Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Memento Mori--Thoughts on Growing Old

Old Nun, M. Bassetto (1611)
from Wikimedia Commons
"Do not go gentle into that good night. 
Old age should burn and rave at close of day; 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

 Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night."Dylan Thomas

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head –Do you think, at your age, it is right?”
“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”   Lewis Carroll

Final perseverance is the doctrine that wins the eternal victory in small things as in great” Muriel Spark, Memento Mori


Old people, it is said, love to talk about their aches and pains.  I've forborne doing that, but as I look back on my recent 86th birthday, it struck me that it might be therapeutic to do so, and perhaps put my signs of senility into a more encompassing picture.

We have a 16 year old Shih-Tzu (112 in dog years) who suddenly is showing his age.  His tail, instead of being an arch over his back, now droops more and more;  he limps, favoring the two legs that are probably arthritic.    Although he has navigated well as a blind dog for these past three years over a large yard and cluttered rooms, he now seems to bump into objects more and more, and without the sound of our voices to guide, will hesitate--as if to ponder "where am I and what am I doing here?".

His bark is still imperious as he asks to be let out or in, so his spirit seems to be good, despite the drooping tail.   (My wife contends that he has racial memories of being a pampered pet in the household of the Chinese Empress and condescends to stay with us round-eyed peasants.)  But as he climbs onto his pillow to make himself comfortable, there are little whines of unhappiness and aches.  Although his appetite is quite good, albeit selective, he has grown quite scrawny in his old age--ribs and backbone are conspicuous.  (That's one attribute of old age I wish I would emulate.)

It strikes us that he won't  be with us much longer, but we will never want to "put him down" as long as he is not in pain, even though it's clear that taking care of him will involve more and more work, some of it messy.    And here comes the point of comparison.  I myself am noticing a slow-down.   Yard work that a few years ago I did  to work up a sweat, I now find hard to do without breaking for a rest every five minutes.    As a point of pride and for cardio-vascular workouts, I used to avoid elevators.   Now it's seldom that I go up or down stairs except in our home, and then I plan errands to minimize trips between floors.


But I too, do not want to "be put down", even when what seems to be still working--my  mind--becomes as decrepit as my body.    And I see signs of what could happen  when  I attend  Masses held in the chapel of a local nursing home, managed by an order of Catholic Nuns.  The Nursing Home is also a rehab center for patients with Alzheimer's and other senile mental disorders.   Many of the elderly nuns are there,  either for physical rehab, nursing care, or Alzheimer's.

There are about 10 to 15 of us non-patients (including some still active nuns) who attend Mass there on a semi-regular, twice-a-week basis,    We sit in chairs along the back and one of the side walls.    The main part of the room is empty to hold the 10 to 15 wheel-chairs in phalanx rows, with four or five patients in wheel chairs against the other side wall.   There are a few chairs in the room for friends and relatives of the patients, to sit with wheel chairs.   Two or three attendants and nuns sit along the back wall.   No one rises or kneels during the Mass--it would be a hurtful reminder to those in the wheel chairs who cannot do so.  As is usual in Catholic Churches, one sits in a customary place.

During Mass I occasionally hear one of the patients (usually not one of the nuns) making a comment--"that's beautiful", "praise God", "where's my watch", "thank you Father".  As the priest makes his rounds handing out Holy Communion to each of us, visitors and patients, I look up and see some of the patients sleeping; the priest or EMOHC (a nun) will gently nudge the patient and slip a small portion of the Host into her mouth.

One of the nuns celebrated her 82nd anniversary in the Order a few weeks ago and her 100th birthday a week later.  She is alert and usually not one of those sleeping as Holy Communion is given out.   I see another nun, sleeping during the Mass; her hands are folded in prayer, but she seems oblivious to all that goes on around her, even when asked to receive the Host.   I recall some five or six years ago--she was sharp, witty, alert, managing a large enterprise for the order.   What are her interior thoughts now, I wonder?  Her hands are folded in prayer--does that posture mirror an interior devotion?

Which direction will I take--will the mind in exterior behavior go;  will there still be an interior self to contemplate and pray?


“If I had my life to live over again, I would form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is not another practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life.”
Muriel Spark, Memento Mori
Recall the Ash Wednesday injunction as we are ashed: "Remember man, thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return".    The Latin motto, "Memento Mori"(remember that you have to die) was important in Medieval times for those pursuing an ascetic discipline, to hone their thoughts to the hereafter.

I recall this as the title of a wonderful novel by Muriel Spark about forethoughts of death and how they enhance life.   In the novel a group of elderly people--arty and social types--receive occasional phone calls (before the days of cell phones) "remember you must die".    Their lives go on, perturbed somewhat by the calls, but not exceedingly so.    They do confront death, in different ways, however.   Whence the quote at the beginning of this section.   At the end of the novel it is not clear who has been sending the phone messages--perhaps God?

So, as we grow old we contemplate that "undiscovered country".   We hope we are made strong by faith; that by faith even though imperfect, we will find that our Lord, in His infinite capacity for forgiveness, will not look too harshly on our sins.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Are We Special?
New Thoughts about the Anthropic Principle

William Blake, Europe--A Prophecy
from Wikimedia Commons
Scientists are slowly waking up to an inconvenient truth - the universe looks suspiciously like a fix. The issue concerns the very laws of nature themselves. For 40 years, physicists and cosmologists have been quietly collecting examples of all too convenient "coincidences" and special features in the underlying laws of the universe that seem to be necessary in order for life, and hence conscious beings, to exist. Change any one of them and the consequences would be lethal. Paul Davies, winner of the 1995 Templeton Prize
"It is a strange fact, incidentally, that religious apologists love the anthropic principle. For some reason that makes no sense at all, they think it supports their case. Precisely the opposite is true. The anthropic principle, like natural selection, is an alternative to the design hypothesis. It provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence.”  Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion


You see in the quotes above two different views of the Anthropic Principle, that our universe is finely tuned to support carbon-based life; it's known in several versions ranging in acronym form from Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP), to Strong Anthropic Principle (SAP), to Christian Anthropic Principle (CAP), to Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle (you do the acronym).

My interest has been awakened again by conversations (via email) with an author who believes that the Anthropic Principle, as exemplified in a series of physical events and values for constants--the anthropic coincidences--strongly and quantitatively (via probability arguments)  supports the proposition of a creating God.

I also believe that these anthropic coincidences help us to believe in God, but I do not believe that probability arguments, as they have been used heretofore, are valid.     Rather, I take the point of view of the psalmist  in Psalm 19:

"The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.  Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.  There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard." KJV


These anthropic coincidences have been discussed in two other posts on this blog:   Philosophic Issues in Cosmology 6, The Theology of Water.   I'll summarize the arguments presented in these posts;  if you, the reader, are not familiar with the ins and outs of the anthropic principle, I urge you to read these posts and the references contained therein.

I'll not go through an exhaustive list--that's done in references given in the linked posts; rather they can be categorized as follows:

  • Features of the universe--e.g. space dimensionality 3; the mass/energy content of the initial universe that enabled expansion but not immediate collapse; uniformity in very early universe;  size;
  • Finely tuned values for fundamental physical parameters--e.g. the mass difference between proton and neutrons that enables stability for nuclear processes; the carbon-12 excited state energy that by resonance enhances the probability of carbon-12 nucleus formation from a rare collision of three He nuclei;
  • Nature of physical laws--e.g ratio of electromagnetic force to gravitational force; inverse cube force law for gravity; quantum mechanical laws that enable chemical bonding and (see below) the special properties of water;
  • "Accidental" geo-astronomical features--e.g. tilt of the earth's axis enabling life-friendly climate, unusually large moon shielding earth from asteroid and meteor collision.
It must be emphasized that there are many more instances of such fine tuning--parameters for which the values have to lie between narrow limits to enable a life-supporting universe, and many more examples of geo-astronomical and chemical features.    Ellis, in the reference linked above, specifies general conditions that must obtain for a universe to contain life as we know it.


Some Christian apologists use the anthropic coincidences as an argument for the existence of God by citing the very low probability for their occurrence; all these happening would not occur by chance.   A major objection to this procedure, which Ellis points out, is that the universe is a single datum--probability arguments are generally applied to samples from larger collections for which we have information about variability.

For example, if you've examined 20,000 crates of oranges and found 100 crates containing bad oranges, you'd be justified in putting a probability of  100/20,000 or .005 in finding a bad orange in the next crate.   But if you've only come across one crate of oranges, then it's speculation to put a probability on finding a bad orange.  (But see below.)

Another error one finds is that some apologists list a string of fine tuning examples (call them a,b,c,d...x),  and then use the argument that P(a,b,c,d...x) = P(a) P(b) P(c)P(d)...P(x).    They say that the probability of the total set is the product of the probabilities for each member  of the set.

This would be true if the events were independent, in other words if what happened for one event did not depend on what happened for another.* Such independence will not necessarily hold.   Consider, for example, the properties of
Model of Ice Structure, red: oxygen; white, hydrogen
Dashed lines represent hydrogen bonds
From Wikimedia Commons
water that are life-friendly:

  • thermodynamic--high freezing and boiling points, high specific heat, etc.;
  • physical --surface tension, low specific gravity of ice, maximum density of liquid water at 4 deg C.   

These properties all depend on the very unusual capacity of protons in a H2O molecule to form strong hydrogen bonds to oxygen atoms in other H2O molecules.   And that hydrogen bonding capability arises from quantum mechanics and the physical nature of electrostatic attraction.    So it is one feature, not many, for which a probability should entered. .    And how do you assess the probability of quantum mechanics giving rise to hydrogen-bonding?


"But is it probable that probability brings certainty?" Blaise Pascal, Pensees 496
I'm going to try a different approach, using probability as a measure of belief. (I apologize to those professional statisticians and mathematicians who will certainly be offended by my presumption.)   The approach is my take on Richard Jeffrey's Subjective Probability.

Let's start with a different definition of probability, based on strength of belief.   Consider the following examples for betting on a horse race.   You overhear a trainer telling a pal that "the next race is fixed for Trump's Nag to win, with odds of 9/1".    You bet $10,  expecting to win $90.    The defined probability, working from the odds ratio, is  1/(9+1) = 0.10.    The probability of losing your bet is then 1- 0.10 = 0.90.    The expectation value is 0 = 0.10 x 90 + 0.90 x(-10).

The next step is to consider conditional probability, that is how the probability of an event depends on a linked event.   Let A represent the event that the stock price rises to $100.   Let B represent the event that information about the possible rise of the stock is given.    Then the conditional probability is denoted as p(A|B), the probability of event A given that event B occurs.   Note that there is no causal relation implied here--it's only a matter of evidence.

Now to the meat of the matter.   Let F represent the event of fine-tuning for the universe;  G, that God exists;  N, that God does not exist (or that "Naturalism= materialism" accounts for everything).    Then

  • p(G| F )  is a probability, a degree of belief, that F --> G, i.e. fine-tuning is evidence for the existence of God;  
  • p(N | F)  is a probability that fine-tuning implies that God does not exist;  
  • p(F | G) is the probability that if God exists then He can fine-tune the universe;  
  • p(F | N) is the probability that a fine-tuned universe would occur in the absence of God;  
  • p(G) is the probability--the degree of belief--that God exists;
  • p(N)  is the probability--the degree of belief--that God does not exist.

Then straightforward manipulation gives (see note **) yields

 P(G | F)) = [ P(G) ] [ P(F | G) ]
 P(N | F)      [ P(N) ] [ P(F | N)]               
       1                2             3

Term 1 is a likelihood ratio for belief that fine-tuning implies the existence of God to belief that fine-tuning  implies no God;  term 2 is a likelihood ratio for belief in God to belief in no God (naturalism);   term 3 is a likelihood ratio for belief that God, if He exists, would create a fine-tuned universe to support life to belief that naturalism/materialism would yield a fine-tuned universe.

Now certainly term 3 is a number much greater than 1, even if the exact value is indeterminate.   The value for term 2 will depend on the individual--for a Christian martyr, it would be a huge number;    for Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Kraus it would be a very small number.

Here's the point: the value you impute to term 1, the likelihood ratio for belief that a fine-tuned universe is evidence for the existence of God, will be greater than  1 if you are not a hard core atheist.    If you're agnostic--it's a 50/50 proposition that God exists--then certainly fine tuning should convince you that God exists.   If you're an extreme atheist, then term 2 could become small enough to swamp term 3, even if the latter is very large.

So the upshot is that if you do believe in God or if you're an agnostic, fine tuning can be evidence for God's creating hand.   If you're an atheist--this will not be sufficient evidence.   And we come again to Grace given by the Holy Spirit as the mechanism for faith.


 * Further, if you do this with a large number of events, it will certainly not lead to useful information.   Consider a series of 50 independent events, each of which has a probability of 0.9.   Then the probability for all the events happening together is 0.9 ^ 50 = .0052. which is small, even though the probability for the events individually is large.

**Consider p(A and B), the probability that both A and B occur (or that both A and B are true propositions).   Then a form of Bayes' theorem is  that
p(A and B) = p(A | B) p(B) = p (B | A) p(A);  
whence p(A | B) = [p(A)/p(B)] [ p( B | A) ]

Sunday, May 8, 2016

How to do Web Art on the Cheap--using Sketchbook

From ""
I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way - things I had no words for.  Georgia O'Keefe via BrainyQuote
Bad artists always admire each other's work.   Oscar Wilde. 
And now, as the intro for Monty Python goes, "for something completely different".


As those of you who have been following this blog know, I'm authoring ebooks (first royalty check:  $0.56 --yes, there is a decimal point in front of the 5).  As several editors told me on rejecting my project summaries about science and Catholic teaching,  this isn't a marketable topic--could you do something more exciting?   So, it isn't cost-effective for me to hire commercial artists.   I've decided to use a graphics tool, Sketchbook Pro, which has received good reviews and costs only $29 /year.  (A limited utility, Sketchbook, is available for free.)

This is not going to be a how-to post; I'm not that expert and there are all the YouTube videos that can be explored. Rather, I'll try to show how it works for  the cover of my forthcoming ebook, "Top Down to Jesus, Book 3: Truth Can Not Contradict Truth", which discusses the non-existent war between science and the Church.   I've also used it for animations in a forthcoming iBook edition of "The Quantum Catholic"


Backgroun Layer
Sketchbook works in layers, which is good for the tyro--you can goof up one layer and delete without having to scrap all the rest. The starting point is then a background layer. Here's the one I chose for the third book of my series, "Top Down to Jesus".

It uses several of the tools available in Sketchbook: color palette, radial gradient fill, cropping and image sizing.


Since I'm not an artist, I use free images, ones in the Public Domain, available either from wikimedia commons, obtained by doing a search, wikimedia commons image ???? (replace the question marks by the image subject), from Canva, Pixabay or  many other outfits found from a search "free images".     

My third book is on "science and the Church",  so I wanted a cover that would show that God comes first--whence the hand of God creating DNA.   I took as one image, Michelango's "The Creation of Adam";
Michelangeolo's "Creation of Adam"
from wikimedia Commons

the other a DNA molecular model image of DNA.
Molecular Model of DNA
from Wikimedia Commons
Each image is  put into a separate layer, placed, sized, cropped and trimmed with the Sketchbook tools to get a superposed image.    


The final step is putting title and author onto the cover.   Sketchbook has a number of font styles and sizes available, so there's an embarrasse de riches...what to choose from!    I'll show below two different styles;  I've not yet decided which I'll use.

Book Covers, "Truth Can Not Contradict Truth"


One can also do simple animations with Sketchbook.   I chose one that would illustrate Schrodinger's Cat Paradox:   to show the classical physics situation I used an animation switching between dead cat (radioactivity emitted, HCN released) and live cat (no radioactivity, no broken flask of HCN)   The animation doesn't load onto this blog, but does in the iBook (hint: buy it when it comes out!).

Saturday, May 7, 2016

More St. Augustine--On Prayer

St. Augustine and the Fire of Wisdom


I am going through some rough spots recently (won't indicate what) and have resorted more than usual to prayer.   Now I know that God answers every prayer, but does not necessarily grant what we pray for. 

I've even done the St. Jude Novena (with partial or perhaps problematic success.)   Last night I read the selection for May 6th from Augustine Day by Day and found it inspirational enough to post for others.


"If the cry to the Lord uttered by those who pray is made with the sound of the bodily voice, [but] without the heart being turned to God, who can doubt that it is made in vain?    But if it comes from the heart, even if the bodily voice is silent, it can be concealed from everyone else but not from God.
Therefore, when we pray--whether aloud as required or silently--to God, our cry must come from the heart."  Commentary on Psalm 118.

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   and

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.