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Doctrine Homeschool Stacy

Angelic Fallacies: Why Science is Hard to Learn

Math Angel Fallacy

My daughter had a mini-fit the other day while mentally wrestling with Punnett squares. When she stopped clutching dual hairwads, baring her over-sized permanent teeth, and flapping her slippers, she asked me why it was so hard to “get” genetics. Lacking an answer, I offered commiseration. “I know it’s hard, but unfortunately you can’t just inject science into your head. You have to work at it.” I know this misery. It’s like the knowledge is out there waiting to be grasped, but there’s a fog, and your hard-earned feeble steps feel like they get you nowhere.

Laying awake one night and thinking more clearly in the silence, I remembered something Mortimer J. Adler wrote in his book Angels and Us. Angels are minds without bodies, pure intellects. A “pagan philosopher” and end-of-life convert, Adler was also an accomplished Thomist. He thought everyone, believer or non-believer, should think about angels because doing so helps us understand our own intellect, thus the title, Angels and Us. He used the word “discursive” to describe how we gain knowledge in his commentary on “Angels as Knowers” (Chapter 8, Section 5). The explanation won’t make science any easier, but it does explain why it takes work to learn.

Angels have knowledge intuitively, but humans gain it discursively. Intuition means the knowledge is instilled, gained immediately, analogous to standing on a hillside and seeing the entire landscape all at once. Because we have bodies, the human mind gains knowledge through both sensitive and intellectual powers. Like animals, our brains process cognitively what we gather through our senses, but our minds can go further into abstraction and put the whole picture together. However, unlike angels, we can’t see the whole landscape all at once. True to the scientific method, we can only observe a little at a time and reason through it. The word “discursive” implies taking time, doing it in steps, proceeding by argument or reasoning rather than by intuition. Adler ends his book with something he called the “angelic fallacies.” We commit an angelic fallacy when forget we are human and expect to be like angels. Bingo!

I later explained the difference between the immediate and complete knowledge of angels, souls without bodies, and the discursive and partial knowledge of humans, souls with bodies. “That’s why science takes work to learn, not just for kids but especially for scientists.” She liked that, and so do I. It’s a good distinction to remember whenever you wonder why we long for theories of everything, but seem unable to achieve it all at once. We’re not angels. That’s why.

Categories
Advent Christmas Domestic Church It Worked For Me Liturgical Year Parenting Stacy Uncategorized

I Banned the Wish List

There is one simple choice our family has made over the last ten years that has surprised me. We do not make Wish Lists. Let me explain by sketching a story.
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It starts out innocent enough. When the baby’s first Christmas finally comes, you are ecstatic about surprising him with the bright new baby toys on Christmas morning. With genuine glee, you watch as he fumbles with the wrapping paper, and you watch every sweet reaction as he discovers the new toys before him for the first time.

When she is two, you just know she will play with that first doll forever, and it is a milestone you will never forget. When she is three, you wait with palpable excitement to capture her delightful squeals as she walks down the stairs and discovers the Dream Land of Toys that awaits her.

And so it goes.

By the time he or she is four or five, the compiling of the Wish List has become an annual event. “What do you want Santa to bring you, Honey?”

Christmas morning is the one morning of the whole year when grand dreams of toys and candy come true; so by six, seven, eight, nine, ten, little him or her slowly evolves to anticipate that Wish List for months in advance. “What shall I ask for? This is my chance, make it big!”

It is so fun to fulfill those little dreams, and relatively easy to buy just what is wished for. The joy and smiles on those faces Christmas morning are worth everything. You live for it every bit as much as they do.

At eleven and twelve, the little man starts to show interest in electronics. By thirteen and fourteen that little lady has developed her own taste in clothes which, to your chagrin, is not consistent with your taste in her clothes, but oh what does it matter? It is Christmas. Give her something special. Get him the big game system. Fourteen only comes once.

By fifteen that Wish List starts to come with instructions, “Do not buy me anything but what is on this list. Do. Not.”

A little taken back, you excuse the behavior because, after all, this is when kids start to spread their wings and become independent. You negotiate; some things you might buy her, some things are off the table.

And so it goes.

There is an expectation that the Wish List will be fulfilled. That Christmas morning adrenaline rush and all its dream-come-true satisfaction is a bit of an addiction. The teenager not only plans for the Wish List all year long, but plans for the negotiations as well. She asks for things she knows are off the table, but wears you down so the thing she really, really wants, but knows you cannot afford, might just appear Christmas morning anyway. You feel guilty for rejecting so many things, so you give in and buy the less expensive, but still too expensive items. He needs an iPhone 5, never mind that he doesn’t even know what the iPhone 5 does that the iPhone 4 does not do. She needs the $50 t-shirt with skull and cross bones because it is just what kids wear, “Come on Mom, get with it.”

When it gets to the point where you realize Christmas is out of control, alas, it is too late. What happened incrementally over all those years cannot be undone with a mere wish of your own.

Why do you think grown men and women knock each other down on Black Friday each year to buy items they think they cannot live without? Why do you think malls are packed with people spending money they do not have? Gift-givers need to be the Dream-Maker as much as the Wish List-Maker needs to have the Dream Land. Who is Christmas all about anyway?

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I have watched this happen more times than I will admit. When my husband and I began raising our young children, I started out, as most mommies do, fussing over just the right gift to get our babies, and our parents and relatives; I fussed and fretted, and fretted and fussed. After a couple of years, my husband made the observation that I hated the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and he was right. I did. I dreaded it all year long. When I converted to Catholicism, and understood that this time was also the time of Advent (I never knew that), I had an epiphany. The season is about the gift of Christmas, the gift of salvation. And that is the thing.

Gifts are supposed to be received, not demanded.

So I banned the Wish List. I know, “Boo!” When the kids got old enough to see their friends making them and asked if they could make a list too, I told them that if they made a list it didn’t mean they would actually get anything on it. When commercials come on, even now, and they want a flashy new toy, I flatly say, “You don’t need that.”

“But can I have it?”

“Sure, when you can buy it for yourself.”

Harsh? Maybe, but all I know is this: They don’t know what it means to compile a Wish List. And I don’t dread Christmas anymore. Beyond that — get this — it is instilling in them an understanding that making demands is inappropriate. “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” Life lesson, kiddos.

It helped me too. I was happier when I learned to appreciate what I’m given in life, whether at first I like it or not. There is always some good to find in any gift (including the bags of candy the nice ladies at church give the kids every week, which they fight over until I want to burn it down to carbon). Every gift is an act of kindness, and that’s enough. Plus, sometimes really wise people see more in us than we see in ourselves.

No one made a Wish List for Redemption, after all, but the human race pined for it nonetheless.

Has this hard line been worth it? Absolutely. I get all of my Christmas shopping done in an enjoyable, but short, span of time. We get the kids one gift each — they don’t get to pick it — and a pair of pajamas. You know what? They love it. They actually are grateful for those small gifts. It frees our family to focus on the real Gift of Christmas. In a lot of ways it’s turned the normal mornings throughout the year into that Dream Land, that mystical, awesome experience that some people only think exists in material shiny form one day a year. I’ll take that.

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Categories
Apologetics Stacy

Why Religion Matters More Than Science

Science and Religion

I just finished writing a thesis about the late Father Stanley Jaki’s work for a Master’s degree in Theology, and my brain hurts. I love that about scholarship. You learn, assimilate, and then possess new knowledge. It’s hard, but you earn it. In the end, it’s more exciting than going to the mall, buying a new dress, and getting a make-over. A new look may be fun, but a permanent lift to the intellect is euphoric.

Floating as I am, my thoughts turned to the new lessons I’ve gained. I realized something obvious but significant.

In discussions about science and religion, there is no clarity. The definition of “science” has become so ambiguous that no distinctions can be made. In 2009 the U.K. Science Council took an entire year to write an “official” definition of science and this is what they came up with: “the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.” That could mean anything. No wonder atheists praised it.

Jaki defined science precisely as “the quantitative study of the quantitative aspects of objects in motion.” He called it “exact science” because in some fields not everything is quantitative. Physics is the most exact science, but evolutionary biology, for instance, is exact only so far as it measures quantities and mechanism. Anything beyond quantification is “reasoned discourse,” and such reasoning should stand on its own merits. The benefit of this definition is that it allows you to identify what is exact in any science and what is owed to the much greater power of reasoning beyond quantities.

Did you catch that? Reasoning beyond quantities. So many of the questions we face in life have nothing to do with quantities, and that is — here’s the obvious and significant part — why religion matters more than science. Religion is about ultimate questions, morality and meaning, our purpose in life, our eternal destiny, our God.

So the next time you’re in a discussion about science and religion, remember this. We don’t comfort children who have nightmares by telling them how many neurons fired. We don’t mourn the death of a loved one because a carbonaceous mass decomposes. We don’t even do science because brain matter follows the laws of physics. We do it because we’re human, made in the image of God with the power of intellect and will and we want to understand our world. We do science because we know there’s more than science. Religion matters more than science, and I think it’s time to have some fun asserting that.

Categories
Current Events Ecumenism Faith Formation Pope Stacy

The Head-Slapping Criticism of Pope Francis

The criticism coming from the self-identified “loyal opposition” Catholics in the media who feel obliged to fraternally correct the Holy Father is perplexing to say the least. It is shocking that declared faithful Catholics label Pope Francis a Modernist heretic, and then bewail the burden of it. Others dislike his personality and humility, and just want to air their annoyance publicly. But this antagonism, it’s like slapping your head with your hand — unhelpful and downright painful because a body needs its head.

In 1990 then Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, presented Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian to journalists in a press conference at the Holy See, asserting a “two-fold rule” for dialogue between the faithful and the hierarchy. “When there is a question of the communion of faith, the principle of the ‘unity of truth’ (unitas veritatis) applies. When it is a question of differences which do not jeopardize this communion, the ‘unity of charity’ (unitas caritatis) should be safeguarded.”

For doctrinal questions, the faithful should unite in seeking truth. For divergent opinions on non-infallible matters, the faithful should unite in charity. Disagreements with the hierarchy should be handled with discretion. Out of respect for the “People of God” the one acting as theologian is supposed to “refrain from giving untimely public expression” of discordant opinions.

If a Catholic is opposed to the Holy Father’s (or a priest’s or bishop’s) teaching, he or she should either 1) take the concern privately to a priest or bishop who will decide whether to take it to the Holy See, or 2) remain prayerfully silent trusting that “if the truth really is at stake, it will ultimately prevail.” If the difficulty is not resolved even after seeking private resolution, the faithful “should avoid turning to the ‘mass media’ …for it is not by seeking to exert the pressure of public opinion that one contributes to the clarification of doctrinal issues and renders service to the truth.”

Apparently some Catholics have troubled feelings about Pope Francis, but personal sentiments are simply not more important than the unity of the Church. Further, loyal opposition is not a model in the Church, it is a “model of protest which takes its inspiration from political society.” By sowing division in the media rather than privately seeking recourse appropriately, the critics form a “parallel magisterium” of their own in conflict with the Magisterium of the Pastors.

If only they knew how much this head-slapping criticism from insubordinate hands hurts the body of Christ.

Categories
Communion Doctrine Faith Formation Ink Slingers Stacy Uncategorized

A Chemist Believes in Transubstantiation

Grace's Baptism“I only wish that Catholics would really cherish the word ‘is’ even though science cannot say anything about it.” Those are the words of Fr. Stanley Jaki, priest and physicist, during a lecture given at St. John’s University on February 20, 2003. I didn’t read that until recently, but it just so happens that this lecture was given on my thirty-fourth birthday, a time when I was rethinking the meaning of life. A year later, pregnant with our second daughter, I decided to become Catholic, and during those days I pondered the meaning of that little word, as a chemist, a mother, and a convert. Christ said, “This is my body.” I believed it because if that is not true, then what Christ said is not true, and there is no hope for redemption.

But how can a chemist believe that bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ, even when they still look, taste, and smell like bread and wine? Easy. The mastery of chemistry demands that you believe things exist and change in ways invisible the unaided eye. I’ve never seen an atom; I don’t know what protons and neutrons look like; I’ve never watched electrons orbit. I can only visualize the formation of covalent or ionic bonds as they are made and broken while matter and energy are conserved for all time. Yet, I know that every physical substance in existence is made of these things, be it bread or blood or my great-great-great grandmother’s earthly body. Atoms or subatomic particles do not determine what a substance is. God, who made everything, does.

Like any physical science, chemistry is, admittedly, limited to physical properties, but as a mother it was naturally intuitive that science doesn’t have the final say about what something is. I knew my children, even in the womb, were more than lumps of matter, and as their bodies changed, I knew it was still the same child. Even more, I had no difficulty accepting that while appearances remained the same, the substance could be changed, for I believed it of myself. I believed that the grace of Christ would transform me — same physical body, new creature.

By the way, I named that daughter Grace. I wasn’t received into the Church for two more years, but we have never missed a Sunday Mass since her birth because even when I wasn’t in full Communion, I wanted to be in His presence. Cherish it? I sure do Fr. Jaki.