Something We Can Learn About Ourselves After the Las Vegas Shootings

The recent shootings in Las Vegas have caused agony to many. May the dead rest in peace, the injured be healed, and families be consoled in their losses! Another lesser, but clearly expressed “agony” is apparent in the questions it raises: Why did he do it? Why did the shooter (I intentionally do not mention his name), who seemed to give no warning, do such a heinous thing? There is almost a desperation to figure out why. So deep is this longing to know that many will latch onto any explanation, no matter how weak, to satisfy this need.

I cannot add to our knowledge of the facts of this shooting or speak more eloquently of the sufferings than others have, so allow me to explore our deep need to know. Yes, there is something to learn about ourselves in this urgent desire to know and to explain.

The most fundamental origin of our yearning to know why the shooting occurred is rooted in a deeper and broader longing for all that this true. There exists, in every human person, a strong inclination toward the truth and a profound desire to know it. Each of us comes hard-wired with a longing that seems almost wholly absent in animals. It is expressed by the insistent questions we have, ones that are not easily satisfied:

  1. Why? Why do I exist? Why does anything exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why are things the way they are?
  2. What? What is my life ultimately all about? What is the meaning of things and events? What is the purpose of this or that? What is it like on the moon, on Mars, or out in space? What is over the next hill? What will bring me happiness?
  3. How? How does this work? How does this relate to other things? How can I get answers? How is this distinct from that? How can I find happiness and completion?

Yes, we are insatiably hungry for truth, for answers, for meaning, and will not be satisfied with pat answers or subterfuge. Indeed, we often feel indignant or even betrayed if we suspect or discover that someone is withholding the truth from us, “spinning it” somehow, or treating our legitimate quest for real answers as less than deserving of full investigation and solid responses.

So, it is self-evident that we are wired for truth. We seek it even at great personal cost. We want to know, to discover, to uncover what is new or mysterious. We love to explore and delight in learning new things. Throughout history people have embarked on dangerous journeys to far off lands — even into outer space — to seek what is true. Others venture into dangerous settings in order to find and report upon facts. Still others undertake risky experiments or devote their lives to tedious studies so as to discover, explain, and understand. A more unruly aspect of this longing of ours is that we can engage in sinful curiosity, straying into the personal lives of others and insisting on knowing things that we have no right to know.

As human history shows, this longing for true answers is never fully satisfied. We have never reached the point at which we have even considered saying, “Well, that’s all there is to know; no need to look around anymore or ask any more questions. We now know everything.” Indeed, such a scenario is inconceivable. We want to know. Each answer generates more questions and brings a deeper desire for truth, meaning, and more answers. And so we keep looking — deeper, wider, and longer.

The human psyche shouts, “I want to know! I want the complete truth!” While we might placate ourselves for a while with “technical” truths rooted in the physical sciences (e.g., how photosynthesis works), ultimately these will not satisfy us. Physical sciences are reasonably good at explaining how things work, but not why. We want deeper answers and truths that speak to the why of things.

“Why is there something instead of nothing? Why is there anything at all?” While an atheist may not accept that God is the answer, he cannot escape the validity of the questions because he has them as well. Neither can he escape the gnawing realization that the physical sciences cannot answer metaphysical questions or even pose them.

Yes, we are wired for the truth and will not be satisfied until we have found it. Restlessly, we seek it. Even if we want to resist its demands, we cannot resist it.

We may never know why the Las Vegas shooter did what he did and this will frustrate us. We may not learn about him but we can learn about ourselves, about our deep longing to know, explain, and establish the truth. We are so different from the animals in this, even from the highest primates. We were made to know the truth. Ultimately, Jesus alone can fulfill our longing, for He said, “I am the truth.”

What are Beauty and Peace? The Ancient Philosophers Had Simple, Objective Definitions

blog11-10Every now and then we all run across a description or definition of something that captures its truth, yet at the same time respects its mystery. For indeed mere words can ever really be, or take the place of, the thing or person they describe. The reality is always richer than the descriptions we attempt with the grunts and scrawls we call “words.”

Such were my thoughts when I was rummaging through some old philosophy notes and came across two classic definitions that are moving in their simplicity, yet mysteriously accurate. Here they are:

  1. Beauty is the splendor of order. Yes, order is magnificent. Sometimes we speak of symmetry (Greek for “same measure”). Sometimes we speak of proportion (from a Latin word meaning that something is properly divided or shared). Musically, we speak of harmony (from the Greek harmonia, meaning agreement of sound) or of “concerts” (from the Latin concertare, meaning “to bring into agreement”). Yes, order is a beautiful thing that points beyond itself to purpose and design. Things in creation are not just here on earth haphazardly. They are not chaotically strewn about. Rather, things are intricately interrelated in multiple ways and at every level: atomically, molecularly, organically, ecologically, and cosmically. Such order, such beauty! Beauty is truly the splendor of order.
  2. Peace is the rest of order. This definition is even more mysterious. We all know that order brings peace, but why? When our lives are in order we sleep well. When chaos wounds order we are in distress and seek to restore order. The perception of order bestows a kind of satisfaction and fulfillment. For a moment we can stop and say, “It is well; things are as they should be.” This sense of well-being ushers in peace and serenity. Yes, peace is the rest of order.

These are just two brief thoughts to savor.

To those who understand the “order” of a Bach fugue, there is nothing more splendid. In this video the organist announces the theme with her right hand. Her left hand eventually echoes the theme, then her feet. And all the while the theme is also divided mathematically. Yes, math set to music. Enjoy the splendor of order (beauty) in this fugue.

Why? A Simple question often overlooked or suppressed today. But we who believe must keep asking it of a secular world.

080113One of the more common misunderstandings of the modern age, we might even call it a delusion, is to confuse explanation with meaning. Through scientific method and other empirical ways of studying, we have gotten very good at explaining many of the processes and mechanics of the natural world.

But to give explanation, is not the same as to ascribe meaning. To answer how things work is not the same as to answer why.

Why, for example, do things exist at all? Why is there existence vs. nonexistence? Why is there observable order in the universe vs. chaos. Showing for example the wonderful and symbiotic relationship of photosynthesis and describing how it works at the molecular level, does not explain why it is there in the first place. Explanation is not the same as meaning; “how” is not the same as “why.”

The Delusion – Yet, in our modern times, perhaps as a prideful result of being able to explain so much, we often think we have wholly accounted for not just how things work, but why. We have not.  Many today like to argue that the material, or physical sciences have presented a comprehensive explanation for most things. They have not. By definition the physical sciences can only look to the physical interrelationships and secondary causes of things.

Put in philosophical terms, the physical sciences deal pretty well with material and efficient causality, but are not well equipped or able to answer questions of formal or final causality (More HERE and HERE) . Further, the material sciences can address some secondary causality, but not primary Causality (More HERE).

The error of our day, that the physical sciences give a comprehensive explanation for things is often referred to as “scientism.” As Father Robert Barron and others have rightly pointed out, there is a metaphysical assumption at the basis of all the physical sciences: namely, that reality is “intelligible.” It is a necessary presumption for the scientific method that things are not mindlessly, dumbly, or haphazardly here.

Science must base itself on intelligibility but cannot answer why there is intelligibility, why there is meaning at all, or purpose to be discovered. That we “think,” and are able to extract meaning, and that things are intelligible, is self-evident. But why do we have this capacity? Why do rocks and trees, and likely most animals, not have this capacity?

Simply looking to brain chemistry etc., can tell us some of “how” we have this capacity (though consciousness and the sense of “self” remain mysterious) but not “why.”

Again, to “explain” is not the same as to “understand.” One of the great tragedies in this modern and  unreflective age is that too many do not grasp or realize this. In our intellectual acumen, impressive though it is, many have stopped adverting to the wonder and awe that engages our humility at the moral level, and our faith at the spiritual level.

Man is naturally spiritual. Hence we ask the burning question or “Why?!”  And, despite the relatively recent surge of atheism in the decaying West, faith is quite ubiquitous in human history, and even today across most cultures. No matter how much we think we have “explained,” deep down, there is still that lingering question, “Why?” Ultimately, even the secularists and atheists of our modern age cannot wholly avoid this question, for explanation is not the same as meaning. They may postpone, try to ignore it, or deny its relevance, but one day they will and must confront it.

There is a remarkable story told about a dying soldier in the trenches of World War I. As the 18 year old lay dying, the Chaplain spoke to him to comfort him. In his delirium the soldier said, “Why?”  The chaplain thought he was struggling with why he was dying after a mere 18 years of largely hidden life on this planet. And so he asked the solider, “Do you mean, ‘Why am I dying?'”  But the soldier answered by asking something far more profound: “No,” said the soldier “Why did I live? What was I here for?”

“Why” is about meaning and is not a question that science is equipped to answer. It is not a question that seems to come from our body, or “brain,” it is a question that comes from our soul. There is no evidence that rocks or plants or animals ponder meaning, seek to understand, ask “why” or agonize over nonexistence as they lay dying. It is a uniquely human question: “Why….what is the meaning…..?” To explain is not the same as to understand.

No matter how materialistic, secular or atheistic our culture becomes, no matter how widespread the error of scientism is, it is not a question that is not going away: “Why…..why!?”

We who are of faith have answers given to us, for faith is a way of knowing based on God’s revelation. Granted the answers given by God are not understood by us comprehensively and contain mysterious elements. But, the answer to why things exist rather than not, why I am here rather than not, the answer is simply this: God is, and God is love.

We of the house of faith must gently but clearly “re-up” the fundamental question of “Why” to an unbelieving age and respectfully inisist that the question be addressed. There are many ways to ask it and then respectfully wait for an answer:

  1. Why is there existence?
  2. Why (not how) do you exist?
  3. Why are you angered when I mention God? You are not angry when I mention a duck-billed platypus or the possibility of ancient space visitors to this planet who sowed the seeds of life. But my mention of God seems to evoke a strong response in you? Why?
  4. If your anger is rooted in a sense of injustice (i.e. that what I say or believe is “wrong”), why?
  5. In other words, why do we human beings have a sense of justice, of right and wrong? Where does it come from and on what is it based?
  6. Is there any basis for morality at all, if as a materialist you say that everything is caused by random mutation and behavior and is biologically determined?
  7. Why do you say believing in God is “wrong” and atheism is “right?” On what do you base this?
  8. If you point to the “evil things” believers have done such as the “Inquisition,” where does your sense of injustice come from, and why be angry with believers if we are simply doing what the chemicals in our brain made us do?
  9. Why is anything wrong at all, if behavior, thought and decision are simply and biologically determined?
  10. In a word, “Why?”

Some will seek refuge in debates about meaning in terms like “pre-frontal cortex,” “hippo-campus” etc. But these sorts of words and concepts are focused on how, not why. Why does the brain do what it does, have what it has,  and why is it there in the first place? Why is it not there instead?


Fr. Barron on PBS Ban of Religion

I remember back in seminary my Philosophy teacher said, “You can’t avoid having a philosophy. Even if you say you don’t have a philosophy, that is, in fact, a philosophy.” I think the same is true of religion. Those who claim to have no religion are in fact taking a religious position. To deny God or to say He should have no role is just as religious a perspective as to say God is my everything. The truth is that if God is not on the throne some one or something else is. Maybe it is the Government, maybe it is man, maybe it is me. But some one has that place in my life. I cannot escape having a religious perspective. If God does not explain this world then I must be advocating the fact that some one or something else does explain it.

Why then does the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) simply exclude one of the positions on this discussion? It appears that it is OK for secular humanists, atheists, advocates of the “new morality” etc all to air their positions, but religious advocates are banned? If the public airways are a kind of forum to field discussions to ban one side is kind of a show stopper. It’s almost like promising to air a basketball game and then only allowing on team on the court. A rather absurd and boring game actually. You might notice that in its logo above PBS is starting to portray its viewers as blockheads. Is that how they see us???

Here is what Fr. Barron thinks:  (Incidentally there is a lot of discussion of this video at the youtube page if you click through you can read it).

What is Natural Law?

Many of the modern moral debates stem not only from a rejection of Scriptural teaching but also from a rejection of the natural law. But many today are not even sure what is meant by the phrase “Natural Law.” I hope to give a brief, not too philosophical answer to this question.

We live in a world governed by many laws and principles. For example, there is the Law of Gravity, the speed of light, the fact that some elements are poisonous to our bodies and so forth. To attempt to deny these laws is not only absurd but usually brings grave consequences. Try denying that gravity exists and then try stepping  off a ten story building. The denial lacks substance and gravity takes a deadly toll. Try denying poison exists and then swallow drano, the deadly results belie your denials.

So, the natural order has things to teach us. Refusing this teaching usually ends badly. Our bodies too are part of the natural order. When it comes to sexuality, the fact that men and women were made for each other is quite obvious. Without getting too anatomical the very physical structure and design of men and women make it clear that they are meant for one another sexually. Such is not the case with homosexual activity. Again, this is a family blog and we can’t get too specific but anatomically things are just not meant to be in this manner. Break this natural law and the consequences of disease announce the wrong-doing. However, it also seems clear that heterosexual promiscuity is against the natural law. Why?  Sexually transmitted diseases that can be quite deadly run through the population if we allow widespread promiscuity.

Now the Natural Law also points to the need for lasting, stable marriage. How? It is clear enough that to engage in heterosexual activity tends to result in children. Children require 18-20 years to raise and need a stability to be raised well.

So, briefly, the Natural Law manifests order to which we must be submitted or risk the consequences. Notice here, I did not even quote the Bible. What makes the Natural Law is that it provides some basis to discuss things with non-believers or to address a secular world that demand secular answers. Even here the Natural Law is not a slam dunk since many have had their minds darkened even to what is right in front of them. We have these slippery minds that can slither out or any argument if we simply refuse to acknowledged the truth.

Although I said I had not quoted scripture, you know me too well by now and understand I can’t resist SOME reference there. The Natural Law is referred to by St. Paul in the First Chapter of the Letter to the Romans: For what can be known about God is evident to them [The Gentiles who have not Scripture], because God made it evident to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse; for although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened. While claiming to be wise, they became fools

The Natural Law, it’s right in front of me, if I have eyes to see it.  Now please understand this is very short, many more things can and will be said about Natural Law, but this is a start.

The following video briefly defines Natural Law and why our culture tends to resist it.