantum mechanics, the double slit and the entanglement experiments.   Since there are so many good and interesting sites that give descriptions of these experiments, including animation, I’ll depend on the reader of this ebook to go to the given links and explore them as needs be, for in-depth explanations.   

In the second chapter I’ll speak to the interpretations and mysteries of quantum mechanics (without coming to a definite judgment), and then examine how quantum mechanics and Catholic teaching might intersect.    Several examples, taken from posts on my blog, are discussed in later chapters:   Divine action via quantum mechanics, quantum mechanics as an analog for the Holy Trinity, quantum mechanics and the Real Presence in the Eucharist,  and how quantum mechanics might enter into that ever-puzzling question of free will.

One final note, before acknowledgments:  originally this book was to be the third in a series, “Top Down to Jesus”,    After I spent some time with the second, “War between Science and the Church?”, it struck me that some grounding in quantum mechanics and its intersection with Catholic teaching would be useful as background—hence, the change of order.

I’d like to express my gratitude to those teachers, fellow students, and colleagues (way back when) who helped me understand how to use quantum mechanics and to the students who asked the embarrassing questions that increased my understanding of quantum mechanics.   And finally, of course, a debt of gratitude to my wife, (a historian) who has helped me make all this intelligible to non-scientists and math-phobes.

Comments, both laudatory and critical, are invited.   Purchases will be even more welcome.*

NOTE:
*The book has also been submitted to other outlets through "Draft2Digital". 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Last Days and the Resurrection of the Dead I:
Quantum Cosmology and Quantum Logic*

The Resurrection of Christ
James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)
Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?
But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen:
And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.
Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.
 For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised:
And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins 1 Cor:13-17 (KJV)

"So the same combinations of atoms, the same space volumes corresponding to human bodies, cars, buildings and so on, will come again.   All events in spacetime will be reorganized or 'resurrected'  but not in such a way that they will be in time...It is not that the dead will arise from their graves, as it were, but rather sets of events of any life can arise again,  together with the consciousness of those who were alive." Andrej Grib,  'Quantum Cosmology: Observer Logic' in Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature--Perspectives on Divine Action**

INTRODUCTION

Easter, when we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, will soon be upon us, so it is appropriate to reflect on that resurrection and on the one which will be given to us, as Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians.   It is an article of faith for us as Catholics that we will be resurrected and that we will be judged on the Last Day.  Could there possibly be a basis for that belief in contemporary science?   Possibly, although as I will comment below, in the last analysis Revelation is more convincing than science.

A Russian mathematician, Andrej Grib (who is, I believe, a devout Christian), has  speculated on this possibility in an article in Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature.   I'll attempt to summarize some of his novel ideas about how quantum mechanics is to be interpreted, what that means in terms of cosmology, and finally how it suggests the possibility of resurrection.

QUANTUM MECHANICS REQUIRES AN OBSERVER

Grib's fundamental thesis (relying on early interpretations of quantum mechanics by Von Neumann and London) is that quantum mechanics requires a measurement process and thus an observer must be the final link in the measurement chain,  in order that the measurement be meaningful.
"In the end the final observer is just the  abstract ego of the observer--the one who is the subject of observation [i.e. the one who observes]...So it is this abstract ego which is responsible for the collapse of the wave function.  This is a strong form of the subjective interpretation of quantum mechanics." Andrej Grib,  op. cit. , p 169
Accordingly, to speak of the wave function of the universe without specifying a measurement or an observer to make that measurement is "very bad philology" (to quote Grib), that is to say, contradictory to implicit assumptions on which quantum mechanics is based.***

Grib then links what appear to be puzzling features of quantum mechanics-- the uncertainty principle that says we can't get exact simultaneous measurements on complementary variables, the wave-particle duality, the entanglement of particle shown in Bell's Theorem experiments--to the following.  The human mind operates by Boolean logic, whereas the universe in fundamental reality is governed by a non-Boolean logic, a quantum logic, which I'll discuss below.

QUANTUM LOGIC****

Quantum logic violates the distribution law of Boolean logic.
Consider events or logical statements A, B, C.    The Boolean distribution law says A*(B+C) = A*B + A*C, or in words,
[A and (B or C)] =  (A and B)  or (A and C)
where "and" , "or" are logical conjunctions.   (See this link for a nice illustration applied to circuit theory.)

But in quantum logic, that equality does NOT hold.    What does this means, physically?

Boolean Logic--Newtonian Physics
from Wikimedia Commons

Quantum Logic--Particles as Waves
From Wikimedia Commons
Consider the double slit experiment, shown in the illustration to the left ("Boolean Logic").   If a beam of particles passes through the two slits and behaves according to classical physics you'd expect two spots on the detecting screen, more or less opposite each slit.     Now suppose you have quantum behavior ("Quantum Logic) as shown in the illustration to the right.  You have a beam of particles--photons, electrons (whatever!)--passing through the two slits.  If one takes A to mean a particle hits the screen, B that it has passed through the upper slit and C that it has passed through the lower slit, then the classical experiment would have particle passing either through the upper slit and hitting the screen more or less opposite that slit (A and B), or passing through the lower slit and hitting the screen more or less opposite that slit (A and C).   But that is NOT what happens.   Instead you get each individual particle behaving as if it were part of a wave and "knew" about both slits.

In other words, the logical terms B and C can't be separated into B or C, it remains B and C in quantum logic.  A particle goes through both upper and lower slits at the same time, as does a wave-front.

BOOLEAN MINDS, A NON-BOOLEAN UNIVERSE, THE BIG CRUNCH

Our minds, Grib says, operate in a Boolean logic mode.   We cannot apprehend non-Boolean logic, whence the apparent mysteries of quantum mechanics.   The perception of time itself is a consequence of this Boolean mind / non-Boolean universe dichotomy.   We must experience events separately and in succession, as past, present and future, even though the physics of relativity suggests they are conjoined, that is to say are not really separated in that non-Boolean universe.

In the short space of this blog post I won't attempt to show how this reasoning leads to a quantum cosmology.  (To be frank, I don't altogether understand it myself).    But it is a consequence of the cosmology engendered by this quantum logic that there will be a "Big Crunch":  instead of a continual expansion of space-time there will be a reversal, a contraction and, as given in the introductory quote,  events and material things will come again, as in a resurrection of everything.

Grib suggests that in this case, Revelation may be a better guide to what "will" happen. ("will"--a future tense--seems out of place given his joining past, present and future together.)
"The idea of the collapse of the wave-function of the universe after the Big Crunch corresponds to these lives coming into a new existence where different weights will be given to different events [emphasis added].   Some of the events could be annihilated (i.e. have zero weight), which is very close to the idea of The Last Judgment).   How can we know in this life what will, and what will not be important for the eternal life after the Big Crunch?  The only sure answer is Revelation [emphasis and upper-case added]." op. cit., p. 181

MY TAKE 

I agree with Grib's last sentence in the quote above: "The only sure answer is Revelation."    This attitude is not an appeal to fideism, that through faith only will we know what is truly important.   Rather, it concedes that our knowledge of material things is limited, that there is a "veiled reality" concealing the fundamental nature of things.   

Science changes.   What we take as established today may be tossed in the dust-bin a hundred years from now.   Revelation does indeed supersede scientific theory, because it is the Word of God.  

One final note:  this was published by error before I finished the article--in fact, before I did anything but the title.   I apologize to those readers who came to a blank page.

NOTES

*I've retitled this to be the first of a series of three on scientific ideas about the Resurrection of the dead, versus Catholic teaching.

**Press on the green book icon and chapter summary will appear on the right; press on that by Grib to get a summary.

***Grib also expounds on Fritz London's ideas about consciousness as final agent for quantum mechanical measurement:
"According to London and Bauer the main feature of consciousness is introspection:  in giving an account to myself of the state in which I am, I know that what I see now is white rather than black, and I know that I know."  op. cit. p. 170
****For a brief account of the relevant features of quantum mechanics see
Quantum Divine Action via God, the Berkeleyan Observer.... and links and references therein.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

What should be a Catholic response to the Insult Culture?

Anger etching, C. LeBrun
from Wellcome Archive
“Anger is just a cowardly extension of sadness. It's a lot easier to be angry at someone than it is to tell them you're hurt.” G.K. Chesterton
"Call often to mind that our Saviour redeemed us by bearing and suffering, and in like manner we must seek our own salvation amid sufferings and afflictions; bearing insults, contradictions and troubles with all the gentleness we can possibly command."  St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to a Devout Life, Part III
Anyone listening to the recent Republican debates or reading comments on political or news blogs should be disheartened by the tone--angry, insulting, irrational.    People may have reasons for their anger, but these reasons do not justify a barrage of name-calling and insults.  Moreover, insults are not likely to win those whom you have insulted to your side.  I believe that the propensity to use insults rather than rational argument stems from an internet culture, a culture where one can be anonymous and thereby be nasty without attribution or retribution.  

In two earlier posts, "A Lesson from Two Homilies: Don't Argue on the Internet" and Don't Argue on the Internet 2: A Lesson in Gracious Dialogue, I argued that a Christian response to insults was to be patient and gentle and accept the insults, as suggested by St. Francis de Sales in the quote above, and by  St. Francis,  Bl. Mother Teresa,  among many others

One way to respond to insults is to avoid them, that is avoid the occasion of possible sin of anger--don't watch television, don't read internet blogs on politics or the news.    This will work, but you become the proverbial ostrich, hiding your head in the sand to avoid learning of the evil in the world.

A second way is to ignore insults, to accept them and bear them as a cross.   While such might be particularly appropriate in this Lenten season, it does nothing to change those who would inflict the insult, does nothing to modify their behavior.   And even though it may in fact be unreasonable to think that those who call names, rant and rave, can have their ways changed, nevertheless it is up to us to try and if we fail--at least the effort will have been made.  My own notion is to tell those who wield the insults that their verbal weapons will not change my mind, but only make me more opposed to their candidate or policies.

A third way is to counter one insult with another, with a dash of humor that seasons it enough to make the exchange palatable.   I'll give some examples from the Brits:
“I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend ... if you have one."  — George Bernard Shaw, playwright (to Winston Churchill)
"Cannot possibly attend first night; will attend second, if there is one."
— Churchill's response” 
And
“A member of Parliament to Disraeli: 'Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease.'
That depends, Sir,' said Disraeli, 'whether I embrace your policies or your mistress.”  
There are also the self-insulting jokes, a favorite in Jewish and Yiddish humor, that can be used to deprecate your real worth and thus take away the weapon of those who would demean you;  if you make yourself little, what point is there for an opponent to do likewise?
"I would never belong to a club that would have me as a member." Groucho Marx
 "How is it possible to find meaning in a finite world, given my waist and shirt size?"   Woody Allen
(at a charity dinner) "I had my choice tonight of buying a hundred-dollar ticket or being up here on the dais.. So, good evening, ladies and gentlemen."  The late, great radio comedian Jack Benny 
I'm not sure which route I'll take when I next encounter internet insults.  I've taken a Lenten Vow not to comment on the Internet (broken once), so I may not have to make a choice for a while, at any rate.


About Me

My photo

Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see http://rationalcatholic.blogspot.com/   and http://home.ptd.net/~rkurland)

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.