Friday, August 31, 2007

More of the Life of Meaning

Here are some selected observations on religion and prayer from The Life of Meaning.

In the chapter "The Soul is Hovering," Rochel Berman describes tahara, a Jewish ritual of washing and purifying a dead body. Those who perform this ritual are members of Chevra Kadish, the burial society, which an example of how death organizes society (see my previous post on that topic).

Carol and Philip Zaleski have studied the history of prayer, and their chapter mentions that one of Gandhi's favorite prayers was "Lead Kindly Light," by John Henry Newman. (Here are links to the lyrics and some stories about Newman.) The prayer, also a hymn, is a classic asking God to lead one step-by-step, relinquishing control over one's life, with the hope of heaven ahead.

Phyllis Tickle prays the divine office (also known as the Liturgy of the Hours) every three hours. The prayers are taken from the Psalms and other verses from the Bible. She reveals "it roots me. It makes me part of a much larger communion. ... These are fixed prayers that have been used for thousands of years, so that you know that you are part of a continuous stream of the word of God."

Eileen Durkin gives an interesting description of the Mass, explaining every part of it and discussing what it means to her. For instance, the Kyrie (Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.) is, for her, a reminder to reset her priorities, to ask for forgiveness, to find peace.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Jesuit education

The August 2007 issue of OR/MS Today, the monthly magazine published by INFORMS, has an article by Dr. Salwa Ammar at Le Moyne College, a liberal arts Jesuit university in Syracuse, New York.
The article lists the following four characteristics of Jesuit education:

1. It is eminently practical, focused on providing students with the knowledge and skills to excel in whatever field they choose.

2. It is not merely practical, but concerns itself also with questions of values, with educating men and women to be good citizens and good leaders, concerned with the common good, and able to use their education for the service of faith and promotion of justice.

3. It celebrates the full range of human intellectual power and achievement, confidently affirming reason, not as opposed to faith, but as its necessary complement.

4. It places all that it does firmly within a Christian understanding of the human person as a creature of God whose ultimate destiny is beyond the human.

Ammar goes to describe how an operations research education does (or should) have these same characteristics.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Amber Rose

My mom and dad have a new granddaughter: Amber Rose Matches was born on Monday, August 20, 2007, in Tampa, Florida. Natalie and Terry Matches are the new parents! Both mother and daughter are doing well.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Francis Collins

In The Life of Meaning, the chapter by Francis Collins is entitled "Discovering Things Nobody Knew Before But God." Collins directed the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health. Collins also wrote The Language of God, in which he described how he came to believe in God. See also the review by Stephen M. Barr in the December, 2006, issue of First Things.

In this chapter he says,
I think there's a common assumption that you cannot be both a rigorous, show-me-the-data scientist and a person who believes in a personal God. I would like to say that from my perspective that assumption is incorrect, that, in fact, these two areas are entirely compatible and not only can exist within the same person, but can exist in a very synthetic way, and not in a compartmentalized way.

Collins goes on to discuss evolution, which he accepts, and intelligent design, which he believes is a misguided perspective. He discourages dualism and worries about the trends towards increasing secularism on side and an unscientific fundamentalism on the other. He adds,

We need science if we are going to survive in a complicated world ... and we need faith to keep ourselves in perspective.

Collins has found an admirable position, one that doesn't pit science versus religion (or Darwin vs. God). He accepts the limitations of science and realizes that something else is needed to get at the truth. It is unfortunate that so many scientists do not (cf. The Ends of Science by Eric Cohen in the November 2006 issue of First Things.)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Death and Meaning

The first chapter in The Life of Meaning, edited by Bob Abernethy and William Bole, is entitled "Limning the Rites of Death." It is by Thomas Lynch, a funeral director from Michigan. Lynch writes:

Funerals operate the same way that poems do. They operate by metaphor and icon and liturgy and symbol.

Lynch claims that we need symbols to say something about what is "unspeakable": the pain, sorry, grief, and faith that accompany someone's death. And we need the dead person to be present in order to focus the funeral and give it meaning and reason; it is part of the "this is why it hurts, that's what's happened."

Lynch's thoughts reminded me of Death & Politics,
an article by Joseph Bottum in the June/July 2007 issue of First Things:

Death—the death not of ourselves but of others—becomes the key for understanding human association when we grasp three propositions about death and politics:
(1) The losses human beings suffer are the deepest reason for culture,
(2) The fundamental pattern for any community is a congregation at a funeral,
(3) A healthy society requires a lively sense of the reality and continuing presence of the dead.

He goes on to say that "The deepest roots of a civilization are in its funerals and memorials." and "The significance of life derives from the presence of the future, while the richness of life derives from the presence of the past."

This last statement reminds me of the importance of two solemnities in the church calendar: All Saints (November 1) and All Souls (November 2). Our parish displayed during the entire month of November photographs of our loved ones who have gone before us. It felt right to honor our dead in this way, and both Lynch and Bottum have described some of the reasons it was right.

Postscript (Sunday, August 19, 2007): Today's Washington Post Magazine column by Jeanne Marie Laskas is about introducing children to death by going to the funeral of a friend of a friend. It ends: "The person is gone, but the symbol is here, gently welcoming a little girl into the real world."

Saturday, August 11, 2007

More Theory of Science

Chapter 4 of Knowles' book covers some other perspectives on science. Paul Feyerabend highlighted the role of persuasion in the progress of science. Larry Laudan claims that science makes progress by learning which methods yield which facts in order to achieve which aims. In the sociology of scientific knowledge, the historical and social settings in which scientists live are important as well.

Reading all of these different, contradictory philosophies of science was making my head swim, so I was pleased to see On Canons, a post on the First Things: On the Square blog by Edward T. Oakes. Oakes asks the following question:

The sheer fact that the canonical philosophers all disagree so radically with one another does lead to a further question: Since they can’t all be right, how do we determine who, if any, is right?

Oakes presents four options: (1) Skepticism: we can't get at the ultimate truth. (2) Pick and choose things from different philosophers. (3) View previous philosophies as building up an increasingly accurate description of reality. (4) Pick Saint Thomas Aquinas as the one who "more or less got everything right."

Oakes cites Etienne Gilson, who claimed that Aquinas got it right because of Christian revelation. He then offers the following:

That Thomas proved so successful in applying this method, using revelation to point out errors in the reasoning of past philosophers while keeping what was true in them, can be seen in the judgment of non-Thomist experts in ancient philosophy. The famous Aristotle scholar A.E. Taylor, for example, says that “the so-called Aristotelianism of Thomas is much more thoroughly thought out and coherent than what I may call the Aristotelianism of Aristotle. . . . By comparison with the Thomist synthesis of Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine, how comparatively incoherent and loose is Kant’s synthesis of Hume and Leibniz.”

Oakes offers plenty more about Aquinas and the challenge of defending his philosophy in an age where many believe that philosophy is not knowledge.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Theory of Science

I have been reading Theory of Science: A Short Introduction, by Jonathan Knowles (Tapir Akademisk Forlag, 2006). I found it on the new books shelf of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Library. It has been very interesting so far.

The first chapter discusses Einstein's theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, and logical positivism. Logical positivism was an important step in the philosophy of science, though few accept it completely today. Its most controversial claim was that science = rational belief. If something is not science, it is not rational. (Of course, this philosophical position is completely opposed to the rationality of religious belief or the possibility that we might discover truths in some other way.) Knowles discusses the problems of logical positivism, including its claim that meaningful must be "verifiable," a fuzzy term with multiple interpretations, including those that allow religious and metaphysical statements to be meaningful and those that would make certain universal statements meaningless. Finally, logical positivism does not take into account that observations are affected by previous knowledge and experience.

The second chapter discusses Karl Popper. Popper presented a philosophy of science that is very to the common understanding of the scientific method. Popper argued that science (1) recognizes a theoretical problem, (2) proposes a solution (the hypothesis), (3) tests the hypothesis, and (4) rejects the hypothesis if the evidence contradicts it. Else, we retain the hypothesis, though we can never prove that it is true. Knowles describes an important objection to Popper's philosophy: the complexity of real tests: if we get evidence that contradicts the hypothesis, then perhaps we made some other assumption that is false.

Later in the chapter, Knowles describes the "hypothetico-deductive method" (HDM), which adds induction to Popper's approach. In the HDM, negative evidence doesn't cause us to reject a hypothesis, but it is weakened. Positive evidence strengthens it.

Chapter 3 discusses Thomas Kuhn's history of science as the rise and fall of paradigms. Science is not a smooth accumulation of better theories; it is punctuated by scientific revolutions that replace one paradigm with another. In Chapter 4, the book takes up Imre Lakatos' alternative explanation of science as the progression of research programs. Knowles carefully describes the differences between these and then moves on to other developments in the philosophy of science.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Little Towns on the Prairie

During our trip to the Midwest, we visited both Walnut Grove, Minnesota and De Smet, South Dakota, two of the towns where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived as a child. Both are settings for her books.

Both towns are proud of their literary significance. De Smet, where Laura lived for a longer period and where her parents permanently settled, takes things very seriously. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society owns two of the houses where the Ingalls lived and has many objects that the family owned (though apparently even more are in Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura and Almanzo Wilder settled). They emphasize preserving the homes and objects.

The Ingalls Homestead, outside of De Smet, owns the same 160 acres that Charles Ingalls homesteaded. They cater to smaller kids a bit more, with lots of hands-on activities. The buildings (except for a school moved there from a nearby town) are replicas, but the homestead is being restored to approach the way it would have looked when the Ingalls were there: mostly prairie, with some crops.

The museum in Walnut Grove has a few old buildings, including the railroad depot (moved away from the railroad tracks). It has interesting exhibits and a few of Laura's things, including a nice red-and-white quilt. The museum also talks about the pop culture impact of the books, especially the TV show and related items. Outside of town is Plum Creek, where the Ingalls first settled. The prairie in this spot is also being restored, as you can see in the above photo.


This week, back from our trip to Minnesota and South Dakota, I started listening to Einstein: his life and universe, by Walter Isaacson, which came out this year.
I got through only three of the 18 cassettes: the fourth was broken, so I'm waiting on another copy to arrive.

Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany, which is a coincidence: we visited New Ulm, Minnesota, during our trip; the town has a large German population and a spectacular monument to the German warrior Hermann. The New Ulm monument, I just found out on Wikipedia, is similar to the Hermannsdenkmal in the Teutoburg Forest in Germany.

The part I heard covered Einstein's youth and his time at the Zurich polytechnic, including his relationship with Mileva Marić, the woman he would marry after finally getting a job at the Swiss patent office.

Einstein had a hard time getting a job after he graduated - he was fourth in his class of five, and he did not get along well with the faculty, none of whom would hire him for a post-graduate position or write a recommendation letter.

The book quotes some of the letters between Einstein and Mileva Marić. I found it fascinating that Einstein expressed emotions similar to those of many young people in love. Such insights are one of the book's strong points.