Friday, February 28, 2014

The Outside System

It was around the age of four or five that our children began to speak to me and my wife on the topic of “fairness”.  The normal emphasis would be on the things they deemed unfair. As they explained themselves, I noted an astonishing correlation. All that they disagreed with also happened to be “unfair”. As we questioned them further, a second amazing correlation revealed itself; all which they agreed with also happened to be “fair”.

I’m afraid our children, if left alone, would determine right vs. wrong on their own via their own internal passions as opposed to any outside system. By the way, if you doubt the existence of original sin, spend some time with toddlers or small children. You will note that there is no need to teach them how to be “bad”. It just comes naturally.
Unless guided, children will not use an outside system to judge things and adults are not much different, other than perhaps they will more readily yield to the majority. For many, cultural consensus has become the guarantee of truth. If enough people told you that up is down and right is wrong, you’ll cave unless you have an outside system to refer to.

If this seems ridiculous, ponder the insanity of abortion. If educated people can actually be made to believe that an unborn baby is a “non-person” with no right to be alive, what else can they be convinced of? If said persons were to ask, “When did we become persons?” They would accept subjective thresholds of viability or conscience as dictated by the majority, instead of the observable and scientific point of conception. We often fail to live up to the edicts of the obvious.
Reflect on the unintelligibility of same-sex marriage as well. Too many have been easily duped into thinking that marriage has no rational basis in procreation; that marriage having been defined the way humans reproduce is somehow a trivial coincidence. If humans did not reproduce the way they do, marriage would never have been defined the way it has (male-female) around the world and throughout history…but back to outside systems.

Consider a Compass:
Allegories to a moral compass are just about perfect for describing a moral outside system. The compass uses the earth’s magnetic field to determine which way is north. It does not matter what direction a group of travelers believes is north. The way the magnetic field and the compass needle react to each other is completely independent of the minds of the travelers.

What happens if a large group of symbiotic travelers refuse to use the compass? They will go “somewhere” based on their beliefs and experience about traveling.  They may split up into smaller groups, but even the smaller groups need to decide what to do. The strongest will rule eventually, whether by physical force or via other kinds of peer-pressure, coaxing or bullying. It’s the same in societies. Even for the most stubborn and independent of individuals, the strongest will rule eventually, whether it’s a dictator by physical force or just a majority via lawyers and laws.

Consider Industry:
If a customer complains that a product or system is not working right, one of the first questions the vendors support team should ask (internally) is… “Is there a deviation?” In other words, is the product/system working within its normal operating limits or not? There are many situations in which a product is working within in its established parameters, but the customer still doesn’t like it. Here we have a situation where the customer is saying “it’s wrong” and the vendor says “it’s right”. So what should they do? Is the customer ALWAYS right?

Many times they will refer to industry standards as the outside system (like ISO). The data comes via an outside body of industry experts. They establish widely accepted benchmarks which are independent of the opinions of both the customer and the vendor.

What of morality then?
If you’re a true a relativist, then this post is not really for you, since pure relativism cannot plant a stake in the ground for anything to be truly right or wrong; there are only opinions. For those of us who think right and wrong actually exist objectively, where do we look to? Should moral standards be left to some “body of experts” like in industry? If humans look to other humans to know what is moral for humans, I would say it is still an internal system, like the travelers looking to other travelers instead of a compass to find which way is north. Humans would need to look outside of humanity, but also higher than humanity, so animals would not suffice.

Bonobo chimps are most similar to humans genetically and are known for their sexual promiscuity. They do not seem to discriminate in their sexual behavior by sex or age. In addition, communal sex seems to decrease tension and keeps the peace. I’ve heard it argued that if we could be more like the bonobos, we would all be happier. Wanting to use animals as our outside system for sexual morality shows just how far the human intellect has fallen.


Many believe that God is the outside system for human morality. God would act as the unchanging magnetic field in the compass allegory, but what would act as the compass itself, the visible and universal thing that points the way?  Some may point to sacred writings like the Bible as a kind of travelers guide or map, but written words do not “interact” with people the way a compass interacts between the earth’s magnetic field and the travelers. A map would be an irreplaceable tool, but maps will not orientate you in the right direction like a compass will.

If God really does exist and really does care that we know “The Way”, it seems reasonable that He would provide a reliable compass that was visible and universal for each new generation of travelers to navigate life with. We call this “compass” the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The idea of this kind of outside system is not new; the earliest Christian writers understood its importance…"For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." (2 Tim 4:3)

Life without an outside system...
Stanford Nutting

Thursday, February 13, 2014

More on the Creation Debate

Toward the end of our Religious Education year is where I go back to “the beginning”. It’s this time of year that I briefly go over the creation account in Genesis with my confirmation students.

The timing was perfect this year considering the Feb 4th debate between Bill Nye (science guy) and Ken Ham (Answer in Genesis CEO) and my most recent class held on Feb 8th. I did not see the debate, but my understanding was that the Catholic view of creation was not represented. Since there is currently some talk around the blogosphere about a Catholic “third way”, here is a post from the early days of this blog that covers what we review in class and adds to the whole conversation.

I’ve never heard the seven day creation story explained so well as in the Great Adventure bible timeline during the early world sessions in Genesis. Catholics do well to treat Genesis, not as history book or a science book, but as the story of the beginning of a relationship, the relationship between God and man.

• Day 1 and 2
Creation of time & space (see Genesis 1: 3-8):
Separating day from night is a way to describe time, and a dome is a way to describe space. Remember too that a day is not necessarily 24 hours, but some segment of time. “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like one day.” 2 Peter 3:8. Could day 1 and day 2 be the first nanoseconds of the Big Bang? Just my own musing…

• Day 3
The continuation of space on the earth & the creation of life (see Genesis1:9-13):

• Day 4 - 6:
All about how the presence of God fills voids. In this case voids in the sky, sea & land
It is important to note that the creation of man & beast is on the same day, day 6. We should stop and contemplate why. Isn’t man set apart from animals with a soul; made in the image & likeness of God? Why don’t we get our own special day?!? We’ll get back to this.

One of my confirmation students once asked “What about dinosaurs?” I replied, “What about dinosaurs?” She continued, “How can man & beast be made on the same day if there were no humans around when dinosaurs were around?” I said, “If a day is just some segment of time, then it could be billions of years. Dinosaurs could have come and gone in the earlier part of the “day” and then man appears at the later part. It’s really not important. Dinosaurs are just another beast.”

• Day 7
God blessed the 7th day and made it holy because he rested on that day
(see Genesis 2:2-3):
God does not need physical rest. The Sabbath day is for us. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Mark 2:27

The beasts made with man on day 6 do not know or love God. They were not given the will or the intellect to do so; it’s not what they are made for. How many people do we know who relate to God the same way an animal does? They do not know or love God, even though they were given the capacity.

Man is called to leave the beasts behind in day 6 and find “rest” with God in day 7. A relationship in which two parties can “rest” in one another can conjure up images of a comfortable, self-giving union in which nothing is hidden or held back. This may remind us the Catholic ideal of marriage or the idea of “covenant”, as it should. This should also remind us of heaven which is an eternal rest with God. Will we choose to “rest” with God in day 7 or remain with the beasts in day 6?
What should I do Simba?
One last thing, remember that the number 7 in scripture represents perfection, fullness or completion. The number 6 is 1 less than 7 and corresponds to evil, imperfection or…The Number of the Beast!!!

Visuals are always helpful. Click HERE view all of creation!



Monday, February 10, 2014

The 5 Whys

The games we play as children can sometimes relate to what we do as adults. Did you ever play the “why” game growing up? It can start with almost any random statement from one person and then a second person asks “why?” using turnaround questions, which means re-asking the question based on the answer. The first person then tries their best to answer and it goes on for as long as it can be sustained. It can be fun to see where the questions take you and how far you can go until you get stuck in a kind of death loop.

Example: It’s cold in the winter.
• Why is it cold?

Because the sun's rays hit the earth at a shallow angle
• Why a shallow angle?

Because the northern hemisphere tilts away from the sun
• Why does it tilt?

It’s a law of physics.
• Why is that a law of physics?

I don’t know.
• Why don’t you know?

I can’t know everything!
• Why can’t you know everything?

I don’t know.
(death loop - see previous “I don’t know”)

However immature that game may seem, it actually relates to one part of a problem solving methodology we use where I work. Although I don’t work for Toyota, some of what we do mirrors Toyota’s 5 Whys. The “5” in the name represents how far one might need to dig to get to the root of a matter. It’s not always 5.

Example: The vehicle will not start.
Why? - The battery is dead (1st why)
Why? - The alternator is not functioning (2nd why)
Why? - The alternator belt is broken (3rd why)
Why? - The alternator belt was worn beyond its limits (4th why)
Why? - The vehicle was not maintained according to the service schedule
(5th why - root cause)

An average mechanic might stop after answering the third why and then take an effective action. Once the broken belt is observed, it can be replaced and you’re back on the road. An exceptional mechanic however, will think beyond the fix and beyond himself. He will consider outside systems. Why did the belt break? Was it the wrong kind of belt? Was it the right belt, but installed incorrectly? Did other parts of the vehicle, like the alternator pulley, cause the belt to wear prematurely? What other belts are about to break on this car?

Of course, one can continue to ask why beyond the root cause; beyond the fifth why. Why wasn’t the vehicle maintained according to the service schedule? Are parts not readily available? Is it too expensive to maintain for the customer? Is the customer just lazy? These are all good questions, but in this case no more questions are needed beyond the fifth why for the mechanic to take superior action, beyond just an effective action. The maintenance question may be appropriate for the customer or maybe the design team, but no more information is needed for a mechanic to fulfill his or her duty at the highest level.
We can use this concept to help us understand why we do the things we do. People seek what is good, or at least what they think is good. As it relates to the human soul, we use our will in the pursuit of happiness or the pursuit of what is good.
Example: I took my medicine.
Why? – To kill my infection (1st why)
Why? – I wish to be healthy (2nd why)
Why? – So I can live well (3rd why)
Why? – Because life is good (4th why)
Why? – Because life is from God and God is good (5th why – the first cause)

One might answer the fifth why, “Because I like it”. This makes it subjective. One can “be” alive or “be” dead. You may prefer to be alive, but life itself would not be objectively good or bad. Those contemplating suicide would say life is bad (for them). If our final answer to ultimate questions is so self-centered as to respond “because I like it”, then the part of original sin that dims the intellect through pride is not difficult to see.

The fifth why in this case leads away from “self” and points to something more, an outside system, an irreducible “Good”. Of course, one can continue to ask why. Why is God good? This is a fair question, but like the superior mechanic, no more whys are needed for a human being to take the superior answer.
Along the same vein, people also seek what is true. I can’t imagine anyone in their right mind intentionally seeking out deception. As it relates to the human soul, we use our intellect in the pursuit of the truth.

Example: I’m traveling to Boston.
Why? – To meet a friend (1st why)
Why? – To resolve a problem (2nd why)
Why? – To learn the truth (3rd why)
Why? – Because the truth is good to know (4th why)
Why? – Because God is truth and God is good (5th why – the first cause)

One might answer the fifth why by saying the truth is good because that’s what I believe or that’s what I want, but again, like the exceptional mechanic that thinks beyond the fix, we should think beyond ourselves. What would make the truth objectively good? If lies made you happy, would that make lies good (for you)?

Surface Dweller
In a digital age of surfing, texting and tweets we are getting good at looking at many different things quickly, but in a shallow way. We are becoming “surface dwellers”. When we do dive down into the whys, it may resemble the childish and unsystematic “why game” demonstrated at the beginning of the post. For the ultimate questions about goodness and truth, coherent whys eventually point to something outside of ourselves; something intrinsic and transcending. We end up at the first cause, which is God.
Of course, we can continue to ask why as a sincere invitation to the mind, because there is always food for the intellect when it comes to the mysteries of God, but perpetual questioning is not needed for a person to begin or continue their journey home, and to ultimately fulfill their destiny.
“The principles are settled. Life is the pageant of men and women living up to them or failing to live up to them—and I think to-day, if we are to save ourselves, we need to close our minds, to take honour’s worth for granted and to escape back into certainty from the atmosphere of eternal questioning.”
—Christopher Hollis, Death of a Gentleman
So we need to close our minds? Aren’t we supposed to always have an open mind? Consider that if your mind is ALWAYS open your brain will eventually fall out. There comes a time to stop endless questioning.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Non-Negotiables

In any conversation, especially when two people disagree, the minimal goal is for each person to understand the other's position.  In an argument, this is impossible when the two parties do not share sufficient common ground.

By this I mean they do not agree on terms or on concepts.  For example, if two people do not agree with the premise "all wood is hard" they will argue about the lifetime of a wood-frame house.  If they are both unaware they disagree on this foundational concept, they will never come to agreement at all.  However, if they instead address their common ground issue and come to an agreement on that, then they can revisit their original disagreement and argue upon common ground.

In the comment boxes on this blog, it has emerged that those who disagree with some of the content of our posts actually do not share some of the common assumptions we do.

Here are three which I consider "non-negotiable":
  1. The Law of Non-Contradiction (aka the Law of Contradiction)
  2. Something cannot come from nothing
  3. Every effect has a cause

For example, a recent conversation held up quantum physics as disproving axiom 3.  While there is a great deal of confusion here (an event is cited whose effect actually occurs prior in time to its cause seems to disprove this axiom), it seems clear that there exists a cause without which the effect would not occur (would not have occurred).  This article describes a finding where the order of events are in a superposition whereby the order is not known until the collapse of the wave function.  Again, however, it is clear that the event is NOT uncaused.

Quantum physics is also cited in the case of virtual particles where they come into and out of existence from nothing.  This is amusing, since the "nothing" is actually a quantum vacuum of non-zero energy.  This does not qualify as "nothing".  David Albert's quote puts this very well:
The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.

Both Ben and I assume these axioms to be true in our writing and do not believe that arguments that assume one or more to be false will be fruitful.  Please excuse us if we refer you here if we find ourselves in a conversation of that type.