Monday, May 9, 2016

Book Update II: The Contract!

And so…I now have a contract in hand from a Christian publisher for the book based on the blog. There is still work to be done in terms of revisions, formatting, cover design, title debates, etc., but I’ll keep you posted (literally). I'm an "outsider" as a book author, so maybe I’ll be the Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders of Catholic book writing.  ;-)

The book is about Catholic faith and reason with a unique twist. The twist I speak of relates to the rational process we use where I work for problem solving and decision making. I'm also certified to teach the method to our technicians and engineers. This kind of reasoning has helped to see the clear thinking found in Catholicism and I wrote a book about it with this in mind.

Over the weekend I ran across the meme below, which reminded me of the impetus for this project. What’s wrong with this picture?


Do you see it?  ALL people have a belief system or a “philosophy”, a set of values, or a world view. ALL people believe things that they can’t necessarily prove, at least not empirically or via a scientific method. Where do they get these belief systems from? They come from other people. It doesn’t need to be from their parents necessarily. It could be from their friends or teachers or community or others. It’s part of the human condition, yet we can and should explore how reasonable the base premises are for particular ways of thinking and how well they stand up when pressed under deliberate questioning.

That’s what the book is about, and you will see how Catholicism stands up rather well.


Friday, April 22, 2016

Splendid...

It seems to me that just about any science documentary will express a kind of "Alice in Wonderland" amazement about nature. This often goes hand in hand with a kind of unconscious dogma of meaninglessness, which holds that all things in the end come from nothing intelligent and with no intended purpose, regardless of how brilliantly it is put together. The unspoken premise is that the finely-tuned universe, our planet, and the first life forms just magically appear by themselves given enough time for matter and energy to jostle around. Once life creates itself, it evolves thoughtlessly into many things including us. It seems mindlessness can create things better than the human mind can.

For once, I’d like to see a science or nature documentary on main stream television with a different and more rational premise; one that presupposes “intelligence”. If you know of one, let me know. In the meantime, below is a link to a new and splendid article in the Catholic Herald by John Beaumont about science, faith, reason and Fr. Stanley Jaki.
My favorite part…
A fellow philosopher announced that he didn’t believe in free will. Fr Jaki responded, “Did you say that freely?”

Friday, April 15, 2016

Of Restrooms and Reason

Recently, the topics of gender and restrooms came up where I work during some required “diversity training” sponsored by our Human Resources department and the companies’ legal team—I was inclined to call some parts of it the “comply or be punished training”.

There are currently no transgender employees in the building I work in (that I know of), but as a policy our company will allow any such individuals to use whatever restroom they best identify with. One of the presenters said something to the effect of “Just deal with it. You’ll have your own private stall anyway”. I thought, “Why can't the transgender individual just deal with it (“it” being the restroom that best matches their body)? They’ll have their own private stall anyway.”

The situation reminded me of a book called Ten Universal Principals; A Brief Philosophy of the Life Issues by Fr. Robert Spitzer and how the first three principals can be used on just about any topic. Regardless of the situation, some things can be universal to any thinking process and can proceed without invoking any specific belief system. The first three principals are the “Principles of Reason,” and they underscore the universality of rational thought.

The Principle of Non-Contradiction (Plato & Aristotle)
Valid opinions or theories have no internal contradictions.1

If I said I was a married bachelor and we were clear on the meaning of “married” and “bachelor”, then a married bachelor is an internal contradiction. There would be no need for you to investigate my life to see if my claim was true or false. It would be the same situation if I said I could draw a square-shaped circle. If we are clear on the definition of these shapes, then we know that drawing a square-shaped circle is not possible. No further probing required.
So if I’m a man, saying I’m a woman and using the ladies room would enter into the realm of contradiction, right? Not really; if we simply change the definition of gender to exclude (or make subordinate) any physical aspect of the human body, we can avoid this embarrassing conundrum. But don’t definitions need to make sense to be accepted as true? No; consider pro-choice thinking. If we can accept that a person in his or her first stage of life ought to be lawfully referred to as a “non-person”, we’ll accept any incoherency about the human condition.

The Principle of Objective Evidence (Plato & Aristotle)
Non-arbitrary opinions or theories are based upon publicly verifiable evidence.2

Data accessible only to you is subjective. Data accessible to everyone is objective. If I say I’m a man, what objective and publicly verifiable evidence can I show to support my theory? There is genetic data, hormone data, size/shape and also physical body parts that can be publicly verified…hopefully in a way that will not violate public nudity laws. But here again, it comes down to “definitions”. Words are important! Revenant data cannot be sorted from irrelevant data without first defining categories clearly. If gender is defined as primarily existing “between the ears”, then a note from my psychologist saying that I truly believe I’m a woman may suffice to comply with this second principle of reason.

The Principle of Complete Explanation (Socrates, Plato & Aristotle)
The best opinion or theory is the one that explains the most data.3

Are all opinions equally valid? No, some are more valid than others. If my explanation is better than your explanation, it is more valid. Simply put, “better” means being able to explain the most facts using the fewest and simplest assumptions. I would argue that a restroom is a physical place in which we do physical acts, ergo the restroom we choose should best match our physical bodies. If this is coherent, then there should be a certain universality about it. If I go to the gym (physical place) for a workout (physical acts) the equipment I choose should match, or be adjusted to match, my physical body.
Of course, if not for the urinals all the restrooms would be physically the same, but such is not the case where I work and in most places. Even if they were the same or if a person had a full sex-change operation, reflect upon explaining who we are based on whatever we self-identify with in terms of public policy.

The philosophy that says “I think, therefore I am” makes the reality of our being dependent upon our mind. If my mind determines my being, then the old saying follows that “perception is reality”. If this is true, then there should be a certain universality about it. If I think I am a cat, then I am a cat. But who thinks that? Let’s be practical; if a Caucasian man was raised by African Americans in an African American community and he also self-identifies as an African America, then this is the reality. He is an African American and should have access to any and all affirmative action benefits. Agreed?
 
Always remember that perception is not reality; it only informs our response to reality.

In God we trust…all others bring “data”.


1. Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, Ten Universal Principles (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), p. 11.
2. Spitzer, Ten Universal Principles, p. 14.
3. Spitzer, Ten Universal Principles, p. 9.

 

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Resurrection and Apollo XIII

“Who would believe what we have heard?”
—Isaiah 53:1
 
The Resurrection of Christ certainly makes for a riveting story, but is it reasonable?  In the end what is reasonable or unreasonable depends on the base premises involved. For many, the Resurrection generally adheres to one of three premises—lies, lunacy or legend.
  • The early Christians intentionally deceived others about the risen Christ.
  • Or they were delusional enough to actually believe it.
  • Or stories about Jesus were exaggerated over time into an elaborate myth.
Remember that early Christians were not converted by the sword. In fact, it was the precise opposite. If you did convert, you would face “the sword” or at least by ostracized from your already established culture and community. In the logic of the human condition, people will follow the path of least resistance without a strong impetus to do otherwise. Would mere stories convince so many without other compelling evidence? There are exceptions to every rule, but it’s easier to do nothing than to turn your life upside-down listening to the legends of liars and lunatics. But suppose they already felt ostracized by their culture and were desperately looking for a revolution and a savior? This would have plausibly appealed to the “fight or flight” instinct, but the new Christian faith was not about taking up weapons or running away from problems.
The other leg of “legend” or “myth” was covered in my last post. I think the myth theory runs into a serious problem with “time”. Some may still dispute the first-century date for the Gospels, but no one disputes that Paul's letters were written within the lifetime of eyewitnesses to Christ. If so, there is not even one generation with which to build-up such a fantastic myth as the Resurrection, which was indispensable to the early Christian faith.
The Resurrection might still be dismissed as not credible simply because that sort of thing just doesn’t happen. The paradigm that says “that just doesn’t happen” is one reason for using analytical problem solving, which trains people to go wherever the data leads, and on occasion it leads us to places in spite of our intuition and our experience. One of the case studies we review in a problem solving class I teach where I work is the Apollo XIII disaster. I’m more familiar with accident than the average person and one aspect of it reminds me of the Resurrection.
Apollo XIII was well on its way to the moon when at fifty-four hours and fifty-two minutes into the flight the origin of that famous phrase was born; “Houston, we have a problem.” The word “problem” is an overgeneralization; the first specific deviation reported to Houston was “Main Buss B undervolt”. This meant that one of the two main power distribution panels for the command module had fallen off in electrical output. A “large bang” was another deviation reported at the same time as the first. A few minutes later another deviation was reported; Main Buss A undervolt. Apollo XIII was suddenly losing electrical power and no one knew why.

Engineers on the ground immediately began some incident management (action to the effect) by reducing electrical consumption on the ship. About thirteen minutes after reporting the first deviations more came in. There was a sudden loss of oxygen in one of the two main cryogenic oxygen tanks and a gradual loss of oxygen in the other (oxygen was used on the ship not only for breathing, but also to generate electricity. I’d imagine this was because batteries powerful enough for the ship would have had been too heavy to take into space). The ship’s crew also reported that the ship was “venting” something out into space. With the ship rapidly losing both electricity and oxygen 205,000 miles away from earth the situation could hardly have been any more critical.
While putting contingents in place to deal with the problems effects, NASA engineers also began analytical problem solving to find the cause. This was done even though they had no possibility of amassing all the data they would have liked. After analyzing whatever relevant data was available, the number two oxygen tank suddenly bursting was a possible cause that explained all the observed deviations better than anything else suggested. There was one difficulty with this proposed root-cause. NASA engineers knew that their equipment was the best and safest ever invented. The very idea of a main oxygen tank just bursting in deep space was simply not credible; this is what their experience and intuition told them.
 
Faulty instrumentation or what we might call “bad data” was another proposed cause.1 This idea may have made some people feel better. If true, it would mean that the gauges and alarms were just malfunctioning. If the gauges and alarms were “lying” or “acting crazy” so-to-speak, then there was no real danger and the mission could probably continue. Although I’ve never dealt with a life and death situation at work, I can relate to the true cause of a complex and costly problem eluding us because it was counter intuitive; it flew in the face of our knowledge, experience and intuition. When this happens the natural tendency is to pick a theory you like better and then build-up assumptions until it fits all the available facts. Preferred possible causes tend to be under scrutinized, while unwelcome possible causes tend to be over scrutinized.

The cause was indeed a rupture of the number two cryogenic oxygen tank. This cause could have been easily dismissed because “that just doesn’t happen”, but this is where all the data lead and the engineers were disciplined enough to go there. Clear-headed logic in a crisis saved the crew. Had the true cause remained unknown much longer, it would have delayed the planning to get the crew back home and there was no time to spare.
Houston celebrates the return of the Apollo XIII crew.
If there were no oxygen tanks on board, one bursting would truly be impossible. Someone insisting that the tanks did not exist would first need to be shown otherwise. Once it is made clear that the tanks are actually there, one rupturing could be at least considered. I think the same can be said in regard to Christ, His followers and the Resurrection. Even if you believe in God you can still ask questions. Were they liars, lunatics, legends or speaking “Truth”? One could answer “I don’t know”, but those willing to believe a particular theory would do well to remember the purpose of the historical method and a principle of analytical problem solving. An historian or problem solver cannot always “prove” or recreate past events. In such a case, he or she works to present a theory that will best explain the most data.
Without being either gullible or cynical, which theory explains the most data given no possibility of amassing all the data you would like to have?
“Thought is dangerous. Thought can bring you to the door of truth. There are all kinds of reasons for wanting that door to stay shut. Men cannot endure the light.”
—Anthony Esolen

1 Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, Lost Moon, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), p. 96.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

I See Dead People

This is the time of year when many speak of the Resurrection. Some speak of the wonder of such a great miracle and others just wonder why so many are gullible enough to believe in such a zombie-like fairytale.

Of all the miracles in the New Testament, people rising from the dead must be the most fantastic. Even with today’s medical marvels, someone getting up as good as new after being dead for days would certainly make some headlines. Aside from the Resurrection of Christ himself, Jesus raised the son of the widow in the town of Nain (Luke 7:11-15), the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8:41-42, 49-55) and Lazarus (John 11:1-44). St. Peter raised Tabitha from the dead in the town of Joppa (Acts 9:36-41) and Eutychus was raised from the dead by Paul (Acts 20:9-12).

Real...or staged?
Think how much money a phony faith healer could make if he or she could hoax a resurrection? How famous would an illusionist or street magician become if he or she could do the same? Why have they not done so? I think it would be just too difficult to pull off. People know what death is in every age and take it very seriously. It reminds me of those who have claimed that the Apollo moon landings never happened; it was all a government hoax. I find the moon landing hoax conspiracy theory unreasonable because too many key individuals would need to be in on the hoax for it to be true. They would all need to keep their stories straight about a very serious matter for a very long time. The same would be true for a series of resurrection hoaxes, especially a series of hoaxes with specific names, places and details given. Christians had plenty of enemies back then who might act as today's political “fact checkers”; people who would be more than happy to seize upon the mistake of giving specifics to prove it was all a sham, but this never happened.

Perhaps the authors of the New Testament were not hoaxers and were not insane, but were just writing down the legends and myths that were exaggerated by the early Christians. I don’t see how a myth writer would end up with such specific names, places and details, but beyond that I think the myth theory runs into a serious problem with “time”.

Some may still dispute the first-century date for the Gospels, but no one disputes that Paul's letters were written within the lifetime of eyewitnesses to Christ.i If so, there is not even one generation with which to build-up such a fantastic myth as the Resurrection, which was obviously indispensable to the early Christian faith as we read in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith.” Additionally, over five hundred eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ are mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8. If we hold the premise that 1 Corinthians was written about 20 years after an alleged Resurrection and that the Resurrection never really happened, we can invent a modern day example to give us some perspective about the timing and scope of such an extravagant myth.
The risen MLK?
What if followers of Martin Luther King Jr. began spreading stories about him rising from the dead and ascending into heaven shortly after his assassination in 1968? Imagine all sorts of other miracles and fantastic stories were also circulated about him during his life on earth. Suppose photography and other recording devices had not been invented yet (no selfies with the risen MLK either). Would thousands of people just accept these stories even if Dr. King’s body went missing somehow? In addition to this, imagine if believing in this resurrection meant being ostracized from your community and risking ferocious persecution for both you and your family. Would people just go along with this fable without more compelling evidence or some other impetus?

Now imagine that letters were published around 1988 (20 years after the assassination) articulating how there were hundreds of eyewitness to the resurrected King, many of whom would have been still alive in 1988, and how his resurrection is now an essential part of a new and radically different religion. Is it reasonable to think that thousands of people would really give their lives to these myths? If yes, would not a rapid spread of this new religion trigger Christians and atheist alike to descend upon those poor delusional people and all the so-called “eyewitnesses” to discredit their claims or perhaps find that the eyewitnesses do not even exist?
If you hold that the Resurrection of Christ is only a myth, then this type of scenario is where your logic leads. If you hold that the Resurrection was real, then you follow a natural path of reason. More on the reasonableness of the Resurrection in a week or so.

i. Arnold Lunn, The Third Day, (El Cajon: Catholic Answers Press, 2014), pp. 120, 145. 
 

Friday, March 4, 2016

Human Rights on a Buisness Card?

Not too long ago I was working on a project with an imaging company out of Belgium for my job. One of the engineers from Belgium handed me his business card and I noticed this on the back…


It’s the complete Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the United Nations printed in ultra-fine type, strategically placed there in order to show-off their dry toner electrophotography technology. The U.S. based employees had the entire U.S. Constitution printed on the back of their business cards.
The opening line of the preamble in the UN declaration says, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”
I was reminded of how people all over the world will universally accept certain immaterial or spiritual realities just like a “religion”. The UN declaration is certainly compatible with Catholic teaching about the dignity of the human person, but does it not also act as a secular “dogma” for many materialist, atheists and agnostics? Declaring an inherent dignity with equal and inalienable rights for all people is an extraordinary claim, and shouldn’t extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?
Another word for inalienable is unchallengeable and another word for inherent is in-born or in-built, but I think I can indeed challenge these claims. Should all people really be treated with equal dignity and with inalienable rights or is this just delusional thinking? What would make these rights "inherent" and what would make them "inalienable"? How can we prove things from a materialist point of view? We need empirical evidence, right? We need the Scientific Method.  What if I can show empirically how some humans are superior to others in all the ways science can measure? Would this not be clear objective evidence that some people are superior to others, which in turn proves the UN declaration to be wrong?
If your neighbor is stronger and faster than you in every measurable way, has a higher IQ in every kind of IQ test, has more assets, more friends, more people who say they love and respect him or her, how could anyone possibly say he or she is not a superior human being? What evidence would you have to prove otherwise? So if we can prove empirically that we are not equal, what is the rational basis for saying all people should be treated equally with inalienable rights if not grounded in some other, immaterial or spiritual reality?
For example, the presidential election season has been gearing up for a while now. If your neighbor makes more money, pays more taxes and has a higher IQ than you, shouldn’t that persons vote in an election count more than your vote does? Does this not make perfect sense based on the empirical evidence? If not, what evidence would you show to prove differently? Think about it...
It seems, deep down, we know that spiritual realities like inalienable rights exist outside of human opinion or empirical data, but many have trouble admitting it because it points to so much more. We also sense that we need to live harmoniously with these spiritual realities in order to be happy, so it is vital that we all strive to know what they really are and where they really come from.

One of my all-time favorite quotes is in order…
"I believe in God as I believe the sun had risen, not because I can see it, but because by way of it, I can see everything else."

– C.S. Lewis

 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Book Update!

Nice...
My last post here was about discerning to attempt to write a book that would encompass the main theme of this blog (faith & reason), but with a unique twist. The "twist" involves aspects of analytical problem solving and decision making used where I work, and which I'm certified to teach, incorporated with the thinking of a multitude of philosophers, theologians and apologists. 

Well, the discernment has resulted in full manuscript and proposal currently being sent to various Catholic publishers. I also received a foreword from blogger, author, scientist and professor Stacy Trasancos. It's so good it makes we want to re-read my own book!!! Below is a snippet or two.

It's looking to be a long process, but I'll keep you posted (literally). In the mean time wish me luck...or better yet, say a prayer.


Grounded in teaching of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Pope Saint John Paul the Great, Pope Francis, and a generous foundation of other familiar theologians and apologists, Ben Butera walks us through the reason of faith. He shows how the modern secular language of analytical problem solving can apply as a person reasons through the truths of faith and lives them out in his or her life. Ben is a catechist, a husband, a father, a Solutions Development Manager for a global 500 company, and as such, an analyst, and he is a story-teller. The instructions he presents in this book are full of metaphors and analogies, in the spirit of C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton, to give the reader a helm to grasp when navigating good decision-making through the lens of grace. He shows a person how to dive into mystery and how to approach objective truth in natural law and morality the same way one approaches objective truth in science or engineering.

Rather than urge a different epistemology upon the reader who may be unprepared for it, Butera meets the reader of this scientific age where he or she is by showing how the analytical reasoning of empiricism can be applied to the laboratory of one’s life. “Test out the truths of faith,” he says in his own words. “Do what you know. It works.” He does not leave the reader there though, being told logical reasoning works, for we all know that logic alone cannot guarantee a sound conclusion.  Butera then leads a reader from familiarity into the realms of new, or at least new to the reader, epistemologies and of reasoning confidently in faith. The approach is simple and effective. In often humorous ways, he reminds us that even the simple questions we try to think through are often not as simple as we assume them to be on the surface. We are all trying to figure life out, but alas, we need the vantage of faith to really get the full perspective.
 
Not to spoil the book before you even read it, but that is the charm in these pages. You will discover that you already engage in complex problem-solving, and that you can transfer those same skills to moral questions. All the million questions you will encounter through life about how to know what the right thing is to do, how to know which path to choose, how to know when to endure and when to act, how to have confidence in yourself in various situations, can be analyzed in faith. There is joy in that! Sadly, the secular message robs maturing minds of this fact and leaves people feeling unsure about this thing we call the “moral compass.”

Books like this show that modernity is moving past the “conflict” dialogue and into one of coherence, and we live in this exciting moment in history. What if the youth of today were as unfamiliar with the faith and science conflict myths as they are with rotary dial telephones? I think they will be. I think the Buteras of the world are leading us there. I think the days of secularism, while never gone completely, are waning among many groups of people, quiet people, the people living their lives who we never hear about in the loud bustle of the media. Being Catholic is exhilarating, a quest for truth that calls one to adventure and victory. I enthusiastically recommend this work. Ben Butera is the voice of the new evangelization.

Stacy A. Trasancos, PhD
Author of Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science
Ave Maria Press
Professor, Science in the Light of Faith
Holy Apostles College & Seminary